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Back to Nature in Costa Rica

The Osa Peninsula is one of the last places where scarlet macaws can be found. Seeing so many of them, in pairs that mate for life, is a bit like stumbling into the Jurassic period. Maybe it's the sensation of physically walking away from telephones and fax machines and cars and televisions. Or maybe it's just the heat, but by the time I've hiked the mile to camp, I am exactly where I want to be: on the beach, on the edge of the tropical rain forest, living a simpler life.

While the Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp certainly isn't for everyone, it does give new meaning to the concept of an oceanfront view. Home for the next three days is a white canvas platform tent perched on a grassy bluff a few feet from the ocean. My tent contains two bamboo single beds made up with white cotton sheets and a blue coverlet, a woven floor mat, a rustic wooden table, a candle, matches, and a bottle of mineral water. At the foot of the bed, a white cotton towel is topped with three pink hibiscus blossoms. The walls of the tent are mesh with canvas flaps that can be lowered. A small slat porch looks out at tall palms linked by rope hammocks; beyond that, the beach slips into the Pacific. The waves are so loud you might as well be sleeping beneath them.

Meals are family style, the food amazingly good, especially when you consider the logistical nightmare of flying everything in and carting it up the beach. We dine at a long table in a thatch-roofed lodge overlooking the tents. At lunch the first day, I meet some of my campmates: a couple from Stuttgart, a pair of ophthalmologists from Berlin, two Californians, and two New Yorkers. The large woman from Stuttgart sits down, flaps her arms like a duck, and says, "Why don't we make more room between ze plates!" We eat in awkward silence until the woman from California, attempting to make conversation with the rather androgynous husband and wife from Berlin, says, "So, are you brothers?"

The icebreaker at a place like Corcovado is shared experience—for example, at the hammock house, a big, open-sided, thatched pavilion, where there is nothing but a Robinson Crusoe-style honor bar at one end and two rows of hammocks at the other. I discover it that first day, after lunch, when I realize that, since I'm only 10 degrees from the equator, the sensible thing to do is sleep. You might bring along a novel, but once you select your hammock, climb in, and push off with one toe, you are doomed. My neighbors from New York and I meet in the hammock house and never exchange a word. We drift in and out of consciousness to the top notes of scarlet macaws and the bass notes of waves.

Days revolve around nature. A two-mile, self-guided trail runs up the hill behind the camp; guided hikes are announced on a chalkboard. Since December, guests have been able to visit Costa Rica's first treetop observation platform. An amazing experience, it involves being raised by harness and pulley 120 feet to an aluminum treehouse.

I sign up for the four-hour Rio Madrigal hike without any idea of what to expect. All I know is that it will be led by Felipe Arias, 35, who has lived most of his life in the Osa, where he grew up farming and mining. Of the 16 or so guests, I am the only one taking the Rio Madrigal that day; Lana hints that I am in for a treat.

But the going is rough. After hiking along the beach, entering Corcovado National Park, scrambling up a steep ravine, and following an exceedingly narrow path, I have broken into a serious sweat—not just from the jungle humidity. But all along the way Felipe has been pointing out dozens of small wonders that serve as distractions from the physical discomforts: delicate agouti tracks, a tiny fruit bat suspended from a banana leaf, a bronzy hermit, a black-hooded antshrike, a family of white-faced monkeys, "Jesus Christ" lizards (they walk on water), and plate-size blue morpho butterflies that dance over our heads like iridescent cartoon characters. At Lana's suggestion, I am wearing a bathing suit, my lightest-weight running shorts, and reef sandals. Felipe has on shorts and a machete. He tells me he has never worn shoes in the forest, and to prove it shows me the thick brown soles of his feet.

The hike is a marathon, but worth it. That night I am both exhausted and euphoric. At nine o'clock when the lights go out, I take my towel, toothbrush, and flashlight, and head up the path to the bathhouse. The wind is warm as a breath, the moon hangs soft and full, and on the stone steps leading from the path a frog as big as a dog sits like a statue, surveying the night.

I Saved Lapa Ríoa for last, knowing that it will be my reward for a few days of almost roughing it. Just an hour from Carate by dirt road, but light-years away in comfort, Lapa Ríos is a three-year-old wilderness lodge that has been carved out of the jungle by its American owners, John and Karen Lewis. I radioed one of two local taxis—flatbed trucks outfitted with benches—for the ride from Carate, but most guests get here by flying into the small town of Puerto Jimenez, on the Golfo Dulce side of the Osa Peninsula. No matter how you reach Lapa Ríos, it's guaranteed that you will be thirsty and tired by the time you check in.

Karen Lewis knows this, and before I can introduce myself, a chilled glass of blackberry juice is pressed into my hand. Lewis is at the front desk, fielding guests' questions, and monitoring the radio—the only form of telecommunication on this part of the Osa. But somehow he manages to guide me through a detailed check-in procedure. I'm given a map with directions on how to get to my room, a brief history of Lapa Ríos, suggested hikes, and a quick look through the Lapa Ríos photo album.

Feeling grateful, I offer Karen my highest praise: "This feels like the ideal antidote to Manhattan."

"Mike Wallace said the exact same thing last week," she replies smoothly.

The Osa, it seems, has become the celebrity rain forest of the month. Mike and Mary Wallace, William and Rose Styron, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, and Woody Harrelson have all been to this incredible jungle. All were guests at Lapa Ríos, except for Woody, who stayed at Tierra de Milagros, the hippie-esque commune down the hill.

