6 November 2010

Costa Rica - May 2010

I spent just over a week in Costa Rica operating alone and mostly without guides. I ended the tour with a birdlist of just under 200. I was quite disappointed with this return, being perhaps 50 - 100 species light. Although I could make a number of concessions on the species list having made some logistical mistakes, not using guides for the most part and mother nature conspiring at times (volcanic eruption delayed my departure by a week, landslide in Braulio Carillo, very strong winds at Monteverde for the entire time.) Aside from being a little light on the bird list, I considered my first trip to the Neotropics as rather successful and thoroughly enjoyable. The infrastructure, road conditions and people far exceeded my expectations.


Continental Flight from Houston, USA to San Jose, Costa Rica 3.5 hours
Weather was a little rough on approach and Captain could have done better to keep the pointy piece facing in the correct direction. After an eventful touch down, debark by bus to terminal. Terminal is small but modern, customs doesn’t take long provided your paperwork is correctly filled out. Luggage collected and through to awaiting National minibus to take you to the rental facility which is about a mile or so from the airport. Getting your rental will take around 2 hours, especially if there are some Americans in front of you. No planning, no idea, can’t drive manual, or stick shift. The 2 couples in front of me had no idea where, when or how they were getting to their destination. Most Americans head for Jaco - not where any self discerning tourist is likely to end up fortunately. Might as well have stayed in the USA and gone to Florida - beaches are beaches after all.Having finally completed paperwork, upgraded to a small 4x4 (Suzuki Jimmy) and hired a Garmin SatNav, no TomTom here, I depart for my first night just outside San Jose in Alajuela. Based on recommendation I have arranged accommodation at Orquideas Inn for tonight and my last night. It proves to be worth the recommendation. Not too pricey and very good beds. 


Depart after a decent breakfast for Braulio Carrillo National Park en route to Selva Verde. 
See Contact Details below.The typical ‘legal’ speed limit is 60kph, although one can attain speeds of up to 90kph around San Jose. The speed limit seems only to be obeyed by foreigners though, and we are the only ones at risk of large fines. Which is fine by me, I have now established that my vehicle is not well balanced at around 70 to 75kph, violent front wheel shaking makes for interesting lane control. Most tourist vehicles seem to be the same colour too - it’s called ‘champagne’ but it looks brassy/silver to me and sticks out like a sore thumb. The locals have not found it too attractive either it would seem. They probably make tourists easier to see, as if we needed any help with that. After driving in circles for an hour or so I eventually get out of San Jose on the correct route. Damn Garmin does not keep North fixed, instead it adjusts the map layout according to the direction in which your car is facing - bloody painful. Nor does it give you any of the useful information, such as distance to destination, speed etc. What is does do though is give you direction of travel, and every single conceivable destination. Small waterfall - no problem, National Park or Hotel, no problem. Unlike the TomTom, which couldn’t find any national park in the USA, the Garmin wins the destination guide hands down. Time to destination is much more accurate too.After leaving San Jose, I had only 50km to go and making good time on Route 32 when a road block forced me to stop. I would find out later on the news that a huge landslide had closed the road - initial predictions of a 5 days cleanup turned out to be misguided, at the time of typing they are still a week away from clearing the debris. Absolutely huge landslide on one of their main roads. I did not know this at the time of course, but Route 9 had been shut for some weeks/months already due to an earthquake, hence long detour. Fortunately after getting very lost due to SatNav orientation, I landed up on Route 15. Ended up traveling for 250kms to get to Selva Verde.Arrived at 15:00, enough time to settle my gear.

A free hour of birdwatching was to start at 16:00. As it happened, the lodge was empty and I was the only person on the walk. My guide Michael was young but very sharp. A short distance covered, but a decent number of birds seen in the hour. Continued birding myself before nightfall and dinner.
Buffet dinner for perhaps 10 residents. Walked around the numerous network of pathways with torch to look for amphibians and reptiles.


