The tropical breezes wafted into the hotel room as my friend Sue and I awoke on our first morning in Costa Rica. After dressing, we opened the sliding door onto the deck and stepped out to feast our eyes on the collage of color.
We arrived at the Juan Santamaria International Airport the prior evening and successfully hired a cab to Santo Domingo de Heredia, traveling the freeway and then back streets in the dark. Today was the start of our 17 day odyssey. We arrived four days prior to our birding tour to explore San Jose, the capitol, and to travel south to the Talamanca Cordillera with Bill, another birder.
Our introduction to Costa Rica’s biodiversity started at breakfast where we watched Clay Colored Robins, the national bird, scarping up pieces of papaya and banana at a feeder outside the window.
While most tourists visit the Jade Museum, we wanted to learn about the history and culture of Costa Rica and chose to spend time at the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica. From there we walked towards the central part of the city, stopping for a bite to eat at a ‘fast food’ restaurant, and ending up at the Parque Central and the Catedral Metropolitana.
Trusting that the business card from the hotel would guide the taxi driver, we climbed in a red cab and hoped for the best. Our driver maneuvered the back streets, where youngsters were hawking fruits and vegetables amongst the hair-raising traffic and deposited us safely back at the Hotel Bougainvillea, where we planned to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring their eight acre garden with over 500 species of plants – and, of course, birds.
Nestled in a stand of bamboo was a pair of snoozing Tropical Screech Owls. The afternoon breezes buffeted the stalks; however, the owls did not seem perturbed. Before the afternoon was over, we had seen 20 different species of birds. As dusk approached, we watched a flock of chattering parakeets fly into a tree, feed busily, and then fly off into the sunset.
The next day we traveled three hours south to the Savegre Mountain Hotel, located in a valley known for its quetzales. We wanted to make sure to see the Resplendent Quetzal.
After lunch we wandered the flower-laden gardens buzzing with hummingbirds and flower pierces, and then followed the road along the Rio Savegre.
The next day we headed out with our guide Marino, one of the owners of the hotel. Our first stop was adjacent to a pasture. A Resplendent Quetzal was perched, its red breast glistening in the branches of the tree. While we watched through our binoculars, Marino set up his scope. When I took my turn, I was awed by the statuesque beauty of this male bird.
“Follow me,” Marino instructed as he opened the fence into the pasture where the Quetzal was perched. “Let’s get a better look”
As we tromped across the spongy clumps of grass, it reminded me of traipsing across the uneven tundra along the Denali Highway in Alaska. As we walked into the pasture, the Quetzal flew to another tree in the field, its tail flying. Its teal wing feathers appeared iridescent in the early morning light.
Marino drove us through the valley and up the other side to the Cerro de la Muerte (dead hill) or the páramo (moor), which is above the tree line at 11,400 feet in elevation – the highest point in Costa Rica. We parked in an area dotted with cell phone and satellite towers. The fog swirled around us and a light rain came at us sideways in the brisk wind. The rocky ground was dotted with a variety of tundra plants and lichens.
Our next stop was along a road in the Parque Nacional Los Quetzales. The rain was coming down, and I was glad I was wearing a rain jacket and water-repellent pants. While we explored this road, we saw the first of seven different trogons for the trip.
“I want to show you a cloud forest,” Marino told us after lunch, and we piled into the vehicle and headed up a rough dirt road for a mile or so, and then parked. The sky was a deep azure blue, and from this vantage point we could see out over the valley below on one side and the Chacon’s private biological preserve on the other. The trees had tall trunks, with foliage only on the very top, with an under-story of tropical plants.
As dusk neared, we stopped to admire the view of the cloud-shrouded Talamanca Mountains. It had been a day full of new birds and the opportunity to experience four different biological life zones.
Back in San Jose late the following afternoon, we joined the other 11 people who were part of the Audubon Naturalist Society tour. We spent the first full day together visiting the Institute of Biological Diversity, a private research and biodiversity management center, to learn about Costa Rica’s varied habitats.
In an introductory presentation, we learned that Costa Rica forms a land bridge between North and South America, resulting in a high degree of biodiversity. I was amazed to learn that Costa Rica, a country about the size of West Virginia, contains 4% of the world’s biodiversity and has protected 25% of the land for conservation.
Fabrio, our guide, lead us through gardens representing distinct ecological zones: the Central Valley Forest, the Rainforest, the Dry Forest and Wetlands. As we wandered the trails, we began to experience some of Costa Rica’s birds and reptiles.
The next day we headed for the Caribbean Lowlands, a rainforest environment, where we made La Quinta de Sarapiqui our home for three nights.
The next morning we headed for the La Selva Biological Station.
“Toucán,” Niño, our driver and excellent spotter, announced excitedly. We had just gotten out of the bus and were walking along the road. As I focused my binoculars on the bare branches that extended above the lush tropical rainforest, another Toucán flew in. The early morning sunlight shone on its 22 inch, buttery-yellow and chestnut-colored bill – a Chestnut-mandibled Toucán. They appeared to be surveying the environment and stayed long enough for us to get photos.
