Sunday, May 20, 2012

Costa Rica Adventure

Costa Rica Adventure - Dec 2011/Jan 2012

December 26, 2011
Arriving in Playa Hermosa
Our Tauck Tour Itinerary for the Costa Rica Adventure

After years of dreaming about it, Rob and I finally came to Costa Rica - a land of tropical beaches, steamy jungles, cloud forests, temperate highlands, volcanoes...and two coastlines, as Costa Rica lies just above Panama at the tip of Central America and is caressed by the waves of both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.   But when we arrived, I really wasn't thinking much about the beauty of the country yet...I had come to see the wildlife!  This was our first encounter with real jungle filled with exotic birds, sloths, poison arrow frogs, crocodiles,and best of all - monkeys!

We flew overnight from L.A. to Miami, then it was only a two and a half hour flight to Liberia, Costa Rica, where we were greeted by our Tauck Tour representative.  We leaned into a strong wind as we crossed the parking log to a waiting van which would take us to the Hotel Bosque del Mar, in the Pacific coast town of Playa Hermosa.  Our driver, Diego, explained that Costa Rica was transitioning between the wet and the dry seasons, so these fierce winds were very typical for this time of year.  

The Hotel Restaurant
Bosque del Mar means "forest on the beach," which is just where we found our hotel!  The wooden buildings were surrounded by huge trees with wonderful climbable branches and at the end of the path was a  long sandy beach that stretched around a big half-moon bay.  The restaurant reminded us a lot of Hawaiian hotels -.a large room completely open to the breezes.

The vegetation around the hotel is very tropical, also reminiscent of Hawaii, but the forest here in the region of the country is actually a deciduous forest, and Diego had said that during this dry season, the trees will get quite brown and lose their leaves.

Our sitting room and door to the balcony
We settled into our suite, which included a bedroom and a separate sitting room that led out to a balcony overlooking the blue-tiled pool, then went to the restaurant for a fresh fruit salad, bright with the tropical colors of papaya, mango, watermelon, and blood orange.  
The view from our room

We wandered down to the beach where we were immediately assaulted by a line of local vendors wanting to sell us snorkeling trips, handicrafts, and fresh fish dinners.  They were all very friendly but we really were too tired from the overnight journey to want to interact much, so they finally gave up and we rested for awhile on the beach chairs provided by the hotel, then returned to our room for a nap and ended up falling sound asleep.

We slept so long that when we woke up, it was already time for dinner...a whole snapper for Rob and "pollo del chef" for me.  It was fun to interact with the waiters...they spoke very little English and we speak very little Spanish, but we - usually - managed to make ourselves understood.  

One of the hotel's mascots
I gazed hopefully out of the bedroom windows looking for monkeys.  It was obvious that they are frequent guests, as the windows were protected with a strong mesh netting to keep them from opening the latches and helping themselves to our belongings. Some of the other guests told us that there had been howler monkeys in the trees of the hotel earlier in the week, but our only wildlife sightings that first day were a large iguana climbing down a from a tree into the underbrush and hundreds of bats that came swooping out of the forest at dusk when we went down to the beach to watch the sunset.

December 27, 2011
Playa Hermosa, Hotel Bosque Del Mar

Rob narrowly escaped being strangled this morning when, at 6:40 a.m., he woke up and mistakenly thought I was in the bathroom.  He called out loudly, "Are you going to be in there long?" - waking me out of a deep sleep.  Grrr!  Happily, we both went right back to sleep and slept until 9:00 a.m.  Eleven wonderful hours of sleep!  I woke up feeling human again.

Iguana basking on the tree outside of our room
It was a nice lazy meandering kind of day from start to finish!  My first wildlife sighting of the day was another very large iguana climbing up the tree in front of our balcony.  We soon discovered them all over the hotel grounds, little dragons of orange and grey and green basking in the sun by the pool or high on the branches of the trees.  
More of the hotel's greeting committee
Rob and I went down to the hotel breakfast buffet for a very good breakfast...lots of fresh tropical fruits, omelets made to order, then we set out for a stroll along the beach.  

The trail into the bosque del mar
We found a path into the jungle and ventured a little way in (with a little nervousness on my part about meeting up with snakes.  It is a good thing I didn't know yet just how MANY venomous snakes there are in Costa Rica or I probably wouldn't have gone in at all!)

Streaked backed oriole
Within our first five minutes in the forest, Rob made our first "beautiful bird" sighting of the trip...a gorgeous little bright yellow bird.  It posed very nicely for a photograph, which I emailed to my brother Rob (an avid and knowledgeable birder) who identified it as a streaked backed oriole.  Thanks to both my Robs!

Rob improves the "scaregull"
The beach was filling up with people now.  There were a few tourists, but it seemed to be very popular with the Ticos - the people of Costa Rica - too.  Children played in the shallow water, families were setting up picnics, and every family seemed to have a dog or two begging for hand-outs.  We found a scarecrow (or should that be "scaregull") on the shore, and Rob added a few embellishments.

I went back to the hotel for a rest while Rob went exploring a bit more.  He met a very nice German chef, Peter, who had moved to Costa Rica several years ago.  They chatted for quite awhile about life here, the best places to eat, etc. etc.  When  Rob returned to the hotel, we took a dip in the chilly pool then sat out under the shade of the big trees and read our books.  The day was very warm, but it was very pleasant in the shade.  

Lounging by the hotel pool.

Great Kiskadee
Lunch was another fabulous fruit salad and a tasty mahi mahi, then we took a walk up to the "town," which was really just a long street with a few shops, hotels, and a grocery story.  The dwellings were an interesting mix of quite nice modern condos and hotels right next to very simple wooden houses, along with a few "third world" shabby places. Along the way, we saw our second gorgeous bird, a great kiskadee.  

