They say that turning 40 is a milestone. You’re over the hill, middle aged, officially old. I may not feel old, look old, may not even be old in many people’s eyes, but it’s undeniably a big deal, the big 4-O. Turning 40 was a landmark of sorts for me, a nice neat number that demarcated a stage in my life. My 20s were for grad school, starting my career, and getting married. My 30s were having kids, buying a home, establishing a family. My 40s, who knows what that will bring, although I have my plans. So I thought it would be a good idea to celebrate this milestone, acknowledge this decade-long rite of passage, and live life. I headed with my family to Costa Rica, and I knew this would not be an Eat, Pray, Love-trip of such life-changing, albeit sappy, proportions; but what I didn’t know was that this adventure would become part of my psyche and spirit as I continue my days ahead.
Let me begin by admitting that I am a bit of an anxious person, and so setting off for a country filled with tarantulas and snakes and bugs with horns and venom and crawly jointed legs was going to be a challenge for me, I knew that, especially with my two boys, Sid, 10, and Frank, 7, in tow. I hated to imagine going mama bear on an army of ants, but in order to experience the splendor of nature, I had to abide.
We began our trip in Punta Leona near Jaco, an enormous resort with rainforests and oceanfront, so it was a good way to ease into the unbridled wilderness that is Costa Rica and we rode in at night. The entire country gets dark at 7 p.m. no matter the time of year, so that took some getting used to. An evening feast of seafood paella and crème brulee also helped to make my nerves a bit more settled, but still, I wasn’t sure what sort of terrain we were dealing with yet, as nightfall shielded my eyes from what I had imagined as an Indiana Jones-type setting rife with monstrous shelled beetles and writhing serpents.
Staying in the rainforest means awaking to moisture so dense the window in your room is like a bathroom mirror after a shower. Stepping outside was a revelation. The tree canopies towered overhead, taller than anything I had ever seen. Lush foliage of plants and flowers and trees and vines and bushes covered the ground like a multicolor carpet—emerald, scarlet, vermillion, amber, lime, fuchsia. I stood agape, listening to the cacophony of birdsong. Like an orchestra, they were different tones, some higher in pitch, some lower, but what was even more spectacular here was that they were different volumes as well—some from high in the canopy, some right at my feet. I was surrounded, and it was brilliant. My husband and sons stood pointing in all directions. Everywhere you looked there was something to see.
Eating breakfast in the outdoors, particularly in the Costa Rican rainforest, can be an exercise in defense. Even though we were served from an array of sumptuously foods, like rice and beans (the national dish), mango and papaya, queso, and even a funny-looking but tasty little fruit called a mamon chino which was like a guinep or a lychee, that still doesn’t mean you don’t have to defend your food like you’re fighting for survival. Descending from every corner of the latticed shelter were capuchin monkeys, vying for their share of croissants and toast. I’ve seen Night at the Museum, I know how these little creatures can be cute but thieving, so although I may have left to snap a few of them with my camera, as they came close enough to touch, I made sure to have my husband stay to defend our breakfasts. Some other diners weren’t as lucky as the monkeys made off with a few treats. Also descending from the nearby hill was a number of strange raccoon-like creatures that were skinnier and larger. I have come to learn that this specie is called a coatimundi, known to locals as the pezote (pronounced pay-zoe’-tay). They’re very cute and we were told that some tourists even try to pet the animals and soon find out that they bite and are more ferocious than they appear. I decided to steer clear and keep eating my fruit.
While in Punta Leona, we took part in a bird watching tour. Good thing, because even though these feathered creatures are everywhere, I can’t seem to see a single one of them on my own! Our guide pointed out a pair of scarlet macaws in a faraway canopy, a mandibiled toucan, roufous-tailed humming bird sitting on a wire, green heron, common tody-flycatcher, hoffmann’s woodpecker, orange-chinned parakeet, and a blue-crowned mot-mot. Suddenly I felt like a bird watching expert, having seen so many exotic species, however I would never be able to spot such elusive species by myself again, nor would I be able to identify them even if I did. “Hey look a big red bird!” I could exclaim, but that would be about the extent of it. Not that I wouldn’t like to be a big-time bird watcher, I just don’t have the recall for it.
