It is a country we had considered and rejected several times as a travel destination. We dismissed it as being much too much “on the beaten path” and geared towards adrenaline junkies or beach goers. Not unconventional enough. Maybe some other time. But we had visited all its northern neighbors in Central America in the preceeding years - Honduras, Guatemala, Belize in 2014 and El Salvador and Nicaragua in 2015 - and the strong completist streak in us compelled us to consider it again.
A country that routinely makes it to the top of the list of best birdwatching destinations in the world surely deserves some respect. Lets go and check it out, we reasoned. And boy are we glad we went!
Hemmed between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans near the narrowest part of the Central American isthmus, Costa Rica is an amazingly biodiverse country. It encompasses a wide range of habitats - dry forests, rainforest, beaches, volcanoes and mangrove swamps - that support a variety of wildlife which includes 850+ species of birds. Its unique position as a landbridge between the North and South American continent also bolsters the number of migrant species seen during certain periods of the year.
The Birds of Costa Rica field guide was a much sought after book for the next few days along with an assortment of regular guide books that we appropriated from the library.
Costa Rica Map.
Day 1 - Arrive Juan Santamaría International Airport, San Jose. Taxi to Cerro Lodge and late afternoon birdwatching.
Day 2 - More birding at Cerro Lodge. Visit Carara National Park. Taxi to Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge.
Day 3 - Morning visit to Monte Verde Cloud Forest Biosphere Reserve. Continue birding at Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge. Night forest walk at Santa Maria farms.
Day 4 - More birding at Monteverde Cloud Forest lodge. Move to Arco Iris Lodge. Visit to Butterfly Garden and Frog Pond Ranario.
Day 5- Cross Lake Arenal on the Jeep-Boat-Jeep transfer to La Fortuna. Birding at Secreto.
Day 6- Visit to Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges on a very rainy morning. Public Bus to Ciudad Quesada and transfer to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui to get to Estacion Biologica La Selva run by Organization for Tropical Studies.
Day 7- Full Day at Estacion Biologica La Selva. Nightwalk in the forest.
Day 8- Early morning birding at La Selva Transfer to Heliconia Island Lodge.
Day 9- Relaxing morning at Heliconia Island Transfer to Alajuela. Explore San Jose, Costa Rica in the afternoon
We landed at Juan Santamaria International airport just before noon. In order that we make the best of the remaining daylight, we elected to get a ride with Uber for the approximately 60km ride to our lodging near Tarcoles.
Uber officially made its way to Costa Rica in 2015 but evidently the authorities are still trying to figure out the whole Uber situation due to protests from taxi drivers. For this reason, Uber drivers try to stay low-key and try not the bring attention to their presence at the airport. While the app allows you to request a pick up right outside the arrivals area, the drivers do not ride in their vehicle to pick you up there. Our driver just mingled with the crowd and managed to spot us among those exiting the terminal. Was it the fact that we were peering into our phone that gave us away? He directed us to walk about 100m along the side of the terminal and wait for him there while he came back with this vehicle. He also requested that one of us sit in the front passenger seat so it would appear to be a private airport pickup.
Despite this slightly unconventional and somewhat underhand arrangement in a new country, the ride to Tarcoles itself was smooth and uneventful. The driver spoke a smattering of English and kept up a friendly conversation throughout the approximately one hour drive to Cerro lodge.
Located just west of the Tarcoles River and around seven kilometers from the entrance to Carara National Park, Cerro Lodge is an ideal choice for birders. The rooms are located in a forest setting and one can spend hours chasing a variety of species on the grounds and on the road in front of the lodge.
Our first foray into the grounds that afternoon was quickly repulsed by stinging bugs and insects, but once we had had a protective layer of Deet slathered on, we spent several delightful hours roaming the trails literally chasing birds with our cameras. The hotel’s dining deck also provides a platform to look into and over the canopy and enjoy the antics of visiting Howler Monkeys.
Early next morning we were roused by a loud chorus of a wide variety of bird calls. At Cerro, birding started right at the breakfast table as one is able to enjoy fly-bys of various parrots, parakeets, Scarlet Macaws and the occasional raptor.
We had made arrangements for a visit to Carara National Park with a guide who also transported us there. Situated where the rain forest meets dry forests, the two divided by the Tarcoles river, Carara National Park and the wetlands in its vicinity are a goldmine for birds. It is counted among the best sites for birding in Central America. The humid rainforest inside the national park provides a home for key species such as the black-hooded Antshrike, Baird’s Trogon, Red-capped Manakin and more.
On our way back to the lodge, we made a stop at the Tarcoles "crocodile bridge" where you are assured of crocodile sighting. Sure enough, half a dozen of them were in still pose in and out of the water. Something about that location keeps them there. But what?
