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Apr 172010

A Taste of Costa Rica’s Vast Diversity

Feeding time at El Manantial with Scartlet,Green and Lapis Macaws.

Pity those who know nothing of Costa Rica but the beaches. These people fly into the Alahuela or Liberia airports, rent a car and immediately drive to the beach. After a week or two, they return to the airport, flying home with the vast diversity of Costa Rica lying undiscovered beneath them.

Truly, the beaches of Costa Rica are beautiful, warm-water gems. From the Caribbean coast to the beaches of the Northwest to those in the West and South, Costa Rica offers world-class experiences.

But…to not experience the lush beauty and diverse biology of the cloud forests; the cool, sweetness of the cedar forests at mid-elevation; or the “perfect” climate of the 2,000-3,000 foot zone, the best climate in the world according to National Geographic, is to deprive yourself of Costa Rica at its best.

A traditional ox cart used by Cafeteros, coffee growers, to harvest beans on their Cafetals.

After leaving Hacienda Baru’, www.haciendabaru.com , Yolanda and I drove north along the Costanera to meet a friend of a friend, Des Curtis, living in Heredia. We made good time but had to make it to Heredia before evening when he teaches classes at one of the several universities. Once again, I drove the new highway to San Jose and, just before reaching the capitol, took the exit to Heredia. Yes, there is amazingly, a sign. I followed the road north a couple of klicks to where it dead-ended at a “T” with a main street.

Alas, once again, no sign indicated which way to turn! I knew the general direction I had to go so flying by the seat of my pants, I turned left, drove a kilometer or two to a main street and turned north. Winding around and dipping down into a small valley with a lot of traffic, rush hour was just beginning, I drove and drove, finally a big sign saying Heredia loomed. I amaze myself at times with my directional instincts.

And then there was a second identical sign, and then another, and then a slightly different one, and then another and another!!! Where there were no signs at all where I needed them, here were six large signs saying “HEREDIA” all within two kilometers at the most! Unbelievable. After arriving, I joked with Des, who had been a road engineer in Britain and Bermuda, that he should do a guerilla action and some dark night, steal one of the signs and post down at that “T”. He just shook his head.

Des lives in the mountains above Heredia northwest of the capital. His somewhat rural neighborhood provided a glimpse into a climate and economic zone most tourists never experience. Restaurants with incredible views of the central valley dot the cedar-lined roads. Small hotels offer Ticos a weekend respite from the congestion of San Jose.

Off the tourist circuit, these areas cover enormous swaths at 3,000-5,000 feet. They are the middle slopes of the many mountains and volcanos surrounding the central valley. Driving to the higher elevations takes you to world of pasture, pines, weekend cabins and sweeping panoramas.

Costa Rica comprises climate zones from sea level to over 10,000 feet. With the vast majority of the country being within the middle zones, you get an idea of what is missed by experiencing only the beach. It’s like coming to Colorado and knowing only Vail, beautiful as that is.

The magnificent rare and endangered Green Macaw.

On our first day, Des, with his son, drives us back to the coast just north of Punta Arenas, to a private Scarlet and Green Macaw sancutary, El Manatial. What a treat! I have never been so close to so many macaws flying freely in my life. El Manatial takes in abandoned, injured and illegally captured birds, rehabilitates and breeds them for release into the wild.

Dozens of gorgeous young macaws perch in the trees around the feeding stations. They constantly fly about, brilliant colors flashing in every direction. We have to occasionally duck as they fly toward the feeding stations. Waddling on the ground, some attempt to open a spigot to get water. Toucans join them for the fruit. The rambunctious teenagers continually squawk and screech. The cacophony occasionally hurts my ears, but what a thrill.

A Toucan flys freely at El Manatial Bird Sanctuary.

