Forest Fables

The origin of eco-tourism in Costa Rica

by Sophia Skelley

I squeezed Nikki’s hand in mine as the green gondola lurched forward into the foliage. Even though I had only lived in Costa Rica for a few years, between the ages of one and four, there was something calming about this rainforest, where my parents had lived for years, planning and building an aerial tram. I’ve spent many hours looking through pictures of my dad and mom, traipsing through the forest in wet t-shirts and muddied knees, their sun-browned faces glowing in the dappled light. With enough Spanish to communicate with the guide and staff at the tram, it felt right to revisit this place as an adult.

I had been living and volunteering in Costa Rica for two months, far from the people and places I was familiar with. When Nikki, my best friend, announced she was visiting, I got my sunburned, homesick self on the daily bus from Nosara to San José and picked her up. The next day we took the 5:30 a.m. bus to Guapiles. I leaned toward the driver and requested to be dropped off at the teleférico. He gave me a knowing nod and five minutes later Nikki and I stood on the side of the road staring at the distant mountains, shrouded in mist. The staff at the Rainforest Aerial Tram welcomed us like old friends, slapping me on the shoulder and exclaiming in Spanish how much I looked like my father. Half an hour later, after being stuffed with gallo pinto and fresh fruit, the two of us boarded the tram. The sounds and smells of the century-old trees put me at ease. I was content as Nikki and I descended into Braulio Carrillo National Forest, drawn by a system of pulleys that my dad and a crazy biologist named Don helped design back in the ‘90s. 

So how did two business school graduates, their infant child (my eldest brother), and an eccentric scientist from upstate New York end up in rural Costa Rica? 

While my dad was on a quest for a job that didn’t require a tie, Don Perry was hungry to continue his exploration of the rainforest canopy. The rich biodiversity of Costa Rica is what drew Don to the tropics, where he had spent many years exploring the canopy. According to The Tico Times, Don was the first person to figure out “how to move between [trees] at the canopy level, without returning to the ground—something no other scientist on the planet was doing.” That was in the late ‘70s, when my father was a mere eight years old. By the time they met, Don was a seasoned canopy explorer eager to make his knowledge of the jungle accessible to others.

“Don Perro,” they called him, or “Don Loco” when he wasn’t listening. He was rebellious in every facet of his life. He looked upon other scientists, particularly “lab rats,” with contempt. He often proclaimed, “I don’t want to spend my life counting the hairs on a gnat’s ass.” Instead, he spent the majority of his adult life in the rainforest, swinging from Ceiba trees and staring at leaf-cutter ants for hours on end. He was fascinated by the mysterious “15th Floor” of the tropical rainforest, and with good reason: these canopies are home to some 40 percent of all species found on our planet.

With my dad as his business partner, Don was ready to build a larger version of his previous pulley system, i.e. the aerial tram. Essentially a slow-moving ski lift, the tram was revolutionary at a time when ecotourism was just becoming popular. The idea was to make a rarely-explored ecosystem accessible to human observation. To do this with a minimal footprint on the environment was a challenge, but essential if they were going to promote conservation through interaction. So a jobless 28-year-old from Virginia and a zealous biologist set out to do the impossible: place hundreds of tons of steel and concrete in the middle of a fragile ecosystem with minimum impact. 

The two men avoided using construction trucks altogether, as building roads would have destroyed much of the forest. Instead they enlisted Russian-built Mi-17s owned by the Sandinista Air Force. It’s a fabled story in my family—the day Nicaraguan choppers soared over the jungle and lowered four massive T-shaped towers on the rainforest floor. Meanwhile, my dad and a bunch of Ticos (a colloquialism for Costa Ricans) poured concrete and guided the poles into position. Within a few months, they had threaded tons of cable through the canopy and installed a 14-car system that guided visitors through a mile and a half of the forest’s highest level.

My dad remembers this period of time as equal parts excitement and madness. We’ll be on a Saturday morning run or having coffee in the late afternoon, and I’ll beg him for a story the way I did as a child. He’ll transport me to a different world—when my parents were so poor that my brother slept in a drawer, when they spent their days fighting off mosquitoes and navigating Costa Rican bureaucracy. Specifically, I would interrogate my dad about Don Perry. I loved watching a wry smile creep onto his face as he described Don, remembering the various tirades and arguments. 

