In the Heat of the Jungle

A Visit to Costa Rica in Three Acts

By Sara Gebhardt
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 6, 2000; Page E01


Sara, D.C. native, young professional

Lisa, New Yorker, young professional

Surfer, handsome, tan Venezuelan

Nina, little girl from Playa Hermosa

Congo, a dog

Doug, Canadian canopy tour guide

Carlos, Costa Rican canopy tour driver

Newlyweds Bill and Baby, middle-aged Texans



Deep in the rain forest near Puerto Quepos, en route to a high ropes course, also called a Rain Forest Canopy Tour

Scene 1

A lush green rain forest. A dirty light blue Chevy Suburban is on a primitive unpaved road running stage left to stage right. It is a winding, treacherous path cut through dense, green vegetation colored in spots with fuchsia and red flower blossoms.

As the curtain rises, the vehicle struggles over a shaky wooden plank bridge. In the front seat sits Carlos, the Spanish-speaking driver, and Doug, the Canadian tour guide. In the row behind them sit Sara and Lisa; in the back seat are the Newlyweds, Jim and Baby. Baby smokes nervously.

The rear end of the car begins to slip as it moves slowly uphill. Suddenly, Carlos stops the car. Doug jumps out and runs into the forest. He jumps back into the Suburban and turns, facing Sara, Lisa and Newlyweds. He holds out the red flowers he has just picked and passes one each to Lisa, Sara and Baby.

Doug: Here is the Costa Rican national flower. Wear it behind your ears.

Lisa: (suspiciously) Okay? (Lisa and Sara stick the flower stems behind their ears.)

Baby: (fumbling with her cigarettes, refusing the flower) Oh, that's okay. It's a pretty flower though.

Carlos: (yelling) OUT! (Carlos curses in Spanish, not realizing Lisa and Sara understand his panicked words.)

Doug: (calmly) Everyone get out of the car. We're going to walk up this hill. Be careful; it's muddy.

(The passengers jump from the Suburban. Baby lights another cigarette as the group watches Doug hurriedly attach chains to the vehicle's wheels. Carlos runs up the hill and removes several watermelon-sized rocks from the path.)

Carlos: (shouting) Okay, I'm ready. (Carlos deftly maneuvers the Suburban up the hill. Lisa and Sara race each other up the hill, slipping on the terrain. At the top, the passengers get back into the car. Carlos ignores the recent chaotic moment in which the Suburban almost slid backward down a hill.)

(Doug opens his palm to show some berries he picked during the walk up the hill. The ride has been punctuated by lessons in Costa Rican ecology and uses of rain forest materials: They've tasted a cinnamon plant, they've smelled the source of Chanel No. 5's scent and they've glimpsed a tree whose bark produces high-quality fax paper.)

Doug: (mashing the red berries in his hands) I'm going to paint you like Indians.

Lisa: What?

SARA: But. . .

(CARLOS and DOUG dip their index fingers into the berry mush in their palms, drawing large streaks on SARA and LISA's faces)

LISA: (laughing to SARA) You look so cute.

SARA: (to LISA) He painted my lips. What's up with that? How come Doug only put two streaks on your cheeks?

DOUG: Okay, we're almost there. Here, you all need to sign these forms before we get there.

SARA: (looking at the form) Liability forms? (Reading from the page): 'Remember: this tour is designed for fun. However, in the event of an accident. . .you are at your own risk.' This better be good!

JIM: Oh it'll be great. Right, Baby? (BABY lights a cigarette, her match the only illumintion as the stage goes dark.)


The group arrives at the tour company's little office in remote, thick woods. There is no electricity. SARA surmises that, even though only 11 families live in the middle of this rainforest, it must be considered a legitimate Costa Rican town as DOUG had described it; there is a soccer field, a church and a school.

DOUG and CARLOS help the adventurers strap tight harnesses around their bodies. The group is crowded on the first platform of the high ropes course, a small wooden plank in a treetop, 150 meters from the ground. They stand on the platform like statues, too frightened to move.