Some of the modern buildings of Playa Hermosa

Coconut water right out of the coconut...yum!

Our walk was very hot, as we were out of the breeze, but after a stop at the local super-mercado for some bottles of water, we turned down a street that returned us to the beach.

At the end of the road was a man selling whole coconuts.  He pierced the hard shell with a knife, inserted a straw, and we enjoyed a wonderful, refreshing drink of pure coconut water...delicious!  

We strolled back through the crowds to our hotel and another nice cold dip in the pool.
The Ticos enjoy another beautiful day on the beach
Sunset over Playa Hermosa
For dinner, we walked back down the beach in the lovely glow of the sunset and had dinner at a local restaurant that Peter had recommended.  The place was simple but nice with outdoor seating only...more of a beach bar kind of place than a restaurant.  We walked back in the dark, with just enough light from the sliver of a moon to keep on the path through the trees that lined the beach..  Living in a city, you forget what the stars really look like when there are no lights and no moon.  They filled the sky so completely that it was impossible to pick out the usual constellations in the thousands of little pinpricks of light.

December 28, 2011
Playa Hermosa, Hotel Bosque Del Mar 

Another nice lazy day...I could really get into this life style!...well, at least for a while. The climate was very warm and tropical, so it was natural to just take things very slowly. 

We were greeted, as we were every morning here, by the big iguanas around the pool area.  One of them was especially huge and primeval looking, with a enormous ridge of spikes down his back.  They seemed completely unconcerned about the presence of the hotel guests and only skittered into the bushes if you approached them too closely.  

Rob entertains the parrots.  (This species is not native to Costa Rica.)

After breakfast, Rob and I strolled down the beach (after stopping to say hello to the two green parrots that were on a perch by a little fish shack right behind our hotel) to the main beach-access road where our friend from the day before was still selling coconuts.  We had two each!  At the farthest end of the beach, we had a chat with a woman from the Netherlands who had moved to Costa Rica to sell real estate.  She tried to interest us in some new properties that are being developed in Coco Beach just down the road, but was very pleasant about our disinterest.  (Actually, if Rob and I were in the market for such a thing, I could imagine coming here for frequent vacations.)  

Rob enjoys our cold pool after a long hot walk.
Back at the beach in front of our hotel, we went in for a great swim.  The water here is even warmer than in Hawaii, and it was easy to get right in.  The sand is dark from the volcanic origins of this region (Costa Rica has five active volcanoes) but very soft and fine.

After our swim in the Pacific, we rinsed off and had a swim in the much colder hotel pool, and enjoyed another afternoon of just relaxing and reading.  In the shade around the pool, it was very pleasant and balmy...not too hot.

At 6:00, we joined our Tauck tour group for the first time.  After introductions, our baby-faced tour guide, Gaston, explained that, although he is Costa Rican, he has a French name because his grandfather was German.  "Nothing in my life makes sense."

 After cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, we all went to dinner.  Rob and I love that Tauck Tours allows you to order whatever you want from the restaurant menu, and it is all included in the tour price, so we enjoyed some Pacific lobster.  The dinner was spent getting acquainted with our new group members, including a group of eight who all came together from New Jersey.  Most of the folks were around our age or a little older, but there was one college girl here with her parents who is majoring in theater arts, so of course, we told her all about Libby. 

Pacific Lobster Dinner - too bad we are so deprived!

December 29, 2012
Tizate Wellness Hot Springs
Horseback Riding and Ziplining on a Volcano!

Rincon de la Vieja Volcano looms over the Guanacaste plains
For the first time since our arrival, we had to get up to an alarm to be ready for our 8:00 a.m. adventure.  We rode about 90 minutes through the plains of Guanacaste, this dry region of Costa Rica, to the slopes of the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, one of five active volcanoes in Costa Rica.   

Alejandro served as our local guide
During our bus ride, our local guide Alejandro gave us lots of information about Costa Rica's history, culture, geography.  We learned that it takes four elements to make a town here...a soccer field, a church, a school, and a bar....and on one of his tours, the driver added one additional element, a Chinese restaurant!

Rob on the suspension bridge into the Tizate Hot Springs
We crossed a gorge in the forest on a bouncy suspension bridge (bringing back memories of Tom Sawyer's Island in Disneyland)  and arrived at the Tizate Wellness Hot Springs Resort.  
Rob and Joan at Tizate Hot Springs Resort
Tauck offered us a choice of activities there and most of us chose the horseback ride up the mountain.  I was very impressed with my horse!  It was much more responsive and cooperative than most of the trail horses I have ridden, which usually have a strong desire to munch grass or gallop back to the barn.  

The Costa Rican cowboys get our horses ready for a ride
Some of our tour group members wait for their horses
Rob on his horse, "Old Bullet"

The horses plodded through a dry forest, with views of the flat coastal plains far below us.  Some of the riders spotted a coatimundi along the trial, but that was the only wildlife sighting today (other than our hotel iguanas and lots of butterflies and a few other assorted bugs, which so far have not been a big problem.)

How do you say, "Brake!" in Spanish?
The crew checks the safety of our ziplines
 At the end of our trail ride was the start of the BIG adventure of the day...we zip-lined all the way back to the hot springs on a series of 10 loooong zip lines that took us flying through the trees and over deep canyons and rivers.    

