#9: Les arbres bizarres et enormes
Pura Vida Costa Rica!
#9: Les arbres bizarres et enormes
Pura Vida Costa Rica!
Costa Rica has been wonderful. We were here 4 weeks … could have spent a year … and perhaps then ended up like that thousands of gringos who came to visit but never quite made it back home.
In no particular order, here’s my top 10 list for Costa Rica. Kaia and Jake have included lots of photos, so I’ll leave that part to them
1. Easy going, very welcoming people. Costa Ricans (“Ticos”) use the expression “Pura Vida” to mean “good life”, “things are good” … and in general, “all is well”. It says a lot about them.
2. The environmental consciousness exuded around Monteverde … especially the climate change rally
3. Swimming in the very clear, cool pool at the base of the waterfalls in remote Rara Avis
4. The turtle life cycle … especially watching the nesting process at Tortuguero (and seeing little “Squirt” making a run for it!
5. The sounds in the cloud and rain forests …. birds, crickets, frogs, and especially the howler monkeys
6. Exquisite beaches – tree-shaded at Manuel Antonio and the vast and deserted beach of Zancudo
7. moonlit skinny surfing on Zancudo beach, while watching an electrical storm (in the distance!)
8. local fruit that is packed with flavour – the pineapples, mangoes, lichi, coconuts & bananas
9. Awesome critters revealed to us by our guides on day and night hikes: frogs, snakes, lizards, spiders. My favourite bird has to be the Scarlett Macaw – stunning, raucous, and they always travel in their pairs
10. The way Costa Rica lives the “eco” in ecotourism
10. watching the lightning storm across the water from the beach in Zancudo
9. swimming at night and seeing phosphorescence
8. the horseback ride up to Rara Avis
7. Costa Rican coffee
6. swimming in Rio Claro in Corcovado, hanging onto vines that touched the water
5. the climate rally in Monteverde and seeing a sloth so close to the road
4. scuba diving with Jake as my buddy
3. the hammock on the porch at Rara Avis (and being the only guests there)
2. seeing and HEARING howler monkeys (and dodging their excrement!)
1. coming across a mother turtle covering her eggs on the beach at 5am in Tortuguero
What we really needed after our hectic ‘circumnavigation’ of Costa Rica (on land, of course), and especially after the 3 days of extensive hiking in Corcovado National Park (wearing rubber boots), was a week to unwind on a beautiful beach! Well, that is exactly what we got at Playa Zancudo! We have been renting a lovely house called “Puertas del Sol” that belongs to a former colleague of Cam’s and her husband. Muchas gracias, Kristine y Jim! They discovered Zancudo Beach 5 years ago and have been spending about half their time here ever since. Photos and info about the house are on Facebook as ZancudoPlayaPlata, if you’re interested! At low tide, the beach is really wide and completely sandy (hardly a shell or stone to be found!)
Occasionally, we would see someone ride by on a bike, motorcycle, or ATV. I saw one person jogging, a few dogs, and two guys collecting a type of shrimp that lives in the sand. Other than that, the beach is pretty much deserted! Admittedly, this is the low season, so the small (and set back) beachfront motels and cabinas are mostly empty. However, in conversation with Annie (Peterborough friend who is now living in Panama) I learned that even when they came here for Easter weekend, the beach was empty (proof: her husband Rodney went skinny-dipping in the middle of the day!) How can this beautiful stretch of beach be so quiet? I’m thinking the name might keep the crowds away (zancudo means mosquito in Spanish!)
When we arrived last Wednesday, we were met by Alex (Kris and Jim’s friend and property manager) who made sure we got to the casa with all our bags. We were eager to meet his daughter, Yively (pronounced “Jibelly”) who is 11, so he brought her by after school and the kids got to swim together and practice their Spanish. Yively explained that she is in a class of 31 students who are between grades 2 and 6 — a ‘one-room schoolhouse’! She invited us to come to the school the next day. We decided the teacher probably wouldn’t mind (foreign guest speakers who are 12 and 13 years old are a novelty), so we went. It was actually bigger than I had imagined (several classrooms all opening to the outdoors) and the students were divided into smaller groups because the English teacher was there as well as a Resource teacher. Oops — perhaps not the best time to interrupt! They all came back into their main classroom and Kaia and Jake introduced themselves and spoke a little about Canada (doing their best in Spanish!) The students then invited them to play soccer on their nice grassy field. It was girls against the boys (very even strength) and everyone left their shoes on the sidelines. Says Kaia about playing barefoot: “You don’t have to worry about anyone stepping on your foot with cleats!”
