Costa Rica – July 1991

In summer of 1991 we took our first birding trip in the tropics, to Costa Rica.  The trip was led by Olga Clarke of LA Audubon along with her husband Herb, and Costa Rica Expeditions guide Carlos Gomez.  The trip covered Braulio Carrillo National Park, Selva Verde, Rara Avis, Tortuguero National Park, Guanacaste, and Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

As an introduction to tropical birding, going to Costa Rica during their rainy (or I should just say, rainiest) season was quite the experience. We learned to enjoy being damp all the time, slogging through mud (the “corduroy road” – logs on mud – up to Rara Avis was difficult, frustrating, and fun, all at the same time). It was on this trip that we realized we had lousy binoculars and soon thereafter invested in Zeiss binos.

Our photos from this trip were largely unspectacular; the photos below are mostly from other sources. Liza’s trip journal follows below the photographs.

Sunday/Monday, July 14-15 – Los Angeles to San José, Costa Rica
Although our LACSA flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 1:30 am, we were at LAX at 8:00 pm, having been told that the check-in for LACSA was so incredibly slow that one would be wise to allow four hours for the process. Excitement and anxiety conspired to have me push Robert into being at the airport even earlier than that. A bit ridiculous, perhaps, but this was our first trip to the tropics, and our first trip with a group, and I certainly didn’t want to get bumped from the flight! And as it turned out, the check-in process was every bit as bad as expected. It would seem that LACSA had yet to realize the benefits of computerized reservation systems.

With check-in out of the way, we still had a few hours to kill before we could board. So we sat in the international terminal. I was very tired; there is not much of a time difference between Los Angeles and Costa Rica, but I’d spent the last few days trying to wear myself out so I would sleep on the plane. I was also getting more excited by the minute; we met a lovely costaricensa in the check-in line who extolled the virtues of her country, noted that we were travelling in the rainy season and summed it up by saying, very simply, “You will love my country!”. She also offered us her mother’s telephone number (outside San José) if we needed anything. Since we’ll be with a group, we doubted we would need any help, but I was certainly impressed with the offer. Was this typical, I wondered, of how we would be treated? On our travels, I’m never quite certain whether we’ll be despised for being American or treated well because we’re tourists spending money. We would just have to see.

Having killed as much time as we could in the open portion of the international terminal watching television in the bar, we finally made our way through security and to the gate, and there met up with part of our group. Olga Clarke was the group leader, a vigorous native Louisianan who leads several trips yearly to Costa Rica. When she’s not travelling, she runs the Los Angeles Audubon Bookstore in Plummer Park, Hollywood. Her husband Herb, another active L.A. Auduboner, author of a book or two about Southern California birds, avid bird photographer, and a regular contributor to the LAAS Western Tanager newsletter, joined us on this trip. That’s lucky for us – two tour guides for the price of one!
Also on this flight is Peggy Forster, a widow (although just how long it had been since her husband passed away, it was hard to say; maybe a year or two?) who keeps herself busy travelling. There were three others in our group who flew down to San José a day or so ahead of us: Dr. Robert Marcus, an MD from Stanford Medical School, and his wife Ann; and Paul Fox, also an MD, from Pacific Palisades. We’d catch up with them when we arrived.

I’d already decided that LACSA wasn’t too organized, but they decided to prove the point a bit further by delaying our flight. We didn’t get off the ground until close to 3:00 am. At that point all I wanted to do is sleep, and I willed the stewardesses to turn the cabin lights off and let us all get some rest. But instead, they decided to serve dinner. It was the first time I ever turned down airline food. Robert cheerfully ate his (his theory is, you don’t know when you’ll eat again, so you may as well eat when they give you something).

As it turns out, he was right. Our flight had three stops (Mexico City, Guatemala City, and San Pedro Sula (Honduras), before arriving in San José Monday at noon, and we were given little else to eat after the dinner I had ignored. Oh well. Mercifully the scheduled stops were relatively short and we didn’t have to de-plane. Our Mexico City stop was notable for the views of the volcanoes and air pollution as we descended, and also for the bleachers filled with families at the end of the runway; it would seem that airplane watching is a popular pastime. By the time we got to Guatemala City, things were starting to look a little more tropical. San Pedro Sula, Honduras featured a one-runway international airport, a ramshackle airport terminal whose sign proclaiming it to be the “Generallissimo Aeropuerto Internacional” was bigger than the building itself, and men in jungle fatigues patrolling the runways with their AK-47’s (or whatever the automatic weapon of choice is in Honduras). Hmm.

