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Mar 152010
 

The Wildlife Preserve of Hacienda Barú and Volcan Turrialba Struts Its Stuff

The landscape around Turrialba from the Turrialtico Lodge

After leaving the relative coolness of Amy’s farm, Yolanda and I head to the surf town of Playa Dominical. Amy and other friends told us of the ecological preserve of Hacienda Barú, just across the river from Dominical.

We bump and grind our way over the last, few, unbuilt kilometers of the Coastanera, Costa Rica’s new coastal highway. The Coastanera is a god-send, as is the brand new highway linking San Jose and the airport to the Coastanera. With the completion of these last 4 kilometers, it will be possible to drive on a very good highway all the way to Panama.

Previously, access to the Pacific beach resorts and to southern Costa Rica, necessitated navigating the chaos of San Jose and over two mountain ranges.

The trail to the beach through the secondary forest of the preserve.

Upon checking in at Hacienda Barú, http://www.haciendabaru.com/ ,I meet a bit of a legend; Jack Ewing, a Coloradan born in Lamar who, after graduating from CSU, came down to Dominical to run a cattle ranch. That was 1972.

It didn’t take him long to fall in love with the complex and valuable ecology of the area. With the support of his wife, Diane, he has devoted his life and those of his family, to returning the land to its natural state.

Over the decades, what once was pasture, is now dense forest filled with monkeys, coatis, sloths, birds, and yes, deadly snakes.

Jack’s vision, combined with the foresight and financial resources of Pennsylvanian Steve Stroud, enabled Hacienda Barú to be decreed a National Wildlife Refuge. It is a link in the Meso America Biological Corridor, an international attempt to restore a continuous stretch of forest between North and South America. This enables animals, especially large mammals like Tapirs and Jaguars, to once again roam over range sufficient to their needs and increase their endangered populations.

Our cabin is quite nice, with three bedrooms, a kitchen and living room. Only $68 for two people. There’s a restaurant and pool, beautifully maintained gardens, several kilometers of private beach and the adjacent preserve.

The deserted beach at Hacienda Baru’ and only part of the largest flock of pelicans I’ve seen in my life, at least 80 pelicans!

A short hike to the beach through the reserve brings us face to face with a troop of White-faced Capuchins, the smallest of the monkey species in the area. Scampering and jumping through the trees as they forage, they show no fear of humans. A group of perhaps a dozen Coatis, a raccoon-like animal, their 24” tails straight in the air, follows beneath, scarfing up what the monkeys drop.

A white faced Capuchin.

A Coati forages beneath the monkeys.

We still have a broken passenger window so only spend one night. We make reservations for the following week and head back over the mountains to San Isidro. Tricolor, the rental agency, sent the window to a body shop there and within twenty minutes we are on the road.

Heading back into the mountains, the Mirador Valle de General, http://valledelgeneral.com/valledel/, beckons. Another remembrance from the previous trip, it offers clean, very private, inexpensive cabins with breakfast and a restaurant with killer views of the valley. A lovely Tico family owns the lodge. Dinners are reasonable and I have a trout in lemon sauce for $8 that is divine.

The Valle de General from the Mirador Valle de General.

Detail of a plant in the forest preserve of the Mirador Valle de General.

After two, relaxing nights, we head north over the mountains and then east to the city of Turrialba. Passing through Cartago once again, we travel in heavy traffic on a winding, two lane road along the flanks of Volcan Irazu. The decent into a warmer climate is through extensive fields of coffee and sugar cane. We wonder at the large farms completely covered in black, shade material, later learning that they raise house plants.

Just before arriving in Turrialba, we follow a sign to a hilltop hotel, Hotel Valle Verde. Perched high up on a mountainside, it offers front row seats to Volcan Turrialba’s latest eruptions. For only $21 a night, we have a large room with wrap around windows and an open air sitting room. Toucans and many other birds inhabit the trees outside our windows.

Once again, we have the entire hotel to ourselves. Turrialba woke from it’s slumber a week or so before and blew a big cloud of ash miles into the air, covering the upper elevations in a gray shroud. The eruptions now prove to be little more than a column of gray smoke rising into the sky.

