©2005 Matthew Dodder. All rights reserved.

Costa Rica 07-14-05 to 07-29-05
(Section 3: Tarcol Lodge and Carara NP, transfer to Monteverde area)

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Section 0 Introduction
Section 1 Day 1-3 (arrival in San Jose, Rancho Naturalista)
Section 2 Day 4-6 (Racho Naturalista, Savegre Lodge)
Section 3 Day 7-9 (Tarcol Lodge and Carara, Monteverde area)
Section 4 Day 10-12 (Monteverde area, Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS)
Section 5 Day 13-15 (Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS, return to San Jose)

Day 07:
Tarcol Lodge, Carara National Park and Mangrove boat ride
with our guide Leo

We had our breakfast downstairs at the big table with John at 5:15 am. Leo appeared as well, noticeably perkier than he had been in Rancho Naturalista. John boasted about being 75 and still capable of defeating his grandson in the boxing ring... "Have some butter. It's good for you... keeps me healthy." He was dressed exactly as he had been the night before, still washed and pressed, with a cell phone strapped to his belt like business man's weapon. He really was quite strange. Imagine Jack Pallance... John is an American who, if you were to believe his stories, was involved with almost everything over years, from designing major sections of Caltrans, to inventing nine board games sold worldwide, to "fixing up" the Tarcol Lodge, to wrestling crocodiles, to starting the Gateway travel business, and patenting a 6-person hyper baric oxygen tank... He employs 20 people around the country, but had difficulty remembering the names of the two women who cooked and cleaned while we stayed (Xinia and Jessica). One of his workers is a full time carpenter, like that was supposed to impress us. "Really, John. That's interesting..." We learned somewhere around this time that John was actually Kathy's husband, and together they pretty much brought modern business to Costa Rica, these two, self-proclaimed "innovators".

Outside the dining room, a long green dock led out over the dwarf mangrove trees to the River Tarcoles. Wood Storks foraged methodically in the shallow water, as did a Roseate Spoonbill, and many Yellow-crowned Night Herons. Groove-billed Anis were abundant here, and their wheezy calls soon became familiar. In the distance, Scarlet Macaws squawked loudly. By days end we would see many of these brilliant birds flying from tree to tree over the mangrove.

Above: The lodge at Tarcol

Above: shores of the River Tarcoles

The day's plan included a morning trip to Carara National Park. John drove us to the park entrance and let us out. Along the way, Leo had called out a few birds such as Anhinga in a flooded field, Blue-black Grassquit and Ringed Kingfisher.

Above: Ringed Kingfisher (digiscoped image)

The forest at Carara was very different than the haunting woods of Rancho Naturalista, with its dense underbrush and comparatively short trees, or the tall open forest of Savegre. Here it was very moist, with some standing puddles and a wide stream. This was, we learned, a true rain forest, and the difference in flora was apparent. Huge leaves dripped with recent rain, numerous bromeliads adorned the branches of enormous cashew trees hanging also with great twisted vines straight out of Tarzan. It seemed that more species of palms existed here as well as other trees not present in other areas. Strangely, much of the understory was clear, indicating old growth. When the large ancient trees get to a certain height, they block the forest floor from sunlight making it difficult for small trees to survive. Only when a large tree falls, do the fast growing small plants have a chance to "get a leg up" in this competition for sunlight. On the forest floor we saw numerous insects and a huge centipede, as well as the first of many Poison Arrow Fogs.

Above: Green Poison-arrow Frog

Above: Cricket would have fit inside of these roots, but we didn't think to get a picture

Above: fearless and intrepid explorers, Aiko and Kaz

Above: Cricket and me

Above: Supposedly there was a Fer-de-lance (extremely venomous snake) living here. We did not find it, luckily....