And finally, San José! Hungry, tired (who can sleep on a plane, anyway?) and anxiously excited, we poured off the plane with our carry-on bags and hoped that the one bag we checked would show up at baggage claim (it did). A woman connected with our in-country tour operator, Costa Rica Expeditions, ushered us through customs, and in the mad press of bodies outside in the tropical humidity, we met up with fellow birders Robert, Ann, and Paul, our local guide Carlos Lopez, and our driver Ricardo. Robert exchanged some dollars for colones, we all loaded up our mini-bus, and we were off!

To my semi-surprise, we bolted out of San José immediately (we’ll have a chance to see the city on our last day, Olga says, although in her opinion there’s not much to see), sped down the well-paved Pan American highway towards La Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo, and had our first initiation into rainforest birding. Oooh, this was different than anything we had ever done! It was hot, the humidity was oppressive, a little breeze would float by and it would be almost cool for a second, then was back to sticky-ville. I would have liked to shed some clothes, but a look at the mosquitoes in the vicinity convinced me to stay covered up.

We crept along the spongy pathways following Carlos, trying to figure out how to look for little birds in the trees and shadows, when he excitedly (but quietly) told us all to STOP! What’s this, I wondered, trying to unsteam my glasses. Turned out to be a Spectacled Antpitta, an extremely quiet, elusive, and rare bird hunched on a nest at the base of a tree. Carlos’ excitement became understandable once he mentioned that this was a life bird for him. Considering he’s seen just about every bird in this country, his getting a lifer was definitely a noteworthy event! For us, well, all the birds are new, but the Antpitta is a bird we’re not likely to see again, and if Carlos hadn’t pointed it out, we’d have walked right by him/her without a clue.

The more-easily seen birds came and went, most of them colorfully spectacular – Great Green Macaw, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, and Montezuma’s Oropendula, to name a few. We could have probably kept going on sheer excitement, but the truth was we were all pretty worn out, so we piled back onto the mini-bus and made our way to our first “hotel” at Selva Verde.
The accomodations were rustic, but the setting was wonderful; deep in the rain forest, surrounded by the sounds of the birds, monkeys, frogs, and insects. The windows were just cutouts in the wooden wall covered by a screen, placed so that any breeze that might come along would waft through the room. We had dinner, reviewed the birds of the day with the group, and then returned to our rooms early to get some rest, as Olga says we’ll be getting up at 4:15(!) in the morning. I hung out my humidity-, rain-, and sweat-soaked blouse to dry, and we turned in, grateful for the chance to lie down and relax on the relatively cool cotton sheets.

Tuesday, July 16 – Selva Verde
We’d forgotten to bring a travel alarm with us, but it hardly mattered; a brisk knock on our door promptly at 4:15 told us that it was time to get up. I really could have used another couple of hours of sleep, too. We packed up our things (hanging that blouse out was a joke; it was more damp in the morning than it was last night when I hung it up!), choked down some breakfast and by 5:00 were on the bus heading for La Virgin del Socorro park. Such a beautiful park, with birds everywhere, and the flowers! Impatiens growing wild, covering the banks next to the road and down to the river. An old rusted bridge crossed the river at one point; the bridge didn’t exactly look safe but turned out to be sturdy enough to hold a group of crazy birders. It rained on us most of the six hours that we birded in the park. At noon we wound our way back to Selva Verde and explored that immediate area, where we found a Rufous Motmot. Went owling after dinner, and saw a Barn Owl (my first! making me the only person in the group not to have seen one in North America) and a Common Pauraque. The day’s listed amounted to 92 birds, nearly all of them new.

Wednesday, July 17 – Selva Verde to Rara Avis
We left Selva Verde and headed up, literally, to Rara Avis, a private reserve that caters to eco-tourists. After stopping at the village store in Las Horquetas to buy knee-high rubber boots (950 colones/pair), we climbed aboard what amounted to a canopy-topped bench-equipped flatbed trailer being hauled by a tractor with absolutely enormous tires. The necessity of the tractor and its mega tires soon became obvious; the road deteriorated into pure mud (with a few logs and boulders thrown in for fun), and we crossed two rivers, with the water level getting kind of high on the second crossing.

