Costa Rica: Swinging with Sloths

Osa, Costa Rica: December, 2021

Continued from: Costa Rica: Coconuts on the Playa

Costa Rica is the most biodiverse place on Earth, and nowhere is this more true than the Osa Peninsula, which doglegs out from the southwestern coast between Uvita and the border with Panama. This area of impenetrable and unbroken mountainous jungle is about a third the size of Rhode Island yet it contains 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity. That means that one out of every forty species on the entire planet can be found in a rainforest that is smaller than the city limits of Los Angeles. It’s no wonder Costa Rica protects so much of its land. In just a short time in country, we had already seen howler monkeys, macaws and toucans, countless swimming animals, and an ornery divebombing bat among others I’ve surely forgotten to mention, but with one day left before flying home we decided to book a canopy tour on the peninsula to hopefully catch some more.

Driving past Playa Ventanas, we followed the Costanera Sur until it left the shoreline and wound inland, curving through emerald foothills that alternated between dense rainforest and terraced farmland. In a river valley we stopped at the tour office, a long, newly built structure across a parking lot from a chicken coop. The only people inside were a woman in her forties and two preteen girls who were staring at phones in a way that hurt my neck just looking at it.

‘Fernando is going to get the zipline equipment’ said the woman in an accent from the northeastern US. ‘I think we’re the only ones on the tour. The four of us I mean.’ She pointed at her youngest daughter who had headphones in and was in her own world. ‘She’s scared so she’s going to stay here with Jimmy.’

‘Who’s Jimmy?’

Jimmy was Jaime and he was the man who walked in from the back and sat behind a desk at the front of the room. He looked to be the manager. It seemed a bit of an odd misappropriation of fear to leave your young daughter in a room with a guy whose name you got wrong in a foreign country because she doesn’t like heights but it wasn’t really our place to say anything. The other daughter was afraid to go on the tour too but not enough to stay back, just enough to audibly make that fear known to us all. This didn’t seem like a family vacation that was going particularly well but it was one we were reluctantly becoming a part of. Lauren and I checked in with Jaime and waited for the guides.

Fernando and Pablo walked in the front door with harnesses and ropes and warmly greeted the group. Still not used to the refreshing lack of formality, I was surprised when Fernando said ‘ok, everyone is here, let’s go!’

Lauren and I followed the guides and climbed into the bed of a white pickup, stepping on the top of a dusty tire and flipping onto upholstered benches arranged longways like those on a hayride. The woman who was with us, whose name was Emily, and her one daughter followed. The guides sat up front and we drove through the jungle, across an old bridge and then along a dirt road that followed to the right of a cascading creek. We circled upward above the makeshift treeline, where the forest foliage was replaced by steeply sloping open fields and copses of palms and bushes lining edges. We could see over the tops of the rainforest roof to the semi-distant Pacific Ocean on one side and the deep green emptiness of the Osa Peninsula on the other.

The road was occasionally bumpy and we would bounce up several inches and land back onto the benches when the truck would hit particularly deep gaps in the dirt, explaining the need for the soft upholstery. The road wasn’t terrible, certainly no worse than the one up to our Villa, but I could see this tour being difficult to conduct during the wet season. I didn’t completely mind the jolts and the noise as Emily was quickly becoming far too personal with what has been going on during this trip specifically and their lives in general, shouting above the clanging of rocks and dirt clods hitting the truck’s undercarriage. I felt bad for them, and clearly she needed somebody to talk to that wasn’t a preteen but eventually my responses became monosyllabic. Lauren had much more patience than I.

We left the farmland and entered a mountainous rainforest, similar to the one below but not quite as dense, as gargantuan trees had stymied a bit of the undergrowth in the centuries since becoming giants. Smaller palm leaved ones and splaying ferns hemmed in the road and dangled over exposed cliffs and it looked like photos I had seen of cloud forests or Andean foothills. Fernando stopped the truck beside an old wooden shack and Pablo got out and unlocked it. Inside was a dirtbike. He turned the key and it sounded like a cross between a chainsaw and a bike with a baseball card stuck in the spokes. He waved to the four of us in the back and headed further up the mountain, kicking up a rooster tail of dust as he went. We followed in that direction for another couple of minutes and then stopped to see Pablo under the shade of a tree with the bike and a half eaten banana, waiting by an entrance to a trail that led deep into the understory.

