|Subject: Costa Rica Trip - Part I|
I've been silent for a long time. There's been a reason - planning and
taking a wonderful trip to Costa Rica. Here's my trip report. I'm posting
it in 3 parts because it is somewhat long. If anyone wants to ask
questions or just talk about that wonderful country, please feel free to
Ruth Marie Colorado
An Unforgettable Journey to a Rich Land March 24 - April 7, 2001 Trip Report by Ruth Marie Lyons When I began to plan a trip to Costa Rica, friends asked, #Why go there?# The following items serve as a partial answer to that question: ˇ Costa Rica touches the heart and mind, not through towering cathedrals, wide boulevards or great history but through its incredible natural beauty and a gracious people disposed to peace, kindness and generosity of spirit.
ˇ Costa Rica is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world; a virtual treasure trove of flora and fauna. It is easy to become enchanted by this natural wonderland of tropical forests, rushing rivers, exotic animals, high mountains, awesome volcanoes and most of all, multitudes of birds. It holds great attraction for lovers of nature and natural history.
ˇ Costa Rica has had no army since 1948 and with more than 100 years of democracy in a region with a history of political strife, the country often boasts of #teachers, not soldiers.# With a high literacy rate and a national health care system, the country attracts immigrants from neighboring Central American countries as well as those interested in seeing this emerging nation in action.
ˇ The people of Costa Rica are inclined toward modesty, simplicity and friendliness and the country is committed to peace. This creates a climate of trust for travelers.
After much research, both on the internet and in the library, I decided to contact Costa Rica Expeditions. Started by an American, Michael Kaye, in 1978 and staffed predominantly by Costa Ricans, this is an amazing tour company (http://www.expeditions.co.cr) with an extensive web site which profiles staff members along with itineraries, hotels and packaged tours. They definitely live up to their promises and will do everything they can to make your trip to Costa Rica very special. Since none of their pre-planned itineraries was exactly what we wanted, one of their travel consultants, Marco Madrigal, worked with me to set up a personal itinerary based on natural history with an emphasis on bird watching. Patiently Marco answered every question I asked, no matter how insane it might have sounded to him, and he did it all in perfect English! Recently when we had the opportunity to meet at the end of our trip, he told me that 100 e-mail messages had passed between us during the setting up of this itinerary. A friendship developed as Marco and I worked together. And would you believe he is already working on another itinerary for us? Costa Rica pulls you back - once is not enough.
Because birding was our number one objective, we needed a guide.... well, we actually needed a good guide. What we got was excellence extrordinaire in the person of Carlos #Charlie# Gomez. Never has there been anyone with hearing so acute and eyes so sharp! The ability to call birds into a clearing was demonstrated over and over by Charlie. He could himself reproduce many, many bird calls but if he could not make the sound himself, he had strapped to his waist a pouch containing a small tape recorder and numerous tapes. Out came the recorder and the proper tape and soon the birds in the forest were answering back! Once he used that equipment to demonstrate how birds #mob.# As he played the call of the predatory Andean pygmy owl, many small birds of different species gathered in the tree above us flitting back and forth with speed and producing their fiercest cries. They were gathering together to drive off the non-existent owl. Calling birds was not the only talent Charlie possessed. As birds flew over, he would name them just from their flight pattern. Not only did we get the common name, we also were told the genus and species of each and every bird we saw. Tireless in his aim to give us every opportunity to see every bird possible, Charlie was willing to keep going even when all of us, his flock, were exhausted. Possessing boundless energy and a great love for his work, he spurred us onward as day after day our lists grew. Each evening before dinner we would gather to mark the birds and creatures we had seen that day. Every day as we ventured forth, he carried a massive spotting scope, high powered binoculars, the waist pack with recorder and tapes, and a large back pack filled with anything we might need - umbrella, flashlight, laser light, mirror, first aid kit, water, sunblock and insect repellant. For 13 days he was our guide, our teacher, even our #mother hen# as on the day he found a pharmacy to purchase sulfur soap. We were headed to the Savegre region where chiggers are legendary. According to Charlie, bathing with sulfur soap before and after hiking in chigger country often saves a person much grief. Everyone was grateful and the soap actually didn#t smell bad at all... at the time we were all afraid we#d end up smelling like rotten eggs.