Rob and Joan looking exceptionally
glamorous in our zipline gear
The staff suited us up in helmets and harnesses with heavy iron clips dangling off of them.  We got some directions on how to work the equipment, then one of the men hoisted us up, and off we went!  We sat in a comfortable harness and wore thick leather lined gloves that we used to brake as we arrived at each platform.    Braking - and a bit of a language barrier - created the only problem.   
The helpers told us at each take-off platform where to begin braking.   "This one is easy.  You can just brake at the end," or "This one goes very fast.  You need to break when you are over that big tree."   
We were doing fine until one of the crew told Rob, "(Mumble mumble mumble)... in Tomato!  in Tomato!"   
Rob, bewildered, responded,  "in Tomato?!"   
Rob zipping over a canyon
The guy nodded and sent Rob on his way.  Rob came barreling along the zip line at top speed and suddenly realized that at this speed, he was going to crash into the large tree used to hold the cable.  He pulled down hard on his line, braking as hard as he could, and the crew - seeing disaster approaching - threw out an emergency brake that slid along the cable and brought Rob to a quick stop.  His legs flew out wildly, missing our heads by inches, but happily also missing the massive tree.
"Hey, man," said our guide, "You were supposed to brake IN THE MIDDLE!"  
I loved the zipline!!!  My only complaint was that I zipped along so fast that I really couldn't see much except a blur of green...although I did get a good view of the river below me in one of the canyons.  Beautiful!

The tower in this photo poured natural hot water into
the pool from the hot springs below the resort.

Back at the spa, the staff served us lunch on the patio above the hot thermal pool, then Rob and I both enjoyed a wonderful neck and back massage in little wooden spa stalls separated by cloth curtains. 
Massages in a tropical setting - heaven!

Our Tauck Tour Guide, Gaston, provides maps
of our route to our tour members

At 2:00, we got on the bus and I just crashed from the heat and the excitement.  The rest of the afternoon was spent reading by the hotel pool and having one last walk on the Playa Hermosa before packing for the trip to our next desination.

December 30, 2011
River Float on the Tenorio River 

We had to be up with an alarm clock again today to have our bags outside our room by 7:00.  After a light breakfast of fresh tropical fruits and cereal, we got on the bus and rode through the lowlands of Guanacaste to our first stop of the day, a river rafting float down the Tenorio River.

We were greeted at the river by the rafting guides who outfitted us with life jackets and put us onto our rafts.  Our guide was the youngest, and I'm pretty sure the least experienced, of the guides.  He was a delightful young man...eighteen years old, "but my birthday is tomorrow!"...who spoke very little English.  We chatted with him in little snippets of his limited English and our very limited Spanish.

The group gets outfitted for a river float
on the Tenorio River

The brave explorers prepare to face the dangers of
the jungle river

Part of the tour group in their raft

Rob and Joan with their raft partners

Our adorable guide

The trip was very pleasant.  We didn't see the abundant wildlife I had been hoping for, but we did see MANY iguanas of various sizes, shapes, and colors, lots of lizards skittering along upright on their hind legs, two crocodiles slithering into the water...and finally -  hurray! - monkeys!  One big tree had about eight howler monkeys sitting up in the branches. 

There were iguanas in every bush ...

...and tree limb...

...and patch of ground...

...and sandy slope...

...and rocky perch.

A little prehistoric looking creature watching our progress

The howler monkeys were hard to photograph
as they were very high in the tall trees.
And there were many birds...especially the larger water birds (not surprising since we were by a river).  I actually managed to get some good zoom photos of three of them, which brother Rob kindly identified for me...although he also cursed me for spotting two birds so far on this trip that are not on his life list yet.  Sorry, little brother!

Bare Throated Tiger Heron

Yellow Crowned Night Heron

Laughing Falcom

Heading for the rapids
Since he couldn't speak English, our young guide had a chart which he used to point out certain birds.  The problem was that he would get so absorbed in looking for the right bird that he would stop paddling through the small rapids, and we had a several occasions of hearing him suddenly cry out, "Oh, my God!" as he sent us accidentally in the direction of the banks, or the low hanging trees, or the stumps in the middle of the river.  We actually got hung up on one big log, and the guides from another raft had to land and wade out to help us.  But we all laughed and had a great time,

Rob relaxes on our raft

While Joan grins at the monkeys.

Our view of the river below our restaurant

The bus picked us up and took us to a restaurant for lunch.  We sat with a couple, James and Julie, from Orinda and learned that Julie had grown up in Bakersfield.  As we were chatting, she mentioned that her mother had taught at Bessie Owens School (the GATE magnet school for BSCD.). I asked if her mother had been a GATE teacher and she said yes, so I asked for her Mother's name.  What a small world...her mother is a friend our ours from the UU Fellowship!

The restaurant was festive with Christmas decorations.
Traveling toward the highlands

After lunch, we had a three hour bus trip up into the highlands of Costa Rica...what a change from the coastal plains!  The landscape became lush and green, and the temperature was at least 30 degrees cooler.  The road was very slow...a narrow road along what used to be oxcarts, and the second half of it was unpaved.  (Our guide called our bumpy ride the "Costa Rica car massage".)  

This mountain town had a tribute to the miners

Looking back at the coastal plains

The lush green landscape of the highlands

Our progress was sometimes slowed by the
other traffic on the road...

which included both pack horses and cows

We finally arrived to our very lovely room at the Monteverde Lodge.  Rob walked around the grounds for while and spotted an agouti, a large rodent that lives up here.  

After an excellent dinner, we attended a lecture by one of the original settlers of the area.  Our lecturer was one of a group of Quakers who came here during the Korean War to find a more peaceful way of life.  They became cheese makers and were instrumental in preserving the unique and vulnerable cloud forest that sits atop these highlands.  

December 31, 2011
Monteverde Cloud Forest
Happy New Year's Eve!