The day we arrived, Alex had asked us if we wanted to buy some fresh fish. Of course! Zancudo is known for its excellent fishing. Well, he showed up with 3 kilos of tuna! Cam promptly looked up a recipe for ceviche (raw, marinated tuna) which turned out great! Both Alex and Yively said it was excellent so the next day, Cam made more and Alex brought his wife Jorleny over to have some, too! We also ate breaded tuna on several occasions (3kg is a lot of fish!)
It’s been fun having access to a fridge and kitchen. We’ve learned how to make “gallo pinto”, the popular Costa Rican rice and bean breakfast dish.
Cam rented a surfboard which we have had here for most of the week. He and the kids have made good progress (while I managed to ride some waves, lying down on the board). However, our original plan to go to Povones (well-known surfing beach south of here) was cancelled once we realised that the Zancudo waves were more than enough for beginners! Apparently, the waves in Povones are much more intense and the beach is more rocky. Cam & kids have enjoyed surfing under the full moon the past few nights too.
We have kept ourselves busy in and on the water, on the beach (building a huge sand castle and riding the bikes that Alex lent us), doing lots of blogging, reading, playing cards, and my personal favourite… getting the laundry done in a place where it actually has time to dry completely before being repacked into a backpack! Yeah! (We were pretty stinky when we got here!).
We’ve had beautiful sunny mornings and rain for a few hours most afternoons. There have been some awesome thunderstorms; lightning like I’ve never seen it before that gets etched into your retina for a few seconds. We’ve had some great night swims (the water must be about 30C) and have twice seen phosphorescence in the water. Magic!
We will have Alex and family over for a barbecue tonight (he’s bringing more fish!) and leave by bus tomorrow morning at 5:45 en route to Panama (1 day in Panama city) and then flying to Quito. Zancudo was just what we needed …we feel refreshed and ready for more adventures!
We were sitting in the common room at our hostel in San Jose, checking the bus schedule for San Jose-Drake Bay – we were headed to Corcovado National Park on the SW coast of Costa Rica and would enter from the north in Drake Bay. Seemed like the only bus was at 7 am and got in at 3 and then there was a half hour taxi ride and a 2 hour boat ride to Drake Bay. The bus would go through Quepos, which is not very direct. We were exhausted from all the early mornings from Rara Avis and Tortuguero and were really not excited for the next day. My dad decided to check the plane schedule, and the flight left SJ at 7 am and arrived in Drake Bay at 8 am. Even better, the next day was my mom’s birthday. So happy birthday Mommy… (we sang to her on the plane!)
On arrival to Drake Bay, the Taxi driver told us that the 8 km ride from the airport (long gravel landing strip and a bathroom whose toilet has no seat) to the town would cost 8 dollars each. Being stubborn, and thinking there would be other options, we decided to start walking, only to realise that it was the only taxi (and possibly the only 4-wheeled vehicle) in town! Jake and I could hardly walk 400 m at a time with the huge packs on our backs. Then we got to a river we had to cross. Some locals showed us the shallowest place to walk through it. As we crossed it, the taxi drove by us in the opposite direction. It looked like a pickup truck with a raised back that had some seats in it. It is like that because of the river that flows across the road. He told us that he would be back in an hour. So my dad and I started walking there, and Jake and my mom stayed and waited for the taxi with the
packs. When we arrived in the small village we went our our hotel “Martina’s Place”, where we met our Guide for Corcovado, Rodolfo. The next morning, we would board a boat at 6 am that would bring us south along the coast to a ranger station in the park. But until then we were free, so we went to the beach and to the “Heladeria” (ice cream shop) for my mom’s birthday.
