"The Double Tops Of Costa Rica"
Jules and I waited at Tortilla Flats another twenty minutes, starting to worry our chartered four wheel taxi wouldn't show. But, a moment later, our driver Jose, his hot red rig, and his cute chihuahua pulled up. With handshakes and smiles, we loaded our bags and waved goodbye to the hidden surf town of Dominical. Today would be another travel day, primarily in the "up" direction, as we'd roll our way from the Pacific coast up to the top of Costa Rica, aiming for the eco-preservation project called CloudBridge, high in the cloud forests below the volcano called Mt. Chirripo, the highest peak in the country.
Months before I began this trip, one of the whitewater guides at the rafting company I work for in summers, Blue Sky Rafting, told me about CloudBridge. (By the way, if you're ever in Oregon in summer, look me up, let's go rafting! And play some darts afterwards.) The guide's name is Adam as well, a one man force of nature preservation in his own right, and he works at CloudBridge as a biologist in the winter. He insisted it was a must see, a fabulous effort to replant and replenish some of Earth's most precious high altitude tropical forest. I made every effort to include it on my itinerary.
Jules, my Australian sidekick and travel buddy, was more than happy to keep exploring together, and we both stared out at the changing countryside as it rolled by.
It was a partly cloudy Sunday, and signs of typical Latin American culture were in full swing in each tiny town we passed-families and friends were all out at their local soccer fields, playing ball and enjoying the typical "Dia de Familia" with food and games.
After an hour or so, we reached the city of San Isidro, and with Jose's advice and our travel wisdom, we knew this would be the best place to stock up on some supplies to take with us to CloudBridge. We loaded up on staples like pancake mix, fruits, canned and dry goods. Soon, we were back on the road.a road that soon went from gentle winding highway, to a wildly curvy single lane, winding up the mountains to the town of Rivas.
At Rivas, we stopped for a look at the main bridge across the river-a few years earlier this entire town was washed out by massive flooding caused by torrential rains, and the very clear cuts up top that CloudBridge was trying to repair. For decades, farmers and herders had been allowed to chop down cloud forest to make room for cattle and crops, and the town of Rivas learned a hard lesson about having too much rain and not enough nature to absorb it. I shot a short video from the bridge, capturing myself having a premonition.
From Rivas, the bumpy ride continued even higher, approaching 4000 feet and climbing, when we reached the virtual end of the road at San Gerardo. It's a tiny town, clinging to the cliffs of a high cloud forest valley, where the bus service terminates, and so did our ride with Jose. From this point, we'd wait for CloudBridge's manager, Tom Gode, to pick us up and continue higher, on a ride that was truly like a scene from "Romancing The Stone".
After a grateful adios to Jose, Jules and I waited at the tiny mercantile store in the quiet of that Sunday afternoon. We met another expat, and had a brief conversation. Soon, a family of indigenous natives showed up and joined us on the bench outside the store. They are the part of the Cabécar Indians, the most isolated surviving example of Costa Rica's pre-Columbian cultures. To this day, they still live in small villages far out in the cloud forest, foraging and living the way their ancestors did-plus the occasional trip to town. Between me, a giant gringo, Jules, a cowboy-hatted Aussie, and the five diminutive Cabécar brothers, there were some puzzling and pleasant smiles in the simplest of cultural exchanges. I strummed Jules' guitar as we all waited there, the boys watched with interest, all of us feeling equally and oppositely foreign, yet connected through humanity.
Eventually, Tom showed up in a pickup truck worthy of penetrating the rocky path of a road leading up to CloudBridge. He's a wiry man with a grey beard, but a youthful soul that shines through his eyes and soft demeanor-a glow that certainly comes from his work, his life now dedicated to rebuilding the cloud forest. After a quick introduction-"Are you Adam?" and "Are you Tom?"-Jules and I loaded our bags in the wood-framed pickup bed on raised tires, and crammed ourselves into the cab. With a loud rumble, his little workhorse began climbing the rutted road up out of town in first gear.
It was an amazing ride-one of those moments you really feel like an Indiana Jones of darts. The road was rutted from run-off, barely wide enough for two bicycles, let alone a truck. After the last of the simple homes above San Gerardo disappeared, it was another thirty minutes of rocking and rolling higher into the jungle. By the time we reached the cloud level, cliffs covered in green were dropping off one side, and rising on the other. Tom maneuvered the wheels over giant rocks protruding from the "street", or deftly rounded a turn where water was nearly washing out the road-he and his truck knew every stone, pothole and landslide that needed to be tackled.
Finally, we reached Project CloudBridge where a few small buildings, for housing scientists and researchers, were hanging on the edge like trees rooted into a steep slope of jungle. He showed us our lodging and helped us unload our goods and bags. A raging creek rushed one hundred feet below, and across from our new home was a wall of cloud forest, where howler monkeys, pumas, tapirs and the beautifully rare quetzal bird hid. A steady flow of clouds moved in between us and the other side, wandering like ribbons up the valley toward the peak of shrouded Mt. Chirripo. Jules and I spent that first night staring in awe as the day slowly became night.
At some point that night, I woke up, and on a hunch, stepped outside. The clouds had completely disappeared and the moonless sky was filled with more stars than I've ever seen, so clear, so close. I stood there for some time, staring and thinking about my adventure so far-my friends back in Iceland, Ireland, Holland, Spain, on the cruise, and where they all were now. I even thought about darts, even though I was further from finding a board than ever.
In the morning, as Jules and I prepared coffee, pancakes and bananas, Tom re-appeared with a walking stick and machete, saying, "I thought we'd go for a hike today, and see some waterfalls and our work with the trees."
Jules and I looked at each other, smiling. We donned our own hiking boots, grabbed a couple walking sticks ourselves, and followed Tom up the path, higher still into the cloud forest.
Over and double out.