The Sussex Wildlifer
Costa Rica Trip Report: January 2014

We first visited Costa Rica ten years ago, falling in love with the hummingbirds and the coffee, vowing one day to return. It is a land of giant Green Iguanas, of Basilisks (and yes, they can and do actually run on water), of Sloths, of Toucans and countless other species of birds, a great many highly coloured. There are rain and cloud-forests, volcanos, raging rivers, all making for the most stunning scenery imaginable and now there are many more excellent new roads. The coffee is still the best in the world and the fruit juices and fresh fruit are excellent, but, perversely, you still get offered rice and black beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the portions are large; far too much for me!

It seems to me that Costa Rica has been well ahead of the curve in terms of protecting its environment, having set aside enormous tracks of land as national parks generations before most countries had even started to think about it. That is not to say that there is not a huge amount of mono-culture and that there are very serious threats to the environment and wildlife. There are massive pineapple and banana plantations, mostly as far as I can ascertain, American owned, and on the Pacific coast acre upon acre of palm oil trees. There is now increasing concern about pests, which are destroying the valuable cacao beans and have caused a very serious problem with the banana crops. Large plastic bags are now hung around the banana clusters, filled with all manner of insecticides/pesticides. The problem is, after the crop has been harvested, these bags have been dumped into the rivers, killing all life in the process.

I had spent a lot of time researching the country’s wildlife hot spots, wanting our itinerary to take in as many as possible during a 3½ week trip. Not wanting to self-drive, and having booked our airline flights, we contacted Liesbet at Natural Mystic Travel in Costa Rica, who organised all our hotel/lodge bookings and made all our travel arrangements, this working out to be a much cheaper option than booking through a UK based travel agent. We have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending her to anyone wishing to visit Costa Rica.

We flew with that great “One-world Alliance”, BA from London Heathrow to Madrid, Iberia to San Jose, American Airlines to Miami and then BA again back to London. On the outward leg of our journey, our main bags were booked straight through to San Jose and the transfer at Madrid could not possibly have been easier. It seems that it is almost obligatory that our BA flights are always going to be at least an hour late in taking off, and so it proved to be, this despite being almost the first plane to have been due to take off that morning. On the other hand, our transfer at Madrid could not possibly have been easier or quicker. We simply got off the plane, walked three gates along and waited for the next leg. The food provided by Iberia is as bad as we remember the last time we travelled with them, but at least it is still free, as are the drinks.

There is a lot of stuff out there on the Internet about the misery of having to transit through an American airport. On the return leg we had to pay our departure taxes at San Jose and then join the longest queue we have seen for a very long time to clear through Security. Expecting the worst at Miami, we cleared US immigration within half an hour; perhaps the timing of our flight helped, and the officer on duty could not have been nicer, unlike the rude staff so many people complain about. We collected our bags, as it had been impossible to get them cleared straight through to London, followed the directional arrows for transit travellers, deposited them in quite an informal manner in a large, cleared, area, checked through security (and yes, the Americans still insist you take your shoes off – in the case of one young girl, even her flip flops!) and that was it, all done and dusted, and in under an hour! Trip Advisor and airport whingers of the world eat your hearts out!

On this trip, it was a lovely change for us not to have to take anti-malarial drugs and by and large the water was safe to drink directly from the tap almost everywhere we stayed. Where that was not the case, then purified water was freely available. On the occasions when we stayed at a lodge or hotel where meals were not included, we found that US$25 a head would generally cover the cost. Beer is quite expensive at US$4-6 for a small bottle and wine is generally very expensive. On the other hand, fresh fruit juices were served at most meals. We also had to remember that there is a departure tax, now US$29 per person.

January 1

Just like ten years earlier, our airport transfer failed to turn up, a mistake made by the Gran Hotel in San Jose. No matter, there were plenty of taxis and the price is fixed. What was mildly upsetting was the inability of the any of the hotel staff to admit their fault and reimburse our out of pocket expenses, this being left to our travel agent, with whom we met up a few days later.

We had eaten during the flight and so, after a brief sightseeing foray and a welcome drink, went to bed. Central San Jose did not seem to have changed much over the years, except that there is now even more traffic and you still have to be careful when walking out of the hotel onto the streets. The hotel has certainly seen better days, the term “faded glory” comes to mind, and the staff there need a good shake-up, but as we were merely staying the night and only needed somewhere to put our heads we did not give it another thought.