And just one more comment concerning our guide - on top of all his scientific knowledge, his command of English was outstanding.
Some of our travel was accomplished by taking single engine, five passenger planes to remote areas. The other part was done using a very nice air conditioned bus. I would be remiss if I did not mention the excellent pilots whose names I did not learn and the super driver who held our lives in his hands each time we boarded the bus. Luis Morales has been driving visitors to his country for over 20 years. His sense of humor and his patience are second only to his outstanding driving skills. Luis never took chances and got us to our destinations safely and always with a smile on his face.
We were fortunate to briefly meet Michael and Yolanda Kaye our first day at Tortuga Lodge. During the time we were on our trip we also met several other guides who work for Costa Rica Expeditions - Manuel, Jim, Margherita and Rafael. They were leading groups just as Charlie was leading ours. Inevitably our paths crossed.
The eight participants in our group were :
Ann and Charles Bradford, Boulder, Colorado Ann and I work together and have known each other for 12 years. My husband, Jim, and I get together with her and Charles about 4 times a year to enjoy a meal and good conversation, usually centering on travel.
Mary and Jack Dodge, Port St. Lucie, Florida I met Mary on the internet before traveling to Peru in #98. She has a wonderful web site (http://www.gate.net/~dodgema/index.htm) which I found while searching for travel info. We became friends and when I told Mary we were planning to go to Costa Rica (a place they had already visited once with International Expeditions), she recommended Charlie who had been their guide. Subsequently, she and Jack decided to join us. They are extremely well-traveled and both have the knack to be easy going and humorous.
Irene Pask, Scunthorpe, South Humberside, England Irene has been our friend since 1984 when we met her and her late husband, Bernard, on safari in Kenya. We traveled with her and Bern again in #84 to Egypt, and they came to Colorado in #86 and #89. The last time we were together, she, Jim and I did a five week trip on our own in South Africa in late #99.
Arnold Wilson, Scunthorpe, South Humberside, England Arnold is a friend of Irene#s and we met him for the first time on this trip. New to birdwatching he quickly became a reliable spotter and all around good sport.
Jimmy and Ruth Marie Lyons that#s my husband and me..... also from Boulder, Colorado
Saturday, March 24, 2001 - Alta Hotel ( http://www.thealtahotel.com/alta.htm ) We actually began our trip on March 23 leaving home at 8 p.m. to get to the airport for our midnight plus 40 flight departure. Winging our way toward Atlanta, we tried to get some sleep because our arrival time of 5:30 a.m. eastern time was really 3:30 a.m. mountain time. A 5 hour layover in the airport was helped by finding some overstuffed easy chairs near a Starbuck#s coffee kiosk. At 10:30 a.m. we were finally on the way to Costa Rica and moving back one time zone. Stepping off the plane in the early afternoon we were hit by the warmth and humidity, two things missing in Colorado at this time of year! A young man with a Costa Rica Expeditions (CRE) board bearing our name stuck a VIP tag on us while telling us that we#d be collected on the other side of Immigration/Customs by another person. We stood in line for the stamping of passports, picked up the one bag we had checked and were escorted past the customs people by airport personnel (guess there#s something to those VIP name tags) out the door into a huge crowd of drivers and porters all wanting to help us. We were found by Miguel Alfado who was our transfer guide for CRE. He loaded us up and we were off to the Hotel Alta for an overnight stay before we began our tour in earnest. Since the Bradfords were coming from Colorado as well, we traveled together on the flights. The four of us were the first of our group to arrive. Along with an information packet, we were given gift bags containing Costa Rican coffee and Lizano sauce which is fondly known as #lizard# sauce and found on every dining table in the country. Marco also sent me two bottles of Chilean red wine which we put to good use the second night of our trip.
Less than 30 minutes after getting into our room, the phone rang. It was Charlie Gomez, our guide, calling to welcome us to Costa Rica, to apologize for not being at the airport to greet us since he was just coming off another trip, and to reiterate that we should be ready to roll the next morning at 5:45 a.m. Miguel had already warned us but Charlie just wanted to make sure we would be ready. I was really impressed that he called, but it was just one of many times that I was impressed by the actions of the employees of CRE.
