August 30, 2005
For our last day on the Caribbean, we went back to the beach at Cahuita as it is so deliciously inviting. We bathed in the warm waters, sunbathed and otherwise wiled the day away. Steve, Paul and I were in a slow, Caribbean mode but Peter was feeling industrious and collected sticks and constructed a hurdles course on the beach. As we lounged on our beach towels, we were entertained as Peter attempted to soar over the progressively more difficult hurdles. One a few attempts, he actually made it but by the time we left, only a fraction of the original construction was left standing!
Upon our return to Puerto Viejo, we visited the market and prepared chicken tacos for dinner with generous dollups of fresh guacamole!
We are absolutely amazed that the Central American segment of our journey has come to an end and find ourselves reflecting all the wonders we have experienced. We head back to the United States for a brief interlude to regroup and pick-up Grandma Carrol (yee haw!) and then head west to Japan! Wow, we are mightily blessed in this venture!
August 29, 2005
Today, we went to Cahuita National Park, just a jaunt north by bus along the coast. Once again, this park is along a beautiful expanse of beach and the jungle goes all the way up to the sand’s edge. No sooner had we entered the park that we were greeted by monkeys again—this time one hanging on a branch over the trail right in front of us! Unfortunately, Steve was not able to access his camera fast enough to capture the sentry on his prominent perch on film. During the course of the day, we were to have many more opportunities to photograph monkeys, though! We were seduced by the beach, especially the secluded little beaches that we found just off the trail. The water again was incredibly clear and there were many treasures of coral and shells along the shimmering white beach. Peter created an intricate balance beam adventure course out of the many fallen trees crisscrossing the beach.
Further along the trail was another family of monkeys fanning out across the trail and in the surrounding trees. We heard them respond to the distant yowls of fellow howler monkeys and our ears resounded with their calls. For the remainder of the 9 kilometers back to the bus stop, we practiced our howler monkey call and occasionally got a response to our beckonings.
August 28, 2005
This is normally a surf town but the ocean has been absolutely calm these past several days. We swam in the crystal clear water among the reef that enclosed the small beach area. Because of the reef, there is a succession of deep pools further out toward the reef where we could practice treading water and swimming and dive from rocks into the pool. The only place to be is the water so we found diversion in the surf and sea well into the afternoon. After a refreshing shower, Peter, Paul and I visited souvenir shops and bought groceries at the market and fruit from the fruit stands along the road and returned to our hotel to prepare the evening’s dinner.
August 27, 2005
Rather than heading south by bus, we decided to take the boat through the inland canals to Puerto Limon and then catch a bus to our last destination in Central America, the Caribbean beach at Puerto Viejo. We were back on a motorized craft for this journey and were cooled by the refreshing breeze. At one point, we had to stop to refuel and we realized how hot and humid it really was without that constant breeze. We added several more species to our list of wildlife sighted in Costa Rica—a pink bird that looked like a flamingo called a roseate spoonbill and several American crocodiles, one who looked like he was afflicted with lock jaw as his jaw was seemingly permanently ajar!
We arrived at Puerto Viejo by mid afternoon and went on our eternal search for a place to stay. Paul loved Rockin Js, a hostel right on the beach, but the rest of us wanted something other than dormitory bunks for our final days in Costa Rica. Rockin Js was cool though. They offered hammocks and mosquito nets, a tree house, and tents for accommodations, as well as a bank of hammocks for siesta lounging, sand volleyball, darts and a bar and restaurant. I’m sure it was quite wild at night. We found instead another upscale hostel closer to the center of town—Hotel Jacaranda. Each cabin at this hotel has been uniquely designed with tile mosaic and murals and ours has sun and moon patterns in deep blue and gold and a private bath of the same design. We were in the lap of luxury! There was also a communal kitchen so Peter and I began developing menus for the remainder of our days in Puerto Viejo. We’re aiming for some days underbudget for a change!
