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More species than an ecotourist’s eye can see

A glass frog at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica, a species that is more or less and inch in size. (Getty Images) A glass frog at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica, a species that is more or less and inch in size.
By John Powers
Globe Staff / January 24, 2010

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MONTEVERDE - We are standing in the hummingbird gallery at the entrance to the cloud forest, surrounded by multicolored whirs, when Adrian, our guide, grabs his high-powered German telescope and takes off at a dead run. “Come quick,’’ he urges. “The quetzal.’’

We had just spent an unproductive couple of hours trying to find the resplendent but elusive bird with its 3-foot-long tail and green and red plumage. Suddenly one of Adrian’s colleagues has spotted one perched in an aguacatillo tree near a trail and a crowd is gathering. “Where is it?’’ I say, scanning the trees with my binoculars. “On that branch,’’ Adrian says, pointing to the middle of a leafy, crisscrossed maze. “He has his back to us.’’

I couldn’t have spotted that quetzal if it had been wearing a blinking neon sign, because I had no idea what to look for. Same with the three-toed sloth that had been hanging for a couple of days just outside our cabin on an organic farm near San Ramon. Or the tiny blue-jeans frog on the underside of a leaf, the orange-kneed tarantula in a tiny hole, or the baby sea spiders beneath a rock inside a surf-splashed cave on the Golfo de Papagayo.

For a city person, sampling the “pura vida,’’ or natural life, in this strip of Central America between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea is a bit like awakening in a tropical Eden populated with thousands of species of exotic birds, mammals, insects, vegetables, fruits, and flowers. There are coatis and agoutis, fer-de-lances and red-eyed tree snakes, toucans and clay-colored robins, white-faced capuchin monkeys and long-nosed bats, blue morpho butterflies and bullet ants, jewel beetles and the water-walking Jesus Christ lizard.

This lush and hilly country, which is smaller than West Virginia, contains 5 percent of the world’s plant and animal species living in a variety of microclimates. Between Guanacaste and Alajuela provinces in the northwest you can experience several of them within a 90-mile drive. On the western beaches last month, the weather was 90 degrees and breezy by midmorning. A few miles northeast, near the national parks, it was warm and dry. In the rain forest near Lake Arenal, it was cool but humid. And in the cloud forest a few miles to the southeast, it was misty and chilly enough for a windbreaker.

Midwinter is a fine time for some informal ecotouring in Costa Rica; the holiday crush is past and the spring rains haven’t yet arrived. The most convenient place to start is Papagayo, a short drive from the Liberia airport, which is a better option than flying into San José, the crowded and chaotic capital that is a challenging four-hour drive away.

Though hotels and condos have been springing up around the Gulf of Papagayo, off the northwest coast, there are also black-sand, coral-studded beaches tucked along the coast with lizards skittering across pathways and pelicans cruising above. A couple of hours thumping along the turquoise water on a jet ski provides close-up glimpses of mating sea turtles and soaring frigate birds plus a chance to wade ashore for a bit of exploring. “Try this,’’ says Melvin, our guide, plucking an oyster from a cave wall and prying it open.

The ocean offers up an abundance of seafood that makes a sublime feast when paired with the local fruit. Dirk Troop, the executive chef at the Hilton Papagayo Resort, whips up an impromptu tasting menu of swordfish and mahimahi ceviche, razor clams in a garlicky sauce seasoned with peach-palm, and panko-crusted snapper with pineapple salsa and a timbale of roasted plantain and dried banana.

At the Playa Ocotal a short drive down the shore, the Father Rooster restaurant, ensconced on the sand less than 100 yards from the water, offers fish grilled, tucked into tacos or marinating in citrus, washed down with a potent Tica Linda cocktail made with “guaro cacique,’’ the local sugar-cane liquor, orange and lime juice.

Just a few miles north of Liberia the landscape changes dramatically amid the Rincon de la Vieja, a 54-square-mile national park with an active volcano surrounded by a thick forest scented by sulfurous geothermal whiffs from the hot springs, bubbling mud pots, and fumaroles. The boss volcano, of course, is the one presiding over Lake Arenal, a three-hour drive east and then north along several of the few paved roads in the area.

Route 1, the country’s main highway dotted by roadside stands offering coconuts, watermelons, and papayas, leads to the turnoff at Las Canas, from where you drive north to Tilaran on Route 19, then loop clockwise around the lake on Route 150 to La Fortuna, a touristy haven for lava lovers hoping to see the mountain pop its cork.

A few kilometers south in San Isidro de Penas Blancas is the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, an organic farm known for its turmeric and ginger that welcomes guests to wander through its rain forest and sample its produce and herbs at mealtime. As it is in most of Costa Rica, getting there is literally a rocky undertaking over about 1 3/4 miles of half-submerged boulders, with our 4-wheel-drive Mitsubishi sports vehicle bouncing and jouncing in second gear in what the locals call a “Tico massage.’’

Ticos are native Costa Ricans and they’re generally friendly and relaxed amateur naturalists. “Taste this,’’ says Roberto, one of the Finca’s farmers, tearing off a piece from a wild cilantro plant growing by a dirt trail. Roberto knows every bit of flora on the property and his young colleague Gerald is expert at spotting everything from the golden-hooded tanager with its seven colors to the “walking’’ palm whose roots perambulate in search of sunshine.

Ticos understand instinctively how their ecosystem fits together and its complex life-and-death, give-and-take between species, and they worry that human intrusion is knocking the balance askew. In the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve alone there are 2,500 species of plants (including more than 400 orchids), 500 kinds of butterflies, 400 birds, and 100 mammals.

Trained guides like Adrian, who charges a modest $17 for a leisurely but thorough tour, can identify most of them by their Spanish, English, and Latin names. They know where to find them and are skilled at snapping intimate photos from a distance using your camera and their telescopic lenses. They can also point out close-ups you don’t want, like the bullet ant whose sting feels like a revolver shot.

Not all of the residents of these tropical Edens are friendly and not all of them are visible, at least to the untrained eye. “That’s the sloth?’’ I say to Gerald after 15 minutes of fruitless squinting. “That hairy thing up there?’’ The best thing about sloths is that they’re slothful, so sluggish that algae grows on their fur. If I come back, odds are I’ll be able to find this one, since he moves just a few feet a day. I’m not so sure about the quetzal.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

If You Go

Where to stay

Finca Luna Nueva Lodge

San Isidro de Penas Blancas

San Ramon

506-2468-4006 or -0874

fincalunanuevalodge.com

Organic farm south of Lake Arenal providing rain forest tours on property and meals made from its own produce. Cabins from $80. Breakfast included, $12 for lunch, $15 for dinner.

Arco Iris Lodge
One block north of main street Santa Elena

506-2645-5067

www.arcoirislodge.com

Not far from the cloud forest, the lodge offers cabins with porches and arranges tours of local attractions. Doubles from $86. Breakfast buffet $7.

Where to eat

Father Rooster
Playa Ocotal

506-2670-1246

www.fatherrooster.com

Fresh seafood and fruit cocktails served at beachside tables. Entrees from $11.

Trio
Next to supermarket

Santa Elena

506-2645-7254

Nueva Latina cuisine ranging from sea bass ceviche to imaginative vegan offerings, with outdoor balcony seating.

Sabor Espanol
Canitas, in front of the Trapiche Santa Elena

506-2645-5387

Spanish and Tica specialties, including paella and crepes. Entrees from $7.