The Ranger station had a lot of services: kitchen, WiFi, covered area to pitch your tent, Restaurant, rooms for rent, and my dad got excited when he saw Solar Panels! We brought and cooked our own food and slept in our tent.
Our Guide Rodolpho was fantastic. He was really committed to helping us find all sorts of wildlife, and would take us on long hikes and pause all along the way to listen and look up, down, and all around. The day we arrived we hiked 5 hours then went out again before dark for 2 more – we were trying to find a tapir. Second day the hike started at 4:15AM – 30 minutes before there was any light – we were back 4 hours later. After eating, we set out for another 6 hour hike .. the last 2 hours focused on finding the elusive tapir.
Corcovado is known as Costa Rica’s most important park. National Geographic says it is the most biologically diverse place on earth. Here’s some of the stuff we saw along the way:
Cool stuff, eh? We were definitely rewarded for all our hiking. And what was day 3? Oh, yeah, we hiked 20 kilometres out of the park. With rubber boots on. We had to go across two rivers, and much of the hike was on sand beach in the heat of the day. Ready, Set, Go.
Part way through, Rodolfo showed us a cave with little bats in it!
We left at 7:30 am. We finished hiking at 3 pm. The last 4 kilometres, I thought I was going to faint. You should have seen the joy on my face when Rodolfo said “200 metres left!”. When we got to the end, all I wanted to do was go out for ice cream, put my feet up, and relax. Guess what we got to do instead? Squish ourselves into the back of a truck for two hours as we got driven back to Puerto Jimenez on bumpy, bumpy roads.
That car had no ventilation at the back, so imagine how happy we were to get out, shower, have some fish dinner and ice cream, and go to bed! Even better, our room had three double beds so Jake and I got our own. 🙂
In his post below published yesterday, Jake did a great job explaining the nesting process and how tourists are controlled to minimize impacts on nesting. I wanted to make a few additional comments about how impressive conservation efforts are in Tortuguero. Ecotourism at its best, in so many ways. Everywhere you looked in Tortuguero you see signs and murals about turtle conservation. The night turtle tour was jam packed with turtle ecology and conservation information … as an eco-tour should be. Four species nest at Tortuguero. Leatherbacks are classified as “vulnerable”. Green (the ones we saw) and Loggerhead are endangered. Hawksbill are critically endangered. So this conservation work is pretty important. Like salmon, turtles return … somehow! … to the very beach they were born on after about 20 years. They nest on the beach 3 to 4 times over a one month period, but may go 2 to 3 years between nesting. As Jake mentioned in his description of our encounter with little “Squirt”, light plays a critical role. I think this is one area the town could be more vigilant. We heard of some stories of villagers collecting up and reclocating hundreds of baby turtles that had walked right into town following bright lights.
There were research stations affiliated with the park, and many volunteers from abroad helping with the work. I think this caught the interest of Kaia and Jake.
Tourist infrastructure in the town was very obvious but very scaled down. Only 1 story buildings, no pools or sprawling hotel grounds with pools. People come here for the turtles.
I guess the most important question is whether the money and awareness (leading to political pressure for stepped up conservation efforts) coming from tourists ultimately does more good for the turtles than the impacts we had. I felt a little badly for the mom who nested late and then slid back to sea with an audience of about 20 people. We were behind her more or less … but I can imagine she was pretty stressed. But if we didn’t come … would the community still be eating the turtles? I didn’t get a chance to try to find an answer for this question yet. Any thoughts from readers?
I’ve also added a few more photos of the journey to and from and around Tortuguero.
After leaving Rara Avis, we went on our way to the North Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. This area, called Tortuguero, is known for the many turtles that come to the beach to lay their eggs. The night before, we stayed at a hotel in a nearby town, and met the hotel owner’s wife, Karla, who is a guide at Tortuguero. We took a bus to a small town called Pavonna, which is where you get on a boat that brings you to the actual town of Tortuguero (it’s hard to know where Tortuguero actually is, every hotel and store within 100km seems to has something to do with Tortuguero and turtles). The boat ride was pretty cool, because it was all through canals in thick jungle. The town itself was cool as well. It was full of people selling wood carvings of turtles and ice cold jelly coconuts. They’re so delicious! And what makes the town really cool is that there are no cars or roads, just little paths and lots of bikes. Our simple hotel room was right on the beach.