Collared Forest Falcon
and the bizarre, round-winged Laughing Falcon were highlights here. Both were identified by sound before they were eventually found. Royal Flycatcher appeared high in the trees, briefly showing its fabulous crest, as did Cinnamon Becard, Rufous Mourner, Rufous Piha (all similar looking) and Lesser Greenlet (one of many small, flitting, treetop-dwelling, greenish birds)... We managed also to spot Black-throated and Slaty-tailed Trogon in this area. We were admiring a Beryl-crowned or Charming Hummingbird when two other birders met us on the trail. An older man and a European spoke briefly with Leo in a rather calm professional manner. We gathered they were exchanging information about what they had seen. It was all quite cold and then they left. The older man made a casual golf swing in the air and asked "Mind if we play through?" This was a moment of friendliness in an otherwise professional encounter. We remained behind for a minute to allow the two men to get a short distance ahead. "That was my father." Leo said flatly. "Leo! You didn't introduce us??" I gave him a friendly punch in the shoulder and he smiled crookedly. I think he also laughed, the first time since we'd met. His father, Richard Garrigues, is quite well known and is currently working on a new field guide to Costa Rica that should be published next year. I'm including his web site below, which features a beautiful gallery of images.

We made a brief effort to relocate the Band-tailed Barbthroat that Leo's father had seen nesting in a palm by the river. The trail took us right to the spot, which was a rocky beach along a bend in the river. Laughing Falcon was seen and heard again, several Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, another Blue-gray Tanager and a Common Tody Flycatcher, but no Barbthroat. We contented ourselves with a huge Basilisk Lizard, about 3 feet long. I asked Leo if he had heard the nickname "Jesus Lizard" before and he looked at me puzzled. I took that for a "no" and explained it was because the animal could run on the water... He got it then and seemed politely ammused. On the ground a few feet away, Kaz and Aiko were playing with a strange plant that looked like a fern and closed its leaves when touched. I remembered seeing this plant in a flowershop once, but couldn't remember its name. I flicked a few of the leaves myself to watch them react.

Above: Leo, me, Aiko and Kaz along the trail at Carara. Cricket held the camera...

The tour continued through the forest and we focused more on areas of underbrush where, with some effort, we encountered Dusky Antbird, Slaty Antwren, and Chestnut-backed Antbird. Each of these birds have an appetite for crawling bugs, especially Army Ants, hence their names. We spent some time on the pebbly river bank awaiting the Band-tailed Barbthroat that nested in a palm, but failed to see it. A long string of Leaf-cutter Ants carried thousands of small leafs sections back to their nest. On another occasion we saw what happens when these blind insects get caught in a rainstorm. Since they follow a trail of formic acid, like our familiar household ants, they must find their way home before the lifeline is washed away. Their leaf loads are too heavy to carry quickly, so they simply drop them in mid trail and run home. I'm not sure whether they return for these dropped loads later or start again cutting new leaves.

Above: Leaf-cutter Ants carrying small sections of leaves back to the nest. Notice the trail they've burned on throught he moss.

Above: plenty of leaves to choose from...

We met John back in the lot. He had been waiting for a while, reading Prophesy and the Coming Apocalypse by Jim Bakker... Seemed strangely appropriate.

After lunch, Leo suggested we take the boat up the river, because the sky threatened rain any minute and the boat was covered... theoretically at least, that meant we would stay dry. Luis, who spoke no English besides the names of local birds, looked a bit like the actor Bill Paxton and was the owner of the Mangrove Birding Tour boat. He and Leo obviously knew each other and were friends. They chatted happily in Spanish and frequently called our attention to birds along the river. We began by making a wide circle around the river mouth where a few Shorebirds including Collared Plover appeared on the mudflats. Magnificent Frigatebird, Laughing Gull and several Herons were quickly logged as well. Green Kingfisher, Great Kiskadee and Yellow-headed Caracara perched along the river banks. Then it was on into the heart of darkness where the water way became shallow and the mangrove trees choked our progress. Oddly, the insects were only slightly bothersome, perhaps because of the drizzle, but that of course changed. Overhead, tall trees with widely buttressed roots created an alien landscape of smooth dark water and wood.

Along the way we encountered "Mangrove" Yellow Warbler, Rufous-browned Peppershrike, Boat-billed Heron (a long-time goal of mine), and Mangrove Vireo. Parrots of various kinds called loudly overhead, most cacophonous of them was the Mealy Parrot. A pair of Plumbeous Kites perched high in the dead branches of one tree and while we admired them, the rarest of the birds we found flew in. It was the Yellow-billed Cotinga, and it's appearance excited Leo and Luis so much that they smiled and laughed for the remainder of the trip. The trip cost us $100, which was completely reasonable considering how long we were out and the great number of birds we saw.

