We Went All The Way To Costa Rica ...
And all we got were some lousy pictures of birds.
Actually, that’s not quite true. But Anna from the Bird Spot team did go to Costa Rica for a couple of weeks of wildlife watching, pina colada drinking, and monkeying around, with just her iPhone for picture-taking. Here’s her trip report:
:First up, this isn’t going to be a conventional trip report with detailed notes on locations, bird lists, maps, and amazing photos. If that’s what you’re after then head over to the excellent CloudBirders where you’ll find thousands of worldwide birding trip reports.
I want to give a more general overview to anyone who’s thinking of travelling to Costa Rica whether it’s to observe birds or not, so they know what to expect.
Lounge lizards and more
I travelled as part of a small group with a local guide where all accommodation, excursions, and tickets to the national parks are included, but you’re free to do extra things if you want. I’ve travelled like this before and it’s a great way to get the feel of independent travel without all the hassle of organising it yourself. Having a local guide is so worth it as you’ll really get into the heart of a destination and they’re on hand to answer the multitude of questions you’re bound to have. They also know the best places to eat and drink and where to go if you fancy a night out with the locals, or some down time at a spa.
The first morning of the tour involved a boat trip into the Tortuguero National Park, an archipelago of volcanic islands within a network of marshy inlands. And it gave us a perfect introduction to what we had to look forward to on the rest of the holiday.
Birds were sparse along the river, although as our eyes become accustomed to the environment the few lone egrets, jacanas, herons, and ibises hidden amongst the long reeds became easier to spot. It didn’t matter though, because the abundance of reptiles more than made up for the lack of avian species.
We saw dozing crocodiles and caimans, green iguanas (which are actually orange) lounging on tree trunks, and plumed basilisks, known locally as the Jesus Christ lizard. The official explanation for why it has this nickname is because when it is escaping from predators it can gather enough momentum to run with its head up across water for a short distance. However, our local guide gave us another reason which I much prefer.
These bright green lizards are incredibly hard to spot. The perch motionless on branches camouflaged among the surrounding leaves. And so, the story goes, when someone does manage to see one they are almost certain to exclaim ‘Jesus Christ!’. In a country where over half of the population is Catholic I loved that.
The next day we took to the river again in a canoe – it really is the best way to see wildlife in this part of Costa Rica – at sunrise when birds are at their most active. This morning with the rain lashing down on us we saw many more species including anhingas , toucans, vultures, yellowlegs, parakeets, and frigatebirds cruising on the thermals overhead. We also spotted our first monkeys – a family of spider monkeys swinging through the trees close to the riverbank. And although we heard and smelt lots of howler monkeys, we only managed to see one troop right at the top of a group of tall trees.
We spent a couple of days exploring more jungle in Tenorio Volcano National Park, as well as a night with a local family where we got a real insight into how Costa Ricans (Ticos) live. After a tour of their farm we cooked a meal together of black bean soup, a comforting stew of beans, vegetables, rice and a poached egg, served with tortillas and salsa. I’ve already made this since I’ve been back it was so good.
We travelled on to La Fortuna, a small town and one of Costa Rica’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s easy to see why. From the hot springs to the vibrant nightlife La Fortuna has something for everyone The Arena Volcano and surrounding national park provides a wonderful backdrop, and for adrenaline junkies there are opportunities to go horse-riding, kayaking, paddle-boarding, zip-lining, and tubing.
A hike to the La Fortuna Waterfall is a must. Walking through the jungle to the sounds of screaming cicadas, we spotted tiny strawberry poison dart frogs, a green vine snake, and plenty of tropical birdlife including toucans, motmots, tanagers, flycatchers, woodpeckers, and parrots. And your reward after a long trek down some treacherous stairs is the stunning sight of a picture-postcard waterfall. Take a few selfies or just take it all in.
An urban jungle
La Fortuna has a hidden gem: The Bogarin Trail, just off the main road that runs the length of the town. Until the year 2000 the property was a cattle farm devoid of trees and wildlife, until two brothers restored it to forest. It’s hard to believe as you wander along the trail under the canopy of trees and through the thick undergrowth that it has grown in just 2 decades.