August 26, 2005
After less than 6 hours of sleep, we were at it again at 7 a.m., eager to encounter more wildlife in this magnificent national park. This time our mode of transportation was a quiet canoe and we set off through the main channel and then began navigating some of the smaller channels. Almost immediately we began sighting spectacular birds—3 species of heron, a king fisher, and then a pair of toucans, flying overhead! We were so excited to see those toucans as they are harder to sight. They have a distinctive call that sounds like a frog call and you need this call to track them because they tend to perch and feed high in the canopy. We were hungry for more so our guide began searching for them and very soon had identified more in a tree across the large canal. He positioned us on the other side and tried to show us where they were but none of us were able to see them, not even Paul who has the keenest wildlife viewing skills of us all. I think our guide was disappointed in us Gringos but oh well, we were in their company straining to see them for quite some time. In the meantime, a group of howler monkeys joined us and offered us their consolation prize—a show of their acrobatics and fierce roaring that sounds more like a lion than a monkey!
We meandered deep into the canal system into crocodile territory and sure enough found some caiman, small alligators, lounging on the mud flats, as well as a turtle. Our guide surprised us by lunging to try to catch the turtle for us to see but it slipped away. After all his cautious maneuverings, I thought we were going to capsize right then and there but he recovered his balance and we were on our way again. I could have rambled in and out of those canals all day. We were enraptured by our surroundings and the wildlife that abounded but after 3 hours we made our way back to the village. As soon as we got off the boat and were off the cool water, we felt the still heat of the day. We found a café with a table in the back with shade and a breeze from the water and indulged in banana and strawberry pancakes, tropical fruit and fruit shakes. By late afternoon, the heat had eased slightly and we set off to hike the trail in the national park. As soon as we descended into the jungle, we were attacked by mosquitoes and I was caught ill-prepared. A guide offered me salvation—some bug repellent—and we continued on our way. Paul had read a brochure about Tortuguero that described the area as “monkey infested” and they weren’t exaggerating. We passed colony after colony of monkeys and heard the howlers’ roars echoing through the jungle regularly. They unlike the sloths are easy to spot as they are constantly in motion and causing the trees to rustle with their antics. Suddenly up ahead, Steve and Paul became intently immobilized staring into the trees. Steve quietly began aiming his camera and Paul stealthily came back to report to me that there were toucans ahead! And, there they were, relatively close feeding on fruit. This was our closest sighting yet and we could have watched them much longer had it not been for those darn mosquitoes. But, we finally had to abandon our observation post and head to the ocean which we could already hear. When we emerged from the jungle, the breeze offered instant relief and we ran to the water to bath our stinging bites!
In this protected part of the beach, there were turtle tracks everywhere, giving evidence that this was indeed the height of spawning season. We walked along the beach back to our hostel and decided to return to the jungle after Steve previewed his photos and was not satisfied with the result. This time we were prepared with long sleeved shirts and pants and we were able to travel more leisurely through the trail. We did not find the toucans again but enjoyed many monkeys by the light of dusk animatedly carousing among the trees.
We were low on colones and had to use VISA for the first time on our trip. The only establishment that accepted VISA was the Buddha Café and they had just acquired this service the day before so, famished, we ordered their specialty, pizza, and were pleasantly surprised—in the middle of this little village in the middle of nowhere, the pizza was good, so good, in fact that after inhaling the first one, we ordered another! Since we were the first to use VISA, we weren’t sure they were going to be able to process the charge, but eventually did. We’re hoping that those 13,000 colones get converted to American dollars, however!
August 25, 2005
From the central Pacific coast, we traversed the country to visit Tortuguero National Park in the northern Caribbean. We traveled through lush mountain country back to San Jose and then caught another bus east. At 3 p.m. in the afternoon, we were deposited at a boat launch to navigate our way through a series of canals to this remote national park. We were greeted by a family of howler monkeys upon our arrival, including a mama and her baby, who was carried by its mother on her back.
I was expecting a leisurely boat ride along the river and was surprised when we boarded the boat and immediately tore off through the waterways on our motorized tour vessel. It was exhilarating whizzing along through these jungle canals that have been likened to a mini-Amazon River and spotting toucans, crocodiles and other wildlife. We arrived at Tortuguero by 5 p.m. and, swept away by turtle fever, we decided to take the turtle tour that night.
