On top of creation

Normally, only parrots and toucans get an overview of the rainforest of Central America. Simon Calder joined them

Who the heck put that there? Anyone who has skied in the Alps will recognise the equipment. Yes, it is at altitude (about a mile high), and the base station lies in a valley. But the setting for this open-sided gondola is unlike any cable car you have ever seen. Instead of soaring above blanched mountainsides, it floats over Central America, a leaf's whisper above the rainforest canopy.

When I first heard about an "aerial tram", strung over the highlands of Costa Rica, I was horrified. How can anyone get away with plonking a gawking great piece of Alpine machinery in the middle of the country that has done more than almost any other to preserve its natural order?

Quite easily, it turns out. From the capital, San Jose, you approach the location on the road across the continental divide to the Atlantic port of Limn. This is a typical Costa Rican highway, which means its characteristics are (a) savage swerves, (b) unfeasible gradients and (c) a wildly three-dimensional surface straight out of the Somme.

Wherever your gaze turns, it seems to be filled with an improbable amount of scenery: great brutes of rock impassively look down upon the timidity of man's endeavours, while patches of ultra-green jungle are highlighted by the tropical sun, then suddenly subdued when a cloud bumbles past.

Below you, especially on the bends that resemble the hairiest of pins, those gaping voids look ready to swallow up anything that moves an inch too far beyond the highway.

So it is something of a relief to stumble upon a cake shop.

A short way off the highway is a huddle of timber lodges that comprise base station for the Mesa Verde cable car. The restaurant at the centre sells all sorts of food, but a restorative slab of sponge and shot of coffee is what you need to bolster your nerves, here between the devil of a Costa Rican highway and the deep green sea of rainforest. Now you are ready to explore the settlement, and to discover that what could, from a distance, be taken to be a logging camp serves exactly the opposite purpose.

You find yourself being educated about the rainforest, and the creation of a theme park where the motif is nature, in a beguilingly unscholarly manner. This pre-flight briefing tees you up nicely for a preciously intense experience. With a bit of ungainly clanking, the gondola creaks aloft to a world that is humdrum to the hundreds of species of bird that make Costa Rica their home, but which few humans ever see: life in the treetops, on top of creation.

The ride lopes, rather than swoops, across the valley, swaying gently in time with the birdsong. This is terrain, you are told, that is in rejuvenation after a fire raged through it. Nature does that, which is why anyone desperate to preserve primary rainforest will have to put up with the trees - and those creatures that snuggle symbiotically within their embrace - being periodically reduced to ashes. You could be floating across the millionth version of this extraordinarily renewable resource.

Awe: not the call of a macaw, but the main emotion when you are confronted by the natural scheme of things. Close to the top, only the most energetic young buds emerge, and this sparse, magically translucent carpet allows you to peer through to the stout trunks of tropical hardwoods. Lower down, the branches knit increasingly closely with a web of ambitious creepers and waifish ferns.

The spectrum narrows to a flush of greens, which reaches its darkest conclusion when it merges with earth the colour and texture of treacle. To expand the colour range, just look up: the Costa Rican sky always seems to be ripped in a spat between blissful blue and baleful clouds whose mean darkness increases proportionately with the intensity of the sun sneaking through the gaps.

A non-violent U-turn (this is a cable car, not a Costa Rican bus) ushers you back the way you came, but so adroit is the concealment of the base- camp cluster that you are on your final descent before you see the 20th century approaching and shaking you roughly from your dream flight. This time, the cake tastes even sweeter.

You will have worked out that cable cars require a series of supports. How can this be achieved without devastating the forest floor? With difficulty. Donald Perry, the American behind the project, hired a helicopter from the Sandanista army of neighbouring Nicaragua to drop the pylons in.Environmental purists can make a sound case against the venture - not least on the grounds that it will encourage tourists to fly thousands of miles to hover above the rainforest. Yet if ever there were a means of creating instant affection for this fragile planet, the cable car achieves it.

Affection accompanies you throughout a trip to Costa Rica. I'm even fond of the squabble of unofficial currency dealers that greets new arrivals at San Jose airport, resembling a battalion of bandidos. Though these fellows look even shiftier than the immigration officials, you soon realise you are unlikely to be robbed either by them or their poorer, more desperate compatriots in the ragged quarters of San Jose.

You know those places where you feel instantly at home, even though you are thousands of miles from domesticity? The capital of Costa Rica is like that. The main street is a riotous shambles, but dart down any side street to devour a stack of tortilla and you will make friends, if not for life then at least for as long as it takes to gulp down a beer.

Every visitor gravitates to El Pueblo, an entertainment complex on the (relatively) affluent north side of town. Imagine a mock-colonial village infiltrated by some swaggeringly good restaurants, and you have a place which feels a bit like the set from an Hispanic soap opera. It's tremendous fun: when San Jose flutters its civic eyelashes and pouts, you can almost believe you're in Buenos Aires.

The more you look around, the more you suspect you are the only member of the audience to have accrued your wealth by entirely legitimate means. With luck, a Bolivian band will bring a rarefied Andean repertoire for the benefit of a well-heeled clientele. The shrill panpipes will resonate with tuneful gasps that tempt you deeper into Latin America. That happened the first time I came here, and within a year I was gasping through La Paz. But I keep coming back to Costa Rica, to partake of a commodity that both the people and the land share in abundance: good nature.

Simon Calder bought his flights through South American Experience (0171- 976 5511), flying to Miami on Virgin Atlantic, and onwards to San Jose on American Airlines. The best price at present for this route is pounds 455 return, including tax.

Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Sport
footballLive: Latest news from Champions League draw
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

EYFS Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Our Primary School in Grimsby ar...

Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 6 Supply Teacher Position a...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?