We woke to very windy and overcast weather, although throughout the day, the weather changed approximately every five minutes (literally!)   Did you know that there are 3
0 climate zones around the world and Costa Rica has 12 of them in a country the size of West Virginia?  I think we passed through most of them today! 

Our guide in the Serptentarium
We started our adventures at the Serpentarium, where we saw many of the snakes that inhabit this country...many of which are venemous.  The rooms also included a few of the other reptiles and amphibians that inhabit this country, including an enormous toad and some of the tiny and brightly colored poison arrow tree frogs.

Rob with a giant toad

The scariest snakes were the ones who hide amongst the vines.

I like it better when they advertise their presence with bright colors!

Then we moved on to the "Butterfly Gardens," whose misleading name is a lure to get you into a room filled with some of the millions of insects, both tiny and huge, that live in this county.  The entomologist who woks there showed us everything from tarantulas to rhinoceros beetles to the scary Chaga beetle, or assassin bug, so called because its bite infects you with a parasite that lies dormant sometimes for years until it suddenly "blossoms" and causes (as he described) your heart to explode.  I don't think the reality is quite that graphic, but it does kill many people in the tropics each year and may have been the cause of Charles Darwin's death.
The docent in the Butterfly Garden explains that these
mosquito larvae have only appeared in the cloud forests
with the advancement of global warming.  

A friendly tarantula

We did not have the fun of finding these in the fore
Some of the insects were the size of large mice

The leaf cutter ants in the garden got their own highway.

Rob and the giant jungle leaves

Happily, there actually were butterflies in the Jardin de Mariposas!

Part of our group in the butterfly gardens.

Our final adventure of the day took place in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.
The entrance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest


Quetzal Quest
I was seeking the elusive Resplendent Quetzal, a bird so rare and exquisite, the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica worshipped it as God of the Air. Today, the Quetzal is one of the most coveted feathers in the bird-watcher’s cap. This lovely bird lives in the Central American cloud forests, tropical rainforests so high in the mountains, they are perpetually shrouded in mist.“Cloud Forest.” The very name conjures up wonder and mystery. What a fitting home for this celestial little creature. 
I had come to the Monteverde Cloud Forest in the highlands of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, I had come to Monteverde with a tour group of noisy sightseers.I usually enjoy the company of fellow travelers, but today I glared at them resentfully. Didn’t they understand I was on a mission? How were we supposed to find this shy little bird when our group members chattered louder than the howler monkeys who also inhabit the Costa Rican jungles? 
Gaston, our tour leader, led us to a viewing platform hung with nectar-filled red globes which were bombarded by dozens of bright hummingbirds. The jewel-like qualities of these tiny birds were reflected in their names – the Purple-Throated Mountain Gem, the Green Violet Ear, the Green-Crowned Brilliant, and the Violet Saberwing. The hummingbirds were delightful, but viewing them at the feeders was cheating. I am a Birder! We don’t need no stinkin’ feeders! We find birds in their natural habitat! 
Green Crowned Brilliant

Purple Throated Mountain Gem

Hummingbird assembly

Violet Green Ears

Violet Saberwing

At the edge of the forest, we split into two groups. I looked with a touch of pity on “Wimpy Group” who wished only to take a little stroll along a path in the woods and then hang out in, of all places, the gift shop. My group was made up of the hardy, the serious, the intrepid explorers ready to brave the mud, the drizzle, the bugs and snakes, to delve deep into the secrets of the jungle. 
Our guide describes the forest.
Two naturalists would direct our quest. Andreas was a charmer – tall, dark, and so cute, he actually made dreadlocks look attractive. José, a small man in an Indiana Jones hat, stood silently to the side, peering through his scope. They led us up a muddy path to an overlook above the aguatillo – the wild avocado trees that are the Quetzal’s favorite food. 

Rob searches for the quetzal.

We scanned the thick woods, searching for the flash of iridescent green or blue, the flaming red chest, the long streaming tail feathers and cute Mohawk topknot that characterize the Quetzal. Andreas filled our anxious minutes with stories of the cloud forest and of the other creatures who lived there. But I wasn’t here for stories. I was here to see the bird. 

José was of the same mind. Five of us left the larger group and followed him. A narrow, winding path, overhung with vines and wild orchids, took us deeper into the dark forest, down to the aguatillo grove where we hoped to spot our species.
Fruits of the forest.
 Occasionally, he would stop and point. “Look, there is a Speckle-Cheeked Tanager! Quick, there, that one is a Three-Striped Warbler.” 
Was he kidding? How could he possibly determine the species from those brief glimpses of nondescript, little brown birds? Was it cheating, I wondered, to include birds I didn’t identify myself on my own very short Life List? 

A tiny hummer in its nest...seen through Jose's scope.
Right when I was beginning to think the day would be just one long walk in the woods, José suddenly stopped us with a finger to his lips. He aimed his scope at a tree, far off in the forest.Was this our Quetzal? My heart quickened as I stepped up to peer through the scope. Through the lens, I could clearly see – no, not the Quetzal – but the head of a baby hummingbird, a Purple-Throated Mountain Gem, peeping out from his nest. It was not the bird I had set out to see, but this tiny creature was a still a miraculous sight that almost made up for the failure of our quest. 
After more than two Quetzal-less hours of tramping through the jungle, we returned, tired, wet, and disheveled, to our waiting vans. “Wimpy Group” was already seated, dry and chipper, bags of souvenirs on their laps. I plopped down next to one of the women and sighed. 
“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Didn’t you enjoy your hike?” 
“Sure. The forest was beautiful, but I was disappointed not to find a Quetzal.” 
“Oh, you wanted to see a Quetzal?” She whipped her camera out of her purse. “Well, take a look, dear. Here’s a photo of the one we just saw … right behind the gift shop.”
It's probably just as well that I didn't find a quetzal.  My brother Rob, an avid and knowledgeable birder, had had the same bad luck in spite of numerous trips to Costa Rica, and he might never had forgiven me!

