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The Accidental Hurricane in Costa Rica

A Fiery Billed Aracari

Ed Wetschler

The Second International Planet, People, and Peace Conference pretty much kept me indoors, but that’s not the only reason it took me several days to figure out that Costa Rica was being hit by a hurricane. The news I saw when I went online was mostly about Haiti, which is a long way from Costa Rica. Moreover, the heavy, conga-beating rain poured straight down, with hardly enough wind to even threaten a cheap umbrella. So on those few occasions when I was outside, I just assumed the bad weather was a function of the rainy season.

I stayed at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation and Inn during the conference, and I planned to check out two more ecolodges after the meeting was done. First stop on my itinerary: Arenas del Mar Ecolodge, a Pacific Coast ecolodge near Quepos. But after I’d sat at the airport all morning on Thursday, Nov. 4,  an attendant announced that all flights to Quepos were cancelled. The tarmac there was flooded, and there was no point trying to drive there, either, because the water had washed out roads and bridges.

Some would-be passengers hired a van to drive them to Quepos. Did they not understand the phrase, “roads are closed?” They went anyway. What happened to them? I have no idea.

Hurricane Tomás in Costa Rica

I returned to Finca Rosa Blanca, where Teri Osman Jampol, who owns this ecolodge with her husband, Glenn, gave me the grim news. On the hill on the far side of the valley – the main landmark I could see from my window when the rains allowed – a mudslide had rolled through a suburb and smashed into houses and killed at least two dozen people, and the death toll was bound to rise. “These rains were spun off by Hurricane Tomás,” she explained, too considerate to ask how on earth I hadn’t figured that out by now. This was not normal rainy season weather, not by a long shot.

Friday morning I got up very early again and went back to the airport. Quepos was still inaccessible, so my best option was to forget about Arenas del Mar. I was scheduled to visit Lapa Rios Ecolodge on Saturday, but during a half-hour lull in the downpour, someone announced that a plane would be flying to Puerto Jimenez, so I changed my ticket.

Up in the air, our 12-passenger plane flew through solid clouds and drenching rain. There was wind up there, too. Hurricane Tomás, linked in news reports to Haiti, actually had very long arms.

Toucans, Macaws, and Monkeys

That night I slept in a little hotel in Puerto Jimenez; the road to Lapa Rios was, in places, under four feet of raging torrents. The next day a Lapa Rios SUV somehow drove/swam through the obstacles and got me up to the lodge.

Guest room at Lapa Rios

The staff’s greeting was warm, the main building a sky-high, polished wood, thatched roof marvel with fabulous views of the rainforest below. My room had similar architecture and views; its centerpiece was a handmade bed with mosquito netting. My meals included the likes of moist pork tenderloin encrusted in macadamia nuts and coconut; side dishes featured subtle hints of cumin and cilantro.

I walked amid red and yellow heliconia, towering balsa trees, Tarzan-worthy vines. I saw strawberry sundae spoonbills, chatty parrots, fiery-billed toucans, an entire tree full of scarlet macaws. I watched a howler monkey nurse her baby, big spider monkeys swing branch to branch, squirrel monkeys wave their long and furry tails, capuchin monkeys imitate scull-capped old men.

Enthralling? You bet. I forgot all about the floods, the property losses, the missing and the dead. And this, I think, is the tourist’s dilemma. If we go somewhere that is really extraordinary, if we see and do things that are unique, as I did at Lapa Rios, then the real world recedes far, far into the background. Is that good or bad?

At San Jose’s international airport, where I’m writing this while waiting to fly back to the States, two locals are still talking in a sad, hushed way about what happened on that hill above the central valley.

Click here to read Ed Wetschler’s reports on  Costa Rica from the beginning.

Ed Wetschler, Associate Editor of Everett Potter’s Travel Report, has written for The New York Times, Delta Sky, Caribbean Travel & Life, the Official Pennsylvania Guide, and other print and new media. He is president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine.

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