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Sunday 15 Dec 2013
Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Curly wurly tree climbing

Andrea went zip-lining today while Steph and I had a walk in the woods.  Rick arranged a driver to take us out to the Curi Cancha cloud forest reserve.  On the way, we stopped at forest trail, where he led us down to the biggest Fica tree (strangler fig) I’ve ever seen.  They grow by wrapping their vines around another tree and climbing the trunk.  They gradually tighten their hold on the host tree and drop more air roots down to the ground, until they strangle and choke the life out of the host.  This decays inside the Fica, leaving a hollow mesh-like tunnel of twisted intermingled branches, looking a lot like a 3D Curly-Wurly!  If the Fica is strong enough by then, it can remain standing, but they often topple without their inner support, unless they can latch onto another nearby tree and continue their strangle hold. 

The tree we were shown had done just that.  After killing its host, the Fica had lent over and latched onto the branches of a neighbouring tree.  The result was an enormous hollow climbing frame, arching over 70m into the jungle canopy.  Stephanie was the first to climb up inside.  There was more than enough room to fit two of us inside at the base, so it must have been a well-established tree that had hosted the Fica originally.  Our guide went up next, leaving me to follow.  The bark was polished and slippery, an indication of just how many times people had climbed it, but with hand and footholds everywhere the climbing up was surprisingly easy.  Rather than think about how high I was going without any safety lines, I concentrated on placing my feet carefully – it would be a long and painful fall if I slipped.  The top section of the trunk got narrower as a few air roots had grown back down inside the trunk instead of outside.  It also bent over sharply and became almost horizontal, which made it a bit easier to climb but harder to avoid looking down through the gaps. 

Where it connected with the next tree, it opened into a sort of cradle where we could sit up - a bit like peeping out of a submarine turret.  I was happy there, but Steph convinced me to climb right out and stand on the crook of several large branches to really appreciate the view.  We could see through the treetops and for miles out across the valley.  Looking down was a bit stomach churning, as there was nothing but a few twigs between us and a VERY long drop to the ground.  I’m glad I did the climb because it was a fantastic feeling to be so far up in the canopy, but I was more comfortable back in the cradle of the Fica tree.  I climbed down slowly and carefully, pausing to take a few pictures of Steph above and my feet below me, just to try and capture the surreal quality of the moment.  I was climbing an awesome tree… from the inside!  This was definitely not what either of us had expected when asked if we wanted to climb a tree today!

We drove on to Curi Cancha and arrived as the weather was beginning to cloud over.  Stephanie works as a guide at the Grand Canyon and had taken a guided walk in Arenal, so I let her show me around and point out what she knew.  The lovely guy on reception marked a few trails for us to follow and off we went, talking about the US Parks and the delightful Government Shutdown as we walked.  It may have affected my holiday, but I still had an awesome roadtrip.  For Steph, it had meant missing out on several weeks of work – and wages.  Many people working in the Grand Canyon area live from paycheck to paycheck, so when the paychecks didn’t arrive, they were in real trouble.  By the end of the shutdown, food banks in Flagstaff were sending emergency food parcels to the Grand Canyon to feed those worst affected.  This was part of the reason that Arizona arranged to partially reopen the Canyon under State funding a week before the shutdown ended.  They were losing several million dollars a week by turning away the 18,000 visitors they would normal receive each day.

We had a very enjoyable walk through the cloud forest reserve, dodging the worst of the intermittent showers by staying under the trees.  There was a hummingbird garden in one clearing.  Several feeders had been hung from a tree in the middle, attracting the hummingbirds with sugared water.  There were at least 20 hummingbirds zipping and buzzing around between them, chasing each other off.  They are very territorial and quite aggressive for such beautiful tiny creatures.  I had fun watching them and trying to get a good photo without scaring them away or getting buzzed by the ones flying too close to my head.

The guide at the entrance had circled a place where a sloth had been spotted earlier in the day, so we were looking out for it in the trees.  We crossed another open space just before it, where a guide and two hikers were watching a tiny bird on a branch up above.  It was making a racket about something and I commented on it to the guide as we passed.  He grinned and said these birds were like Costa Rican men: “They’re small, but they make a lot of noise!”

We asked if they’d seen the sloth nearby, as we hadn’t found it yet.  He ran us a hundred meters or so down the trail and set up his telescope.  We could only see a few leaves and some yellow flowers at first, then realised that the ‘background’ was in fact sandy-coloured hair belonging to the sloth.  He was tucked away so high in the trees that, even knowing where to look, I struggled to see him without the scope.  No way would we have found him by ourselves.

Further down the trail we found a few creatures of our own: a peculiar pointy spider called an Arrow-shaped Micrathena; a rodent the size of a small dog, called an Agouti, who scurried down the path ahead of us before disappearing into the undergrowth; two huge flying turkeys and some amazing butterflies with see-through wings, delicately outlined in red and blue.

Back in town, I finally bought stamps for the 20 or so postcards I’ve been writing and failing to post for the last two months.  Some had US stamps on, but I hadn’t even been able to post them while transiting through Miami, as there are no postboxes once you’re through security.  I checked the price and ordered 20 stamps.  The girl pulled out 20 of the biggest stamps I’ve ever seen.  While I was trying to work out how I was going to fit them onto postcards I had already written, she produced another 20, only slightly smaller.  She followed this up with another sheet of average sized stamps and counted those out, while I silently begged her not to need any more.  I would have to fit one of each onto my already overcrowded postcards – I believe in writing postcards to fill the available space, but I must learn to buy stamps first from now on!  Somehow I made them fit (over, around and under the addresses in some cases) and Stephanie took photos as I triumphantly posted all 20 cards into the mailbox.

Later on, we had ceviche and beers at a great little place called the Tree House.  Rather than being built in a tree, as the name suggests, this was in fact built around a tree – despite being in the middle of a row of buildings.  A spiral staircase wound its way around the trunk in the centre of the room, leading up to an open-fronted first floor bar.  We had to climb around and duck under the branches as they spread out through the bar.  Tables were tucked into natural alcoves with lamps hanging from the branches above, which were covered in tiny white fairly lights.  It looked incredible. 


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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #2 Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica

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I met Christina in April. We travelled a bit of Australia together and both learned to dive. Now we're off to Mexico and Belize to see what the Caribbean and the Great Mesoamerican Reef have to offer, before I head down to Costa Rica for 10 days.

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