ABOARD THE SEA VOYAGER -- In a Costa Rican rain forest teeming with wildlife and overrun with vegetation, you'd think I'd be able to call upon my inner monkey to swing into action.
But nature is so unpredictable, and I hesitated while perched on a metal platform 100 feet above the forest floor.
Maybe if my wife and teenage niece weren't right behind me with a "just jump" look in their eyes, I wouldn't have conjured my best Tarzan yell and flown over the treetops on a zip-line ride that would have made Indiana Jones smile.
I'd been assured by our guides that the vultures circling just above our heads had little chance of dining on the tourist special, as the lines we were zipping on were strong enough to hold a gorilla.
And that was a relief, as we were a well-fed group of 45 sailing the Pacific coasts of Costa Rica and Nicaragua on a week-long cruise with Lindblad Expeditions.
Whizzing through the canopy of a private reserve may have been our favorite adrenalin rush of the week, but not our only thrill. There was plenty of excitement to be found in these two Central American countries of remarkably diverse landscapes, wildlife and culture.
Our cruise aboard the 174-foot Sea Voyager was focused on wilderness experiences, with rain-forest hikes, snorkeling, kayaking and Zodiac-boat excursions. Locally grown naturalists led each outing, and their savvy was a comfort.
Especially in Costa Rica's Curu Wildlife Refuge, where
We were crossing a hanging bridge over a river at the same time as an 8-foot-long tiger rat snake. While we were checking to see if we still had pulses, the snake slithered ahead of us and into the trees to a symphony of clicking cameras.
Before we'd run into the snake, we'd seen red-legged land crabs, coatimundis, squirrels, monkeys, lizards, giant spiders and flocks of birds.
Stopping in silence to listen to the forest near the beginning of our hike was like listening to a first-chair violinist tune up an orchestra. It was a jungle of noise led by a bug -- the cicava, a flying insect that filled up my niece's palm. In harmony with thousands of its brethren, it used a built-in abdominal drum set to sound like a 737 warming up for takeoff.
Lindblad Expeditions, a small, well-run line, specializes in these environmentally sensitive, soft-adventure cruises. It's a good option for families, as most of the kids seemed to make fast friends on the ship -- especially in the midst of all those outings. (All shore excursions except surfing lessons are included in the fare.)
The sunniest, driest season for this region is mid-December through April, but that is also its busiest time. We opted for summer and had a great time, despite the occasional afternoon shower -- which are common from May through November.
The scenery is fresher and greener in the rainy season. On our trip, the mornings were usually clear and warm, and the clouds routinely cleared up in time for some magnificent sunsets.
Lindblad's college-educated naturalists give talks during the cruises -- informative, but in a manner that even the youngsters seem to enjoy. And there's a lot to learn about and experience ashore.
Beyond the hikes and swimming opportunities, there was also horseback riding, boogie-boarding and, for the kids, playing soccer with their Costa Rican guides.
One shore trip in Costa Rica headed to the highlands of Guanacaste and Rincon de la Vieja National Park.
The park lies in the shadow of a volcano and is peppered with hot springs and boiling, bubbling mud ponds. The wildlife is diverse -- hundreds of species of birds and mammals, including deer, monkeys and jaguars.
We hiked through the overgrown forest to Hacienda Guachipelin, a day-tripper's retreat.
City slickers come to see this 3,706-acre working ranch that is known for its horses and nature trails. Rugged ranch hands swagger around lifting greenhorns onto horses for a trail ride along the side of the volcano.
We were just a tad saddle sore when we awoke the next morning off the coast of Nicaragua. As our cruise had a lot of young explorers aboard, Lindblad scheduled our first stop on shore at a small museum, where a group of children greeted us with folkloric dances. Our ship's children enjoyed it and the grandparents they were towing got all mushy.
After the show we boarded pepanos -- a kind of tricycle rickshaw -- for a ride to the bustling downtown market of Rivas.
Conditions for tourists in Nicaragua are said to be improving all the time, but it's not yet the smooth sailing for travelers found in Costa Rica. In the smiles of the children we met and in the welcome we received from our Nicaraguan hosts, the legacy of military occupation, dictatorship, revolution and poverty wasn't evident, but unlike in Costa Rica, it was obvious we were in a third-world country.
Downtown Rivas was crowded with small stands and crawling with local shoppers bargaining for everything under the sun. Alongside the open-air stalls was a dark maze of back-alley shops featuring items and food only a local could love.
Thankfully, our pepano driver followed us through the labyrinth of shops, directing us to our two-seater when we emerged into the light.
Then it was on to the Cathedral of San Pedro for a short tour of the colonial church.
Lunch was at the Hacienda Amayo, on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, the 10th-largest freshwater lake in the world. From the shore, the Maderas and Conception volcanoes seem to launch themselves out of waters that contain the only freshwater sharks in the world.
With that bit of intelligence, we decided against taking a swim before digging into a traditional Nicaraguan feast of chicken and beef, guacamole, beans and tortillas.
Afterward, a group of local children showed up ready for a baseball game against the gringos. You'd think their lopsided victory would have satisfied them, but they finished off our group with a similarly one-sided soccer game.
It all ended with a pinata party, where once again the local children were a long leap ahead of their guests when the pinata hit the ground, chasing candy across the hacienda's courtyard.
Another stop on the cruise was Costa Rica's Tamarindo Beach, a jazzed-up town where spacey surfers and local fishermen share a downtown crammed with restaurants, bars, hotels, shops and construction equipment.
The happening town fronts a wide, flat beach. The packed sand is hard enough for easy strolling and a great place to watch the teenagers take their first surfing lessons. Just about the time our niece rode her first wave into the beach, a rogue cloud blew in spewing enough thunder and lightning to scare the scales off Neptune.
At Manuel Antonio National Park (where the fateful zip-line ride occurred), we hiked the park's Sloth Valley Trail, observing crab-eating raccoons, monkeys, sac-winged bats and the trail's namesake, a three-toed sloth.
A passing naturalist tipped us off to a boa constrictor sighting. We found it stretched out along a limb of a tree just off the trail. Apparently it was sleeping off a meal, which accounted for the bulge in its tummy. Some slow-footed mammal had seen its last day in Costa Rica.
That night on the ship we indulged in filet mignon, Argentine wine and a slice of chocolate decadence. And thus we concluded an otherwise action-packed cruise, feeling a bit like that boa.
IF YOU GO
CRUISES: Lindblad Expeditions is offeringeight-day cruises of Costa Rica this summer, priced from $2,890 per person, double occupancy. Beginning in October, it will make 11- and 15-day cruises that combine Costa Rica with Panama and other stops. www. expeditions.com; (800) 397-3348.
ALTERNATIVES: Other companies that offer cruises of a similar nature include Abercrombie & Kent, www.abercrombiekent.com, (800) 554-7094; Caravan, www.caravantours.com, (800) 227-2826; Costa Rica Expeditions, www.costaricaexpeditions.com, (506) 257-0766; and Nature Expeditions International, www.natureexp.com, (800) 869-0639.