An approximately 3 hour taxi ride from Tarcoles got us to Monteverde, one of the more frequently visited regions of Costa Rica. The latter part of the ride was on dirt road steadily climbing up towards the cloudy heights. Monteverde is the location of one of the rarest habitats on Earth, the Cloud Forest, which covers only about 1% of the global woodland. These rare forests occur within tropical or subtropical mountainous environments, where the atmospheric conditions allow for a consistent cover of clouds and support an astounding variety of flora and fauna.
Our base was the Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge, an eco-lodge that was established in the midst of 70 acres of primary and secondary forests with the goal of preserving the local environment while providing comfortable accommodations. The lodge has a network of private trails to explore and we had a wonderful time hiking several of them during our 2-day stay. The dining area and bar overlook the valley floor and hours were spent scouting and spotting birds and other critters that decided to parade along the path or settle on one of the distant trees.
The lodge is also a convenient base for visiting the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve which we visited with a guide. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was established in 1972. It straddles the Continental Divide at 4,921 feet (1,500 m) elevation and encompasses eight life zones within its boundary. The combination of high humidity and elevation creates the permanent mist and cloud-like cover gives the forest it’s name.
The Reserve is a bird-lovers’ paradise, with more than 500 species spotted within its boundaries. It includes the elusive Resplendent Quetzal whose green plumage contrasts with its red chest and belly, the strange looking (and stranger sounding) Three-wattled Bellbird and the beautiful Emerald Toucanet.
Our guide was very focused on finding a Resplendent Quetzal for us that morning and that was the basis of selecting the trail we would traverse first. Guides accompanying different clients all collaborate when it comes to finding this elusive bird and soon the co-operative enterprise was rewarded. Heads strained through dense foliage to spot the dark green bird that was effortlessly camouflaged in the high canopy. While we caught sight of this prized bird through the binoculars and the guide’s spotting scope, all efforts to capture it on camera were futile. The loud metallic calls of the Three-Wattled Bellbird, another endemic species, regularly pierced through the other sounds, but spotting them was just as challenging and every one that we spotted was through crooks of tree branches or hidden partially by leaves.
Besides birds, over 100 species of mammals and innumerable species of amphibians and reptiles live within its boundaries and our guide introduced us to the flora and fauna around us during the morning walk.
With over 8 miles/13km of trails available in the reserve, we explored other sections of the forest on our own for the rest of the day. We hiked up and down the wet undulating trails through low-hanging clouds that hovered around the upper canopy. The clouds condense onto the leaves of trees and drip down to the plants below. This moisture helps promote a huge amount of biodiversity, particularly within the type of plants know as epiphytes and trees all around were draped in a profusion of bromeliads and orchids.
The constant forest buzz would occasionally be punctuated by the plaintive song of the Black-faced Solitaire or White-throated Thrush. The signature cloud forest specimen, lacy-fronded tree ferns, gave the forest a timeless feel. Walking across bridges suspended high over the canopy level provided a top-down view that is quite unforgettable.
Back at the lodge, hiking and bird watching continued unabated. We joined a night forest-walk at the family run Santa Maria farms that is located at the edge of the forest. Among the critters that we had the privilege of shining a light at were a couple of two-toed sloths, a Side-striped Palm Pit Viper and an Orange-kneed Tarantula.
The next day, we moved to a lodge named Arco Iris (Rainbow) located within the town of Santa Elena for our last night at Monteverde and were pleasantly surprised by close-up sight of a Blue-crowned Motmot just minutes up a trail that leads out from the property.
Along with the multitude of animals and plants, Costa Rica has an abundance of insect species as well. Monteverde is home to one of the country’s numerous butterfly farms. The Butterfly Farm we visited in the town of Santa Elena features four separate butterfly habitats with more than 30 different species. It gives the visitor a chance for an up-close look at the striking Black-and-yellow Swallowtaili>, Zebra Longwingi> with black-and-white stripes and the big bright Blue Morpho butterflyi> among others. It also features more than 20 other species of insects and arachnids and a tour with one of the knowledgeable and passionate guides is well worth the admission.
The other ‘attraction’ we visited was the Frog Pond Ranario that is run by a team of biologists and naturalist guides. Over twenty species of frogs and toads are housed in a collection of terrarium designed to replicate their natural habitat. It does take patience and a keen eye to spot them hidden among the dense vegetation. Some species like the Strawberry From (blue jeans) are diurnal while others like the Green-eyed Tree Frog are nocturnal. During the day, the red-eyed tree frogs curl against the underside of large tropical leaves, almost flattening themselves to half their size. It is only after dusk, that they open their piercing red eyes and reveal their brilliant blue and yellow side-stripes.