Up at dusk for some early morning birding. Decide against the birdwatching hour walk this morning as the guide is different and there are many more people. Walk through the forests at the top of the lodge property. Misty with intermittent light rain. Every step was carefully considered due to dappled lighting conditions and the presence of various large and dangerous Pit Vipers. Birding was fairly poor, I couldn’t see anything nor could I identify through call. Disturbed a Central American Agouti - we both jumped about as high as each other I’d suggest, as it exploded out of the low brush a few yards from me. Combination of mud, rain, lack of birds and thoughts of venomous snakes hastened my retreat from the dappled forest for the Heliconia laden gardens. Similar birds as seen yesterday afternoon, but more relaxing. By now the sun had started to penetrate the early morning fog and the temperature and humidity were rising rapidly. Off to breakfast for some ‘rice and beans’, the staple food item of all meals.
Drove to La Selva Biological Reserve midday to establish a viable parking spot and get familiar with the area. I intended to bird this area early the following morning.

Returned to the lodge for lunch and a midday shower. Was introduced to the owner and founder of the lodge - Giovanna Holbrook, a great elderly Italian lady who saved a little part of the world for the rest of us.
More afternoon birding around the lodge before joining the afternoon walk with Michael. Joined later by a Dutch couple who really had no idea about birds. Nonetheless, the birds were a little quiet until the end of the walk.A huge group of Americans had by this time taken residence at the lodge. It was these groups that many people had moaned about in various reviews of Selva Verde. Of course, without the big spending groups of Americans, the lodge would not exists and much of the land would have been turned to agriculture. How much bother a group of geriatric Americans could cause anyone is beyond me. They may talk loudly, but they are inherently nice people who are interested and keen on exchanging views and experiences. These are not the stereotypical dumb yanks, most have travelled fairly extensively. Dinner and a little more night walking before taking in an early night.


Early morning rise for the short drive to La Selva Biological Reserve. No rain and quite warm, but lighting was poor again with overcast conditions. Spent around two hours here before returning to the lodge for breakfast. Another trip through the Heliconia gardens before walking along the main road for some further birds. Once the heat and humidity had increased, it was time for another shower before departing the lodge for Arenal.
With time to spare, I drove along Route 32 towards Braulio Carrillo National Park looking for a garden ‘on the left’ which had plenty of Hummingbirds. This was about as accurate as Michael could be about this place. I never did find it, but was stopped at a road block and informed the the road ahead was shut and there was no access. I already knew this, but setting up said roadblock on the other side of the National Park (the entry point that most people would use first) would have been an idea. 

With nothing doing, I decided to continue on to La Fortuna, Arenal. Knowing that check in times are relatively rigid, I took the drive slowly - which wasn’t difficult once the main road was encountered with all the articulated trucks. There aren’t many opportunities to stop en route, but I took advantage as and when I could to savour some of the views.
Initially arrived at the wrong hotel, could have sworn I had booked the place but clearly not. Re-program the SatNav to take me to my confirmed accommodation at Arenal Green. It is located away from the established tourist areas. The access road is still in construction and many of the plots that have been sold are undeveloped as yet. Arenal Green is itself quite new, the rooms and main building look to have been built recently, an outside bar and staff accommodation are still being built. See Contact Details below.The owner / manager German noted my birdwatching and quickly placed some fruit at a feeder behind the lodge. Birds descended in numbers for about half an hour before I moved on. A walk up the gravel road to see what could be seen. Again, overcast cloudy conditions prevailed and lighting was poor. I spent two hours going only a short distance and picking up many more birds. Returned to lodge with darkness descending. Dinner at the lodge on my own as the lodge was empty. American sized portions, but I was very hungry by now and this was quite welcome.


Early morning walk around the lodge and up the dirt road again. Heat was getting oppressive my 07:00 and returned to lodge for breakfast. Fast realising that staying here for one day, let alone two is perhaps a mistake. There is little place to go birding without paying exorbitant entrance fees nor is the birding area unique. Arenal is definitely a tourist trap and perhaps avoided by the serious birder. Already running out of places and things to do, I decide to get some much needed washing done at a laundromat in town. While this is on the go, I drive the 20kms to the Arenal Hanging Bridges. I plan on a guided bird walk here in the morning. The venue itself sits downstream from the mighty Lake Arenal. A drive over the damn wall and then some steep and tricky roads to the entrance of the Arenal Hanging Bridges. I attempt to check my reservation for the bird walk, but my lack of Spanish and much confusion results in an inconclusive outcome. Take a slow drive back towards La Fortuna in order to pick up my washing. Stop en route a few times to check for likely viewing areas of the Arenal Volcano which I intend to look at this evening.

