Backpack

Branching out

Science meets tourism in the Costa Rican rain forest

WARREN CARAGATA May 15 1995
Backpack

Branching out

Science meets tourism in the Costa Rican rain forest

WARREN CARAGATA May 15 1995

Branching out

Backpack

TRAVEL

Science meets tourism in the Costa Rican rain forest

Tree ferns and palmettos stretch towards the heavens through wisps of rain-laden clouds. High in the Costa Rican rain forest, radiant heliconias bloom like orange-red flames and hummingbirds sip from the flowers of passion-fruit trees. The stillness is broken by the strange calls of insects and monkeys and the lulling sound of water running through the undergrowth. But another sound seems out of place in the tangle of vegetation—a mechanical whisper marking the passage of an aerial tram. Suspended from a thick steel cable, the open car glides through the canopy of the rain forest, taking its occupants on a gentle jungle ride with not a muddy path or a machete swing in sight. Indiana Jones would not be amused.

The aerial tram, in operation since October in a patch of privately owned jungle an hour’s drive northeast of San José, is not in an amusement park. Rather, it is an improbable union of capitalism and environmental zeal, the work of transplanted American biologist Donald Perry. And it is another sign of Costa Rica’s growing dependence on green tourism, for visitors to the small Central American country, with no army and an astonishing diversity of plant and animal life, have supplanted coffee and bananas as the main source of income. Almost 700,000 tourists arrived in 1993, the last full year for which figures are available, about one tourist for every five people. One third, government officials say, come for the bounty of Costa Rican nature.

Perry is not an entrepreneur, but a scientist devoted to the study of the canopy of the rain forest—the treetop level that shelters an astonishing diversity of life. The difficulty with studying the canopy is getting to it, and after developing a series of cables, pulleys and platforms that allowed him to study it up close, Perry decided that the same methods could be used to let others see what had long fascinated him. The aerial tram is a converted ski lift strung along 12 towers over a one-mile course in an area of 1,000 acres adjacent to the Braulio Carrillo National Park, one of the country’s biggest preserves. The trip takes about 90 minutes, the outbound leg cruising six to 10 feet above the forest floor, the return leg soaring through the canopy, 100 or more feet above the ground, on an equal plane with the tops of the trees. Each car holds five people, including a naturalist guide with a radio who can stop the tram if a passenger sees something that warrants closer scrutiny. The cars are well spaced along the cable so that visitors rarely see another car through the dense vegetation and the small number of people in each helps keep down the chatter. It works, for the overwhelming sense is one of silence broken only by the arresting insect noises and animal calls. It is a silence that is profoundly soothing, an effect magnified by the muted and diffused sunlight.

The patch of rain forest where Perry still conducts biological research is home, he says, to one of the most diverse collections of

flora and fauna on earth—the equal of equatorial rain forests in Brazil, Malaysia and Africa. In fact, a Hollywood film crew was there recently filming an adventure movie called Congo. It is also one of the wettest places on earth, getting more than 250 inches of rain a year, Perry says. That is about seven times as much rain as falls on Vancouver. (Rain gear is strongly advised—it rains almost constantly, sometimes drenching downpours but usually just a drizzle.) The heavy moisture is responsible for the great biodiversity of the forest; according to Perry, there are 1,500 species of plant alone in the 1,000-acre plot. There

is also a wide variety of animal life: sloths, monkeys, tapirs and even jaguars.

But the animals are rarely seen, either because they are nocturnal or carefully camouflaged. Bird life is a better bet,

including toucans, warblers and para-

keets, perhaps even a wayward quetzal, the magical bird of the Mayans with its dazzling, iridescent colors, The chief attraction, though, is the forest. While the tram attracts as many as

100 people a day—the busiest season is winter—it is not simply the allure of tourist dollars that made Perry devote himself over the past four years to the tramway, raising more than $2.5 million from investors and watching over its construction. The fact that the tramway took two years to build is testament enough that Perry is not out to make a quick buck from the eco-tourism fad. “I am a purist,” he says, explaining his decision not to put in a road under the tramway path to facilitate construction. Instead, crews used helicopters to bring in building materials and, where possible, pulled trees out of the way of the cable with ropes rather than cut them down. “If we want to preserve this community, it is important that people see it.” The $65 fee helps subsidize free trips that Perry provides for local schoolchildren. “I am doing this to educate as many people as possible about the beauties and mysteries of the rain forest,” he says.

Not that Perry, the son of a Montana logger, is under any illusions that one tramway through a rain forest will help slow the rush to cut it down. “I try not to make any claims about our impact,” he says. But Perry has managed with the project to turn the area from a forest reserve that could be logged into a private, protected sanctuary. “For a tree hugger like me,” he says, “that’s exciting.”

WARREN CARAGATA in San José