Saturday, April 13, 2013

Big Fish

They're huge. The fish. At Rio Indio Lodge the fishing is good.  Great actually. This Nicaraguan oasis was built on the Indian River (Rio Indio) through the vision of Dr. Alfredo Lopez. Dr. Lopez, a Costa Rican physician and businessman saw the potential of what could be done, not just for tourism, but also for the local tribe of indigenous people in this part of Nicaragua, the Rama. This incredible lodge is in the southern tip of Nicaragua, just over the northern border of Costa Rica.  Walking into the lobby after a four to six hour longboat ride up the beautiful jungle lined Indian River is like dropping into a dream. The lodge was built in the Rio MaĆ­z National Park, adjacent to Rama villages.
The walkways are elevated, Swiss Family Robinson style in the event of high water and to create a perfect view into the rainforest. Its like being at a five-star tree fort.
And the fish.  Are huge. Check this out...  We are here to film for the Exploration Nation project, but the other guests here are sports fishermen that go out every day with the guides Dr. Lopez and his business partners have retained to take fishermen to the hot spots along the river, and out into the Caribbean. They've come back with huge, I mean Labrador retriever sized fish. These guys know their stuff, they are Rama. This is a world class stretch of river for tarpon. We've seen them offload massive snapper, jack and snook.  They served it up here at the lodge, their chef Johnny showed me how its done. The snapper was so big it would never fit in my oven at home. Johnny baked it first then put a rub on it and grilled it, serving the whole fish on a table that appeared to sag under the weight of it. Every section of that fish was white creamy mild and most of all ... fresh. I have not wanted for anything in terms of quality of food on this trip, and that has been true of Rio Indio Lodge.
It would be a great place to go for a vacation sometime, the jungles here having doubled as my office, its been hot sweaty work punctuated by great food and a comfortable bed. Every now and then, we catch an eyeful of a basilisk lizard or poison dart frog, white faced monkeys or the rarely seen, but often heard howler monkeys.  I'm not complaining but it would be a great thing to come here and relax a little.
Dr. Lopez is always present it seems.  He has been treating the Rama since he first came here for diseases and triage. He's a kind soul. Today we will travel to a Rama village with a team of doctors from the US that have flown in to provide a clinic. Our days work on Thursday was to visit the local shaman ... a medicine man. He is ancient, and, his knowledge of the rainforest is unmatched. He is also the last if his kind.  Our interview with this quiet holy man was very ,moving actually. Say what you will about jungle medicine, Narcisso, the shaman, has held cancer at bay, cured malaria, and managed diabetes using only the plants and resources he finds in the rainforest. He has no need of a smart phone, I get the feeling his response to most questions would be, "there's a plant for that". I might be more skeptical were I not on the shoot with two medical professionals, one of whom is an ER doc in Texas, and a third expert on jungle survival - Sam Kaufman of The Human Path, (, a survival school I hope to attend in the future. Sam was even wide-eyed as Narcisso described the tip of the iceberg of what he knows about simple and complex cures and preventative medicine.
The Rama, the guides and shaman, the cooks, those that this wonderful lodge has employed and helped through Dr. Lopez's efforts, live in this mutual symbiosis with the visitors and business partners of Rio Indio Lodge.  The fish are huge. But I think even for the fishermen, its not just about the fish. Its about living somewhere exotic if only for a few days and leaving the demands of whatever it is that complicates your life for a while. I'm hoping this place is hard to forget. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Howl of the Wild

They are howler monkeys. In this post I am just going to link to a video I made yesterday morning from the screened in porch of my cabin.  The microphone on my tablet isn't as good as I'd like, but listen closely and you'll hear them.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Pura Vida