We booked a night tour to see the mother turtles come to lay their eggs. The time we were there was the green sea turtle season, one of 4 species of sea turtles to come lay its eggs at Tortuguero. When night came, we met with our tour and walked to the place where a spotter had reported a turtle. But on our way there, it started raining. And then it started pouring. And we didn’t bring rain jackets! But we had to deal with it. Rain doesn’t bother the turtles though, so we still got to watch the whole process. I never knew how big they were, over a metre long! First, the turtle drags itself (sea turtles can’t walk, because they have fins instead of legs) to the end of the beach, near the trees. It then digs the egg chamber out, then starts laying the eggs. However, if the turtle gets scared before it starts laying eggs, it will probably go back into the ocean. So we had to wait under a little roof in the rain for the spotter to tell us it was now laying eggs before we could come watch. Once it is laying, it is too concentrated on it to be alert for predators, and has no choice but to sit there. But we still don’t want to disturb it, so no lights, cameras or phones are allowed. The guide uses a special red light which won’t confuse the turtle. And we were only allowed to look at it from behind, so it wouldn’t see us. It uses its tail to help push the eggs out and into the egg chamber. After it finishes laying its 80 to 110 eggs, it becomes like a backhoe, covering up the egg chamber and throwing sand backwards and hitting us! It then digs the “camouflage” or decoy chamber, so that if predators like coatimundi (like a raccon) try digging up the eggs, they might find it empty and then leave. The eggs incubate in the sand for 60 to 65 days, then the babies crawl back into the ocean. Finally, after being out of water for about 2 hours, the mother turtle drags herself back down the beach and into the ocean. When she made it back safely everyone clapped. They’re very vulnerable out of water, because they can’t move quickly and are a great meal for jaguars. On our walk back though, we got very lucky. Since the green sea turtles come to this beach for about 3 months a year, and we were there near the end of those 3 months, some of the early nests were hatching already. Somehow, in the dark, our guide Fransisco spotted 1 baby turtle crawling on the beach! It was so unusual to see only 1, because normally they all come out of a nest at once. But this one little guy we named Squirt, after the little sea turtle in Finding Nemo, hatched a bit before his siblings and was crawling towards the ocean. But baby sea turtles go towards the brightest spot, which is normally the white foam of the waves breaking, But with the lights of the town, Squirt was all confused. Francisco shone his light in front of Squirt, so that he would crawl in the right direction, but he kept going in circles. So eventually, Francisco picked him up and carried him to close enough to the ocean, and he made it in. Only 1 in 1000 baby sea turtles make it to adulthood because they have so many predators both in and out of water, so I hope Squirt is still alive!
We went back to our hotel room and were in bed by about 11:00. But we decided to get up at 4 in the morning the next day to see if turtles were still on the beach. We saw 3 mother turtles that morning, and watched 1 crawl into the ocean. And my dad was very happy to get some photos!
We then went to the dock on the other side of the peninsula at 6 am for a canal tour in a canoe with Karla, who we had met in Cariari the day before. We paddled through canals in the jungle and saw 3 different kinds of monkeys, some caimans, spectacualar birds like toucans, some sleeping bats hanging from a tree, and much more.
After that, we got some cold drinks, explored the town a bit, then packed up and left on a boat back to Pavonna. We only spent a bit more than 24 hours there, but man, did we do a lot of stuff.
Maintenant je suis a la plage Zancudo pour une semaine. On est a la maison de nos amis de Peterborough qui vivent ici entre novembre et avril, donc nous avons la maison juste pour nous. L’ocean est a peu pres 50 metres d’ici, et on loue une planche de surf et on essaie d’apprendre! Je m’amuse tellement ici a Costa Rica. Pura Vida!
