May 2014 — Costa Rica

5.11 This was graduation day, with family in town, events to attend, and Savannah to move out of her dorm room.  It was a whirlwind, and when we were done, we headed off to Troy, where we spent the night at the home of one of my students. This hospitality was a tremendous convenience for us.

5.12 We got up crazy early to catch our 6 a.m. flight from St. Louis to Miami.  After a brief layover, when most students slept, we caught the second leg from Miami to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. Both flights were only 2.5 h, which is nothing relative to my recent transatlantic flights. After customs and immigration, we met a guy at the airport who apparently was representing EF College Study Tours (our tour provider).  His name was Orlando.  He positioned us strategically on the sidewalk, and stated emphatically that Carlos would be picking us up.  This statement was strange because our Tour Director was supposed to be Alonso.  The bus pulled up and we got on.  The next group (from a different school) was coming in an hour, so the bus took as to a nearby mall to burn some time.  Many of the students ate, though almost all the restaurants in the food court were American fast food joints.  I wandered the mall but bought nothing.  One of my students lost her debit card, so I let her use my phone to call her bank and cancel it.  That was the only time I used my international calling plan (which I had gone to considerable time and effort to obtain).
After picking up the other group we went to the Gran Hotel Costa Rica in downtown San Jose.  It was quite a nice hotel, without air conditioning, but that’s not uncommon.  We still had some hours to use before dinner, so the tour director took us to the market, which had numerous tiny shops with everything from food to souvenirs.  I bought a few things for gifts.  We had dinner at the hotel and got ice cream at a nearby shop.  Some of the students went out for drinks, but I went to bed.
5.13 We got up early and had rice & beans for breakfast, which was hearty. Rice and beans were served with almost every meal.  I love the stuff, but the rice caught up with me later.  We also enjoyed plantain chips and yuca, heart of palm, and cactus ice cream at different times. We drank the delicious coffee at every opportunity.  The students began to refer to it as Costa Rican crack.
The bus ride took us through the cloud forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park.  We stopped briefly to see the confluence of two rivers, one stained yellow from volcanic deposits.  Around this time I learned that the Tour Director was, in fact, Alonso.  I had called him Carlos at least five times by then.  Alonso talked about the road we were on, which connects the Pacific with the Caribbean.  As it is cheaper and easier to truck goods over this road, it is sometimes referred to as the “dry canal.” As we proceeded through the countryside, a student spotted a sloth in a tree on the roadside.  The bus stopped right in the road and we ran back to see the sloth, which we were all excited about.  I took many, many photos.  The light wasn’t bad, and he eventually turned and faced us, offering a good shot.  The bus continued on through a banana plantation, and Alonso gave a short lecture on banana farming.
We were on our way to Tortuguero, but, as they say, “you can’t get there from here,” at least not on a bus.  The place is only accessible by plane or boat ride.  So we repacked our stuff, taking only enough for two nights and leaving much of our stuff on the bus.  The boats were essentially long, skinny jon boats capable of carrying about 20 through the narrow river and canals.  The boat ride was really neat.  We saw a variety of birds and several basilisks, which are capable of running over the surface of the water.  Before the trip was over, I saw this behavior occur three or four times.  We even caught a glimpse of a howler monkey high in a tree as we passed.  I had thought this might be all we would ever see of a monkey, but when we reached our hotel, the Rana Roja, there were howler monkeys in the trees right among the cabins.  At the first opportunity, I took a crazy number of photos.  But under overcast skies and a closed canopy, shooting black monkeys was quite challenging.  This problem would occur over and over.
After checking into our hotel rooms and getting lunch we took the boats to Tortuguero.  Alonso gave another nice lecture on the history of the area and the sea turtles that nest there.  Some students went into the turtle center, but I went right over to the beach, where I bought a coconut (with a fresh-cut hole and a straw to drink the milk), and admired the Caribbean.  I dipped my feet in.  The dark, volcanic sand stuck to my feet.  Speaking of my feet, I had just gotten a huge blister on my heel two days before departure.  I went through all of my footware to find some that would work.  I got through the trip in Birkenstocks, Fila Skeletoes, and Merrell low hikers.  We walked down the beach and into the town, where I bought a couple of little things.  I got a strawberry shake (blackberry being not as common here as in Ecuador).  I sat down on a bench to enjoy my shake when I noticed something on my leg.  An ant.  Then I noticed that I had ants all over my leg and that my camera pack was swarming with them.  I brushed them off as well as I could, taking a few stings on my hands in the process.  They swelled and became itchy, similar to those I’ve gotten from fire ants in Florida.