We jiggled, crashed, and slid along the mud track for about two and a half hours, bringing us to El Plástico, a dilapidated, ramshackle, rotting wooden building. The good news and the bad news was this was not our destination – good news because we wouldn’t have to stay there, and bad because it meant we had another four miles to go to our final destination. Very bad because we had to walk those last four miles, the “road” being sufficiently bad that the tractor would go up with just our luggage. Hmm. I had never been in such thick mud in my life. Herb Clarke joked that this is the mud capital of the world, and that they export it everywhere else. He could be right about that.

The mud was knee-deep in most places, ranging from thick and sticky to liquid goo. Both types were pretty good at grabbing your feet and not wanting to let them go. I definitely appreciated my rubber boots, especially after seeing Peggy (who didn’t want to buy or wear rubber boots) trash her sneakers after about two steps. When the tractor finally went by, she got on and rode up. Olga urged me to go on too, since I was clearly not enjoying myself, but I knew if I rode up I’d feel like a wimp, or would miss the good birds, so I stuck it out. But oh, it was miserable. My glasses fogged up, I couldn’t see, and negotiating the mud and logs was very tiring. I grabbed onto a vine at one point to keep from falling, and it turned out to be a stinging thorny vine that did a number on my forearm.

As unpleasant as that was, I did a little better than Robert; he stepped on what he thought was secure footing on a log, and it turned out to be a floater. One leg sank into the water up to the knee and he filled his boot with mud and water. Ugh! The Hike from Hell lasted four hours. We got off the so-called road at one point, presumably to see some birds, but the trail through the forest wasn’t much better; I traded knee-deep mud for slick rocks designed to trip up crazy city-dwelling tourists. And my glasses fogged up more than ever. Geez, why did I ever get rid of my contact lenses? Grumpily I caught up to the group. “Are we having fun yet?” Herb asked me cheerfully, as I approached. He’s got to be kidding, I thought to myself. I glared at him. I managed to withhold the smart-ass comment forming in my mind. “Ask me later,” I replied. Robert looked quite relieved. I guess he thought I’d start ranting at anyone in sight, and truth be told, it was tempting. I’d already given him an earful on the trail.
When we were within a half mile of our destination, it started to rain on us in earnest. And so, after four hours of mud, heat, bugs, fogged glasses, and finally rain, we arrived soaked, filthy, and stinking at the Rara Avis lodge. And amazingly, it was worth it. The lodge was gorgeous, a rustic structure lacking electricity, but blessed with beautiful balconies, tiled bathrooms (always important), hot water, and hammocks. I just wanted to lie here and not move. My arm still stung from where I whapped it against that vine. We cleaned up as best we could, but Robert’s socks were irretrievably dark gray instead of white.

Dinner was at the dining area outside the kitchen, meaning outside a separate building down the hill a couple hundred meters from us. Afterwards the Coleman lanterns were lit outside our rooms, and we reviewed the few birds of the day in the second-floor open area while listening to bugs suicidally zap themselves against the lights. By 8:20 pm I was absolutely beat, but at least I could say that I survived the Hideous Mud Day!

Thursday, July 18 – Rara Avis
Getting up at 5:00 wasn’t so bad this morning; maybe we were getting used to this early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine. We had two really good hours of birding before breakfast, getting great looks at Scarlet-thighed Dacnis in the rainforest around the lodge. On the way down to breakfast I found a White-throated Crake! I was so excited because I’d found something nobody else had seen and had actually identified it; finally I had something that the rest of these birders didn’t have!

After breakfast we set out on the San Nicolas trail, supposedly a loop trail of under two miles. The trailhead was almost a joke – a little wooden sign pointing into the jungle, with the path disappearing in the darkness. It was beautifully sunny when we started out, but just about the time we got to a clearing that had some promising bird activity, it started raining. First just a little bit, then it became a steady rain, then finally let loose and absolutely poured for about three hours. We tried to wait it out, but it just kept raining harder and harder, as if the weather gods were trying to punish us for venturing into the rainforest in the first place. Water seeped through the seams in our jackets and soaked through the umbrella as we tried to find a good position to stand to minimize the discomfort. Finally, completely soaked, we gave up, closed the now-useless umbrella, and started sloshing back to the lodge.