Volcan Turrialba

As dusk arrives, the lights of Turrialba below and those of the pueblos on the mountainside of the volcano come alive, sparkling in the darkness. Seeing as how the restaurant is closed mid-week, we drive to another hotel listed in the guide books, the Turrialtico Lodge, http://www.turrialtico.com/  It is situated on the opposite , eastern side of the large valley. Also on a hilltop, it offers a sweeping view of the city with the volcanos behind. It’s lovely, open air restaurant serves us breakfast. I take advantage of their wifi to call via skype and deal with American Express who offered us supplemental auto insurance when we used their card.

An amazing pump organ with bamboo pipes at the Turrialtico Lodge.

The afternoon is spent exploring the lush campus and botanical gardens of CATIE, the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación and Enseñaza, one of the premier biological research facilities in the world. http://www.catie.ac.cr/magazin_ENG.asp?CodIdioma=ENG

The campus at CATIE.

Driving through the extensive orchards is edifying. Who knew there are over twenty species of Cacao from which chocolate is made? As well, the huge collections contain numerous species from around the world of Palms, Guayaba, Macadamia, Mango, Bamboo, Coffee and exotic trees.

The addictive fruit of the Cacao tree.

A path in the botanical garden.

One of the many species of palm at CATIE.

After wandering around the beautifully, landscaped campus and its lovely lake whose trees and lily pads are filled with egrets and many other birds, we stumble upon the cafeteria and have a wonderful meal for very little money.

Rain falls as we return to the Hotel Valle Verde. We settle in for the night in anticipation of the following day’s long drive through San Jose and down the coast to Hacienda Barú.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

Mar 112010
 

Organic Farming and a Celebration of Costa Rican Democracy

 

The view toward the ocean from San Luis.

That afternoon, we travel to another tiny pueblo, San Luis, high in the mountains for a small feria. On the way, we detour to see the fortress built by an American who was murdered there only a couple of weeks prior.

The Fortress

The government removed over $3 million in jewels from the incredibly ugly fortress he and his wife lived in. He surrounded himself with an 8,000 acre preserve. Several guard shacks and twelve guards protected the approach. In addition to the jewels, the government removed three semi-trailer loads of furnishings and art work, not a small feat on these bad, narrow, dirt and rock roads.

 

A small waterfall along the road to San Luis.

It is a beautiful, long, slow drive on a bad road to San Luis. The town is perched spectacularly on a mountainside which drops steeply away several thousand feet into a valley surrounded by mountains leading to the ocean. What a view!

Leif, Deiner and Amy discussing organic farming.

We meet some of the warm-hearted locals and buy lunch. They’re having a benefit to raise money for the community. We also meet, Leif Palmer, a Peace Corps volunteer from Portland, Oregon. He is living in the village trying to bring in phone and internet service. He also is working on obtaining government grants to add computers and a computer room to the school. One young local, Deiner Fallas, takes us to visit his greenhouses where, with the encouragement of Amy and Leif, he is learning to grow organic vegetables for his family and the market. His enthusiasm is contagious. He clearly expresses joy and pride in his accomplishments.

Deiner Fallas and his organic greenhouses.

The next day Amy joins us to experience the Costa Rican national election in San Isidro. A friend recommended visiting a city to see Costa Rican democracy in action. It is so different from our elections. There is much hoopla. Everyone from young to old participates. The streets are filled with honking, flag-waving cars and trucks full of supporters. People must to travel to their home town to vote. Trucks and buses ply the countryside throughout the day, ferrying voters to their polling places.

Bringing in voters.

Everyone participates.

Supporters of Otton Solis.

Registering supporters for Otton Solis.

Each party has their colors and flag.

Supporters of Laura Chinchilla.

Voting takes place at various schools. You must find your name outside the room you need to vote in.

Only one person or family is allowed in the room at a time.

Lovely Laura supporters holding the three ballots, one for President, another for National Deputy and one for Regidor or local representative.

It’s one big party. Almost the entire population joins in. Ticos are very proud of their democracy and express it much differently than we do. Costa Rica elected their first female president, Laura Chinchilla, by a 20% margin.

 

Laura supporters celebrating democracy Costa Rican style.

After taking Amy home, we pick up our luggage at Capt. Jan’s. It starts raining hard, most unusual for this time of year. Not having felt a need to immediately replace the broken window, there is still no passenger window. Yolanda holds a piece of plastic over the space, trying to keep the rain out. It rains most of the way to Dominical on the coast where we have a reservation at Hacienda Barú, a much recommended Eco-Lodge and National Wildlife Refuge. After the mountains, we are looking forward to the coastal jungle and beach.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

Mar 032010
 

Two Beautiful Birds of the Costa Rican Forest

Male Resplendent Quetzal.