Parrots and a parakeet started flying in. Once they landed in the dense foliage, they were hard to spot. Then their heads would pop up – first a Red-fronted Parakeet, then a Brown-hooded Parrot. We also were able to observe Red-lored, White-crowned and Mealy Parrots as they feasted on fruit in the trees.
We finally worked our way down to the reserve entrance, retrieved our gear from the bus and met our La Selva guide, Lenin, a student in eco-tourism who was doing an internship at the biological station. We entered a world of tall trees and large-leafed under-story, entwined with vines and an array of epiphytes growing from the moss-covered branches. The dense growth did not allow much sunlight to filter through.
As we traversed our way through the forest, we encountered Agouti, Coatimundi and Peccaries. The musty odor of the Peccaries permeated the air before we saw a small group of the wild pigs wandering between the trees and then disappear into the darkness.
Back at the La Quinta we relaxed in front of the fruit feeders while we watched the antics of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Blue Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper and a plethora of Tanagers, including: Blue-gray, Palm, Golden-hooded and the spectacularly colored Passerinis with their scarlet rumps.
As dusk approached, we enjoyed watching a mother Three-toed Sloth as she balanced her baby on her stomach while she gathered fruit high in a tree over the road.
The next morning the air was heavy with moisture as we headed back to La Selva. We hadn’t gone far in the reserve before it really started to rain. We whipped out our umbrellas and ponchos and continued through the woods.
After lunch and a siesta some of us traveled through the nearby countryside to explore the ponds and marsh beyond Pueblo Nuevo.
“Notice those tiny white flowers growing from the limbs of that tree over there,” our Costa Rican Expeditions guide, Charlie, told us after we gathered on the rocky dirt road. “They are orchids.” It was incredible to see them spilling over the edge of the branch.
Howler Monkeys roared from the distance, sounding like the deep-throated bark of a dog.
As we passed through Pueblo Nuevo on our way back to the lodge as darkness set in, the people from the village were leaving church and walking home under their umbrellas. Most worked in the nearby pineapple fields and processing plants.
Hummingbirds danced in and out of the bushes as they visited the feeders at Bosque de Paz , our next stop. We were in a private ecological preserve between Poás Volcano National Park and the Juan Castro Blanco National Park in Costa Rica’s Cordilleran Central. There were Magnificent Hummingbirds, Green Hermits, Purple-crowned Fairies, Green-crowned Brilliants, Magenta-throated Woodstars, and my favorite the Violet Sabrewing. Their names said it all!
We had left the Caribbean lowlands that morning and made our way into the cloud forest of the central mountains. Mudslides from the recent earthquakes had washed out some of the roads, necessitating a detour which took us through Ciudad Quesada and the terraced farms of the foothills. “This is one of the Red Cross aid stations,” Charlie told us as we passed through the town of San Miguel. Rescue vehicles were still stationed there.
After lunch, we took one of the trails that led into the vast preserve. As we descended the trail Niño warned us about army ants on the move. Their path was about five feet wide. We had to scurry through, since their sting can be quite painful. I was glad I had my pant legs tucked into my socks.
We had seen a Black Guan briefly in the woods. As we approached the lodge, there were more guans in the trees. They seemed to be gathering. In the evening, the lodge staff put out fruit in the tray feeders, which the guans flocked to eat.
The next morning we headed back into the woods. A ways up the trail we stopped to watch the antics of some Howler Monkeys – our first sighting after several days of hearing them.
Charlie started calling for a Resplendent Quetzal. Pretty soon we were rewarded when first a female, and then a male, flew into some trees just above us, its tail feathers blowing in the breeze. They stayed for quite a while allowing everyone good looks and pictures.
In the afternoon we walked down the road. “Notice the different colors of these flowers,” said Stephanie, Senior Naturalist with the Audubon Naturalist Society, pointing to some foliage on the side of the road. “Once they are pollinated by a hummingbird, the center of the flower turns color and then pops up so the tanagers can get the berries growing inside.”
The next morning our tour group traveled to the northwestern lowlands, a few kilometers from the Nicaraguan border. We then headed west towards the village of Caño Negro, which lies within the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, an Internationally Important Wildlife Area for wintering neotropical shorebirds and waders.
After eating lunch and getting settled into the Natural Lodge Caño Negro, we took the first of two boat rides to explore the refuge, accompanied by our Costa Rican Expedition guides, plus a local guide who also operated the boat.
As we set off along the Rio Frio towards Lago Caño Negro, a variety of kingfishers darted back and forth across the river. White Ibis, Wood Storks and Neotropical Cormorants foraged in a small inlet. The sun now was hot and we were glad we were in a boat with a canopy.
Shortly clouds began to gather, and before long it began to rain lightly – and then the rain pelted harder and harder until it came down in sheets. We donned our rain gear and protected our cameras and optics. Our driver turned the boat around to head back to the dock.
The next morning after breakfast, we headed back to the river. While it was cloudy, it was not predicted to rain, so we road in an open boat. We were grateful for the overcast skies which kept the temperature bearable. As we cruised along the Rio Frio, the scenery reminded me of the jungle ride at Disneyland. I was half expecting something to pop out of the bushes.
