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Steamy and Sensational
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Steamy and Sensational
  San Jose Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

Exquisite orchids entwine themselves around lush vines and branches; they creep up tree trunks, hang from leaves, sprout on fungi and crawl along the forest floor. The beauty of the Guaria Morada, Queen of the Orchids, is so profound, its origin so pure and ancient ( its name was chosen by the pre-Colombian races), it has been the national flower of Costa Rica since 1939. Besides blooming in the gardens of Central Valley, the delicate pink clusters hang on rough drab adobe walls in parts of Alajuela like expensive wallpaper.

Coffee beans, banana, and sugar cane thrive in Costa Rica's sunshine; papaya, mango and pineapple are as common as the North American apple.

Every Saturday morning (daily in some), in almost every city in the seven provinces of the country, before even a hint of sunshine streaks across the darkness, the farmers gather at the market square. With just the stars for light, they silently sort their harvest, on uneven makeshift tables, in cardboard boxes and in weathered wooden crates.

Store merchants and hotel cooks are the first to appear. They come, some carrying sacks, others with huge baskets, to pick through the ripened bounty. By daybreak the whole village is awake -- squeezing, comparing, sampling and buying, among other things, the sweetest, tastiest fruit this side of the equator.

Costa Rica's woods -- oak, teak, almond, laurel, the nearly extinct purple heart and butternut . . . hum with the sounds of eight hundred and forty-eight chirping and cooing birds ( more than in the United States and Canada combined ) and flutter with 10 percent of all the world's butterflies ( more than in all of Africa ).

Over thirty national parks and refuges protect Costa Rica's wildlife species, from the endangered jaguar to the magnificent emerald and ruby-colored long-tailed quetzal.

You can get a glimpse of these exotic animals and the forest they call home while fishing creeks in the bush, while hiking to a volcano, while horseback riding in the mountains, or while riding on bus.

After a bumpy ride along a less-than-smooth highway through mist-shrouded rainforests, past acres of cocoa beans and pineapples, the tour bus stops at a banana plantation. The passengers step off the bus, their eyes riveted to the men at work in the fields. Swish, swish; the mud-splattered workers swing their machetes through the thick stalks of bananas as if slicing paper piatas.

The group listens with interest as the tall ( most Costa Ricans are of average height ), dark and handsome guide explains the harvesting steps and passes out tasty samples of sweet bananas. A furry creature scurries across the muddy row and disappears in the underbrush. An agouti, explains the guide to the excited tourists. He recognizes the rodent, about the size of a small pig, although only seeing him briefly. He can name any bird or animal spotted by the binocular-toting sightseers. In fact, he usually spots them first.

" Oh, no. Not another sloth! " he says, shaking his head feigning boredom. Sure enough. A lazy sloth dangles from a tree top on the banks of the Tortuguero Canals in the Tortuguero National Park on the second portion of the tour.

Like most Costa Ricans, the guide is relaxed and genuinely friendly and kids about his people and his country as if in the company of good friends.

" Sometimes we are too relaxed, " he says, adding, " Don't send a Costa Rican on an errand if you are in a hurry! "

Although deforestation continues and is of great concern, although their national debt is of huge proportions and the roads are in need of repair, Costa Ricans are generally happy, confident and proud of their accomplishments. They are proud of their impressive 93 percent literacy rate, their universal medical coverage and the fact that since 1948 they have had no army.

After a stop for a "cerveza" and "boca" (beer and tidbits) at a local tavern, the tour bus speeds back to the city skirting pothole after pothole. The passengers hardly notice. They are noisier than the howler monkey's in the jungle, chattering about the exciting and enlightening day's events.

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