Travel can be unexpectedly educational and our trip to Costa Rica in 1992 is a case in point. We knew little about the country and so on arrival, as we often did, we went to the National Tourist Bureau in San Jose for information. When we learned there was a tour called ‘Oro Verde’ [Green Gold] that could be taken into the one of the National Parks in the northeast bordering on the San Juan River and Nicaragua, we were keen to sign up – see map on the left.
The tour was run by Germans and, in spite of the fact they needed a break after taking care of a large group of Europeans, we persuaded them to take the two of us with them when they went back to regroup. Our first stop was at a depot camp where they had an office and kept supplies. While we waited, we explored the grounds and were surprised to discover the rusting hull of a fairly large vessel.
Our curiosity was assuaged on the last lap of our journey into the jungle to the camp on the south bank of the San Juan River. We learned that during the California gold rush of 1849, Cornelius Vanderbilt established a cheap, reliable way for prospectors on the east coast to travel to the gold fields of California by traveling up the San Juan River in steamboats, sailing across Lake Nicaragua and then being transported overland by stagecoach to a waiting ship that took them up the Pacific coast to San Francisco. Once established, the route could handle 2,000 passengers a month at a fare of $300. Comparing this sea route to the long hazardous overland trip across the continent in covered wagons, it is no wonder that business was brisk and made Vanderbilt a 'pretty penny'. I have since learned that this route linking the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans once vied with Panama as a choice for the great Canal.
We arrived at the camp at sundown, mixed with the workers and guides as we ate an evening meal, and eventually were bedded down under mosquito nets. At dawn we were awakened by the incredibly loud roar of howler monkeys and, not having been forewarned, we could have been terrified but for our sturdy cabin and the stirrings of our hosts.
We spent an interesting and happy few days at the camp - every morning watching as a boat on the river stoped at each small wharf to pick up children. They were being ferried to school that was compulsory for all even in this northern wilderness. Sometimes we had a guide who spoke English and on our first walk with him, he showed us a huge tree that was an example of others like it that the Germans had bought to prevent it from being cut down for timber. As we tramped around in the dense forest and he pointed out tiny red frogs and other creatures and plants strange to us. It was an unforgettable experience and we decided in the end that the ecotourism we enjoyed was aptly named ‘Oro Verde’. Rie