The trail is 1.2 miles and the entrance fee is only $10 although you can pay extra if you want a guide. Considering Costa Rica can be fairly expensive this was amazingly good value for money.
There is a feeding station right by the entrance where colourful birds flit about as they feast on bananas, papayas, and pineapples. We saw crimson-collared tanagers, orange-chinned parakeets, red-legged honeycreepers, grey-headed chachalacas, clay-coloured thrushes, buff-throated saltators, lots of different hummingbirds, and many more that I couldn’t identify. I should say at this point that the Merlin Bird ID app proved invaluable during this trip, particularly when we were without a guide.
When we could tear ourselves away from the station, we started along the sloth trail and were lucky enough to see 3 sloths including one with a baby. We had come across a few sloths previously, but they had been so high up or hidden in the trees that they had been difficult to see properly let alone take a decent pic.
We spent a good 3 hours in the trail and only left because it started to get dark. As well as the sloths we managed to see lizards, some tiny turtles scuttling around the bogs, the beautiful blue morpho butterfly, and an agouti, as well as plenty of birdlife including an owl (Merin couldn’t help me with this one). a turquoise-browed motmot, and a collared aracari.
The most splendid moments
Of course, for serious birders the main attraction of Costa Rica is the resplendent quetzal. So did you get to see one I hear you ask?
Day 10 we arrived in Monteverde and took an early morning guided walk through the cloud forest. We were only about 10 minutes in when our guide pointed out a tarantula nesting in a cavity in a tree, an amazing experience to see one so close up and in the wild.
But were we going to be in luck and spot one of the world’s most elusive birds? The news from other guides wasn’t good. Nobody had seen one for at least 5 days and they had presumably taken themselves deep into the forest away from the eager eyes of tourists. We saw plenty of other wildlife and birds including anthrushes, motmots, hummingbirds, orioles, trogons, warblers and a three-wattled bellbird.
We were nearly at the end of the walk when our guide suddenly came to a halt, set up his scope and after spending a few minutes focussing invited us all to have a look. Somehow, he had found it. It was almost impossible to see with the naked eye but through the spotting scope we saw very clearly the stunning red and green plumage of the resplendent quetzal.
So was that my favourite wildlife moment? Is it heresy if I say that it wasn’t? Although I saw many wonderful birds and animals as well as some incredible flora – I could write a whole other blog post on the plants of Costa Rica but this is a website about birds so I won’t – it was the monkeys playing by the beaches of Manuel Antonio that did it for me.
I could have spent hours watching the groups of white-faced capuchins as they chased each other up trees, scampered across the sand to retrieve coconuts, or engaged in a friendly bout of play-flighting. They weren’t at all afraid of humans and each morning we would find one or two on the balconies of our hotel searching for left-over food or other things (sunglasses) they could swipe. Costa Ricans care very much about their wildlife and it is illegal to feed their monkeys. Despite this we saw many well-meaning tourists who were doing so, not realising that they were potentially killing them with kindness.
Any downsides? On the Caribbean side of the country you will be wet all of the time. After about day 3 I got over that and embraced my humidity hair, Monica style. Don’t go to Costa Rica if you’re expecting to get a deep tan.
The food can be a little samey, particularly if you are vegetarian – lots of rice and beans, or gallo pinto – but seek out the many fish restaurants, bakeries selling all sorts of delicious pastries, breads, and cakes, homemade ice cream in every flavour you can think of, fried plantains, fresh fruit frescos, great coffee, and the aforementioned black bean soup and you won’t go hungry.
It can be expensive in the more touristy areas. And organised activities by adventure companies can start to add up especially when they add on transportation and set meals. You might want to investigate doing it yourself.
For any bird or nature lover Costa Rica is an amazing destination. I saw everything I wanted to see except a jaguar which was probably asking a bit much, and although I went for the birds it was the monkeys who stole my heart.