January 2-4

After an early breakfast our driver picked us up and we were quickly on our way to the southern Caribbean, to the Costa de Papito bungalows at Cocles, near Puerto Viego. We met with heavy rain during our drive through the mountains, but this cleared as we neared the coast and our first stop at the Sloth Rescue Centre, between Limon and Puerto Viego.

Now, I would be the first to applaud what they do here, but I harbour certain suspicions that this is more designed as a tourist attraction than a serious attempt at preserving the two species of sloths – two-toed and three-toed. A number of reasons were put forward why so few have been returned to the wild, all doubtlessly quite factual, but I was still left with the impression that insufficient research has been carried out to overcome them. On the other hand, it was quite a good place to do a spot of birding.

Cocles is something of a surfer’s paradise, where the jungle comes right down to the beach and the location really is quite idyllic. The sea was generally too dangerous in which to actually swim, quite common this along the whole length of this part of the Caribbean coast. Our bungalow was simply furnished, but comfortable, the food excellent and we would have liked to have stayed for much longer than our pre-booked three nights. Cocles also has the distinction of being where I ate the best chocolate brownie I have ever eaten.

This is a great place to see wildlife: grey-necked wood-rails in the grounds, toucans calling all over the place, a shy family of Agouti, and if very lucky, Great Green Macaws flying overhead. At one end of the beach was the mouth of a small river, a wonderful location, rich in birdlife, and where we were able to get close up and personal with Mangrove Black-hawks, Semipalmated Plovers, Spotted sandpipers, Whimbrel and several species of kingfishers. This was also a great place to see egrets and herons, and in particular Tri-coloured Herons. Both species of sloths can easily be seen from the road, which runs alongside the beach.

We much enjoyed a visit to one of the local indigenous tribes at BriBri, where we were shown a medicinal garden and how they make pure chocolate from cacao, enjoying a delicious meal served up on a banana leaf. En route we saw several large, adult Green Iguanas in full breeding colours, visiting a colourful waterfall and enjoying fresh coconut milk, a wonderful thirst quencher.

Having rented some bicycles, we pedalled our way along the coast, encountering fewer and fewer people as we went. Passing by the, so-called, Jaguar Rescue Centre, we decided to save our money and forego a visit. Apparently, there has not been a jaguar there for a long time and it is now simply a tourist attraction, where you can see an assortment of tame wildlife.

January 5-7
We left Cocles regretting that we were not staying longer and settled down to the drive to Rancho Naturalista at Turrialba. Set back well away from the main road, up a long and, in part, fairly steep track, the lodge is set in a beautiful location. Our room on the first floor had immediate access to the large balcony and hummingbird feeders. A lot of time and effort has been expended in creating natural bird perches around the bird feeding areas in the garden, which attract large numbers of birds and where we saw, and photographed, our only Brown Jays of the trip. Hummingbirds are, of course, a huge attraction here, and in particular the beautiful Snowcap and this species was even more delightful when, late in the afternoon, we made our way down to a viewing platform over a series of small pools, and there enjoyed the sight of them having, amongst several other species of birds, their daily bath.

For us, the major highlight of our visit was a four hour birding trip one morning, when we clocked up a staggering 156 species of birds, over 60 of which were “lifers”. Harry, a young Englishman, led just the two of us along easy rain forest trails and other than one scary moment, when a snake wriggled across the track immediately in front of him, there were no other obvious sights of dangerous animals. Speculation was rife that it had been a fer de lance, one of the deadliest vipers…

What, I hear you ask! You actually enjoyed birding in a rain forest? My views on this are now well documented and it is true that in these situations most birds are very hard indeed to see, lurking in either dark, dense, undergrowth, or flicking around at the top of tall forest trees, mostly obscured by twigs and leaves. This time, I left all my camera gear in my room. That made a huge difference when tramping the muddy trails in heat and high humidity and, in truth, this was a good decision, as there were no realistic opportunities for photographing any of the birds we saw that morning.

The food at the lodge was outstanding, the scenery amazing, especially when the clouds lifted long enough for us to see the local volcano. The photographic opportunities in the lodge gardens were excellent and I spent a lot of time improving my hummingbird flash flight techniques. Then there was a very large Burrowing Frog and the moth wall, which attracted some of the largest moths I have seen in my life. Although not nearly as diverse as Regua in Brazil, the moths we saw were still very interesting and this location would repay a longer visit.