LISA: (amused) What is this? I thought we were going to see monkeys in the trees. I didn't know we'd be risking our lives.

SARA: (peering down) You know, the last time I was on one a ropes course was for a team-building exercise a couple of years ago. I was so scared to be even 6 stories high, and I felt old for the first time.

Hey, Lisa, you remember the sloth, iguana and monkeys we saw at Manuel Antonio National Park yesterday? And remember that strange guy without a shirt sitting on the side of the trail who called out, 'Girls, want to see a monkey up close?'

LISA (ignores SARA's reverie): I can't believe how high we are.

DOUG: Don't worry. It's really fun and easy. Make sure to lean back as you swing, and let your arms hang out to the sides. (DOUG clips their harnesses onto the wire. DOUG and CARLOS both gracefully ride the wire through the trees to the next platform, located downstage.)

BABY: Oh, God.

JIM: It'll be okay, Baby.

LISA: I just want to get this over with. (LISA lets go and zips across the wire and quickly reaches DOUG.) Oh, that was fun!

BABY zips across the line next, the group cheering 'Way to go'! Only SARA and JIM are left on the first platform.

JIM: (to SARA, in his rich Southern accent) You know, Baby is being such a good sport. We just got married, you know.

SARA: Congratulations. So this is your honeymoon?

JIM: Yes. We wanted the beach, and we wanted adventure. Sure got adventure, don't we?

First JIM, and then SARA, zip across to the second platform. The group zips across three more wires, becoming more confident with each platform. They are all perched on the last platform of the course, peering through far away trees at a orange iguana that CARLOS points out.

SARA: (to LISA) Piece of cake, si?

BABY: (looking down from the last platform, and clearly wanting a cigarette, which is not allowed on the course). We have to repel all the way down to the ground?

DOUG: It's not bad at all. Just keep your right hand under your butt at all times, and I'll control the rope from here. If you want, stop yourself midway down, and I'll swing you from side to side. When we get to the bottom, we'll go for a swim in the waterfall.

LISA descends quickly. SARA goes next, and when DOUG swings her as promised, her feet hit the branches of adjacent trees. LISA and SARA chat on the ground, finally finished with the thrilling course.

LISA: (beaming) Way to go, girl! That was soooo much better than seeing animals.

DOUG: C'mon guys. Let's go swim.

DOUG leads the group ten feet to the waterfall. They walk carefully over the rocks and immerse themselves in the cold, cascading water. The guides produce fresh pineapple chunks and all are laughing and bobbing in the water. Lights down.

ACT II Playa Hermosa, a black sand beach on Costa Rica's Pacific coast.

Scene 1. The set is centered on a hexagonal, open-aired thatch hut. Six hammocks line the perimeter of the gazebo-like structure, which sits on a sizzling black beach sand. In one corner is a wooden stump; on the ground next to it lie a hammer and the mushy, orange-green shells of a mysterious fruit.

Each evening around sunset, friendly travelers and wave-seekers crowd this hut and gaze at las olas -- the waves. Some come merely to watch nature's splendor while sipping down cans of Imperial's, a popular Costa Rican beer. As the tide becomes stronger and the sun buries itself into the soft clouds hanging in aqua sky, the surfers peel off one by one to tackle the waves.

Scattered around the beach are lush green palm leaves and colorful plants.

It is mid-afternoon, and the sun is bright. CONGO the dog lies on the concrete floor of the hut, exhausted by the heat. NICA dances around CONGO as she eats a dripping popsicle.

SARA is lying on a hammock and talking to the little girl as she tries to make CONGO play with her. A tall, muscular surfer wanders in, wearing flip-flops and surfing shorts. His hair is curly and light from the sun.

NIA: Have you met Congo?

SARA: Yes. He's a very tired dog, isn't he?

NIA: (smiling) Look, look! (She dances around the dog and drips some popsicle juice on him. He slowly rolls over and yelps. NIA screams with joy. (Exit NIA.)

SURFER: Hello.

SARA: How's it going?