A Caiman languished along the shore.
“It looks like it is smiling,” someone commented.
The next morning on the way to breakfast a cacophony of bird song erupted from the fig tree adjacent to the dining hall. A flock of about 50 Orange-chinned Parakeets descended into the tree and started eating the fruit. They joined a cast of other colorful birds. We could see flashes of yellow, blue, orange and red as they moved around the tree.
After breakfast it was time to load the bus and head towards our next stop. As we traversed the dirt roads leading to Upala, eagle-eyed Niño spotted a Trogon. He stopped the bus so we could get out and take a look at a Black-headed Trogan.
As we dropped down through the clouds hovering over the crest of the Cordillera Guanacaste, the landscape suddenly changed. Our Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) tour group had entered Costa Rica’s dry seasonal forest and was greeted with rolling hills of dry grass, cattle ranches, rice fields and sparse trees. Never in my wildest dreams had I envisioned this type of ecosystem in a country known for its tropical rain and cloud forests. It reminded me of the rural Southern California of my childhood.
Our destination was Hacienda La Pacifica, nestled amongst the oak and Guanacaste trees, where the architecture of the rooms was similar to many in New Mexico.
As we explored the grounds that afternoon, we discovered bats snoozing under the eaves of the portal in front of the reception area and nestled in groups under some palm fronds.
We met for breakfast the following morning at 4:45 and then set out for Parque Nacional Palo Verde, located on reclaimed pastureland along the Rio Tempisque. The dirt road crossed the large irrigation canal that provides water for agriculture, rice fields in various stages of production, and other farmland with their web of acequias. The wind continued to blow, with gusts up to 30 – 40 mph. We hoped that it would keep the mosquitoes down.
We stopped to watch the birds in a couple of marshy lagoons. Next we headed up a hill behind the research station, part of the Organization for Tropical Studies based at La Selva. The trail was covered with the dry, fallen leaves from the oak trees that shed their leaves during the dry season.
We heard Howler Monkeys calling and before long were standing under a group of trees where the howlers in one tree were trying to outdo those in the other trees. We decided that it probably was not a good idea to continue standing under those trees, and moved on up the hill, leaving the monkeys to their squabbles.
We ate our box lunches under the shade of some mango trees. Mangoes dropped as the wind buffeted the branches. Pretty soon we noticed White-faced Capuchin monkeys swinging into the trees near the clearing, lured by the sound of falling fruit. Some of them became braver and ventured closer. They would take a bite out of a green mango, find it distasteful, and then throw it down. In order to get the ripest fruit, they needed to come even closer. At one point I counted 10 monkeys. Watching and photographing them was one of the highlights of the trip.
The next morning our group had traveled north on the Interamericana Highway to Liberia, and then headed towards the Pacific coast. We witnessed structural damage and downed trees from the heavy winds that had whipped through Costa Rica the prior few days – and had caused a change in itinerary for our group. We passed many handmade signs along the road advertising sandias (watermelon) for 200 colones (about 50 cents).
Our home for the next two days would be Casa de Conde Mar on the Golfo de Papagayo. As the road wound through the canyon leading to the ocean, it reminded me of driving through Topanga Canyon before it drops down into Malibu. The closer we got to the water, more impressive the houses became.
While other guests at the resort were lounging by the pool, we started checking out the bird life in the mangrove woods behind the rooms. A Ferruginous Pygmy Owl alerted us with its call. A White-fronted Parrot flew in.
As dusk was approaching, we wandered out to the beach. Magnificent Frigate Birds were floating on the thermals and a flock of Brown Pelicans flew by.
During the drive to the Parque Nacional Santa Rosa the next morning, Charlie filled us in on the historical and ecological significance of the park while we ate our boxed breakfasts.
“Although most of the park is a dry forest, our first stop will be in a small segment that is actually a rain forest,” Charlie said as the bus pulled over so we could explore.
Charlie pointed out a vanilla bean orchid. The vanilla bean used in cooking is actually the fermented seed pod of this orchid plant. We had a chance to smell the flower, which also had a faint vanilla aroma.
As we wandered down a road past the park headquarters in the dry forest part of the park, a Blue Morpho Butterfly floated by – our first for the trip. We all held our breaths. Before we returned to the bus, we had three sightings of the Blue Morpho. Niño found a dead one lying on the side of the road, which enabled us to get a close-up view of its still-brilliant wings.
The following morning, Sue and I walked out to the beach just before dawn. The swallows already were up, swooping over the beach and snatching insects. We stopped in awe as we watched the moon slip over the horizon just as it began to get light.
As we gathered for breakfast in the resort’s open-air dining area, two White-throated Magpie Jays flew in and perched on the back of an empty chair at the end of our table. They were after the sugar packets at the table behind us. They took turns taking short flights over the table, grabbing a sugar packet, and then sailing up to the branch of a nearby tree, where they poked a hole in the top of the packet and retrieved the sweet nuggets.
And then it was back to San Jose for the night before our flight home. It was a privilege to experience the wonderful hospitality of the Costa Rican people and observe the vast biodiversity.