Slowing Down in Costa Rica

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. But this past December, during my first-ever visit to Big Bend National Park, I began to take note of things like ice dripping off the freezing tips of trees, while just on the other side of the hill a cactus, seemingly ready to bloom, sunned itself—and was struck. I stared wide-eyed at the desert beauty that stretched out in every direction and made a pact with myself: 2019 was going to be my year of nature.

I haven’t always understood what’s so great about the great outdoors. Sure, I love a good afternoon on the greenbelt, and I’m never happier than when I’m in the ocean, riding one wave after another into a sandy shore. But out in West Texas, where cell phone service is spotty at best, in those gloriously relaxed days between Christmas and New Year’s where no email is pressing, I finally slowed down enough to catch a glimpse of what all the fuss is about.

That’s why, just a couple of months later in February, when I landed in San José alongside 18 fellow Flying Longhorns for our nine-day sailing journey, “Passage Through the Panama Canal and Costa Rica,” I made it a point to keep my eyes and ears open. The more I noticed, the more I might see.

And in Costa Rica there’s a whole lot to see. While the country has only around .03 percent of the world’s landmass, it’s one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Its national parks and wildlife refuges make up roughly 25 percent of the country, and in them you can find over 5 percent of all known plants and animal species.

Luckily for us, one of the very first stops on our itinerary was to Manuel Antonio National Park in Quepos. The tropical paradise is home to more than 100 species of mammals, almost 200 species of birds, plus various reptiles and amphibians, but as we started our trek down the shaded, dirt paths of the rainforest, I was focused on only one.

“I just really, really want to see a sloth,” I told anyone who would listen. I’ve always had a thing for the shaggy-coated, slow-moving weirdos. They seem to live a pretty sweet life, hanging upside down from tall trees with their cute smushed faces. Even learning from one of our onboard lecturers that their fur is home to hundreds of insects didn’t stop me from considering them as anything but adorable.

“We can’t ever guarantee wildlife,” our guide Isabel cautioned. But, she said, if there was a place for a sloth-sighting, Manuel Antonio was it. And sure enough, about a mile into our 4-mile walk, we came upon a crowd of visitors excitedly pointing up a tree. A sloth was hanging out, moving his fuzzy limbs so slowly you’d think the humid rainforest air was molasses.

I was juggling my binoculars and phone, trying to snap a picture, when Isabel tapped me on the shoulder. Directly behind me, a gang of lanky monkeys were leaping from tree to tree so gracefully, it looked as if they were flying. “Squirrel monkeys!” she told me with a grin. As the crowd continued to ogle the sloth, I walked the opposite way, my eyes glued to the trees behind them, and watched as the cutest pack of acrobats I’ve ever seen sped by us and out of sight. Later, Isabel told us that spotting the squirrel monkeys was a rare, once-in-every-five years kind of treat. Had we not stopped to notice the sloth, we never would have noticed them.

The next day, our ship anchored off the Costa Rican coast and we rode zodiacs up onto a sloped, quiet beach. After walking a few sandy feet up out of the water, we arrived at Casa Orquidea, and started down a ridiculously lush and landscaped path, blooming on all sides with bromeliads, cycads, ginger plants, fruit trees, and more. A botanical garden founded almost 40 years ago by American expats Ron and Trudy MacAllister—who live on the property (and entirely off the grid)—the flora and fauna paradise has over 100 species of orchids. As a naturalist guided us through the garden, I found myself wandering off the path, peeking under tents of gigantic green leaves to revel in the dappled morning light, or to catch a hummingbird happily flying by behind us.

That afternoon we set sail toward Panama City, and I leaned up against the railing, staring at the depths of the blue water below us and thinking about nothing in particular. As I studied all the colors—the whitecaps, tinted teal, crashing into the patches of deep dark blues—I saw a dark, textured green that seemed out of place. As it bobbed along amid the cool-colored palate, I squinted at what looked like a long oval protruding from its right side, moving in a circular motion. On its left side, the same. Slowly and delightedly, I realized I was staring down at an enormous sea turtle, and raised my glass of sauvignon blanc to him in salute. I could get used to this slowed-down life of admiring the natural world.

Photographs by Janet Hopson


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