Dinner was a "special" dinner for New Years Eve, but because we were limited to the few items on the menu, we actually didn't like it as much as the dinner the previous night.  The hotel had no special festivities planned and we were tired from all the activities, so we actually went to sleep by 10 p.m.  Oh, well, it was New Year in New York by then!

January 1, 2012
Lake Arenal and Tilajari Resort, Muelle
Happy New Year!
The road down to Lake Arenal

Today was another travel day...but the journey was the destination.

We were on the vans by 8:00.  (The bus had gone ahead to meet us on the other side of lake Arenal as we would be taking boats across the lake.)  We drove down the eastern side of the mountain range toward the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.  As with the trip up, the road was unpaved and winding, but we chatted away and enjoyed the scenery.

Half way down, we stopped at a little cafe/gift shop for a rest stop and had a nice demonstration of the old way of squeezing the sugar out of sugar cane.  Two of our group took on the role of the oxen that are usually used for this purpose and rotated a long log, while another man fed long stalks of sugar cane into the hole in the stone mill.  Sugar water came pouring out of the spout into the pitcher.  We all got a little sip of the sugar water, a bite of molasses, and a stalk of sugar cane to chew, (yum), as well as a sip of the very strong liquor that is made from the sugar (yuck).
Our group takes the part of the mules and squeezes the
liquid out of the sugar cane.

Products from the sugar -
sugar cane, brown sugar, and cacique

There was a darling little kitten on the grounds, and when I put my backpack on the ground to take photos, she decided to climb into it, attracting quite a crowd on onlookers.

Rob has a gift for finding animals to love
everywhere we go!

Kittly loved my backpack.  

At the bottom of the mountain, we reached the banks of Lake Arenal.  We have been so lucky with weather on this trip.  It was windy, but the temperature was very pleasant, and the air was clear, so we got some beautiful views of Arenal Volcano, which is apparently often completely obscured by low clouds.  
Rob and me on the lush banks of Lake Arenal...

We were a little distressed to find that due to the holiday (and Sunday to boot), that there were no restrooms at the boat dock.  The men discretely made use of the abundant bushes, but we women were reluctant to go further into the underbrush because of the fear of snakes.  We were getting a little desperate, but happily Gaston got permission from a local family for the women to use their facilities.

and waiting for our ferry.

Boat taxis on Lake Arenal
We boarded the little boat taxis for our ride across Lake Arenal and floated past lush green hills, spotting lots of water birds along the way.  

A large egret flies next to our boat.

A flock of cattle egrets

An Amazon kingfisher sits atop the tree stump.

Female anginga - also knows as a snakebird.

We also ventured a little way up the mouth of a river for another encounter with howler monkeys.  The monkey sightings were a little frustrating because they stay so high in the trees and there is so much foliage that it is very difficult to see them well, but I still felt like an excited little kid whenever we encountered them!
These trees were filled with howler monkeys

They were hard to see...but that is a howler monkey tail
wrapped around the tree trunk right in the middle.

Jungle flowers

Arenal Volcano looms over the lake.

Lake Arenal is a man-made lake and we disembarked at the lava rock dam and boarded our bus for the last hour to our destination.   
The town of Fortuna

We stopped for a little stoll in the town of Fortuna, so named because it has so far fortunately escaped being destroyed by the frequent eruptions of Arenal, still a very active volcano.  

Town park in Fortuna

Flowers in the town park

We passed the hotel where Tauck tours used to stay...a nice place by thermal springs for bathing, but Gaston explained that he and the other guides realized that the resort was right in the path of possible lava flows and they informed Tauck that, sure, they would drop the tour groups off there, but they were going to stay in a different location then pick the groups up in the morning.  So Tauck changed the location to an even nicer place...our next stop, the Tilajari Resort near the town of Muelle.
The Tilajari Resort

What a great place!  Upon our arrival, we immediately went to lunch in the large patio restaurant.  Just outside the patio were little bare trees with long bare branches which the hotel staff had hung with rings of papaya and bananas to attract the many kinds of birds that live or migrate through this area.  We were all entranced, and it was hard to sit still to eat our lunch, as we kept popping out of our chairs every few minutes to take photos of new gorgeous birds. The birds were a rainbow of colors..bright blues, vivid reds, greens, yellows, brown, and black.

The open air restaurant at Tilajari

Blue Grey Tanagers

Blue Grey Tanager

Scarlet Rumped Tanager

Grey-headed Tanager

Great Kiskadee

The birds were not the only fabulous creatures.  Like our first hotel, this was home to a large number of iguanas...huge beasts with ridges of spikes down their back and big wattles hanging from their chins, lounging at the very tops of the trees, or on the lawn that sloped down to the river that flowed below our rooms.  It was mating season, so the males were displaying their brightest orange to attract their mates.

Iguanas were everywhere - on the ground
and high in the treetops.

We also spotted a number of smaller lizards and geckos scurrying around the trees and walls of the hotel.

After lunch, we had a rare free afternoon to do whatever we liked, so we settled into our very nice, large room with its beautiful views of the river, then went for a dip in the pool.  I felt very privileged and spoiled...what a lucky girl I am, sitting there enjoying the beauty and tranquillity of this tropical paradise!  Our young waiter, Oscar, came to offer us drinks and a fresh fruit salad - all included on our tour - and we had a nice chat with him about his life in Costa Rica.
The pool at Tilajari Resort

Rob enjoys the good life!