Above: the Tarcoles River Mangrove

Above: I'm still glowing after the Yellow-billed Continga. Our captain Luis guides the boat. The lodge is visible in the distance

We returned to the lodge and relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon, scanning the treetops and waterfront with John's Swarovski telescope. Scarlet Macaws were frequently seen, always in pairs, flapping shallowly as they crossed the water and over the house. Aiko had now seen one of her life-time goals quite well and several times. Just off the patio, John's concrete retaining wall held a shallow pool of standing water which provided sanctuary for Rufous-naped Wren, Mangrove Black Hawk and Panama Flycatcher. A Ctenosaur, or "Black Iguan"a slept in a tree there too, it's long striped tail visible in a hole in a tree.

Beer seemed in order, and when John said he'd be happy to go get some, we said we'd be happy if he did. I'm not sure how far he had travel to make the purchase, but it seemed like a long time before he returned with two six packs of Imperial. We kept a tally of who many we drank so we could reimburse him when we checked out, and I opened one for our guide. We sat and relaxed as the river flowed by, making notes in the binder and checking the day's list.

Dinner came and went with nothing much to tell. After the meal however, Leo suggested we take a short walk along the road where he had heard Black-and-white Owl. As it turned out, the bird was a Streaked Owl, which answered immediately when I broadcast the song. Leo seemed slightly embarrassed at the misidentification, but it was quickly forgotten. Kaz and Aiko had opted to remain inside, away from the evening bugs, and so never got to see the Owl land in perfect view beside the lodge. Big mistake. As a result, they were held prisoner at the dinner table, playing one of John's board games as he explained the rules.

The schedule said it was time for showers and sleep. It was a welcome part of the day. We were tired, sweaty and deet-infused. Good night everyone.

"Did you check the bed for any creepy-crawlies...?" Kelly reminded me.

Day 08:
Tarcol Lodge
, Carara National Park and a walk through the village

5:15 breakfast. Again.. Both Leo and John seemed a bit at a loss as to what to recommend for the day. The recent rain had made many parts of Carara too muddy to hike without high rubber boots. None of John's household boots fit me, so what else could we do?
"What do you want to do today?", they asked, as if a group of four American visitors would know all the available options... "Figure it out guys," I thought. For a lodge that advertises free admission to Carara for all guests remaining three nights, you'd think they'd have tons of suggestions about what to do after that first day... Finally, after some obvious nervousness on their parts, we decided to return to Carara and explore the same areas we had the day before, getting better looks at the birds and possibly finding somethings we had overlooked. The loose plan worked out just fine, and exactly as hoped. We did get better looks at many of the previous day's species as well as several more. Most notable, Turquoise-browed Motmot, King Vulture (viewed high above, through a gap in the trees), Bicolored Antbird (Cricket scooped me on this one...), and my favorite, the Spectacled Antpitta, a rather difficult species made viewable with the help of my iPod. Best purchase I ever made...

Back to the lodge for lunch. I don't know what John was reading as he waited for us in the lot. Something apocalyptic, I expect. I came to learn that he was quite a student of Christ. He wrote two black-covered books, one entitled Two Thieves; Three Crosses and the other Now Through Armageddon, both filled with delicious fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism. The latter featured a cover image of a disembodied arm with a blood-filled chalice being poured over the earth... "John, that is SO interesting." I too, began to wonder when we could leave...