We had a nice dinner and later a night hike hike for frogs.  We saw several species, including the large Smoky Jungle Frog, the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, and the quintessential Costa Rican frog (it’s on the cover of both travel guides I own), the Red-eyed Tree Frog.  I was unable to get a decent photo of it, however, as the use of flash was discouraged.
5.14  I arose early to take advantage of a free optional birding activity.  Alonso set up his spotting scope by the pool, where the openness allows a good view.  We saw quite a few species that were new to me (life birds), but the bonus was the two spider monkeys (mother and baby) that came down and harvested fruit out of the tree right above us.  We got some good looks at Montezuma Oropendulas, which build large pendulous nests (like orioles) from communal trees. I clearly remember seeing a documentary on them sometime in the past, I think during my undergrad years. The males have a dramatic display in which they call and swing down on the branch upon which they are perched. I took many photos of it and attempted to video record it. Another first was a distant look at some toucans.  Two species occur in Costa Rica, the Chestnut-mandibled toucan and Keel-billed toucan.  The Keel-billed is the familiar Toucan Sam from the Fruit Loops cereal box.  Both are very attractive.  Though we saw them frequently and in different places, they seldom came very close (except at the animal rescue center), making photography difficult.
We took a boat ride in the morning through some canals, relics of the logging past of the area.  We saw a lot of birds, including a pair of gray-headed kites mating.  The Northern Jacana is a water bird with huge feet for walking on aquatic vegetation. I had only read about them previously. I had never even heard of the unusual Boat-billed Heron. We saw some caimans (I think it’s spectacled caiman here) and a variety of plants, including the raffia palm (useful in weaving goods).  Upon our return we were pleasantly surprised by a troop of White-faced Capuchins moving through the hotel area.  There must have been thirty of them.  They were feeding on fruit in the various trees.  Some were taking packets of sugar from students (from a different school), though we were told not to feed them. Sugar is like crack to monkeys.  They started demonstrating more aggressive behaviors at this.  Nonetheless, it was quite a show to see all of them wandering through the area, including mothers with babies on their backs, and fairly close to us.  I was now overwhelmed by our luck: we had now seen all three species of monkeys.  As it turned out, we saw monkeys on almost every boat ride and hike that we went on.  I can only conclude the following: Costa Rica is full of monkeys.  Furthermore, monkeys in the wild are elegant and well adapted to their environment.  Captive monkeys are frequently neurotic, not surprisingly.
We took a short walk through the rainforest, where we saw the Black and Emerald Poison Dart Frog.  We were also overflown by the endangered Great Green Macaw. Alonso broke open a termite nest so we could all have a taste of them.  They are spicy. Sadly, these highlights were overshadowed by the unrelenting attacks of the abundant mosquitoes.  My student Eli had perhaps the best defense, using a hoodie and handkerchief, he looked like he was about to rob a bank, but the mosquitoes couldn’t get to him.  Some of our tall women got their long legs thoroughly bitten up.
I took the optional afternoon boat ride, which produced yet more birds and monkeys.  Curiously, we saw a group of long-nosed bats perched on the shelter of a boat dock, which they apparently cannot distinguish from their usual species of tree.
Most of us took the optional night boat ride, which was a rare opportunity, given that the practice had been discontinued 20 years previously.  Unfortunately, sleep deprivation and jet lag caught up with me, and I fell asleep for most of it.  We saw a few birds and a number of caimans.
