Category: Costa Rica


The holy grail of Monteverde bird watching:  the resplendent quetzal. Photo by Kim

There- you have the reason everyone goes to the Cloud Forest:  to see the resplendent quetzal.  This member of the trogon family is understandably a key fixture in Mayan and Aztec legend.  Apparently, the quetzal lost its most beautiful song when the Mayan lost their country to the Spaniards, and will only sing again when the land is once again free. These striking birds symbolized freedom since they reportedly would kill themselves in captivity. In fact, a breeding program at Zoológico Regional Miguel Álvarez del Torohas produced only about a dozen birds since 2003.  The song they sing is, for the time being, distinctive.

When we arrive, there is a pair of resplendent quetzals in trees by the parking lot. Astonishingly, some people decide they will skip the tour because they’ve seen what they came to see without leaving the parking lot.


Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve is internationally famous and so amazingly busy.  We are advised of two things:  arrive for the first tour if you want to see any birds, and hire a guide.  If you get there late, the throngs will chase the birds away.  And if you think your untrained eyes will find birds and animals, well, good luck to you.


The potoo on super zoom. Seriously, not finding this one by myself due to camoflauge.

I learn thoughout this trip why ecotourists should hire local guides.  It’s not just for their sharp eyes.  Guides at reserves share with each other information on where there are potoos posed still on a nest within a broken snag, bats roosting for the day, sloths sleeping, and hummingbird nests with young. You are benefiting from the sharp eyes of many guides.

And along with dollars that go to lodging and food, your guide fees and tips give the local communities reason to preserve these lands, to let the jungle come back.

At Santa Elena Reserve, our young guide tells a tale of wanting to guide only for the tourist dollars.  “I knew nothing about our birds and animals here,” he says. “But it was better money than cattle farming at home with my family.”

An older guide gave him a pair of broken binoculars.  He managed to fix them, and  found his world transformed when he saw his first bird in fine detail.  It stopped being about tourist dollars right then:  he was instantly hooked on his country’s wildlife .

When we walked with him, he demonstrated excellent tracking ability and found a quetzal breeding pair in the forest by subtle sound.

In Monteverde, the guides have equally interesting stories. Our guide walked us throught the complex life cycle of the strangler fig as if it were a suspensful drama, an unfolding story.

These strange trees are completely dependent on pollination by the fig wasp, which in turn depends on them. These are not bad trees, according to our guide, despite their name. “Tourists hear that they strangle trees, kill them, and they want them all to be removed,” he tells us.  “But they are part of the forest.  They’re natural. They help the birds and animals.”


I think about that rule- removing things that kill other things- and how ironic it would be if we applied it to ourselves.


Looking up inside a strangler fig that has swallowed its host.

Our companions on this tour are two artists that sit for coffee with us in the cafe afterward.  Greg Frux has completed multiple trips to beautiful Death Valley, first as an artist-in-residence because, he said, the artist who was supposed to go didn’t realize he or she would be camped out in a tent in the desert.  He shows me his wonderful field book and says he wants to do a painting of the strangler fig.  I don’t see anything from Costa Rica on his website even today, but he’s had many other grand adventures.

Aside from the wonderful coffee shop, there is a good gift shop with work from local artisans.  And there are hummingbird feeders.  The day is darkish and foggy, as it should be in the mist-shrouded mountains, and my photographs are only marginal, even though there are unbelievable numbers of hummingbirds there.  A local woman weaves nearby, and I’m interested, but I don’t know if we share a language.



It’s hard to compete with the brilliance of hummingbirds, but this weaver was just as colorful.









montehummer1After the tour, we walk the trails, but it is getting hot now, with the sun out.  The guide has said the sun shines more than it should in the Cloud Forests.  “Climate change,” he tells us.  “Sun will destroy the forest.  It needs clouds, and mist, and cool.”


The next day, we traveled to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, much smaller and more peaceful. This is a community-run reserve, and it has a much more intimate feel.  It has fewer rules than Monteverde, so the guide takes us in the opposite direction of the other tour groups.  This is where we track the sound of a quetzal dropping fruits in the forest, and hear the “rusty gate bird”- the black faced solitaire.  It does sound like its common namesake, but its song resonates through the forest and with the song of the lonely toucan, means Costa Rica to me from there on out.

I learn an important differentiator of my home and this place, something that should have been obvious.  The trees here don’t have rings.  I learn this when I ask the guide about a large, old cedar. Radiocarbon dating, he says.

