Happily Stumbling Across Costa Rica

Karawynn and I caught a local flight from a tiny airstrip near our resort hotel on the Pacific coast to the big city of San Jose and stayed the night at a low-key but comfortable bed and breakfast before beginning our long journey to the jungle.

The next day, we woke early and took our breakfast in the pre-dawn with sounds of the waking city filtering in through the patio doors. The first leg of our journey took us over paved highways and roads in ever-thinning traffic, winding through suburbs, past coffee plantations and up into the mountains.

Come Mister Tally Man

I expected this four-and-half-hour drive to be dull, but it wasn’t. The guide was informative and entertaining. The mountains are all volcanic and many of them are still active. They’re blanketed with lush vegetation and sculpted by streams and waterfalls, some of which we could see from the road. On the East side of the mountains, the land slopes down into a broad, lowland expanse which eventually ends at the Caribbean Sea. This is where pineapples and bananas are farmed, packaged, and shipped out to destinations around the world.

After nearly three hours, we turned off the paved road and drove slowly on gravel. We passed pastures of grazing water buffalo and drove through acres upon acres of banana plantations. When the guide asked us if we wanted to stop and take a look at a banana processing and packing plant, we readily accepted.

plantation: bagged banana stems
Banana plantation. Note the bagged banana stems hanging one per tree.

Some details that I wasn’t previously aware of: Each banana tree produces only one hanging cluster (aka bunch or banana stem) which can contain hundreds of bananas. This stem is bagged while still on the tree to prevent monkeys and bugs from eating the fruit. When the stem is ready for harvest, it is cut from the tree, hooked, and put on an overhead track. After harvesting this one banana stem, the tree is cut off at the base and the next tree will regrow from the roots.

Workers pushed the hooked banana stems (with their hundreds of bananas) along the track to the processing warehouse where more workers used machetes to cut off the tiers or “hands” of four to six bananas and put them into sorting baths.

In the plant we stopped at, there was a clear division of labor. Men transported the bunches from the trees and cut off the banana hands. Women sorted out singles and any bananas that were too ripe to survive the several weeks of shipping. Some of these were slated to be sold locally in fruit stands and stores in the cities, but the majority of the cast-offs were to be used in animal feed. Women also bagged the bunches after they had been sprayed with (what we were told was) fungicide. Men packed the crates for loading in refrigerated train cars, destined for the port at Limón where they would be loaded onto ships and transported to Europe or the US.

Del Monte banana packing plant
Women sorting bananas at a Del Monte packing facility.

I had not expected to see this element of Costa Rican life, but it was illuminating. Costa Rica is the second largest exporter of bananas in the world, behind Ecuador. I have been eating bananas my whole life, but (with the exception of Hawaii) I have never lived close to where bananas actually grow. They cannot be considered a local food. So I started thinking: how much effort does it take to get a 25 cent banana to a grocery store near you? What are the economic and social constructs in place to make this happen in Costa Rica?

It turns out that there’s a lot of information about this online. Plantation workers make around $14.50/day and live in small, remote villages. From what I could see from the villages we drove through, the buildings were in good shape — vastly better than dilapidated city slums of San Jose we could see from the air on our flight in. The plantation villages each had a church and a soccer field with goals… seriously, even the tiniest village where I could not identify a store or a medical clinic had the necessary underpinnings of society — god and football. I have no idea how much $14.50/day can buy in rural Costa Rica, but (for reference) the minimum wage there is about $10/day.

Del Monte banana packing plant 2
Men pack trays with washed and sorted banana bunches.

The Costa Rican economy is in transition. Once exploited for resources like lumber (much of the rainforest that we visited later had been extensively logged only 70 years ago), tourism is the main industry today. Eco-tourism relies on a robust and healthy environment so its rise has given greater economic importance to sustainability. This has led to a decrease in the clear-cutting of forest land since crops like bananas and pineapples, while profitable, are no longer the clear winner economically. In fact, land owners with rainforest on their property are paid by the government to keep their forested land growing un-pillaged.

Still, bananas and coffee remain as major exports, and there’s progress to be made in terms of improving the environmental impact of banana production.

The Journey is the Destination

Once we left the banana packing plant behind, our guides were eager to show us some wildlife. We did spot some howler monkeys off in the trees on our left, and we also noticed a sloth hanging from the overhead wires. We eagerly gathered up our camera and got out to look at the sloth… only to slowly realize that it was dead, apparently electrocuted on the power lines. It could not have been dead for too long as we could see no decomposition. Through the binoculars, we could see quite a number of flies on its nose and face.

Sloth on wire, close up
Sloth hanging from power lines, not so alive as of this photo.