Sluggish after an early evening nap, we lumbered out of bed and down to the dock to commence our turtle tour. Unfortunately, this tour was not by boat and required that we hike to the beach at the other end of the island and search for spawning turtles. Our efforts were soon rewarded; before long, we found a turtle digging a hole to lay her eggs at the farthest edge of the beach. Her head was burrowed in her hole as her side flippers dug deeper into the sand flinging sand from the hole and preparing a snug nest for her eggs. At this point it began to rain torrentially. Still we waited patiently for her to finish her task, though rivlets of water were streaming down us. By the time she was finished, the rain had abated slightly but we were utterly drenched, dripping and cold. However, we were determined to complete our accompaniment of this turtle and quietly cleared a path for her and followed her back to the sea. Unfortunately, our turtle was distracted by the light on a nearby radio tower and began meandering parallel to the sea. The rest of our group wanted to leave which left me quite unsettled to abandon her but the next day we found and followed her track and discovered that she eventually took a U-turn and found her way back to the sea!
August 23, 2005
Anxious to see the animals, we arose early and caught the local bus to Manuel Antonio National Park. The park is right on the beach and in order to reach the park entrance you have to cross a small slough that feeds into the ocean. Local entrepreneurs were offering boat rides across the slough which seemed utterly ridiculous to me so I plunged in and began fording the small waterway. Unfortunately, I chose to traverse a deeper segment and over a large rock that created enough current to suck me down and, embarrassingly, I had to be rescued by one of the boat operators. I emerged drenched from my waist down and the bag I was carrying was also water-logged! But, damn-it, I didn’t pay for any ridiculous boat ride!!
When you enter the park you walk on to a beautiful expanse of beach lined with palm trees and jungle and jagged rock formations in the secluded bay. The jungle path winds along the beach so on one side you hear the waves lapping along the shore and on the other side the constant buzzing of the jungle. The sounds of nature fill your senses in this country of overpowering natural beauty and it seems that around every bend is another astounding discovery. Just minutes upon entering the park, I was summoned by Paul while studying a very unusual bird to a nearby palm tree right beside the beach and there was our first sighting of a sloth! He was lumbering through the tree as if in some Tai Chi sequence and you wonder how they survived natural succession because they are soooo slow! But, as Steve pointed out their slowness makes them very hard to see and is in fact their effective defense against predators. Their movements really are quite graceful and who knows maybe they hypnotize their predators before they can inflict harm!
People were flocking further down the beach and sure enough, a clan of white-faced monkeys was frolicking among some trees bearing little red fruits. One of the guides in the cluster said it was related to the coffee tree and I noticed that the leaves of the tree were indeed similar. These monkeys were feasting on these little red fruits and dancing among the branches. We were mesmerized watching their antics for a good ½ hour. One little guy dropped his fruit and shimmied down the tree to find his lost treasure. He was very distressed that it had fallen in a crevice and he was unable to find it. I loved seeing him carefully inspect the area with his fine slender digits, though, so close to our curious gaze! We finally broke away and continued down the path to another even more secluded and spectacular beach where we found more sloths swaying high in the canopy. We bypassed the beach for the time being to continue down more jungle trails and discovered a rodent native to this area, more butterflies, insects and birds. A more remote trail led to a waterfall and we showered in its cool mountain waters. We heard some movements among the neighboring brush and imagined a tapir but never saw one of these shy creatures.
By late morning, we had worked up an appetite and left the park in search of food in the nearby beach community of Manuel Antonio. We enjoyed pollo casado (baked chicken), a local Tico dish, and chicken kabobs in a café along the beach and we were ready for more adventure in the park. We hiked to a hidden cove just as an afternoon rain storm struck the coast. We were well-sheltered on the trail through the jungle back to the main beach in the park. Though the storm persisted, the water was warm and we along with several other visitors continued to swim despite the rain and wind. A white-nosed coati boldly tried to steal an unattended lunch. Right behind him was his marauding companion, a raccoon. A pursuit ensued as we followed them trying to take pictures of these furtive scavengers.
