Our friend, Carolyn, was on a whirlwind, 24-hour visit from Hawaii (see the Surprise Visitor from the States post) and we decided we would all take a rainforest tour. We scoured lots of different tour packages and decided to go with one that has an aerial tram system to take you through the different levels of the rainforest.
Carolyn was due in at the San Jose airport at 5:40am (10/26). We were taking the first bus (6:00am) from Atenas that stopped at the airport. Since it takes about 45 minutes to get to the airport from Atenas, we figured we would get there about the same time she was finishing up with Immigration and getting her checked luggage. Why would she have checked luggage for a 24 hour visit? Because we had asked her to bring some things from home for us and take back some things we found we didn't need.
We got to the airport, fully prepared to meet Carolyn in case there was a crowd - Tina had even made a sign. However, Carolyn was already outside the airport, waiting for us. Her flight had arrived early and it was very quiet at the airport, at that time on a Sunday morning. All three of us hopped aboard the shuttle for Carolyn's nearby hotel. At the hotel, Carolyn checked in and stored her luggage at the front desk (it was too early to get in her room). We walked next door to our favorite Walmart, opting to get breakfast at their little food court rather than paying $17 a head for the hotel's breakfast buffet.
The tour van showed up at the hotel about 9:00am. We were the first pickups for the tour and we hopped aboard the normal-sized passenger van, claiming the first-class section (the front bench seat). The driver spent about an hour driving around to pick up the other 4 passengers (7 of us in total) and we headed out of San Jose. We drove out into the countryside, then up and up and up - into the low-hanging clouds. From what I read, we went over the continental divide and down the other side. The weather, which started out pretty nice in Alajuela and San Jose, was now rainy and "socked in," as we made out way over the mountains. It was overcast but not raining when we reached the 1,200 acre private reserve where Rainforest Adventures operates. The preserve borders Braulio Carrilo National Park. Here's the geography:
We hopped off the van, with our small backpack, umbrellas, rain jackets, cameras (still and video). Carolyn didn't have a rain jacket but did bring an umbrella. We were led to a small, open air pavilion to see a short video about the rainforest, biodiversity, sustainability, etc. Then we met our guide, Leo ("lay' oh" in Spanish) and headed for the aerial tram boarding platform. On the way, he pointed out one of the local inhabitants, on a large leaf just off the walkway: a small pit viper (don't remember the name of it).
Seven of us boarded the tram car, including Leo, and headed off into the rain forest. The tram is designed so you start out fairly low to the ground. This is considered the Rainforest Floor (Level 1). Down here, the vegetation gets very little sunlight and things grow slowly. As the tram progresses, it moves higher up into the Understory Layer (Level 2). On the return trip, the tram travels above and through the Canopy and Emergent levels of the rainforest - the treetops. The tram trip covers about 2.6 km round trip and takes about 1.25 - 1.5 hours (a pace of about 2 km per hour). Leo narrated the entire time, pointing out specific aspects of the forest and answering questions. Here are some short videos to give you an idea of what it looked like on our way out (Level 1 and Level 2). Watch the videos in High Definition (HD), if you can (settings at bottom of video frame):
Tina and I were swapping cameras during the day, between the video camera and still camera. Here are some photos from the trip "out":
Unfortunately, about the time we got to the turn-around point of the tram (the top), it really started to rain. We got off the tram and Leo, our guide, took us up to a lookout point which, on a clear day, would certainly have an incredible view. On this day, though, we had to use a little imagination. It was a short hike from the tram platform.
We hiked back down to the tram platform and boarded a tram carriage for the ride back. It was still raining quite hard. The good news is that the tram cars have a canopy over the top, to keep out the rain. The bad news is that the car we got had an old canopy, with a considerable number of leaks. The seating is quite tight on the tram and you really don't have room to move around. If you happened to have a leak above you, you were just going to get wet. A jacket only covers your arms and torso. Since we were sitting, pants, backpacks, etc. ended up exposed to the rain. The ride back down was not quite as fun, but it was still amazing to be gliding through the treetops. The pictures aren't quite as good, due to the rain.
