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An aerial view shows the remote, wild environs of the eco-resort Playa Nicuesa in Costa Rica.

, Playa Nicuesa

Nicuesa’s private open-air cabins allow enjoyment of the sights, sounds and smells of the jungle, in comfort.

, Playa Nicuesa

River kayaking offers a fresh view on wildlife, including crocodiles.

, Playa Nicuesa

An aerial view shows the remote, wild environs of the eco-resort Playa Nicuesa in Costa Rica.

, Playa Nicuesa

Unplugged, by land and by sea, in Costa Rica

  • Article by: KRISTIN TILLOTSON
  • Star Tribune
  • February 12, 2011 - 2:54 PM

At 4 a.m., an unholy sound burst from the jungle, the throaty roar of a wounded dragon on a rampage.

I adjusted my mosquito netting, rolled over and shut my eyes again. It was only Day Two of my Costa Rican adventure, but I knew it was just the howler monkeys, performing their wee-hours routine outside my window.

Surrounded by dense foliage and 40-foot trees, I took a deep breath of air freshened by a short, heavy rain shower. I was embedded in a jungle -- and also a real bed, soft and clean, with white sheets.

For a first visit to Costa Rica, my sister and I chose the Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge not just because it had been recommended by a friend and named one of the country's best eco-lodges by several travel sites. We liked it because it offered both jungle and ocean activities, and because it was cut off from civilization without being entirely devoid of pampering amenities.

Located on the border of a national preserve on Golfo Dulce near the southern tip of the country, it's about as wild as you can get and still spend your downtime in relative luxury: three fresh, chef-prepared meals a day, chats with other guests over happy-hour cocktails and private, open-air cabins set up for a good night's rest (except for those monkey serenades and the occasional fist-sized spider visitor).

That morning, on a solo hike before breakfast, I passed fragrant, pink-bloomed wild ginger, giant orchids and hibiscus, a few lizards and a huge toad. A small band of peccary pigs, whose rank scent preceded them, made contented, gurgly snorts as they scuttled across the trail in search of new foraging territory. Snapping my head up in response to rustling far above, I caught a glimpse of the prehensile tail of a monkey. Farther up the hill, a great curassow, a sort of punk-rock turkey with a Mohawk crest, lurched from behind a tree, then back again when it saw me. Just another typical morning up the mountain behind the lodge.

Still, you have to work for your wildlife sightings. If spying on a maximum number of creatures is a primary goal, going it alone is preferable to a noisier group hike -- although a guided orientation the first day is a good idea, both to get your bearings and benefit from the guides' wealth of knowledge about trees, plants and animals.

More than 130 snakes are native to Costa Rica, yet I didn't see one until the last day -- a 6-footer half-stretched, half-curled along a tree limb I had to pass under. It was a rat-eater, I found out later by looking it up in one of the lodge's many wildlife books, but was still glad I hadn't disturbed it.

Kayaking with the crocs

I heard a soft thunk as my kayak paddle connected with something solid in the water.

"Sorry about that," I said to the guy paddling just behind.

"Wasn't me," he replied.

"Crocodiles ahead," called our skipper, Tomas, from his nearby boat. And also underneath, I thought, making a mental note to heed the sign back at Nicuesa's beach: "No swimming after 5 due to crocodile."

We had been transported to a nearby river that morning, where we floated downstream in a gentle current, taking detours down canals. The river trip affords a different landscape, with views of giant mangroves and local fishermen and river dwellers passing by.

Now and then a small flash of blue darted past, so bright it looked neon in the daylight. "The blue morpho butterfly," said Jonathan, our guide. "It has been called the bluest blue of any blue on the planet."

Jonathan, also a snake and spider enthusiast, doubles as the happy-hour bartender and is so fond of American idioms that he keeps a notebook full of them under the bar for new additions. ("Sometimes it rains cats and dogs here! But tonight we are lucky, it is only cats.")

Ahead, a tree that appeared to be completely covered in white blossoms suddenly took flight. Or rather, the seabirds that had been resting on it did. On a muddy cliff wall, a fat iguana snoozed, confident in its camouflage, as three tiny, chattering capuchin monkeys swung past it on twisted vines.

Fortunately for my post-"thunk" peace of mind, we saw only two young crocs, one a baby, dog-paddling in the slower current near shore, and a 2-footer, blending perfectly with the mud in which it was half-burrowed.

How about a scratch, sweetie?

The next day, as our boat pulled to shore a few miles down the bay, I wondered what was up. There was no break in the dense line of trees to indicate any sort of attraction, let alone the wildlife refuge we'd been promised.

"Hello!" boomed a voice, and out of the trees popped a smiling face topped by a mop of gray curls, in which perched a spider monkey. "I'm Carol, and this is Sweetie."

"Thank you for your $25 donations today," she said. "Now I can pay the butcher."

On the tour, the aptly named Sweetie kept choosing new targets, especially tall men, grabbing their hands and insistently placing them wherever she felt like being scratched most.

A San Franciscan expat and former businesswoman, Carol runs the state-sanctioned refuge, which takes in only animals native to Costa Rica, from macaws and toucans to sloths and jaguars, then rehabilitates them and releases them back into the wild.

Many of the animals have been seized from illegal traffickers or were abandoned after proving to be ill-advised pets. Although chicken is cheaper than beef, Carol said, she is careful to never feed it to the jaguars and ocelots, because she doesn't want them to develop a taste for it, thus keeping peace with nearby farmers.

Focusing on the small stuff

While it is listed on luxury vacation websites, Playa Nicuesa is not for anyone who's worried about chipping a manicure. You get muddy, you get rained on, the trails get steep and challenging, sometimes the open-air shower runs out of solar-heated warm water, and your bathing suit will mildew if you aren't vigilant. But when that happens, you can always schedule a massage or a yoga class on the meditation platform down by the beach.

Reading a sample menu on Nicuesa's website does not prepare you for the simple glories of its food. Pitchers of fresh juice are served with every family-style meal, from tart tamarind to zesty lemon ginger. Flavorful entrees included bean empanadas, steak, chicken or fresh fish served with a variety of fruit and herb sauces, the most sumptuous taco bar ever laid out, freshly baked breads and warm tortillas filled with scrambled eggs for a take-along boat-trip breakfast. I never saw a pat of butter all week (though some was no doubt used in cooking), and never missed it.

An unexpected bonus of a week in the jungle is the effect of being unplugged from cell phones, laptops, electronic screens of any kind. It's like being sent to techno-rehab, a detox for the mind and spirit.

You become much more aware of your surroundings, not only sights and sounds but smells and tastes.

You also can think more clearly and remain focused for several minutes on something small and simple, like a strange little macho crab luring a female into its sand burrow by waving a single, huge claw in the air, or an owl butterfly flitting back and forth in front of you. Facebook has nothing on that.

Our first night back in the States landed us in a third-rate Atlanta hotel following a blizzard-related flight cancellation back to Minneapolis.

As we sat in the lobby, trying to rebook, I listened to the beeps and rings coming from the computers and phones of other stranded travelers around me, and wished it could all be drowned out by the awful, beautiful roar of howler monkeys.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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