SURFER: Pretty good. (SURFER places one knee on the woodblock in the corner and places a volleyball-sized fruit on the tree stump. He picks up the hammer and begins to pound on the fruit. SARA feigns sleep while sneaking peeks at the surfer's muscular back as he pounds open the fruit with steady strokes. Finally cracking open the fruit, he turns to SARA.

SURFER: Want some sweet milk?

SARA: (thinking she has found herself on a soap opera set and wondering why certain phrases sound so much more intense when spoken in Spanish). Yes.

SURFER: Here, drink this. (He hands her the huge fruit, and demonstrates how to drink from it by placing the fruit's flesh to his lips and slurping down the sweet water. A drop of the liquid slides down his chin. SARA takes the fruit and drinks. It seems like she cannot finish the endless liquid pouring out, but she gulps and gulps as the surfer's fixes his blue eyes on her and grins.)

SURFER: Do you like it?

SARA: Yes, it's good.

(SURFER hacks another fruit in half. He turns to SARA and offers more.)

SURFER: (showing her the inside of the fruit). Have you ever eaten this?

SARA: No, but it looks like a coconut. I've had coconuts before. (SARA wonders why her answers have become so simple. She also wonders if her friends are still swimming and if anyone is witnessing this moment. Even CONGO has evacuated the hut. The SURFER sits down on the hammock beside SARA. He opens the fruit, exposing its white fleshy insides. He takes part of the outer shell and scrapes out the flesh. He slurps down the fruit.)

SURFER: (smiling) That's how you eat it

SARA: (following SURFER's example) It's really sweet. Mushier than a coconut. Thank you.

SURFER: Look at those waves. (SURFER is captivated by the waves. Even the endearing way he says las olas, with a certain lilt, conveys his excitement as he prepares for a sunset surf.)

SARA: (still eating the fruit) I have never seen waves like these before.

SURFER: (smiling) I'll see you.

(SURFER grabs his board and runs to catch the waves for which he has waited all day. SARA continues to eat the fruit and rock quietly in the hammock. Curtain.)

ACT 3. Cahuita, a small, quiet Caribbean coastal town.

Scene 1. A beautiful white sand beach forms the perimeter of the set; the clear ocean extends into the distance. Occasionally in the water, the audience can spot tourists riding a banana boat, snorkelers trolling for neon fish or a sea kayaker patiently awaiting the intermittent waves. Tall, leafy green trees separate the beach from the set's interior. Iguanas slither at the base of these trees; howler monkeys swing in the treetops.

It is morning of the final day of LISA and SARA's vacatin. They sit on hammocks as they discuss whether to leave Cahuita, go to Panama for a day or go back to San Jose to view the nearby Poas Volcano.

MAN: (to LISA and SARA) You're going to Volcan Poas? It isn't so great. If you're going to see a Costa Rican volcano, you must go to Arenal.

LISA: But we only have a day, and Arenal is all the way. . . .

MAN: No, you cannot leave without seeing Arenal. It's the most impressive site you will ever see. You'll hear the volcano belch and purr as it spits out fiery lava. (He pauses, then breathes deeply.) Arenal is a treasure of Costa Rica; Poas is just a mountain in comparison.

SARA: Our flight leaves from San Jose tomorrow.

MAN: You can make it. It's worth the trip, and besides, it's something to see at night, so you have all day to get there. Cahuita's my home, and it is great, but you do not need to spend another day hanging out here.

LISA: (reluctantly) We should go.

SARA: Yeah, let's do it.

MAN: I'm going to Limon in 10 minutes to visit my father in the hospital. You can ride with me.

SARA, LISA, MAN and another passenger travel to Limon in MAN's rickety pick-up truck. Once in Limon, the bus headed to San Jose (off-stage) is pulling out. MAN yells to the bus driver and convinces him to wait for SARA and LISA.

Scene 2. Four hours have passed. SARA and LISA are in San Jose, where they plan to catch a bus headed for Arenal. They have taken a cab to the bus station across town, only to discover the next bus would not leave until 4 in the afternoon, which will not allow enough time to get to the volcano.