Sunday, March 25, 2001 - Tortuga Lodge ( http://www.expeditions.co.cr/lodging/tortuguero/ ) We were up at 5:00 a.m. to prepare for departure. The night before we had reorganized our bags in order to leave some things at the CRE office in San Jose. The first leg of our journey would take us to Tortugero Island on the Atlantic Coast. Since we would be using the small planes to get there, we were limited to 25 pounds of baggage each and that included cameras, binoculars - everything! At 5:30 a.m. we headed down to the lobby in order to be waiting when Charlie arrived BUT he was already there. This was another thing we were to learn about CRE employees: they were always on time; in fact, unless there were extenuating circumstances, they were ahead of time! The bus was loaded with the stay-behind luggage first and then everything that was flying with us went on the back seats. We were commended for the good job we had done on our packing, but maybe Charlie says that to all his clients. Those two bottles of wine from Marco found their way into Charlie#s backpack to become part of the cargo that was going to Tortuga Lodge.
Our drives in the bus became the time for lessons about Costa Rica and this first one was no exception. We learned that the country is about the size of the state of West Virginia and that elevation goes from sea level to 12,529 feet. In general, the temperatures are moderate, varying more with altitude than time of year. San Jose#s average high is 77 degrees F.; its average low 61 degrees F. Lowland zones range from the 70s to the 90s, but frost and ice can occur on some of the loftier peaks. Costa Rica is known around the world for its national park system which protects about 14 percent of the land. With the aid of other reserves, about 30 percent of its territory is protected - an enviable record for any country, remarkable for a developing one.
The flight in the small plane was very exciting for me. Jim sat next to the pilot in order to shoot video. We went through a mountain pass as well as through clouds. Looking down we could see forests, banana and coffee plantations as well as small villages along the way. In 30 minutes we were landing at Tortugero in a gentle, warm rain. Don Estrada, who was to become our boatman, ferried us across the river from the landing strip to Tortuga Lodge, just in time for breakfast. And what a breakfast it was! (A table was reserved just for us and it became the place where we had evening #class# with Charlie as well as where we ate.) As we sat down, the table held platters of fresh fruit (papaya, pineapple, banana, watermelon), a large bowl of granola (homemade), a pitcher of juice, and a pitcher of milk. Instantaneously a young man appeared with a pot of wonderful coffee and another of warm milk - café con leche was the order of the day. What a nice welcoming breakfast, I thought. Little did I know that this was only the beginning! All of a sudden there appeared a platter of warm toast, butter, jam, a platter of pancakes, a pitcher of syrup, and a bowl of black beans and rice mixed together (the national dish known as gallo pinto). Well, I thought, this is really great! But the staff wasn#t finished yet! Next appeared a platter of bacon and a young lady who wanted to know how we#d like our eggs cooked!!! My next thought was that Sunday breakfast was the special one of the week, but on the following morning the same type breakfast appeared - the only thing that changed was the meat.... sometimes sausages, sometimes ham, sometimes bacon. That first morning I was ravenous and had a little of everything but on subsequent mornings, I learned quickly to pace myself. All meals were served family style at Totuga Lodge and we really liked the way it was done.
After breakfast our rooms were ready and by 9:30 a.m. we were in the boat with Don and Charlie for our first trip into the canals of Tortugero National Park for birding. What a fantastic place! These canals that run parallel to the sea were built in the 1970s, connecting existing rivers and lagoons to provide an inland waterway. Roads have yet to link some of this area with the rest of the country, so this lifeline of canals and rivers is the highway for canoes loaded with bananas and coconuts, logs that are floated south, and barges carrying supplies north.
