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Broccoli trees and bromeliads, 180 feet over the rain forest

A gondola traverses the 1 1/2-mile rain forest route along a cable suspended between a dozen steel towers. Guides lead nature walks among the 1.5 million species in the Neotropical setting. A gondola traverses the 1 1/2-mile rain forest route along a cable suspended between a dozen steel towers. Guides lead nature walks among the 1.5 million species in the Neotropical setting. (Photos By Claudia R. Capos/For The Boston Globe)
By Claudia R. Capos
Globe Correspondent / December 6, 2009

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GUAPILES, Costa Rica - The first drops of rain began to fall as we stepped aboard the green open-air gondola that would whisk us through the rain forest treetops.

Soon the droplets ricocheted off outstretched leaves and delicate flowers high above the jungle floor. The moist air created a fresh, vibrant feeling that energized our senses and brought a chorus of shrill chirps from birds hidden in the canopy.

We were venturing into a world far removed from Cartagena, Colombia; Grand Cayman Island’s Seven Mile Beach; and other ports of call on our 11-day Caribbean cruise. Costa Rica was wet and wild.

“Welcome to the rain forest,’’ said Jaeson Clarke, our local guide. “Pura vida!’’ The phrase, meaning “pure life,’’ is popular among residents of this tropical paradise.

For years, the rain forest’s high canopy was the privileged domain of scientists who studied its extraordinary fauna and flora. This treetop wonderland was opened to public viewing 15 years ago through the efforts of Joaquin von der Goltz, a Boston-based international entrepreneur and lifelong nature lover. Von der Goltz, the founding partner of Boston Capital Ventures, spearheaded the financing for construction of the first-ever Rain Forest Aerial Tram, which began operation in 1994.

Today, the 1 1/2-mile-long elevated tram system carries passengers through primary rain forest in a 1,200-acre private nature reserve. Bilingual naturalists provide commentary during the 80-minute ride. The tram property, bordering Braulio Carrillo National Park, includes a lodge, nature trails, and a visitors center with a restaurant and souvenir shop.

Our 60-mile bus ride from Puerto Limon to the tram took us past banana and pineapple plantations and pastel-colored island houses. At the tram parking lot, we boarded a shuttle to the visitors center, where a short video explained the rich biodiversity of the Neotropics. Scientists estimate that this massive ecozone, encompassing the rain forests from southern Mexico to southern Brazil (and also including the Caribbean and southern Florida), is home to an estimated 1.5 million species of plants and animals. However, the rain forests are threatened by encroaching agricultural development and logging.

During a short nature walk, Clarke introduced us to fascinating foliage, such as baby tears, cow’s tongue, monkey ladder, monkey tail, and sandpaper leaf. Along the trail, we spotted a flamboyant toucan and carefully avoided a small, venomous, orange eyelash pit viper on a moss-covered tree.

Afterward, we boarded our gondola for a bird’s-eye view of the rain forest. The aerial-tram route, spanning 12 steel towers, resembles a horizontal ski lift. During construction, von der Goltz enlisted the aid of a Russian-built Mi-17 helicopter owned by the Sandinista Air Force to lower the mammoth steel supports into place without damaging trees. The Soviet-trained pilot completed the job secretly while his passengers, a delegation of Nicaraguan diplomats, attended the inauguration of José María Figueres, Costa Rica’s president then.

The outbound tram trip transported us through the rain forest’s sub-canopy 150 feet above the ground, and the inbound leg took us through the upper canopy and hanging gardens at a height of 180 feet. It was a little like hot air ballooning in the jungle.

The suspended gondola brushed past giant palm and philodendron leaves and paused periodically so we could observe crimson “hot lips’’ blossoms and tiny white orchids tucked into the crooks of trees. We could almost touch frilly bromeliads shaped like pineapple plants. At one point, we startled a flock of red-fronted parakeets that burst into flight.

Clarke pointed out “broccoli’’ trees, named for their distinctive vegetable-like shape, and hanging aerial roots, reminiscent of the sturdy vines used by actor Johnny Weissmuller to swing through the jungle in his Tarzan movies of the 1930s. Vegetation far below appeared as geometric patterns formed by swirls of leaves and palm fronds.

Karen Leonard, a landscape designer, admired the beauty and diversity of the canopy. “I am interested in the foliage of different plants and always looking for new ideas,’’ said Leonard, an Arlington, Mass., resident and owner of Gardens by Karen. “I’d like to use some of these tropical plants in Boston, if we didn’t have such a short growing season.’’

Ann and Leo Dragatakis of Montreal were captivated by the orchids. “I’ve grown orchids at home and wanted to see them in the wild,’’ said Leo. “I was fascinated by the aerial perspective and the differences between the vegetation in the lower and upper canopies.’’

Von der Goltz, 71, who is chairman of the Rain Forest Aerial Tram (and who lives now in Key Biscayne, Fla., and summers in Needham), experienced similar rapture during his inaugural trip in 1994. “I wanted to be the first guy to ride this tram, so I headed down to Costa Rica three weeks after undergoing heart surgery,’’ he recounted in a recent phone conversation. “In the very beginning, we didn’t have gondolas, just a little car on rollers that had to be pulled along the cable by ropes.’’

Before his ride, von der Goltz slipped on the jungle trail and was bitten by a bullet ant. Once aboard the Aerial Tram, his arm began to swell. Worse yet, the car became stuck halfway through the canopy tour. With darkness falling, he had to shimmy down to earth one-handed on an emergency rope. Still, the financier recalled that gliding through the rain forest’s canopy “was amazing, truly incredible.’’

The success of the first Aerial Tram spurred construction of four others, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast and on Dominica, St. Lucia, and Jamaica. A fifth tram is planned for Ketchikan, Alaska.

“My goal,’’ von der Goltz said, “is to make people aware of the beauty of trees and to educate them about saving the rain forests for future generations, because every tree has an angel.’’

Claudia R. Capos can be reached at capocomm@sbcglobal.net.

related

If You Go

Celebrity Cruises

www.celebrity.com

Celebrity's 11-night Ultimate Caribbean cruise aboard the Celebrity Equinox sails round-trip from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and features Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, among its ports of call. Winter sail dates run until April 11.

Per-person prices range from $1,199 for an inside cabin to $4,599 for a suite, but may vary according to cruise date.