Tree of Life Tours Lets The Rainforest of Costa Rica Thrive

Hiking to the Tree of Life Tours cave in Costa Rica. Photo by Stacey McKenna.

Gretel Quiros gasps and touches my arm. Finger to her lips, she draws me toward the path’s edge, where the foliage grows dense with ferns and sturdy ceiba trees. We stop and peer, as if over a ledge, into the center of a fanning, coffee-table-sized palm frond. “That is an eyelash viper,” she explains. Like all Tree of Life Tours employees, she bursts with knowledge and love of Costa Rica’s rainforest. The nocturnal snake rests, its vibrant daffodil body partially coiled, its eyes camouflaged by a feathery set of modified scales. Our small party — two guides, four guests — gathers around, curious but wary of the venomous serpent.

“Don’t worry,” Quiros says, smiling. “They aren’t aggressive. Don’t bother him and he won’t bother you.”

“Besides,” her partner and co-guide Diego Lopez pipes up, laughing just a bit. “We’re in the rainforest. We have plants for snake bites.”

And they do. This slip of lush mountain sits in the Path of the Tapir wildlife corridor, one of the only places on earth where biodiversity is on the rise. When naturalist and author Jack Ewing first moved to the region over 40 years ago, ranching and deforestation dominated. “I didn’t see a peccary [wild musk-hog] until 1996,” he says. “Now, I see a peccary every week.” There’s even promise that the vulnerable tapir will once again pass through these parts. Previously packed with haciendas, Costa Rica’s southern-central Pacific coast has transformed into “the land of small hotels and big parks.” Local families who once ran cattle have shifted careers, finding jobs and founding businesses that preserve nature.

Such efforts draw visitors to the region, providing economic boons for the entrepreneurs and surrounding towns. In 2012, green travel brought the small nation $2.4 billion in revenue. But not all eco-friendly destinations live up to their promises, explains Ray Krueger-Koplin, co-founder of Costa Rica Guide. “Too often, ecotourism means 800 rooms on the beach.” And with more international vacationers each year, expectations for peaceful getaways may be upended with delicate habitats disrupted. But, he continues, truly responsible companies do exist, especially along the increasingly bio-diverse ridges lining the southern-central Pacific coast. These gems — run by people “who really live there, who understand how to live there without trashing it” — truly celebrate the earth. “What they do is on a real level, not a marketing level,” he extols.

Tree of Life’s property stretches from the Pacific coast into the Tinamaste Mountains, a range so steep that the first-growth rainforest has remained intact. Jesse Chapman-Chinchilla, co-owner and head of operations, spent his youth exploring the estate’s caves, canyons and cascades with his father. These adventures serve as the blueprint for the outfitter’s wide offering of hikes, rappels, canyoneering trips and catered overnights. But even as the business grows, the family strives to keep its impact slight. Chapman-Chinchilla explains his company’s philosophy: “Since the land around Diamante Canyon is mostly primary forest, the main environmental responsibility there is to leave it alone.”

Our roughly 2.5-mile hike to Diamante Falls follows a decades-old cattle trail, climbing over 1,500 feet. Few new tracks cut through this living playground, but those that do trace the mountain’s contours to avoid unnecessary excavation. During the off-season, the forest quickly swallows paths less-trodden. Along the way, our guides pick medicinal plants for us to sample, a reminder of the healing powers contained within such a species-rich landscape.

About two-thirds of the way in, with bellies beginning to growl, we break for snacks at a garden. As we wander among the herbs, fruit trees and organic greens, my husband hands me half of a cocoa pod our guides have cracked open. Indulgently, I pop the beans, still coated with sweet white pulp, into my mouth. I’ve consumed nearly a fifth pound of cacao — chocolate’s key ingredient — before I think to ask the guide, “Diego… how much did you say we could eat without getting sick?”

He shakes his head, chuckling. “You’re fine, but don’t eat all of it. That fruit is for all four of you.” I blush and trade the fleshy shell for a fresh cinnamon stick.

Hikers rappel off a waterfall in Costa Rica. Photo by Stacey McKenna.

After just 30 more minutes of trekking, we crest the final bluff, pausing to absorb the sunlight. The canopy has fractured, cracking open where waterfalls, swimming holes and boulders replace the foliage. I remove my sunglasses, wiping sweat from my brow and inhaling the fragrant air, lighter but wetter than at sea level. A rocky wading pool sparkles cool and alluring to my right. Above and left, twin 90-foot cascades crash and fill the fleeting silence. All atwitter with excitement, we slip behind the veils of water into an open-air cave — our home for tonight.

Our guides prepare dinner while we ogle the campsite and explore the amenities. A full kitchen, shower and flush toilets — all sustainably built — ensure cozy guests, a minimal footprint, and plenty of awe-factor. “There is no question that you’ve left civilization behind” Chinchilla-Chapman says, “but the oasis of comfort makes it great for pretty much anybody, even if they’re not really that outdoorsy.”

As dusk approaches, we amble down a gentle path to the top of Costa Rica’s tallest waterfall. Settling in behind the cliff’s edge, we spot a toucan returning to the trees and a glass frog that fits on the pad of my thumb. The setting sun illuminates the distant ocean and tawny beaches of Dominical, casting watercolor streaks of light across the verdant foothills. Back at the cave, we spy glow-worms, roast marshmallows and play cards by candlelight before snuggling into our beds. The morning will bring more exploration, with cliff-jumping and waterfall rappels for the more adventurous. For now, I drift off to the sound of tumbling water, tucked into one of the world’s few increasingly wild places.

Published: 12/7/2015

Stacey is a freelance writer covering travel, adventure, health and social justice. A longtime vagabond, she lived all over the U.S. as well as in France, Austria, Morocco, and Canada before landing in northern Colorado. If not tramping about the U.S. with her husband and dog, she’s probably avoiding winter in the deserts or tropics.

You can read more of her writing at Stacey McKenna Writes, check out her climbing & travel blog, and follow her on Twitter.