The trail was sort of passable. I snagged myself a good walking stick, which helped me tremendously; not only could I prop myself up in spots or pull myself along, but I could test how deep the mud was before I stepped in it. Too bad I didn’t have one of those on the Hideous Mud Day! We finally made it back to the lodge, utterly soaked. Even my underwear needed to be wrung out. And as the final insult, my precious White-throated Crake decided to parade around for everyone else to see. So much for the bird only Liza saw. On that note, I bailed out of the afternoon walk. All I wanted to do was collapse into the hammock, drink a cold beer, and listen to the rain. Robert stayed with me; I’m not sure if he was doing it to keep me company, or if he just used me as the excuse to get some rest himself. 🙂

We stayed on the balcony all afternoon, with our laundry arrayed all over the railing (why we bothered, I couldn’t say, nothing ever seems to dry out here), and had a great time birding without ever leaving the building. It was terrific! From the balcony we could see right into the tree tops, and three separate feeding flocks whizzed through, giving us good looks at Red-headed Barbet, Speckled Tanager, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Orange-billed Sparrow, both Dacnis species, and White-ringed Flycatcher. And amazingly enough, our clothes mostly dried out, too.

Friday, July 19 – Rara Avis
Rain, rain, rain…why was I surprised? We were in a rain forest, after all. Four inches of rain between 6:00 am and 1:30 pm. We sat somewhat forlornly watching sheets of water pour down; the volume of water was astounding, and the group as a whole seemed happy to have the enforced rest. Eventually I got tired of sitting around, bundled myself up and went poking around some behind the lodge and down by the kitchen. Saw a coatimundi and a little Snowcap. Splashing around in the mud and rain seems fun now – it was a chance to do things you weren’t supposed to do as a kid! And we had been damp for so long now anyway that getting wet didn’t seem to matter. In fact, about the only way your clothes would dry off was to wear them. It was kind of disgusting to put on cool, clammy, stinky damp clothes in the morning, but our body heat dried them out pretty well within an hour or so, in time to get them wet again in the rain and humidity. It sounds terrible, but everyone was in the same boat, and nobody seemed to mind.

After lunch conditions improved a little. Robert went with the group back on the San Nicolas trail, while I went back across the bridge and down the “road” to the other side of the waterfall. From there I had a good view of the aerial “tram” put up by some lunatic (the name escapes me), going through the canopy and across the river and waterfall. It was a rickety, claptrap affair, basically a flat metal grate with four corner poles to hold up the roof. And guard rails? Forget it, they’re not there. You’d have to be nuts to risk our life swinging over the waterfall in that thing. I also visited the mirador catarata, the waterfall overlook. The steps lead you down quite a ways to a spot with benches, and an awesome view of the thunderous waterfall, up close and personal. I brought Robert back here later in the afternoon; I don’t think the steep steps thrilled him too much, but the view of the waterfall was not to be missed. And we saw a Green-fronted Lancebill at dusk – the bird of the day!

Saturday, July 20 – Rara Avis to El Plástico
We were supposed to leave Rara Avis on Sunday, but Carlos was concerned that we wouldn’t make it all the way to Tortuguero if it rained much more; it has rained nearly six inches today altogether, and the tractor was likely to have trouble making it across the swollen rivers. So we departed the beautiful waterfall lodge at Rara Avis and made our way back down the road, in the thick, gooey mud, to spend the night at El Plástico, our brief stopping point on the way up to Rara Avis several days ago.

El Plástico was a former penal colony that was now part of Rara Avis. It was populated by some researchers, by the looks of them mostly graduate students. The most charitable thing you could say about the building was that it was rustic. It was pretty open for a former penal colony. One of the locals remarked that bars and fences weren’t necessary; miles from nowhere in the rain forest, where was a prisoner thinking Escape going to go? Despite the fact that the ground floor is packed clay-like dirt, we were requested not to wear our boots in the building. Oh well, walking around on a dirt floor in our dirty socks couldn’t possibly get us any more filthy than we already were! But going virtually barefoot could have its drawbacks – we had already seen one teensy tiny coral snake outside, and as someone thoughtfully pointed out, the little ones have the deadliest venom. Great.

