Costa Rica

Santa Elana – Fly the Friendly Skies

Today came early, my friends. The guy next door to where we are staying started working on his lawn with a weed eater at some point between 0515 and 0530. Also, Becci had for reasons known only to her scheduled us with a 0730 tee time for a sightseeing hike across bridges that run atop the cloud forest of Santa Elana.

That meant catching a ride with our new best friend Javier at around 0700. Generally, when someone tries to schedule me that early, the conversation goes something like this:

“What do you think about 7:00 a.m.?”

“I don’t know; I’ve heard it’s awful. How ’bout 9:30?”

But, this thing was scheduled and paid for before I even knew what was happening. Off we went with Javier, 7-ish. Weed-eater guy was still going strong.

Javier is a driver in Santa Elana, where we are staying. He comes highly recommended by Beth, our host. His English is a hell of a lot better than my Spanish, and we can communicate well enough to get around. We have learned that Javier has two daughters, the oldest of whom is in San Jose studying medicine. The first time we ever spoke with Javier on the phone, we asked him to come to “Casa de Manolo” (Manolo is Beth’s esposo), and he knew exactly where we meant. I like a driver who knows his town.

Javier always gets us where we need to be, on time. Where we needed to be this morning was SkyTrek, a tour / adventure company with an operation in Santa Elana. What we had signed up for was a tour of the rain forest; err, sorry, cloud forest. The twist is that this time ’round, we weren’t planning to walk through the forest, we planned to walk over the forest. Aye…they have outfitted this place with long, tall suspension bridges that allow one to buzz around at will over the top of the forest canopy. We did that for a couple of hours, during which time it rained about 4 inches. I have never in my adult life willingly stayed outside during such a downpour. It was absolutely pissing it down, as Bex is fond of saying. Although we had brought rain jackets, we ended that tour completely soaked.IMG_1557.JPGLooking down on the cloud forest canopy.

IMG_1565.JPGOne of the suspension bridges.

On the walk, whilst enjoying the downpour, I had this thought: if I am going to tour a rainforest, or even a cloud forest…what the hell? Put me down for the whole experience baby! Bring that rain. You know what? Let’s just set up some tents and camp in it! Well, we didn’t do that. But we did bask in a glorious deluge of purifying water, watching the birds and the magnificent, prehistoric jungle below us.

IMG_1556.JPGBefore the deluge began. I don’t even remember the time before the rain.

It wasn’t all fun ‘n’ games. We had a very nice tour guide named Dennis, who we could barely hear due to the size of the tour group combined with the volume of the monsoon we were in. Every time he stopped to show the group something, Becci or I, whoever was closest, would turn to the other and relay whatever feeble information we heard. Or thought we heard. So we had a native Spanish-speaker providing education in broken English, at a normal speaking volume, to a large group outdoors during a rainstorm of Biblical magnitude. Our “down the line” communications system was like an X-Games version of Telephone.

“This flower opens to reveal other smaller flowers and only grows on this mountain ridge.”

“He said something about black pepper and hummingbirds”.

“He said ‘It is quite possible that many little fingers come here.’ ??”

What? Exactly.

We endured for a bit a girl with a huge umbrella. That’s not a terrible idea given the weather, but we were hiking single-file on a narrow trail in between the narrow bridge walks. And we were trying to see and hear a guide who was in front of us and speaking not particularly loudly. All of us behind Brolly Girl grew increasingly furious as the walk progressed. I felt that violence might erupt. I remembered a story that my grandfather told me when I was young. He had attended a game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville and had watched one man light another man’s umbrella on fire with lighter fluid right in the middle of a University of Tennessee football game! I became concerned that something similar might occur on this walking path in the jungles of Costa Rica.

Then I remembered…John, you have no problems. Certainly, I have no problems that justify hurling someone’s umbrella into the rainforest. I remembered that I am on a month-long vacation in perhaps the most beautiful place on earth, in the middle of a year-long vacation around the world. I remembered that I have seen some suffering on this journey, enough to realize that I have never in my life really experienced any real suffering. So I regrouped: chill out and solve this problem. And it was easily solved just by letting this lady know that her umbrella was keeping everyone else from seeing stuff. She did the right thing, put it away, and then got soaked like the rest of us!

IMG_1566.JPGA break in the rain.

Once the guided tour was completed, we got ready for part two of the SkyTrek adventure. Did I mention the ziplining? There is a Zipline course all over this place. It’s about 3780 meters in length (that’s over 2.3 miles for the folks in Los Estados Unidos). Elevations are as high as 100 meters (328 feet). That’s high ya’ll.

We had planned to do this together, but last night, Ms. Brace watched a few videos and did some research, and decided this would be bad for the ole back. I thus went solo on the rainforest zipline adventure. It was my first time to travel via zipline.

