Posted by: ktzefr | March 16, 2010

Dreaming on the Sarapiqui: Family Ecotourism in Costa Rica

“Mornings dawn like one great rosy opening after another…” ~ Yolanda Oreamuno (Costa Rica)

Beans and rice, rice and beans.  Morning, noon, and night.  Scrambled eggs on the side at breakfast, roast chicken on the side for dinner.  Ripe papaya, mango, pineapple.  Birds on the wing, monkeys on the swing, sunlight slipping down through the trees.  We find moments of pure bliss on the Sarapiqui…

Home away from home in Costa Rica, the Centro Neotropico SarapiquiS sits on a high ridge above the Sarapiqui River with a bird’s eye view of the Tirimbina rainforest reserve.  The palenques (ranchos) are built in the traditional, indigenous pre-Colombian style that has been used by native peoples for more than 1,000 years.  The circular design symbolizes the circle of life.  In addition to guest rooms, some buildings house an education center and the largest on-site museum of rainforest ecology and indigenous and pre-hispanic history in Central America.

No airconditioning, but it’s not really needed.  The building’s cone-shaped roof and the ceiling fans keep the rooms comfortable.  An inner door opens into a shared inside courtyard area and another opens onto private porches that circle the building.  It’s peaceful here.  The air is filled with the scent of a million flowers.   I sit on the porch and watch rain drip from the thatched roof.  It rains every day, sometimes several times a day.  In between the alternating showers and downpours, the sun comes out bright like a day at the beach.

Birds are everywhere.  Tanagers, kiskadees, bananaquits flitting through the orange grove.  Anhingas look for fish down by the river.  Sometimes they eat the baby turtles and snakes.  There are toucans and flycatchers and Montezuma’s Oropendolas that build pouch nests that hang from the trees like purses.  Little platforms sit amongst the low branches mounded with overripe bananas and slices of papaya for the birds and animals. There are more than twice the number of bird species in the small country of Costa Rica than in all of the United States.  Hummers are plentiful, but it’s pure luck when you can get close enough for a clear shot of one of these flying gems.

We catch a sunny moment between rains and head into the reserve…

No one lives in the Tirimbina.  The suspension bridge stretches 260 meters across the river, a hundred feet above the rapids, swinging from steel cables.  At river’s edge white orchids and bromeliads grow in the treetops.

Everything is dazzling wet with rain.  We follow a trail to a clearing in the forest where a stream from the river empties into a natural pool.  A few people jump into the water; the rest of us explore, take photos.  One of the guides cuts a stalk of wild guava for us to taste.  It looks like sugarcane, but with vertical ridges top to bottom (like a churro!).  He breaks the cane open and removes a seed.  It’s large, oval shaped, and covered with a white meat that resembles the softness of marshmallow.  Sweet and stringy, it’s sort of like eating mango flesh close to the seed.

The guava tasting ends abruptly when one of the caretakers at the center finds a baby hognosed pit viper and traps it in a glass jar.  The snake is brown and has a triangular-shaped head with the tip of the snout upturned.  Very poisonous, he says.  And in some species the baby snake’s venom is more potent than the venom of an adult.  One of the kids thinks he sees a snake in the water and everyone is out of the picturesque pool in a flash.

Parrots fly high overhead, identifiable only by their chatter.  Another rain shower starts and stops.  The foliage is so dense that we can hear the rain in the tree canopy above us, but it never reaches the forest floor.

An owl-eye butterfly clings to the side of a tree.  The huge spot that resembles an eye offers great camouflage to keep predators away.

Butterflies of every color and stripe flit in the gardens and forest and along the riverbanks.  My favorite is the giant blue morpho, as big as a small bird, with blue metallic wings that glisten in the sun.  Too beautiful to take my eyes away long enough to mess with the camera.  Better a missed photo than a missed sighting of this gorgeous creature.  Costa Rica is a land of butterflies.  There are more species in this tiny country than in all of Africa!

Most animals blend in with the surroundings and they’re hard to spot.  On a boat ride down the river our guide points out some long-nosed bats stuck to a big tree on the riverbank.  No one can see them, so we move closer.  They are the color of the dark splotches on the bark.  All of a sudden, there they are — a whole cluster of bats!

Turtles blend in, too…

Iguanas, lizards, basilisks, and other like creatures disappear into the foliage, but when a critter decides to come out and sun himself for awhile, he shows off those rich, brilliant colors.  (Be sure to double click on the pic to see this fellow’s pretty turquoise face.)

The Centro Neotropico SarapiquiS was built on an old orange plantation and there’s still a good-sized orange grove.  Banana trees grow in the botanical gardens, along with guava, chayote squash, and a bush-vine with berries that look like grapes.  There are hisbiscus plants, orchids, bird-of-paradise, too many colors and too many scents to count.

Outside our palenque, the kids play with the mimosas.  The mimosa pudica plant is considered one of the most unique plants in the world.  It is small, frilly, and fern-like and grows close to the ground.  When you touch the mimosa the petals curl around your finger the way a baby grips an adult’s finger when touched.

This area has a variety of habitats, from virgin tropical wet forests to swamps, creeks, rivers, pastures, and agricultural lands.  At little roadside stands people sell just-picked pineapples and bananas and hearts of palm — plastic bags and long stalks are stacked up alongside the road.  Generally, when hearts of palm are harvested, the tree dies, but here in Costa Rica, they continuously plant new sprigs beside mature palms, so when one plant is harvested another takes its place.

The closest town is Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, a small port town with a dock where river boats depart for nearby settlements. There are no roads to many of these places, so locals take boats or ride horses into town for food and supplies.  Some boats are motor-driven dugout canoes.  The river goes through the jungle and connects with the San Juan River on the Nicaraguan border.  You can then travel the San Juan east and connect with other waterways all the way to the Caribbean…

Above us fruit falls like big blobs of rain…howler monkeys swinging through the trees, eating figs, and dropping the remains.  Behind us in patches of light, silvery machaca fish dance in the water.

Black vultures circle overhead and we wonder what they’re after.  In the tropics these birds are important scavengers around the towns and villages, cleaning up the garbage.  Locals laugh and say the vultures perform at least as much work as the sanitation department!

Afternoons along the river are pleasant and lazy.  The kids play soccer in the rain and search for frogs.  For the grownups…a glass of wine, a cup of tea, the time to watch trails of rain drip from the palapa roof…a great place to BE in the moment, as well as daydream about what the next moment might bring.  Oops!

It has been said that Costa Rica offers more beauty and adventure per acre than any other country on earth.  I agree!


See also:

Horizontes Nature Tours, Costa Rica (knowledgeable guides, superb tours)

Pura Vida: Family Ecotourism in Costa Rica, from Transitions Abroad

Volunteer opportunities in Costa Rica with Earthwatch Institute

The best ecotourism family travel adventures with Thomson Family Adventures

More info about Centro Neotropicos SarapiquiS and the Tirimbina Rainforest Reserve


Order TO COME AND GO LIKE MAGIC in hardcover, paperback, or e-book from the following booksellers or from one of your favorite stores:


Barnes & Noble


Powell’s Books




  1. Katie,
    Terrific pictures and great descriptions. You are broadening my horizons.

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