CRE provided us with a checklist of birds so we did not have to remember everything we saw which was a blessing because we saw so much! (More about those lists later) After almost 3 hours of exploring in the boat we were back at the Lodge for lunch. After lunch Charlie was ready for a nature walk. Jim, Irene and Arnold took him up on it and the remainder of us decided we needed a bit of a rest. At 2:30 p.m. we were back on the water for another round in the park. In addition to the birds, we got a look at howler and spider monkeys. There was a cooler in the boat filled with ice, soft drinks and bottled water - chalk up another one for CRE. Since I drink copious amounts of water, this was welcomed indeed! The afternoon slipped away and in no time it was 5:15 and we were returning to the Lodge for quick showers before our first #class# with Charlie. 6:30 p.m. found us all at our table in the dining room with our spiral-bound bird lists in hand. This gathering became our nightly routine. It was one of my favorite times of the day. Charlie donned his #teacher#s hat# as we noted each bird we had seen or heard that day. He remembered each and every one - thank goodness for that! We used a blank page at the back of our book to write down the other creatures we had seen as well. (I contemplated listing the birds in the narrative of this trip report but quickly discarded the idea. Instead I decided that if we saw something that was really special, I#d mention it; otherwise, if you want a listing birds and creatures, let me know and I#ll send it to you).
What a wonderful day this has been! At dinner, the manager opened the wine we'd been given and even though he was in San Jose, we drank a toast to Marco and all the work he'd done to plan our trip for us. A fantastic start to a trip we have long awaited! By 9:30 we were exhausted and fell into bed.
Monday, March 26, 2001 - Tortuga Lodge Rain woke us at midnight - very heavy on the roof and I said a prayer that it would all fall during the night. I got up at 5:00 a.m. to meet Charlie and others for birding in the gardens. Arnold, Ann and I were the early birds - everyone else slept in, if you can call getting up at 6 sleeping in. Jim Lewis, another CRE guide, was out with his flock and Charlie introduced us. Ann and I had a great few minutes watching a kiskadee batter a little lizard senseless before devouring it.... well, all God#s creatures must have breakfast. Several toucans were making short work of fruit in a tree near the kitchen - oblivious to all the sounds as workers prepared breakfast.. The sleepy heads in our group met us at breakfast at 6:30 and by 7:45 we were back in the boat for a morning of great birding. Before returning to the Lodge we stopped in the village of Tortugero to look around. This is where Don lives with his family.
After another delicious lunch, we spent some time discussing the pros and cons of different binoculars with Charlie as well as listening to a tale of his about a gift of 2 pounds of wild rice and his battle with customs# officials. It was a priceless story about government bureaucracy.... one that many of us could relate to easily.
Part of the afternoon was spent visiting the Caribbean Conservation Corporation#s (CCC) Natural History Visitor Center. Colorful, informative exhibits focus on ecological relationships, highlighting turtles and the area#s other diverse wildlife as well as the work of the CCC. A short, very well done video presentation rounds out the exhibits. Founded in 1959 to support the work of the late Dr. Archie Carr, CCC is the oldest sea turtle conservation organization in the world. It strives to preserve sea turtles and other marine and coastal life through research, training, education and protection of natural areas.
We went back to the village for Charlie to identify a bird that a villager had found. It turned out to be a pet budgie that must have escaped its cage somewhere and been blown here by the previous night's storm. By the time we arrived, the poor little thing had expired. When we left the village, Charlie suggested that we take a walk on the beach near the air strip. As we got out of the boat the rain began again but we had big umbrellas from the Lodge and they kept us dry. The storm blew over quickly as we walked down the beach amongst the debris which included sargasso from the Sargasso Sea! There were some turtle tracks as well as places where eggs had not hatched from previous seasons. It was a different afternoon and those of us who went along had a chance to stretch our legs a bit on the beach. The sand is a gray-black color due to the content of volcanic matter. We walked back to the boat along the airstrip with Charlie cautioning us to look behind ourselves every now and then. It had never occurred to me that one would not hear a plane coming - the noise is evident only after a plane has flown over you!
Bird list time again at 6:30. The bar was hopping so several of us indulged in drinks. The kitchen brought out fried breadfruit strips as an appetizer. Much better than the breadfruit I steamed when we lived in Hawaii! Another great meal tonight - shrimp, chicken, rice and beans and lots of delicious vegetables topped off by mango mousse for dessert.
Our instructions for tomorrow were as follows: Meet at 6:30 a.m. for an hour of spotting birds with Charlie, then breakfast, shower and fly out at 11:30 to La Fortuna.... little did we know how this would all change..... Charlie had mentioned a day or so ago that there had been some pyroclastic flow at Arenal Volcano which was our destination.