They say it all the time the Costa Ricans do. Its the celebratory unofficial greeting I think. One of them told me it means "the great life!" Another said it was the same thing as the Africans saying "hakuna matata". Which I guess is the same thing, Australians would say "no worries" the Costa Ricans mean it, at least the ones I've met. The say it with gusto.
Its not an easy life. But of course its more like the wish for one. And they wish it on each other and on us. The burrows that pull the banana carts at the banana plantation we visited get along well. The workers there are paid a wage for each evidence of a pruned tip of the flower during that phase of the growing process. They make a living but will by no means realize their dreams this way. There are so many jobs but its hardly what moat Americans would consider the good life. Like so many places I've seen around the world they seem happy enough and some we've met on this trip have truly celebrated the pura vida.
Yesterday we were at the Rios Tropicales eco lodge and farm ... Rafa, the lodge owner, a visionary and inspiring Costa Rican that built the lodge met us at the top of our gruelling hike out from the river gorge. We were filming along the way and stopped several times to look at bats in the nook of a tree or to gently view a fer-de-lance viper that was so nearly invisible as it sat coiled on open ground that it took me five full minutes to see what everyone was pointing at. "No, left of the gray stick...just up from the brown leaf, look its right there."  Finally it came into view. So deadly I was told, that to be bitten by one would mean not leaving the mountain. Each step after that and I was thinking it took me that long to see one in the open. What about the countless unseen snakes that were only a bite away? They can strike something like two times their body length. They don't go looking for trouble though, and the key is to stay on the trail. Cutting switchbacks makes a mess of a good trail, and if snakes keep a hiker on the beaten path where reptiles rarely set up shop, that's good enough for me. Up at the top of that climb was where Rafa was waiting.
He keeps buying jungle to protect it and farm land to convert it back to jungle. He was gracious and generous with his time as well as sharing his lodge and staff with us. Rafa is not out to horde the good life to himself, but to make Costa Rica the place where everyone enjoys pura vida as the rainforest is put back to what it was. There is enough agricultural land still working in other areas of Costa Rica and so when Rafa buys land that isn't being farmed any longer he is creating economy where farmers have moved on leaving a razed terrain behind. Rafa knows and is not bashful about describing what is at stake. Its not some tree hugger mythology he embraces. Its the grassland dust bowl effect he is striving to avoid. Not that there is anything to fear in the same sense of the American dust bowl since drought seems a long way off from this place. Because the areas that were rainforest are now grazing land at best, there is no way for a forest to return on its own. So Rafa looks for areas that would benefit from certain kinds of plants...
Bamboo along a stretch will provide fast growing and harvestable products to build with. The early presence of the bamboo helps the other replanted trees to survive, this one near a water source,  a stand of this species on a hill top and underbrush over there. Eventually it returns to a full fledged rain forest. He pointed to the hill we walked up ... an ancient jungle, then to an area far more immature ... a twenty year old reforestation project. It looked the same only, slightly... shorter. Then in anther direction and he says, "I just bought that one and we have begun the early stages of planting."
He jokes, "my wife buys new shoes, I buy more jungles. Pura vida!". Its very impressive. We walked down to the talapia pond. They feed them cilantro. There is another area where mules and horses are allowed to graze because it fertilizes the ground and keeps the weeds from overtaking the saplings that have become tall enough to not be eaten as well. That area is along a river bed and the presence of the animals and forest has returned a watershed to what was lost during the slash and burn ranching decades ago.  Rafa points to a mound, "that is a species of leaf cutter ants, we need them during these first three years.". Pura vida, for now its a good life for the little green sailboat looking insects.  They trail each other all day long with cuts of flat greens to bring back to the hive. There they grow a kind of fungus on the leaves for their own food, apparently one of the only creatures besides man to grow its own food.
Walking backwards, I was filming as our hosts chat casually with Rafa about carbon and Ricardo Molina, our Costa Rican sound man, not a small man, steps, also backward into soaking wet mud up to his knees. He extracted one foot, shouting, "mi zapato"--- my shoe. It was there in the hole but he was left wearing only a sock. The rest of the day was squishy, but he did not disappoint us, as he laughed histericaly and when we finally got him cleaned up he turned to me and said ... haha, pura vida   
Now I'm aboard a longboat on the six hour ride upriver to Rio Indio lodge in Nicaragua  for the next segment. We've already seen three crocodiles. They are the true top of this food chain. And by the looks of them I don't think they've missed many meals.
A good life indeed.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Rios Tropicales

