PETER ASPINALL hops two feet off the ground, snatches a carambola (star fruit) from the tree, inspects it, and hands it to his guests. Gingerly, we take small bites. Although star fruit is grown in Florida and marketed in some parts of North America, we've never laid eyes on one. Shaped like a star with a waxy-looking surface, the first taste is sweet and juicy. Our bites get bigger, our grins wider as we pass the fruit around to each other. Mr. Aspinall, who had worn the nervous look of a student as his paper is graded, is happily satisfied at our enthusiastic response.
Welcome to Tiskita Lodge, an unlikely vacation spot in the hot and humid rain forests of southern Costa Rica. A combination exotic fruit station and biological reserve, it is perched on the lush hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. An abundance of birds - green parrots, falcons, tanagers, and toucans - are regularly seen going about their business. In the mornings and evenings, a troupe of spider monkeys comes and goes from their sleep hideaways near the open-air bungalows.
Breezes from the sea bring comfort from the warm air, but at midday, we swing lazily in the hammock on our porch, sipping whatever fresh fruit drink has been placed in our bungalow that morning. The roar of the waves is our background music, as two of the other eight guests jump in the surf far below.
But the biggest delight in this tropical haven is not simply the nature show. It's the idea behind Tiskita and its host. Peter Aspinall, a native Costa Rican with a Canadian and US education, is not your ordinary hostelry owner catering to tourists. He's a farmer, first and foremost, and one who is intent on protecting the environment while being a successful grower.
Not that Aspinall neglects his guests. On the contrary, he sweeps you up in his love for his fruit trees and the intricate maze of life that teems in his forests. This is less a leisure holiday than an environmental summer camp, with the guests tramping off like campers behind the counselor who knows every plant, every bird call, every interesting insect you come upon.
``I think the best way to preserve the rain forest is to let people see it,'' says Aspinall, who can host up to 15 (a birding group, for example), but tends to have fewer guests in his six cabins. This philosophy is shared throughout much of Costa Rica, where an area equivalent to 10.3 percent of the country is devoted to national parks, and several internationally acclaimed programs exist to add acreage to protected status.
``It started with having friends visit, and we built a cabin for my father,'' says Aspinall, who has homesteaded and farmed in the area for 15 years. He is passionate on the need to preserve the forest and the wildlife.
But Aspinall's main love is his orchards. At least once a day he will offer to take guests to see his trees, which include both indigenous plants as well as stock grown from seeds from South America and Asia.
Some of us accompany Aspinall simply to taste the wide variety. There are more than 100 different kinds of fruit on his station. While we were there in February, about 30 were ripe enough to taste. Besides two kinds of carambolas, we tried the juicy fruit of the cashew, the tart governor's plum, a tangerine, Palestinian lime, guava, sapadilla, a tree grape called uvilla, jaboficaba (Brazilian plum), and some pin cushion fruit. We had the juice of the guanabana and sucked on the seeds of the cacao, which didn't taste the least bit like chocolate.
Aspinall is a born teacher; and as he explains how he grafted this citrus fruit from Asia to that hearty root stock from Costa Rica, a mad notion surfaces to go back to school to study agronomy. He talks about which fruit pulps freeze well enough to be shipped to San Jose for drinks and ice creams, a business idea he is now exploring. He has talked to the Japanese, who apparently can't get enough star fruit. And one can learn a lot from him about US trade restrictions and support for local projects by the European Economic Community.
Later, Aspinall will take his guests through the dark paths he has cut through the virgin rain forest that makes up over half of his 400 acres. He can help bird watchers spot scarlet-rumped and blue-gray tanagers, laughing hawks, swallowtail kites, woodpeckers, mealy blue parrots, brown pelicans, the magnificent frigate bird, and various kinds of trogons.
Aspinall can also recognize the noises of some of the more shy animals, such as the two-toed sloth. Early risers who take to the paths at dawn can sight nocturnal animals, like the coatimundis (related to the raccoon), as they head for home.
Costa Rica has long been neglected by US tourists - in part because of worry over Central American wars, despite the fact that the country has been a stable democracy since 1948. Now the country has become a veritable hot spot, popular largely with Canadians and Midwesterners. Publicity from President Oscar Arias S'anchez - winner of the Nobel Peace Prize - and reports on the country's efforts to preserve much of its rain forest, have sparked new interest. And, unlike Europe, Costa Rica is still a travel bargain.
Peter Aspinall, c/o Sun Tours, Apartado 1195-1250 Escazu, Costa Rica.