January 8-10

Everyone had told us that a visit to Tortuguero National Park was an absolute must and I had actually chosen Mawamba Lodge, as it also had a butterfly and frog farm. We arrived shortly before our buffet lunch and the first sight to greet our eyes were the puddings, uncovered, and swarming with flies. Surely hotel owners must know by now that it is the first impressions which remain with you for the rest of your stay. Other than that, our room was poor and cigarette smoke seeped under our door, courtesy of our immediate neighbours, who insisted on smoking, despite the no smoking signs, right outside our room late into the evening. Representations to the lodge’s front desk met with total disregard.

The lodge can only be reached by boat and be warned! Before boarding the boat you are given the opportunity to visit the “de-luxe” rest rooms. Except that they really are not “de-luxe” and they charge you $1 to get in! The boat trip to the lodge provided good sightings of birds and monkeys.

The lodge is set amongst beautiful scenery and the daily boat trips we had booked took us right among the most amazing, abundant and diverse wildlife imaginable. We decided to self-guide ourselves around the forest trails, where we managed to see a Collared Forest-falcon, and the butterfly and frog garden was also home to a large Bare-throated Tiger Heron.

For me, Mawamba Lodge came up trumps in one very important respect. One of the two key species I had marked out to see when planning our trip was the Red-eyed Tree-frog, the other being the Resplendent Quetzal. I had lingered in the frog garden late one afternoon and asked the gardener where I could see one. He immediately drew me to a nearby fern and pointed out a large female, removing her from the underside of a leaf and plonking her in my right hand. Disappearing for a while, he was soon back and plonked a male in my left hand. What sheer bliss! I then had them completely to myself for something like half an hour, until dusk forced me back to my room.

So, Mawamba was worth a visit, but not for the reasons most people would expect. Would I go there again? No! Later in the trip a photography tour group leader recommended Evergreen Lodge, although I do not know how easy it is to see red-eyed tree-frogs in the garden there…. J

January 11-12
We had to do a lot of travelling, retracing our steps by boat and bus to the main road leading to San Jose, where we grabbed a quick lunch, then back to the Gran Hotel in San Jose, where we were met by our driver, and his wife, for the next leg to Savegre Lodge. They fed us fresh pineapple as we drove high up into the mountains, reaching about 3,000m before descending down into a stunningly beautiful valley towards San Gerardo de Dota and Savegre Lodge at something like 2,000m. As he departed, our driver gave us a large, beautifully ripe mango! Even at this comparatively lower altitude, we were still in the cloud forest.

Our room had only recently been completely refurbished and was in a beautiful situation, only a few steps away from the bird feeding area and hummingbird feeders. What really impressed us here was the person at reception who, once he realised that we did not have our own transport, immediately offered to drive us back up the valley at day break next morning, where he showed us the avocado trees where the Resplendent Quetzals feed. Of course, we managed to see them, five in total and I had the great good fortune in photographing a male bird in flight, with his tail streaming far out behind him.

We had earlier asked people we met on this trip where was the best place to buy coffee. Well, let me tell you! Savegre Lodge, that’s where, all of it locally produced in the cloud forest by a “boutique” style farmer. It was also unbelievably cheaper here than anywhere else on the trip.

Our only disappointment was that there were no bird guides available during our very short stay here – they were all away that day doing something else. So, we took ourselves up the side of the mountain in search of birds, and although we saw several species, we do know that we would have seen considerably more with a guide. On the other hand, the bird feeding station attracted many interesting species: Acorn Woodpeckers, Collared Redstarts, Slaty Flowerpiercers, Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers, Rufous-collared Sparrows and the beautiful Flame-coloured and Silver-throated Tanagers could all be seen in and around the area.

It really was with a very heavy heart that we left Savegre Lodge, a place where we could quite easily have spent a lot more time.

January 13-15
After breakfast and some early morning bird watching we were off again, climbing up out of the valley and over the mountains and down to the Pacific coast at Manuel Antonio and our hotel, the Casitas Eclipse, which is directly opposite the quite famous aeroplane restaurant.

The garden here had plenty of birds and other wildlife and an interesting forest trail, where we were able to photograph Cherie’s Tanagers, Long-billed Hermits, Ferruginous Pygmy-owls, Hoffman’s Woodpecker and a large family group of Golden-naped Woodpeckers right outside our bedroom every morning.

