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

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

Mar 242010
 
Snakes and Other Deadly Critters

The gardens of the Veragua Hotel in Sierpe

It’s hot. It’s humid. I’m drenched with sweat, hiking up a mountain for a night in the jungle. Welcome to coastal Costa Rica. The beaches are gorgeous; miles and miles of wide, sand beaches broken occasionally by lovely, forested headlands.

After leaving Turrialba in the morning, I have to negotiate the unsigned streets of San Jose once again. It’s frustrating. The maps clearly show Ruta 2 ending on the outskirts of the city. What they don’t show is the highway disappearing into a warren of city streets. Oh well. Once again, my navigational skills get us through the city with only a couple of wrong turns and a little backtracking.

Passing the airport, we stop in at Tricolor, the car rental agency, to talk with them about the broken window and insurance. They’re very congenial and easy to work with. They’ve obviously dealt with this many times.

Our goal today is to return to Hacienda Barú with time in the afternoon to do some hiking. With the brand new highway from San Jose to the Coastanera, it shouldn’t be a problem. All we need is to get to the highway. The guys at Tricolor draw me a map and I’m off.

Once again, I’m astounded. There is no easy way to get from the airport to the highway! You would think that because this will now be THE route for tourists to take from the airport to the beaches, and that the highway runs quite close to the airport, there would be an obvious way to reach it. But no! Finding it requires miles of driving through busy, populated areas constantly wondering if the last turn you took was the correct one.

And once again, a total lack of signs. Call me arrogant, but it’s hard to believe.

Crocodiles congregated below the bridge over the Tarcoles River

The new highway is a beautiful road. Once I find it, it’s only forty-five minutes to the Costanera. It’s a lovely drive south past Jaco and Quepos, stopping at the bridge over the Rio Tárcoles to see the congregation of large Crocodiles below. (I swear they must feed them chickens to keep them there.)

We arrive at Hacienda Barú in the late afternoon and spend three wonderful days hiking the well-maintained trails and wandering the beach. Dinner is at their very good restaurant or a restaurant in Dominical. Excellent Thai food at Coconut Spice. After flying from one treetop platform to another on their zip line, Yolanda included, I make a reservation later in the week for a Night in the Jungle and head south.

Yolanda flying on the zip line at Hacienda Barú

Looking into the treetops at Hacienda Baru’

The Osa Peninsula, a large landmass jutting into the Pacific two hours south, contains Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica’s wildest and least visited. Access is difficult, lodging options limited. I want to check out logistics for the future.

The village of Sierpe is one access point.  The Veragua, a lovely B&B with charming cabins on the river, is a find! Benedetto, an Italian artist, built it twenty years ago and with the help of Ester, a lovely Swiss woman, provides European hospitality amidst beautifully landscaped grounds. Scarlet Macaws rule the trees during the day; a chorus birds wake us before dawn.

The terrace fronting the Estero Azul at the Veragua Hotel

Lacking enough time to do Corcovado justice, we settle for a half-day mangrove tour down the Rio Sierpe. Rafts of purple water-hyacinths float up and down the river with the tide. Monkeys, toucans, tree boas and crocodiles live among the mangroves. A walk along a gorgeous, deserted beach at the river mouth makes the trip especially rewarding.

Along the Rio Sierpe

A tree boa on the banks of the river

Low tide at the mouth of the Rio Sierpe

Yolanda wading along the deserted beach at the river mouth

A deserted tropical paradise

The Las Vegas Restaurant becomes our favorite. Very good food, excellent shrimp. Their deck overlooking the river is wonderful.

The village of Sierpe along the Rio Sierpe and the Las Vegas restaurant

After three, relaxing days, I need to return to Hacienda Barú by three PM when seven others plus two guides start up the mountain to the jungle camp. I’m quickly sweating profusely. It’s not a difficult hike, only a few miles, but it takes two hours. The guides stop frequently to explain the creatures and plants indigenous to the reserve.

Hiking to the jungle camp at Hacienda Baru’

Tall hardwood trees abound at Hacienda Baru’

Me on the roots of a pretty amazing though not yet fully grown tree in the secondary forest

It’s a wonderful experience. The forest is lush, verdant. Paths of Leaf-cutter Ants cross the trail. A sloth is sighted high up in a tree. Huge, thick-trunked trees climb to the sky. The guide points out the amazing eyebrows of a pair of Crested Owls. How they spot the them in all this density I’ll never know.

Male and female Crested Owls

The veranda of the jungle camp at Hacienda Baru’

My hut for the night

We reach the Jungle Camp spread out in a clearing at the boundary between the primary and secondary forest and relax to the sounds of cicadas, toucans and many other hidden birds.

Night descends quickly. After a typical Costa Rican dinner of fruit, rice, beans and chicken, we grab flashlights and VERY slowly move along a trail.

Somehow, the guide spots a tiny, red and green Poison Dart frog about the size of a nickel. Touch it, lick your finger, and you’ll become at least, very ill.

A Poison Dart Frog, a Costa Rican icon

He leads us up a boulder-strewn creek. Big, hairy tarantulas lurk in the nooks and crannies. Spiders, five inches across perch on rocks. I joke about this being the Valley of Death; Abandon hope all ye small reptiles and mammals who enter here.

As we climb out of the stream bed, coiled next to the trail, the guide finds a Terciopelo, Costa Rica’s deadliest snake. Just then, one of our group spots something slithering amongst the tree litter ten feet away. I chant, “Red and Black, Friend of Jack. Red and Yellow, Kill a Fellow.” Sure enough, a Coral Snake!  Too many creepy crawlers for me though you’re much more likely to be hit by lightening than bit by a snake.

A Terciopelo also known as the Fer de Lance, Costa Rica’s most dangerous snake

An interesting fact: many biologists of all stripes spent over 450,000 man-hours traipsing through the extreme wilds of Costa Rica before one was finally bit. He lived.

Nevertheless, upon returning to camp, I retire to my small, well-screened hut and, before crawling between the clean sheets of the freshly-made bed, carefully, unapologetically, check EVERYWHERE!

My very comfortable bed

Hiking out the next morning through the stream bed of the “Valley of Death”

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

 

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