Above: John's books

Above: a little nap for Cricket and me before heading back into the bugs

After another scintillating lunch with our host, and a brief rest on the patio hammock, we headed out along the road with our guide. We turned to access the beach and saw the overgrown soccer field where Leo had played yesterday with his friends before dinner. Not much was found here save Stripe-headed Sparrows that had grown wary when a tiny Ferruginous Pygmy Owl appeared on a nearby branch. We also saw one of our very few Corvids of the trip, a small band of White-throated Magpie Jays. Their long blue tails and curly crest seemed in keeping with the many other hypercolored birds we had seen since we arrived. We continued on. A marshy field a kilometer away promised views at Northern Jacana. Sure enough, two of the birds fed in the wet grass on the edge of the field. Their chestnut plumage and citrine wings all but glowed. Within moments, we had also seen Bare-throated Tiger Heron as it struggled to swallow a large snake, Violaceous Trogon, a shock of shiny blue and yellow as it flew into a nearby tree, Yellow-naped Parrot, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Amazon Kingfisher, Black-crowned Tityra and I-don't-know-what-else... Roadside birding had never been so productive. Oh, yeah... At one point it began to rain quite hard and we took shelter under the thatched roof of some kind of village pub. Nobody was present and no drinks were being served. Seemed safe enough while we waited out the rain. Suddenly, a large chained dog barked loudly and lashed out at my ass. I leapt back into the road and avoid losing a large chunk of flesh. Somehow I escaped the jaws of death, while Leo and my beloved family laughed uncontrollably. I stood just a little farther away than the others, quite unprotected from the rain. The dog a doberman female with unpinned ears and a full-length tail looked a little less frightening from that safe distance and soon fell back asleep. Leo continued to giggle.

Above: the beach at Tarcol

Above: Me at the scope, with Kaz and Leo looking for Royal Terns

Above: Yellow-naped Parrot (digiscoped image)

The village was quite primitive, with one main muddy road, numerous small homes with laundry hanging in everyone's yard. Children ran around barefooted and adults gathered at the bus stop for a vehicle we never saw. A few people managed somehow to navigate bicycles through the mud and potholes, some carrying bags or books. A few scrawny dogs barked at passersby. Bananas hung from neighborhood trees and a single power line fed all the lights and homes. Every block there appeared to be an open air social hall with a video game and a fooze ball table. We saw customers, mostly men drinking cold sodas and watching television at night, but during the day, the joints were deserted.

Above: along the road in Tarcol

Above: sunset from the Tarcol Lodge with the Pacific Ocean beyond the river mouth

The rain came again but not so hard, and lasted through dinner. We enjoyed the excuse to just sit and relax. As usual, after dinner, Leo helped us record the day's discoveries. Then it was coffee, shower, creepy-crawly bed check, lights out and the glow from the floor below. Sleep.

Day 09:
Tarcol Lodge
1:00 pm transfer to Trapp Family Lodge in Monteverde
(3 hour drive to this Cloud forest, 4,500')

Because of a small misunderstanding, Leo was ready to take us on walking tour of the nearby mangrove at 5:30... but we failed to show up until 7:00. Oh, well. He wasn't upset and enjoyed teasing us about sleeping late. We slathered on an extra thick layer of deet and headed down the road to look for Barred Antshrike. We passed through someone's back yard, then under a rusty barbed wire fence... "Are you sure this is allowed, Leo?". "Sure." he said, which wasn't all that convincing, but we were already there so we just kept going. Before long we were surrounded by mosquitoes that seemed to rise out of the mud and just start sucking. The "trail" lead over a tiny creek and over a patch of shallow slippery mud that was interrupted by the stumpy roots of mangroves. The canopy was quite low here and none of the trees were higher than 20 feet. Our boots sunk deeper in the mud the farther we entered the woods so that we feared we'd sink completely in if we stopped moving. At one point the trees became noticeably taller and the groundcover disappeared altogether. Instead, a weird mudscape of tiny upward pointing roots appeared, each one roughly the size of evenly spaced salt sellers. The loudness of humming mosquitoes in the grove was remarkable and it even began to get to Leo, who resisted bug repellent unless it proved absolutely necessary. This was one of the few times he asked if he could have some of ours... We never did find the Antshrike, but we did come across an unexpected bird, the Slaty-headed Tody Flycatcher, which made us all quite happy. We made a half hearted effort to drag a waterlogged tree trunk so we could make a bridge allowing us to pass deeper into the mangrove, but quickly decided it wasn't worth it. We slogged back through the muddy clearing and under the barbed wire to safety. One bird was seen at the cost of at least 10 mosquito bites each and several fluid ounces of blood.

