San Jose Day Trip: Braulio Carrillo
The private shuttle picked me up at 10 a.m., and I was welcomed on board with smiles and a chorus of hellos. Alvaro, our guide, explained that our trip to the private reserve, adjacent to Braulio Carrillo National Park, would take about an hour. Ominously, he offered rain ponchos to us all -- "well we're going to a rainforest, after all," he said with a grin. A quick glance outside seconded his words: gray clouds peppered the sky, and the horizon looked stormy.
As we drove toward San Jose to pick up additional passengers, Alvaro began to explain the area's history. At La Sabana Park, he pointed out the old airport; as we drove by the National Theater, he told stories of shows and building lore. Though I was familiar with most of the San Jose information, Alvaro's knowledge extended into the Central Valley's outer reaches, and as we drove toward the reserve, I listened to him with interest.
Ascending into the mountains, the cloud cover only grew thicker. Our driver switched on his windshield wipers, and I prepared for a rainy afternoon. However, just a couple of miles before reaching our destination, the sky suddenly cleared and the sun greeted us with warm, bright rays. Disembarking from the van, we were told that it had just stopped raining minutes before, and that we could expect the remainder of our trip to be sunny. It was a welcome turn of events.
Our group was promptly separated into two sections: my new friend, Georgie, and I were the only passengers going on the canopy tour. We sat down outside and two guides soon arrived with zipline equipment. Stepping into my harnesses, I felt a familiar sense of trepidation mixed with excitement; though I knew that the canopy tour was very safe, I always get jittery before jumping off the first platform.
After a brief introduction and safety session, Georgie and I followed our guides through the dense forest trails. Though 80 percent of the 1200-acre private reserve is primary forest, the canopy tour utilizes the other 20 percent, which, though previously farmed, is now secondary forest. The first platform emerged from between two leafy trees, and I readied myself for the thrill of flying.
The Atlantic Rainforest Tram's canopy tour consists of eight platforms and seven cables, the longest of which measures just over 450 feet. Recommended for all ages, the tour is tamer than some of its adrenaline-filled contemporaries. Regardless of its slower speeds (about 15 mph), I enjoyed soaring over the treetops, my feet dangling over a rushing river. The views were peaceful, and aside from our own voices, the only sounds were those of the rainforest.
Forty-five minutes after beginning our canopy tour, we had arrived at the last platform. Our guides encouraged us to get crazy, and both Georgie and I elected to take the final cable backwards. As I flew towards the end point, they bounced my cable, and I flailed and laughed in unison; I felt deliciously out of control, like a bird drifting on the breeze.
Fresh off my adrenaline high, I followed our guide back to the park's base camp. Georgie and I were directed toward the dining room, where we made our way down the buffet line. I filled my plate with salad, rice, beans, chicken and plantains, polishing it off with a natural fruit drink. After lunch, Alvaro met us for a trip on the famous Atlantic Rainforest Tram. A sloth slept in the tree by the restaurant, and we stopped for a photo before boarding the tram. Each car is equipped to hold up to six passengers, so our party of three fit comfortably. As we settled in, our tram car began to move slowly over the rainforest floor.
Created in 1994, this aerial tram is the first of its kind in Costa Rica, and perhaps the first in any tropical rainforest. It travels just over one mile, a trip that takes between 50 minutes and one hour. The tram tour is the brainchild of Donald Perry, an American biologist who dreamed of ecotourism that would both protect the environment and educate the public.
The forest in front of us was dense and very green. Forest animals -- wildcats, coatimundis, wild boar and monkeys -- lurk just beyond view, too shy to be seen by tram riders. In the absence of playful animals, we focused on the foliage around us. In the rainforest, trees grow quickly in order to reach the sun, resulting in tall, thin trees with shallow root systems and short (80-120 year) life spans.
As we began the second half of our tram trip, we focused in on the "broccoli" tree, a species endemic to Braulio Carrillo. The towering tree is tall, thin and heavy on top, much like a broccoli stalk. Its Spanish nickname, which means "branch dropper," explains the tree's tendency to release its lower branches, thus providing additional nutrients to remaining limbs. Because the tree only grows in this part of the world, it is known as a symbol of the park and its ecosystem.
Hanging high above the trees, we drank in the silence, inhaled the fresh air and marveled at the sights around us. It was a beautiful scene: blue sky stretched out for miles, greenery painted the mountainside and Barva Volcano rose up in the distance. The tram's slow pace allowed us to glide quietly, and I found myself wondering what it would be like to wander alone through primary rainforest.
After finishing our aerial tram ride, Georgie and I headed off to the small butterfly farm, frog garden and snake garden. The exhibits explained basic information about the country's butterflies, frogs and snakes, though we had arrived at a time of inactivity. Soon, it was time to leave -- the other passengers had been waiting for us for over an hour, and we hoped to beat San Jose's rush hour traffic.
Though our luck had held for sunny skies, it seemed to have finally run out: as we headed into the Central Valley, cars piled onto the roads and horns blared. The trip from eastern Heredia to western Heredia, my drop-off location, took more than three hours. By the time I arrived home, almost four hours after having departed the private reserve, I was exhausted. The trip had been well worth it, though: I had learned about the tropical rainforest, played in the canopy and enjoyed a day full of ecotourism attractions.