Sorry for the long absence, but writing while in Costa Rica (or while preparing to leave) proved impossible! Between somewhat limited internet access and virtually
limitless birding opportunities, I didn’t slow down enough to write a thing
this past week! As I am now on the plane home, its time to crank out what I
hope will be the first of two blog posts recapping this trip. The first of
these will focus on my general impressions of Costa Rica and suggestions I have
for future travellers. The second will specifically highlight the birds that we
saw during the two major phases of our particular trip. I will also mention
some of what worked and that which did not work from a photography standpoint
in that second point.
Topographical map of Costa Rica
This last-minute, 8-day sprint was, almost unbelievably, my
first foray into the tropics in nearly 30 years of birding. I did admittedly spend 9 days birding in
Northern Mexico on one of my Victor Emanuel Nature Tours youth camps, but even
that episode was nearly 20 years ago (ugh, I feel like a dinosaur writing that).
Both Sonia and I start new jobs this week, so it made perfect sense to escape while
neither of us was working. As an added bonus, we brought Sonia’s mom with us.
This meant this trip was as much about family as it was birding. We managed to
see a ton of great birds, experience a really wonderful country, and spend some
really nice family time together.
Sonia and mother Yolanda
We divided the trip into two parts – the cloud forest in San
Gerardo de Dota and the lusher areas around Arenal National Park. As this was
our first visit to the country, we figured we didn’t need to run ourselves
ragged moving from place to place. This proved correct and made for a very
relaxing introduction to Costa Rica. As we discovered, staying at all-inclusive
eco-lodges ensured great birding without the need for much daily travelling. It
also ensured access to non-birding activities for those that needed a break
from bird-centric activities.
A map of the 2 areas we visited
There are many reasons besides its amazingly varied habitats
and approximately 850-900 bird species that Costa Rica is a prime birding
destination. First, the country is very politically stable and the people are very
friendly. That the country formally abolished its military in 1948 speaks
generally to both points. Second, Costa Rica is very small (about the size of
West Virginia) and easy to navigate. We had zero issues finding anything using
Waze or Google navigation tools on a phones (it cost $30 to activate an
international data plan for the week). Third, Costa Rica is relatively
inexpensive. Yes, it is the most expensive country in Central America, but the
aforementioned stability and hospitality understandably come with a price. As
an aside, we used dollars for just about everything. Fourth, the country
displays a great respect for all things natural and has constructed its tourism
industry around this sentiment. I will round out this blog entry with a more in
depth discussion of some of these points.
Absolutely everyone we contacted during our stay was
incredibly friendly and, when required, willing to help. This included not only
the staff at our eco-lodges, but also the people with whom we interacted beyond
their admittedly protective confines. Both Sonia and her mom are fluent in
Spanish. I took 4 years of high-school Spanish and possess a basic ability to
understand what is being discussed in casual conversation. Spanish is certainly
not a prerequisite for visiting Costa Rica, but it did allow us an interesting
window into the country’s people that I think those who don’t speak any Spanish
might miss. Nowhere was this on better display more than at a dinner we had at
a local ‘soda’ in San Isidrio.
Serving typical rice-and-bean-based
local fare (‘comida typica’), this small roadside restaurant and fruit stand, or
‘soda’, provided the perfect opportunity to interact with some local folks. Joined,
without initial invitation, at our table by the husband-and-wife owners, we
quickly welcomed the chance to speak with them about the local area, the local
people, and the country in general. Without going into too much detail, what we
general took away from this conversation is that most Costa Ricans are thankful
for what they do have and not in want for that which they don’t. They are content
with a pace and style of life that many from more developed countries might pejoratively
label as basic. Material possessions seem to take a back seat to family and
experiences, and there seems to be a general respect for the natural world on
which many of them rely for their income – either directly as farmers or
indirectly through eco-tourism. Take away point: This couple, like all the
folks we met, was simply wonderful.
Bird guide Marino at a feeding station near the Savegre Hotel, Natural Reserve, and Spa
Costa Rica is blessed with an amazing array of habitats.
