Costa Rica 2009

This was my third trip to Costa Rica, this time with Merritt College in Oakland. Previous trips were birding trips, though the local guide in 2007 also knew a lot about herps, plants and mammals.

I went down early, leaving on 7/17 on AA1994 from SFO, stopping in DFW. The flight I took in 2007 wasn’t offered any longer, unfortunately (OAK, US Air). I arrived at the airport around 7:30 a.m. and tried the self-service check-in. The security line wasn’t bad.
We passed over Mono Lake and could see Half Dome.

The connecting flight, AA2167, was full, and was delayed a bit due to a front lavatory problem, leaving at 4:50 instead of 4:15.
The clouds looked like Mono Lake tufa, and we passed over the Gulf of Mexico and could see lightning flashes. We arrived at 7:50.

EH, NL and I shared a cab to Hotel Bougainvillea. We had a Mountain View room (street side) on the second floor.

On Saturday, we checked out the gardens at the hotel. There were many butterflies on a bush near the rock garden. BH pointed us to some glasswings he’d seen.
For dinner, I had the Plato Vegetariano.

After dinner, Hank took the group on a frog walk. The hotel has frogs, the declining Blue-sided Tree Frog/”coffee frog”, Agalychnis annae, and Forrer’s Grass Frog, Rana forreri.

Sunday 7/19 took us to InBIO, The Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad. We heard some presentations, walked the grounds, and had lunch there. We felt like we could have spent a lot more time exploring. There was a beautiful butterfly that, upon closer inspection, was actually facing downwards–the tail end looked like the head, and the wings were oriented such that it looked like it was facing upwards.

Some decided to try a local restaurant for dinner in Santo Domingo, so we walked to town to meet the other half of the group, which had taken a taxi. Most of the open restaurants were chicken restaurants. After some walking around, we ran into the others, and the taxi driver had recommended a place so we went there. I tried the Chicharrónes, which is pork meat (unlike the Mexican dish which is the skin). The silverware came, as it did in other places, in a plastic cover. After dinner, we had a couple of extra lime slices, so EH and I each wrapped a piece in the plastic to take back to the hotel for the rest of our papaya. The owner saw me, and brought out a whole lime!

After dinner, we had another frog walk at the hotel.

On Monday 7/20, we headed to Reserva Biológica Tirimbina. We drove on the road through Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo, and there was stopped traffic due to a landslide. It gave us the opportunity to check out the vegetation next to the bus. I spotted what was probably a Long-billed Hermit, and something large, black and red crawling on a plant up the hillside. It turned out to be a caterpillar! After we were stopped a while, we decided to get out, and found quite a few of these, some down low next to the road. They looked like small “scotty dogs”.
We also passed the Rio Sucio (“dirty river”).

After a rainy arrival at Tirimbina, we ended up not at the main location, but at the field station accommodations. Some took a hike in the afternoon. There were some porcupine remains (quills and a skull) along the trailside. We ran into other people from our group, and one of them had dislocated her finger. They later took her for treatment, 45 minutes or so away, and she returned late at night. She told us it cost her $100 total to see the doctor and get x-rays! (Don’t get me started…)

The field station is closer to the frog pond/swamp, where we had another night walk, with Wendy. It was a tight fit in some of the areas, but still very interesting (we saw 20 species of herps, not to mention various invertebrates).

The 21st took us to Tortuguero by boat. We left from the same dock as I’ve been on a prior trip. On the way, we saw Spectacled Caiman, roosting bats, Caña Brava (used for thatching and which is edible), plus other things. There were also distant views of passing Great Green Macaws. We stopped on the Nicaraguan shore for a necessary passport check, and also stopped for a bathroom break at a place that sold beer and snack foods. A Harlequin Frog was spotted, and I found a mantid that looked just like a dried vine tendril!

We arrived at a dock and had a walk to Ilan Ilan Lodge. The door to the cafeteria held a sphinx moth that was brown with green, appearing as though it had algae on it. The rooms were all in a row, near to the other dock, and there were quite a few Black Witch around (huge, dark moths). An Owl Butterfly also perched above our door.

