Posts Tagged ‘Birds’

Costa Rica – Day 1

October 3rd, 2008 at 3:46 pm (AST) by Krystyana Richter

My dad’s and my first whole day in Costa Rica started with waking up at 6:00am; thirty minutes after my alarm went off. And the person who woke me up was my dad, who would later use this as an annoying nag. We walked down to the hotel’s restaurant and ate from the breakfast buffet that was included with our room package. The buffet included Gallo Pinto (traditional beans and rice in Costa Rica) and cheese platter that had a cheese like the Mexican Queso Blanco (translation: white cheese). The buffet had all the other regular continental breakfast components, but the tea, coffee, and water had to be ordered through a waiter.

After breakfast, my dad and I hurried to our room to pack our day bags and cameras. We rushed to the lobby in haste due to being five minutes late! The Costa Rica Expeditions mini-van (the tour company we used in the entire trip in Costa Rica) was waiting for us and my dad was quick to use the Yana-waking-up-late-by-30-minutes nag as our “excuse” for being late. Our guide’s name was Jonathan and our driver’s name was Mauricio.

Nice vistas at 11,000 feet atop Cerro de la MuerteWe started our drive to our high altitude destination atop Cerro de la Muerte while Jonathan talked about the history and the area that we were passing through. I slowly started nodding off and finally sleep came.

When we reached our destination, Jonathan got out of the minivan and walked to the back of the vehicle to get a large telescope on a tripod. There appeared to be a few buildings of the government on top of the mountain we were on.

Jonathan pointed out a bird after dad and I put on sweatshirts and got out of the van. There were several birds, and many flowers and plants. After having some birds come up close and taking many photos of our new feathered friends, Jonathan led us across a dirt road to the side of the mountain we were on. I was the first to see an emerald colored skink skitter through the bushes. We followed the little skink for photos for as long as it kept our interest and then headed to higher grounds to look for more creatures. We found more than just animals. The view of the mountains against the morning sun was breathtaking but my dad had his eyes on the weird fungi, lichen, and mold.

Well camouflaged spiny lizard atop Cerro de la MuerteA really cool lizard type creature that took a few moments for us to see it, due to its amazing camouflage, was pointed out to us by Jonathan. Many other skinks and lizards were also pointed out to us – some of them had a rocky look while others blended well into the green grass and plants. We saw a very few animals and the only mammals I saw were humans (my dad, the guide, and driver). And so, came the time to leave for a lower altitude destination known as “the cloud forest”.

Birds could easily be heard as we zigzagged down through the cloud forest into a valley, we could occasionally see a lizard trying to avoid the van. The minivan passed small lodges that all seemed to be in this one valley. Our search was for the rare quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala (not Costa Rica), and in order to find a quetzal, you usually had look for their food source, a fruit tree.

The rare quetzal - found in a tree hundreds of meters away in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota-3Our driver spotted one, but it was at least a kilometer away and behind a few trees. It took me a good fifteen minutes to even see the back of the bird without the help of the telescope. It was hard to take photos of the quetzal from where we were and so I wandered off to look at the other animals and trees nearby. My dad was trying to take a picture of the quetzal through the telescope but we had to leave with a photo that was not quite what we wanted, and so Jonathan was nice enough to give us photo of a quetzal he saw last time. The front of the quetzal was red and green, while the back was a few different shades of green, including emerald. The tail was two to three time his body length. We were told that the quetzal we saw and the quetzal in the photo were both males.

Hummingbirds enjoy the feeder at the Savegre Mountain Hotel in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota-4It was lunch time and that was just down the road at a lodge that grew their own fruit and had a trout farm. The restaurant had many choices but I ordered the steamed trout, which my dad and I both agreed was pretty good. After lunch we went out onto the porch of the restaurant to see hummingbirds of every shape and color fighting their way to a hummingbird feeder. Many photos were taken but Jonathan thought we might like to see the smallest hummingbird in the area and so we walked up hill to where the grounds were the lodge grew its fruit. We passed a few birds of interest but they flew off and so we continued up the hill to see a view of the part of the valley we were in.

A very chubby but pretty bird in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota-2We passed a few trees with epiphytes (plants that attach themselves to trees in the high branches and even the trunks). The apples grown in the area were a species not native to Costa Rica and had been an attempt at growing them. The people of Costa Rica that we had talked to about this, called them slightly sour but my dad and I did not think they were that sour. There were a few guavas on the ground, which gave “fruit” to the idea of buying some fruit for our hotel room.