In the distance, we saw Gaston leading most of our tour group on a guided walk through the resort gardens, so we joined them for the last  (and best) part of the walk...a visit to the "food court," a garden where we got to sample juicy sugar cane and hearts of palm cut with a machete right off the plants in front of us.  you really could survive on a tropical island if it came with the plants that grow in such abundance here...coconuts, papayas, guava, mangoes, pineapple (Did you know that Costa Rica is the largest exporter of pineapple?...Neither did I!) all supplemented with the great fish that swim in their coastal waters and rivers.
Fresh hearts of palm

Our group enjoys heart of palm right off the tree

Rob and a bunch of bananas.

Rob and I then walked through the "medicinal gardens" which displayed some of the plants used in pharmacology or as folk remedies...including many familiar herbs...ginger, coriander, rosemary, and mint.
The medicinal gardens at Tilajari

I went down to reception 
(skirting by an enormous iguana sitting in the middle of the path) to make reservations for a jungle walk that was not included in our tour, we took a nap, then it was time for dinner back on the patio.  We had become friends with Dick and DeeDee, a darling couple from Philadelphia and we joined them again for a nice visit.  Dinner here is very leisurely and by the time we were finished, I was ready to fall into bed.

Coconut shrimp for dinner - yum!

January 2 - the Best Day!
Peñas Blancas River Float and Tilajari Jungle Walk

Today was the best day of the entire trip!  It started with the wonderful breakfast buffet on the patio, and once again, it was hard for me to stay in my seat.  There were a number of new birds, including our first sighting of parakeets, a red headed woodpecker, a gorgeous vivid blue and black little bird, several hummingbirds who seemed to enjoy the fruit as well, and a small rust colored squirrel who took possession of one of the little food trees and kept all the birds away until he had eaten his fill.

Red headed woodpecker

Orange chinned parrots

Golden-hooded Tanager

Summer Tanager

This squirrel benefited from the bird feeding station!

Red-legged Honeycreeper

More iguanas in the trees

Then the entire group piled on the bus for a very short drive to the Peñas Blancas River where we met our guides for another river float.  This one even surpassed the first great one a few days ago!  The day was gorgeous...warm but not hot...and the banks were lined with lush tropical plants, tall trees, long looked like a set for an Indiana Jones movie.  We saw lots more birds, several crocodiles, and several families of howler monkeys, including one group that decided they didn't like us under their tree and sprayed us with a "golden shower" of monkey pee (I was thankful to be wearing a hat!)  Another troop of howlers showed their displeasure by putting on quite a show of hooting and howling.  We also saw a big two-toed sloth sleeping in another tree above us.
Joan, Dick, Dee Dee, our guide, and Rob

Heading down the river

Snowy Egret

Never smile at a crocodile!

Howler monkeys prowl the treetops
This croc was huge!

A contemplative monkey

Our guides were very excited about seeing this
Slaty-Tailed Trogon.  I think they are rare.

We made two great stops along the on a sandy bank along the river where one of the guides went into the bushes and brought us out a tiny poison dart tree frog! 
Stopping on the riverbank... search for the tiny Blue Jean poison dart frog

The frog posed very nicely for us!

The second stop was at the little ranch of Don Pedro, a 99 year old man who has ranched this land for many years.  The home was completely hand built, most of the house open to the elements, with a loft bedroom up above the living area, and a little outhouse next door.  The house was gaily decorated for Christmas, with a tree, several wreaths, lights, and one entire room devoted to a manger scene filled with a whole herd of sheep facing the baby Jesus.  Don Pedro's son still ranches this land, and a small herd of cattle and a little flock of chickens greeted us.  There are no roads leading to the house...the only way there is by boat.
The home of Don Pedro

Christmas in the jungle

A Christmas Wreath

And a homemade manger scene that
filled a little room of the house.

Don Pedro greeted us all.

Life here is simple but beautiful.

We paddled the short distance more (passing more animals along the way) to where the bus was waiting to take us back to Tilajari.  
Great Blue Heron

Three-toed Sloth

One of these howlers was making quite a fuss!
The other doesn't quite to know what to think.

Anhinga bird

And our last crocodile spotting.

Our last stop of the morning was at the Restaurant of the Iguanas, which got its name for obvious reasons...the grounds were filled with the creatures!

Restaurant of the Iguanas

This creature was enormous...several feet long
and completely unconcerned about our presence!

Back at our resort, the iguanas were also out in full force!  
This fellow was on the lawn in front of our room.

And this one blocked my way on the path to reception.

Rob and I enjoyed another wonderful lunch (ensalada mixta and a yummy risotto with hearts of palm).  Then we joined five of the others (Nancy and Reid, and Jack and Sharon with their 20-year old daughter Kelsie...all lovely people) for our guided jungle walk.    We met at the stables where some of the party were directed to return to their rooms to put on closed shoes because of the mud (and, as we soon discovered, the ants!) then we piled on a big flatbed trailer and were pulled by a big tractor through the fields past a beautiful herd of cows  (a hybrid of Brahmas and some other breed) toward the rain forest.  
A gorgeous Basilisk lizard near the beginning of our walk.

Our carriage awaits!