The storm had created some good waves for body surfing and Peter and Paul caught some good rides all the way up to the beach. We had to pull them out of the water and all rode dripping wet back to Quepos and our hotel where we enjoyed a hot shower!
August 22, 2005
It took us 3 ½ hours to travel the 65 kilometers from Uvita to Quepos along the nearly all dirt coastal road. The jungle gave way to miles upon miles of a peculiar type of palm tree, interspersed with cookie cutter compounds with minimal utilities for the field workers. It was obviously some type of mega plantation but we couldn’t figure out what these trees produced until we finally saw the processing plant for palm oil. We later read in Lonely Planet that the area’s major export used to be bananas but has now been replaced by the oil of the African palm as it’s cheaper to produce and ship and is used in a variety of cosmetics, lotions and soaps, as well as cooking oil. As a result, Quepos has declined as a major port. We were dismayed by the monoculture production that had consumed acres of virgin jungle and were relieved to finally see the jungle ecosystem commence again as we approached the Manuel Antonio area.
August 21, 2005
We just couldn’t resist another lazy day on the beach! This morning the low tide had exposed the entire point or reef off of the beach at Uvita. This remarkable geological protrusion extends far out into the bay and as the tide rises, it creates two “shores” upon which the waves crash. We walked out along the sandy bar to the beginning of the second reef and scrambled among the tide pools. Along the way, Peter and Paul encountered their friends, the spry red crabs that were abundant along the beach and a couple had strayed far from home, i.e. their hole, and thus ensued a Keystone Cop version of Peter and Paul chasing the crab wildly around the beach with Paul making the final plunge and capturing him with his shirt. (postscript: After Peter and Paul caught four more and held a few zany crab racing contests with the contestants not cooperating with the designated race course, all hostages were released unharmed!)
It was bizarre to witness successive waves crashing against the outer reef and then against the two inner reefs on either side of the point. We body surfed the gentle waves on one of the inner shores and caught some nice curls that sent us tumbling to shore. This morning the sun was slightly obscured by a thin layer of clouds, abating the intensity of the heat slightly; however any exertion whatsoever sent us plunging into the waves for refreshment. The tropics really puts you into a sluggish mode to conserve energy! After the sun and salty surf, the kids wanted a dip in the nearby river. Steve and I explored the mangrove along the river, a tangle of trunks and roots among the sand and water. These delicate trees are designed to thrive in water but I marveled at the palm trees at the shores edge that just stood upon their root system in the sand at low tide. I wasn’t sure how they remained standing without sufficient soil to anchor them.
After showering and our almuerzo, late Latin lunch, we buckled down to completing some writing assignments, reading and napping.
August 20, 2005For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been in mountain highlands and for quite some time have not experienced intense heat. That reprieve came to an abrupt end just walking the few hundred meters to the beach and back and then biking down the bumpy dirt road to the cooperative to exchange money. Phew! We couldn’t wait to plunge into the Pacific! It’s wild to think that this coastline with its untamed jungle that creeps up to the water’s edge borders the very same ocean as our very different coastline in the Pacific Northwest. The jungle literally pulsates with life and as you’re walking down the beach, you hear the crashing of the surf on one side and the electric buzzing of the jungle on the other. We traversed a river and combed the beach for the bright red sand crabs that lived in countless holes along the beach and giant intact sand dollars and by the time we decided to head back we discovered that the tide had nearly submerged the entire beach already. We waded a much higher river and made it back to the entrance of the park via the inland path. Along the way we tracked the progress of several leaf cutter ants who were comically carrying pieces of aluminum foil back to their nest. We wondered what they would construct with that aluminum foil—perhaps a throne for the Queen Ant or armor for the worker ants to make them look more formidable in their quest for food for the nest.
