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Back to Nature in Costa Rica

It is morning again in Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, and 15 of us are hearing it for the first time. Fifteen pairs of lightweight hiking boots and Reeboks stand in a single file, rooted to the damp, dark path. Heads back, mouths slack, we assume the peculiar posture of birders: frantically focusing.

For most of us, this is an initiation to our Costa Rica vacation. Necks draped with the requisite equipment—binoculars, camera, or both—we fumble and grapple. I have never been ornithologically inclined, but at this moment, the only thing that seems to matter is the electronic BAAAAAAAAWNK of the three-wattled bellbird perched in the leafy canopy somewhere over our heads.

It is the loudest bird I have ever heard, and it has only just begun.

Our guide, Eduardo, wears Levi's tucked into his brown leather boots and a blue and white retro-print Hawaiian shirt. His hair is in dreadlocks. "Okay, my friends," he says—he has this radiance about him—"you should know that nature is undependable." It is Eduardo's job to interpret the forest for us, but what that really means is that he will identify, and help us see, as many plant and animal species as he can in 90 minutes.

Our group is hushed, expectant. There are so many of us, I fear we won't spot a thing. Eduardo glides through the forest. The rest of us are not only nearsighted, but lead-footed by comparison.

Now Eduardo is explaining that we are walking through secondary forest. The virgin forest was cut down to create pastureland 50 or so years ago. We file by huge buttresslike tree roots and sci-fi-size philodendrons that resemble giant houseplants. A strangler fig with aero-roots as thick as logs winds around a young oak. Eduardo points out clusters of white begonias edging the trail at eye level, then a heliconius butterfly.

Suddenly, there is a racket in the canopy overhead. "A white-faced monkey shaking down bromeliads for frogs!" Eduardo says. Before any of us has a chance to spot the monkey in the thick camouflage, there is a crashing in the underbrush, and a short-haired mammal, a sort of cross between a rat and a pig, streaks down a little hill and charges right for us. He cuts between me and the person ahead of me, carves a quick U-turn, and speeds back through our ranks before disappearing into a nearby thicket. "Guatusa!" Eduardo is laughing. "It's an agouti."

"Did we startle him?" someone asks, visibly shaken.

"I'd say it was about fifty-fifty."

This is exactly the kind of experience I have been hoping to have on my 10-day ramble: something to remind me that there is still wildness in Costa Rica. In recent years, not only has this tiny country evolved into one of the world's favorite vacation spots, but many North Americans have decided to retire here. The usual reports have trickled back: "You know, you should have gone ten years ago." Or worse, "It's already trampled to death."

Suspecting these rumors were far from true, I set out to find the best of unspoiled Costa Rica by visiting three wilderness resorts in three out-of-the-way destinations. I tossed my hiking boots into a bag, along with a pair of binoculars and a pile of T-shirts, and promised my kids that as soon as they were old enough, we'd all take a trip to the jungle.

First stop: The Monteverde Lodge. A rustic 27-room inn just outside the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, the lodge is by far the most luxurious place to stay in the area, but don't expect marble baths. It was built by the brilliant but wacky Michael Kaye, who, in 1978, founded Costa Rica Expeditions, the country's first adventure travel company, which last year escorted nearly 7,000 people on nature tours. "It's beds for a cloud forest!" is how Kaye describes Monteverde Lodge, and that's pretty much what it is.

Guests come to see a 29,000-acre tropical reserve perched high in the Tilarán Mountains, about 93 miles northwest of San José. The lodge is remote. So remote, in fact, that you would be extremely disappointed if you traveled the two hours by paved road and two hours by dirt road to reach it and weren't inclined to go tramping. Well-maintained paths lead from the visitors' center through six to eight different ecological zones, where some 1,500 species of plants, 400 species of birds, and 100 species of mammals reside.

I have heard stories about the arduous road to Monteverde and am relieved not to be driving alone. Instead, Costa Rica Expeditions sends a white van to meet me in San José. It is outfitted with a guide, Manuel, a driver, Elvis, and a two-way radio. The van's other passengers that day are the Kumar family, three biologists from Washington, D.C., also en route to the lodge. We take the Pan-American Highway north from the city, then a narrow route that winds through miles of coffee plantations. Manuel tells us that five years ago, coffee was the country's number one industry; now it's tourism. Elvis pulls off to the side of the road so the Kumars and I can jump out and pick a few coffee beans.

After the last leg of our journey, two bone-jarring hours of dirt road and dust, our van deposits us in an immaculate clearing—an absolute oasis of rosebushes, stone-bordered paths, and lawns surrounding a two-story lodge that seems to glow with fresh whitewash. All around us the jungle chatters and thrums.