Liesbet had booked us on a sailing boat trip out of the harbour at Quepos, all drinks and food included. We had fleeting glimpses of dolphins and saw plenty of seabirds, which roost up along this section of wild coastline and on the small offshore islands. A very pleasant afternoon ended up watching the sun go down over the Pacific.

On our second morning we hired a bird guide to show us more of the local birds, after which we continued to explore the area, ending up at the far end of the road, where the Manuel Antonio Park entrance is situated. Here there was an area of mangroves where, as dusk approached, we saw five species of kingfishers and a flock of White Ibis flighted in to wash and roost. Forest Rails put in an appearance amongst the many small waders, mainly Spotted Sandpipers and associated species. The sunsets over the Pacific have to be seen to be believed, indescribably beautiful, but the price we had to pay was the walk back to the hotel, all uphill and in places very steep indeed!

January 16

We had opted for the early morning boat trip on the Tarcoles River, finding ourselves alone with the helmsman on our river boat. We also opted for him not to feed the crocodiles, for which this river is famous, concentrating on the birds instead. We were handed a bird check list the moment we boarded our boat and things went from brilliant to even more brilliant. What a glorious way for anyone interested in birds to spend a couple of hours. There were many highlights: flights of Scarlet Macaws, amazingly tame Yellow-headed Caracaras, Wood Storks, Osprey, Great Black Hawks, herons, egrets and ibis by the score and an amazingly tolerant American Pygmy Kingfisher in one of the mangroves. A further highlight was a Double-striped Thick-knee on the river bank.

After that, it was on to Alajuela and the Robeldal Hotel. This had not been a natural choice by us, but one suggested by our travel agent, being very close to the ARA project, a captive breeding centre for Scarlet and Great Green Macaws. The trouble was, just before Christmas I had discovered that the ARA Project was in the process of moving its centre of operations to a remote part of the Nicoya Peninsula. This led to a flurry of emails, which ended up with us receiving a personal invitation to visit the release site for their Great Green Macaws on the Caribbean coast. Set in a remote, mountainous and very beautiful part of Costa Rica, we learnt much about these highly endangered birds and it was a real privilege to be given the opportunity to visit and to talk to the Director, his wife and a French scientist.

That left us with the Robeldal Hotel, but we worried needlessly, as one of the owners took us under his wing and took us out birding for the afternoon, and also before breakfast the next day, the highlight of which was undoubtedly a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. The hotel is quite close to the airport, but we were not bothered much by aircraft noise and the food was good and reasonably priced. The staff could not possibly have been more helpful and we would certainly visit there again and go birding with the owner.

January 17-19

We arrived at Bosque de Paz Lodge near Bajos del Toro before lunch in heavy rain and spent an enjoyable hour at the hummingbird feeders.

I already knew that this was a favourite location for photographic groups wanting to use multi-flash set-ups to photograph the hummingbirds in flight. I had never actually seen such a set-up in real life before and it came as a bit of a shock. With only three photographers in action at any one time, it was like the Battle of the Somme all over again!

What happens is this. All the normal hummingbird feeders are taken down and are replaced by only three. This means that there are many fewer feeders available and the larger, more aggressive, or territorial birds chase off many of the less aggressive species and so by the end of the day, there are a large number of birds that have simply not stocked up enough on sugar water for the day.

As for me, I dislike photographing hummingbirds on the feeders, preferring to seek out those which are perched up for short periods throughout the day, or using flash at very low power to get them in flight.

Bosque de Paz is in some ways a strange place. We received a blessing from one or other of the owners before most meals. There is no signpost from the main road and our driver had trouble in finding out where we had to go and once we arrived we discovered the lodge and grounds situated behind very high, locked, metal gates. We did discover that there was a side gate but were logged in and out by a guard on the main gate and the guard-dog!

There are good numbers of mammals to be seen, but disappointingly few species of birds. Whereas at Rancho Naturalista we had seen 156 species in one four-hour stint one morning, here we clocked up only 20 in the same time, perhaps another dozen if we counted the birds in and around the lodge feeders. On the other hand, it is probably the best place in Costa Rica to see Black Guans, where the Lodge feeders attract them in quite impressive numbers and I also managed to photograph the brilliant Chestnut-capped Brush-finches, Black Phoebes, Orange-breasted Trogons and the usual assortment of tanagers.