On that note, we sorted our stuff out and went to our rooms. The women bunked separately from the men, but it was only one night, and the shower was warm. I had a great view from the shower, too. Earlier the weather cleared enough for us to see two of the three volcanoes in the distance and the lowlands as well. Nice as that was, I had to say that I’m getting a little tired of the mud. (What a cycle: first it was annoying, then it was fun, and then it was tiresome. What next?) I smelled terrible, too, but then again, so did everyone else. Olga said she typically donates clothes to local folks along the way. “Those clothes may disgust you,” she pointed out, “but someone without very much would be more than happy to clean them up and wear them”. I was going to donate a few things, but I decided to try to get them cleaned when we reach Tortuguero. My socks were definitely toast, though, and I abandoned them cheerfully.
The bird of the day, by the way, was a Lattice-tailed Trogon. Oh, and I changed my mind, and kept the socks.

Sunday, July 21 – El Plástico to Tortuguero
We rose relatively early, at 5:00 am. Any noises my fellow female bunkmates might have made during the night were masked by the sound of the rain beating on the tin roof of the building, plus I had the sheets over my head trying to keep from getting soaked by the rain blowing in through the screen-covered window-cutout. The sound of the rain on the roof was actually pretty relaxing, and the volcano view from my bunk at sunrise was beautiful.

And we were rewarded with another simple but filling hot breakfast. One of the staples at nearly every meal was gallo pinto, or black beans and rice; I resolved to make it when we got home.
Following breakfast we packed ourselves up and took a bumpy, lurching tractor ride back down the mud highway to Las Horquetas, then taxied to Río Frio, a “banana town” (i.e., pretty much owned by a banana company, and populated by banana workers) that happened to have a little landing strip for small airplanes. We were met there by two Cessnas that flew us up to the northeast coast to Tortuguero. What a plane ride! Both planes flew very low, ours at about 500 feet, the other looked to be at about 250 feet. Robert saw a King Vulture from the plane window (I missed it, darn it).

We skimmed right over the treetops to the coast, where for the life of us we couldn’t figure out where the planes were going to land – until at the last minute we spied a little sandy runway strip lined with palm trees along the beach, and the pilot plopped her right down with little fanfare. We unloaded our bags, walked a few meters through the trees, and loaded onto a boat that took us across a quiet river channel to the Tortuga Lodge.

The Lodge was gorgeous. Approaching from the water, (and I know this may sound silly), it was almost like you were approaching Gilligan’s Island, except you knew it was real and there weren’t any goofy people standing around. Orchids were everywhere and the paths between the buildings were topped with palm-thatch to keep you from getting too wet as you walked along. We saw what’s commonly known here as a “Jesu Christo” [Basilisk] lizard, so named because he could virtually walk on water. And there were wonderful teak and leather rocking chairs outside the rooms, where you could sit and watch the sun set over the water. Seemed like paradise!

After settling in, we took two boat trips, one in the afternoon, and one after dinner (by the way, the food here is excellent). Birding by boat was certainly a more restful way than hiking through the mud; we were able to float along fairly quietly along tree-lined black water “canals” that crisscross the region. “Black water” was a bit of misnomer; the water itself was crystal clear, only looking black because (supposedly) light doesn’t reflect off the bottom due to the accumulation of dead leaves and other detritus. And the birds here were wonderful, different than anything we had seen so far. Birds of the day included Bare-throated and Chestnut-bellied Heron, Great Potoo, and an American Pygmy Kingfisher, a tiny little green kingfisher that we spied on our night cruise sleeping on a little branch overhanging the canal. He probably didn’t appreciate being woken up by Herb’s training a spotlight on him so that the group’s photographers could take some shots of him. (I didn’t bother trying to take a photo, since I brought camera equipment more for scenery than birds, but Herb said I could have a copy of one of his shots when we get home.)

Monday, July 22 – Tortuguero
This evening we went out to the beach to see the tortuga verde (green sea turtle) laying eggs on the beach. She was huge, almost four feet long, and according to the researchers who weighed her, about 350 pounds. We sat around for nearly an hour waiting for her to dig a hole in the sand and start laying eggs; only then were we allowed to approach. We were asked to approach quietly, and flash photography was limited. Since we hadn’t brought a flash with us, we “gave” our photograph allotment to one of the others. I felt like an intruder, watching this huge creature plop softball-sized, soft-shelled eggs in the sand. She seemed oblivious to our presence. I certainly hope that was the case, considering the behavior of most of the people around us.

