Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 8: A Day Trip to Africa

Destination: Liberia

They called out to me, but I ignored them. Their rooster songs had no power over me this morning, and would have to irritate someone else. I was going to enjoy my last few hours in Playas del Coco, and that plan included sleeping until at least 6 a.m.

Bushy-tailed but sleepy-eyed, I trudged into the breakfast room at 7:30 a.m. Cesar and Leigh were chatting about our departure plans, and the kitchen smelled like heaven. We had huevos rancheros for breakfast, accompanied by fruit salad and coffee. It was the type of food that sticks to your bones, as my mother would say, and exactly what we needed.

Driving to the bus stop, I was sad to say goodbye to our gracious hostess, who had made us feel at home in an unknown place. We were destined for Africa Mia, an African safari park in Liberia, just an hour inland. The private park has imported fourteen animal species that mingle with the park's native birdlife, monkeys, and ground mammals. As an avid animal lover, I was incredibly excited for our African adventure, and my greatest hope was to touch a giraffe.

The bus from Coco Beach to Liberia leaves every hour, on the hour, and our 10 a.m. ride pulled in just on time. We climbed aboard, paying just $1 each, and settled into our seats for the 50-minute ride. I absolutely love Costa Rican bus travel; it offers inexpensive fares, comfortable seats, convenient schedules, and the freedom to simply enjoy the scenery.

I reached into my backpack and grabbed my book, but the scenes flashing by were too interesting to read. Flooded towns, glimpses of white sand, flat countryside stretching out, so different than at home in San Jose. The trip was beautiful and intriguing, and almost as soon as the ride had begun, we were delivered to Liberia.

We hopped off the bus, and Liberia's humid air crushed my lungs. We lugged our bags and bodies to a nearby restaurant for pickup. The Africa Mia van was already waiting, its interior chilled and ready to cool us down. The 15-minute trip to the park led us down a major road, until we turned off onto a bumpy private path headed straight for the park. Cheek pressed against the glass, I was on the lookout for a galloping zebra or snacking giraffe. No such luck.

We pulled into Africa Mia proper, dropped our luggage off at the office, and joined another family for a tour on a mostly open-air vehicle. Though Liberia's habitat is very similar to much of Africa, almost all of the park's animals brave long flights from North American zoos and non-savannah habitats, and therefore need adequate adaptation time. Africa Mia's outer savannah, closed-off with wire fencing, provides just the locale, serving as temporary housing to the park's new arrivals.

Our first stop in the outer savannah was to see watusi, a type of African cattle, which stood grazing in the field. I scrambled off of the truck, almost falling in my excitement, and walked up to the fence for closer observation. The watusi were strong and somber, and to their right, a single eland, the largest antelope in the world, sat proud. Chapman zebra pranced around the other animals, their brown-black stripes playing tricks with my eyes. It was an impressive sight.

A small, artificial lake was originally intended for hippos, but park officials later determined that the animals would be too aggressive for the shared area. Africa Mia still plans to expand the park to include hippos and has begun building a separate lake and savannah for their habitation. The park is home to powerful, aggressive warthogs and a flock of not-so-friendly ostrich.

The sky, which I had been ignoring, was turning an ominous shade of black, and so our guide decided to head down to El Salto Waterfall before going into the inner savannah. We boarded another vehicle, this one completely open, and began our descent to the rushing falls. The miniature mountain -- in fairness, it could not be called a hill -- was extremely steep, and our truck groaned with exertion. I love roller coasters, but this bouncing, bumpy descent was truly terrifying, and I held on until my knuckles turned white.

When we finally reached the waterfall, we checked to make sure that all limbs were still attached, and then jumped out. Cesar grabbed his cameras and began clicking, while I palled around with the guide. He told me that the waterfall is fed by nearby Rincon de la Vieja National Park, and that during strong rains, the small valley floods. As we talked, the falls actually increased in volume, signaling the coming rains. Marcus, our guide, indicated that it was time to leave.

As the vehicle heaved up the mountain, the water began to fall. At first, the rain was gentle, and we shielded our belongings with our bodies. Just a minute later though, the skies opened up completely, and pouring rains arrived. By the time we returned to the savannahs, we were soaked to the bone, and needed a bathroom break to dry off. Popping the hand dryer on, I huddled my shivering body beneath it, dabbing at my eyes and hair with tragically thin paper towels.

Soggy and slightly less excited to continue our African adventure, I sloshed off toward the inner savannah's entrance, where a small feeding zoo awaited. One-humped camels called dromedaries, ostrich, wild boar, peacock and deer watched hopefully as our guide prepared carrot strips, distributing them to us in giant handfuls. I approached the dromedaries with only slight trepidation, gauging the distance between their huge teeth and my little fingers -- the difference was ample enough to feel comfortable.

Over the next 30 minutes, we fed the animals. The unabashed crowd favorite, the dromedaries, crunched loudly on their snacks while their boar neighbors looked on sadly, unfed. Feeling bad for their adorably ugly faces, I poked carrot sticks through the tightly-wired fence, and they gobbled the carrots down happily. Feeling brave, I finally got up the courage to approach the male ostrich, the less aggressive of the two. He was happy to accept my offerings, swallowing them down whole, blinking at me to indicate that he would like more.

