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Welcome to the Jungle

Costa Rican spot lives up to reputation as a fisherman's paradise, but many visitors can't resist the call of the wild

June 28, 2003|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

PUERTO JIMENEZ, Costa Rica — The deadly snake lay coiled on the bank, poised to strike. It was a fer-de-lance, a species responsible for many deaths, an expert in camouflage. But this time, fortunately, the viper was spotted from several feet away.

Carefully sidestepping this threat, the hikers continued slowly and gingerly upstream, following on the heels of their Costa Rican guides, in the steamy shadows beneath the high forest canopy.

The first seeds of doubt had been planted, and they began growing just around the next bend, where lay the skeletal remains of a monkey.

Nearby, another skull and more bones, picked clean by jungle scavengers.

A sense of eeriness overcame the hikers, who had been told they were going to a waterfall to do some rappelling. They had come to this country simply to do some fishing, but their sense of adventure seemed to have got the best of them.

Suddenly, it was as if they were traveling up a river of no return

*

... Tom Ball and Pete Gray, avid fishermen from Southern California, began their first full day at Crocodile Bay Lodge with a jaunt out onto one of the largest and most beautiful bays they had ever seen, a shimmering body of water the size of Lake Tahoe, mirroring the pillowy clouds passing slowly overhead.

Porpoises surfaced in the distance. Closer to the boat, large patches of sardines fluttered across the surface, fleeing predators such as those the anglers were trying to catch: roosterfish, jack crevalle, large snappers and groupers.

The two had found heaven. The new lodge on the remote Osa Peninsula was living up to its reputation as an angler's paradise.

But there is a serious side effect most fishermen succumb to during their visits here. It's called jungle fever, and Ball and Gray -- a mere stone's throw from the lush, forested slopes falling gently toward the sea -- were coming down with it.

"If I came all the way down here and never made it into that jungle, I'd be kicking myself all the way home," Ball said, moments after releasing a 20-pound roosterfish. "I can catch most of these fish in a lot of places, but how often will I be able to see something like this?"

Gray nodded. Their visit was no longer a fishing trip, but one that would involve mingling with monkeys, wandering among wild orchids, marveling at large blue butterflies fluttering beneath the forest ceiling. And, finally, wandering off to scale a waterfall.

"That's what happens here," explained fishing director Todd Staley, back at the lodge. "For the most part, they come here to fish, but, for whatever reason, they end up doing the rainforest hike or something like that.

"Even the hard-core macho guys that end up doing the jungle tours, they come back and they go, 'That was real cool, you know. Just don't tell my buddies ... ' "

*

Staley is one of about 2,500 residents of Puerto Jimenez. He was hired by lodge owner Robin Williams -- not the actor-comedian -- who chose this area in which to build, he said, "because the southern zone had not yet been discovered."

Actually, it had been, years earlier by an entirely different crowd. There was gold in the hills and a sparkle in the eyes of those who came looking for it. There were saloons on the streets and from each was a well-worn path to the town brothel.

"Twenty-five years ago, this was the Wild West of Costa Rica," Staley says with a smile. "Guys used to go up into the mountains for weeks at a time, come into town with a pocketful of gold and leave with a hangover and a smile on their face."

That was before the Osa Peninsula -- once also a haven for poachers, loggers and cattle ranchers -- fell largely under federal protection, with the establishment in 1972 of Corcovado National Park and, subsequently, of several smaller reserves as buffer zones.

As a result, the peninsula is now one of the most ecologically diverse regions on earth. More than half of the country's 850 species of birds are found here. More than 140 species of mammals, 115 species of amphibians and reptiles, and more than 6,000 types of insects, call the jungle home.

In one area near the lodge, 386 species of trees were counted within about 2 1/2 acres. Plant life is equally varied and complex.

The coastal town of Puerto Jimenez, meanwhile, has retained some of its charm and wildness. Locals still prospect for gold, legally in some places, illegally in others. Cattle are still driven from pasture to pasture by men on horseback. Saloons are now simply called bars, and harlots are hookers, who work the bars on busy nights, prostitution being legal in Costa Rica.

Cockfights are the big event on Saturday nights.

For most tourists, though, this is merely a gateway into the interior. Several small eco-tourism lodges have sprung up within primary and secondary rainforests.

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