The researchers manhandled the poor turtle after she had laid, in their judgment, most of her eggs; they tied ropes around her legs and flipped her back and forth to measure and weigh her. Herb Clarke got somewhat incensed at how the turtle was being treated, but instead of doing something constructive about it, he decided that he didn’t have to pay attention to the photography limitations, and started flashing photos left and right. All in all, it was a pretty discouraging display. But the turtle seemed to take it pretty patiently (one of the researchers claimed that the turtles go into a trance when laying eggs, and wouldn’t be aware of all the attention heaped upon her). She slowly scooped sand with her powerful front legs over the eggs, and thoroughly packed the sand down. When she was satisfied that the egg cache was safe, she slowly turned and started making her way, laboriously, back to the water.

It was an eerie sight, watching the turtle struggle toward the water’s edge in the moonlight. She’d take about six “steps”, then rest, then heave herself forward again, leaving tracks that looked like the imprint of a very large tire. Finally she reached the water, and as the water swirled around her she floated off and disappeared, into the darkness.

Tuesday, July 23 – Tortuguero to La Pacífica
A long travel day today! We left Tortuguero, by air of course, at 6:40 am, arriving in San José around 7:15 am. It was somewhat of a hair-raising flight; it was overcast and raining as we crossed the mountains, and it wasn’t clear whether the pilot was flying by instruments or by the seat of his pants. Despite our misgivings we arrived safely, and boarded our minibus to drive to the Guanacaste region in the northwest part of the country. Riding in a warm bus in the heat for many hours was surprisingly tiring, but we did have a nice muggy picnic on a deserted beach, where Robert Marcus and I both played “sloth” and had our pictures taken hanging in a tree.

Following lunch we explored a nearby mangrove swamp that eventually afforded us a great view of the elusive Mangrove Vireo. Later in the afternoon we stopped at a “science station” of sorts, where we saw Double-striped Thick-knee standing out in a field. As ludicrous as the name sounds, it was very descriptive, as the bird really did have thick knees! Finally we reached our destination, La Pacífica. This was a resort comprised of a number of cabins on extensive grounds. Our cabin was comfortable and would have been utterly wonderful if not for the hoards of large red army ants scurrying around; it wouldn’t seem to be a good idea to walk barefoot indoors here. It’s always something…

Wednesday, July 24 – La Pacífica
After a restless evening filled with fighting off turista (why is it always me?) and red ants, we were up at 4:00 am to head out to Santa Rosa, a national park comprised of dry forest, mostly oaks, figs, and guanacaste trees. The birds were again different than what we had seen so far; we saw several species of gnatcatcher, a gnatwren, and a Barred Antshrike. We birded here in the morning. I spent most of the time trying to distance myself from the group so I could attend to my personal business. One such jaunt brought me an up close and personal look at a swollen-thorn acacia tree; when the tree branches are jostled, big red army ants charge out from the thorns through tiny holes and attack who or what dared to move their tree branch. In my case, unfortunately, it was a part of the anatomy that does not often see daylight.

After realizing what had happened and fighting off the little devils, I rejoined the group. We walked past the patch of acacias; Herb turned to us and said, “Watch out for those trees; there are ants in the thorns and they’ll attack you if you disturb them.” “Thanks for the tip, Herb,” I thought grumpily.
After the morning’s bird-and-ant viewing, we proceeded onward to Lomas Barbudal, another dry forest region. Unfortunately I still didn’t feel too spiffy, so following lunch I sat in the picnic area, conveniently near bathroom facilities, while the others went on a hike. With a stubby-tailed iguana for company, I watched the birds around the picnic grounds, and was rewarded with good looks at a Long-tailed Manakin, another Black-headed Trogon, more gnatcatchers, and a wonderful close-up look at a Pale-billed Woodpecker.

I also had a chance to read a little about the history of the area. Santa Rosa was a battle site that figured prominently in Costa Rican history. In 1856 or thereabouts, it was the site of a battle against William Walker, a typically arrogant and misguided American with a Napoleon complex who apparently thought he was going to rule Costa Rica. Nearly 100 years later, in 1955, Santa Rosa was where the Costa Ricans repelled a Nicaraguan invasion. It seems that the Guanacaste region was coveted by both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and Nicaragua was somewhat miffed when Guanacaste decided to become a Costa Rican state.

We returned to La Pacífica around 4:30 pm, and feeling slightly better, enjoyed a refreshing swim in an absolutely gorgeous swimming pool. I hoped I’d feel even better in the morning, as we would be heading to Monteverde and the cloud forest!