With little to do in the heat of the day. I get an email explaining that my bird walk has been cancelled as there is a minimum of 2 people required per walk. I get back in the car and drive to see what can be seen. As it turns out, very little of interest. Feeling quite depressed about making such a fundamental error (of coming here in the first place), and now having no bird walk I get back in the car and drive for the Hanging Bridges again. I figure that an hour or so at the dam may bring some aquatic birds which I have frustratingly found difficult to locate so far. This accomplished, I take a slow drive to a likely viewing area of the volcano. 

With luck there will be little cloud cover and I may get a peak at some molten lava. As it happens, everyone else in town has had the same idea and I park up to join a good hundred plus tourists waiting for some action. The volcano is some way off and barely visible as darkness envelopes everything - except the mosquitoes. Hardly had an issue with insects until now - a small bridge in the middle of nowhere! These mosquitoes should be investigated from an evolutionary stand point. There is no standing water anywhere near here, and definitely no humans or animals for a similar distance except every night in this one concentrated area. So they have clearly worked out that a meal ticket of this regularity is worth traveling for. Interesting. While musing about the damn mosquitoes and applying liberal amounts of DEET, the volcano finally gets into the spirit of things. Although the all encompassing comment seems to be, ‘is that it?’ Yes, all this way, the mosquitoes ($45 each for the tourists who booked a guided tour) and the volcano spits out a not very phlegmy, rather misty bit of lava. So small and insignificant that most peoples cameras cannot even focus on the little red spots falling down the side of the mountain - slowly, intermittently. The mosquitoes have further evolved past the effects of 95% DEET and patience is running thin with over marketed and under delivering volcano. Home and dinner.


Not being on the bird walk, means that I cannot access the reserve until 07:00. After much debate I decide that $30 entrance is justified on that basis that I have nothing else to do and am not due in Monteverde for hours yet. Off we go, intermittent rain or is it simply older rain falling off the trees every time a breeze gets up. Can’t be sure. Birding is slow and my lack of call knowledge is hurting my species acquisition. It’s not that I can’t identify most birds on site, but not knowing what species or family I am looking for means, that I cannot search in the right places. Given up moaning about the short view times too, these birds don’t sit still and by the time my binoculars have risen to my eyes the little blighters have disappeared already. Frustrating, but steels one’s intent just a little more.

The bridges themselves seem sturdy enough when I am on them myself. The moment someone else gets on, they are all over the show and I am legging it to the other side. It seems that no amount of skydiving, rock climbing etc has had any impact on my aversion to heights. Quite an indescribable feeling, not fear but an inability to move some very leaden legs and being very conscious of keeping dead still while my eyes move slowly towards my feet. Even getting my camera out was a slow motion exercise which involved much involuntary shakes. Finally bumped into a bird party where I could stand still for a while and attempt some identification. By the time I exit the forest, the sun has come out and the heat is starting to become oppressive again. Sit in the parking lot / garden and establish a good route to Monteverde. Pick up a few more birds just sitting there - perhaps a lesson for later, sit for a while and let the birds come to you rather than march around the forests getting tired and irritable.

Hop onto route 142 towards Tilaran en route to Monteverde. Drive is relatively windy and there is a strong wind getting up. No sooner has this been established and there are wind/kite surfing adverts along the damn as well as a field of wind turbines. The SatNav has a few navigational issues trying to exit Tilaran, but we get there in the end. Now onto the feared gravel roads and reason I upgraded to 4x4 - roll on Monteverde. The road turns out to be a little bumpy, but no demons. Begin questioning the basis for even needing a 4x4 as I see a number of saloon cars along the road. Admittedly I am thankful for the extra ground clearance and this will become more evident as I proceed into the towns of Santa Elena and Monteverde.
Have alternated my trip behind and ahead of two American girls driving a bigger and fancier 4x4. I have a fortunate amount of 4x4 experience and know the limitations of what I can, and cannot get away with here. Due to the bumpy and dry nature of the road, the vehicle bounces a lot and with many bends, your back end fish tails regularly. In 2 wheel drive you would slow down and compensate, but switch 4x4 on and this seemingly gives you license to kill?

