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Costa Rica: Cable car enables tourists to see it like a toucan

Tim Johnson
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service

January 6, 1995

LA UNION, Costa Rica _ To sail through the rain forest canopy aboard biologist Donald Perry's aerial cable-car system is to see the jungle through the eyes of a wild bird.

Perry and a group of investors have built what he calls the world's first jungle tram _ whisking visitors high into the jungle canopy on a contraption that looks like a chair lift on a ski slope.

Visitors soar through monkey pod and mahogany trees as brilliantly plumed birds chatter, and aerial flowering plants bring flashes of color to the heights.

Until now, only intrepid biologists slung from climbing ropes or poised on perilous treetop platforms could study the hanging gardens of the jungle. Long unexplored, the rain forest canopy contains half the jungle's species, including vast numbers of epiphytes or ``air plants,'' vines and thousands of kinds of insects, scientists now say.

``It's the richest habitat on Earth,'' said Perry, 47, a scientist who pioneered the use of elevator like vehicles to visit the rain forest canopy.

Tourism projects with an ecological bent, like the aerial tram, have triggered a boom in environmentally conscious Costa Rica, which is seeing tourism soar 15 to 20 percent a year. About 625,000 tourists visited last year.

The Rain Forest Aerial Tram _ 50 minutes by car from the capital, San Jose _ opened to the public in early October. Visitors who pay the $47.50 fee can take the 90-minute tram ride several times. Guides with two-way radios in each of 10 gondolas bring the ride to a halt if visitors spy unusual life.

Toucans, the colorful birds pictured on Froot Loops cereal packages, are a common sight. So are large, blue-winged butterflies, poisonous eyelash vipers, giant dragonflies, monster tree ferns and hundreds of air plants, which grow on other plants.

Perry said he got the idea for the commercial canopy tram in 1990, when visitors to Costa Rica's La Selva scientific research station kept pestering him for rides on his elevator like chair lift.

As he rallied some 60 investors, Perry and his associates settled on both commercial and environmental aims.

``We wanted the tram to be a way for thousands of people to be in the rain forest, to feel it, smell it and see its richness. We think that by doing this we can play a small role in conserving the forest,'' said Michael Skelly, who manages the project.

But as serious project planning began, reality sunk in. How could they place the 12 huge cable-car support pillars in the jungle without devastation? Or make the ride narrow enough to keep visitors close to jungle life?

At early design sessions, ``all we can envision is wholesale destruction of the forest,'' said Skelly.

A new design eventually emerged, slicing a swath less than six feet wide through the jungle. But construction was a back-breaking nightmare.

Workers had to haul in 110-pound bags of concrete for the massive foundation for the ski-lift pillars, brought from Seattle.

``Getting all the material in here was outrageously difficult,'' Skelly said. ``There's 100 tons of concrete right here in the foundation.''

Then, planners had to scour the hemisphere for a helicopter crew skilled enough to haul in, and lower, the huge pillars through the rain forest canopy.

Perry's company contracted a huge Soviet-built MI-17 helicopter and a crew from Nicaragua's then-Sandinista People's Army to do the job. It was tricky work.

Men had to scale into the canopy to place bright flags at tree-top level that would alert the pilots where to lower the pillars. The pillars had to be suspended by unusually long cables from the helicopter, so rotor wash wouldn't damage the trees.

``They were swinging like crazy,'' said Skelly. ``You have tremendous play between the helicopter and the tower.''

Terrain at the 875-acre site is rugged and strewn with ravines, but the work went off without a major hitch.

Meanwhile, mechanical designer John Williams was engineering a way to keep the tram nonintrusive _ and as suspenseful as ``those flight fantasies people have as kids.''

Williams tinkered to take the clanks and whirs out of the moving cables, and to keep the speed slow enough so birds wouldn't flee from oncoming trams.

Designers are still figuring out how to keep visitors dry during cloudbursts. And a snake wrapped itself around the cable on a recent day, halting the ride until a worker flicked it off with his belt.

Now that the system is built, Perry said botanists are spotting new species among the 1,500 plant species at the site, some 1,800 feet above sea level.

``It's an unstudied habitat in Costa Rica. A lot of work has been done high in the mountains and lower in the jungle. But this is a transition zone,'' he said. ``We expect a lot of scientific discoveries.''

Copyright 1995 Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service

Note: The above information is not to be used for any other purpose other than private study, research, criticism or review. Thank you.

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