Thursday, July 25 – La Pacífica to Monteverde
Up before dawn again – 4:00 am – but at least this time our early rising had a real bonus: a Pacific Screech Owl! It’s so amazing what will turn up when somebody knowledgeable plays the right audio tape and knows where to look. Fortified with some breakfast and some drugs from Dr. Marcus to combat the lingering turista, we loaded up the minibus and hit the road for Monteverde. Although the road to Monteverde was in good shape, it was slow going nevertheless, mostly because of the altitude. But we made it there by mid-morning and proceeded to the lodge.

And it was unbelieveable! After El Plástico, this place seemed like a Marriott. The architecture was beautiful, lots of hardwoods and high ceilings, a gorgeous jacuzzi, and an awesome view from our room. It certainly was a good thing they don’t start the trip there, as everything else would seem really scummy following this. Ok, there were still a few big beetles here and there, but not even they could ruin the impact of this place. Afternoon birding in a nearby meadow populated with avocado trees yielded many Resplendent Quetzals and several Three-wattled Bellbirds. The quetzals were breathtaking; their metallic green plumage made them pretty difficult to see unless they move. But if you were patient enough, eventually you’d see them swoop between the avocado trees with their long tails flashing in the misty sunlight. We also saw many Purple-throated Mountain Gems at feeders, and a poor Black-faced Solitaire that broke its neck hitting the window (poor thing). I still did not feel absolutely terrific myself, but it was getting better.

Friday, July 26 – Monteverde
Another 4:30 am wakeup so that we could get to the reserve nice and early. Not too much going in the morning, though; more hummers, solitaires, a 3/4 look at an Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, and a look at a Blue-crowned Motmot. Got some terrific looks at Brown Jays and finally an Azure-hooded Jay, just beautiful. But by and large it was a little slow, so we popped down the road to sample the wares at a local cheese factory. The cheddar cheese was particularly good.

Feeling a little on the lazy side, I convinced Robert to stay in this afternoon to enjoy the lodge and the immediate surroundings. We arranged with Carlos to order for us, through Costa Rica Expeditions, one of the teak and leather rocking chairs that we so enjoyed at Tortuguero; we paid for it here at Monteverde and it would (supposedly) be at the airport in San José when we fly home. Costa Rica Expeditions had been so organized to date, we didn’t foresee any problems with the chair. We also stocked up on a few gifts and things to bring home, including coffee and coffee liquor, beach towels, and earrings.

Returning to our room with our loot, we had a beautiful close-up look at a Masked Tityra right outside our window, as well as more looks at Blue-gray Tanagers and a Blue-crowned Motmot again. This place is simply not to be believed! Oh, we also got an up-close-and-personal look at a tiny Fork-tailed Emerald, caught by Carlos near the lobby where it had trapped itself against a window. Herb said we couldn’t count it because it was caught, but phooey on him; it was flying when we first saw it, and it later flew away ok, and we don’t much care about his rules anyway. Jacuzzi’d for a bit later in the afternoon, where we saw a White-eared Ground Sparrow outside the window. The rest of the troops were going to wish that they just stayed in all afternoon like we did!

We were going to all get up at a more or less decent hour tomorrow morning and make our way back to San José, but lured by the prospect of seeing Scarlet Macaws, we’ve all convinced Olga and Carlos to take us to Carara, southwest of San José on the Pacific coast. Hopefully we’ll get good looks at the macaws and some other species that otherwise would stay in the southwest and southeast regions of the country (where southeast is really north of the southwest…is it any wonder that I’m geographically challenged?). The price we had to pay to get to Carara was our earliest wake-up call of the entire trip – we had to be on the bus ready to go at 3:00 am! Before sacking out for the evening, I managed to write a postcard to Tom and Diane Mosher. It has been difficult finding postcards and even worse trying to find stamps. Carlos says we would be lucky if any of them got delivered.

Saturday, July 27 – Monteverde to San José via Carara
Seemed we’d hardly fallen asleep when we were being roused at 2:00 am to get our things together and leave this beautiful place. Well, unlike the driver, at least we could sleep on the bus a little. Certainly didn’t feel like eating breakfast at that hour! We arrived at Carara at about 6:00 am and headed off down the trail. The trail was fairly open, and we spent a total of five hours walking out and back. The abundance of wildlife was staggering – we saw crocodiles, antbirds, Baird’s Trogon, Roseate Spoonbill, and the promised Scarlet Macaws. And what a sight the macaws made; if you could manage to get some green behind them as they flew by, their colors were incredibly vivid. And the noise they made! You could hear them several minutes before they came into view. They flew in pairs, being monogamous creatures that mate for life. It would be hard to see macaws in the zoo after seeing them free-flying in their natural habitat.

