Wheel Adventures: Costa Rican wildlife is sure to get you

David Sovka

Today is my 51st birthday, and I’m celebrating the occasion on the toilet, shivering in the 35 C heat, feeling like somebody took a ball-peen hammer to every joint in my body. I want to cry, but crying in the loo seems a little too dramatic for a 51-year-old.

Something I ate obviously believes that turnabout is fair play, and is now trying to eat me from the inside out in an epic bout of dysentery and shudders. Happy birthday to me.

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Thankfully, my doctor at the Victoria travel clinic prescribed high-powered antibiotics should I run into any biotic in need of a good anti-ing. I eat a handful of the tablets. Also thankfully, our cycle tour has a support vehicle in which I lie down and whimper while the rest of our group rides.

In the end, I will lose a day of cycling to the wee foreign beasties in my gastrointestinal system.

It’s just one of those things in life you periodically have to endure, like Stephen Harper and junior high school gym class.

Given the inevitability of this kind of thing, I redouble my efforts to stay healthy for the remainder of the trip:

1. Never drink the water, no matter what anybody says.

2. Wash with soap before and after every meal, and sprinkle a little hand-sanitizer behind each ear.

3. Accept explosive diarrhea as part of the adventure.

It’s better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.

Probably the best thing about cycling through the on-again-off-again rain of a tropical cloud forest is ha ha ha! I can’t even finish that sentence.

We’re in northwest Costa Rica, pedalling along the country’s largest body of water, a giant artificial lake within the Arenal Volcano’s blast zone. It’s pouring rain, not cats and dogs, but coatis and tapirs, which are much bigger and smell funny.

The reason for the regular cloudbursts, of course, is that the big volcano here creates its own weather system, catching and cooling moist air from the Caribbean as it moves westward toward the Pacific and better surfing.

At 1,657 metres, Volcán Arenal dominates the surrounding pastureland and jungle, as well as the many American, Canadian and German expats busy buying retirement properties on the slope of an active volcano. (What’s a little smoke, ash, hot rocks and lava when you don’t have to shovel snow anymore?)

At the moment, Arenal is quiet-ish, with fewer rumbles and tumbles to trouble those people dumb enough to cycle through the blast zone.

But for 43 years — from 1968, when an eruption wiped out three villages now under the lake, to 2010 — it’s been Costa Rica’s most active volcano, with a near-continual belching of smoke and lava.

One is tempted to wonder why people choose to live in the shadow of doom.

That is, until you look across the water from Victoria and see the glaciated beauty of Mount Baker — a quiet-ish but active volcano just like Arenal.

To wit: it’s pretty and we’ve always lived here.

(Until we didn’t because the mountain finally blew up and killed everybody.)

The road is greasy in the rain, so we take it slow. It’s a good thing, because it gives us time to pull over and fish out cameras as a large family of coatis emerges from the jungle.

The rain has softened the volcanic soil on the shoulders of the road and they are hungry for worms and tarantulas in the ground litter. I mean that literally: the long snuffy coati nose is particularly good at rooting out invertebrates.

The coati looks like a long-tailed marsupial, but it is a placental mammal, just like you and your mom.

It’s a member of the raccoon family and travels in big, rambling, mom-and-kids family groups, busy chirping, snorting and grunting through the jungles of South and Central America.

Coati males live solitary lives, except during the breeding season, when they are accepted into the band of females to enjoy a couple of weeks of vigorous, polygynous mating. This sounds exhausting.

Coati predators include big jungle cats like the jaguarundi, ocelot and jaguar; big jungle snakes like the boa constrictor; and big jungle raptors like the ornate hawk-eagle, black-and-chestnut eagle and harpy eagle.

All this talk of big jungle predators makes me nervous, and I am almost happy to wave goodbye to our furry friends and get back on the bike to finish off the wet ride in style: with a big stripe of brown road water up my bum.

Mas tico que gallo pinto

Wherever we travel, we like to sample the signature dish — that particular food that reflects the agricultural potential and cultural identity of a nation.

What people eat (animal, vegetable or mineral), and how they eat it (with spices, wearing a certain hat, only on Fridays, etc.), tells you a lot about how those people experience life and, sometimes, why they smell the way they do.