There is also a rather wonderful orchid garden, albeit that it had few actually in flower at the time of our visit. The food was also excellent, as were all the staff. Would we come here again? Probably not; there were far fewer birds than had been expected, but if you want to get up close and personal to a good number of hummingbirds, or to see the local speciality birds, then it is quite a good place to visit.

January 20-22

We had lunch at Selva Verde Lodge 10 years ago, but it has now expanded greatly and, in the process, has lost a little of its original appeal. The weather was mostly wet for almost the whole of our stay, but we enjoyed the bird feeders close to the restaurant and even managed a night walk in the rainforest, across the river from the hotel. There were plenty of frogs to be seen, even the delightful Red-eyed Tree-frogs, although they were almost impossible to photograph well here.

There are quite a few interesting birds that are attracted to the feeders and a lot of time and effort has gone into producing natural looking perches. The major downside, however, is that all this is set against a horribly dark background and you will need a powerful flash to get anywhere close to a decent image. On the other hand, you always need to use a flash in a rainforest…  You can perhaps hope to see ant-tanagers, Collared Aracaris, Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, honeycreepers, chachalacas, Rufous Motmots, Baltimore Orioles, Montezuma Oropendolas, quail-doves, saltators, woodpeckers and many different tanagers. I asked one of the guides why there were so many Chestnut-mandibled Toucans around, as we remembered that there were many more Keel-billed Toucans around ten years earlier. It appears that the Chestnut-mandibled Toucans have out-performed the other species, which are now far fewer in number.

We managed to explore the lodge’s other garden across the main road. Far fewer people stay in the bungalows there and even fewer people from the main lodge even bother to visit. A family of Agouti were amazingly tolerant of our presence and the birding was very interesting, but the circular trail was quite demanding in the wet, being steep in parts.

When we visited before we had a river trip and this we repeated. Despite the pouring rain we saw a lot of birds including Green Kingfishers, which had eluded us for so long on this trip, and a Sungrebe, with very close views of Mangrove Swallows. On the other hand, we dipped out yet again on the Sunbittern. Oh well! There always has to be a reason to return.

January 23-24
Our private transfer took us in under two hours to The Peace Lodge at La Paz Waterfall Gardens, stopping en route to take in a spot of bird watching. The garden was where I first fell in love with hummingbirds. Disaster in the form of a major earthquake did a huge amount of damage a few years back, but now it is greatly expanded and offers a wildlife park comprising a large aviary, monkey house, butterfly house, frog house, snake house, jaguar and ocelot cages and, of course, the obligatory hummingbird feeders. I still find it very difficult to accept these places where they lock up large mammals like jaguars, a pitiful sight in captivity at the best of times, and in the absence of any captive breeding programmes I wish they could be released back into the wild. The hummingbird feeders were also far less impressive than I remember before, and I have to admit to disappointment at so few different species. Perhaps it was simply the wrong time of the year.

The aviary contains many tame species of birds: honeycreepers, motmots, orioles, saltators, solitaires, tanagers, a woodpecker and several toucans and a pair of Emerald Toucanets. I have to admit to some disappointment that the list of species listed on the web site has not been brought up to date. For example, there is no longer a Spangle-cheeked Tanager in the aviary.

We did like a short visit to the frog house after dark, where I was able to once again photograph the beautiful Red-eyed Tree Frogs. We were given very conflicting information though, being told that it was perfectly in order to use flash when photographing the frogs after dark, but this is never allowed during daylight hours, as it damages the frogs’ eyes. At Selva Verde we had been told that we should never, ever, photograph these frogs with flash at any time of the day or night, and these wishes were respected.

The standard of our accommodation was quite incredible, indeed luxurious, but this counts for absolutely nothing if you cannot get any sleep. Noise from the television in an adjoining room was really bad until 02:00 and then started up again at 04:00. The lodge did nothing whatsoever to sort out this problem and the staff on the front desk simply did not want to know. This is a very expensive place to stay, so if you are ever thinking of going there make sure you get assurances in advance that you will be able to sleep. You have been warned!

I feel that it is only fair to state that the two lodges criticised by me where my own and not Liesbet’s choice.

Suddenly it was all over and time to travel to the airport and home. We were told by our travel agent that we would be sure to leave with a lot of good memories, a lot of pictures and with the Pura Vida feeling of Costa Rica. There was certainly no such feeling at the, so-called, Peace Lodge!