Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017
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Rain or Shine

Take your pick of cloud forest adventures
and golden beach resorts in Costa Rica

"Pura vida." These are my guide's parting words as I careen along a skinny cable over the treetops, 40 metres up in Costa Rica's rainforest. Literally translated it means pure life. Locals or ticos, as they're called, use it the way we'd say, "Have a nice day."

Standing on a precarious platform, I am having second thoughts about this canopy thrill ride and just how nice a day it really is.

After an hour hike from the Cloud Forest Ecolodge, we find ourselves in the middle of a dense rainforest. And it's raining buckets. We climb a wooden ladder to the first platform, about six metres square, and rather skimpy to accommodate two guides, myself and my three new friends from New Jersey 58 year-old Lisa, and Leila and Juliana, her two daughters. We're buckled up with harnesses and given heavy suede gloves. We look like Hydro workers.

Now come the instructions. Cross your feet in front of you so they won't get caught in the branches. Use your right hand to brake behind your head. Never put your left hand in front of the pulley. Watch for the hand signals from the guide on the next platform: he'll indicate whether to brake or go full throttle for a smooth landing. And you want to pay attention. Too fast means potentially knocking the guide over; too slow means having to haul yourself hand-over-hand backwards to the platform. If you suffer from acrophobia, this may not be your cup of adrenaline. The canopy adventure involves seven cable rides, each about 160 metres long. Once you traverse the first cable, there's no turning back.

A white-faced monkey somewhere in the distant mist seems to be taunting us with his high-pitched howls. Is that ape-talk for "I dare you?" Leila goes first and gives us the thumbs up. Lisa is next but loses her nerve. All this standing around isn't doing much for my bravado either. In the end we all make it, Lisa flying last clinging to Mario. On the second platform, we're no longer a group of scared strangers. We've survived the test and we've bonded. You know that smug feeling you get when you challenge yourself and overcome your fears? I was literally on top of the world.

It's the kind of feeling you can get a lot in Costa Rica. For years Costa Rica remained the well-kept secret of biologists, backpackers and beachcombers. Now it's an internationally known eco-adventure destination. This ecologically enlightened Central American country is a tiny isthmus only 300 kilometres long, but it offers an incredible variety of geography and climate. In contrast to the corruption and unrest in Nicaragua, its neighbour to the north, Costa Rica enjoys a relatively stable political climate, despite the fact that the average Costa Rican lives in the conditions typical of the developing world. The country has had no army since 1949. Instead the government puts money into ecotourism, health and education and fosters a 98 percent literacy rate.

Protected forests, parks and wildlife preserves make up 25 percent of the country. And what a wealth of tropical habitats and wildlife: 9000 plant species, insects ranging from gigantic beetles to the spectacular Blue Morpho butterfly, sloths, monkeys and 850 kinds of birds -- 50 types of hummingbird alone. Not to mention, parrots, toucans, lizards, crocodiles, sea turtles and the bizarre red poison-arrow frog.

Wet and Wild
We hiked back to the comfortable, rustic ecolodge where my cabin purportedly had a view of the Arenal volcano. It erupted in 1968 and still puts on a fireworks display at night. Not that I would know firsthand. During my stay in March (technically the dry season) the peak was constantly shrouded in clouds. If it wasn't drizzling or pouring, there was a thick mist in the air.

The rain didn't prevent us from donning yellow ponchos and exploring everyday. On the hikes there were two rules: stay on the trail behind Mario (who carried a large walking stick) and don't touch anything without asking. Costa Rica has 130 species of snakes, of which 17 are poisonous -- hence the big stick.

The real jungle is nothing like a scene from a Tarzan movie, with monkeys swinging from vines and colourful parrots nattering on every branch. It's dense and quiet, almost eerily so. You know you're surrounded by all sorts of fascinating flora and fauna but it takes a trained naturalist to see beyond the camouflage. Through the dripping foliage, Mario pointed out exquisite orchids, birds of paradise, morning glories and a plant he nicknamed "mother-in-law" that oozed poisonous sap.

 

One morning we left the lodge and drove to the Palo Verde Reserve for an African Queen-style adventure in a fibreglass boat up the muddy Bebedero River. Leathery crocodiles snoozed on the shores just metres from the prow of the boat. Giant green iguanas sunned themselves on branches overhanging the river. It was like a trip with the friendlier creatures of Jurassic Park.

Tabacón Hot Springs proved to be the most luxurious eco-outing imaginable. This series of thermal pools and waterfalls at the base of the Arenal volcano is like a hot-water theme park set in lush tropical gardens. We soaked in the soothing springs until after dark, hoping the clouds would dissipate and we'd get a view of the smouldering summit. No such luck.

After three days at the ecolodge, the edges of my notebook had curled, my hand-laundered underwear was still dripping, my hair had frizzed and the buckles on my Birkenstocks had rusted. Damp wasn't so bad though. The torrential downpours in the middle of the night were starting to lull me into deep sleeps and my skin was rehydrated. The thought of stepping on a snake no longer haunted me. The rainforest was starting to agree with me, but it was time for a change in weather.

Golden Golf
I bade goodbye to the puppies sleeping on the veranda, hung up my poncho and pulled out my shades and sunscreen. Next stop, the Paradisus Playa Conchal Resort in Guanacaste on Costa Rica's northwest coast.

Playa Conchal is designed like a ritzy residential community. Shuttle buses ferry guests to the suites, shops, restaurants and the casino/disco. I had planned to spend my first afternoon reading and lounging by the enormous free-form swimming pool, but the gregarious recreation director soon had me splashing around in the aqua class. That led to some Latin dance steps and soon I was on to Tae-Bo.

Certainly there was no lack of things to do, but the main reason I had chosen this resort was the Garra de Leùn, a championship golf course rated number one in Costa Rica, but almost unknown among Canadian swingers. The resort has kept up with the country's green mandate, and the golf course recently received a certificate of achievement from the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. Along with their score card, golfers are given a nature trail guide pointing out natural highlights on each hole, including howler monkeys, a butterfly and hummingbird garden, refuges for iguanas and shore birds and some spectacular cacti. It was like playing golf in a wildlife preserve.

After my round, I was scribbling some postcards by the pool when Minu and Zavi, a couple of honeymooners from Barcelona I'd met at the ecolodge, recognized me. They too had decided to catch some rays before going home. We bobbed in the tepid ocean waves and strolled along the dazzling white beach. Stopping at a oceanside shack for a snack, we met some friendly ticos who suggested we try El Camarùn Dorado, a seafood restaurant right on the beach.

I didn't want to crash the couple's honeymoon but they insisted I join them. It was our last night in Costa Rica. We ordered heaping platters of garlicky grilled shrimp and calamari and a pitcher of icy Imperial beer. Cats prowled between the plastic tables. Kids waded in the ocean, skipping stones. And the full moon cast a silvery luminescence over everything. Zavi raised his glass and proposed a toast. "Pura vida."

 

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