August 19, 2005
In search of the mystical quetzal
We arose early in the morning for a guided tour with Jorge Sr. through the cloud forest in search of birds and wildlife of all kinds but especially the quetzal. Clad in rubber boots, we traversed an old-growth wonderland of giant oaks, ancient mountain cypress, lichen, moss, brilliant tropical flowers, and birds of dozens of species. Though we saw ample evidence of quetzals (piles of avocado pits and small fruits with quetzal scratches), we did not sight one of the elusive birds. However, standing among the moss-covered towering oaks and the lush forest and hearing Jorge simulate the song of the quetzal amid the chorus of other bird songs and rustlings of the forest was in itself a mystical experience and we emerged from it deeply quenched spiritually… but hungry for breakfast! We feasted on fresh eggs, rice, beans, toast, and tropical fruit (pineapple, papaya, and banana).
As I gazed over the forest canopy of rounded oaks, I couldn’t help but think of the threatened oak savannas and prairies of the Willamette Valley. The silhouette of the canopy was so radically different than the pointed fir forests that have squelched the oaks in our region. I tried to envision the Eugene skyline with that plump oak canopy and wondered what Skinner Butte will look like when we return in a year as the effort to restore oak habitat matures.
We caught a bus on the side of the mountain road that leads to the Serrano Farm at 1 p.m. and by 6:30 p.m. we had descended 8,500 feet to sea level on the Pacific coast and were settled in our little cabin in the sleepy fishing village of Uvita.
August 18, 2005
Dios Mio (“Oh, my God,” in Spanish!)! I’m at 8,500 feet above sea level in a cloud forest, literally and figuratively above the clouds, sitting in front of a piping hot wood stove in our solidly constructed A-frame cabin and overlooking the Talamanca mountain range that contains Costa Rica’s highest peak, Chirripo at 10,000 feet, and is the beginning of the Andes in Central America. WOW!
When we first arrived at Finca Eddie Serrano, we were greeted by Jorge Jr., the owner’s son, who has enthusiastically hosted us ever since. The “farm,” or ecological preserve, was founded by Eddie Serrano, who died 8 years ago, but is now run by his son, Jorge, Sr, his mother, and many other members of the family. Their neat little cabins dot the terraced landscape straight up the mountain to the mirador, or lookout deck, at the pinnacle. Along with lodging comes dinner and breakfast and an early morning tour in search of the elusive quetzals. All the food comes from their gardens, cows, chickens, or local rivers and streams, and is all very deliciously prepared, even on Thursday night when the women had the night off for further Mother’s day festivities and Tio Victor Hugo prepared the meal with plenty of helping hands from the male contingent!
Paul is in seventh heaven spotting birds of multiple species. He doesn’t yet identify them all yet, but at 11 years of age, he is already a very keen naturalist. It was freezing when we arrived but no sooner had we deposited our luggage in the cabin, Paul had grabbed his binoculars and was already surveying the surrounding mountain scape for birds. He absolutely must see a quetzal, the mystical and elegant bird of the Mayans and Aztecs, a scarlet macaw, and a toucan. He emerged from his quiet post among some low lying brush and signaled me to follow him. I followed him as he beckoned and motioned me to me along a muddy path for a little distance and was just about wondering where the heck he was taking me when he stopped and pointed to a tree. Lo and behold, there was a brilliantly yellow-breasted bird that we later discovered was the black and yellow fly catcher; he had spotted it from his original perch and wanted to give me a closer look. Of course, I was delighted to meet this beautiful bird and was especially delighted to witness the blossoming of Paul’s special gifts and talents in this enchanting environment. I found it amusing that when I told Paul that he might like to do bird watching in the West Eugene Wetlands, he said, “Well, Mom, I like these brightly colored birds!” I think this naturalist is tropics-bound!