It is a long walk to my room—150 wide stairs down a dirt path, to be exact—in the shriveling heat. I try to imagine Julia and Susan making this same trek, but that doesn't make it any less daunting. My room, number 12, at the VERY bottom of the hill, is housed in a small thatch-roofed bungalow. What strikes me instantly is the sensuous simplicity: the lustrous cristobal wood floor, the two beds draped with white net canopies, the textured cane walls and screened windows. After the long journey my room makes me feel a bit like Julia in "Pretty Woman", during the part when she can't believe her good fortune.

The view drops over dense green foliage that fades into the blue Golfo Dulce. Louvered wooden doors open to a private terrace and a white stone path leading to my outdoor shower. In my garden, brilliant bougainvillea climbs a whitewashed wall; hibiscus, philodendron, and orange-and-green-speckled croton flourish.

After a few nights camping at Corcovado, Lapa Ríos seems wildly luxurious. But when I turn on the taps of my beautiful tiled bath, a few pathetic drops of water dribble out, then...nothing! No water in the sink, either. Later, when I limp back up the 150 steps and report my water problem to Karen, she admits, "We're in a constant battle with the jungle here, and the jungle is always winning."

You do have to be a bit more tolerant than usual. Most guests, however, seem to get in the spirit of the Osa and enjoy the little challenges Lapa Ríos sends their way. The couples in cottages 1 and 2, for instance, have the shortest walks to their rooms, but brag about being awakened every morning by the raucous hoots of howler monkeys. The man staying in number 4 is rumored to have survived a midnight run-in with a battalion of red ants.

A few people never get it. They complain about the hikes, the chicken salad that should have been a chicken sandwich, the lack of blow-dryers. These guests visibly frustrate the Lewises, who are here to educate people about the rain forest. Peace Corps volunteers in the late sixties, the Lewises had settled in the Midwest and raised a family before the conservation bug bit them. Seven years ago John Lewis quit his law practice and came to Costa Rica to go birding. He fell in love with the Osa and determined that a small-scale tourism project might be the key to protecting it. After liquidating their assets and selling everything, the couple moved to the jungle and broke ground. Now Karen puts in 12-hour days at the hotel, while John mans the office in Puerto Jimenez. They have no complaints: Lapa Ríos is booked through the high season.

As at Monteverde and Corcovado, the challenge for guests at Lapa Ríos is not what to do, but what to do in moderation. There are shaman-led hikes, morning bird walks, trips to an island orchid farm, sea kayaking excursions. The wise learn to limit themselves to one outing a day and save the rest of their time for recovering in the shade by the pool. Meals are served in a round thatched dining room with sides open to the breeze and wooden decks overlooking the jungle. Birds and monkeys congregate below, serenading diners like some New Age orchestra.

The menu, which elsewhere might appear limited, seems absolutely extravagant here. For breakfast there are exotic fresh fruits, plus banana pancakes served with a berry puree, or huevos rancheros, or omelettes. The lunch menu includes a spicy gazpacho, a wonderful grilled chicken sandwich, and the local casado: grilled fish, chicken, or beef with rice, beans, fried plantains, and tortillas. For dinner one night I had seviche, tequila-glazed shrimp, and chocolate flan; another night, hearts of palm cocktail, grilled red snapper with fruit salsa, and banana chocolate cake.

At night, with the light on, my room hums, clicks, and pulsates. Those elegant mosquito nets are more than decorative, I learn, as my room literally comes alive. I am as squeamish as anyone, but here the two or three beetles on the bathroom sink seem mildly interesting. A many-legged creature is camped out in my cosmetics bag, and a stick bug has crawled into my canvas duffel. (A small sign in our rooms warns us to keep bags zipped. I saw it too late.) There is a lovely, nearly translucent albino spider camouflaged on the white tiles of my shower (which works now), and a half-dozen other winged things are buzzing about my bedside candle.

After two days of signing up for early-bird walks and jungle hikes, I decide to try the two o'clock kayak trip, but by the afternoon it sounds too rigorous. When a striking, six-foot-tall Frenchwoman, the mother of three teens, tells me her massage has made her feel two inches taller, I ask for the next appointment. It is a heavenly hour in a screened room cantilevered over the forest—just the masseuse's soothing fingers, the sea breeze on my skin, and the sound of the wind in the trees.

After that I lose all track of time. I sit on the pool deck with the young French girls. It's quiet, late afternoon. There are no drink orders, and the waiters, little more than children themselves, really, shyly offer up delicate dead butterflies for us to admire. One has wings like an opalescent pastel watercolor; another, an electric-blue body. We sit and watch luminous clouds roll in over the ocean as first one, then two, then three big black toucans settle onto the bare branches of a nearby tree. We pass the binoculars around.

T&L senior editor Kimberly Brown realized she had to get to Costa Rica once all of her California relatives had been there and back. "The final straw was when my aunt and uncle bought a boat and spent a year cruising Costa Rica's Pacific coast." Brown was afraid the country might already have been tamed, but found plenty of liveliness left. She recounts her journey in "Something Wild." The best part of the trip, she says, was camping on the beach in Corcovado; the worst was discovering, two days into her visit, that her young sons back home had made off with her flashlight before she left New York.


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