Don’s fierce protection of the environment sometimes interfered with the project. My dad recalls hour-long arguments regarding one slayed snake. The situation would play out similarly each time. Don would holler at a worker until he was sufficiently terrorized, my dad would attempt to assuage him, and they would proceed to argue in loud voices late into the night. The workers were local men who were intimately familiar with snakes and their various degrees of menace. Despite the danger, Don wouldn’t tolerate harm to any creatures. The workers were known to hide the evidence by burying the dead snakes. This was the endless quest throughout the two-year project—to become a fly on the wall, to be able to observe the forest and all its wonders without creating more harm. Don was steadfast in his commitment to minimal impact. 

This all begs the question: what would Don Perry think of modern-day “ecotourism”—a catch-all term that encompasses river rafting, zip lining and deep-sea fishing. River rafting is not only harmful to some fish species, but occasionally flat-out disrespectful. During the past year, I visited Rishikesh, India. Rishikesh is an intensely spiritual place, where ashrams line the mighty Ganges River and incense burns day and night in the streets. I couldn’t help but cringe as I saw (mainly white) tourists flying down one of the holiest rivers on earth in bright yellow inflatable boats. Additionally, cables used for zip lining have harmful effects on the trees they’re anchored to, and deep-sea fishing encroaches on local areas. 

Don Perry feared such activities in ‘94, when he said, “Uncontrolled nature tourism can best be called eco-destruction.” He was determined to keep the tram environmentally sound as well as accessible to locals. Trips like rafting are often too expensive for anyone except foreigners to access. Perry stressed the importance of educating locals and hiring tour guides from in and around Guapiles. Shortly after the tram opened, my dad and Don created a full-blown educational program with its own staffing that brought kids out for free. They would learn about everything from the spiders living under large bromeliads to the sloths and macaws perched in trees only observable from the tram.

*     *     *

It’s been more than twenty years since the tram was built. As Nikki and I ate our rice and beans that morning, the dining hall was all but deserted except for a few elderly couples, who were leaving that afternoon to re-board their cruise ship. The tram itself was unchanged; we had an immensely knowledgeable guide who stopped to show us a couple of toucans and spotted a strange koala-looking marsupial in the trees. But tough times have fallen on the company. High-speed zip lines are now in higher demand than educational tours. People still want to be in the canopy, sure, but the appeal is the thrill, rather than learning. Although Don knew this was the future of eco-tourism—in 1993, he was approached by a friend from Costa Rica to build commercial zip lines, to which Don responded, “Ah, that’s stupid, zip lines…” He wasn’t interested in the economic benefits. So the friend took his business elsewhere, creating a company called The Original Canopy Tour. Despite Don’s general distaste for zip lines, he is seen as their grandfather. Not only Tico Times but also The New York Times magazine names Perry the creator of zip lines. He took an ancient idea and made it interesting by attaching the cables to trees. 

As Nikki and I hopped out of the tram and started a hike towards the Rio Corinto, I felt almost grateful for the slow traffic at the Rainforest Aerial Tram. This little nugget of time and space felt like it belonged to us and us alone—if only for a day—and I began to understand all the long hours that Don spent careening around in the forest’s canopy.

During the hike, we stopped every few minutes to inspect a bug or plant. The guide showed us a nut whose oil smelled and burned like kerosene. He stopped in front of a colony of leaf-cutter ants, telling us that they can munch on a tree’s leaves for hours without being satiated. But instead of staying on one tree, the ants will walk to the next one a couple hundred yards away. In this way, they ensure the tree’s survival and their own. 

I was grateful to Don that day for remaining steadfast with his original vision, despite economic pressures and trends. And on our way back from the river, as we boarded the tram, I got a little quiver of fear and excitement. Don describes feeling on his first trip into the canopy “a sense of ecstatic joy as [he] glided past branch tips, where only the lightest of jungle animals could venture.” Despite moving at a glacial pace, it truly is a thrill to be somewhere most humans can’t explore, “the airways of butterflies and birds.”