Monday, March 29, 2010

It was a good trip to Costa Rica.  We got to stay with Clara and Eckart and Sofia (who's nearly 6 now!) in San Jose.  And they all came down with us to the Osa Peninsula for a few days.  It's not one of the most accessible parts of the country.  In fact, you can only get to most of it by boat -- in our case an hour down the Sierpe river through one of the world's great mangrove forests, out to the Pacific and then a beach landing below Casa Corcovado on the borders of the national park.

We didn't stay at the hotel, but at the house of the owner, Steve, a friend of Clara and Eckart's.  He's a guy from Chicago who rode a barge down in the early 1970's and stayed. Carved a living for himself literally in the jungle and now owns a beautiful lodge that he's built there.  And he's proud that he's the only hotel in Costa Rica to receive the highest rating from the country's sustainable tourism program.  To us he was a generous host, not just sharing his house on the beach, but feeding us at the restaurant, leading us on a hike to the Pedrillo River in Corcovado National Park, taking us snorkeling on the coral reef at Isla Caño, and helping the boys with their sand castle engineering efforts.  

Scarlet macaws dropped beach almonds on the boys heads as they played, the mangrove hawks keened, capuchins and spider monkeys disputed over a fruit-bearing tree, while we sipped our beers.  Toucans, trogons, honeycreepers and cuckoos were in the trees.  Magnificent frigate birds and brown pelicans cruised the coastal air currents and a million hermit crabs streaked the sand.  Coatis snuffled along the verges.  Long-billed Hermit hummingbirds sipped from the long native blossoms, but the little banaquits nipped the flowers' base to steal the nectar.  Jungle plants, down in the gloom with us fought for their drops of sunlight and army ants scouted among them.  Porter spied agouti foraging silently and we all swam in the waterfalls of the San Pedrillo despite the false coral snake in the rocks. 
(linked bird photos courtesy of Richard Garrigues.)

The no-see-ums plagued us in the afternoons, when it was best to stay in the breeze, and my feet swelled up -- probably a combination of heat, bug-bites, and an overdose of margarita salt.  Among the fish at Isla Caño was a white, speckled eel and a parrot fish that watched me warily when I dived down among them.  

At night, after watching the sunset from a bluff the boys chased the red-orange eyes of nightjars -- the compact hawks would unfold surprising wings, flutter a dozen or score feet away and light once again in the grass -- and I could see why the local grandmothers warn the children not to follow the nightjars, for they'll tempt you off into the jungle to be lost forever.

We stayed there from Monday to Friday, when we retraced our path back through the mangroves to Sierpe and then on back toward San Jose.

We headed out again on Sunday, this time just Monica, the boys and I.  We drove Clara's car up into the high country, past the cedar woods or Zarcero through Ciudad Quesada (which everyone calls San Carlos). At every corner in this country of horse and cattle there were melons and yucca blossoms and other fruits for sale.   We stayed at the Termales del Bosque -- the hotsprings of the forest.  

In the fields where the path to the hotsprings starts there were red deer, and grey-necked wood rails foraging in the grass.  You descend down a wet path (because it had begun raining and the canyon is filled with jungle) to the spring fed pools along the creek.  There you can find the pool with the temperature to suit you -- the hotter ones are those closest to the source, of course -- and you soak.  

On Monday Porter and Monica rode horses in the rain and fog.  They saw keel-billed toucans.  As for Nico and I, after he had watched some cartoons in Spanish we walked.  Then we all gathered all our things from our little bungalow and made our way back down to the pools.  The rain fell harder today, but if you are going to have a rainy day during your vacation then hot springs are the place to schedule it.  We lingered far longer than we had planned.

We traveled on to the foot of the Arenal Volcano.  Supposedly, it is the most dramatic and active of all of Costa Rica's volcano, but mostly there was rain and fog and howling winds -- and vistas of the huge Lago Arenal with the heavy clouds torn above it.  Still we hiked up the hills.

The next day we circled the lake a drove out of the lush basin of the lago and into the parched heat of dry-season Guanacaste.  The dessicated fields, leafless trees and herds of gaunt brahman cattle reminded me of India's Rajasthan more than anything else.  If the rock outcroppings would have had ruined hill forts upon them the illusion would have been complete.  Across the Nicoya Peninsula we headed for Playa Samara, a classic beachtown on the Pacific coast.  And so it was sandcastles decorated with coral and swimming in the surf.  (I found that I had crossed some line in birding-geekdom when I ignored a full troop of howler monkeys in the mangoes and spent 5 minutes concentrated on figuring out whether the bird in the weeds was an Olive Sparrow or a Worm-Eating Warbler.  -- Its conical bill gave it away as the sparrow.)

We spent the last couple of days back in San Jose, doing some eating out and some shopping and some video-gaming and some good hanging out with Eckart and Clara and Sophia.  On our last day I made a morning run down to Carara National Park for a final hike (crocodiles! peccaries! iguanas! monkeys! macaws! -- and I identified 46 species of birds that morning, including pale-billed woodpeckers, trogons, manakins, herons and motmots).

And as I said, it was a pretty good trip to Costa Rica.  And nice to be home, too.