To see all the species when they are most active, we visited the frog pond twice, once in the afternoon and once after sunset with the guide. At night the area is kept completely dark and you are provided with flashlights to find your way and find the frogs hiding in their micro worlds.
One fun fact that we learned was to never shine a flashlight directly at the red-eyed tree frog. It confuses them - they think it is daylight and promptly shut their eyes going back to sleep!
Our next destination, La Fortuna, lies tucked at the base of the Arenal Volcano. The volcano last erupted in July 1968, spewing ash, rocks and gas for three consecutive days. As the smoke cleared, the nearby villages were found buried under the debris with 87 dead. Out of that tragedy, La Fortuna was born as the central town in the Arenal Volcano area and if there is an “adventure capital” of Costa Rica, this would be it.
The distance between Monteverde and La Fortuna would seem modest when viewed on a map, but a huge lake, Lake Arenal lies in between. Also the region is mountainous - Monteverde straddles the Continental Divide at 4921 feet and La Fortuna, some 3000 feet below is reached through 66 miles (106km) of winding roads that have to go around the lake through the town of Tilaran. It is 4 hours by a 4X 4 vehicle and 8 hours by bus. Hence the popularity of what is generally referred to as the Jeep-Boat-Jeep option which takes only about 2.5 hours.
We made reservations for the first transfer in the morning and were promptly picked up at Arco Iris for the first of land sections. We were dropped off at a soggy ferry launch area where we boarded a mid-sized boat. The boat ride across Lake Arenal was completed efficiently under an overcast sky and afforded views of Arenal Volcano, albeit topped with clouds. Waiting vans transferred people to hotels all along the highway and in the town of La Fortuna.
Our good lodging choices (on hindsight) on this trip continued. The rooms at Secreto, La Fortuna were located around a beautiful landscaped garden with flowering plants and shrubs that turned out to be magnets for hummingbirds and other attractive birds as well. The rooms had large French windows that directly looked out into the garden and we took full advantage of the ability to bird without leaving the room!
Our tentative plans to spend the afternoon on the Bogarin trail (located very close to town) were thwarted by intermittent rains that afternoon, but that did not dampen our spirits and we just chased down birds in and in the vicinity of Secreto.
The following morning we visited the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges that is about a half hour drive from town. Mistico has a system of trails with 16 namesake suspension bridges. Six of these are as high as 150 feet above the forest floor and provide excellent views of the forest canopy all way down to the forest floor. With good weather the well maintained trails through dense forest would have been great for birding and wildlife watching in general, but the weather gods did not smile upon us this time. Literally soaking wet throughout, we simply soaked up the atmosphere on this hike.
Back in town, we picked up our bags and made a beeline to the central bus station (which we had scouted the previous evening) to catch a bus to Ciudad Quesada. Once there, we would transfer to a bus for a 2 hour ride to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui on the northeastern side of the country.
A short taxi ride from the town of Puerto Viejo (de Sarapiqui) brought us to the La Selva Biological Station located just a
few kilometers south. Dusk was setting in and we managed to get the registration formalities completed just in time before all activity shifted to the communal dining area where all long term residents and short term visitors could get their meals school cafeteria style (and only if they had made advance reservation). Since we were not sure when we would make it that evening, we had made arrangements to pick up something from Puerto Viejo.
We learned that the room assigned to us for next couple of nights was in one of the few cabins located 1 km from the reception and could be reached only on foot via a forest trail. Thanks to our usual habit of traveling with backpacks and headlamps, we were ready for this and made our way there in the darkness to the accompaniment of the sounds of the forest at night. This was an exciting start at to what promised to be a nature lovers paradise!
La Selva Biological Station, located in the northeastern Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica, is a protected area centered between the Sarapiqui and Puerto Viejo rivers. It is owned and operated by the Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS), a consortium of over fifty universities and research institutions worldwide. OTS was founded in 1963 with a mission to provide leadership in education, research, and the responsible use of natural resources in the tropics. It has field research stations and education programs in Costa Rica and South Africa.
Here in La Selva, which was founded in 1968, the biological station encompasses 1,536 hectares of low-land tropical rain forest. La Selva is so rich in flora and fauna that researchers from all over the world come to study the ecology and endangered ecosystem. It has served as a key training and research site for numerous professional scientists and leading tropical ecologists.. La Selva Research Station also pioneered private forest conservation in Costa Rica; it was the first of what is now a large network of private forest reserves in the country.
In addition to being a research station, La Selva is one reputed to be of the premier birding sites in the Caribbean lowlands and possibly the whole of Costa Rica. A variety of habitats provide a haven to one of the most diverse ecosystems and an extensive system of trails provides opportunity to explore the usually inaccessible lowland rainforest. We had signed up for a variety of guided birding and nature walks that OTS offers - an early morning bird walk, a mid-morning nature walk and a night walk - and the excellent OTS guides are knowledgeable not only about birds but flora and fauna in general including insects, mammals and reptiles.
