Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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Wild at heart

The howler monkeys in the quiet tropical wetlands surrounding Costa Rica's Evergreen Lodge were testing their night vision with a little target practice. They were lobbing

coconuts from the top of the forest canopy, 30 metres up, onto a cottage with a metal roof.

Did I mention that this happened at three in the morning? Who would've thought that coconuts could be so loud? The experience scarred me for life -- and I wasn't even in the cottage being hit. Luckily, after 20 minutes, the arboreal bombardment ceased and the culprits emitted their trademark guttural howls before moving on.

As the lone Canadian on a British-based Explore Worldwide tour, I was curious to see how the ill-fated occupants of the targeted accommodations had made it through the night. With great resolve and aplomb, as it turns out. Kath from Nottingham even said she eventually fell asleep. There must be something in British genes that prepares them to cope with sudden loud noises. (They survived the Blitz, right?)

Tour leader Ainowa, originally from Spain, was equally non-plussed.

"Oh yeah, the same thing happened when we were here two weeks ago," she said at breakfast.

"Which cottage had the pleasure then?" asked Bill from Yorkshire.

"Same one. Number 13," she replied. I'm sure that if Alfred Hitchcock had been with us he would've beamed.

There was so much wildlife in Tortuguero National Park (www.costarica-nationalparks.com/tortugueroconservation area.html) on Costa Rica's east coast, it was positively distracting. I was beginning to wonder how I could possibly unwind during this winter getaway.

Every day was filled with constant poking and pointing: "Ah, look!" Someone would say, as a black river turtle paddled over to the launch. "Over there now!" A dozen cattle egrets flew overhead. Soon even I was in on the act, pointing upwards at a chestnut mandible toucan flying from tree to tree with its ridiculously large beak. When its performance was over, we spotted a coati disappearing into the volcanic scrub, its half-a-metre long tail rising vertically into the air.

You Gotta Lava Life
Costa Rica is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and counts over 100 volcanic formations and five active volcanoes -- we had dinner reservations at one of them. Being the savvy eco-business folks that they are, Ticos (as Costa Ricans refer to themselves) have conveniently situated a string of outdoor steak houses literally across the road from the Arenal Volcano (www.arenal.net). And the view is spectacular. There was orange-red lava every 10 minutes when we were there; it was quite a performance.

The nearby town of La Fortuna is sports central, and it attracts adrenaline junkies from around the world. There is class III and IV river rafting as well as canyoning (lowering yourself with ropes into the surrounding volcanic canyons), nicely balanced with more sedate walking (and sometimes even crawling) through caves. Hiking on the black lava flow under Arenal was cool. Three toucans absolutely mesmerized us as they played follow-the-leader from tree to tree.

As if this wasn't enough excitement, there's always the chance that Arenal could seriously blow its top. There were significant eruptions in 1968, 2000 and 2003. You can even visit the official website to track possible eruptions, if you're so inclined.

But why not simultaneously contemplate the awesome forces of nature and disaster while resting your weary bones in one of La Fortuna's thermal hot springs? The Baldi Termae Hot Springs (www.arenal.net/ baldi-hot-springs.htm) sports a glitzy, yet family-friendly, vibe. I opted for the smaller Eco-Termales directly across the road. Their five pools of varying temperatures are nicely tucked away amongst boulders and lush greenery.

Eco-Thermales (www.arenal.net/tour/ eco-thermales-hot-springs) is run by the Vega family, built by manager Orlando Vega's grandmother only five years ago. "We want people to relax, to enjoy nature," said Vega, smiling. "This is why we take only one hundred people at 10am, 1pm and again at 5pm. No loud music or parties. Just to relax."

 

And there's no sulphur smell either at La Fortuna's hot springs. Explained Vega, "The underground water is heated by the gas underground, but doesn't come into contact with the magma." So take two towels and call me in the morning if you're not suitably relaxed.