Tuesday, March 27, 2001 - Tortuga Lodge Rain came down hard off and on all night. We did our early morning walk with umbrellas. At breakfast we were told that our flight might be delayed a bit because the rain was still falling. At 9 a.m. it began to really pour hard again. We were to meet at 10 to turn in our bags and pay our bar bills. The humidity felt like 110% - really good for the skin after the dryness of Colorado. Charlie cautioned that this weather might not bode well for seeing the volcano, but this is soft adventure travel and we will take what we can get..... and we have NO control over the weather....
At 9:30 Charlie came to me and said, #Tell everyone to be ready to move immediately.# Just as immediately the weather worsened with the wind picking up and the rain falling in torrents. But we did as we had been told, brought our bags to the reception, paid our bar bills, checked out and then went to sit on the covered veranda and stay out of trouble. Charlie was on the phone with HQ frequently. At about 11:30 the decision was made that we would abort the flight to La Fortuna (since the planes could not get to Tortugero) and stay one more night. We would miss Arenal but with the weather there the volcano would not be visible anyway. There had been another pyroclastic flow last night and the reports said the volcano was socked in from top to bottom. Charlie was apologetic when he came to me with that news, but I told him to do whatever he needed to because safety was utmost for all of us. We could roll with the punches and do what needed to be done. There was no need to jeopardize anyone, be it pilot, guide or visitor.
It goes without saying that because we couldn't leave Tortugero, others couldn't get in. And it also goes without saying that we had another delicious lunch!
About 2:30 p.m. the weather cleared enough that Charlie called Don to come from the village so we could go out in the boat. We headed for the park again, getting up speed while passing the sandbar. Suddenly Don wheeled the boat around and stopped so that we could see the birds feeding on the sandbar very well. In an instant, Charlie was on his feet, binoculars to his eyes. He got so excited I was afraid he would jump out of the boat! On that sandbar was a new bird - a NEW bird for Charlie to add to his life list! A jaeger that had certainly been blown off course by the storm. Upbeat and smiling is usual for Charlie, but now he was positively euphoric! And his euphoria was catching! There was speculation on how the storm had kept us at Tortugero and if it hadn#t we wouldn#t have seen the jaeger. The rest of the boat trip was a gift for sure. We slowly wended our way through some of the canals in the park watching the animals come out to dry. There were at least four sloths (including a mother with baby, hanging out to dry,) as well as lots and lots of monkeys. All the kingfishers on our list were present and accounted for as well as many other birds. The afternoon passed quickly and we returned with just enough time for a rushed shower before #class.# When we got to our table, Charlie was animatedly regaling the staff with the tale of finding his new bird. Even though we were missing the socked-in volcano, this was far better.
Another delicious dinner.... mahi mahi in shrimp sauce, vegetables of all sorts and caramel flan for dessert. Conversation at dinner centered on schools in Costa Rica - private and public. It was very interesting and we learned that Vicky, Charlie#s wife, teaches biology in a high school.
The decision was made to attempt an early start tomorrow because we had to fly back to San Jose to begin the trip to Monteverde. As we parted, Charlie remarked to me that we had a great group and he appreciated our willingness to be flexible and accept what comes. Laughingly, I told him that I had handpicked this group and they#d better be flexible. Actually, as I had said before, we are all safety conscious and want only what is best from that viewpoint.
Wednesday, March 28, 2001 - Monteverde Lodge ( http://www.expeditions.co.cr/lodging/Monteverde/ ) Well, it didn#t rain as much during the night but we had a downpour at breakfast. We managed to get across the river for our planes which came at 8:30 or so. They sent a 7 passenger twin engine and a single engine plane. Jim, Charlie and all the luggage went in the single engine and the rest of us in the larger plane. We flew into the international airport and waiting for us was Luis Morales, our driver. What a nice bus! Big enough for us to move about, air conditioned with a cooler stocked with ice and bottles of water. CRE had scored again!