Before we left for the inner savannah, Marcus asked if we'd like to feed a deer. Accustomed to the flighty, nervous creatures in Pennsylvania and Virginia, I laughed inwardly at the idea of a deer allowing human proximity. Much to my surprise, the small deer was not only comfortable with our presence, but willing and excited to eat from our hands. After waiting my turn, I fed her three giant handfuls of carrot, which she took gently. "Best day ever!" my inner child screamed inside.

It was time to visit the inner savannah, and we climbed aboard a different vehicle, this one with a top (hooray!), and ventured out into the open acreage. Bongo, gemsbok, and antelope dominated the plain, but we turned sharply to visit the zebras first. They were not fazed by our motorized presence, and Marcus set the engine to idle as he explained a few things about the common zebra.

The common zebra, also known as plains zebra, are the most abundant of all zebras. They have black and white stripes, different from the Chapman brown, though the females appear a bit browner in color. Their stripes, like all zebra subspecies, serve three different purposes: to help manage heat, with black stripes attracting sun and white repelling it; to identify each zebra, since each pattern is unique like a human fingerprint; and to provide camouflage -- when zebras move en masse, they look like a giant, black blob to their predators.

After staring at the zebras for more than ten minutes, we shifted focus to watch the other animals in their habitat. Each is unique and interesting in its own right, such as the gemsbok, or oryx, which is basically a large antelope with two beautiful, identical horns. In fact, because their horns are so identical, the animal is often called the "true unicorn." Finally, after several more anecdotes and stories, we headed over to the giraffes.

We stopped to grab some low-growing leaves for the giraffe's consumption, and when it hit me that we would be able to feed the tall, graceful animals, I struggled to contain myself. Cesar, who had just met me the week before, glanced sideways at me. I think he was partly amused and partly perplexed by the muffled squeals escaping from my mouth. I couldn't help it though, we were about to get up close and personal with giraffes!

While I tried to manage my excitement, the little girl behind me battled to choke down her fear. Over her parents' reassurances and shushes, varying wails of "I don't want to!" and "Don't make me!" filled the backseat. Trying to calm her, Marcus promised that giraffes wouldn't bite, but she didn't buy it. " I empathized with her, recalling yesterday's "safe" crocodile encounter.

We pulled into the giraffe corral, a large field surrounded by trees. The giraffes were huddled under a wooden structure, clearly as unenthusiastic about the rain as I was. We got close to them, and Marcus called out, tempting them to come for a snack. As the first giraffe lumbered over, I sat transfixed: she was tall, graceful, and very striking. Her fur was exactly as you'd imagine, short and beautifully patterned. Her eyes, heavily lashed, looked down at us, gauging who had the best leaf branch.

As it turned out, no one was in the mood for leaves that day, forcing our guide to pull out the coup de grace: celery sticks. One sniff of celery wafting through the air was all it took, and two or three giraffes stepped out from under their shelter, heading over to the food. I stuck my hand out nervously, not sure of giraffe teeth placement. Sensing trepidation, Marcus assured us again that they would not bite.

Right he was. Black, thick tongues snaked out from inside their mouths, and the giraffes gently munched on the celery sticks, bite by bite. After a few successful celery offerings, I decided to test my luck and reach out for my snacking giraffe. Patient (and hungry, I suppose), she allowed me to touch her, pet her, and even hug her. I was almost beside myself with glee, and checked with Cesar several times to make sure that he was documenting this glorious bonding moment between human and giraffe.

Meanwhile, the little girl -- she was at least 10 -- was sobbing uncontrollably behind me. She released a piercing cry every time a giraffe approached, even though they were completely disinterested in her celery-free hands. "I wa-wa-waaaaant to go-o-ggggooo!" she belted out, despite everyone's reassurances. Her parents, fed up and apologetic, told her to stop whining. Beside me, Cesar's sides heaved as he and our guide tried to stifle their giggles. A smile playing on my own face, I turned my attentions back to the giraffe.

A few minutes later, it was time to leave the savannah. I rooted around the truck, looking for some stray celery stick or excuse to stay a while longer, but none could be found. Admitting my defeat, I sighed, and the truck pulled back into the welcome station. Cesar and I grabbed our bags, hopped back into the Africa Mia van, and rode back to Liberia. I talked his ear off the whole ride, giraffe thoughts still dancing in my head.

We grabbed a quick, greasy lunch in Liberia before meeting our private transfer taxi up to our Rincon de la Vieja hotel. Though the ride is only 40-45 minutes long, taxis charge $60 each way -- $120 round trip -- for their services, a hefty price for such a short journey. By the time we arrived, the sky had darkened to a familiar shade of stormy gray, and we hurried to our rooms.

That night, tired and spent from the day's excitement and travels, Cesar fell asleep early, and I headed to dinner alone. After chowing down on delicious spaghetti in mushroom sauce, I returned to my room, and was sound asleep almost before my head hit the pillow.

Day 8: A Day Trip to Africa in Pictures