Not so as my American friends were about to find out. 4x4 put power to all wheels, but without limited slip dif or locking your dif, the power is not controlled. Thus when your back end slips out there is also an increase in wheel spin on the wheel that is least grounded exacerbating the fish tail and getting you acquainted with the nearest tree, post or 500m deep gully if you're really unlucky.

Fortunately for them they discovered this early on before the mountain passes got steeper without too much damage to the vehicle. 
After some eventful driving conditions, still no need for 4x4 but again the clearance was useful to prevent the loss of sumps. Found my hotel (Hotel Belmar, See Contact Details below) quite easily and immediately feared another Arenal style tourist trap. Most of the hippy looking muppets congregated in the Backpackers area (where else?) away from the hotels eating canned cat food and professing there green colours to each other. My body was aching after the violent bumping around and I was happy to check in and lie down for a few minutes. Explored the local surroundings in the afternoon and came to the stunningly obvious conclusion as to reason they call them ‘cloud forests’.Darkness descends slightly quicker up here and I took a quick trip into town for dinner. A very appetising pizza with some equally stunning hummingbirds for company. Needed a decent sleep and since the reserves didn’t open until 07:00, this was a distinct possibility.


After a decent breakfast I head off to the Santa Elena Reserve for some birding. Entrance is not too steep ($14) when you consider that here, your dollar is very evident in the conservation of this most fragile area. The forest is dense but birding picks up in small patches. I have since learnt to sit and watch at intervals and this pays off quite well. Birds are quite different as expected but soon get the hang of things and make good progress. Heat is welcome and although clouds are ever present, they are intermittent and a little breeze gets up to keep everything very comfortable. Leave the park mid morning feeling much better about my bird list and head for the nearby Hummingbird gardens. While some of the many hummingbirds are readily identifiable, just as many are quite tricky and require multiple views and a decent level of light / sun to separate. The gardens produce a swathe of birds and I get down to the nitty gritty of separating the resident species. Half an hour later and job done. Head back to the lodge for some coffee and put some further plans together for the remainder of my trip. Have booked a night walk this evening and now looking for something to do in the interim. I decide to drive towards the Monteverde reserve and bird along the road for a few hours. The wind has really got up and making birding quite poor now. This becomes a issue for the remainder of my stay with consistently strong wind.

Satisfied after my morning exploits I call it quits and head back to the hotel and wait for my pickup for the night walk. We meet with many more people than I had expected. We are however broken up into smaller groups and head off into the dusk. This walk was never about the birding, but more about whatever else was on show and it didn’t disappoint. Walk completed after two hours or so and we are returned to our hotels. Pizza dinner again although I make a mental note to eat something else tomorrow evening.


Had booked a bird guide this morning and despite the 2 person minimum requirement, Francisco agreed to take me out. Most of the guides here are early to mid thirties and know the area very well. ‘Chico’ as he is known also has a side line business as a lodge owner, something he would show me after the our trip. Birding again was slow starting due to the aggressive wind. We made fairly quick tracks to the reserve itself and had a quick bite to eat. Into the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the birds picked up a little again with the wind not presenting such an issue. Birds picked up well enough and some difficult to identify species were soon added to the list. After much searching and calling, we locked onto some male Resplendent Quetzal’s - cracking bird. Another guide had found one of my target reptiles, the Side-striped Palm-Pitviper. Having missed all the others (particularly the Fer de Lance).

Birding soon changed to general chit chat as the birds quietened down. A few stops here and there for some specific species produced nothing more. I trundled around Chicos hotel/lodge for a while before I departed with some good advice of where to go over the next day. 
See Contact Details below.A particular bird (the Three-wattled Bellbird) had been bugging me, as I could hear plenty of them but see none (I never did in the end either). So it was that I ascended the road behind the hotel for the Television towers way above. A particularly steep road where my 4x4 certainly did become rather useful. After innumerable twists and turns up the mountain I got to the point of doubt - the next hill looked rather steeper than 40 degrees. I cannot recall what the upper limits were with land rovers, reckoned on 45% at the time (on investigation this would be the upper limit - but not for rolling, rather oil distribution issues) but with no weight and a very light vehicle I wasn’t attempting to bite off any more than I had already. So I proposed a short hike up the road and parked my vehicle off to the side of the road - not easy anywhere in Costa Rica actually. Up the hill I went until the altitude and my lack of fitness took its toll - about 5 minutes.

