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A World Apart
by Carolyn Underwood
photos by Michael L. Smith
Empty your buckets of harried thoughts, overloaded time schedules, "When are we going to get there's?" and "I really should be's." Relax. Enjoy life as it once was. Reawaken the joy of learning and the curiosity of childhood. Ignore your watch for a few days.

The trip to Tortuguero on the Riverboat Francesca is an extraordinary experience, made more so by the Francesca's owners, Fran and Modesto Watson. Time spent with the Watsons is like discovering Costa Rica with the original explorers. You come away feeling like a mate on one of Columbus's ships. Nature's delights are everywhere. And Fran and Modesto's way of quietly, gently pointing out the seemingly invisible will move you.

During the comfortable drive to the Caribbean coast village of Moín, the watery departure point of your tour, the Watsons explain the area's social and ecological history. After breakfast on the road, then a brief snack-and-baño stop at the dock, you're on your way in the Riverboat Francesca with Modesto at the helm.

Squirrel monkey
Squirrel monkey

Where you see water lilies and hyacinths, the Watsons see kingfishers, caimans, bright green iguanas and an occasional poisonous snake; Modesto slows the boat to point them out. In the towering trees along the canal, you see hanging vines, branches and leaves. They see howler and spider monkeys, toucans and sloths. Modesto eases the boat near the bank to give the monkeys a better look at you, and as they chatter among themselves about what an interesting species you are, Watson calls to them in their language. Modesto Watson knows this jungle.

As you travel through the broad canals, Fran and Modesto answer your questions, point out creatures hidden to the untrained eye (but clearly visible to theirs), generally envelop themselves in the peace and energy of the jungle and lead you ever so serenely into a special place on this planet.

Another delight on the water is the lunch served by Fran as you journey deeper into the jungle. Time is allowed for drifting, listening, observing and being a part of the teeming life that surrounds you and seems to drip from the canopy overhead.

For the impatient traveler who cannot help but look at her watch at this juncture of the trip, and perhaps wonder aloud "How much longer?", Modesto poses a philosophical question.

"What makes the music? Is it the notes themselves, or the pause between the notes? Think of this tour as the pause between the notes and enjoy the abeyance."

Sage advice for traveling anywhere in the world, but especially here.

Restful breezes release inner tensions; café-con-leche waters course beneath the riverboat, carrying you along. You begin to trade the old for the new. Great herons, northern jacanas, tiger herons, and toucans become your focal point. Lush flowers bejewel the jungle and cicadas bid you rest.

Arriving at the lodge where you will stay the night, there is time for settling in and relaxing from the journey--an opportunity to let go of extra baggage not already released; a time for thumping the bottom of your bucket, ready to be refilled.

Three-toed sloth
Three-toed sloth

Late in the afternoon, you gather at the dock for a trip across the canal to Tortuguero. This charming, life-as-it-used-to-be community is filled with gentle, hospitable folks who go about their lives and sweetly tolerate our curious presence. It is a time more for gathering in culture and information than for buying gifts and mementos, although those are available.

Several open-air restaurants serve foods with Nicaraguan and Caribbean influence, among them the acclaimed Miss Junie's. Wondrous aromas permeate the air. You share the simple delight of eating good food that someone else has prepared for you.

Back to the lodge for dinner and sleep, for the next morning begins with six-o'clock coffee, juice and snack before a tranquil cruise beneath the canopy.

There is a grace and majesty about the jungle that you can experience only by being quietly, genuinely present in it. Each level teems with life. It is at once mind-boggling and immensely humbling, this contemplative drift into the wilds. Watching monkeys leap across the canal through the canopy, listening to the whir of the hummingbird, breathing the fragrance of unseen blossoms, touching the shell of a turtle, tasting the jungle air--this world taps each sense ever so gently.

Awakened is the understanding that you are a part of a greater scheme. You are the progeny of Columbus. Childlike awe returns. The jungle is fragile. It is beautiful. To experience life at this level is indeed to become the explorer of a new world.

Just when you start to believe the tour is over, Modesto swings the riverboat into a wide turn and takes it to shore. There in the trees along the banks are more monkeys cavorting through the branches as if to bid adios. Families of turtles sun themselves on trees long fallen and waterfowl stand sentinel around the jungle's edge.

Thank you, Fran and Modesto. No one could surpass the love and care you demonstrate in your lovely Riverboat Francesca tours. And thank you, Christopher!


El Manatí Ecological Lodge
The lodge is located on the grand canal across from Tortuguero. Providing its clients with clean, comfortable lodging, hot water showers, fans in the screened-in rooms, home cooking, and beautifully landscaped grounds with hammocks in the shade, El Manatí is rustic and brimming with local charm. The lodge is equipped with kayaks and canoes for use in the river, ping-pong and other table games, and nature trails for hiking enjoyment. Toucans inhabit the vicinity well-guarded by Tombo, the handsome German Shepard who's everyone's friend. Contact the lodge at 233-3333.

The Riverboat Francesca tours are relaxing two-day/one-night all-inclusive escapes. They will put you up at El Manatí Lodge for US$165 (double occupancy). If you prefer something less rustic, you can stay at Laguna Lodge for US$180 (double occupancy). Both prices are complete including transportation to/from San José, the riverboat journey, lodging and food. A three-day/two-night tour, special excursions and fishing trips can also be arranged. The Watsons are fluent in both Spanish and English and may be reached at tel/fax (506) 226-0986.

Don't miss Cocori's feature Caribbean Dreamin'

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