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Cruise: Costa Rica : Jungle Calls : Ants, birds, monkeys, mud --a rain forest eco-voyage

February 11, 1996|REED GLENN | Glenn is a freelance writer based in Colorado

ABOARD THE TEMPTRESS VOYAGER — "Madam, please, you're stepping on them," said naturalist Miguel Ortega with a tinge of irritation. He had just explained the complex social structure of rain forest leaf-cutter ants, when one hiker, in her enthusiasm to see the bobbing, green parade, put a boot down on the lecture subjects.

Ortega was a guide from the M.V. Temptress Voyager, an expeditionary cruise ship that plies Costa Rica's lush, national-park-lined Pacific Coast. Our small group of ant watchers was hiking through the steam-bath rain forest at Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula--much of which is accessible only by boat.

Begun in 1991 as the first "eco-tour" line in Latin America, Temptress Voyages has two expeditionary ships, the 163-foot Voyager and the 185-foot, 99-passenger Explorer. Besides being comfortable and convenient, these small cruise ships are one of the least invasive ways to visit vulnerable natural habitats. No hotels need to be built; all trash and other waste leave with the ship; visitation, impact and access are temporary and limited.

With its tiers of cabin windows and open decks, the shallow-draft Voyager looks like a streamlined Mississippi riverboat. In place of a paddle wheel is a low deck, just above water level, designed for launching Zodiacs--motorized inflatable rubber boats that ferry passengers to and from shore and up shallow rivers. The Zodiac deck is also a launching pad for swimmers or kayakers exploring nearby coves.

Besides transport to some of Costa Rica's most exotic sites, the Voyager served as a floating water-sports center, offering--in addition to swimming and kayaking--water skiing, snorkeling, scuba diving, sport fishing, and, of course, sunbathing. The Voyager's air-conditioned cabins, dining room and breezy deck-top cocktail lounge--ideal for viewing tropical sunsets--provided a comfortable refuge after long, hot days in the jungle.

The Voyager is not for the glitzy. Night life consisted of conversation on the top deck, with tropical drinks and maybe a little music. Our only floor show was traditional dances performed by children from the village at Drake Bay (named for Sir Francis Drake, who took refuge there).

Eco-passengers have quite a different agenda from luxury cruisers. Howard and Shelly, a 30ish couple from Albuquerque, N.M., were looking for active adventure and an escape from thousand-passenger ships. Myra and George, retired professionals from New England, loved nature and bird-watching. (Myra lugged her heavy tripod through the jungles to photograph birds, monkeys and flowers.) Californians Roger and Darleen were the aerobic type, always kayaking, hiking or swimming.

Cruising slowly along Costa Rica's Pacific coast, the Voyager offered its 63 passengers the solitude of the sea and panoramic views of a nearly pristine environment.

*

The three-night, four-day cruise began in the small Pacific port of Puntarenas, after a scenic ride from San Jose, the Costa Rican capital, and ended at Manuel Antonio National Park. The Voyager made five stops, three at national parks or refuges. Each evening, we usually anchored within kayaking or swimming distance of a beach.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot in Costa Rica. Taking shelter from stormy seas, he anchored on the country's Caribbean coast in 1502 during his last voyage to the Americas. He found the land so full of food, wildlife and hospitable natives that after his visit, the area became known to Europeans as Costa Rica or "Rich Coast." We, too, feasted on Costa Rica's shores. After our rain-forest forays, the Voyager staff set out spreads of salty olives, cheese, fruit, soft drinks and other snacks to replace what the jungle had wrung out of us. Our usual meals in the ship's dining room, were supplemented with beach barbecues of fresh fish and chicken.

Each day aboard began with a hearty breakfast of local coffee, fresh tropical fruits, homemade breads and pastries, eggs and gallo pinto (rice and beans).We sailed mostly at night, arriving in the early hours off forested shores, so after breakfast we were ready for the day's activities. Our choices--depending on the anchorage--were nature walks, deep-sea fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving, kayaking or just lounging on the ship or local beach.

Most passengers chose the nature walks. Nearly one-quarter of Costa Rica is protected with national parks or reserves, so there's a lot of nature to see. Because it's a part of the land bridge between North and South America, the country has a spectacular array of birds and wildlife from both continents.

Miguel Ortega was the most experienced of three on-board naturalists. He had spent 12 years as a game warden in parks and reserves all over Costa Rica, and the serious nature-lovers on board practically fought over spots in his nature walks. Walks were classified either as "natural history" (harder and longer) or "recreation" (shorter and easier). All Ortega's walks were natural history.

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