I am at Rios Tropicales. -  This eco lodge sits on the something that starts with a "P" river. We came here by boat, well actually, by white water raft. It is beyond beautiful. This was my first white water trip and it was a rush. We embarked at a point in the road well above Horquetas and Rio Frio at the meeting point above the river in a squalor town we transferred our gear to a large trailer that was being pulled by a tractor. Literally a farm tractor that took us down the road that our river guide, Chino, called a .. class four road. And it was. The 20 minutes down the steep grade took us to the loading point where we got into the rafts and began the ten kilometer ride down one of the most beautiful rivers on earth. It was spectacular.
We, all of us, pulled and pushed our paddles against the river over large rocks and bump and tumbled into huge ones all in an attempt to avoid the enormous ones. And that was how we came to this place, Rios Tropicales.
The eco lodge is made up of spectacular cabins and rooms. The floors are crafted from river stone and the furnishings are upscale. As I write this with all my screened windows open I hear the sound of the river all around me. Its as though I am on the bank of the river. I happen to be approximately a hundred feet up from the water, but the huge rapids that run in front of the lodge .. I'm in room 1... make an incredibly loud noise. And that is punctuated by crickets and buzzing chirping jungle insects. I've never been anyplace like this before.
When we pulled our rafts onto the shore and unloaded we could hear howler monkeys in the distance. I'm told that we will likely hear them again in the morning.
Today after our rafting experience, the show hosts, our three 12 year holds, rappelled down a waterfall. We walked across a suspension bridge that tipped and twisted as we walked across. I flew the helicopter drone up the face of the waterfall to capture part of the experience from a very different angle. It was the hardest flying I'd done yet. The waterfall made a difficult to maneuver updraft as it crashed into the pool of water below. Never mind that there was no place to take off or land. Loren held it over his head as he balance on the edge of the pool. Above the falls was a thick canopy of jungle. One wrong move and the flight would be over. The helicopter couldn't find the satellites for its GPS assist so I flew the mission completely on my own. After filming the climbers I returned the drone to Loren's reach where he put up his hand and caught it. I flew it twice and got some great footage.
Time for bed. I get up at 5:30 to film the lodge from the other side of the bridge. Again ... with the helicopter.
So for now I will let the river lull me to sleep.

- note- this entry was written last night as I drifted off to sleep with the something-that-starts-with-a-"p" river outside my windows. There was no internet at the lodge. I will write again in the morning. I'm too exhausted now that we are back at the Sun Sun. We leave early in the morning for Nicaragua. The reason for the rushed departure is unusually low water in the river we are traveling on. We apparently need to get there before dark as there are crocodiles in the water and they don't recommend spending the night on the water with them. Its normally a 4-hour boat ride. No telling what it will be tomorrow.
This morning after my early flight filming the Rios Tropicales we hiked up a 900 vertical foot climb to the top of the ridge. The path was clear but the jungle surrounding it was hot, humid and unforgiving. We came across poisonous snakes, thousands of leaf cutter ants and bullet ants that are so venomous that five bites will send you to the hospital. Not to worry though. Its not like they hunt you down. They keep to themselves and unless you go looking for them, you'll never know they were there. Its true that more people go to the hospital gagging on a chicken bone than for anything having to do with accidental encounters with wildlife. Get over it.  The one we saw was over an inch long. An ant.  Look at a ruler, an inch is a lot for an ant. We also came across a 100' tall tree loaded with long teardrop shaped nests of a large beautiful oriole. I couldn't resist and flew over the tree with the helicopter and filmed the nests up close. It was incredibly fun.
OK. Off to bed and let's hope there is internet in Nicaragua. I will write more from the Sun Sun and again on the boat ride up to Rio Indio.