(This blog continues my Nicaragua Diary, which can be found here.)
Costa Rica! Having left my departure from San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua until a little too late, I discovered I missed the last direct bus from the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border to La Fortuna by 5 minutes. Got on the local bus to La Cruz, where I waited 1.5 hours for the local bus to Upala, hoping to connect to La Fortuna there. Alas, soon after La Cruz, the road turns into gravel and just after the fall of darkness a tire blew with a loud hiss. While the bus had a spare, there was nothing to lift the bus, meaning we had to wait for a mechanic to come from the next village. A good chance to practice my very shaky Spanish as a fellow passenger wanted to discuss Hitler and the Nazis with me. Fortunately, the conversation soon drifted to other topics. (Not that I was able to contribute much more than the occasional “Si, si.”)
Despite the hiccup, first impressions were very positive: since it was a local bus, most passengers knew each other and were very friendly with each other. Mothers and grandfathers were very loving toward their children, the bus driver would wait until people had sat down before getting moving again, and the people generally seemed extremely polite. Nicaragua had much more of an “edge.”
But the blown tire meant that Upala was the end of the road for me that evening. So, after having spent two nights in a beautiful hotelita in San Juan, I ended up spending the first night in Costa Rica in a dingy station hotel, having bread, processed cheese, hot dogs, and tomatoes from a late night supermarket for dinner. Not a very auspicious start to my travels around Costa Rica. But that’s all part of backpacking!
Caught the early morning bus to La Fortuna, center of the Arenal volcano region. One of the main tourist destinations in Costa Rica’s north, the region offers all sorts of outdoor activities, including hiking, white-water rafting, zip lining, all terrain vehicle rides, hot springs, etc. etc. I signed up for a tour to the observatory to at least catch a glimpse of the volcano and see a bit of the area. The area and volcano are very beautiful, with lush forests and pretty waterfalls, but all those tourist activities and joining a tour are not really my thing, and I wasn’t sad to leave early next morning.
Now the real wildlife adventure starts! After a few more bus rides – the last stretch 2 hours at 20km/h on a gravel road out of Pital – I arrived at Boca Topada, where the Laguna del Lagarto Lodge is located, a true eco lodge with 500ha of virgin rain forest, two lagoons, and lots of wildlife, including caimans that after dark come up the driveway almost to your room! They also have a beautiful open-air restaurant, where all sorts of birds – including three kinds of toucans – as well as coatis come to visit for breakfast. The forest is home to three species of monkeys – howler, spider, and capuchin (although unfortunately I didn’t see any) – and various types of frogs (more about those later). The lagoons, in addition to the caimans, which are invisible during the day, but whose unseen presence is a bit spooky, are home to “Jesus lizards” (basilisks), so named because they run across water. Heaven!
But the undisputed star among Costa Rican frogs clearly is the red-eyed tree frog. Because it is nocturnal (hence the large eyes) and difficult to find, the lodge kept one in a large cage to show to the guests after dinner (and after the caimans), illuminating it with a torch, which makes for very dramatic photos. In fact, it was difficult to whittle my photos down to my favorite four.
However, I still wasn’t quite happy with the shot and waited for it to run back to shore. 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes went by, and the light was fading rapidly. So I started snapping my fingers, shouting, stomping – anything that allowed me keep one finger on the shutter…but to no avail. In the end, I had to make a move to get back to the lodge before darkness (and the driveway was full of caimans). Naturally, as soon as I took the finger of the shutter button, the basilisk did run…
In the northeast of Costa Rica on the Caribbean coast lies Tortuguero National Park – famous (as the name suggests) for the sea turtles that come to lay their eggs there. While by the time I visited the turtle season – which runs until October – was over, the park is still among the best in Costa Rica for observing wildlife, including various monkey species, crocodiles, caimans, two-fingered and three-fingered sloths, river turtles, birds, birds, and a large variety of smaller critters.
A beautiful three-hour boat and short shared taxi ride south of Tortuguero lies Cahuita National Park. Situated on the Caribbean coast, the national park was established to protect the severely degraded coral reefs off the shore, but the main attraction (for me) were the pristine beaches, the lush vegetation, and the wildlife. Hiking the 8km trail along the shore, I watched pelicans diving for fish, shooting like arrows into the sea, and came across capuchin, spider, and howler monkeys, a squirrel, a coati, and a rather cute brown vine snake.
A major reason why Costa Rica packs in such great biodiversity despite its small size is its varied topography and range of climatic zones. In the morning, I was sweating on the hot, humid Caribbean coast; by the afternoon, I was freezing at an altitude of 2650m in the mountains of the Cordillera Talamanca. En route to Corcovado National Park on the Osa peninsula in the south, I stopped at the Mirador de Quetzales to catch a glimpse of the resplendent quetzal, which plays an important role in Mesoamerican mythology and is Guatemala’s national bird.
Setting off in the morning chill the next day at 6:30am (pretty much the normal time at which my days in Costa Rica start) with the local guide, we spotted four of these magnificent birds almost straight away, but getting a nice shot proved very difficult in the dim light. I therefore decided to stay for another day and went for a hike on a beautiful mountain trail, where I did catch a fleeting glimpse (and capture the first of the images here) of a male with its iridescent plumage and long tail feathers. The next morning, I was luckier: two males passed through, allowing enough time to get a few shots.
Next stop: Osa Pensinsula, which, as it turns out, deserves its own diary, which can be found here.