PARRITA, Puntarenas – In the vacation-spot popularitycontest, Parrita has long been the yappy runt dog nippingat the heels of its bulldog neighbor, Manuel Antonio.To most tourists, this town and its satellite communities onthe central Pacific coast are seen from car windows enroute to beaches further south, or Jacó and Puntarenas tothe north.Until now, that is. Business owners in this palm-andpineapple-plantation king have joined forces to wrest someof the attention from their over-spoiled neighbors. Togetherwith their mayor, they are tidying up and putting on theirdancing shoes to woo tourists to their luxury beachsideresorts, such as Monterey del Mar (778-8686, www.montereydelmar.com) or Timarai (837-5990, [email protected]), the adventure-sports resort for jungly bamboosuites, paramotoring, kite surfing andkayaking.The region’s attitude is anchored in aslow-paced, sagging past as a forgottenoutpost of a banana republic, but its hotelsand world-class restaurants, mangrove,jungle and even pineapple-factory tours,zip-lines, horseback rides, surf, fourwheelersand poolside cocktails havebeen like a collagen injection for thisdrooping vacation spot. Now it deservesto be called “Parrita, where people go forvacation,” rather than “Parrita, wherepeople get gas and Gatorade to hold them over untilManuel Antonio.”Sky Mountain Zip LinesThe Creando Naturaleza ecology reserve has knittedhillsides together with 6,000 feet of steel cable anchored toelevated platforms, from which it pushes its guests out overthe yawning spans with only the advice to keep their feet up.It’s called Sky Mountain, The Fly Zone, and is trumpeted ashaving the longest lines on the Pacific. They really are long,and the platforms are towering. Some of the views are limitedonly by clouds or tears of fear. Just kidding.Zip-liners hang suspended in a harness from a steelcable and slide down it, gravity-powered, over and throughthe treetops to a platform at the end. The ride is fast, but notridiculous – tame for thrill veterans, scary for some andexhilarating for most. Speed is not the only reason to try it,though; the views could be the crux of the experience, bothfrom the platforms and from the cable while hummingacross the canopy.Zip-lines – called “canopy” in the inevitable Spanglishthat evolves in a Costa Rican industry that caters toEnglish-speaking clients – are slung up around the CentralValley, the coasts and in tourist hotspots from border toborder, so each has to find a niche; Sky Mountain went forlength of lines and the variety of other activities available.Owner Hernán Valverde pieced together a full-serviceexperience beginning in a large gazebo on a hill at theentrance to the reserve. Papayas, watermelons and pineapplesare piled meticulously against the wall – they areserved after the zip-lines or trips to a waterfall and swimminghole. And, importantly, the fridge is stocked with beer(and juice).Some of the lines are so long, you kind of settle into theharness and forget the sliding for the scenery, the noveltyof seeing treetops below your feet, the distances and thewind. Finally, the platform looms into view and you realizeyou can’t feel your heinie.The launch platforms are steel towers, like scaffolding,anchored with cement, that brace one end of the cable andare jumping-off points for the zip-liners.The equipment is new and in good shape, and theguides take the necessary precautions andare stationed at starting and landingpoints.Afterwards, a guide drives visitorsdown a dirt road cut along a river to aswimming hole and series of waterfallsabout a mile from the entrance. The wateris deep enough to jump into from the topof one of the falls, but the margin forerror is slim – it’s a narrow hole amongsloping rocks on all sides.There is an epic view from the edgeof the second falls, framed by trees on both sides and by thefear of the drop off the edge.The nature reserve offers a variety of tours besides thezip-line and waterfall. For information, call 830-1699 or779-8001, e-mail [email protected] or visitwww.canopycostarica.com.Rainmaker Conservation ProjectFrom half a football field above, on a temperamentalbridge of rope and aluminum ladder, the ribbon of river andwaterfall look like a gossamer invitation to the afterlife.The bridge sways disconcertingly under the hikers’ footfalls– four allowed on the contraption at a time. Lookingup, if possible, there’s a view to the Pacific through theancient upper canopy of a primary forest. There, in thesilence