We “landed” at Playa Zancudo yesterday afternoon, after 3 weeks of full on, and at times exhausting, adventure here in Costa Rica. We are spending the week at Peterborough friends Kris & Jim’s house … right on the beach. It is wonderful. Virtually deserted on the beach, and not a “resort” in sight. Never away from the sound of the surf. House is soooo comfortable after moving along almost every night and camping some nights. Jake calculated that before arriving, we’d been up before 5AM for 5 mornings in a row, for various reasons. Now … we relax. We’ve lots to share via blog updates. And we’ll use the time to do some planning for our next phase in South America. We have a land line at the house that will accept incoming international calls – 011-506-2776-0133. And we’re always happy to connect via skype too … we have a good wifi connection here. My skype ID is cam.douglas3
I went for a 5km run on Zancudo beach this morning. I saw 1 person, 2 whales, and hundreds of birds. Kaia and Jake have a new friend Yively (pronounce “Yabelly”) who is 11 – they’ve been playing on the beach and riding bikes, and this aft. saw 3 dolphins jumping just off of where they were boogie boarding an hour ago. We’re good.
In 1988 I was in Costa Rica with my mom for 2 weeks. Among other adventures, we travelled to the one-of-a-kind lodge destination of Rara Avis (“Rare Bird”). In the early1980s, a group of tropical ecology grad students were studying in an area adjacent to Brauilo Carrillo national park in Costa Rica. Many of them were adamant that the CR government needed to lock much more of the land base away in National Parks in order to protect CR’s amazing biodiversity, water and carbon sinks. But one grad student, Amos Bien from the US, saw this as unrealistic politically because locals strongly resented losing access to traditional activities or worse, being forcefully relocated following the creation of a new park. Amos instead wanted to protect rain and cloud forest by demonstrating that a standing forest was worth more than one cut down. Money would come from very selective and carefully planned tourism and from the small scale but high value harvesting of medicinal and ornamental plants and animals. He spent the next 6 months searching all over CR to find the right site for his project, and in 1983 settled finally on a location close to where the original grad studies had taken place. A very rough road 11km long to a formal penal building (“el plastico“) would take visitors to the edge of the rainforest. This old building was spruced up and used as a research facility and a staging area to build the eco lodge a further 4km into the jungle.
A very rough cuorderoy road (logs layed across the mud) took guests a further 4km into the rainforest to the lodge site – adjacent to a magnificent two-tiered waterfall. Mom and I were some of the very first clients to the waterfall lodge that had been hewn with a chainsaw mill out of trees cut in the lodge clearing. Our 1988 ride in with Amos was epic … in his old jeep with wife, baby and little poodle. We did the last 4km in pitch black, and I recall having to get out of the jeep to help Amos put a chain back on the rear wheel – in 1 ft of very loose mud. Mom and I were woken up by parrots, macaws and other birds at 5AM, and had fantastic hikes with local guides. The lodge experience clearly left an impression on me because I recommended the experience to our Peterborough friends the Storeys 5 years ago (more on that later!) and took my family back there 10 days ago.
We arrived in the Rara Avis base of Horquetas after leaving the Arenal area 5 hrs earlier on public bus. We put some clothes into 1 and a half packs and were ready to go. Most guests travel to the lodge via a tractor-pulled cart, but it was not being used that day so we went via horseback. A jeep can no longer make the journey. And honestly, I have no idea how the tractor and cart get past the ruts and rocks and mud. Our friends the Storeys took the tractor ride. It was bad enough that mom and daughter Daisy (Kaia’s friend) opted for the horseback out. Dad and two sons braved the cart ride out … only to have the tractor blow a tire, and they ended up walking with their gear. I can imagine some of the words that were put beside my name for recommending that journey!
Our travel by horse was actually really enjoyable. None of us have any real experience on horses. I’ve never been on a horse that did anything other than exactly what it wanted. But these ladies were really well behaved. We all marvelled at their agility – walking at times with two feet on different boulders and two feet in deep mud. I often expected to tumble, but never did. We left from town and arrived in El Plastico 3.5hrs later … just as dusk was falling.