Sod that I said and with little prospect of finding my target I descended back to my car. 
About 10 metres short I dug for my car keys and then realised that things were about to get exciting. The keys were not in my pocket, they weren’t in the ignition, but they were sitting on the dash - and the doors were locked. Oh bugger. A futile attempt at forcing the windows down left me in a quandary. Stuck near the summit of a very high mountain which few vehicles could get up, no mobile signal and a rather large bill should I have been able to call anyone out in any case. Thoughts turned to my Leather man - which was at the hotel. (I almost always carry it in my backpack - but have taken to removing it when on holiday as I invariably forget it and then have issues at airports). It’s now 15:00 and I have a few hours of light left with the weather closing in. Down the hill we go, which is painful on the knees as every step is a shudder to stop my gravity inspired momentum before taking the next step. I degenerate into a slightly jumpy shuffle/jog down to the bottom, all the while taking in the path that I will have to take back up again. With no coat hangers of the required style in the hotel I collect my Leather man and up the hill we go. I know from the ODO that I have 2200 metres to cover, not far, but all vertical. En route back up the hill I cut a strand of barbed wire and occupy my unfit fatigue by stripping the barbs while edging up the mountain. It takes almost an hour to ascend the 2000 odd metres! I am huffing and puffing much better by the time I eventually crest the last hill (I had by this stage decided that if this crest did not show my vehicle that I would have to turn back - my lungs were finished).

Note to self - any ambitions of some day climbing Mount Everest have just been put to bed, forever.
On reaching the car, I take another rest and decide how to proceed. The weather is worsening and now it is not only cloud that I have to deal with but rain too. The plan is to get that wire around the door knob in the traditional method. The door knobs are of little help, having no knob - just up and down. After fiddling with various access points and trying to penetrate the rubber seals around the doors - I finally lose patience and go for the muscular approach. As many people have found out in the UK, if the top of your car door does not sit protected underneath the roof, then you can get your fingers in and pull the door frame out. Not wanting to accrue damages to my rental (and my pocket), I get the Leather man wedged into the door frame and pull as much as I dare. In goes the wire and cue plenty of frustrating in and out with the wire to tweak the end.

After an hour, I get the combination of twist and grip around the door knob and up she comes. A little scratch damage here and there but nothing obvious. [Not enough to warrant charges when my vehicle is checked back in at the rental company]. 
Relieved, I get in to start the next tricky part - the descent. By now, the light is fading and I drive off in good spirits to a restaurant that Chico recommended to me. Fine dinner before getting an early night.


I fiddle about at the lodge before breakfast. I set off for the San Luis waterfall in search of another bird that Chico reckons I should get here, American Dipper. Alas after more uphill climbing (after the efforts yesterday, this is starting to hurt). Again, dipped on the bird, but the waterfall was worth seeing. More interesting cliff side driving before checking out of the hotel. I decide to pack it in and get driving for San Jose, birding is over unfortunately and that horrible end of holiday feeling has started to kick in.
Thirty odd kilometres of bone crunching gravel road (feels worse that when I entered, but this is surely a psychological state of mind). The next fifty odd kilometres cause me to get rather motion sick - a straight section of road is not so much rare as non-existent. I traverse Route 1, the Pan American Highway for a time. The ‘highway’ is still a standard dual carriageway with an 80kph speed limit. It is however something special to drive on, I had driven a small section in Texas, but the routes there are varied and many, in Costa Rica, there is only one real Pan American Highway. All in all, this road traverses the Americas, spanning a distance of near enough 48 000km but for small section of 100km called the Darien Gap. 

