I celebrated my New Year in Central America visiting Costa Rica with my family. Costa Rica is a tremendous adventure vacation destination with zip lines through the forest canopy, whitewater rafting, surfing, waterfall rappelling, parasailing and many more thrilling activities for the bold and daring traveler. Personally, I was more looking forward to the flora and fauna of one of the most diverse natural areas on earth. Only about the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica contains one of the most significant and notable natural environments on the planet containing nearly 5% of the entire earth’s biodiversity. What a destination for anyone who considers themselves a nature lover!
Approximately 20% of Costa Rica's territory is preserved as National Park or Reserves, including two parks declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Immediately my attention was captured by blooming Heliconia, Torch Ginger and Bird of Paradise plants growing in seemingly every nook and cranny. I had previously associated these brilliantly colored tropical flowers only in contemporary cut flower arrangements so to see them so widespread in this rainforest environment was an absolute delight.
The busy city of San Jose (population 1.3 million) is located in a valley which technically isn’t a valley but an immense caldera. Surrounded by volcanos in various stages of activity (our flight out was delayed by a minor eruption), this is where a large percentage of the entire country’s 5 million people live. Leaving the city center we climbed into the surrounding mountains entering an agricultural region heavily populated with coffee plantations. Other major crops include palm oil, rice, bananas, plantains, pineapple, sugar cane and other tropical fruits. Approximately 10% of land in Costa Rica is farmed and 14% of the workforce is employed through agricultural activities.
The most popular destination in Costa Rica is Manuel Antonio National Park which is also the smallest national park in the country. Located on the Pacific coast just south of the city of Quepos, this park hosts 150,000 guests annually and was listed by Forbes as one of the world's 12 most beautiful national parks. Wildlife here includes 109 species of mammals and 184 bird species.
All of us were looking forward to visiting Manuel Antonio but each of us had different things we were looking forward to seeing. My daughters were most looking forward to the beach and hoping to see sloths up close. My wife wanted to see Spider and Howler monkeys while I was hoping to see some snakes and, of course, many different types of plants.
We were met (very early) at our hotel by our driver Jorge (most every driver in Costa Rica seemed to be named Jorge) and our guide Glenda. Glenda was almost 5’ tall with blue hair and a very large monocular on a tripod to help sight wildlife. As we approached the park gates we could see the giant crowd of people waiting to get in and a long walking path, about 20’ wide, also full of people making their way into the park. This is not what I had expected! This crowd, this commotion was not what I had anticipated in a guided nature hike. How were we to see anything interesting… how were we to enjoy these beautiful surroundings within this mob scene? No sooner than we passed through the gates Glenda had her eyes in the forest and captured her first wildlife sighting. Carefully adjusting her tripod and looking through both binoculars and her monocular her excitement grew as she dialed in her first discovery of the day; a bat hidden inside the curled leaf of a Traveler Palm tree. How did she find that? There is no way I would have ever seen that bat without her help. Another guide points out to Glenda a giant grasshopper on a branch in the forest. In the monocular this animal is found to be exquisitely detailed in its vibrant exoskeleton. Next an Iguana on a high tree branch, then a spider- scorpion… or was it a scorpion-spider? I can’t be sure but it was only 2” long and the same color as the dirt it sat upon… how did she see that? A military-like progression of leaf cutter ants form a line from high in the trees, across the path into the earth where a colony can reach the size of a basketball court. Tree frogs, lizards, hummingbirds and spiders are found for us by Glenda all amongst the many other travelers, in this vast crowd of visitors all equally unaware of these natural wonders without the assistance of their trained and cooperative guides.
What a thrill… what an amazing adventure we were having and we hadn’t yet seen any of the highlights we had been hoping for. I had completely forgotten the crowds and found myself focused on the tiny details of the forest trying to spot the next unique creature. Eventually we did see all the major sights we had hoped for; Scarlet Macaws, Toucans, Monkeys and numerous sloths.
It wasn’t until I got back home that I fully gained a true appreciation for my Manuel Antonio experience. Without Glenda, our trusted and skilled guide, our experience would have never met our expectations, would have never reached its potential. In fact, I may have turned myself around when I first saw that crowd of people if it wasn’t for already having the tour set (and paid for) ahead of time. Coming in, I was expecting something completely different. I anticipated a dynamic experience with the flashy sights I saw in tour books and web sites. What I got was a greater appreciation for the smaller things that surround us often unseen and unappreciated. Only with the assistance of a skilled and trustworthy guide was I properly focused to see, to discover and realize the full extent of the beauty that I was surrounded by.
I guess, in many ways, visiting the rainforest on that day may be similar to the way we travel through our everyday lives. We are often burdened with preconceived expectations too ambitious to realize along with a rigidness that keeps us from appreciating anything out of our comfort zone. We may not recognize or appreciate the guidance available that can help us to appreciate the little things that make our lives truly special. I know that I have often resisted seeking guidance feeling it was a sign of weakness or an admission of defeat. My visit to the rainforest has shown me the value of sound counsel that can help me better see what blessings I have available to me.
Whether it be a family member, clergyman/woman or just a good friend, I urge you to seek out that guide with the vision and experience that can help you find all the treasures 2017 has to offer.