The cattle of Tilajari
They were a hybrid of Brahmas and some other cows

A Walk in the Jungle

“Be sure to stay on the short grass of the path.  There are fer-de-lance snakes in the taller grass.”  Pedro, our guide, grinned at us and opened the rickety wooden gate to the large meadow that lay between us and our destination, a Costa Rican rain forest that lay in the shadow of the Arenal Volcano. 
Rob and I exchanged alarmed looks.  There are 135 species of snakes in Costa Rica, and although only 17 of them are venomous, the deadliest of all is the fer-de-lance.  We had learned this on our tour of the Santa Elena Serpentario near the Monteverde Cloud Forest two days before.  We had also learned the disquieting fact that the fer-de-lance is quite territorial and, unlike most snakes, who prefer to slither away, it has been known to actually chase the unlucky people who accidentally stumble across it.  Rob looked back the way we had come, silently calculating the difficulty of walking back to the hotel.  We had already traveled over a mile on a flatbed trailer pulled by an enormous tractor – and there were an awful lot of grassy fields behind us.  The other five members of our little expedition didn’t seem overly concerned, and we didn’t want to be branded as the cowards of the group, so we took a deep breath, feigned a happy expression, and followed Pedro and the others through the gate and on through the meadow – and into our greatest adventure of our entire trip. 
The path to the jumgle
At the far end of the meadow stood another wooden gate.  Pedro lifted the latch and we stepped through into a different world.  The bright sun of the afternoon was immediately dimmed by the thick canopy of trees and vines that surrounded us.  Sounds, too, were absorbed by the dense foliage and we walked almost silently along the narrow muddy trail that wound through the trees.  Without the little breeze that had blown through the meadow, the heavy humid air clung to us like a blanket and we were immediately assaulted by tiny flying insects looking for a fresh meal. 
I had come to Costa Rica seeking bright birds and chattering monkeys, but the plant life here in the jungle was as weird and wonderful as the animals.  Tall primeval fern trees waved their huge green fronds high over our heads.  Every tree was home to hundreds of other plants – bromeliads, mosses, and flowers that sprouted out of every trunk and limb.  
We each took turns standing inside a huge hollow strangler fig tree that had once wrapped an intricate network of vines around another tree and then slowly absorbed the nutrients until the host tree dissolved and finally disappeared, leaving a strong but lacy open tube that stretched high above us. 
Standing in the strangler fig...

...and looking up the tube left by the strangled tree.

Wild plantain

The "walking palm"

We marveled at the “walking palm,” a tree whose roots dip just slightly into the soil, allowing it to migrate as it seeks out the bits of sunlight that peek through the trees.  Pedro stripped a branch off of a bush by the trail and offered us a taste.  He laughed with delight when I identified undertones of garlic and onion beneath the pungent peppery taste.  “Si, si.  It is related to the pepper tree.”  He then dared us to chew the stem of another plant, laughing again as we all realized that the plant had effectively anesthetized our tongue.

The plant life was overwhelming, but where were the animals?  In fact, they were all around us, but finding them in the dense foliage required keen powers of observation which Pedro and Juan, our tractor driver and animal spotter, had sharpened through years of experience. 

Our first animal encounter was a huge column of army ants, thousands upon thousands of large black creatures with huge mandibles busily marching along in a wide line on their never-ending quest for food.  My heart raced as images of old horror movies in which the ants swarm over and devour the hapless explorer in minutes flashed across the movie screen of my imagination.  There was no way around the column which stretched across our path and into the foliage in both directions.  We couldn’t turn back now.  Carefully, we all took a giant step across the seething mass of tiny teeth. 
How can one species of ant seem so terrifying and the next so enchanting?  A busy colony of leaf-cutter ants scurried along the ground, each carrying their little load back to the nest.  These ants can carry up to ten times their own weight.  They were so tiny that we could hardly make them out in the dim light, but we all crouched over them and giggled at the sight of little pieces of green leaves skittering along the ground.  This colony had been harvesting leaves for so long that these tiny creatures had actually packed the earth into a distinct and hardened pathway across the jungle floor.  Pedro explained that the ants don’t eat the leaves.  They pile them up inside the underground nest where they form the base for a fungus that becomes the food for the colony. 
Busy little leaf-cutter ants

Our group watches the leaf cutters.

Suddenly Juan put his finger to his lips to quiet our happy exclamations and pointed high into the tree above us.  We were bewildered.  What were we looking for?  There seemed to be nothing but a dense covering of leaves.  Then suddenly, a small brown figure leaped from one branch to another and a little white-faced capuchin monkey looked down at us.  The family in the tree was hard to see, and it was impossible to get photographs, but now that we were quiet, we could find them by listening for their chattering.  Their voices were soon joined by the eerie hoarse “ooo ooo ooo” of a howler monkey in the trees to our left, protesting our invasion of his territory.  I felt positively gleeful.  I had come to Costa Rica to find monkeys and now I was surrounded by them!
The monkeys’ treetop home is also shared by the another jungle creature.  Juan’s eagle eyes spotted a two-toed sloth hanging in his hammock of branches high above us.  These creatures are so sedentary, coming out of their tree only about once a week, that their fur becomes green with algae, which provides them with an effective camouflage. 
We would have loved to stay with the monkeys longer, but Pedro needed to move us along.  I overheard him quietly ask Juan a question, and Juan nodded, “Si.”  Pedro turned to us and said, “We have a special treat for you!” 
He led us a bit further and then said, “Come, one at a time.”  Kelsie, the youngest member of our group, followed him around a large tree, took one look, and immediately jumped back.  “What IS it?”  A loud and strange kind of growling, hissing sound emanated from the tree.  Pedro laughed again and beckoned us forward, so I tentatively stepped around the tree. 
There in the hollow formed by the wide buttress roots of the giant tree were two fledgling black vultures, still in their white downy covering.  They reared up and spread their wings, calling out their strange vocalization.  Pedro explained that the sound was meant to scare off predators, as the birds were very vulnerable on the ground.  The black vulture does not build a nest, but lays its eggs directly on the ground in the shelter provided between the roots of the tree.  We looked up and there was Mama Vulture keeping her sharp eye on us as we admired her children.  We snapped a few photos then moved quickly on, as we didn’t want to stress the poor creatures, but the thrill of that special surprise stays with us still.  
Baby Black Vultures
Twilight comes early in the tropics, and the forest was beginning to get quite dark.  With the dark came the mosquitoes, so in spite of the wonders of the trip, we were glad to return to the open field where we had one final delight in store.  On the very top of the treetops sat a large beautiful toucan with a bright yellow chest, his head turned to the side so that his huge bill was silhouetted against the glow of the sunset.  It was the perfect ending to a perfect day.
A toucan atop the highest tree.