We had the privilege of watching a Green Sea Turtle lay eggs. This was tightly controlled; photos were not allowed at all, and once on the beach (it was about a 2-2.5 mile hike in), the only light was from the guide’s red flashlight and the low ambient light (new moon). We rotated with other groups to view this particular turtle, returning to observe the progress. The guide only lit up the turtle’s back end, as light by its head would disturb it and bring it out of its “trance”.
Watching the eggs come out of the turtle was akin to visiting the Spotted Owl in southeast Arizona. My feeling when being with the owl was like visiting the wise old man on the mountain. My roommate said watching the turtle was like being in church.
When the turtle was done laying, the guide brought us back to see how she covered the eggs. We got hit with sand from the turtle’s flippers, demonstrating the energy she has to expend to do this.

The next day, 7/22, we returned to the CCC , having been told that they were going to radio-tag and release a turtle (named Aurora). We had to wait until the glue was dry enough, and there were many onlookers. We did get to look at the turtle close up, in her small enclosure, as the glue dried.

Turtle release (click for larger view)

Turtle release (click for larger view)

We headed to Caño Blanco by boat (been there too). We pulled up to a Pterocarpus sp. tree, so that Humberto could show us the red sap. Dipteryx panamensis was also pointed out; this species has a relationship with the Great Green Macaw.

Once off the boat, we found someone selling fresh pipas (young coconut) with the top cut off, and a straw–just what I’d been wanting. The young man with the woman had a Rhinoceros Beetle, which of course had to have its photo taken on various arms.

After the break, we got back on the bus and continued to Cahuita, on the Caribbean coast. The ambience is what you might expect for the Caribbean. We stayed at Sia Tami Lodge, in nice bungalows. This was the only place that had mosquito netting, but it really wasn’t needed.

We attempted to go to the nearby beach in the Parque Nacional Cahuita, but they closed the beach at 5:00 to prevent crime, so we went down to a public area. I found a few interesting shell and coral pieces, while others enjoyed the water.

Back at the lodge, the power went out for a while, which apparently isn’t unusual. We had the option of going to a restaurant for lobster (partially paid), and the group decided on that. The lobster was ok, but the fresh limeade was great.

After waking to nearby Howler Monkeys on 7/23, we had breakfast and headed on to the BriBri indigenous reserve. We drove along a dirt road along the river, stopping to take photos of Panama on the other side. Bambú was the canoe put-in location. After bagging the luggage in plastic and donning life jackets, 7-8 people were distributed per canoe. Our canoe was the last to leave. We headed upriver and arrived in about 45 minutes. We had to hike in to the village. This required a bit of rocky uphill, then through forest and grassland.

We reached the main gathering building for this particular BriBri group, an open wooden structure with a thatched, conical roof. This housed the kitchen and dining tables. We were assigned our accommodations, which turned out to be private rooms with bathrooms for the couples, and the middle floor of one of the buildings for the rest of us (i.e. men and women). Screen tents were lined up around the room, each with a sleeping pad and blanket. The shared bathroom was downstairs. Hmm…

After we were settled and had lunch, some of us had a hiking tour of the plantation and public community buildings, arriving back at dusk. We had dinner, and found that the electricity was via generator. The only accessible outlets are in the main building, with one light in our sleeping area. Water comes from a stream, and there are toilets and shower (albeit not heated). There is no refrigeration, so the meat is smoked or dried.

Various domestic animals roamed around, namely a couple of small cats, several turkeys and young turkeys, and chickens and roosters. The tom turkey gobbled a lot, and made a short hissing sound coupled with a low rumbling. For some reason, it decided to gobble right under the sleeping area one time, and the rooster crowed there the next day, while it was still dark. Who needs Howler Monkeys to wake you up!

While we were there (two nights), we observed how they used to use bow and arrow, and we all got to try. We also had a chocolate-making demonstration, learned about the surrounding plants including Achiote and Water Apple, and observed jewelry-making and gourd-carving. We also heard about their customs, and had a music night.

The people were very warm and friendly, and the kids were cute. The food was interesting, to say the least. The huge banana pancakes were good, and there was usually fresh juice of some sort with meals (like there is in most places). Actually, the food was pretty good, except I could have done without the beef, which was a few dried chunks, kind of like eating chunk jerky. Costa Rica uses Brahma cattle for beef. I don’t know if they are tougher than others, but all the beef we had down there was very tough for some reason.

It was time to leave on 7/25, so the BriBri men and young men carried our luggage down to the canoes. We headed downstream this time, back to Bambú, through the town of BriBri, and on to Universidad Earth for a banana plantation tour. It turned out to be a holiday that day, so our guides showed us the plantation, but the banana paper-making area was not active. We also saw the medicinal plants garden.