After breakfast, we had the same problem as the day before. What should we do? We saw the boat in the small channel beside the kitchen, but it was completely lodged in the mud. The tide was very low... The likelihood of another ride before we had to leave at 1:00 seemed remote. Still, the suggestion was made and we agreed. If Luis could free the boat, a short tool around the estuary would be delightful... Leo, Luis and another local, who bore a striking resemblance to Antonio Banderas, pushed and pulled loudly for nearly half an hour to work the boat free from the deep mud. They labored shirtless, laughing and grunting to release the flat bottomed craft. Eventually it was positioned at the end of the dock and Luis shouldered the engine down the walkway. Leo, Luis and Antonio continued to laugh and joke about the mud and soon we were on our way.

Luis directed the skiff out toward the river mouth, passing the sandbar again. We continued toward the ocean and soon pulled in where we could anchor for a few minutes. The beach was steep and made of driftwood, village debris and dark sand. We all hopped out and onto land while Antonio roped the boat to a heavy fallen tree. The current was heading out strongly and I feared our boat might be dragged out as well. In the distance, some familiar birds rested near the surf. Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull, Ruddy Turnstones, Willet and Black-bellied Plover.
As well, there was a small group of Terns. Leo handed the scope to me. "You're the expert. Are these Royal?" I was flattered with his confidence in me, and yes, they were Royal Terns. Crested Caracara and Mangrove Black Hawk flew through the area while we surveyed the beach and an Osprey rested on a stump by the waves. I tried to engage Luis in conversation, but my Spanish is very weak. Still, we got by and I learned that he really enjoys bird watching and does is a lot along the river. One hundred and fifty species, he wrote in the sand, but he can't afford to visit places like Monteverde... It's too expensive. When we were done, we gave $30 for the ride and all his help finding new birds.

So now it was lunch. Or last lunch with John... It would also be our last meal with Leo because our ride would be here soon and we'd be off to Monteverde. The phone rang as Xinia was clearing the table. It was Sonia from Gateway. Our ride, she informed John, was going to be late. "No problem," I said to her after John handed me the phone. "We'll just wait here and relax." I clarified a few items on the itinerary with her and found out that our last evening would be back at Hotel Bougainvillea. She had not been able to get rooms for us there before we left California, so this was good news. I never really worried about it, but the confirmation still came as a relief.

We made sure our luggage was all packed and the rooms empty. We checked the schedule again and gave tips to both house keepers and Leo. We settled up with John about the beer we'd consumed and a full hour later, our new driver showed up. I looked at my watch and reminded myself that this was not the Bay Area... No matter. We'd be in the car all day anyway, and the rest would be nice. Javier, who spoke perfect English and we later learned had spent time working in a hotel in Kansas, was extremely apologetic and we assured him we understood. Within a minute or two the car was loaded and we were off.

Along the way, Javier stopped to let us use the restrooms a couple of times. One such stop was at an open-air diner with a couple of semis parked on the shoulder. We found our ways to the back of the restaurant and when we returned to the van, our driver had somehow managed to wolf down a full meal in less than two minutes! He'd been sitting at the bar when he saw us and quickly dropped his napkin. He still held a cup in his hand as he rose and brought it with him to the car. He then put it in the holder as if that's just what we do around here... I supposed he would return it on some future visit...

Soon after that, Javier turned off the highway and onto a nameless road leading through a small village. This was yet another moment we thanked our stars we had chosen not to rent a car. No less than eight times a day, we thought to ourselves, "We would definitely have missed that turn..." After about 20 minutes on this axle-snapping dirt road I began to wonder where the hell is he taking us. "Is this the main road into Monteverde?" I asked, trying to be nonchalant."Yes it is," he said reassuringly. He said nothing after that. After a pause of almost half an hour, I broke my silence. "How long is this road?" Understand, we were climbing steeply, going no more than 10 mph for nearly an hour. There were huge ruts in our path and fallen rocks that forced us to swerve back and forth widely. Seat belts are indeed blessed things, preventing us from bumping our heads on the ceiling of the van... I had to wonder though if he was lost and just not admitting to it. "It's about 40 kilometers." he said. I think I saw him smile in the rear view mirror.