The jungle explorers

We returned to the tractor where we met the owner of the resort out on his little quad car that he uses to check the herd twice a day.  He took Nancy and Kelsie around on the back to meet some of the cows up close.  There were many little calves and we learned that several of them had just been born a couple of days before.  We got back to the hotel, muddy, tired, but completely happy from the fabulous day.  Tauck had arranged a little reception for the group in the pool area, so we shared our adventures with some of the others and heard their tales of the exciting zip line before going to dinner with Dick and DeeDee.  I probably wasn't very good company as I was falling asleep by the end of the dinner, worn out by the excitement of a wonderful day.

January 3, 2012
Doka Coffee Plantation and San Jose
Our last sight of the beautiful birds of Tilajari Resort

We woke to find it had rained during the night.  The river below our room was noticeably higher.  Today was another transition day as we moved to our final destination of San Jose, but once again, the journey included some interesting stops. 

We enjoyed our last breakfast and last look at the beautiful birds of Tilajari, then made a dash through the rain to our bus.  It wound us through the cloud-shrouded mountains, but just as we arrived at our first stop in a nice little town, the clouds parted and we had a nice cool visit to the town's big marketplace where we got to see some of the typical produce of the region, including some GIANT radishes, and to have a taste of the soursop plant, which was a strange mix of creamy and tart.  

Costa Rican Market

Giant radishes

Gaston shows us the pineapples.

While we were browsing in the market, Rob and some of the others were playing with one of the many dogs that wandered free around the town. She decided she liked the attention and joined our group for the rest of our visit, walking right into the town's little museum.  
Rob and his new friends

The town's cathedral

The dog came right into the museum with us!

I liked the interesting art in their little museum

Then, when Gaston gathered us all for our tour's official group photo in the town square, she lay down - all by herself! - right in the middle of the group.  We loved it!  Rob hated to leave her and wished he could bring her home.
Our tour's official group photo - notice our canine friend in the middle!

Beautiful views of the central highlands
As we came out of the mountains, the weather cleared and we had beautiful views of the big central valley below the Poas Volcano.  This area has some of the nicest weather in Costa Rica with milder temperatures and less rain due to the high elevation and surrounding mountains and many of the hills were covered with coffee plants.  

Coffee plantations

Our next stop was at the Doka Coffee Plantation, which Gaston felt made the best coffee in Costa Rica.  We had a very interesting tour of the facility led by Dayana, an enthusiastic young girl.  I gained a new respect for coffee!  It takes five years for a coffee plant to go from seed to a producing bush.  After it sprouts and sends tiny leaves out from the "mariposa" (two specialized leaves that look like the wings of a butterfly), it spends a year being tended in a plastic sack filled with soil before being transplanted into the planation.  The round berries on the plant are not the coffee beans...they are the shells containing three beans each.  
Dayana gives us a lesson on growing coffee.

The mariposa (butterfly) leaves of the new plant.

Ripening coffee berries hold the beans.

After viewing the various stations where the beans were stripped off of the berries, washed, fermented, dried, and finally roasted, we were given a typical Costa Rican lunch of rice and beans, a little beef or chicken, and salad.  
The entrance to the Coffee Wet Mill

Joan and a colorful coffee cart

Lunch at the Coffee Plantation

We finished the visit with a look at the Doka Plantation's butterfly garden where I finally succeeded at getting a photo of a Blue Morphis (after many failed attempts!  They don't hold still for long!)
The colorful flowers attract the butterflies

The gorgeous Blue Morphis

My new little friend

Rob and Gaston board the bus for the very last ride of our trip.

The view from our room...nice!
It was only another hour to the capitol city of San José and our last hotel, the Intercontinental.  We had a room on the top floor with a beautiful view of the pools below, and bathroom with a big bathtub...the first tub of the trip...all the other hotels had been showers only.

Dressed for dinner

We cleaned up and dressed in our best for our special farewell dinner.  (It was the first time my hair looked decent the whole week...the humidity and wind and busy schedule had not been conducive to good grooming!)  We got on the bus one final time for a private reception, tour, and dinner in the city's Gold Museum.  The first room was a special exhibit of the artwork inspired by the many types of felines in the country...pumas, jaguars, ocelots, and others, along with information about the real cats.  The gold exhibit was small but impressive...cabinets filled with excavated gold figures representing animals of the country...frogs, birds, crocodiles, big cats, bats, etc...and human figures with fantastic masks.  
The Gold Museum

The first exhibit displayed artwork inspired by the
many felines species in Costa Rica

Feline art

But most of the museum was devoted to artwork
in gold - both small figures...

...and big pieces of jewelry.

A gold scorpion

The replica of a tomb where much of the gold was found.

Golden eagles

Golden frogs.

A Golden Bat

The table settings for our farewell dinner echoed the
gold theme of the museum.

The dinner was nicely presented, with gold colored chargers under the plates and tropical flowers on the tables. The chocolate dessert was a tasty conclusion, a dark chocolate pudding topped with candied ginger and lemon...very nice!

The dinner marked the end of our stay.  We returned to the hotel to pack for our return flight the next morning.

We loved Costa Rica!  We can hardly wait to return and experience the southern Pacific coast!

Pura Vida!

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