Costa Rica 2006

Rule 1:  Do NOT drive in Costa Rica on your first trip.  Spend your time enjoying the country instead of defending life and limb against the local roads and trucks.  Taxis and tour vans are readily available at all airports and through your travel agent.  For our 2008 trip we have hired the same guide we used in 2007 for the entire 9 days we are there.

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Zarcero, a town of some relative size nestled in the Cordillera Central, the Central Highlands.  Absolutely beautiful weather up here.  The scene is the local town park and its famous topiary.  In spite of the gardens, this is not known as a tourist destination. The highway through Zarcero is the heart of the community as well as the local 'freeway' for 18 wheelers to and from San José.  Autos and SUVs are small, practical and pleasantly simple, a far cry from the indulgent luxury wagons on US roads.   
These two views are from our host's home just north of Zarcero.  It is nestled in a neighborhood of real people, and it was a valuable learning experience for us to be a part of Costa Rican life for a few days. This close to the equator darkness descends by six-o-clock almost year round.  Dinner is take-out so we can rush back to safety and off the highway where the massive trucks laden with sugar cane dash unchecked through town.   Inside the house, with its locks and bars, two gringos sit to eat takeout food and listen to the children in the dark, and pour wine out of the dust covered box from the supermercado.  With sticks jammed in the ground for goals, shirtless boys of all ages roam a small dusty next door lot in pursuit of a lifeless soccer ball, aided only by the frail blush of our porch-light.  We do not turn it off.  This is their game boy.   
We were directed to Luis Quesada at the Hotel Don Beto who suggested we visit the Bosque de Paz (Forest of Peace), about 15 km east; a beautiful biological reserve located in the Central Highlands not far from the famous volcanoes.  For a nominal charge we were treated to a guided hike on the trails, lunch and  a tour of their orchid garden.  Hummingbirds were constantly at their feeders.  I could get as close as 6 feet for shots.  
The lushness of the always cool Central Highlands cloud forest.  Fog rolls into the valley every afternoon, even during the dry season.  So just kick back and relax.  The preserve owner, Sr. Federico Gonzáles-Pinto, was gracious enough to lead us back to Zarcero up the winding mountainous roads, through the fog. Violet Sabrewing is one of the most common hummingbirds at Bosque de Paz


We took a small regional carrier from San José to the remote Osa Peninsula on the south pacific slope.  This is the first stop, Drake Bay on the northern tip of the peninsula.  Pictured is the 'terminal building' and the gravel runway. A hoot! We are circling the south end of the Osa Peninsula at Puerto Jiménez, the largest town in the area.  No roads are paved.  Motor bikes are everywhere, and there are several rainforest lodges nearby.  The people are always friendly.  They clearly understand the value of eco-tourism to their economy.
The road up to our lodge Bosque del Cabo (Forest of the Cape) was a dusty and bumpy 45 minutes.  We passed Brahman cattle in pastures and caught views of the Golfo Dulce; sometimes fording streams in the Land Rover Defender.  Ruddy Ground-Doves were among the first new birds I added to my list from Osa. The cabana at Bosque del Cabo.  Electricity here is generated from solar panels and mini-hydro, so the cabanas had insect netting over the beds, 1 outlet, a tepid excuse for a table fan, and a bathroom.  Forget the hairdryer ladies.  Sleep was hard to come by the first night.  Bugs were absolutely not a problem for us during our stay.
There are six types of bananas grown on the grounds of the lodge as well as citrus. The food was abundant, excellent and fresh.  They will pack a lunch for you to take out on the many trails or other activities offered by the lodge. The Thick-billed Euphonia is just one of the hundreds of strikingly colored birds in Costa Rica.  Many of the families of birds in Central America are not represented in the U.S., and it can initially be intimidating trying to keep them straight.
The Mayo tree in front of the cabana, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  The yellow spikes are flowers, and the tree was covered with a variety of hummingbirds, all too distant for any chance with the camera. The Scarlet Macaw (Lapa Rios) is one of the signature birds.  His long blue tail plumes are hidden by the tree branches here, but the colors are unmistakable. They were once threatened by the live animal trade and the cooking pot, but things are now improving. 
A meager shot of White-faced Capuchin Monkeys, one of four species.  The Mantled Howler Monkey - a constant eerie roaring sound, was recorded here for the movie Jurassic Park The Coatimundi 'Coati' is a regular visitor on the grounds in the morning.  There are five big cats on Osa; the Jaguar, Ocelot, Jaguarundi, Margay and recently the Puma has returned.  We passed a spot where an ocelot had urinated to mark its territory.  No mistaking that strong ureic smell. 
The volcanic soil is thin on Osa, and the trees have evolved a strategy of spreading themselves very wide with these enormous root webs to support the huge trunk.  There are at least 6 different species of trees that adopt this system.  Others resort to an exposed 'walking root'.  It looks like the frame of a tepee. The Great Tinamou is taxonomically the oldest bird on the list of North American species.  This forest bird is one of a number of large ground dwellers, including the more elusive Great Curassow.  I had to Photoshop this one. The flash was not enough to reach. 
The Chestnut-mandibled Toucan is closely related to woodpeckers.  They are reasonably common, and a treat for everyone, birdy or not.   Did I say color? This toucan cousin called the Fiery-billed Aracari is smaller and less likely to be seen.  This one was photographed on one of my three guided birding trips during our stay.
The 'terminal lounge' at Puerto Jiménez.  It also serves as the wall of a cemetery. Welcome aboard.  Adiós, Costa Rica.
So who does an eco-tour, crunchy tree-huggers?  Surely there are some, but our days and evenings were spent with physicians from Yale, a businessman and wife from Chicago, and a geologist with a passion for orchids.  We made friends with an interior designer from LA, and a would-be author/school teacher from New Mexico.  Oh yes, and a plumber from Jacksonville.  The guests represent many walks of life and interests.  Some were surprised at what they found at a rainforest lodge.  Others, like the Congressional Research Office couple from West Virginia, were there deliberately to photograph the wildlife spectacle for the entire week of their stay.

The elements that make ecotourism work are the nearby national parks, the large tracts of undisturbed corridors of primary forest and the support of the people of Costa Rica.  The rainforests are enormously diverse ecosystems, and because they are, they attract a huge variety of wildlife.  As a birder, you are in hog heaven.  But visiting them does not mean burying your head in the wilderness. There are conventional tourist activities like whale and dolphin watching, hiking, sport fishing, viewing the volcanoes of the Cordillera Central, and God forbid, even shopping.  You can rappel down a waterfall, surf the huge waves of the Golfo Dulce, or shoot the zip line to a tree canopy platform 150 feet above the forest floor - but there are no golf courses in the rainforest!

For photographers: autofocusing in heavy shade with little contrast and confusing patterns is an issue, and the subjects are often too distant for any autofocus assist flash technology.  Plan on using manual focusing when necessary and take a shoe-mount strobe unit.  Do not rely on pop-up flash alone.  I found with my 10MP camera, if I set my quality on compressed RAW, I could easily get over 100 images on a 1GB card, even though the control panel suggests 60 maximum.  I had two cards and no need to download files onto a hard drive. With the ability to zoom and edit on the monitor, it was easy to trash the bad stuff and lock in the good shots.  Keep your contacts between lens and camera clean. Dust is a problem in the dry season and humidity is also a problem in the highlands and the humid south of the Pacific Slope.  Carry a compact point-and-shoot for everyday stuff.