So we headed off into the jungle on a little muddy hiking trail in the last gasps of light. As you can see in the photo below, we were still reasonably fresh and in good spirits. 3 to 4km … no problem! After about 45 minutes when we expected to be about there, our guide informed us that we had only about another 45 minutes left. We were slogging through mud, hopping from muddy bank to another, with only 3 headlamps and hadn’t eaten a thing for 5 hours. My very very game family started seriously considering that dad had gone too far on this one. Our guide Juan was intent to find us some cool wildlife along the way, but Yvonne politely suggested that we would be quite happy to just keep moving. The Rara Avis welcome sign was indeed a welcome sight … you can see that Kaia was still in pretty good spirits. The cook had met us at El Plastico to receive the incoming food then scampered ahead of us to start dinner. He put very generous portions of spaghetti, rice and salad in front of us … not a crumb left 20 minutes later.
It was pretty special for me to be back here 26 yrs later. Mostly it was exactly like I remember it. But the lodge was a bit more tired looking. And the kitchen/eating area was much much larger. We were the only guests there, as September/October are the slow (“green”) season. Michael cooked. His partner Carla cleaned the rooms and did the laundry. And very cute daughter Sophia charmed the guests. We slept brilliantly after the day’s workout …with the only sounds of crickets and faint roar of the waterfalls.
Following breakfast the next day Carla pointed out the resident tarantula next to the eating area (wow!) and Juan caught a cricket to feed to another enormous spider.
Juan then led us on the “cataract” trail. I was pretty excited because I knew what was coming next, and loved watching and listening to my family’s reaction as they came out onto the waterfall lookout platform.
On the way back along the trail, Juan explained to us that one of Rara Avis’s first guests (he was really a partner in Rara Avis) was a very adventurous Canadian biologist Donald Perry. Perry realized how limited he was in studying the rainforest from ground level, when so much of the biodiversity is in the canopy. So while studying at Rara Avis he built himself a platform about 25m into the canopy and would study/work there for a week or more at a time without coming to the ground. Perry also built horizontal cables from tree to tree so he could explore in that manner too. Other guests asked Perry if they could check out his setup, and he then started taking people up for $50. From what we understand, this was the very beginnings of “canopy tours” that are now pervasive throughout Costa Rica and all over the world.
We didn’t miss a minute upon arriving back at the lodge to grab a towel and head for the falls. You had to carefully make your way down the side, then across slippery rocks. But what a feeling to jump into the very cool water and let the falls pound on your head and shoulders.
After the previous days hard work and our great swim, we were ready to relax. The lodge is high enough in the mountains to pick up “one bar” of mobile service. I typed the monteverde climate rally blog from my porch lookout. And you can see that my family took it upon themselves to relax,.
We spent the hour before dinner doing some work on our video, with Kaia and Jake taking turns explaining how Rara Avis was the really the pioneer and has in many ways become the benchmark for the “eco” in ecotourism. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as:
“responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” (TIES, 1990)
“Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. This means that those who implement and participate in ecotourism activities should follow the following ecotourism principles:
Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people.
Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate.”
Access to the lodge is intentionally difficult. This extends people’s stays, involving less transport. Horses … no carbon. Hot water for showers is “on demand”. The lodge was built for natural ventilation and illumination – there are no lights or heating/AC. They run a small generator for 4 hrs/day for lights in the kitchen – and use less than 1kWhr/day (average Canadian home uses 25/day) and they plan to install a micro-hydro generator at the falls (I’d love to help with that!). This tiny lodge deep in the jungle even has waste diversion that would put most Canadian institutions to shame. Where possible, packaging is returned to the supplier. I could go on …
The guides to/from and at the lodge and all the documentation at the lodge certainly provide awareness … of all sorts of wildlife, but perhaps more importantly of the plight of tropical rain/cloud forests and the different strategies being employed to protect them and reduce tourism impacts.
The very modest number of guests that Rara Avis can accomodate and the fact that they walk the last 4km in helps make sure that the guests are the sorts that the hosts will enjoy. Or maybe they arrive hopping mad!?
Past guests responded to a fund raising campaign by Rara Avis (logging was encroaching) to purchase a larger block of land around the lodge, so the reserve is now quite substantial – it directly protects 1200 acres and has indirectly conserved a further 2500 acres. 95% is primary forest with many endemic species – this is very high value biodiversity. The reserve has resulted in 337000 less tons of CO2 being emitted, because the protected areas were slated for cutting.
