Monday, May 18, 2015

Post #24 - Costa Rica, Part 1 - Quite long!

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.

Meeting The People
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

Navigating the landscape
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

            Costa Ricans 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!


  1. Great post, Dorian, and glad you had such a wonderful time in Costa Rica. Your first experience there very much echoes our own--wonderful people, exquisite country, safe and easy to navigate. If there's a heaven on Earth, Costa Rica might just be it. As a side note regarding the drivers, at one point I mistakenly turned the wrong way down a one-way street (understandable, given that many of the two-way streets are fairly narrow). The first two drivers coming the other way did nothing but move over a bit. The third honked once, in a very polite, by-the-way-you're-going-the-wrong-way-and-perhaps-you-should-turn-around manner. Can't wait to get back there!

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