It has taken us a few days to get our Costa Rican itinerary off the ground—for a number of reasons. The bus ride from Guatemala City to San Jose was incredibly grueling, especially for me as I spent the 24-plus hours of the journey fighting motion sickness (give me chicken buses with no shocks but plenty of ventilation over these “luxury” bus lines any day!). The journey took place over 2 days. We stopped in San Salvador after the first day for the “night,” i.e. 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., set off at 3 a.m., and arrived in San Jose at 8:30 p.m. I staved off vomiting for most of the second day of travel but boy was I piqued by the time we got off that bus and caught a taxi to an available hotel. All of us relished a hot shower and an expansive bed that night in our hotel, Meson de la Angel, Messenger of the Angel! The next day we tried to reach our contacts in Costa Rica but it was Mother’s Day in Costa Rica, a national holiday by the way (as it should be, eh??) and everything had shut down. So, we cruised around the central plaza, ran into Papa John’s Pizza, satisfied Peter’s desire for a PJ pizza, and went to mass at the cathedral. At the end of the mass, all the mothers came forward and received a special blessing. I thought it was quite providential that I celebrated two Mother’s days this year! As it turns out, I was to need that double shot of blessing as that evening I came down with my second bout of traveler’s diarrhea, nixing our plan to head to the Pacific the next day and necessitating that we stay in San Jose a few more days so that I could recuperate. All were quite gracious about this delay; we’ve all come to know a whole new level of “going with the flow” and I find it quite refreshing from our normal regimentized schedules.
We finally reached our contacts, Maria and her father, Miguel Morales, friends of our dear friend Jeff Baumgart in Eugene, and made arrangements to spend the day with them. Maria met us at our hotel, we took the city bus to the University of San Jose, and Miguel picked us up and we were soon on our way to Volcan Irazu. It was fun to finally hook up with them. They are a delightful Tico family, full of affection and passion for their country, people and family. Maria is an English major and speaks incredibly fluent English and Miguel maintains the family farm, a slice of heaven on the outskirts of Cartaga. As we gained elevation, Miguel pointed out the many small farms that populate this dramatic mountainside and how they are cultivated by hand. In the 1960s, part of this valley had been destroyed by a volcanic eruption but now its soil is incredibly rich and fertile. He is very concerned about the fate of these small farms and its workers and their families as there is another NAFTA-like agreement currently being considered in their congress and he fears that it may pass.
Volcan Irazu is a crater with a limestone green pool at its base. We walked the ashen terrain to the precipice of the crater. Apparently, when astronaut Neil Armstong visited this national park, he likened the approach to the surface of the moon. It reminded me of my visit to Mount St. Helens just a few years after that volcanic blast. Everything was silver and grey for miles and miles and after a while, it literally bore on the psyche as it yearned for polychrome!
Miguel treated us to Costa Rica’s own ice cream, Dos Pinos, a cooperative dairy, and we are now inexorably hooked and hope to become distributors when we return to Eugene! I think it has something to do with the quality of life that cows in Costa Rica enjoy. Who wouldn’t produce creamy ice cream if you could graze on verdant, tropical mountainsides and breathe the clean mountain air?
Our next stop was the family farm in Cartaga. As Miguel says, his next door neighbor is the Talamanca Mountain Range and he’s not exaggerating. This is a beautiful sanctuary where Miguel has allowed nature in all its Costa Rican splendor to multiply and thrive. He says that any time he eats a new and interesting fruit, he sows the seed in his farm to add to the biodiversity. It’s working because when he first bought the farm, he was able to identify maybe 12 species of birds; now, there are over 100 species, including quetzals on occasion! He showed us the books of Alexander Skutch, a man Miguel considered a remarkable human being who lived on a farm in the mountains for 40 years and became the foremost authority in ornithology in Costa Rica. As we continued our travels, we did indeed see his book, “A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm,” as the authoritative reference about birds throughout the country.
We walked among Miguel’s jungle, visited his chickens and horses and sampled three different fruits we’ve never seen or heard of before—nisporo, which looked like a miniature pear, another was called manzana de agua (apple of water), and the other was a juicy sour ball full of vitamin C called cas. We then watched a tropical rain shower from his balcony on the second floor, an orchestra of nature. Our friends plotted out our itinerary for the next couple of days and arranged for a taxi to our next destination, a farm high in the Talamanca Mountain Range.