After looking through the apple trees, we walked back down and came across the smallest hummingbird near the minivan. The bird claimed our attention for a while until rain started coming down on us. Even though it was raining cats and dogs we walked on to see more birds and squirrels.

Jonathan and Krystyana use umbrellas to keep the rain off them in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota

Jonathan was going to take us on a trail which had a terrifying bridge that looked as if could collapse any second and additionally, mud had already started forming from only thirty minutes of rain! After crossing the bridge we found our way blocked by construction of some sort. We soon had to leave to get back to our hotel and so we took a few more photos of the hummingbirds at the feeder and returned to the minivan.

My dad asked for a possible stop at a grocery store for fruit when we came close to San Jose. We stopped at a store where we bought a papaya that was cut in half but still quite big and some limes to go with it. The store had a reasonable selection of items but it felt a little unclean and uncomfortable, though nothing like the grocery stores of Tahiti or Fiji.

Back at the hotel, my dad and I thanked Jonathan and Mauricio for our day of exploration of the wild life of Costa Rica, and hoped that our remaining tours with Costa Rica Expeditions would be as pleasant and educational as the one we just went on.


Costa Rica Impressions

September 28th, 2008 at 5:36 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

With everything we had heard about Costa Rica, and the nature-oriented excursions we had booked in advance of our trip, our expectations as to the beauty and tranquility of Costa Rica were quite high.

Caught another basilisk lizard, this one perched on a red flowerHowever, expectations and reality rarely match, as we discovered upon arriving in San Jose late on a Friday night. Don’t get me wrong – the countryside of Costa Rica is breathtakingly beautiful and lush and filled with fascinating flora and fauna. We thoroughly enjoyed just about every moment we spent outside population centers.

And yes, it rains a lot (and we were there during rainy season, so that was not unexpected).

Graffiti adorns the outside of this closed down building in San Jose, Costa RicaBut where our expectations were seriously at odds with reality was in the cities and towns of Costa Rica, and especially the capitol city of San Jose, where our hotel and most of our day-to-day existence were situated.

Let me preface the following by saying that we’ve been to many cities, towns, and villages all over the world over the last several years including ones in Morocco, Fiji, several European countries, as well as Taiwan and Mexico, but none felt as unsafe or intimidating as San Jose.

The materials we had read about San Jose had indicated that thievery and pick pocketing were common, but we had seem similarly phrased warnings about Seville, Prague, Marrakesh, and countless other places, so we assumed the conditions in San Jose wouldn’t be that different. We had our PacSafe backpacks and camera straps, and planned on exercising common sense with our belongings as we always do when we travel. But San Jose, as it turned out, felt and was very different from everywhere else we had been.

All the houses in San Jose (including San Pedro) had bars, making them look like jails, and many had razor wire tooIt’s not easy to enumerate exactly what caused the inner disquiet and discomfort we instinctually experienced in San Jose’s streets, but there’s no doubt in our mind that a number of visual factors contributed to our unease. First and foremost was that virtually every building, home, and store was enmeshed in steel bars – to the point that even driveways and carports were caged in. And in places were bars were not deemed to be sufficient by the owners and occupants, we also saw copious amounts of razor wire lining the tops of walls, roofs, and even the steel bars themselves.

Added to this was the wariness and furtiveness we perceived in the people walking along the streets, especially after night had fallen as we observed from the relative safety of our taxi or tour bus. All while praying that our vehicle would not suddenly break down.

The observed behavior of the people out and about, combined with the obvious acceptance that living in a cage was part of normality was very disconcerting, but we didn’t realize how right our perceptions were until we started talking to locals – a number of which regaled us with stories about how many times they had their belonging snatched as they walked around, and in some cases, were held up with a knife or gun wielded by the thieves. And in one case, even pistol-whipped. While I admired the bravery of folks who can return back to the streets after being mugged, repeatedly, my inner voice was screaming “get out of there!” But, this acceptance of the status quo that our acquaintances exhibited seemed to be part of the whole malaise as well.

It brought to mind the story of the boiling frog, which, whether true or not, refers to the concept that if change is gradual enough, those within the sphere of change just accept it instead of getting out and trying to make changes.

Sadly, this is the impression that San Jose left us with - razor wire and cloudy skiesSeveral people, from markedly different socio-economic backgrounds, told us the problems with crime in San Jose started getting noticeably worse about eight years ago, and that was when razor wire started appearing everywhere. Of course, that had the effect of forcing those people who didn’t have razor wire yet to also get some or implement other draconian security measures as otherwise they would be easier targets.