My room, a double on the ground floor with a door that opens onto the garden, is cool and dark. This is a good thing, since I am so road-weary I have to lie down. When I come to, I can just make out the simple furnishings: a desk, a chair with a leather seat, a low table, and wooden closets with shelves. When I flick on the light in the bathroom, two enormous beetles scurry for cover under the bath mat. Just then, all the lights in the lodge go out, and the room is pitched into darkness. For a few long minutes, until the generators kick in, it's just the beetles and me, and about 10,000 tree frogs outside serenading the moon.

The next morning, after a serious breakfast of rice and black beans, scrambled eggs, two tortillas, a wedge of cheese, sliced plantains, orange juice, and cafe con leche, it is time to catch the 7:30 shuttle to the preserve for a guided cloud-forest hike. That afternoon, having seen a group of white-faced monkeys, two spider monkeys, several howler monkeys, dozens of exotic birds—including two of the legendary resplendent quetzals—and of course, the blindly charging agouti, many of my fellow nature walkers are eager for more. But the thing about Monteverde is that even outside the preserve, you are surrounded by an embarrassment of natural riches. Thrilled and overwhelmed, I sneak back to the lodge to recuperate.

All is quiet in the Biosphere-like Jacuzzi room and the camp-style dining room, where guests are assigned tables by number. I try the lecture room. No one. Even my room, with its thin walls, is silent. But as I doze away the afternoon on the terrace, spider monkeys rustle leaves in the trees, black-faced solitaires sound their high, thin whistle, another three-wattled bellbird lets loose its loud metallic BONK, like an amplifier's feedback, and black-breasted wood quails sing, quite literally, "Where-ARE-you, where-ARE-you, where-ARE-you?"

That night, I sign up for a hike along the same trail, this time under cover of darkness. There are only six of us now, plus our guide, Rodrigo. Our gingerly progress is marked by the bouncing beams of seven flashlights; beyond the corridor of light, the forest is invisible—and ALIVE. There's the high buzz of cicadas, the low buzz of crickets, the bleep-bleep-bleep of blackness thick with frogs. During the day, our forest posture was upright, but our night stance is hunched, more marsupial. We creep along, branch by branch, flashlights picking out plants edging the trail.

A whole new cast of characters emerges in the dark: huge sticklike katydids perched on their own private leaves, tiny naked rain frogs, lobster crickets that look almost edible. A fragile web maybe two feet in diameter is spun between leaves, framing a furry brown spider.

The highlight of the night is the so-called clink bug, a brown-shelled, almond-shaped beetle with a pair of phosphorescent spots on its back. When Rodrigo cradles one in his palm, we hear a delicate clinking sound, like a spoon tapping crystal. Rodrigo releases it and suggests we turn off our flashlights. Our little band is suddenly surrounded by a darkness so complete the ground is as black as the sky, except for the clink bug's spots, shining like stars.

From the mountainous world of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, I bump back down the two-hour dirt road, take the Pan-American Highway to San José, then fly south to the Osa Peninsula, which protrudes from the Pacific coast just north of the Panamanian border and is one of Costa Rica's remotest corners. My destination is the Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp, Michael Kaye's latest creation.

The first dirt road to the Osa was cut through the jungle just 17 years ago, and if it feels as if you've landed in one of the earth's wildest places, you have. In addition to being home to an amazingly rich diversity of biological species, the Osa is known for its outlaw gold miners, illegal firearms, machete fights, and the unsolved murder of conservationist Olaf Wessberg in 1975. I wanted to visit the peninsula's Corcovado National Park, the largest remaining portion of tropical rain forest in Pacific Mesoamerica.

I arrive at 10 in the morning. Our single-engine Cessna has crossed miles and miles of emerald rain forest, and now makes a wide circle over the Pacific before skimming the tops of the palms and touching down in Carate, which consists of a short gravel runway and a shotgun-shack bar. A blond-braided, blue-eyed American woman, walkie-talkie in hand, meets us at the plane and introduces herself. She is Lana Wedmore, the Corcovado tent camp's extremely capable manager. Lana is accompanied by a wiry Costa Rican vaquero named Urbano, a worn-out horse, and a wooden cart. She loads my duffel bag, explaining that while we walk the 45 minutes up the beach to the camp, Urbano will transport our gear.

The sun is already hot, the air heavy and thick. I worry that even a five-minute walk will undo me. But once we start, the sound of the surf, the softness of the khaki-colored sand, and the sight of lush rain forest growing right down to the ocean is so fantastic that I feel deliriously restored. On the little bluff where sand and forest meet, luxuriant palms grow tall, and almond trees with pomegranate-red leaves shimmer in the sun. Soon Lana says, "Look, scarlet macaws!" Sure enough, there they are—a flock of at least two dozen, squawking loudly, unmistakable with their bright red heads and extravagant tail feathers.

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