These range from cloud forests, to rainforests, to lowland foothills, and to marshes
and beaches. The diversity of habitats explains the astounding array of birds
that can be found within the country’s borders. As Costa Rica is so small, it
is exceedingly easy to move between several of these areas in even just a short
stay. We elected to do this by car. We rented an economy model, a Toyota Yaris.
This proved to be a very wise and completely painless decision. You do not need
to rent an SUV to get around in Costa Rica. We found Costa Rican drivers to be
quite courteous. At no point did we feel that we were going to get pushed off
the road – even in our tiny car.
While there are zero traditional
freeways, there is a decent network of paved main roads that can be used to get
to wherever you need. As most of them are a single-lane in each direction,
traffic generally moves slower than it does on multi-lane highways. San Jose
seems to be a perpetual snarl, but most visitors are likely to quickly exit the
city in favor of other areas anyway. Many of the more rural side roads are dirt
and can admittedly be a bit rugged, at least over stretches. Those who don’t
mind being bounced around a bit (like us) should be able to navigate all but
the worst of them in a standard sedan. Our Yaris handled even the ride up to
Arenal Observatory Lodge without incident. Many folks had said we needed
4-wheel drive to reach that point – complete hogwash. Take away point: Getting
around is quite easy provided you aren’t in a rush.
Eco-lodge hospitality and product
As this was our first visit and since we had Sonia’s 69-year
old mother with us, eco-lodges provided the perfect introduction to Costa
Rica’s birds, plants, and animals. We stayed at the Savagre Lodge in San
Gerardo de Dota and the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge and Farm near Arenal. As our
general experiences at both of these all-inclusive type lodgings were similar,
what I say below applies to both and should extend to similar accommodations.
Lodges have restaurants on-site; These 2 were no exception. We hardly needed to
use our car once we reached the lodges. The staff at both places had whatever answers
we needed and generally went to great lengths to ensure that our stay was
pleasant, stress-free, and educational.
As for the
physical side of things, the grounds at both of these lodges were exquisite.
Hummingbirds, toucans, tanagers, and honeycreepers could be seen right from our
front porches at both places. I scarcely had to move to find amazing birds.
Gray-necked wood-rail walked out from our parking space at Finca Luna. Both of
these lodges had their own private reserves, and we could fill up most of the
day simply drifting between the various trails that snaked around the
properties. This arrangement would let me bird for a few hours, then return for
family time and meals. Sonia and her mom accompanied me on some shorter walks,
but they also made time for spa treatments and make-your-own chocolate
experiences as well. What activities not directly provided by the lodges can be
easily organized with their help. Both lodges had onsite bird guides available
for private tours or the more general “I saw this bird that looked like
this……”-type consultations. Take away point: Lodges make birding easy while
accommodating non-birders as well.
Me on the Finca Luna Nueva farm tour
Entrance to Savegre Lodge
certainly recognize both the present and future value of environmentally
sustainable travel. This appears true from the industry level down to the
individual. Both Sonia and I remarked that many Costa Ricans seem to have a
general interest in birds, animals, and plants. This might not seem surprising
given the riches of each in the country, but all too often nature’s wonders are
somehow taken for granted. That Costa Ricans seem to have avoided this pitfall
speaks to their appreciation for all things nature.
The attitude is echoed and
supported by a government that has set aside an astounding 26% of the country’s
lands for conservation. Besides San Jose, the country generally feels perfectly
underdeveloped. With just 1.76 births per woman as of 2014, population growth
and associated human development is unlikely to be a major problem in the
foreseeable future. A commitment to recycling seems the national norm;
Everywhere one turns, specifically in these eco-lodges, there are helpful reminders
of how and where to dispose of what. Take away point: Costa Ricans understand
that people will visit their country and enjoy the biodiversity provided that
it is protected.
Sonia and Yolanda spy a very odd bird!
The bottom line is that Costa Rica is as great a travel
destination for the Latin American newbies (such as ourselves) and more seasoned
Central and South American birders. Both Sonia and I want to spend more time in
Costa Rica in the future, and there is no doubt in my mind that we will. As it
is a very easy 5.5-hour plane ride from LA, we might find ourselves back there
sooner than we even realize!
In the next entry, I will focus on the actual
birds that we saw during the two phases of out trip. Please stayed tuned! Until then, enjoy this grasshopper!