We got back on the bus, to Tirimbina again. This time, we stayed in the main lodge. The rooms have air conditioning, but our room had no windows to open. (It would have been nice to have fresh air, even if it was humid air.) After dinner, we had a very steamy night hike over the 100′ suspension bridge, through the rainforest to look for herps and nocturnal creatures. It was so humid that my glasses steamed up. There are lots of big spiders, among other things, that hang out at night. We saw a net-casting spider, which was exciting even though we didn’t see it catch anything.
It was also–er–exciting to find a Giant Cockroach on the bathroom sink faucet when we returned. I must admit, even though I like bugs, it gave me the willies. It wasn’t too cooperative in getting it into my plastic tube to take it out, its antennae waving as it held onto the outside. I think that’s what did it…

On 7/26, it rained. It felt good when we were out on the trail, but my waist pack got soaked. We had a dendrology class in a covered area after lunch. After dinner, we had another night hike. That got cut short because of rain. At lunch I’d found out that the gift shop sold $3 ponchos, so I picked one up. That turned out to be the best thing to wear in the rain, as it protected my gear. I didn’t even wear the rain jacket I’d brought on the trip.

We visited La Selva (OTS) the next day, 7/27. We split into two groups, the birders and others. I went with the others. We didn’t get very far because everyone kept asking questions. But we did see Peccary and White-faced Capuchin, as well as a snake and a turtle.

Back at Tirimbina, after dinner we saw a bat presentation and got close-up views of a few of the bats they had mist-netted that night. One was pregnant, so it had to be released quickly. The last one was very vocal in letting the handler know it didn’t like being held. Apparently that species is like that. We did get to touch the wing skin, which was very soft and silky.
There are 115 species of bats in Costa Rica, 10% of the world’s species.

A few of us returned to the field station to look for frogs.

On the morning of 7/28, some took the chocolate making tour at Tirimbina. We hiked to the area where there were large trays of drying cacao beans, and winnowing and grindng were demonstrated. We got to sample hot chocolate, adding spices similar to what the Aztecs used (chili and  maize among them). We also had samples of molded chocolates, made fresh. What a difference!

After lunch, we traveled to El Castillo near Volcan Arenal, stopping at the “iguana bridge” next to a coffee/artisan shop. The many iguanas were used to being fed, and some people hand-fed cabbage to one. Before we reached the lodge, we stopped in La Fortuna while some business was taken care of. There were a few places that offered an hour massage for $25! The one I saw looked like any good place you’d see in the states. Unfortunately I didn’t get to take advantage of that.

We also stopped at an overlook to view Lake Arenal at sunset.

I liked the way the lodging was arranged at Cabinas El Castillo–pretty much everyone had the same thing, and all the cabins had views of the volcano. There were big windows on three walls, with small slat windows above those that opened. It was cooler here and not as humid, but nice to have fresh air.
I can’t say much for mixed drinks at the restaurant though. I ordered a Mojito, thinking it would be like the ones I had at Selva Verde last trip (fresh-picked local mint from the garden). I guess I expected too much, because when the drink finally came, it was green. Yep, Crème de menthe (yuck, I’m not sure which is worse, a Mojito made with Sprite–in CA–or this one).
The staff tried hard, but I had the impression they didn’t have large groups too often.

On 7/29 we walked up the hill to the Butterfly Conservatory. We had a tour through several butterfly gardens and a frog house.
Here is someone’s video I found, that shows the Morphos flying around in there.
After lunch, there was a boat ride around the lake and to La Fortuna. My roommate and I had planned to go, but when we got to the restaurant, the bus was gone. One of the staff said he’d call to hold the boat, and have someone pick us up, in ten minutes. After a while, he called and was told that they couldn’t come. He tried someone else, who called back after a minute and said their vehicle was broken down. On the third try, he asked if an ATV was ok. My roommate was excited to ride one of those, so what the heck. I’d never been on one either.

A few minutes later, a red ATV pulls up. We were somewhat surprised, and asked the staff if that was our ride. Where were we supposed to sit? Behind the driver, and on the rear rack, they said. The driver was a young girl. Just how young, we found out afterwards–nine! After a short ride on the bumpy road in showers, we got to the dock. On the way, we passed our bus, and our bus driver pointed toward the lake. We didn’t know what he was trying to say, but we found out when we discovered the boat was already gone. Well, ok. We rearranged ourselves and took a couple of photos, and noticed the labels on the ATVs, which basically said the driver should be over 16, and only one person should be on it. It was still raining, so we rode back to the lodge.
It turned out that there was almost mutiny on the boat due to the rain, so we were glad we didn’t go.