When not on a guided walk, we had a wide selection of trails to choose from. When we needed a break, we would hang out near the cafeteria or the minimally landscaped area close to the research labs and cabins that were located close to the entrance. These open areas were in fact more productive in terms the variety of birds we saw at La Selva than the actual forest. It is very hard to visually track down a bird hiding several feet deep in a dense thicket; so much easier to spot and chase something whizzing past when there is a clearing. These open areas also gave us a chance to scan the high canopy for Toucans and other upper-storey birds. A swinging bridge over the Puerto Viejo river connected the research station buildings and the core forest trail system and was a convenient vantage point to scan a wider area.
As it was to be expected in these latitudes, the weather was extremely humid and intermittent drizzle ensured that we never felt entirely dry. But we could not have been happier - Iguanas, Oropendolas, Motmots, Trogons, Tanagers, Woodpeckers, Honeycreepers, Hummingbirds, Parrots, Basilisk lizards, Strawberry poison-dart frogs et al. - they kept us on our feet and our fingers busy with the camera. Collared Peccaries roamed around the research station building and among other delights we were treated to an extended calling display by a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan.
Since our room was (at least) a kilometer away, we planned our day in a way that we kept the trips back and forth to a minimum. We were loathe to waste precious daylight minutes in a closed room anyway.
The night walk through the forest brought us face to face with swamp frogs, Bull frogs, luminous Click Beetles, Red-eyed tree-frogs and stick insects.
Our stay was formally rounded off with an early morning birding walk with a guide (which was somewhat impacted by heavier than normal rain). But we were loathe to leave, and dragged our feet for a few more hours before we called for a taxi to get to our next destination. A family of Crested Guan came calling near the reception area to bid us goodbye!
After over a week of active hiking, birding and/or wildlife watching, a day at Heliconia Island Lodge was planned expressly as time to decompress and put up our feet. When we arrived, we found why this was an ‘Island Lodge’ - you have to cross a small rustic bridge on foot to get to what is essentially a Botanical Garden with a huge variety of palms, bamboo, bananas, tropical flowers (among which are a huge variety of Heliconias) and native tree species. The rooms have wide wrapping porches that overlook all this lush tropical beauty. We soon realized that we were the only guests that day and so had the entire grounds to ourselves for the duration of our stay!
Beautiful birds were continually flitting around taunting us and any attempt to “just relax” was futile. A family of Mantled Howler monkeys kept very busy up in the trees and in the evening the booming howl of the alpha male was a constant soundtrack as we ambled around admiring our surroundings.
As our breakfast was served, it was fascinating to watch the feeding frenzy in front of us. The staff had laid out fruits on a perch just a few feet away and close to eye level. Within seconds five different species of birds arrived, each trying to elbow out the competition.
When it was time to leave, a friendly staff member dropped us off at the bus stop on the main road where we waited for a bus heading in the direction of San Jose.
The terminus for the public bus was Gran Terminal del Caribe, a couple of kilometers north of the city center. We were all set to start exploring the city if a left-luggage facility was available at the bus station but found there was none. So we had no option but to make our way to the neighboring city of Alajuela (Costa Rica’s second largest city in terms of size) and which lies about 20kms away. It is close to the international airport and was chosen with our early morning departure in mind. Taxis were in abundance at the bus station and an expressway connects the 2 cities which makes for a fairly quick ride.
Buses also ply frequently between the two cities, so having unburdened ourselves at the hotel we took a bus back to San Jose. The pedestrian mall, Avenida Central was crowded with people shopping and families generally enjoying themselves on a Saturday afternoon. The sculptor Jimenez Deredia was being celebrated and several of his works and installations were located along the path leading to the main plaza. The Central Post Office, the Central Bank building and Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Theater formed the architectural highlights in the area. We continued down beyond the pedestrian only section till we got to the National Musuem and the traditional legislature called the “Blue House”. (A modern behemoth to house the legislature is under construction right next to it). The Parque Central, usually the hub of activity in any Central and South American country was relatively low-key. As the evening wore on, we hoofed it back all the way to our starting point to take the bus back to Alajuela.
Simply translated it means "simple life" or "pure life", but in Costa Rica it is more than just a saying. You can't go anywhere in the country without hearing the phrase. Costa Ricans (Ticos) use it as a response to 'Thank You' or Muchas Gracias, and to say 'Hello', 'Goodbye', 'Welcome', 'Bon Appetit' and everything in between. This is hardly heard in the rest of Spanish speaking Central or Latin America, so this is a defining Costa Rica cultural institution.