En route to San Jose I drop in at the town of Orotina in an attempt to corner the Black and White Owl which is apparently a certainty in the town park. With my luck of dipping on particular species I should have known better and my form continued. A couple of missed turns here and there getting back to my hotel only cost me an extra Toll Road charge and some dodgy back roads. No damage and I find to my delight that my room has been upgraded. I must have left the appropriate tip in my room on the first evening. Not that I was going to have much time to enjoy it, what with a 04:00 trip to the airport. I take my rental car back into town before catching a cab back to the hotel. The town is particularly busy today after the Costa Rican’s elected their first female President (Laura Chincilla) who is due to be sworn in today.
The vehicle is checked back in in a matter of minutes, certainly quicker than it was checked out. The cab ride is eventful as my cabbie seeks all the back roads, which have little to no tar covering and plenty of potholes.

My body is now quite unhappy with me and I attempt to organize a massage. The hotel staff do their stuff and an hour later a message is passed on that all is set. Off I go to find the only semi-attractive women in all of Costa Rica is now ready to massage. She speaks no English and everything is done with excited hand gestures. We get there in the end however and I now have a neck and back that I can feel. My particularly sore backside did not get a massage nor did I actively seek it - Costa Rica, despite it’s Catholic stance on abortion and related subjects does allow for legal prostitution. Given the lack of communication, there was a good chance that certain actions may have resulted in a costly exercise... 
Dinner and bed for my early wake-up.


Early transfer to the airport and a relatively hassle free route through customs and onto the plane for a short four hour hop to Houston. Whatever the impact of the last nights massage, the short plane trip has made them quietly redundant. Continental’s pilots have clearly not responded to the merger with United Airlines in any way as their landing expertise has maintained the usual squeaky-bum cheek style. The four hour layover presents with no further issues except that for some reason I have to re-enter the USA in order to leave again. My bags however do not exit with me and I am lost for a while. (They don’t tell you this of course - if you are connecting to a US destination then your bags will come out in order that you check them in again, but if you are connecting to an international flight then they will be automatically loaded onto your plane.) Some clues may have been useful, but with no time restrictions to worry about I proceed at a steady pace.
Buy an American CrossWord which turns out to be a disaster, none of the answers are more than 4 letters and most tend to be multiple words and acronyms (can three separate singular letters be described as words? It’s the US, inventors of American English so I suppose it could be).

As an aside, I learnt last night that far from having US English as the lingua franca in years to come, it will in fact be Panglish or possibly Spanglish??
Back on the big plane, 777-200 (the flights from Houston to Costa Rica and back were on 737-800’s). After a few years of regular AirBus accidents (another just a few days ago), I am now only flying on Boeing’s. My next trip to Norway is on a 737-300. I attempt to sleep on the plane to stimulate some sort of jet lag reduction, but this proves impossible. The moron who designed the seat, must have been 5ft tall. How and why you would design the top of the seat to tilt forwards as opposed to backwards is beyond me. (This could have been the British input - health and safety of some form). So unless you can sleep with your head tilted forwards, then this is an impossibility. Hadn’t realised that we had landed, so good was the touch down. After all the dodgy ones, I suppose Continental were due a decent landing for a change. And that was that, back to shitty baggage handlers taking an eternity, crap weather and all the rest that goes with being a paid up member of the United Kingdom.

Contact Details :

Orquideas Inn
e-Mail :     info@orquideasinn.com
Tel :         +506 2433 7128
Website :   www.orquideasinn.com
Selva Verde Lodge
e-Mail :     selvaver@racsa.co.cr
Tel :         +506 2766 6800
Website :   www.selvaverde.com

Giovanna Holbrook (Owner of Selva Verde)
Tel :         +1 800 451 7111
Website :   www.holbrooktravel.com

Hotel Arenal Green
e-Mail :     info@arenalgreen.com
Tel :         +506 2479 8383
Website :   www.arenalgreen.com

Francisco Castro Leiton (Cala Lodge)
e-Mail :     calalodge@gmail.com
Tel :         +506 2645 5626  or  Mobile : +506 8358 9614
Website :   www.calalodge.com

Belmar Hotel
e-Mail :     info@hotelbelmar.net
Tel :         +506 2645 5201
Website :   www.hotelbelmar.net

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