 

Amy Shrift on her finca with her home in the background.

The most beautiful bird in the world. That is our destination before visiting the farm of my friend Amy, who left Manhattan to live alone in the jungles of Costa Rica.

After two wonderful nights in the Orosi Valley, we head south via the Pan-American Highway across the Cerro de Muerto, the summit of death. It is so-named not from the narrow road and its death defying drivers, but because at over 10,000 feet, unprepared people die from hypothermia.

We reach 8,500 feet and the turnoff to El Mirador del Quetzales. For $80 there’s a small, basic cabin with meals and a Quetzal tour. Relaxing on the porch presents a stunning panorama dropping away to lush Costa Rican forests and mountains.

The view from the Mirador del Quetzals

Cabins at the Mirador del Quetzals

An afternoon hike in their private reserve of ancient, bromeliad and moss encrusted oaks reveals no Quetzals. The manager assures me Quetzals for the morning guided hike, “Guarantizado!”.

We dine with a Dutch family and a Brit, all very congenial, with stimulating conversation.

Afterward, we prepare for a cold night. I doubt there’s insulation in the walls and only two blankets. We’re grateful for having brought our thermals and the thin, down sleeping bag we’re taking Amy.

5:30 comes too early. Coffee, thankfully, at 6:00 and then the guided tour into another private reserve directly behind the cabins. Within ten minutes I spot my first, male Resplendent Quetzal.

Male Resplendent Quetzal high up in an oak tree.

It is a magnificent 14” tall bird, glittering green, with a crimson breast, white tail feathers and two 25” long turquoise streamers that float with the breeze. His fuzzy, green, helmet-like crest gives it a somewhat bewildered look.

For years I’ve wanted to see one and here are four males and two females, even three on the same branch. A satisfying morning.

Our next stop is south of the mountains, the city of San Isidro del General, to meet Amy at the market and take her and her week’s worth of supplies to her farm. Five years ago, Amy Schrift exchanged her life as a jazz trumpeter in the concrete jungle of Manhattan for life in the jungles of Costa Rica.

Yolanda and Amy on her finca.

She has transformed a former coffee finca (farm) into a veritable Garden of Eden. Amy appears an unlikely pioneer. Slight of frame with thick, black hair framing lovely, dark eyes that betray her intensity of purpose. She speaks passionately of growing her own food, working with local farmers developing markets for organic produce, translating for sustainable farming classes and teaching English to young Ticos.

Wandering through her stream, her bathtub.

On the forty-five minute drive to her finca, up the mountains and then down the dirt road into the Valle del Diamante, we catch up on the happenings over the four years since we first visited. Arriving at her finca, we are overwhelmed by the changes.

Four years ago, where a newly built palapa was surrounded by bare earth, a stone path  now meanders between lush, flowering bushes and fruit trees. We are surrounded by so much natural beauty it’s breathtaking. Amy’s hard work has been richly rewarded.

Amy at the door to her bodega (store room). Bare dirt four years ago.

Talking on her rancho (palapa).

Talking on her rancho (palapa).

We spend the afternoon learning more about her sustainable philosophy. Amy is dedicated to eventually eating only what she grows herself. She sleeps without walls, usually under the stars. Up well before sunrise for two hours of yoga and meditation, then it’s to work, nurturing the abundantly, fertile land she is so fortunate to have bought and become it’s temporary caretaker.

What a place to meditate!

Morning yoga.

Over these past four years, she has planted pineapples, guavas, papayas, mangos, avocados, jackfruit, oranges, durian, bananas, berries, and an amazing fruit, guanabana, with the taste and delicate texture of custard. Through a government program, Amy has planted over 3,000 hardwood trees to help with the reforestation of her former cafetal (coffee farm).

A jackfruit tree she planted a couple of years ago.

The rancho with banana trees below.

As we hike down to the river flowing through her land, she plucks edible leaves and flowers from trees and bushes, urging us to taste; peppery, sweet, lemony, sour, salty, each a surprisingly different flavor. Toucans fly overhead. Bird song surrounds us and the lion-like growls of Howler Monkeys reach us from the primary forest surrounding her finca.