All employees (including management) are from the local community of Horquetas, are well paid and receive medical insurance. Further, they receive extensive training in the context of often very little formal schooling. Long term employees receive stock in the company. The majority of management positions are held by women. Food is sourced from Horquetas. Rara Avis has contributed to the local school, the roads, bridge maintenance and the local community development fund.
Amos is still regularly involved with Rara Avis but teaches at the U. of San Jose and is on staff at the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. He has been a leader in sustainable tourism first in Costa Rica and now globally. We tried to track him down in San Jose for an interview, but learned that he was actually in Toronto at a tourism conference!
With dinner finished, Juan offered to take us on a night hike. Jake stayed back with a sore tummy, but the three of us really enjoyed more of Juan’s discoveries.
We were up in good time the next morning to start our hike out. We loved the horse riding on the way in, but this was rather expensive so opted for the full hike out. The 1st 4km through the jungle were much more enjoyable with some light! We gave Juan much more time to explain things than on the way in … and appreciated his spotting these two tracks.
Juan then offered us the “scenic” route where we would get to some lookouts, have more time in shaded forest and avoid walking along the “road” we came in on. Sounded good – let’s go. He led with his machete swinging at all the growth across the trail, then commented that he hadn’t actually been this way in quite a while. Neither had anyone else, apparently. So the adventure continued! After about 4 hours of very steady hiking/bushwakcing through the mud/forest we arrived to the open pasture land. Sorry Amos … but for the first time, open pasture looked pretty good to all of us. Another 90 minutes later we arrived at a rather unique resort perched high above the valley (“Mirador Prendas”) where we guzzled cold drinks and waited for a guy to drive us the remaining 5km back to Horquetas.
Rara Avis leaves me inspired but with some questions. At so many levels, it appears a model for ecotourism. But it is so difficult to get there, and such a challenge to maintain … it caters to relatively few, so where do all the “other” tourists go?. On the other hand, the project has protected a very large swath of primary rainforest otherwise vulnerable to cutting – just as Amos set out to do. Many university and local school children have studied there and fell in love with tropical forests. 26 years of guests have walked the trails and swam in the pools. The dedication of all those involved is quite breath-taking. The horse wrangler started back down the mountain for the return 10km to Horquetas with 7 horses, over crazy potholed road.. in the pitch black. Cook Michael had to hike the 4km out to El Plastico to get the food that came in by horse, then carry in his pack back to the lodge .. in the dark. I learned that numbers are down in the past few years. Rara Avis is struggling financially. We couldn’t actually afford to stay at Rara Avis – it is very expensive. But after an email exchange a week before, their manager granted us a complimentary stay (we paid only for horses and food) because I’m a return customer and we will feature them in the film doc. we’re creating. They need publicity. They are also competing in an increasingly crowded field of ecotourism in Costa Rica. So ironic … as Amos and many others involved at Rara Avis have worked so hard to make sure this market develops, and develops properly. Having said that though, their offer was so generousand appreciated. It was very meaningful to be back with my family while in the midst of exploring our Costa Rica theme of ecotourism.
So if you find yourself near Horquetas in north-central Costa Rica with some time, money and a bunch of energy and curiosity … rara-avis.com !
We got on a bus at 8am, DRIPPING with sweat in the heat and humidity of coastal Puntarenas. Thankfully, the road soon started to climb and the temperature dropped consistently as we gained elevation. The temperature improved but the road definitely did not — it got rougher and narrower. At one point, the driver had to carefully reverse down a hairpin turn to get to a section of road that was wide enough to let a loaded truck pass in the other direction.
We checked in at our budget accommodation called “Monkey Hostel” which is run by an energetic young man who was helpful and keen to tell us about the activities available to tourists. Monteverde is an ecotourism hub and world-wide model. We wanted to see what it had to offer! I was also interested to learn about how the community got started: a group of Quakers from Alabama settled on the mountain in the 1950’s — they were opposed to the Korean War and chose to move to Costa Rica, a country that had abolished its military some years earlier. They started dairy farming and built a cheese factory, but grew to recognise the inherent value of an intact cloud forest where species diversity and adaptations are phenomenal. They were instrumental in establishing the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
Our first day was spent walking around a scoping out the options. We met a transplanted Canadian couple who now run the Mariposaria (Butterfly Garden) and took a guided night walk at a local reserve that they recommended. It rained throughout the 2-hour walk so we felt vindicated for having lugged around four sets of full rain gear and rubber boots for past month!