For example, in Canada, we eat and drink from an extremely broad menu, reflecting the fact that we are an immigrant nation as much as it reflects that fact that we are a relatively wealthy and peaceful nation.

That is to say, our diverse and multicultural population has happily imported almost every kind of foodstuff there is, and we have enough money and time and peace to continually tinker with our recipes.

This explains why Victoria has the highest number of restaurants per capita, although not necessarily why foreign visitors say we smell like cheese.

Central American countries have wildly different signature dishes. In Nicaragua it is gallo pinto (“spotted rooster”), which consists of rice and beans.

The national dish of Costa Rica is also called gallo pinto, but in this case, it consists of beans and rice.

Panama’s staple food, on the other hand, includes both rice and beans. Each country is keen to let you know why their version is better than the others.

Central American countries also have wildly different national drinks, all of them beer.

The main beer in Nicaragua is Toña, a refreshing pale lager.

The main beer in Costa Rica is Imperial, a refreshing pale lager.

Panama has two main beers, Balboa and Panamá, both refreshing pale lagers.

I’ve sampled them all, and I am happy to share my opinion with you, gentle reader, as to which is best.

Perhaps over beer at your house?

Caño Negro

This afternoon, our little group of five cyclists, plus our reliable guide, Hanzel, and feckless driver Antonio are somewhere south of the border, where all the rivers run north to fill Lake Nicaragua. It feels like the middle of nowhere, but a very pretty corner of it.

We’re riding 20 kilometres of wet dirt road between the highway and the Caño Negro wildlife refuge, a stunning 100 kilometres of wetland with forests, grasslands and marshes that provide shelter for a boatload of endangered species, such as cougars, jaguars, tapirs, ocelots, peccary and several species of monkey.

Somebody must live out here, somewhere. The fields of rice and cattle and cassava bordering the road are all fenced.

What’s different about the fencing here is that it is alive — each post is sprouting branches, leaves and flowers.

This is cerca vida (“living fence” sometimes called “quick stick fence”) and it’s common throughout Central America, where the ample amounts of sunshine and water and rich volcanic soil allow farmers to shove a stick into the ground and call it done.

Come back in a month or two, and you have a solidly planted fencepost that also provides quality bird habitat.

We follow the line of cercas vidas until we arrive at Caño Negro (“black stream”), where a local fisherman takes us out onto the water for a look-see at the wildlife.

We are not disappointed. The wetland is chock-a-block with birds, reptiles and monkeys.

Our eagle-eyed guide, Hanzel, is quick to point out logs that turn out to be three-metre-long caimans, an aquatic reptile related to alligators and crocodiles; and orange blobs that are really giant male iguanas, looking for love in all the right places; and black blobs that are really howler monkeys; and a slender bright green stick that turns out to be an Emerald Basilisk, the so-called “Jesus Christ lizard” because it is reported to be able to walk on water.

Our boat startles the lizard, and — just as if it was in a BBC nature documentary — the little bugger runs away, across the surface of the water!

Great blue herons — yes, from the west coast of Canada! — migrate here, as do egrets and a host of other birds.

We see parrots, parakeets, hawks, crakes, cormorants, kingfishers, hummingbirds … I’m not a birder, but spending a little time on the water out here makes me consider it.

It’s so easy to fill up your bird dance card, or whatever it is that birders do.

Before riding the 20 kilometres back up the wet dirt road, we opt for lunch at the community hall, which has a television, bar and kitchen with an extensive menu of infinite combinations, so long as you choose alligator gar. I do.

The gar is a fish that looks like a cross between a torpedo and a Panzer IV tank.

It also resembles the American alligator — hence the name — mostly because of the broad snout and long sharp teeth.

Its scales are not like the scales of other fish; rather, it has bone-like, diamond-shaped scales with serrated edges.

This makes the gar nearly impenetrable, although somebody in the kitchen obviously solved that problem, because here it is on my plate, breaded and fried and smelling delicious.

The gar is often referred to as a “living fossil” because it has retained some characteristics of its earliest ancestors, such as the ability to breathe both air and water.

The fossil record dates the gar’s existence to the Early Cretaceous period, more than a hundred million years ago, which suggests to me that it ought to be pretty tough.

Nope.

My alligator gar is flaky and tender and excellent.

Next week: Sovka endures a scary night of gecko love and feasting.

> Previous travels can be found here

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