If only humans could learn that the Garden of Eden is not some fairy tale place, but a possible living reality right here and now.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

Feb 242010
 

Arriving In An Oasis of Tranquility

The junction of the Waterfall and Pava trails in Tapanti’ National Park

You would have thought that, of all things, after a five hour red-eye flight they would have served coffee. It is 6 AM in Costa Rica, 5 AM Colorado time, and the only thing offered is water. This is going a bit far in the cost cutting, especially when flying to the land of coffee. How much could it possibly cost to serve a measly cup a coffee?

Customs is easy and bleary eyed, Yolanda and I are outside waiting for someone from Tricolor Car Rental. Recommended by a friend, it costs fully half of what the big boys wanted. We are quickly picked up and whisked off to their office to rent the gutless wonder of a Daihatsu Terios 4W drive.

Also, not having been served the typical stale, airplane omelet and unripe, canned fruit cup, not to mention the coffee, we head to Denny’s down the street; standard Denny’s breakfast fare at double American prices.

Having over-filled our bellies in anticipation of a nap instead of lunch, we begin the ordeal of finding our way through the unmarked streets of San Jose Centro at rush hour.

In Costa Rica, directions are generally given using landmarks and there’s an expectation that everybody knows them: at the park, go two blocks and turn left at the gas station, turn right at the hospital, go one block and turn left, at the mall drive under the bridge and…etc.. There is precious little signage to something as important as the only road south, Ruta 2, the Pan-American Highway.

Street names appear grudgingly every 5-6 blocks inscribed high up on a building, sometimes in the middle of the block, sometimes near the corner. Just enough to let you know, when you are able to stop and consult the map, that you did miss that turn at the gas station.

Combine this with crazy drivers, aggressive motor bikes, lanes suddenly ending, busses blocking traffic to pick up passengers and pedestrians crossing when and wherever, and it is very challenging finding your way through town where finally, thankfully, signs to Cartago and Ruta 2 appear.

Kiri Mountain Lodge and Trout Farm

Our goal is Kiri Mountain Lodge Tapanti’, a lovely remembrance from our trip four years ago. It lies at the end of the road on the doorstep of Tapanti National Park. Tapanti is a vast, wild, inaccessible swath of primary cloud forest and jungle that, in combination with other Parque Nacionales, stretches from here, more than one hundred miles into Panama. These comprise the entire southwest quarter of Costa Rica between the Pan-American Highway and the Caribbean.

Tapanti National Park

The densely forested mountain sides of Tapanti’ National Park

A waterfall in Tapanti' National Park.

A waterfall in Tapanti’ National Park.

Tapanti National Park

Yolanda relaxing on boulders along Rio Tapanti’, a kayakers dream when full

Difficult terrain is a gross understatement. Mountainous to the extreme, Tapanti is incredibly dense, primordial forest with only a couple of relatively short trails open to the public. Access to the rest is limited to scientists. Biodiversity is enormous.

Kiri Lodge lies far up the lovely Orosi Valley formed by Rio Tapanti whose wide, boulder-strewn bed belies the intensity of floods that accompany the summer rainy season.

The narrow two-lane road wends it’s way steeply down the mountain through lush terrain dotted with trees filled with bright orange blossoms. These give way to groves of shade grown coffee; low coffee bushes beneath towering, widely spaced trees. The road passes the charming town of Orosi, a place we explored on the previous trip.

The Orosi Valley

Orosi Valley

The bridge of Rio Tapanti’ and our gutless wonder

Using faith and experience, I follow the widely separated signs leading to the potholed, dirt road which takes us the final eight kilometers to the one-lane bridge spanning the river and to Kiri Tapanti Lodge and its trout ponds. The lodge is nestled within the head of a stunningly lush, steep valley. With clouds blanketing the surrounding mountain tops it is drenched in tranquility.

Orosi Valley Costa Rica

The head of the valley above Kiri Lodge

First, a brief sojourn on the veranda basking in the gentle sounds of the river mixed with calls of exotic birds while watching fog wraiths appear and dance their brief existence along the mountain tops. Then, I have the most deliciously long nap I’ve had in a long time.

Afterwards, in the lodge’s new, open air veranda, with rain gently falling on the forest outside, I have my first, much needed cup of robust Costa Rican coffee.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com