Headed out about 9:30 for Monteverde. At 11:00 we stopped for a bathroom/snack break before beginning the difficult climb up the dirt road to our destination. During the drive, we heard about the building of the Pan American Highway as we traveled on a portion of it. Then as we began the climb on the dirt road, Charlie told us the history of the Quakers from the US who settled the area after WWII. It seems that these folks had served as medics during the war but refused to do service during the Korean Conflict so they were told they were welcome no longer in the US. They packed up and trekked down through Central America looking for a place to settle. The Monteverde area was perfectly isolated and they began to farm and raise dairy cattle. The cheese, ice cream and other dairy products available in the area all come from their businesses.
We also saw our first living fences on this drive. Trees that were along the edge of property were used to string barbed wire. When the trees were far apart, branches were cut and stuck into the ground intermittently along the wire between the trees. They subsequently took root. Besides serving as fence posts, the trees are windbreaks and some offer fodder for cattle.
It took about 2 hours on the dirt road and we arrived at 1:30. Went straight to lunch which the restaurant held for us and of course it was delicious again. The meals are not normally served family style at MV Lodge, but in order to speed things up, Charlie asked for them that way a couple of times. The restaurant is a bit more formal and larger than the one at Tortuga Lodge. The waiters wear black pants and white shirts with black ties - very elegant.
At 3:00 we headed out on a hike with our fearless leader. We went through a forest that was part of a farm. Besides all the birds, we saw a coati-mondi, an agouti, and an arboreal porcupine with a prehensile tail!
Back with just enough time to shower before dinner. Here at MV Lodge there is a posted menu. I had escargot, langoustine thermidor, wonderful vegetables and rum raisin ice cream for dessert!
The other attraction that evening was the television in the bar, viewable from some points of the dining room. A very interesting and intense soccer match was taking place between Costa Rica and Trinidad/Tobago, part of the qualification rounds for the World Cup. As the dining hour wound down, we noticed our young waiters drifting toward the bar. All at once there was a hush and then a cheer - Costa Rica had scored. And Costa Rica ended up winning that game.
Monteverde Lodge advertises that they have internet connections for their guests. After dinner I attempted to get on line, but all four computers were commandeered by teenaged boys who were all trying to outdo each other bragging about the machines they had at home and what all they could do with them. There was so much testosterone flying around that small room, I fled!
Thursday, March 29, 2001 - Monteverde Lodge I slept fitfully. Jim slept soundly. No rain sounded on the roof when I awoke. We were out early birding around the grounds of the Lodge. In for breakfast before heading to the Butterfly Farm and Research Center which was a very interesting place. The owner/manager had a delightful sense of humor and his presentation was informative and droll. A young volunteer from Belgium actually took us into the enclosures where we were able to get very close to the beautiful blue morphos as well as many other species of butterflies.
Leaving the butterflies in all their splendor, we drove a short distance to a co-op where we purchased coffee and jars of the wonderful pineapple/papaya jam that we'd been having each morning. The trees around the co-op afforded a few new birds before it was time to leave. Earlier that morning, Charlie had come to me to suggest a different route for our long day tomorrow. Since he and Luis were the ones who knew the roads and the traffic, I told him we were in their hands and trusted them to choose the best route. I knew they would take good care of us.
After lunch it was time for the Cloud Forest Walk. At the time that walk seemed a bit strenuous due to the intense humidity. (A week later we would realize that this was a very easy stroll.) At one point each time I put my binoculars up to my face both my glasses and my binoculars fogged up! But it was very enjoyable most of the time. The afternoon sightings included a female resplendent quetzel with a fly-by from the male. Charlie assured us that there would be more in the Savegre area which was our next destination.
Since we didn't get back to the hotel till 6:15 and supper was at 7:00, we delayed our list marking till after the meal. It was noisy in the dining room so we moved to a small meeting room nearby. All of us were exhausted, even Charlie, although I don't think he would have admitted it. We sank into the low chairs and somehow managed to get through the list. At one point I thought I was going to fall asleep before we finished.
The staff will prepare an early breakfast for us at 6:00 tomorrow morning as our fearless leader wants us on the road before 7:00 for the long drive to the Chacon Farm where we are to spend the next three nights.
Before we fall into bed we get the bags in order because those need to be ready when we go to breakfast.