Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 7: Flying Crocodiles

Destination: Samara

My heart began beating out of my chest the moment I set eyes on the landing strip. What was I thinking, wanting to fly so badly! Today, I would overcome my fear of heights. But first, I would forget my anxieties for a ground tour of the Flying Crocodile Lodge.

The lodge is tranquil and gorgeous, about a mile away from the secluded Playa Buena Vista. It consists of a number of private cabins, many with artsy blue-tiled bathrooms. A playground, a pool, and the Ultra-Light Flying Center comprise the lodge's main attractions. As I exited one of the double occupancy rooms, our German-born pilot, Frank Nierhoff, was waiting to take me to the aircraft.

Of the eight ultra-light planes in the hanger, we would be flying in the giro -- short for autogiro -- a vehicle with a propeller and freely rotating vanes, or rotors. This flying machine is somewhat similar in appearance to a helicopter -- except that rather than having powered vanes, the propellers of a giro rotate in the wind's slipstream.

Capable of flying 40-120 miles per hour, and up to 5,000 feet in altitude, the aircraft easily glides through the sky. It has an 18-gallon tank that burns about three-four gallons an hour, meaning that the machine can fly four consecutive hours without needing a refill. It can easily traverse the entire country of Costa Rica from Panama to Nicaragua on one uninterrupted run.

Frank set me in the plane, and we prepared for takeoff. The engine needs about five minutes to warm up, so we chatted through the headphones connected to our helmets. He explained how a commercial plane could not fly in these winds, because it would undergo unbearable turbulence. The aerodynamics and size of the autogiro make it less affected by such currents. He also told me not to touch anything. There was what appeared to be a gear shifter in between my legs, and I shouldn't worry if it shook around during the flight. "Also, see that red button right next to your hand, there?" Frank advised, "That turns off the engine. Best not to touch that."

Moments later, we were ready for take off. Speeding past the hotel, the landing strip was suddenly far below us, as was the rest of the world. Cows and horses and goats became nothing but little dark specs on an endless landscape. I was able to see the geography of the Buena Vista River, and the river mouth where it empties into the ocean. Homes and buildings began to resemble monopoly houses as we rose higher and higher and my heartbeat raced faster and faster.

I have never in my life seen so much water. Frank made a loop past some rice fields, around the river, and along the beach. I had no idea how beautiful this country's topography is, having previously only seen it in photographs. I had a nervous -- but genuine -- smile permanently pasted upon my face the entire flight. At one point, Pilot Frank lowered so closely to the water that I could almost touch the tallest wave. We rose again above the cliffs near Playa Barrigona, famous for its beauty -- and also because Mel Gibson owns a house there. Here, above the rock face, the ride got bumpy and I began to wish that we were safely on the ground. Luckily, my fears melted away once we were through that choppy zone, and within minutes I was once again enjoying the flight.

Before I knew it, we were coming in for a smooth landing and the experience was over. It was Vincent's turn for a ride, and to take some photographs. After feeling those powerful winds, I was relieved I was not asked to bear responsibility for the professional camera. Before my adrenaline rush had even begun to wear off, Vincent was back with disheveled hair. We thanked everyone at the Flying Crocodile for such a wonderful experience, and started out for Samara.

It took about 30 minutes to reach the Samara Beach Hotel, right in the center of town and just a few blocks from the beach. We checked in and were greeted by warm and friendly staff. My room was spacious and comfortable, with a balcony and view of the pool; while I knew I wouldn't have time to use it during these last few busy days, it was nice to know that it was there.

As it was only midday, there was still time to relax at Playa Carrillo's palm fringed shores. One of the most beautiful places in the country, Carrillo may also be one of the only beaches to strictly follow Costa Rica's building and zoning laws. The water was pristine, refreshing, and teeming with living sand dollars just beneath the surface of the sand. Numerous groups of friends and families were enjoying their Sunday in Carrillo's cool shade and mild surf. The waves were lapping gently, and displayed varying shades of green, turquoise, blue, and sapphire. To this sound, I closed my eyes and breathed, thinking about nothing.

Day 7: Flying Crocodiles in Pictures