In case you aren’t familiar, the zipline works as follows. There is a thick steel cable crossing some expanse…let’s say 400 meters across a small valley. A single rider is attached to this cable via a waist-and-hip-mounted harness. The rider has primitive control of the ride via a handgrip that can be used for braking. Gravity over a slight (occasionally abrupt) descent is what gets a rider from one side to the other.

In this case, the 3.8km course is broken up into 10 separate segments that criss-cross the jungle below. The height from the line to the ground on the practice run is 15 meters. That’s about 50 feet. The practice run is the one that you see in the picture. Even that one is a little scary.

IMG_1567.JPGThe practice run.

Once we started in on the real thing, we started dealing with some bigger numbers in terms of height and distance. 15 meters of elevation turned to 60. When we got to the first real run, they served us all hot chocolate. A shot of whiskey would have been more appropriate. Had whiskey been available, my whole group would have been bought a round. My nerves could have benefitted from that type of affirmation. 9:45 is plenty late enough in the day for a drink if you are about to die in a horrible ziplining accident. I told Becci that I thought this might have been the worst idea that I had ever had. That’s how terrified I was. I changed my mind later.

Kids, I gotta tell ya, the ziplining was awesome. I want you to try to imagine this. It’s brisk outside. A 35 mph wind is whipping at your pants and jacket. You are standing atop a high metal tower that you just climbed. A thin metal cable drops down in front on you and disappears into a cloud. You are being attached to this cable by two young men who speak only Spanish. One meter in front of you, a red line is painted on the tower floor. A metal gate normally stands just behind that red line, but now the gate is gone and there is nothing but a sheer drop into nothing on the other side of the red paint. You notice that the man working on your harness is himself attached to the tower by a heavy rope around his waist, in case he takes a wrong step in the wind and the rain and the fog.

You are asked in broken English if you are OK. If you are ready. You are asked to lift your feet off the ground. A few safety instructions, provided earlier in the friendly confines of the training area, when the stakes were low, are now quickly repeated in imperfect English. It’s GO time.

And then you are flying through a cloud. It’s fast. You emerge from the clouds and can see the trees. You are flying….literally flying…a hundred feet above a dense canopy. This canopy is itself 80 feet above the jungle floor. Birds fly below you. Toy cars can be seen in the distance. Wind and rain hit you in the face and you cannot believe that you are alive and that you are experiencing this.

And then you are approaching the end of this run. What did they tell you before? Brake only if indicated. No indication…OK, I won’t do that. Spread my legs, prepare for arrival. Boom! I’ve landed.

Oh my God I survived that! High fives and nervous, intense laughter from the three people that went in front of me. We survived!

IMG_1563.JPGThat’s me, riding into a cloud.

IMG_1569.JPGPre-launch fortifications. Tasty, but coulda been stronger.

And then repeat. It was good. It was really good. I can recommend that experience. If you get a chance to zipline across a rainforest, go for it.

OK, what else? Well, we had some tacos and burritos down in Santa Elana. Believe it or not, although we have eaten indigenous food for almost every meal since we have arrived, these are the first tacos and burritos that we have had since being in country. They were delicious, and we had lunch with a woman from Poland that we met. She is traveling through Central and South America…she intended originally to travel for two months but has been at it for eight, and counting. I loved her story. Unfortunately, we didn’t get her name, but we gave her our contact info and I hope she will stay in touch. Bex and I discussed the idea of someday making such a trip, where we dive much deeper into South America. This place is so rich…we are only scratching the surface with our two months here.

One last thing…we hit the Herpetarium in town. Neither of us has herpes, as far as I know. Herpetariums have snakes ya’ll. We saw a variety of snakes and frogs here, including the often imitated, never duplicated, very deadly coral snake. And some adorable (also deadly) little red frogs.

IMG_1559.JPGA red poison dart frog. This particular specimen has saved up and purchased himself a pair of tight-fittin’ jeans! He confided to me that he was planning to go line dancing tonight.

IMG_1558.JPGTo quote Zappa: “Baby Snakes!”

IMG_1560.JPGOne of the proud parents. All these snakes are your basic Boa Constrictor.

That’s enough rambly-rambly for one day. Thanks for reading. We love you all and miss you all very much.

Pura Vida!

p.s. We have played catch and release with a couple of shockingly huge bugs in the last 24 hours. Sorry, we were too terrified to operate the camera during all of this. The last was this huge flying beetle that accosted my while writing this blog. He was two inches across and armored. Those coming to Costa Rica…you have been warned!

IMG_1564.JPGOne more for the road. Killer canopy shot.


IMG_1561.JPGBex took some lovely flower shots whilst I was riding the cables.

IMG_1568.JPGBonus awesome dog pic. We met this little lady on a walk home from the city yesterday. She looked like a wingless bat and jumped up happily on both of us. “Esta es mi casa!”

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