Monkeys, alligators, and a close encounter with a 60-pound tarpon

`I'M late. I'm sorry. I have no excuse. I'll make it up. I'll show you monkeys, and alligators, and things you've never seen before. I promise,'' puffed our petite guide, as she scrambled onto the bus at 5:45 a.m. Good. That's what we came for: monkeys, alligators, and whatever creepy-crawlies keep a safe distance.

``My name is Anna - like `banana.' OK, we have a 3-hour ride to the boat. Let's go,'' she said, slapping our sleepy bus driver on top of his bald head.

Seven of us were aboard a mini-bus, ready to roll from San Jos'e, the capital city, to Lim'on, on the east coast. And from there, by boat to Barra Colorado, home of Archie Field's internationally heralded fishing mecca, Rio Colorado Lodge.

Anna, full of pep, kept us from dozing on that long, bumpy ride with her bouncy manner and banter and radar-like observations.

``Stop the bus!'' she'd scream. ``Back up. Back up. Back up. See it? A three-toed sloth. Hanging in that tree. See it?''

We all saw it. Sloths take their raps for their lack of alacrity, but they're a photographer's delight. Once they're spotted, everyone gets a shot. They just hang around, upside down. Most wildlife isn't that cooperative.

Back on the road, we passed banana and coffee plantations. ``That one's owned by an Iranian,'' Anna pointed out.

Water apples hawked by some young boys by the side of the road caught the ever alert eye of Anna. ``Stop the bus!'' she yelled. ``The more it rains, the better they are,'' she said, passing the smooth, pink fruit around. The white flesh oozed with juice. ``It rained a lot this year,'' she added with a nod of approval, biting into the squishy fruit.

Finally arriving in Lim'on, we boarded the Colorado Queen. If you've seen ``The African Queen,'' you've seen our boat - sans Bogart, Hepburn, leeches, and engine trouble.

The Queen was filled with plenty of sandwich fixin's, more fresh fruit, and cold drinks. And for our boating comfort and safety, a dozen US Coast Guard-approved ``Jim Buoy'' life preservers.

We chugged slowly through the still, khaki-colored waters, as Anna and Wendell, our Jamaican captain, scanned the trees and waters. The journey to Rio Colorado is through a 65-mile labyrinth of lagoons, rivers, and manmade canals - a spectacular, relaxing way to enter this tangle of vegetation.

No beach line on these waters. Massive palms stretch 30-foot fronds over the water, forming an umbrella for us to glide under.

The entire area teems with life. Payti turtles, with smooth shells shiny as a Marine's boot, jockey for position along half-submerged logs. Giant green iguanas sleep, soaking up the sun, with all four legs dangling limp over a branch. These dragon-like creatures drew gasps from the passengers - and drools from Wendell. ``Wooden chicken! That's what we call 'em. That one's about seven pounds. Very good eatin','' he said, as we passed under a snoozing lizard.

We were quite happy with our ham-and-cheese sandwiches.

Occasionally we passed a little village of grass huts set up in a clearing beneath the palms. Kids would wade out and wave, while men quietly cast their blue nylon nets from the bank. Women stared solemnly, as we putted past. Other men fished from dugout canoes.

And yes, Anna, true to her word showed us alligators dozing by the edge of the water, and howler monkeys taking a siesta high in the ebo trees.

The only thing that seemed awake and moving that day was us. But after the six-hour noisy ride to Rio Colorado Lodge, we were ready for a nap ourselves.

No way! A cage of bilingual yellow-nape parrots wouldn't hear of it. ``Hello,'' and ``Ola,'' they squawked, as we disembarked. A cage of eight red-and-yellow macaws joined the noisy welcoming committee. One fishing boat pulled up, as we unloaded our luggage. One gentleman of the two was obviously successful.

``Y'all stand back now. I'll be givin' autographs at six o'clock, or whatever is convenient for the masses,'' he boasted with a broad Alabama grin and accent. He had landed a tarpon, and quite a large one, according to his fishing buddy.

Tarpon may be the Rolls-Royce of game fish, but they're about as tasty as used coffee grounds. Our Jamaican captain thought otherwise and offered his recipe for tarpon balls, which at least, sounded better than iguana stew.

So almost all tarpon are released. A good game fish around here, they say, is too good to be caught only once.

Accommodations at Rio Colorado Lodge are simple but comfortable. The lodge is comprised of a series of long, low-slung buildings that stretch along the water. Individual cabins are built on stilts and are strung together by a labyrinth of wooden walks. My nearest neighbors were a pair or spider monkeys.

Other animals are kept here - birds, of course, and monkeys, and even an ocelot. A busy, chatty flock of Japanese silky chickens adds an oriental touch.

The broad, covered veranda overlooking the water is the meeting place before and after dinner. The conversation is always fishing. No TV here - just an occasional Puccini aria from the manager's cabin.

Fishing groups go out twice a day. Each 16-foot aluminum boat holds a pair of fishermen, a guide, and a trunk of cold drinks. Some head for the open sea; others stay on the river. Tarpon is the big attraction here. Snook, drum, shark, and mackerel also frequent the waters.

I'd like to tell you about the 60-pound tarpon I nailed the morning I fished - but there were witnesses. Anyway, you don't have to land one to get the thrill of the sport. Hooking one was about as much excitement as I think I could take.

After I sat patiently on the water for two hours, a tarpon grabbed my lure and shot out of the water like a silver Nike missile. The four-footer crashed down with such thunder that I completely lost all sense of what I was supposed to do. After what seemed like an endless amount of thrashing and reeling, my tarpon slipped away.

It didn't matter. The very emotional jolt of hooking one of those giants and the sight of it flashing from dark water to sunlight were quite unforgettable.

Others that day were more successful - so they said over our all-you-can-eat, family-style dinner.

Again, you don't have to fish to enjoy your stay at Rio Colorado Lodge. Many of the women didn't fish, and many had been here several times before. Of course, some women come for game fishing as well, although the day I spent here, none did.

You may also arrange to fly to the lodge from San Jos'e. The best plan may be to do as we did: boat in, and fly back.

If you go

The price of a one-day tour, including bus, boat, meals, and flight back to Jan Jos'e, is $149. Two-day overnight is $195 per person, double occupancy. All fishing equipment is provided at Rio Colorado. One-half day fishing, including guide, is $100 for two. Lures are only paid for if lost. All cabin/rooms have private toilets and showers. For more details contact Rio Colorado Lodge, PO Box 5094-1000, San Jos'e, Costa Rica. Call (506) 32-4063 or 32-8610; or telex 3379 RIOCO CR.

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