At Santa Elena, I find beauty in forest plants.  They are dramatic, sculptural and embossed with hairs and modified leaves and flowers.  They grow where ever they can, on the ground, all over the trees, hanging in the air.

At this less crowded reserve, we lingered.  We ate lunch, drank coffee, enjoyed listening to people talk. We bought gifts in the small shop adjacent to the cafe tables. Sure, the ride up to Monteverde was rough. I was still struggling with a respiratory infection, but the moist air felt good on my lungs and I understood exactly why we had come here. It was for the resplendent quetzal and everything else wonderful about this place.

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After 3 years, I haven’t made it back to Costa Rica yet.  I wanted to go back the next year, then the next, and- well, I’m too curious. I wander too much and am easily distracted by new adventures.

But I can tell you why I really want to go back.  It’s not the adventure travel activities and resorts, because my friend and I avoided those like the plague when we traveled to the Pacific coast in 2014. It’s the quiet lodges at refuges where the owners and communities are working to save what is left of the rich wildlife in the country.

This post is about the first leg of our trip, from Liberia to our lodging near the Cloud Forests of Monteverde and Santa Elena. Our trip started in Seattle, with clear skies as we flew over sleeping Mt. Rainier. Mt. St. Helens rises above the clouds in the background, a stubby reminder of what happens when our Cascade stratavolcanoes decide they are too symmetrical and lovely.


Our travel plans led us to the smart choice of flying into Liberia.  Sure, we drove out past 40 kms of road construction leaving town, with men mixing and pouring concrete from wheelbarrows in 90F heat.  But after we flew out of San Jose at the end, I would recommend Liberia instead.  At the very least, Liberia wouldn’t be hosting the Costa Rica vs. Paraguay soccer game at the national stadium as San Jose was when we were passing through.

We had a stopover in Dallas both ways.  Don’t do this.  Or at least, if you must, give yourself about 4 hours to lay over in this airport.  We almost missed our connection on the way back, making a Chariots of Fire dash in our socks out of security and reaching the gate within a minute of closing – and this after our flight landed 2.5 hours before.

I can’t remember the airline we flew, but it doesn’t matter: the leg room and service are minimal on all of them when you’re in economy class. The only weirdly wonderful, throwback service I’ve experienced is from Air North going to the Canadian Arctic. Expensive to fly, but they have real food, free wine and capuccino and hot, moist towels before and after meals. Oh, and leg room.

I flew with an awful respiratory infection.  A doctor sent me with prescription nasal spray and Sudafed to avoid rupturing my full eardrums.  It was brutal to clear my ears, and the second takeoff felt like a near disaster.  My right ear has had a slight ringing ever since.

We landed in the early evening in Liberia, taxied to our nearby hotel, and sat on the veranda eating fruit and drinking juice in soothing warm air,  listening to night creatures chirping.  A gecko appeared on the wall, making an amazingly loud sound.

The next morning didn’t start out as a dream vacation. We gathered our rental 4WD, after finding the price skyrocketed over the quote with insurance coverage.  Since an automatic was twice the price as a manual transmission, we got the manual. This meant I was doing all the driving because Kim doesn’t drive a stick and that’s all I’ve ever owned.

The Korean SUV was a true Rent-A-Wreck; the suspension was shot by a thousand tourist yahoos and the air conditioning died within 10 minutes.  We kept the windows shut to keep out dust from the 40 km of aforementioned road construction.  That pretty much cooked us.

Then we took a couple wrong turns.  The first wasn’t too bad, but the second was a wrong turn out of Cañas onto 142, instead of continuing to 145.  People complain about the road to Monteverde, but they’re talking about 145.  The connector between was a steep, bone jarring, unsigned route.  The scenery was gorgeous and it was the type of lonely I like.  Kim- well, between no signs and bouncing around on lousy suspension in a crappy 4WD with no air conditioning, she was understandably losing patience.


Kim, taking a much needed break from the hot, suspensionless SUV on the road to Monteverde.

2222014_sharetheroadThe upside of the drive was that we weren’t lost, and we saw one cause of decline of the resplendent quetzal, a charismatic bird everyone going to Monteverde Cloud Forest wants to see:  a fragmented travel corridor between the mountains and the sea. Cattle ranches have denuded forest, leaving flying quetzals vulnerable to winged predators.


In the middle of nowhere appeared an “Info Center”- with no facilities or people to give information.  Had to stop for the picture, anyway.


A sign! The speed limit is the funniest one- at that speed, our vehicle would disintegrate.

We finally made it to Cabinas Capulin.  It was a little hard to find someone to check us in: the lodging operation is operated on a restored portion of a working dairy operation. They, like others, are adding ecotourism to their portfolio to weather the uncertainties of farming and to benefit from local tourism.  They’re not as connected as some, so we had to set up our own guide reservations in the Cloud Forest Reserves, which require certified guides.



Our cabin was small and comfortable, with great deck and views.  The wood in the cabins was from fallen trees that can no longer be harvested because they’re endangered.  We learned on the trip that wood is poached along with exotic animals and birds from tropical forests.

The view from the deck was filled with lush, beautiful trees with birds fluttering everywhere.  The family built trails as the jungle began to restore itself, but clearly, some trees had been there awhile.


We wandered the trails the first day, and I met my first strangler fig.  These tropical plants earned their name by their survival tactic:  they begin to grow in the canopy of a live tree, drop roots to the ground, slowly surrounding the host until they shut it down and become a tree of their own.


The Capulin strangler fig was on one trail, and on another, enormous ant mound that would be dwarfed by the underground complex and satellite mounds we couldn’t see.  A parade of leaf cutter ants marched along the trail, bounty on their backs.  The leaf pieces are not for their dinner table, but to feed the fungus they farm underneath the dirt. Awesome video of these ants is at Deep Look on YouTube.


leafcutterantsThus my first view into the complex, interconnected world of the rainforest:  an environment where any creature that plows the soil and recycles organic important is absolutely critical.  Even a soldierly group of ants with a labyrinthine underground world.


Emerald Toucanet

We saw other birds here, including an emerald toucanet and pale-billed woodpecker, and came upon the other ubiquitous feature of Costa Rican tourist areas:  the zipline. Cabinas Capulin has a small one, which we did not avail ourselves, but up the road is apparently the Big Daddy of ziplines, and an aerial tram.  We passed.

cabinas_palebilledwoodpeckerCabinas Capulin was really our jumping off point to Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves, which I’ll cover in the next post.  Suffice to say, it is an inexpensive place to stay, and a coworker recommended it when we couldn’t get into the Ecolodge San Luis, a branch of University of Georgia. And Cabinas was a secluded, relaxing place to be after our rather inauspicious start.


3022014_TheLovelyTapir2The academics found it, the four women from the University of Costa Rica combing through the woods for fungal samples. They were on their monthly visit to the Osa Peninsula rainforest outside Corcovado National Park, traveling the trails above La Leona Ecolodge to their designated sampling sites. One PhD candidate had told me the focus of her thesis was establishing fungi as indicators of climate change.

I had seen them below the trail on the slope, and smiled and waved as I passed. Then I stopped to take photos of the little things that always catch my eye, frogs and plants and such, and they passed me by. I caught up with them at their next sampling site when the professor type, a compact, confident woman my age, waved me over. “The danta!” she called. “Here is the tapir!”

And there it was, resting in the vegetation off trail, its long proboscis on the ground, ears round and upright like an enormous sow-sized mouse, eyes watching me; calm. In the shaded forest area, the danta appeared to be wholly black. It lay slightly on its side, legs partially tucked, taking advantage of the dappled shade and sea breeze traveling up from the ocean to weather the heat of the day. I took a few bad pictures, too excited to have a steady enough hand in the low light. But I had to, really, in case I never saw one again. I wanted to let sleeping tapirs lie, so I turned around shortly. Since I am old enough to do strange things without apology, I stopped and said to the tapir,”Thank you so much for greeting me in your home, my friend- I will be back to see you sometime again.”

While the  Osa Peninsula affords the best opportunity see a Baird’s tapir, I felt fortunate to encounter one so close. The staff at La Leona said one visited the open air restaurant one evening while they were cooking vegetables. Baird’s tapirs are shy mostly, as well as retiring.

These odd-toed ungulates, distantly related to rhinos and horses, persisted for 35 million years little changed, eating vegetation and serving as critical seed dispersers and occasional food for jaguars and crocodiles. Indigenous peoples likely hunted them for food.

Then came the scourge of deforestation for banana plantations and cattle ranching, along with waves of immigrants who increased harvest of tapirs. Costa Rica now hosts fewer than 1000 tapirs, and the number continues to fall due to habitat loss, hunting outside protected areas, and poaching.

The tapir reproduces slowly, the second strike against its future. Gestation is a year before a single offspring is produced; another year or two passes before the young is sent on its way. Tapirs are largely solitary, dependent on forests with nearby water sources to wallow or wash in. They reportedly frequent the Sirena Ranger Station airstrip to graze on the disturbed area.

Tapirs depend on habitat connectivity like grizzly bears, wolves, elk, bison, and other large North American land mammals. Even at 2.2 million acres (~890,000 hectares), Yellowstone National Park does not have enough habitat for the animals. Bison leave for better food sources come winter only to be killed when they step over the park boundary. Wolves travel with elk in hunting season and get harvested after they follow the elk past the invisible line that protects them.

There simply isn’t enough space: the Yellowstone to Yukon initiative promotes development of a habitat corridor to correct the “island effect” .

In Costa Rica, the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor has the same goal to benefit tapirs and a host of other species that suffer from habitat fragmentation.  Even the resplendent quetzal needs to travel, but forest fragmented for open cattle pasture  makes it vulnerable to raptor predation as it flies from the cloud forest to the lowlands. We stayed at lodges that promote the project, and conservation. Hacienda Baru Wildlife Refuge and lodge  was a wonderful treat of trails full of wildlife and a great conservation story to boot.

The footprint of the danta, Danta Corcovado Lodge

The footprint of the danta, Danta Corcovado Lodge


Danta Lodge has anti-skid danta footprints in the shower-of course!

Danta Corcovado Lodge at La Palma is the most sustainable place we stayed, a truly magical, hand-crafted child’s dream of the tropical rainforest. The lodge is all things “danta”: a three toed danta footprint is the logo, silverware holders, candle holders, and even anti-slip patterns on the floor of the open air showers.

But that passionate commitment to this large, shy animal may not be shared by many visitors, or perhaps even biologists. When I returned from my danta encounter to the tent camp, I excitedly showed my pictures to my friend and travel buddy, a marine biologist and birder. “Huh”, she said, clearly not enthralled. “They’re so ugly, you wonder why anyone would care about saving them. It’s not like jaguars and quetzals- those are beautiful!”

Tapirs- not winning a beauty contest!

Don’t judge my friend too harshly on that statement. Google “is conservation a beauty contest” and you will get an article from the Guardian reporting that scientists champion the beautifuland charismatic and neglect species that aren’t show-stoppers and therefore money-raisers . A former scientist turned science teacher has started a Tumblr site called “Endangered Ugly Things”.

And there is the curious irony of the heroic rescue of the hideously ugly California condor while sending the more repulsive condor louse into an eternal night by delousing the last wild birds as they were brought into a captive breeding program.

The Baird’s tapir isn’t cute like the panda, and doesn’t benefit from the charisma factor. It doesn’t run in massive migratory herds, or even multi-generational family units like elephants, with mysterious vocalizations and mystical associations with place and death. The tapir isn’t venomous, nor does it hunt in some spectacular fashion by tooth and claw: it is more a forest workhorse, fertilizing, tilling, and cracking and dispersing hard-coated seeds.

In Costa Rica, the market sells what people would love and would save if it were threatened.

Gift shops specializing in local artisan works have carvings, paintings, weavings of scarlet macaws, the resplendent quetzal, monkeys, blue morpho butterflies, toucans, and so on.

In the wonderful Jagua Arts and Crafts in Puerto Jimenez, I struggled to find anything to honor my tapir encounter, and was about to give up after we combed the whole shop. My friend may not have been so enamored of the tapir, but she was determined that I should have a memento,so she asked the clerk if they had any tapir-themed item.

The woman pulled open drawers of painted animal carvings, dug through the jaguars, monkeys, macaws, and even sharks, and finally found a single tapir carving. That was it for the whole store.

The tapir, coming out of its shower

The tapir, coming out of its shower

Danta Corcovado Lodge- statue of the danta

Danta Corcovado Lodge- statue of the danta







On our last morning at La Leona, a guide ran up from the beach as we were all eating breakfast in the open air restaurant. “Come now!” he called. “There is a tapir on the beach!” We all ran down with the ever-handy cameras and binoculars and the guide set up his spotting scope. The animal was at a distance,  walking slowly out of the surf and toward the forest.

The guide volunteered that “the tapir takes the shower in the morning to remove the parasites, then it goes to bed in its forest during the day.” I smiled at the description, anthropomorphic perhaps for ease of translation, or for better understanding by the foreign tourist. Here we were, “glamping” in simple tent abodes with open air showers, no electricity and no hot water, but we still needed a domicile context to understand nature.

My buddy was shaking her head after looking in the scope. “Well, at least I saw it. But that snout- they’re just so ugly.” “Don’t listen,” I told the distant danta. “You are lovely in your homeliness and worthiness, my endangered forest friend. Have a good rest today. I will tell the world about you, and come back to see you again.”