of the treetops, the flying denizens of the forestwing before cameras and binoculars and the trees feelsomehow more mobile or vital than plants normally seemto be.This is the longest bridge at the Rainmaker ConservationProject, a private wildlife preserve slung with ropebridges crossing and doubling over the Río Seco, betweenManuel Antonio and Parrita, on the central Pacific coast.Unlike the heart-pounding zip-lines through swathescut out of the branches in other patches of forest around thecountry, this is a quiet, guided walk in a primeval world,the age of which is measured in the girths of trunks, thelengths of woody vines, the hordes of critters and the intangiblesensation of magnitude.In this 600-hectare scrap of protected forest, a speciesof harlequin frogs was discovered two years ago. Endemicto Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, Atelopus varius hadbeen believed extinct since 1996. It’s a tiny, 2-6 centimeterfrog, mottled black and lime green to yellow-orange, thatswims poorly and congregates where waterfalls splash. Itsdiscovery here made waves in the right circles, and thepopulation is now under study by Yale scientists in conjunctionwith the Environment Ministry. They are determiningthe number and health of the frogs and trying to discoverwhy it disappeared in other regions but hangs on inRainmaker.In the forest, even the path notched among the treesimplies age and wetness – the wooden bridges andhandrails are perennially damp and stubbled with moss.Co-owner Ernesto Gutiérrez called the forest and itshanging bridges “a unique opportunity to understand thatthe life cycle cannot exist without the element of water.”The rain is such a fixture here year-round, those wholive here call the region “broken sky.”A guide draws attention to the foliage with a minibotany lesson over a translucent mushroom or an immensevine; he spots a poison dart frog and traps a tiny anole lizardwithout squishing it. He avoids the tail, which can break offwithout harming the lizard and twitch, distracting predatorsfrom the escaping reptile. The guide pulls out a yellow andwhite fan of skin folded up below its lower jaw, thendemonstrates that it bites and clamps down on anything thatfits in its mouth; he held it to his ear lobe, where it clampeddown and hung from its jaw like an earring. Then he placedit on its back in his palm, where it played dead for a few seconds before he released it to leap a yardfrom his hand into the trees.A Jesus Christ lizard lived up to itsname and sprinted frenetically over the topof the river to escape the hikers. A helmetediguana – a lizard that relied so obstinatelyon its own camouflage that it didn’tmove even when surrounded by hikers andcamera lenses only inches from its eyes –remained placidly on the guide’s hand afterbeing scooped off a branch.Three-toed sloths and blue morpho butterfliesgrappled with the trees or flittedamong them, and the guides pointed outother animals to visitors lucky enough tosee them, such as the poisonous ferdelance,tent-making bats, toucans, owls andarmies of tropical frogs.Before mounting the stairs to the firstof the bridges, visitors can take a dip in anatural pool at the foot of a waterfall.The bridges are strung to monstroustree trunks, the cable wrapped aroundblocks of wood spaced around the circumferenceto avoid strangling the tree. It’s asystem designed by ecological researchscientist Illar Muul to observe the canopyat eye level, spanning five gulfs in a networkconnected by platforms, trails andstairs. Muul studied malaria-carrying mosquitoesfrom similar bridges he strungaround the forests of Malaysia, and continuedresearching the canopy from hisbridges in China, Peru, Brazil, Uganda andSingapore before turning his attention toCosta Rica in 1995.A tour lasts half a day, including transportation,breakfast and lunch made at thefoot of the mountain in Rainmaker’s thatch-roofed,open-air dining room. Visitors haveraved in the guest book about the “beauty ofa pristine, virgin rainforest,” as a womanwrote. One 17-year-old wrote, “I have neverseen so much green in my whole life.”The price is $65, with discounts forchildren and during the rainy season. Theforest is privately preserved with fundsraised from the visitors, and since conservationis the goal, Gutiérrez said, groupsare limited to 10 people, twice a day.For information, call the San Joséoffice at 288-0654 or 288-0994, or theQuepos Office at 777-3565 or 777-3566, orvisit www.rainmakercostarica.com.