LISA: (frantic) Now what do we do? There are no buses going anywhere in that direction until tonight.

SARA: (frustrated) I don't know, we can't wait here for hours if we have to be in San Jose tomorrow afternoon.

(Pause, as the two ponder their bad timing.)

LISA: (brightly) We could take a cab.

Scene 3. A natural hot spring pool near the base of Arenal. As the steam rises in the cool night air around LISA and SARA, who are immersed the pool, they admire the volcano's spectacular spewing. Successive red-orange lava spurts flow from the volcano's mouth and slide downward over its bumps and crevices. The orange bursts of lava appear to befalling from the dead-black sky.)

LISA: (gazing with wonder) This is awesome.

(SARA shoots a look at the simulated waterfall across the pool, under which LISA now stands. Huge palm leaves and beautiful flowers surround this mini-waterfall. In the distance the lava is erupting in slow spurts.)

LISA: (out of the waterfall) That felt great. This water is so fresh. I feel so clean.

(The mountain is half-covered in orange lava trickles. The eruptions are becoming faster.)

SARA: The water feels so fresh and hot. (Thinking to herself for moment) The man in Cahuita was right. How could we leave Costa Rica without seeing this?

(Arenal suddenly belches a tremendous shot of lava. Bright fire-like molten lava covers the mountain. Thirty-second pause. Volcano Arenal spews a final, magnificent series of red-orange plumes of lava into the air. They brighten the sky, drop away and disappear from the stage.)


DETAILS: Costa Rica on a Shoestring

GETTING THERE: Fly into San Jose, a great base for travel to all parts of the country. Northwest, American and Continental are among the airlines offering connecting service to San Jose from the Washington area; round-trip fares start at about $500, with restrictions.

GETTING AROUND: I had no difficulty traveling from one place to another without a tour group, though many tours are offered. Bus travel, though varied in terms of comfort, is cheap ($3 to $5 for two- to four-hour excursions). The trip I took from Limon to San Jose was almost luxurious, with air conditioning and plenty of space; the bus from San Jose to Playa Hermosa, on the other hand, was hot and crowded.

Airplane and taxi travel, which is reasonably priced, are also popular, and rental cars are available--though driving seems questionable, since most roads are run-down.

Even if you don't speak Spanish, you can travel with ease throughout Costa Rica. Many tourists speak English, and Costa Ricans (ticos) are friendly and helpful. Most popular rain forests, national parks and beaches offer bilingual information.

WHEN TO GO: Late December to mid-April is the dry season, and hence the most popular time to visit. I went during the rainy season, and while it rained a couple of hours on most afternoons, the weather did not disrupt our activities. Off-season prices are lower and reservations at most places are unnecessary due to smaller crowds.

PLACES TO STAY: Quepos, near Manuel Antonio National Park, has numerous accommodations. The pleasant Costa Verde Hotel (Manuel Antonio, 1-888-234-5565, www.costaverde.co.cr), which legitimately boasts "still more monkeys than people," has a pool and spacious accommodations with dining rooms, kitchens, hot showers and balconies with ocean views. Off-season rates start at $85 a night.

Playa Hermosa, near Jaco, is renowned for its surfing. Because surfers come to stay a while, hotel and cabin owners are willing to negotiate prices. Safari Surf Las Arenas (telephone 011-506-643-3508), with cabins on the beach and a restaurant, is $12 a night, including a hearty breakfast. You can find nice, moderately priced bungalows with a beachfront view, pool and kitchen at Cabinas Las Olas (telephone 011-506-643-3687 or 415-776-7570, www.cabinaslasolas.com); rates are $40 to $50 for a double/triple room.

INFORMATION: Check the Costa Rica Lonely Planet guide in bookstores or its Web site (www.lonelyplanet.com/dest/cam/cost.htm) for information about eco-traveling and tips on where to stay and eat, regardless of your budget. For general information, contact the Costa Rica Tourist Board, 1-800-343-6332, www.costarica.tourism.co.cr.

--Sara Gebhardt

© 2000 The Washington Post Company