Cover Story: Another Day in Paradise

On the trail of Cincinnati's Morgan family in Costa Rica

Jon Hughes/

A Costa Rican horseman rides on the Pacific coast beach near the Morgan family's La Leona eco-lodge in Carate, Costa Rica.

GOLFO DULCE, COSTA RICA — The escalating howl of monkeys wakes me each morning shortly after 5:00. It's a not too subtle reminder that I'm far from the ambient city sounds.

Rolling to my left side on the air mattress, I can see the Golfo Dulce. At high tide, my tent is less than 50 yards from the volcanic-rock shore of the Osa Peninsula. The aroma of rich, dark-bean Costa Rican coffee is not far off. Iguanas rustle in the bushes next to my tent.

It's just another day in paradise.

February in southwestern Costa Rica is very special. It's the dry season, and the weather is ideal: partly cloudy and up to 85 degrees during the day and down to 70 degrees at night. The cold, damp, short days of a Cincinnati winter are many miles to the north.

But I didn't come here just for the weather, or the monkeys, or the birds, or the pristine rain forest, or the jungle, or the abundant wild life, or the fishing, or the sea kayaking, or the lushness of the most important natural preserve in the Americas. I came here to meet up with a widely known family from the Cincinnati area who want to share their unique tropic experiences with old and new friends.

The family Morgan, known for its canoe liveries on the Whitewater and Little Miami rivers, has gone international with two eco-lodges in Costa Rica, and it's my job to check them out. Tough duty.

The main lodge is Guanabana, a 30-minute, bone-jarring 4WD ride south of Puerto Jimenez, the closest town with a phone, grocery, bar and post office. A new bank is the pride of the town. It's also the town I flew into in a six-passenger plane from the capital, San Jose. The one-and-a-half-hour flight provides a wonderful look at the country, though it's disconcerting when landing in Puerto Jimenez to find the one-lane runway located next to a cemetery.

Guanabana is the home of Bob and June, patriarch and matriarch of the Morgan clan. Three two-person cabins stand between the four-bedroom lodge and the shore. Endangered Scarlet Macaws are frequently in the trees and skies above the lodge. They're so common that son Randy calls them "Rainbow Crows."

Visiting the Morgans is like going to a family reunion. During my visit, four of the five Morgan sons are there: Randy, his wife Joanne and their children; Amanda and Randal of Morrow; Gary and his son Chaz of Hyde Park; Rob of West Chester; and Greg, his wife Tracy and son John of Brookville, Ind.

Dinner meals at Guanabana are prepared before sunset to take advantage of the available light. Sun- and gasoline-generated electricity is used only for emergencies and the two-way radio. Propane powered lights are used sparingly in early evening.

Cold showers are pleasant and refreshing because of the warm air temperature even at night. There's no piano bar, but there is some serious storytelling and the occasional game of pingpong on a surprisingly level table.

Walking the beach, birding, sea kayaking, horseback riding and jungle walks consume the days.

No problem if you get thirsty horseback riding in the jungle or walking the beach. Search for a ripe coconut on the ground — or a local guide will go up a coconut tree and cut the end with a machete — and drink the refreshing milk.

Bob Morgan's improvised fishing boat — two Morgan's Livery canoes joined in the middle by a wood deck and covered with a sun-protecting tarp — is used for frequent excursions on the Golfo Dulce, often providing fresh fish for dinner. Don't mention fishing around Bob unless you're serious and ready to go.

Sport fishing is provided by a charter service across the gulf. In less than two hours, two of us landed and released four sail fish.

The second lodge, La Leona, is located on the Pacific Ocean side of the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica near Carate. Two-person cabinas look over the pounding ocean surf. Meals are provided in an open dining area. International hikers pass the camp daily on their way to and from Corcovado National Park, stopping for refreshments and to talk.

This remote location is an oasis for backpackers, artists and those interested in hiking the astonishing rain forest behind the camp, where in a vertical climb a new ecosphere is encountered every 300 feet. The magnificent trees provide an emerald canopy, creating an environment seldom experienced. For me it's breathtaking, both the hike and environment.

The birding is remarkable. The first half-day on the Osa Peninsula, Doug Feist, a curator for the Cincinnati Zoo, identified more than 30 species.

With all adventures, there is one special moment. One moment that makes that place at that time unique. For me it's a warm, late night in Carate.

After a wonderful meal, especially the banana bread with banana-rum topping made by Tracy Morgan, and good conversations with persons I would remember but never meet again, I quickly go to sleep to the pounding of the waves. In the middle of the night I get up, walk outside of my tent and look up to the sky.

I'll never again see stars like I do that night. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. It's just another day in paradise. ©

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