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Costa Rica – A Nature Lover’s Paradise

Costa Rica is a truly nature lover’s paradise. This small country is home to almost 5% of all living creatures and host to an amazing array of exotic flora. It also features attractive beaches and rumbling volcanoes. We had come here on a journey of exploration and discovery. Greivin, our “tico” guide, proudly wearing the traditional hat of a “sabanero” (cowboy), emanated charisma. His birding knowledge, infectious enthusiasm and intense love for his country and its amazing biodiversity were genuinely infectious.

In San Jose, the nation’s capital, we joined a group of 20 hikers and amateur birdwatchers. Together we travelled almost the length and breadth of Costa Rica. Our first stop was in Cahuita on the southern Caribbean coast, home to the country’s unique Creole culture. This tiny community lies in the lush wet rain forest. During our visit, it certainly lived up to its name. A gentle warm rain enveloped the landscape as we hiked along the narrow coastal pathway sheltered by colorful umbrellas. Way above us adult and baby capuchin monkeys swung rapidly across the upper tree canopy. With each flying leap, they clung precariously from one arm on a swaying branch. Then chattering loudly to one another they would precipitously take off again and grab the next convenient bough. Oh, to possess a prehensile tail and to travel with such grace and balance! Beneath our feet leaf-cutter ants scurried across the ground, each ant busily fulfilling its designated role in the colony hierarchy. Curled up tightly and hidden among the branches of a low-lying tree was the bright yellow and highly venomous eyelash viper. Today, however, our feathered friends seemed to have taken refuge against the rain and we sighted no ibis, herons, toucans or even kingfishers.

While enjoying a delightful outdoor breakfast the next morning, a normally nocturnal three-toed sloth sleepily traversed a high wire in the gardens surrounding our jungle lodge. In the evening, we sat by the ocean under gently swaying coconut trees overlooking the white sand. The sun sank slowly below the horizon coloring the sky wonderful shades of orange, pink and mauve. Later, our ever-observant guide spotted a couple of red-eyed tree frogs mating in the nearby foliage. What cute little creatures these are with their brilliant sap-green skin, funny-looking orange toes and protruding bright red eyes which afford protection when under attack from predators!

Leaving the Caribbean coast behind, we travelled across the fertile San Carlos Valley towards Mount Arenal, the most active of Costa Rica’s four volcanoes. As we walked along a cinder-covered pathway in the National Park, we could hear the thump, thump, thump of huge basalt rocks bouncing down the mountainside. Scrambling up a short rocky section the dense trees and bamboo gave way abruptly to a desert moonscape with scant vegetation. There before us stood a perfectly formed cone-shaped volcano shrouded in mist. During its active periods, Mount Arenal can provide its visitors with a display of fiery lava but we were not so blessed.

Towards the Nicaraguan border are the protected tropical wetlands of Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge. As our boat chugged slowly along the River Frio, Greivin pointed out many a bird or animal to our untrained eyes. Ssh, ssh everyone. Look, look over there. It’s a Great Blue Heron, an Anhinga (or snakebird), a Ringed Kingfisher. Binoculars were instantaneously poised. Ah yes, yes, there it is! I see it now! We even espied a Great Potoo roosting high in a kapok tree. Quite a rarity! We were entertained by some perpetually chattering male howler monkeys, studied a string of long-nosed bats clinging to a tree trunk and were ourselves observed by sleepy but ever-watchful caymans half submerged in the shallows.

Rincon de la Vieja is a dramatically impressive region of tropical dry forest and volcanic activity. A huge variety of trees are found in this region … the towering and protected national Guanacaste trees, destructive ficus trees (or strangler figs), sandbox trees with spikes on their trunks to repel predators and tall bamboo groves. Here steaming fumaroles reach temperatures over 100 degrees centigrade. Sulfurous hot springs and slate-grey mud pools bubble placidly or periodically shoot high projectiles into the air.

Next we headed for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve which must be the brightest jewel in Costa Rica’s crown. This prized conservation area is set atop the Continental Divide and is renowned for its dense vegetation and numerous birds. From the main Pan American highway, we journeyed steeply upward on a narrow, unpaved winding road to Monteverde. On this drive, we were the unwilling recipients of what our guide called a severe case of “road massage”. However, the stunning scenery of the Central Cordillera more than compensated for the jarring ride. Five Quaker families first established a dairy farming community here in the 1950s. To these families we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for ensuring that Monteverde became a protected area. Greivin tells us that these mountains act as the country’s “water factory”. At 1,300 meters, the temperatures are cooler and clouds cling to the upper tree canopy on most days. The air is constantly damp as sweeping clouds rise up the slopes from the Pacific and Caribbean oceans providing constant moisture.

It was early morning as we hiked along the misty trails. The trees were laden with epiphytes, mosses and ferns that simply dripped moisture. Philodendrons and other vines dangled above our heads. Shallow-rooted trees soared more than 30 meters above the forest floor. Buttress roots flared out from the base of these trees providing additional support and anchorage. The murderous strangler fig was everywhere. This vine gently wraps itself around a tree’s trunk and then hugs ever tighter slowly cutting off the tree’s nutrients until eventually it dies. Nature’s trees have successfully adapted to this damp watery environment. Some have developed broad pointed leaves that enable the rain to drop from the leaf veins. Tree palms have conduits for water to travel both up and down their trunks.

The Resplendent Quetzal, also called the “God of the Forest”, can often be spotted at Monteverde. And rightfully has this striking bird earned its name. Greivin quickly gains our undivided attention and signals for silence. Look, look. Up there. On a branch of the wild avocado in the upper canopy he points to the male quetzal. It has a brilliant red breast, bright green plumage and black and white tail feathers up to a foot long … truly a splendid specimen.

And then there’s the birdsong … the music of the forest. Featured in this talented choir, is the whoop-whoop sound of the Blue-crowned Mot-mot, the squeaky hinge call of the Three-wattled Bellbird, the high-pitched cheep of the hummingbird and the mellow two-note chord of the Orange-bellied Trogon. But, in fact, it’s the dull brown birds which sing cheerily to one another who have the sweetest voices.

As evening falls, the sky turns a soft peach color and the slate-grey clouds are edged with gold. A group of Common Grackles chatter raucously from the treetops and, in our new-found role as novice “tweeters”, we soak up the ambience that pervades this mountain refuge.

Lastly we proceeded southwards towards Quepos on the Pacific Coast. Here in the tropical rain forest we were rewarded with sightings of the rare squirrel monkey with its short fur in shades of grey and olive, yellow legs and long tail. Later several pairs of Scarlet Macaws flew in formation overhead and landed gracefully in the treetops high above us. They would squawk loudly while gently preening each other and then take off for a short fly past. These dazzling birds are the largest of all the parrots measuring about 36 inches from beak to tail. True to their name, the macaws have scarlet-colored plumage with light blue accents on their long graceful tails and bright yellow and blue on their wings.

In just over two weeks, we travelled through an amazing kaleidoscope of climatic zones in a tropical nation dedicated to environmental protection. Our camera shutters clicked incessantly. Photo opportunities presented themselves at every turn. There could be no better destination than Costa Rica to inspire an adventurous traveler of nature’s abundance.

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