Bird watching was definitely something I could get used to, as was taking a canopy walk. I like to walk, hike, do it all of the time in my native Indiana dunes, so why not here in the canopy? I had seen the foot bridges in the Costa Rican guidebooks, and I’m not afraid of heights, so we signed up and showed up bright and early to see the most flora and fauna. It was only after we had all put on our helmets and harnesses that I realized my idea of canopy walk and their idea of canopy walk are two different things. A canopy walk is another term for zip lining. As my two boys were thrilled beyond words at what lay ahead, I was speechless as well, and turning back, I soon realized, was not an option if I ever wanted to be mom of the year. Was it spectacular? Yes. Was it exhilarating? Yes. Was it the mental edge of the precipice to watch your little baby sweet pea honeybuns you love with all of your being rocket, held only by what appears to be a thread, across an abyss of trees and sky, high enough in the air to require waivers to be signed? Yes. After being asked about a dozen times if I was okay, by our guides and everyone else in the tree, I finally let myself ease a little, enough to appreciate what I had then determined would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We decided to head up to Monteverde, up in the mountains, inland in the cloud forests, and on the way we stopped at a bridge over the Rio Tarcoles. Cars were parked along the side of the two-lane road as others whizzed past at dizzying speeds. We parked too and walked, single file, along the narrow roadside to the center of the bridge. There below was a herd, a gaggle, a pack—whatever they call a large group of crocodiles, all wading in the shallow current of the brown water. I had never seen a crocodile in the wild before, let alone so many. I counted and there were over a dozen. We stood, peering over the edge of the handrail, as someone a few yards away threw pieces of bread at the explosive entourage below. The beasts went from looking like peaceful logs in the water to snapping razors in a split second. Nothing entertains more than two young boys, nothing except a zip line perhaps, than a bunch of crocodiles ferociously attacking food. So when a few of the crocodiles turned their attention from the sailing pieces of bread to a nearby purple gallinule, a bird that was a strange combination of indigo, green, and yellow chicken, my sweet pea honeybuns suddenly turned into savage Romans rooting for a gladiator. No matter how stealth the crocodile, though, the avian acuity was far more keen.
Monteverde was a bit treacherous to get to. Those Costa Rican roads aren’t exactly what I would call a road. It’s more like a bunch of boulders strewn together with some dirt with a crater thrown in every yard or so. And it’s about as wide as one car—that is all. So when another car comes to pass from the other direction, moving over means hanging from a cliff or driving into a mountaintop cow pasture or entering into the fields of coffee bushes. During one of these passes we actually spotted a boa constrictor attempting to escape the nearby roadside weed whacking crews armed with gas-powered saws and machetes, and by the look of it, he had already been wounded, perhaps fatally.
Settled into our cabin in the Monteverde forest where a mother sloth napped in the canopy with her baby on her chest, we ventured out at dusk to start a flashlight safari, just in time for the night rains in the cloud forest. Drenched from head to toe, we spied a sleeping keel-billed toucan with her colorful beak taking shelter under a cluster of leaves, two kinkajous playing on a branch in the canopy, two side-striped vipers coiled around a tree branch, a mammal called an agouti that looked like a small capybara, a red tree frog, and a tarantula in its hole. Our guide pointed these creatures out with his flashlight and I never felt afraid, even when I saw the tarantula. Instead I felt like I was seeing something that humans rarely see—the rainforest at night, hidden under cover of nightfall, the time when the nocturnal emerge and the diurnal sleep.
But Costa Rica is wild. It is not always led to you by a guide, and so there were times on our travels when I didn’t have the pleasure of viewing the deadly and creepy from afar, and in fact, there were times when they were right in my face. I had just finished lazing about in hammock outside our cabin in Cahuita, a small town on the Caribbean-side of the country, when I decided to go exploring with my camera. Looking up in the trees for birds and sloths, down on the ground for leaf-cutter ants, and next to me for agouti or paca, I sauntered smack into a massive web of fine, delicate silk stretched like kite string on the wind. I knew what this meant. Spider! I ran screaming backward, swatting the air, swatting my hair, flinging my arms in a crazy dance as if I were on hot coals—“Get it off me!! Get it off me!” I was able to focus on the area of my retreat and there saw a tangle of scurrying skeletal-like legs clamoring for a grip, swinging from a bungee of web. I learned later that this three-inch specimen was called the golden orb spider. I would never acquire an appreciation for her, despite our close personal relationship.
Spiders and snakes may be creatures of acquired acceptance or admiration, but I preferred to focus on the aspects of Costa Rica that didn’t require so much effort and, in my estimation, were teeming with more grandeur and splendor, like the still-active Poas volcano. The fumeroles expelled billowing plumes of white sulfuric clouds next to a calm turquoise lake in the caldera. I also preferred the hills of cattle nestled among the coffee plantations and guava trees, pastoral scenes of the simple life as we climbed the crater-ridden roads. I favored the morpho butterflies whose iridescent azure wings never failed to catch my eye, the golden star fruit that grew in such abundance they dropped from trees like rays from the sun, the hot springs that soothed my skin with warm waters from the earth.
Perhaps above all though, Costa Rica’s beauty came from its people. In greeting to one another, stranger and friend alike, they exclaim, “Pura vida!” This means “pure life,” and it is not a marketing slogan, it is a way they live. It is a humble life, an exposed life, an exuberant and enthusiastic life. But it is also a compassionate life, because they give this greeting to you. With this same sentiment, instead of a common “you’re welcome,” or a “de nada,” they respond, “con mucho gusto,” which means “it’s my pleasure.” This is a difference that is not subtle. It reflects the gracious giving nature of the people of Costa Rica. They do not try to appease because they want a tip or money, like many other countries I’ve visited. They treat visitors like they are family. They have a reverence for their land and a devotion to all people who live on it. This is a sentiment, a way of life, that I will take with me as I live into my 40s and beyond, more extraordinary and impressive than a walk into a spider web or a glimpse of a scarlet macaw. It is a gift the Costa Rican people have given me—the gift of simplicity, respect, humanity, curiosity, and living with passion.