The other highlight of the day was a good close-up look at a swarm of army ants. The swarm, which must have contained thousands of ants, moved along the leaf-litter like an amoeba, slowly but surely overrunning everything in its path. A cockroach or beetle of some sort found himself surrounded by the ants, and a group of us watched him, transfixed, rooting for him to escape the acidic clutches of the ants. After running the ant gauntlet, and stumbling several times in the process, he broke free and hid under a leaf in the middle of the trail. “He’s safe!” we cried, relieved that he’d made it; it reminded me of when we watch nature programs on television and root for, say, an antelope to escape from the featured angry predator.

Except sometimes the antelope doesn’t escape. Paul, the tall doctor with the lazy eye, came clomping up and stomped squarely on the leaf where the bug had taken refuge. “What are you looking at?” he asked, looking around, assuming we’d been observing a bird. It flashed through my mind that I could explain how we had been spectators at the life-and-death struggle of a rainforest cockroach, only to see him squashed by a big stupid boot of an eco-tourist. Maybe even draw some comparisons between the cockroach and other rainforest creatures, who try to live their lives and escape their natural predators, only to be killed or driven to extinction by short-sighted hose-headed men intent on destroying the environment for their own personal gain. We think that we’re better somehow because we’re tourists visiting the area to appreciate the environment, but I wonder how many creatures’ lives are ruined because our bus runs over them, or the bus exhaust chokes them, or we stomp on them as we walk down the trails.

Meanwhile, Paul was looking at us expectantly. “Uh, nothing,” we replied. But the futile struggle of the cockroach stuck with me all the rest of the day.

We cruised into San José around 3:00 pm. The hotel, the Torremolinos, wasn’t too bad, it even had a television, allowing me to watch a little CNN and find out the results of the Tour de France. I’d asked Luci and Steve to tape the tour coverage for me, even though I just found out that Miguel Indurain won, and apparently pretty handily, I still looked forward to seeing the different stages. We did a little more shopping at a store within walking distance of the hotel, then later had a marvelous dinner at a restaurant called Chicote, near the ICE (GE-equivalent) building downtown, 10 minutes or so from the hotel. Dinner was accompanied by a couple bottles of a wonderful Chilean wine, Casillero del Diablo, 1982. Our last night in Costa Rica – what an adventure it has been!

Sunday, July 28 – San José to Los Angeles
Travel day! We actually had the luxury of sleeping in today, but by now I’m so used to the early hours that I was wide-awake at 5:30. The others don’t seem to have that problem, as there was nobody in sight when we went down to breakfast in the hotel restaurant, El Quijote. We enjoyed ourselves nevertheless, having one last desayuno típico with the ever-present gallo pinto. Yum!

Following breakfast we walked to a nearby park with Ann and Robert Marcus, where we added one last bird to the trip list – a Black-shouldered Kite. Ann let me borrow her binoculars for a moment to compare them with my own; what a difference! I could see so much more with her binoculars than with mine, makes me realize just what I’ve been missing these past two weeks. Now I understand why the others have been seeing subtleties on the birds that I could never see. Robert and I will have to do something about this when we get home.

Our plane was due to leave at 1:30 pm, but considering LACSA’s less than stellar performance outbound, we weren’t going to hold our breaths. We had no problems with timing thus far within Costa Rica, but we were very lucky to have Carlos, Costa Rica Expeditions, and Olga Clarke to smooth the way. People generally didn’t have much of a concept of time (that would drive me crazy, but they’re probably happier in the long run than us clock-bound Americans), and we met up with other travellers who related horror stories of how difficult it was for them to get around on their own.

Yes, the more I think of it, we were very lucky. I never much cared for the idea of going with a tour group anywhere, but for special-purpose trips such as this, in a country where you don’t speak the language, a good, small group is the only way to go. Not only were we able to travel without care, but this was the most incredible birding experience of our lives, even better than our big driving trip down to Brownsville, Texas a few years ago. The total bird count was around 300 for each of us, 250 of them “lifers”, and nearly all of them quite spectacular. Definitely an adventure to remember!

© Liza and Robert Weissler 2023, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International License.