Monteverde's Multiple Personalities
Costa Rica's popularity has skyrocketed since my first visit 20 years ago. In high season, from December to March, it's not uncommon for accommodations in the more desirable eco-spots to be filled. Also, distances between major sites may not look far on your map, but the terrain and sometimes undeveloped roads make for a challenging experience, unless you rent a pricey 4x4 vehicle.

I was quite happy to let Explore Worldwide do the driving and arrange the accommodations for me. This was especially true for our long trip from Fortuna to Santa Elena, when we travelled by taxi, boat and 4x4s to the granddaddy of Costa Rica's eco-attractions -- the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (www.monteverdeinfo.com).

All the four-wheel drive vehicles and ATVs revving on steep dirt roads around the town of Santa Elena create dust clouds and a cacophony of noise. Hotels, restaurants and gift shops sit cheek by jowl with snake and frog emporiums, the insectarium, a serpentarium and a multitude of tour outfits. Hidden off the main roads are quiet coffee fincas, horseback riding trails, unusual bookshops and crafting studios -- even a roller skating rink with cheesy music.

Scratch this commercial surface, and there's a different world underneath. The area was settled in the 1950s by a small group of Quakers from the US. For $7000 they acquired a 1500-hectare area, and agreed to protect the rainforests in the mountains. You can visit them at the Monteverde Cheese Factory, or pick up their products like I did at the Sabores ice cream parlour.

"They're very tolerant and good people," said Galit Smilanski, as she wiped some wayward ice cream from her four year old daughter's face. She and her husband Nir, both Israelis, have lived here four years, and own the Moon Shiva restaurant (tel: 506-645-6270; www.moonshiva. com) and the Luna Azul boutique.

Their young daughters both attend the local Quaker-run schools. "At Hanukkah we go to the school and make menorahs. And last Passover we had a seder for 70 people at the restaurant. People came from all over. It was packed."

Nir estimates there are 2000 Ticos and 200 expats living in the area. One is Russell Danau, a Berkeley-trained vibes player, now town planner, who entertained our group one night at Moon Shiva. I've always found that you meet interesting people in unusual places.

Of course the biggest draw is a few kilometres outside of Santa Elena. At 1500 to 1600 metres above sea level, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is Costa Rica's premier eco-spot and for good reason. Even an affirmed non-birder like myself can't help but delight in the more than 400 avian species that call it home. The iridescent blue and red resplendent quetzal was our first spotting. White-faced capuchin monkeys, more cute coatis and a tarantula in her lair were also on the "seen" list, thanks to José, our park guide.

Zippity Doo Dah
And yes, there are zip lines nearby, so you can strap yourself in, take a deep breath and glide above the forest canopy with the greatest of ease. Or scream your head off, like many do.

Nick from Liverpool bought a ticket for Selvatura (www.selvatura.com), which claims to offer the longest rides, at three kilometres of cable over 18 platforms. He later recounted his feelings as he stood at the top of the first platform. "It was then that I decided, no, this is not for me!" David, an ex-RAF helicopter officer in his 70s, coolly went about his business on each zip line, later confirming he'd "had a good time."

Myself, I stayed on Selvatura's eight hanging bridges. They're at canopy level, made of steel and more my speed.

At the end of two weeks, we arrived in the warm embrace of humid weather, sunsets on the beach and more wildlife on Costa Rica's southwest coast.

Inside the country's tiny Manuel Antonio National Park (www.manuelantoniopark.com), we each found our own favourite beach for lazing about, and indulging in some serious iguana watching. Try having a staring contest with one of these fellows, it's not easy.

I could tell you about the boat-billed heron, the deer on the beach, the dangerous manzanilla tree, or maybe the advice that our park guide Miguel gave us about the friendly three-toed sloth. "If you see one crossing the road, you can help it," he advised. "Just pick it up by the hair, carry it across and put it in a tree."

Or I could tell you about the little village of hotels, bars and eateries only steps outside the gates of Manuel Antonio. Music, merriment and fun -- till 10:30pm. That's when it all shuts down, everyone goes to bed, and I hear the howlers starting up for the night in the jungle that surrounds us.

 

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