Day 2 started with 100% Adventure (yes, that’s the name of the company that runs a canopy tour that includes the longest zip-line in Latin America — 1 mile long!!) This type of tour is a huge tourist attraction and even though it is the “green season” (read “rainy season” therefore “low season”) we were in a group of at least 50 tourists that morning. The guides were very professional and competent, running the tour safely and efficiently. Between some of the cables, we got to walk along bridges or trails through the forest. Two cables could be ridden “superman-style” which means you get clipped on hanging in a flying position. It definitely lives up to its name (100% Adventure), but we wondered if really fell in the category of ecotourism. It does represent a viable business that can be run in a standing forest, but simply didn’t include any educational aspect (a key condition of ecotourism) and we walked away exhilarated, but with no further understanding of the forest, its animals, or ecological importance. We mentioned this to our host at our hostel, and he concurred but did point out that the operation goes to great lengths to protect the existing forest and plants the parts of their property that were earlier in pasture.
We returned to the Mariposaria, this time for a full tour, given by Brita, a volunteer from southern Ontario. She explained the details about butterflies from different environments and elevations. We each got to release a newly-emerged butterfly, and yes, we got to see several of the large blue morpho butterflies that are famous for their size and stunning colour.
Next stop was the hummingbird garden just outside the Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve. Multiple feeders attract the birds that are so numerous in this park and so important as pollinators. We started watching from a distance, not wanting to disturb the cute little things, but when a knowledgeable interpreter came out and told us we could put our hands right next to the feeders and let the birds land on our fingers, we moved right in! He went on the explain the research he had been part of when the BBC Planet Earth crew had been there filming. Apparently they had put several hummingbirds through a “rain tube” with special sensors to film their flight. When the video was slowed down, it was revealed that hummingbirds can react so quickly to the stimuli around them that they can fly through a rainstorm and avoid every raindrop!!
OK, that was Day 2 — seems like we got up to about 150% adventure by the end of it!
Next day, we got up early for a guided walk in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve (adjacent to and very similar to the Monteverde one). The Santa Elena Reserve has a very close relationship with the local high school — giving students opportunities to work and learn in their precious ‘backyard’. A good portion of our fees went to the school community. We had a fabulous guide (not a student) who explained some of the mysteries of this amazing place. The lush greenery … massive tree trunks with huge canopies so high up … vines hanging down, and entire ecosystems growing off the sides of trees .. was captivating.
On the way back to town from the Reserve, we asked the taxi driver to stop at a well-known ficus tree that our hostel-owner had showed us pictures of. It is a strangler fig that killed its host tree which has since decomposed, leaving an enormous, hollow, and very climbable tree – Cam and Jake went about 50ft up and could have kept going but came down only because we were short of time.
Then it was time to get back to town for the climate change rally that Cam described in an earlier blog post. It was an awesome feeling (I felt kind of emotional, actually) to see the local people coming together about such a threat to their little piece of paradise — a place that I had just started to get to know over the previous 48 hours. Each of our guides had talked about the fact that the dry seasons are getting noticeably longer, and that they are seeing small changes in animal behaviour. For example, some animals are moving to higher elevations to get more moisture and that is affecting vegetation as well as changing predator-prey dynamics. Tourism has allowed large parts of the forest to remain intact and provide economic benefits while not being cut down for pastureland, but the balance is fragile. Plans to improve the road from Puntarenas would mean better access for tourists (no backwards driving around gravel hairpin turns), but it could also increase the number of visitors, reduce their length of stay, and increase vehicle emissions. Luckily, there seem to be many very committed people in Monteverde who are considering these issues and looking for sustainable solutions.
At 2pm, our bus arrived to take us to Arenal, en route for the next adventure! Our route involved a very scenic ride down the mountainside to lake Arenal, and then along the lake in a boat towards the iconic “Volcan Arenal”. This volcano had been recently very active but has not erupted since 2010.