Fernando explained: The tour wasn’t a circuit, so basically, Pablo put the dirt bike into the back of the pickup once we were at the top of the mountain, then drove them both halfway down to where the tour ended, dropped off the truck, and then rode the bike back up and locked it in the shed. That way the truck is sitting there waiting for us at the end and we don’t have to walk up a thousand potentially muddy vertical meters to get the truck afterward.

While we waited for Pablo to come back, Fernando got us situated with the harnesses and gloves and helmets and quite literally showed us the ropes. The logistics of ziplining, the same everywhere, were explained and then we briefly practiced on a small practice cable tied between two trees. Like other excursions abroad, they were able to make it safe without treating us like children and having us sign a short story’s worth of paperwork. Soon a plume of dust and the rising hum of the dirt bike portended Pablo’s return, and we began hiking down the path. It was dim beneath the leaves and branches of the enormous trees despite the partly cloudy afternoon. Pablo led the way, followed by Emily and her daughter. Lauren was in front of me, her blonde pigtails swinging down from a sea green helmet. Fernando followed the group from the back.

As we began near the top of the mountain, the first zip was incidentally one of the longest ones. We crossed a wobbly rope bridge to a base that was attached about two thirds of the way up a massive tree trunk, straight and totemic, and about as wide as a car. The canopy was well above us, and the denser, lower jungle was at least a hundred feet below, so it really did feel like we were in midair. Emily and her daughter went first, the latter with some cajoling from Pablo, and then it was our turn. Lauren clipped in and dangled from the cable. After a wave of acknowledgement from his distant speck of a counterpart on the other side, Fernando told her to let go. With the scrape of metal on metal and a scream from Lauren, she was off soaring through the treetops.

We completed several lines, some short and steep, others longer and more slack. Before the longest one on the tour, Fernando told us that if we looked down and left, we would see a waterfall tumbling over the side of green cliffs about a thousand feet below. Once everyone else had made it across the verdant chasm, I stepped up onto the tree stump that acted as a stool and attached my harness to the cable, this one a bit more wobbly than the others since it traverses over a mile and a half from the side of one mountain to another. I slid through a window of leaves like a cave exit out of the canopy as I picked up speed and then was out over the edge of the first cliffs, above even the tallest branches of the emergent layer. The waterfall was to the left, as promised, and I watched two brightly colored birds soar between my dangling feet and the cascading falls, whose water sparkled in the tropical late afternoon. In the other direction was a V-shaped valley, mostly open, that led out to the expansive Pacific far outward and below. It was only about three PM, but the sun already looked like it was thinking about its nightly bath, the rays becoming longer and the reflection of the waves more pronounced than at midday.

This ride lasted more than a minute and after I had done a complete rotation while hanging from my clip taking in the view as a kind of live cyclorama, I saw that I was running out of cable and was heading full steam into the next tree stand where Lauren and the others were watching me rapidly appear through a leafy vignette. I raised my brake hand, snug in an old garden glove, and pressed on the cable to slow my progress, but overcompensated and ended up coming to rest in the trough. Lauren laughed and so did Pablo, as he climbed like a sloth down the cable to attach his hook to me and bring me up the rest of the way. 

‘Usually it’s the lightest people who get stuck on that one’ he said, still chuckling. ‘Nice work!’

After another couple zips and a few rappels, it was clear we were heading down into the thicker part of the rainforest. At one point, Fernando pointed up to the very top of the canopy. It was a brown ball on an empty branch that looked like a wasps nest in winter. 

‘What is that?’ Someone asked.

‘It’s a sloth’ said Fernando. ‘It’s sleeping, of course.’

From the rope bridge, we watched the animal for a while but it remained motionless in its perch, and so we continued on toward the end of the trail. A month or so later, Lauren showed me a video of a zipline tour in Costa Rica in which a rider with a GoPro slid down an exceptionally long line only to have to come to a sudden stop because a sloth was hanging on the cable, hundreds of feet from either end. With no choice other than to exhaustingly pull themselves back to the beginning and wait for the sloth to make its lazy way to either side, it turned into a very long day. I was glad our sloth decided to stay in the treetops.