We left saddened by this sight, and acutely aware that denizens of the forest are ill-equipped to survive in the world of civilized man. Our van ride ended at a boat dock and we caught our ride to Tortuga Lodge from there — an hour and a half motor boat journey up river to the Tortugero National Park. Our day had progressed in stages from civilization through rural agriculture and the blurred interface of agriculture and wilderness, but now we were taking the final step and were surrounded by rainforest.

There are only two ways to get to Tortugero: 1) boat up river as we did or 2) fly into the tiny airstrip and get on a boat from there to the park. The latter is faster, but in both cases you have to go on the river. And to actually see the rainforest and its wildlife, you must use its numerous waterways. The trees and other foliage grow on narrow islands and land spits surrounded by a maze of slow-moving streams and rivers.

Howler monkey
Howler monkey in the foliage.

As we motored toward our destination in the jungle, I felt the cool spray of water from the broad river whose banks were impenetrable walls of green foliage. The gray clouds threatened rain, and I could not help but be reminded of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the more modern Apocalypse Now. Fortunately, we weren’t headed toward a primitive, bacchanalian orgy in the heart of the jungle, but as we left the structures of society farther behind I felt a surge of excitement. Perhaps I gained an appreciation for Conrad and the sense of wildness that lurks inside all of us.

The purpose of the boat ride was to transport us to our lodging, but the boat pilot had been a naturalist guide for over a decade, so he couldn’t help but show us a caiman in the reeds and point out various birds along the way. We would later get to see many more animals and a vast panoply of birds, but each of these little steps were like peeling layers of civilization away.

Caiman in the reeds
Caiman in the reeds

Until finally we reached our destination. The logical progression would have us spending our time in the rainforest living in tribal huts with the local native peoples… but thankfully that was not our fate. Instead, we pulled up to the dock, and were greeted by the exceedingly gracious staff of the Tortuga Lodge. They escorted us to a river-view table in their dining hall and served a fantastic late lunch of mango ceviche salad, garlic shrimp, and green beans. These were luxury accommodations in the middle of the jungle, and a much better denouement than Conrad’s “The horror. The horror.”

Welcome to the Jungle … with Maid Service

mango ceviche
Mango ceviche

Over the next three days, we slept in a very comfortable king bed, explored the gardens, ate excellent food, took guided boat tours through the rainforest, ate excellent food, kayaked through the jungle, ate excellent food, and helped teach English at a local school. Did I mention the food?

With the exception of the leatherback turtles (which we knew would not be nesting during our visit), we saw all the advertised wildlife — squirrel monkeys and capuchins, sloths (alive), toucans and herons and an array of other birds, and dozens of poison dart frogs. The high points have to be 1) the epic battle we witnessed next to the pool between Godzilla the huge iguana and the mated pair of yigüirros (clay-colored thrush), and 2) glimpsing endangered green macaws.

ARKive species - Great green macaw (Ara ambiguus)

Our guide, Norton, who was blind in one eye (it was missing) and could identify every animal by its sound, picked out the green macaws and pointed us in their direction as they flew past. He didn’t see them, but I caught a glimpse of the stretched-diamond shape of their tails, the distinctive line of their wings, and the sharp hook of their beaks. We only saw them for minute before they disappeared into the trees, but it was a thrill to find them. There are estimated to be fewer than 2500 mature macaws left in the world. Their habitat has been dwindling due to extensive deforestation, and their desirability as a cagebird has resulted in massive poaching.

These macaws are beautiful and smart. They live 60 years or longer. Most captured birds spend their lives in cages and their owners die before they do. The northern Caribbean coast is their only natural habitat left in Costa Rica, and even the staff at the lodge go months without spotting one.

godzilla iguana vs dive-bombing clay-colored thrush
Karawynn caught the one of yigüirros in mid-flight as it attacked Godzilla climbing the tree. The other bird looks on admiringly.

The iguana battle started when the seven-foot lizard decided it was going to climb the tree where the mated pair of yigüirros were nesting. We watched the birds dive-bomb the iguana over and over as it clawed its way up the trunk of the tree. Once it got past the vee in the trunk and chose the branch that led away from the nest, the birds abruptly stopped their violent harassment of the lizard… which was mostly ignoring them anyway. It turned out that Godzilla just wanted to get to the top branch and sun itself, and Karawynn later researched it and learned that only young iguanas eat bird eggs. The older ones like our massive friend feast only on leaves.

Our trip back to civilization was much different. We took a small plane from the airstrip across the river. It was a five minute boat ride instead of the hour-and-a-half ride we’d had coming in. There was no van ride, no banana plantations, although the aerial view of the waterfalls was nice. Soon, we were back in the traffic and bustle of the big city — asphalt and cinderblock, glass and metal, diesel fumes and a tourist kitsch superstore. I knew that many people fly to the jungle the way we flew out, but for me the journey itself enriched the whole experience.

Sometimes life on the slow boat is more full.