As the road took us upward, the landscape grew more and more stunning. Below us the valley and the distant hills lived up to the region's name, Monteverde, or green mountain. Every slope seemed coated with a lush velvet forest punctuated with tall bare-trunked trees rising above the canopy. Pale gray clouds drifting between the trees and over the peaks, in places moving noticeably against the earth and in others hanging quite still. It grew damp and cooler. Before long we were in the clouds and the visibility dropped markedly. The branches beside the road appeared bluish and ghostly in the fog, Spanish moss and bromeliads created strange silhouettes against this pallid backdrop. We continued to climb until somehow we end up above the clouds which could now be seen below us, from a sheer drop beside the car. Wherever Javier had brought us, it was beautiful and I dare say almost heavenly!

Above: The road up into the Monteverde area

We began to see more cars, some coming from the road above, other crazies attempting to pass from behind. There were also a growing number of motorcycles, which appeared to have a definite advantage over the lumbering cars. We were entering the town of Santa Elena and it shocked us with its busy metropolitan feel. As with our other drivers, we asked Javier to make a quick stop for supplies before we arrived at our Lodge. A few minutes in the grocery store allowed us to stock up on juice and water for the next few days. We had no idea what the facilities would be like in Monteverde would be like, except that the photographs on the web site looked nice.

Arriving after 6:00 pm, we thanked our driver and he helped us roll our many suitcases into the honey-colored hardwood reception area of the Trapp Family Lodge. The building was made of exquisite hard wood, decorated with Austrian carved motifs on each door, widow frame and railing. The floor was highly polished and beautiful. And the entrance smelled like delicious toasted
something... After Tarcol, this place seemed like a wealthy mountain dream. I could see immediately that everyone was relieved, especially Cricket, who could not stop smiling. The receptionist was expecting us, of course, and promptly handed us the keys to rooms 9 and 10. She beaconed to the bellboy, and asked if he would please show us to our rooms. He obeyed, and not ten steps later, and still in view of the lobby, we were at our door. The escort now seemed completely unnecessary. But the formality of it all was so nice anyway. He opened the door to our room, and we all gasped. In front of us was a perfectly appointed, luxury abode with warm wood walls, floors, beams and table. The lights had already been switched on, so the space glowed with unearthly golden light. It was so warm, and welcoming. Just like you'd expect from the world famous Trapp family. The entire far side of the room was taken up by a huge bay window that overlooked the garden below and the cloud forest beyond that. No road, no people or buildings could be seen from the window, just tall trees and the many bromeliads growing among them. Kaz and Aiko's room, just down the hall, was similarly wonderful and we were all suddenly overwhelmed with a strange desire to nap.

Above: Our beautiful room at the Trapp Family Lodge

Unfortunately, there was little time to rest because dinner was to commence in just half an hour. After unpacking a few necessary items, Cricket and I flopped back onto bed and enjoyed the glow of the room. I realized now, in this safe environment, that my body was quite tired and my stomach a little upset. As dinner neared, I began to feel quite strongly that food might not be the best idea, but I forced myself toward the dining area. The room adjoined the lobby and had several rows of white-clothed tables. Shiny silverware and gleaming water glasses brightened by candlelight stood in such contrast to dining experience we had enjoyed thus far. Our menu was brought to us and featured standard fare, such as pasta with various sauces, roasted chicken, pork chop or steak. There was even fish, Sea Bass to be had. Nothing really appealed. I was now undeniably queasy. I ordered something though, steak and water. I can't remember what everyone else ordered, but when it finally arrived I couldn't eat any of it. Instead I returned to the room to lie down. As I lay there, looking at the ceiling, recollections of John's ominous us of the word theoretical echoed in my mind. Perhaps I would soon become aware of exactly why we should have fled when he first greeted us in Tarcol. I tried to eat some nuts and dried fruit to settle my stomach, but maybe all I needed was a good night's sleep in a big firm bed.

Go to the NEXT SECTION of this report....

Or choose a different section:
Section 0 Introduction
Section 1 Day 1-3 (arrival in San Jose, Rancho Naturalista)
Section 2 Day 4-6 (Racho Naturalista, Savegre Lodge)
Section 3 Day 7-9 (Tarcol Lodge and Carara, Monteverde area)
Section 4 Day 10-12 (Monteverde area, Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS)
Section 5 Day 13-15 (Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS, return to San Jose)