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Why go back again? Not just for the birds

Email|Print| Text size + By Andreae Downs
Globe Correspondent / September 21, 2003

BAHIA DRAKE, Costa Rica - It was pitch-black as our family slowly climbed out of the rain forest, having just seen geckos, tarantulas, and wide-awake crayfish in the ravine near our cabin. Suddenly, Lucia, our guide on this night walk, stopped.

Ahead, on the safe side of the foot-wide path up the ravine's edge - the other side was a sheer 10 feet back down to the river - coiled a deadly fer-de-lance. The most feared snake in Central America, this viper produces enough venom to paralyze a horse. Its bite also contains a digestive enzyme - handy for an animal that cannot chew - that can turn your inner self into mush.

Like the fer-de-lance, a lot of wildlife in Costa Rica hides remarkably well. But because the birds you do see are usually so colorful, watching them can quickly develop from a casual hobby into almost an obsession. It had that effect this spring on our elder daughter, age 10,

as she realized that even birds native to New England develop more colorful feathers once they migrate south.

Besides the occasional venomous snake and wide variety of birds, this lush country offers misty cloud forest, active volcanoes, and pristine beaches.

We started visiting Costa Rica about 10 years ago, and in that time ecotourism there has developed noticeably. One can now eat gourmet organic dinners near the cloud forest preserve of Monteverde, and drink sunset cocktails while overlooking the Pacific Ocean near the lovely beach park of Manuel Antonio. But wilder locations still exist, and many can be reached by families.

We were attracted to Corcovado National Park because it houses one of the best remaining Pacific coast rain forests, with some eight distinct habitats, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook.

The park is immense. Two young men staying at our lodge said they had hiked through the park in 10 days; the Moon handbook says it can be crossed in three. Since we were also traveling with a second-grader, we opted for short excursions with a maximum of swimming and variety.

There are a number of rain forest lodges nearby that cater to those who want to see the park without camping. We opted for the northern edge, on Bahia Drake (Drake's Bay), because it is close to both the mangrove sanctuary of Sierpe and an island reserve with good snorkeling.

After a day's drive from San Jose to the remote banana town of Sierpe, we boarded a small passenger ferry to the lodge. The trip took us through spectacular mangroves and out along the coast. As the river met the ocean at some volcanic rock outcroppings, the boat literally had to surf the waves to make it to open water; after a brief ``airborne'' stint, we rode another half-hour along the coast before we reached the lodge.

The Marenco Beach & Rainforest Lodge perches on a cliff overlooking the Pacific at what was once a biological station. After wading onto the beach, we walked several flights of stairs through an orchard of 30-foot mango trees to reach it. A short distance from the cabins, the rain forest begins. That allowed us to observe dozens of birds, lizards, and mammals while relaxing on a porch with a cold beer and binoculars.

Of course, wildlife could get a tad too close. Ants and copper-colored Central American cockroaches - we saw them as small as two inches and one as big as five - occasionally wandered into as well as outside the buildings.

Lodging included three very generous meals; there are no restaurants for miles. Upon arrival, we had a lasagna lunch, and then drifted back down to the beaches to explore, on the way down encountering several families of capuchin monkeys scrambling through the canopy.

Down the beach, a local named Ricardo rents canoes to paddle up the Rio Claro to a waterfall. The trip one way takes about 30 minutes and meanders through a shady, fern-lined gorge inhabited by toucans and kingfishers. We read that the river also hosts caymen, but didn't see any.

In a place this remote, you might expect silence, and when the generator went off, at about 10 p.m., it was indeed quiet, if sticky. But as soon as it gets light, the birds start calling. Every dawn, at about 5:15, unless there was rain, an alarm of resident red-lored parrots, scarlet macaws, or riverside wrens - a nondescript bird with a fabulous (and loud) song - would sound. Sleep became impossible as we became curious about what was flying by. So we would pad out to our porch with our binoculars and spend an hour before breakfast identifying birds.

You could, as many lodgers at the Marenco did, spend all your time there exploring the grounds on foot or horseback. We chose to have the staff arrange outings for us. On our first full day, we took a trip out to Isla del Cano, a national wildlife preserve about 12 miles from Bahia Drake. Partway there, dolphins surfaced near our little boat, and we followed as best as our captain could.

The nearby coral reef was also a treat. We drifted about in the warm water for an hour or so, watching multicolored parrots, puffer and angelfish, grunts, and even a striped eel.

Lunch on the beach was finished by hermit crabs. We tossed out a slice of bread and a tomato and watched until the sand near the tidbit was a mass of clicking shells. The kids made a game of trying to corral the crabs into a sand castle, and enjoyed seeing what leftovers the crabs liked best.

A short walk uphill from the beach, the island shelters some prehistoric spheres. These can be found up and down the country's Pacific coast, and they puzzle archeologists, who don't know who made them, or what their function was. We saw some that were easily 4 feet in diameter, and others less than a foot across.

On our second day, we walked through the dry forest of the mainland park, spotting a three-foot crested guan, a black, turkey-like bird; howler monkeys; a tiny dart frog; and a trogon, one of the more colorful native birds, related to the legendary quetzal. The walk ended at a small river with a swimming hole, a welcome relief after the humid hike, and we returned along a gorgeous beach lined with almond trees.

After another picnic lunch and more swimming, we hiked up to a jungle waterfall for more freshwater swimming and bird-watching, spotting mountain hummingbirds and water thrushes, as well as a kingfisher.

Back at the lodge that night, while enjoying our pre-dinner drink (the girls won a virgin daiquiri by beating the bartender at dominoes), we were treated to a parade. First, four fiery-billed aracaris, which look like small toucans, perched within binocular range. They were replaced by brilliant scarlet macaws, which gave way to chestnut-mandibled toucans. Finally, an agouti, a rabbit-sized rodent without the long ears, shambled past with a mango in its mouth.

The next morning we left the Marenco Lodge and headed back to cars and air conditioning. On our way to the beach, we spotted the capuchin monkeys again. They were in the mango trees, where they had brought pieces of coconut to eat. Delighted, the kids took pictures and declared that despite the discomforts of our jungle dwelling (we all had our share of insect bites), the adventure had been worth it. Fer-de-lance and all.

Andreae Downs is a freelance writer in Newton.

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