5.15  We packed up and took the boat ride out while it rained on us for, surprisingly, the first time.  We loaded on the bus and headed west to Sarapiqui.  Our hotel had air conditioning, which was quite a relief from the hot, humid conditions of Tortuguero. Here we geared up for the Canopy Tour, which is another name for ziplining.  I had planned for this by bringing along a Polaroid sport/action camera mounted to my own helmet, thinking I’d get some video footage that the students would enjoy later.  Little did I know several of the students brought their own GoPro cameras.  Some video recorded almost everything we did.  Anyway, it POURED on us during the ziplining.  My boots, though waterproof got soaked as the water ran down my legs and filled them up.  I got by with the skeletoes during the subsequent days while the boots dried.  It was still quite fun, especially the last zipline, which was very long and went over the Sarapiqui river.
That night we took a night hike through a reserve.  The trail took us over a long suspension bridge, the engineering of which was sketchy at best.  This hike brought us the first of our much-sought-after venomous snakes.  My group saw the Hognosed Viper, which was a tiny but deadly thing.  Later we saw the Cat-eyed Snake, which occurs in the southern US, but I’d never seen it.  There was also a dizzying variety of invertebrates, such as millipedes and a tarantula.  Some of the other groups saw birds and a kinkajou.
5.16  We went directly to whitewater rafting this morning.  Again it was raining.  Fortunately, my helmet cam is waterproof.  The going was quite rough, I think more interesting than any rafting I’d done before.  We got soaked, but it was warm enough.  Both Eli and Savannah fell in the river, but we got them back in.  I got some footage of one of the other rafts flipping over.  About halfway down we stopped and ate some freshly cut fruit.  This spot had a cliff of maybe 10 feet which we enjoyed jumping off.  I did front and back somersaults.  I haven’t completely lost my form.  The students really liked this part. We ended up back at headquarters and had lunch.  They had a couple of giant rhinoceros beetles outside feeding on bananas.  Really cool.
That evening we went to the Baldi hot springs.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but certainly not  a series of large modern swimming pools, each at a different temperature.  The water comes out of the mountain (volcano) at 160 degrees F.  It cools as it falls from one pool to the next. There were waterfalls that were great for massaging the neck and back.  I was not expecting…water slides!  I love water slides, and these were fast and rough.  The first of our women to go down them warned us of the potential, uh, enema effect that could occur.  Savannah and I went on all of them.
On our way back to the hotel, the bus driver, Harold, turned on the “Macarena” while flashing the lights. Alonso encouraged us to dance.  It was pretty funny.  It was one student’s birthday, so that night we took them, via the bus, to a nightclub.  The local beer, Imperial, is tasty, but so weak that it took about four of them before I felt a buzz.  Eventually, I danced with Savannah and some of the other students, but I was definitely in chaperone mode.  We didn’t want anyone wandering off.  Only one did, but we found her.
5.17  We kayaked at lake Arenal, a huge reservoir created by a small, well-placed dam.  The  kayaks were fiberglass tandems, and somewhat awkward for me, being used to my own boat.  We crossed the lake and the students swam and enjoyed trying to dive to the bottom with life jackets on.  We paddled back and loaded back on the bus.
We hiked up to the base of Volcan Arenal, which until 2010 was still a quite active volcano.  Right away we saw a Golden Eyelash Viper, another small, deadly snake. This site provided a rare opportunity to see primary succession, as 1992 eruption had created a lava field that is now grown up with shrubs and flowers. For the third time in my life, I hiked up a volcano carrying my biggest lens and never used it.
We drove to La Fortuna waterfall, or at least the park in which it lives.  We hiked down to it.  There were fish in the stream and the students enjoyed swimming and goofing off here, though the water was cold.  I had not brought along my wide-angle lens, and kept trying different angles to get a good shot of the waterfall.  Alonso showed me a secret trail to an overlook that let me get a really good shot of it. On the way up the 500 steps (not 800, as Alonso had said) Savannah and I saw an agouti on the trail.