The penultimate challenge of the tour was a hundred foot rappel to get back down to ground level. Pablo went first at the max-gravity rate of a dropped watermelon, slowing himself only at the last moment and hopping off onto the forest floor like an acrobat. He then controlled the rate of descent for the rest of us using a pulley and lever system. This is where he had his fun.

One by one we took our turn rappelling down and Pablo would start slow then unexpectedly drop us in a free fall, accelerating us toward the ground before tightening up the rope and allowing us to gently land laughing to himself each time the unsuspecting person shrieked at the sudden drop. He clearly tailored this to the comfort level of the patrons, however, and took it easy on Emily’s daughter while giving the rest of us a stomach lurching fall from the trees.

The tour ended down another trail similar to the first. We followed the guides and sidestepped mud and roots as we descended the mountain toward a lean-to where we would have a snack. This is where we saw our smallest wildlife sighting on the trip. Fernando waved us over halfway down where he squatted and pointed at the ground. 

‘It’s an ant fiesta!’ he said.

Thousands of leaf-cutter ants marched with their bounty across the jungle floor, each with an equally sized shard of greenery on their backs, surely carrying an entire palm between them. At a distance it looked as if the ground itself was moving upslope, like a miniature landslide in reverse. The ants themselves became invisible but their leaves swayed back and forth like sails in a busy harbor on a windy day.

The lean-to had a green plastic corrugated roof and three sides made of old wood planks with drawings of monkeys on them. The fourth side was open to the edge of the mountain, with rainforest-covered mountains in the middle distance and the grassy river valley and then the Pacific Ocean beyond. The evening clouds that are typically the harbinger of the daily rains had begun to form over the sea, but were still layered and incomplete, allowing the sun, which by now was giving no mistake as to its intentions, to exaggerate its last rays through the blurred apertures. We shared bowls of papaya and pineapple in the lean-to and looked out at the view while the guides set up the last part of the tour.

The ‘Tarzan Swing’ was tied to a tree branch well above the plastic roof of the lean-to, and Fernando strapped me onto the dangling rope using the clips from the zip lining harness and a loop at the bottom. Once secure, he pulled back the rope, stepping backward up several wooden stairs as he did so, and let me fly out over the cliff and above the canopy of the trees below. Like a bungee jump, the first time was the furthest swing and each subsequent lost a bit of magnitude, but I made up for this by letting go of the rope and hanging just by the clips, arms outstretched. Lauren went next, and then the others. Even Emily’s daughter, who swore she would skip this one, decided to give it a try. After a few rounds, the sun was creeping even lower and we had to get in the pickup and head back downslope.

Our last night at the villa featured yet another glorious sunset and also the best meal of the whole Costa Rican adventure. Lauren wore a red sundress and I put on what was surely the only pair of long pants to make it through customs that year, and we had reserved a table in the restaurant in case this happened to be the one night that our neighbors all decided to dine out. This was totally unnecessary however, and when we arrived through the dark courtyard, it was only Marlon standing in an otherwise empty dining area, our trip ending much the same way it began. He lit a candle and set it on the middle table and handed us the drink list. We chose a dry white.

‘You can eat a little slower this time’ he said with a smile.

We did exactly this. The meal started with lime cured ceviche with homemade tortilla chips. It was the perfect amount of spicy and citrus and may well have been my favorite food of the trip. Between bites we talked about our favorite moments on the trip, from the beach picnic after swimming in the reef to Tarzan swinging out over the mountainside just that afternoon. It was impossible to decide, but waking up that first morning in the villa and looking out the floor to ceiling windows at the unbroken jungle and the bright cerulean ocean was definitely near the top. I could have done without the irritating drive in or the tink frog, but the former melted away the first time head hit bed and the latter simply became another background noise of paradise. 

Marlon brought out the next courses, steak rubbed with local coffee and almond crusted tilapia, which we shared, and then we ordered dessert and finished the wine. It was an early night, the last one in a long night of similar, and in no time the sun was high and the whale tail was beginning to crest.

There was just enough time for one more Tico Breakfast, and I had no problem eating slower this time. Ana dropped off two Seidel-sized mugs of coffee. The howler monkeys began their echoing chorus and a toucan perched on the tree with the rope swing. The sun was already warm.

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