I am not the ‘outdoor type’. I'm your average, middle-aged, serial-watching, samosa-eating, magazine-reading woman. My idea of spending time in the wilderness is driving to South Bengaluru and walking in the sprawling Lalbagh. Yet, about a month ago, I found myself huffing and puffing, trying to steer a raft, on the Balsa river in Costa Rica.
“Paddle, paddle,” yelled our instructor as a wall of white water rose.
Drenched in water, my stomach in knots, I did as he said, trying to ignore the looming boulders. With the Caribbean Sea to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Costa Rica in Central America has many rivers, making it one of the favourite destinations of white-water rafting enthusiasts. The rapids range from the rudimentary Class III and IV rapids, which were negotiating, to the advanced Class VI ones further upstream.
Each raft had a captain and a team of four. In our case, the four paddlers were my two daughters, my husband and myself. Our captain and guide, Jose, shouted instructions: “Forward. Right turn. Paddle, you guys! Hard paddle. Come on, we're going to hit that rock! Left turn! Dig into the water. PADDLE!"
My daughters took the brunt of the water, as they were seated in front. The waves rushed up to meet us every time the raft hit a rapid. By the end, we were screaming and laughing hysterically from the adrenalin rush, which as it turned out, would last just minutes, before the water calmed down.
After an hour, we reached a shallow bank and pulled the raft out of the water. A treat awaited: cut fruits. Exhausted yet excited, we piled into tour buses to head back into the city. Along the way, the convoy stopped: Someone had spotted a sloth on a tree by the road.
Sloths are the “national symbol” of Costa Rica. “They have the slowest metabolism in the animal kingdom,” said our guide, hence their local name, oso perezoso, or lazy bear. We crowded around the tree to do what tourists do–take photos and selfies. High up in the tree, the sloth’s movements were very slow and Zen-like.
Costa Rica is known for its beaches but when we planned our week-long trip, we decided to head to the cool interiors of the country. Although San Jose, the capital, has a vibrant music scene and museums, we rented a car and drove out right after landing. With an area of about 50,000sq.km, Costa Rica is about the size of Punjab. At 5.14 million, its population is just a quarter of Mumbai city.
Within this tiny land is a jungle with a profusion of flora and fauna. India for instance, has 1200 bird species; Costa Rica has 850. It is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world with 1,240 species of butterflies, 440 types of reptiles, 232 species of mammals and some 12,000 species of plants. This extravagant profusion of nature draws tourists and supports the economy. But the choices that the country has made veers towards the environment whenever possible. For example, Costa Rica abolished the Army in the late 1949, choosing to use its defence budget to improve lives. Officially, 27% of the land is preserved for wildlife but thanks to private wildlife preserves, the number is actually between 53% and 60%.
Our first stop was Arenal, a stunning dormant volcano that lay three hours north of San Jose. The roads were good and we reached in time for lunch. Like much of North America, Costa Rica offers vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free choices, given that a bulk of their tourists are from the US. The national dish is gallo pinto or rice and beans, served with guacamole, salsa and fried plantains.
Out in the forest, I was stunned by the tiny, brilliantly coloured frogs. On our first evening at Arenal, we signed up for an evening hike at Mistico Park with its stunning series of hanging bridges. It felt like I was in Jurassic Park, which, in fact, was filmed in Costa Rica. Our guide pointed out tarantula spiders, small frogs, colourful songbirds, and thankfully distant snakes. Being in the forest was a soothing and timeless experience with tall looming trees, gurgling streams and fragrant tropical flowers that made us pause and inhale.
Our next stop was Monteverde, a cloud forest, three hours through mountains, where I hoped to spot the resplendent quetzal, one of the most beautiful birds in the country and indeed the world. Clouds hung low and in the evening, we couldn’t see a foot in front of us. During a hike, where I followed a trail of hanging bridges to a quetzal nest, the guide told me that since the wood-and-metal bridges were built by hand, hardly any trees were cut down. Instead of bulldozing entire hillsides, the bridges snaked through the vegetation. Preserving the environment comes first for them.
Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, are proud of nature’s abundant gifts and work at preserving what they have. Their national slogan and popular greeting is pura vida, which means pure life. On our last day, as we dropped off the rental car, the driver handed us our credit card with a wide smile. “Pura Vida,” he said as he waved us off.
Shoba Narayan is an independent writer based in Bengaluru and has been a long-time contributor and columnist for Mint.