Originally published in the Post Register.
PUERTO LIMON, Costa Rica -- Even a heartbreakingly brief visit to Costa Rica can make you glad the planet has places like this.
Legend has it that its unassuming people didn't know they had received their independence from Spain until two years after it was granted. Now one of Latin America's most stable democracies, Costa Rica is a zoological wonderland, the source of everything from bananas to coffee.
But we are here to see wild plants and animals. We will not be disappointed.
Our bus trip from the Caribbean town of Puerto Limon takes us through banana plantations and rain forest. Our destination is the Tortuguero Canals, a series of natural and man-made canals near the Caribbean Sea.
Maria, our guide, is a Costa Rican biologist with a broad smile, able to answer every question that comes her way, from the Latin names for all the animals to historical trivia.
Our canal tour comes on the third consecutive rainless day, and Maria notes that the water levels are down a little. It seems a little bizarre to Idahoans experiencing a years-long drought that our Costa Rican friends are fretting about three rainless days.
We are surrounded by rain forest, full of wild banana trees and coconut palms, mangrove trees, various leafy hardwoods and spectacular orchids. We see the exotic heliconia caribeae flower everywhere we look.
As we board our boat afloat the brackish water, boys play in the canal nearby, apparently unconcerned that among the animals we'll seek out today are crocodiles that grow to 12 feet long. Thirty minutes later, we see our first, an eight-footer sunning itself on a sandy bank.
It's warm and muggy -- mid-80s and probably 90 percent humidity -- but mercifully cooler than it had been a day before in Costa Maya, Mexico. A breeze coming off the ocean a couple of miles away is welcome.
Within seconds of leaving the canal bank, our guides spot a basilisk lizard, nicknamed the Jesus Christ lizard because of its ability to race across water using its wide hind feet and tail. I zoom the camera lens all the way out, aim, let the auto focus find the critter, check the exposure setting, fire. Got it. On we go.
So it goes all afternoon. Over there, an egret. To the left, a mangrove forest. Up ahead, that's where they usually spot crocodiles. Sure enough, there are two, an adult and juvenile, sunning themselves. All around us is foliage every shade of green, stretching high above us over the water. Exotic butterflies flit in every direction.
Someone compares it to a Disney ride, only there's nothing artificial here. We reach the Atlantic Ocean and make a hairpin turn onto another canal that runs parallel to the coast. Here, fishermen living in a temporary makeshift shack are tossing nets. It's perhaps a quarter mile from where we spotted the crocs.
The boat's pilot brings us under some large trees where a group of howler monkeys is resting in the afternoon heat. Another group stares down at us from the treetops across the canal.
We see both two-toed and three-toed sloths, shy and unmoving bundles of fur in the treetops. (Maria tells us they leave the trees once every 10 days or so to defecate. Honest. She also claims they dig a hole, do their business and cover it up. I swear. She went to college and everything.)
Earlier that day we saw a sloth, encouraged to move by local youngsters shaking the tree and asking tourists for tips, slowly make its way in a city park at Puerto Limon.
Near the end of the tour, we come upon a pair of iguanas. My wife, Kathleen, spots movement in a nearby tree, which turns out to be a third, much larger iguana. He finds a spot on a cement wall along the canal bank and poses. Zoom, aim, focus, shoot. Got it. My favorite shot.
Our tour is over. What, no toucans? It's the only disappointment in an otherwise spectacular day.
On the bus ride back to Puerto Limon, Maria tells us she lives in the mountains three hours away, where the temperature is 75 degrees year round. I want to live there.
She says some freighter ships stop in Puerto Limon, unload their cargo and have it shipped by land to a port on the Pacific side to reduce weight-based tolls at the Panama Canal. She tells us there's really no difference between a Chiquita and a Dole banana -- they all come from the same plantations.
She says that Costa Rica has a literacy rate of 95 percent -- about the same as the United States. She says the bars on the windows of homes and stores in Puerto Limon are there to keep the TV sets from walking away -- that violent crime really isn't a problem here. She says that Costa Rica is made up generally of the middle class, unlike its neighbors Nicaragua and Panama.
My research later confirms that what Maria has told us is generally true, though with a per capita income of about $4,200, there's not much room for a big middle class. Still, that's double its Central American neighbors.
The Costa Ricans have protected large swaths of their spectacular land inside national parks. Elsewhere, much of the land is given over to production of coffee, bananas, coconuts, melons, citrus, chocolate and the odd illegal narcotic. Of course, we should be grateful for this abundance, since Americans are its chief beneficiaries.
This attempt at conservation (it isn't perfect -- much of the land is still privately owned and not permanently protected) has turned out to be a good thing for Costa Rica in more ways than an improved environment. Maria tells us that tourism is now Costa Rica's No. 1 economic driver, outpacing even agriculture.
I understand the allure. I'll be back.