Arriving back at base, we were a little soggy and definitely hungry. Leo directed us to the open-air dining area, where the staff served up a hearty lunch from the buffet. As you can see from the picture below, it was not busy at all. October is know the be the rainiest month of the year and definitely off-season for tourists. It did mean we got a little more specialized attention, though. The itinerary left us plenty of time to peruse the sizable gift shop, of course. Carolyn decided that a rain pancho (which they just happened to sell in the gift shop) was a good investment.
Leo rejoined us for a walking tour through the rain forest floor. Here we got to see a lot of plants close-up and learn about the lifecycles in this part of the forest, as well as the fascinating relationships between the many, many species that cohabitate here. One of the coolest inter-species relationships was explained and demonstrated by Leo during this part of the tour (see Learning Moment, below). Pictures from our walking tour:
The LAST part of the tour (are you tired yet?) was the Butterfly and Frog Garden. This enclosed area had numerous butterflies flying around and a number of glass terrariums containing some of the tree frogs (poisonous) that seem to be rainforest celebrities. They would be difficult to find out in the wild, since most of them are quite small. I wasn't able to get very good pictures of them, through the glass case, but you can get an idea of what they look like.
When we finished walking through the butterfly/frog exhibit, we walked over to "base camp" where our original van/driver picked up 6 damp, tired passengers. The drive back over the mountains was still rainy and foggy but it cleared up as we got closer to San Jose and Alajuela (where Carolyn's hotel is located).
One disappointment for all of us was the lack of visible wildlife. The rainforest is home to lots of critters and we were hoping to see some monkeys, sloths, birds, etc. However, when it rains almost all the animals stay "inside," or at least out of the rain (and out of sight).
As promised, I wanted to share the coolest thing we learned during the tour - a unanimous favorite. As you've seen from the previous pictures, almost every tree has other plants growing on it - some are parasites, some are beneficial, some just find it convenient. Leo pointed out one tree that had absolutely nothing foreign growing on it. He explained that the tree has a hollow core and lots of little nooks and crannies in the trunk. So why wouldn't other plants take advantage of this? Because ants love this tree. They live in the hollow core, where they are protected. The tree also produces a sugary substance the ants eat. Free room and board for the ants? Not quite. In return for the tree's hospitality, the ants provide protection for the tree. If any animal tries to climb the tree, the vibration will alert the ants and they will pour out of every crevice and hole, swarming the unlucky climber. This is a big deterrent. Any foreign plants that try to grow on the tree will be summarily trimmed off by the ants. What an amazing symbiotic [college not wasted on me] relationship! To demonstrate how this works, Leo just pounded his hand on the tree trunk a few times. Within seconds, ants were swarming all over the trunk! Check this out:
After I shot this video, Tina even picked off a couple of ants that managed to get on me (do you feel something on the back of your neck?).
When we got back to Carolyn's hotel, she was able to check into her room - a nice, dry, room. Anticipating that we might get wet in the RAIN forest, Tina and I had packed some dry clothes to change into - a very welcome relief. We unpacked the things from Carolyn's suitcase that she had brought for us (it was like an early Christmas!) and we packed the stuff we were sending back into Carolyn's suitcase for the return trip. Tina's favorite arrival was a stash of dark chocolate. For some reason, it is very hard to find here (and very expensive when you do). Tina and Carolyn had to sample it to make sure it hadn't spoiled during the trip. Tina was also the recipient of a new cap, which she really likes.
The three of us went out to a nearby restaurant for dinner - Mexican food, believe it or not. Then we went back to the hotel, where we chatted and got caught up on everything until it was time for us to catch a taxi to the Alajuela bus station. We were taking the last bus back to Atenas, at 10:30pm. Quite a long day, since we got up at 4:30am. Carolyn, however, had spent the previous night on a red-eye flight, so we couldn't complain.
Carolyn was supposed to be catching a flight back at about 7:30 in the morning (ugh!). However, she decided she would stay over an extra day and see if she could see some sights in San Jose - a very historic city. [We heard from her the next day that she was able to get on a city history tour and had a great time.] She flew back to Maui on Tuesday.
Posted by Mark (whew!)