Large cages containing 20-30 birds sit apart from the feeding area. Here, the birds learn socialization skills and eventually find a mate, pairing for life. Once they pair up, they are moved to more distant breeding cages where they are left undisturbed. The grounds of the sanctuary, set within a region of farms, have been rehabilitated with large trees now shading what used to be fields. Several large cages hold species of beautiful, tiny monkeys while an extensive fenced area provides habitat for a troop of spider monkeys.

El Manatial is an amazing sanctuary. I doubt I will ever be so close to so many of these amazing birds again. Yes, I’ve seen quite a few Scarlet Macaws squawking and squabbling in the forests of Costa Rica, but with El Manatial’s efforts, Central America will see even more of these magnificent creatures flying freely through the trees. Perhaps even the rare and endangered Green Macaw will again populate the jungles of Costa Rica.

A Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi).

The next day, Des takes us to an area around 4,500 feet that suffered a devastating earthquake a year ago. It lies on the Caribbean side of the ridge between two 8,000 foot volcanoes; Poas and Barva. Weather from the Caribbean rises gradually over a broad area and is then funneled between the two volcanoes. Lots of moisture is wring from the clouds.

On January 8, 2009, the largest earthquake in 150 years struck. Hillsides collapsed, taking roads, trees and houses with them. Steep, densely forested mountain-sides filled the valleys with earth and debris. The earthquake and landslides heavily damaged roads and destroyed villages killing dozens of people. 2,000, almost constant aftershocks occurred over the following days.

Dirt from the landslides still covers the road in places a year later.

The collapse of huge amounts of earth caused massive destruction.

As we drive, the road, though passable, gets worse. Devastation extends over an enormous area. Landslides are everywhere. La Paz Waterfall Gardens was essentially the epicenter.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens, http://www.waterfallgardens.com/ , is a verdant paradise of trails and high waterfalls. It contains exhibits equivalent to an excellent zoo; a huge aviary, butterfly and hummingbird pavilions, jungle cat enclosures, monkey enclosures, a serpentarium and a dazzling display of Costa Rican frogs.

One of the walkways leading to the many waterfalls.

Part of the restaurant at La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

Somebody please milk this poor cow-La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

A Pair of Ocelots at La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

The rooms in the lodge are uniquely interesting; architectural gems. La Paz Waterfall Gardens transforms a piece of gorgeously, lush river and cloud forest into a work of art. Miraculously, damage to the park was limited mostly to some trails and viewing platforms.

One of the many waterfalls at La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

Another waterfall along the paths at the Waterfall Gardens.

Driving home that night in the fog was a bit challenging. Between Des, thankfully doing the driving, and myself, we could creep along. Yolanda sat in the back, eyes closed, not making a sound, just praying we make it down the winding road.

Our last night in Costa Rica was spent in Atenas which, according to National Geographic,  has the planet’s most perfect climate. Only twenty minutes from the airport, an hour from the coast, it is a world away from the city and the heat and humidity of the beaches. A small ex-pat community has settled there.

El Cafetal Inn-A lovely place only 20 minutes from the airport. A great place for your first or last few night in Costa Rica.

We spent the night at El Cafetal Inn, http://www.cafetal.com/ , actually in a neighboring town, Santa Eulalia. Being a cafetal, it grows it’s own coffee, served every morning with breakfast on the veranda. It’s sister restaurant, El Mirador del Cafetal, 15 minutes away, offers incredible views to the coast. A great place for a sunset cocktail or dinner!

Atenas still retains it’s small town, Tico feel. Small farms and cafetals, (coffee farms), abound. Ask a resident what temperatures they have and you’ll hear, “65 at night, 75 in the morning and 85 at mid-day. Year-round!”

So, Costa Rica is much more than just their beautiful beaches. In this article and the previous ones, I’ve only touched on a bit of Costa Rica’s diversity. When you go, get off the tourist path. Explore the back roads and discover the hidden gems that lie in wait.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging


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


Feb 262009

Published in the Vail Daily February 22, 2009

The Ex-Pats


Yolanda enjoying the sun on the steps of an abandoned hacienda at El Charco del Ingenio reserve and  botanical garden.