And many local neighborhoods have guards sitting in booths on the corners to keep an eye on neighborhood activities, while people with big homes have permanent guards themselves (including, in some cases, body guards they travel about with or who provide chauffeur services) or they live in condominium compounds with a sizable security force shared by and paid for all of the compound inhabitants.

The causes of the crime in San Jose and other Costa Rican cities is attributed to a number of causes, including drug addicts in search of quick cash to feed their habits, organized crime, an influx of criminals from other countries due to lax immigration policies, people too poor to support themselves, a lack of stringent sentencing guidelines for criminals that are caught, and corrupt police, among others. But whatever the actual causes, universally everyone we spoke to agreed that something needed to be done, as things just keep getting worse and worse.

We were personally told a number of times to not wear expensive looking clothing or watches (not that we brought any with us), not wear jewelry of any sort (I only wear a plain wedding band anyhow), and not visibly carry cameras with us in the cities. We even had a taxi driver admonish us for using a camera to take photos from inside the taxi through an open window, as he was concerned someone might try and reach in and steal it from us.

And most stores and all the hotels we visited had security guards. And security guards in banks kept the doors locked, only letting people in after they had been scanned with a metal detector wand, apparently in an effort to prevent armed robberies at banks.

And security in parking lots was heavy too, with entrants receiving a parking chit which had to be returned in order to exit, and with police guard towers overlooking the parking lot at the local Hiper Mas super store (Wal-Mart in all but name, for now – it will be changed to Wal-Mart in 2010, we were told, as it was already owned by them).

So, overall, San Jose felt like something of a war zone threatening to erupt into open combat at any moment. Day time was better than night time, but that’s not saying much. We count ourselves fortunate that we were not victims of any crime ourselves, but we also severely restricted our movements and our use of cameras in urban areas, which was disappointing to have to do, but no doubt safer.

That was the downside to Costa Rica, and I will add that our visit to Tortuguero had none of the safety issues we found in San Jose, and we understand that the Pacific coast’s towns are not quite as disquieting as San Jose and the surrounding urban and sub-urban areas we visited.

The “good” about Costa Rica was very good. First and foremost, the people we met and spoke with were generally warm, friendly, and welcoming, even with our minimal Spanish-language skills (which did improve significantly during our two weeks of intensive immersion training). And the countryside… Oh my.

A very cute capuchin monkey ignored us while foraging in the trees above the canal - the tongue sticking out is preciousComing from a Caribbean island which looks remarkably like the deserts of Arizona, we were stunned by how incredibly lush and fertile Costa Rica was once we got outside of urban realms. The frequent and heavy rains intermixed with brilliant sunshine and volcanic soils have produced incredible beauty, and created great habitats for a plethora of wild life, including monkeys, birds, arachnids, and much much more. I will get into some of that in a future post.

Suffice to say that all the negative things about San Jose aside, Costa Rica is a place that is well worth visiting, but limit your in-city stays to the absolute minimum necessary, and stay in a nice, comfortable hotel and don’t plan on walking around after dark.

At long last, the Hotel Casa Conde is in sight, or at least the sign to the hotel

We stayed at the Apartotel & Suites Casa Conde, and had a very nice stay. Decent sized rooms (ours had two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living area, and a kitchen which included a washer and dryer, all for about US$105/night. It was a US$6 or more taxi ride to get to anywhere of interest. This hotel was chosen for us by our language school, and it was a good choice.

There are a fair number of other small but nice hotels all over the place, including Jade Hotel in San Pedro (to the east of downtown San Jose), Grano de Oro in San Jose, Hotel Le Bergerac in San Pedro, and the Alta Hotel high atop Escazu (south of downtown San Jose) – we saw each of these four hotels while dining at their respective restaurants (more on that later too), and would recommend them all. There are also a bevy of name-brand chains, such as Marriott, Inter-Continental, and Choice/Clarion, among others, to choose from.

Beautiful jungle along the Rio PacuareHowever, the real highlights of Costa Rica are the relatively unpopulated areas, and these are best seen using expert tour operators. We used Costa Rica Expeditions, as I had previously mentioned, and couldn’t be happier with their services. And, because it was technically low season (because it was rainy season), tours that might otherwise have other people on them were limited to just the two of us, in effect granting us a private guide for just us – simply perfect.