Since the weather was iffy, on 7/30 it was decided to go to the Serpentarium de Zoological, next to the Butterfly Conservatory. It was a lot larger than it appeared from the outside, and our tour guide was very informative. Besides the enclosed snakes, there was a frog habitat as well as a butterfly garden. We heard how antivenin is made of a mix of the venom of the three most poisonous snakes there–Bushmaster, Fer-de-lance, and Rattlesnake.

In the afternoon, we went to Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal. The vegetation was interesting; the cane lining the trail in the beginning got taller and taller, then it changed to forest, and finally to rock. The active volcano belched a couple of times.
Then, most people wanted to go to the Tabacón Hot Springs. The free access was down a narrow path, then down some rocks to the edge of the spillway. People were just lying in the rushing water, which was bath-water warm.

After dinner, a few of us went frogging along the main road in El Castillo. In one spot, I saw a big pair of pinkish-purple eyes shining, which turned out to belong to a Smoky Jungle Frog (like a big bullfrog). Then there were more and more. I guess there’s no mistaking that once you know.

On our last travel day, Friday 7/31, we drove through San Ramon. We spotted a hummingbird and butterfly garden, so some of the group voted to stop. Bosque el Nubosa el Cocora was the name of the location. The group was delighted to watch the hummingbirds visit the feeders. We had a brief walk though the butterfly garden, which had different species from the others we’d seen. But then we had to leave for lunch.

We stopped at an unplanned spot, where they had different fruit drinks–besides Cas (one of my favorites), there was Linzana, Chan, and Mozote, among others. I had a small taste of the Mozote, which was brown, thick, and had cinnamon in it.

I was too tired, back at Hotel Bougainvillea, to walk the gardens, do dinner, or view photos, so I just hung out.

We left the next day, 8/1. My AA988 flight was scheduled to leave at 12:25 p.m. It had a female pilot, and oddly, there was again a problem with the forward lavatory with a resulting half-hour delay.

We flew over Cuba and Grand Caymans. Miami airport was very chaotic, with a lot of people standing around. The connecting flight was supposed to leave at 7:15.
First we had to go through passport check and show the customs form, then pass by another officer who made sure we had a customs form, then pick up the luggage, which was no easy feat. There were six baggage carousels, and I didn’t notice that you had to look at the one information screen to find out which one to go to for your flight. Of course, mine ended up to be the farthest away. After that, we had to find what to do with the luggage that had come off the plane. After customs, they said “walk that way”. I didn’t see any signs, but after some walking, there were roped-off baggage ramps, and I saw American’s. There were no signs as to which flights though; I had to wait for one of the attendants to come over.

It also wasn’t clear to me where the boarding gate was from the way the wording was on the signs–the gate letter was there, but they called it something different depending on what sign you were looking at. I asked if I was headed the right way, and the staff made a comment about not liking what they were doing–which I found out was making us go through another security check (as if we’d been anywhere that would afford an opportunity to put something the baggage). The line was long, and there were only a few minutes before our connecting flight was supposed to board. She ended up putting me in the middle instead of the beginning of the line, but it still would have taken a long time.
Fortunately, the express line was next to me, and the instructor’s family and one of the couples from the trip happened to be there. I tagged onto them and asked the security person to please hurry. She didn’t move very fast, and told me to run–with my gear bag–after she was done. Panting, I passed E7, and E6, but didn’t see E5. I turned back to see if I missed it and ran into the couple again, who saw that it was across from E6. This flight boarded late, which was just as well since others from our group on that flight weren’t there yet. One person didn’t get on because of the security check.

It felt like a long flight home, late as usual. The trip was fun, but I was glad to be dry.

You can find photos here:
Hotel Bougainvillea–insects, spiders, plants, frogs
InBIO and Braulio Carillo–insects, plants, spiders, locales +
Tirimbina field station–insects, herps, spiders, +
Tortuguero, Cano Blanco, Cahuitainsects, herps, mammals, +
BriBri–insects, culture, plants, +
Tirimbina–night, insects, spiders, herps, +
Tirimbina–insects, plants, fungi, locales, invertebrates
El Castillo–insects, locale, night, herps, spiders
Iguana bridge, La Fortuna, Serpentarium, Volcan Arenal, Tabacon hot springs, Bosque el Nuboso el Cocora

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