 It began in the 1930’s. The Instituto Allende Art School initiated an influx of foreigners unabated to this day. The GI Bill after World War II enabled veterans to stretch their benefits while studying in San Miguel de Allende. Over the ensuing years , especially the last fifteen, the growth of the expatriate population has brought significant changes.

San Miguel has grown from a sleepy backwater to a thriving, international community. There are somewhere between 6,000 and 13,000 foreigners in San Miguel, nobody knows the exact figure. In a town of 85,000, the impact is remarkable and disproportionate to their numbers. 

Some decry the gentrification, the large, expensive homes and rising prices but on many levels, gringos make vital contributions to the social fabric

An expat docent leading a tour of San Miguel’s Centro Historico.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 am the dedicated, knowledgeable docents of the Patronato Por Niños lead tours of the historic center. Each year, the Patronato, founded in 1970, provides medical and dental care to thousands of children living in and around San Miguel de Allende. Last year, over 7,000 children received care ranging from eye glasses to kidney surgery.

The 100 peso donation, $7, goes directly toward this care. The popular tours are a usual first stop for hundreds of tourists each week who gain first hand knowledge of the town and it’s history from the expatriate guides. 

The second thing most tourists do is the home and garden tour. This is another philanthropic venture began by the expat community. Every Sunday, up to 700 people, (no where near that amount on the day Yolanda and I attend), tour three beautiful homes. The charge is 150 pesos, around $10. The money goes to fund the Biblioteca Publica, the public library, and it’s many educational programs for the youth of San Miguel. 

An Indonesian tourist dances with the band leader in the courtyard of the Biblioteca.

The biblioteca is a cultural and social epicenter for visitors and residents alike. From morning to night plays, concerts, lectures, movies and discussions groups fill it’s busy calendar. 

The Sunday morning tours begin in the spacious courtyard of the library. Visitors from around the world join the numerous resident volunteers mingle and enjoy a band of local musicians before boarding the buses to this week’s homes. Three hundred homeowners have volunteered to open their homes for the tour. Every week is different.

When we went, each home provided a unique experience. The first, belonging to a several generation native, was elegantly understated, with clean interior lines and bright, airy rooms. 

Looking over the roofs of San Miguel.

The second, perched above the town, held a panoramic view. Each room situated to partake of the town below. It’s rich interior punctuated by a wall of exquisitely framed, original Rembrandt etchings.

The last house was just plain fun. Like so many houses in San Miguel, the exterior walls give no hint to the surprise lurking behind them. Upon entering, an 85’ long, bright red, arched roof leads the visitor into a garden that is a riot of life. Every room of the house, every brightly colored wall, nook, cranny and horizontal space is filled with fun, fantastic folk art. The sense of humor at work is infectious. 

The garden is a work of art, a labor of love filled with ponds, plants, fruit trees, sculpture and tranquility. The zen-like quality of the recently added rear cactus garden and spare, modern guest house are a quiet exclamation point juxtaposed against the tumult of the house and original garden.

And these are just three of the three hundred homes available to the tour!

I must write another article on the impact expats have on their adopted San Miguel de Allende. The “Insiders Guide” lists 22 organization where one can volunteer and there are others deserving mention. 

Lastly,  there is the Jardín Botánico and El Charco del Ingenio preserve.


The lake and a tiny part of the botanical collection of El Charco del Ingenio with San Miguel de Allende in the distance.

El Charco covers 250 acres of canyon, hillside, lake and wetlands, Well maintained trails provide access to the preserve. The crown jewel is the beautifully designed and landscaped Botanical Garden and Conservatory containing a collection of 850 species of native succulents and cacti.

The Conservatory in the Jardin Botanico.

El Charco was also honored by the Dalai Lama who proclaimed it a “Peace Zone” during his 2004 trip to Mexico.

The beginning of 6 miles of well-maintained trails at El Charco del Ingenio.

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones www.dreamcatcherimaging.com