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A Visit To Rara Avis

Author: "Wild Bill"
Date: August 28, 2008
Costa Rica has good highways, decent side streets and the same lousy network of dirt roads found in every Central American country. All those roads are superhighways compared to the incredibly muddy, rock-filled cart track that runs 15 kilometers between the ranching community of Los Horquetas and the internationally famous Rara Avis rainforest reserve.

"The minister of transportation was up here for a weekend visit a couple of years ago and he immediately declared that this was the worst road in all of Costa Rica," said our host, Rara Avis founder Amos Bien.

Rara Avis was started in the early 1980s and was one of the world's first eco-lodges. It also serves as a biological research and teaching station for college students from around the world.

Abe Winters and I had arrived at the Rara Avis office in Los Horquetas on Monday, Aug. 18, for a five-day tree-climbing expedition with Amos and his 12-member staff.

Harv Teitelbaum from Tree Climbing Colorado was supposed to be with us, but he had to cancel due to his university teaching schedule. Harv and Amos grew up together in New York from the first through the 12th grades. Both became biologists and went their separate ways - Harv to the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and Amos to the pre-montane rainforests of Central America.

Amos currently teaches graduate-level studies to students in both North and Latin America. He also consults with the Costa Rican tourism agency and is the principal owner of Rara Avis. He lives in the capital of San Jose and only visits the rainforest reserve on an irregular schedule; the staff professionally manages it.

"I'm sort of like the chairman of the board," he said. "The manager makes good decisions on the day-to-day operations and just comes to me for long-term things."

Abe and I were at least semi-ready for the road up to the thousands of hectares of primary rainforest that make up the Rara Avis reserve and the neighboring Selvatica Biological Research Station. Both reserves back up to the gigantic Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo, which includes some of Central America's tallest peaks.

While on a previous tree-climbing trip to neighboring Panama nearly three years earlier, our expedition members had ridden up the gigantic Baru Volcano in a souped-up four-wheel-drive pickup truck on a dry streambed that we immediately dubbed "the road from hell."

Abe and I quickly discovered that the "road" up to Rara Avis was "the road out the other side of hell." It was filled with quarter-mile stretches of waist-deep yellow mud, gigantic volcanic boulders that required frequent and often unconventional detours, and crude bridges fashioned from felled trees. The souped-up, four-wheel-drive pickup truck from the Panama volcano expedition three years earlier could not have completed even the first half of this trip.

Instead, we rode in a 16-foot covered trailer made of quarter-inch steel plates welded onto six-inch "I" beams. The well-worn vinyl seats were cushioned with four inches of foam rubber to soften the constant pounding from being hauled over the volcanic boulders. The bed of the trailer was nearly four feet above ground and originally had been built to tackle tough Costa Rican farm chores.

The trailer was hauled - or sometimes just dragged - up the slopes by a battered, gigantic blue all-wheel-drive New Holland TL100 farm tractor with 60-inch tires on the back and 48-inchers on the front.

It took Juan, our driver, two long hours to make the 12-kilometer (7.5 miles) trip from the Rara Avis office in Las Horquetas to the tiny community of El Plastico on the south bank of El Tigre Creek. Twice, we had to exit the trailer and hike up hill past the deepest mud holes while Juan wrestled with the snarling, bucking tractor - all four wheels mercilessly spewing giant mud clods for a hundred yards in every direction.

At El Plastico - home of the Selvatica Biological Research Station - we stopped for a 10-minute break and Juan made his important announcement: The easy part was behind us; the last three kilometers (1.86 miles) to Rara Avis would be so tough that those who decided to walk would get there faster.

It was the most exciting ride I'd ever taken and even Abe admitted it was one of the greatest adventures of his lifetime. The folks at Disney World could learn a lot from Juan.

The tin roofs of Rara Avis' Waterfall Lodge Area finally came into view, across the roaring Rio Atelopus. The road ended at the riverbank and we cautiously toted luggage, climbing gear and crates of food across a swinging footbridge made of heavy steel cables and mesh steel decking. A few dozen meters downstream from the footbridge were two of Central Americas most spectacular waterfalls.

The waterfalls were made famous in European and National Geographic publications in the 1980s, when biologist/adventurer Donald Perry built his short-lived AWCE - Automated Web for Canopy Exploration - that was supposed to cover 10 acres of the river gorge but never got beyond a few hundred square yards. It no longer exists.

The main area at Rara Avis includes a laboratory, kitchen/dining hall, classroom/social hall, four small sleeping cabins, a couple of small houses for permanent staff - and a spectacular two-story, eight-room "hotel" complete with the greatest of all Central American luxuries called HOT WATER SHOWERS. The gas hot water heater uses propane bottles occasionally hauled up in the trailer.

Although Rara Avis has a small electrical generator, only kerosene lanterns light the sleeping cabins and "hotel".

Our meals were about the best I've ever eaten at a field station/eco-lodge, and were prepared by a quiet, efficient chef from neighboring Nicaragua named Adilio. The meals compared favorably with the fare we ate at Harv's Labor Day gathering in 2007 at Calwood Ranch near Jamestown, Colorado.

One of the staff, a 21-year-old half Costa Rican, half Canadian named Michael, was assigned to be our guide. He led us the next morning about two kilometers to a gigantic hardwood where a tree house had been build 104 feet up many years earlier. No one had used it for about 10 years.

We immediately determined that the tree house was rotting and unsafe. When Amos finally arrived in mid-afternoon, we suggested he completely rebuild it with pressure-treated lumber before allowing visitors or other researchers to use it.

I spent the next four days hiking about one-third of the rainforest trails in the Rara Avis and Selvatica preserves, and found at least a dozen trees of various species that could be climbed to more that 160-175 feet. The two preserves have more than 60 kilometers of trails, and most are strenuous to difficult - a safe pace is only one kilometer an hour.

Abe found that his cancer treatments from last spring had left him too tired to do anything more than meet with Amos several times, watch the rare birds (more than 360 species live here either full or part time) and do some moderate hiking to check out a few of the trees I'd found.

We did climb one tree together near the Rara Avis hotel, and Abe gave our guide Michael a quick lesson in DRT climbing. Michael immediately climbed more than 60 feet and made sure the rest of the staff knew about it. We also managed to get Amos and another guide named Carlos up a few feet.

Adilio the chef just gave me a dirty look when I suggested he come out and climb with us.

Our last morning at Rara Avis started early - the sun comes up there just after 5 a.m. - and by 7 a.m. we were hiking down the three-kilometer trail to El Plastico while the tractor and trailer followed with a large load of river rocks to fill in some of the muddiest spots on the "road."

We reached Los Horquetas about 11 a.m., cleaned up as best we could, walked down the narrow paved road to a local diner for lunch, and then caught the early afternoon bus to our hotel in San Jose.

One more fine adventure had come to an end.

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