We drove to Don Juan’s organic farm, where many adventures awaited.  We started by each eating a berry of what Don Juan said was “wild grape”.  It was black pepper. So now I knew Don Juan was a prankster.  Next he had three of our women give three of our men a “face massage” using a fruit paste that was bright red.  They were surprised when they opened their eyes at the end.  I volunteered to try a rainbow pepper, as one who enjoys spicy foods. It was fairly small.  I chewed it up and tried to swallow it fast to get the mass of it out of my mouth.  The heat came on slowly, but it ended up crazy hot.  I didn’t yell or jump up and down or drool, but my eyes watered eventually. A bit of frozen coconut helped put out the fire, and some star fruit later on finally quenched it.  I was stung by another ant on the foot in the Sensory Garden, which makes sense, I guess.  We saw how the farm operates, with a cow named Chocolate and two pigs providing the manure for a methane digester.  The methane is used as fuel in the kitchens. The farm is a completely closed system.  At the end, we pressed some sugar cane to extract the juice, and we all got a stick of sugar cane and a shot of squirrel rum, which I didn’t think was half bad (and I don’t drink hard liquor).  We adjourned to the restaurant where we had yuca chips from the rhizomes we had harvested earlier, juice and coffee.  It was delicious.
5.18  To break up the long bus ride, we stopped at an animal rescue center. They had monkeys, birds, and almost all the wild cats of Costa Rica.  Most of the cats actually looked pretty happy.  They all had natural vegetation in their cages, unlike most zoos. I bought the T shirt. This was the day I started feeling bad, but the only up side to that was my ability to sleep on the bus. We arrived at Rincón de la Vieja National Park, where we immediately saw the magpie jay, which looks a lot like our blue jay, except with a fancier crest.   We were given the option of a short hike or a long hike.  Normally, I always take the longer hike, but I chose the short hike, along with three students. We saw some mud pots and water pots, bubbling with volcanic activity. It was very hot, and I felt like at any moment I could be seized with crippling stomach pain.  Those who took the long hike saw a bunch of monkeys and a white-nosed coati mundi. Then it was onward to Playa Hermosa.  The Hotel Mangaby was just a few blocks from the beach, and we got there just in time to see the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.  There were Magnificent frigate birds and Brown Boobies flying over the water. Around this time I finally figured out what was wrong with my body.  Lots of rice and dehydration had let to a serious case of constipation.  Savannah ran down to the local grocery and came back with milk of magnesia.  It was all they had, but she swore it would work.  I had no means of measurement, so I took 4 big swallows.  Relief came within an hour.
The next morning, my roommate, Dr. Brian Nolan, was watching birds from hotel balcony. This turned out to be an excellent pastime for me, as I had no desire to spend time at the beach.  A diversity of birds came by to visit the big tree in front of the hotel, of which our second floor room had a great view. I saw the Inca dove, Tropical kingbird, Black-headed Trogon, Squirrel cuckoo and Bullock’s Oriole.  However, the crowning moment came when I spotted the Turquoise-browed Motmot.  When I was a student on field trips with Dr. Mayhew, when he was asked if we were about to leave, he’d say, “Unless we see a Turquoise-browed motmot.”  I had finally seen one in the wild, and it was spectacular–multicolored, with long racquet tails.

I did take a short walk on beach with Savannah. In the afternoon we took the bus to nearby Coco, a much more tourist-oriented town. There were plenty of souvenir shops, so naturally we bought stuff. We got back just in time for another sunset.  I tried to HDR it, but conditions weren’t exactly right.  There was a local guy with enormously long dreadlocks who was wakeboarding.  Every so often he would run down the beach, throw down his board and skim over a wave.  I got some nice burst sequences of him, even in the fading light.

5.20 Fortunately, our group did not have to leave crazy early in the morning, so I took the opportunity to do more bird watching from the balcony. I saw some of the same birds, but perhaps most interesting was the variegated squirrel, which is white with a black racing stripe down its back.  Sadly, we all had to pack up and load on the bus to the airport in Liberia.  We said our goodbyes to Alonso and Harold and proceeded through security.  After a short wait we got on the plane.  We had a nice view of the Keys when we approached Florida.  We had a long layover in Miami, but we made the best of it by eating and reading.  In St. Louis, Erin’s family picked us up and we spent the night at their house again, as it was quite late.  The next morning we drove home well rested.
I have read all of the student journals, and they universally enjoyed the trip.  They all appreciated the culture and would definitely do it again.  I agree.
Here are some extras, but you’ll need to click through to see them.
Video of helmet-cam footage on YouTube–edited down to 3.5 minutes.
Google takes bursts of images and assembles them into short, often choppy animations, but sometimes they look cool. I’ve selected the best of them.  Let me know if these links do or do not work.
Flipbook animations: