2019 Costa Rica Tour Day 5

By Susan Mahr

January 20, 2019

Howler monkeys started up around 5:00 and kept going for nearly an hour in the trees in the near distance. The bird dawn chorus started up around 5:30, with a diversity of twittering, cawing, peeping, chirping, whistling and squawking. By 6:00 the clouds out over the ocean were tinged pink as the sun, and soon the bird noise began to diminish slightly. We met in the restaurant for breakfast at 6:45, hastily eating the many buffet items so we could load the bus by 7:15 (the early departure necessitated by the tides, since we were taking a boat to get to our destination this morning).

We pulled away at 7:26 under mostly blue skies, with just a few streaks of high thin clouds. It was already warm (79) as we headed south on Highway 37, driving past forested slopes, small pastures with white cattle, colorful blooming tropical ornamentals, lots of cecropia trees and silver-leaved Calathea lutea, and lots of green vegetation of all types interspersed with little fincas. Margherita talked about the economic situation of the country, changes in governmental medical care, and employment as we zoomed along the mostly smooth and relatively straight road between oil palm plantations, native forest, and pastures. About 8:00 we crossed the wide Rio Grande de Térraba River (the largest river in the country) to continue on Highway 2 into the Brunca region (where the indigenous Boruca Indians – that make the colorful masks and animal carvings for sale in many places – live), past more agriculture, little communities, homes and roadside business, with little patches of bananas or heliconias, a few tall, leafless Ceiba trees, and hillsides covered with bright green grassy slopes or darker green trees.

We passed some young oil palm fields nearly buried in grass growing between the small plants and then some tall, old palm plantations, and others in between. These oil palms have replaced the bananas that used to be grown in the area. Of course, the rainforest that once covered the entire area was clear cut in order to put in the plantations and create the pastures that are ubiquitous here. Now there are programs that provide incentives for land owners to convert agricultural lands back into secondary forest, to help preserve some of the remaining wildlife and create wildlife corridors between many of the national parks and private reserves.

On and on we went through more of the same, with lush vegetation, or cleared areas with houses and pastures, or more oil palms, now being jostled a lot on the bumpy road. Soon we started to see big trees encrusted with light green tank bromeliads (and others with none), more oil palms in their perfect rows with most of the vegetation beneath cleared away, little houses, teak wood plantations, the small non-native trees with distinctive, huge juvenile leaves and the older trees with a very tall, straight bole with much smaller leaves.

We kept driving on and on and on through more of the same lush, green landscape under clear skies, passing coconut palms with orange fruits, patches of escaped of sugarcane, more teak and some manioc or cassava fields, plots of bananas or plantains, and fat leaves of elephant ear plants in the ditches amid the green background. At 8:45 we were waved through a police checkpoint and continued on through more patches of pasture, teak plantation, small houses and then transitioned to a more natural area with mostly all native vegetation where we had to stop and sit for about 5 minutes to go through a construction zone. In the meantime, Margherita told us about the many types of mangroves that grow in the tidal estuaries of Costa Rica, their reproductive strategies, adaptations to deal with the high salt content of the environment they live in, and the importance of mangrove ecosystems to birds and other wildlife. We proceeded a short distance, then had to sit again amid tall, lush forest. Margherita pointed out a patch of Piper aureum shrubs on the roadside, a plant with large leaves with an anise scent that is sometimes used as an insect repellant.

Then we were back to driving through dense vegetation, then back to more plantations, houses and people. We passed by the big Tio Pelon plant and then were in Rio Claro, where we turned onto Highway 14 toward Golfito, going past more oil palm plantations, the trunks of every tree in one field covered with pendant sword ferns or a few with fat philodendron leaves, and little homes, banana trees, patches of sugarcane, the occasional blooming mango tree, and open pastures on some of the hillsides.  We twisted and wound our way along, finally seeing the waters of Golfito Bay about 9:25. We turned into the Hotel & Restaurante Samoa del Sur a few minutes later and had some time to use the restrooms and have a snack of cut watermelon or pineapple before we embarked from their dock.

We divided into two groups and walked out to the two small boats waiting for us. We stepped off the floating wooden dock into the boat and sat three-abreast on three bench seats set across the boat, each with a cushion. Before we could depart we all had to don the lovely (and not very comfortable) orange life jackets. Soon we were speeding across the water with boat 2 following closely along off at a distance to one side. We crossed the small bay and went out into the larger Golfo Dulce, hugging the near coastline of steep forested slopes ending in bits of rocky beach or vegetation nearly to the water. Our boat captains took us closer to shore and slowed down to look at brown pelicans roosting in the trees and some small caverns in the rocks (and one boat followed some large fish for a bit). It was warm and sunny, with big white clouds towering over the mountains. It took about half an hour before we reached the steep pebbly beach at Casa Orquideas, a private botanical garden on the edge of Piedras Blancas National Park.  This was a wet landing (they have no dock), so we had to sit on the edge of the boat, swivel around and hop down onto the beach – ideally timing the little jump when the very low surf was out; some people ended up with wet shoes, but no one fell in the water.

We were greeted by owner Ron, who provided a little history of the place (developed by him and his wife Trudy in the 1970’s after the cacao plantation on their property succumbed to disease, and they saw this as a way of keeping the property productive). The space is surrounded on three sides by primary rainforest, and includes tropical fruit trees, bromeliads, cycads, palms, heliconias, ornamental plants and more than 100 varieties of orchids. Margherita had to phone in our lunch order before we could take a tour with her. She led us around part of the extensive property, telling us about some of the many ornamental or useful or edible tropical plants. She pointed out the plant whose seed coverings are the source of achiote or annatto (Bixa orellana) and mentioned some of its uses, several of the ornamental foliage plants that are house plants back home, and miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulciferum) which when eaten makes even sour/tart things like lemon taste sweet. We stopped to admire the non-native terrestrial bamboo orchid (), a leafy cactus (Pereskia sp.) with one bright red flower open; and the brilliant orange flowers of ???, Venezuelan rose (Brownea grandiceps) .

We had just a little time for questions or to wander around until the boats came back for us at noon. It was getting quite warm under the nearly cloudless sky by then. We made our way back down the beach to get into the boats, and sped back to the dock we’d left from. The restaurant was ready for us, and within a few minutes we were served our arroz con camarones (rice and shrimp) or arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), both served with a little bit of salad and patacones (smashed and fried plantains). The beverages we ordered (Coke, ginger ale, Fanta, beer, water) were served cold and with a glass of ice, so were extremely refreshing in the steamy air (we guessed it was in the mid to high 80’s, but it felt more like low 90’s). A faint breeze and overhead fans helped as we sweated while enjoying our tasty food, serenaded by a pair of blue-grey tanagers. The meal was capped off by coffee or ice cream, or more correctly large sundaes, of vanilla or cherry ice cream smothered in whipped cream with a drizzle of chocolate sauce and multicolored sprinkles. Just about that time a couple of pairs of orange-chinned parakeets landed in a nearby palm, shrieking to each other. There was also a family of tropical mockingbirds flitting between trees, and a ruddy ground dove foraging in the grass. A little before 2:00, we were all on the bus and returned to the main highway on the same road we’d come in on.

About 20 minutes later we stopped at a little produce market in the town of Rio Claro to see some of the local vegetables, including the long shiny red-brown tubers of manioc or cassava (Manihot esculenta), the grenade-shaped dull, grey-brown tubers of Xanthasoma (a type of elephant ear) called malanga, avocados, two varieties of bright green chayote (vegetable pear), ginger, round packets of tamarind pulp, citrus, and more. We only stayed a few minutes, then were on our way for the long drive to Las Cruces Research Station and the home of Wilson Botanical Garden. We didn’t get too far before we pulled off to briefly look at a large ceiba or kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) right on the roadside. These are the tallest trees in Costa Rica (up to 225 feet tall) and are semi-succulent with soft wood, so often remain when forest is cut for pasturelands.

We turned off the highway in the little “city” of Ciudad Neily, the main border town in the area (we were quite close to Panama). Soon we were climbing up into the mountains, with dense vegetation on either side of the vehicle in most places. The road followed along the contours of the very steep slopes, the bus struggling in low gear slowly up the road around the hairpin turns. We made it over the summit and went along the ridge for a bit and then down a little bit on the other side, now under mostly cloudy skies, with just a few breaks of blue. There were high walls of green on either side of the road, and it was hard to see much of the forest beyond the road edge in most places. We were climbing again, along the steep forested slopes, back and forth on steep sections between tight curves and switchbacks. The forest thinned a bit and there were a few houses, balsa trees, a few of the invasive Tecoma stans, small trees with bright yellow flowers, spiky tree yuccas and tall grasses, and lots of cecropia trees. In places there were dramatic views of the agricultural areas and lower forested slopes down below, with white and grey clouds overhead. Soon the forest gave way to cleared pastures and little ranches and houses, and then we were plunging downward through more of the same. We wound around the hillsides, going up and down, over and back, with living fences of blooming shrubs or variegated dracaena along the road edge, and mostly pasture or houses, bits of planted pines (there are no pines native to the tropics), and introduced ornamentals beyond with just bits of forest here and there.

We drove through the little town of Agua Buena about 3:30 – now with some black clouds off in the distance. This area was more open, with patches of pines, tall grasses, and houses with their ornamental plantings along the narrow, winding road, but still with fencerows of tall variegated dracaenas in many places. A hillside of plantains, blooming poinsettias along the road, roadcuts covered with ferns. We descended briefly through an area of more natural vegetation, and suddenly arrived at Las Cruces Biological Station, part of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS, a consortium of 60+ universities from around the world) where Wilson Botanical Garden is located. The Station is located at about 3,000 feet above sea level on a spur of the Pacific Coastal Mountain Range on about 740 acres of premontane wet forest. About 2/3 of the property is primary forest, with a range of elevations that allows for a high diversity of flora and fauna. It is estimated to have 2,000 plant species and more than 400 birds and 113 mammal species. We were here during the distinct dry season from January to March; the area receives about 13 feet (157 inches) of rain a year.

We sat at the entrance gate for a few minutes, watching the trees whip around in the wind, then drove the narrow, bumpy lane to the cabins where we’d be staying. When we emerged from the bus at 3:50 it was pleasant and somewhat cooler than down below.

Margherita and the staff handed out keys (it was semi-random room assignments) and the required forms for visitors, and everyone and their luggage were to their rooms by 4:10. We had until 6:00 to relax or explore the grounds. Flocks of raucous parrots/parakeets screamed their way through the sky, while other little birds moved through the vegetation, katydids and crickets whirred, and the wind rustled the leaves of the fan palms, especially.

Dinner was at 6:00 in the communal dining room, but many people got there earlier. We were dining with the visiting students and researchers, too, so they joined the line to select from the limited buffet of salad (lettuce, shredded carrots, canned mushrooms, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, whole black pitted olives, oil and vinegar), rice, spiced lentils, cooked broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots, and small slabs of tough beef, with chunks of fresh pineapple for dessert.

When everyone was done eating, we headed out around 7:00 for a night walk, hoping to see owls. The full super moon was brilliant in the nearly cloudless sky, illuminating the wide paths enough to not need a flashlight. Once we headed among the trees, that was a necessity. Margherita played bird calls through a little portable speaker, trying to lure in a mottled owl (Andreas has seen one this evening near their rooms) and some other species. But there was no response, perhaps because it was too bright on this night. But we did see two tiny bright lights near the trunk of a tree, and on closer inspection it turned out to be a bioluminescent click beetle (Pyrophorus noctilucus, or headlight elator), with two large spots on the pronotum that lit up with an orangish light. We poked and prodded the poor thing to make its lights come on stronger, and to listen to the strong characteristic click. There wasn’t a whole lot else around, but we did see a few spiders, a brown leaf-shaped katydid, and some ants. By 7:40 everyone had given up on the idea of seeing anything interesting, and most returned to their rooms, at least for a while. Susan, Dan, Andreas, and Margherita, however, went down to their cabins where Andreas has seen the owl previously. It wasn’t there, but we did hear it responding to the owl sounds. Susan and Dan gave up at 8:00, and when they returned to their room they could hear the owl calling outside! By then thin filtered clouds had filled the sky, but weren’t enough to obscure the moon entirely.

Around 9:30 some people gathered on the patio behind the dining room to view the beginning of the super blood wolf moon eclipse. Unfortunately the clouds drifting over thickened up by the time it was completely eclipsed, but there were some reasonable views before then.

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