Rainbow in Clouds

2019 Costa Rica Tour Day 8

By Susan Mahr

January 23, 2019

It was quite chilly overnight, but between the propane heaters, hot water bottle left under the covers and the thick, snuggly comforter on the bed it was very nice for sleeping. And it was pretty quiet, with few sounds other than the soothing hypnotic sound of the river running and crickets humming faintly. Some people were up early to look for birds on the grounds, but there wasn’t a formal bird walk because of logistical reasons (Margherita and Andreas had to leave before 6:00 in order to drive the bus to Savegre, join the smaller group for breakfast (which started earlier than at Trogon), and then get back to Trogon. If they did a bird walk at Trogon, they’d have to miss breakfast all together in order to make the transfers from Savegre).

A few of us were out early to look for birds in the cool air (51F) well before the sunshine made it down into the narrow valley, although there weren’t many around. Close to 7:00 one of the other guides flagged us down to say there was a female quetzal in the trees behind the cabins. Susan rushed over there and briefly saw the bird before it flew off. Some people had come to the restaurant earlier to enjoy coffee, but everyone gathered for breakfast at 7:00, another buffet with toast and local preserves, gallo pinto, cheese empanadas, grilled zucchini, pancakes, eggs made to order, and fresh fruit. Around 8:00 we headed down to the parking lot – stopping to look at the white-throated mountain gems and lesser violetear hummingbird visiting the marmalade bushes – and loaded into the bus when Andreas pulled up a few minutes later. We headed up the hill under bright blue skies, stopping on the road to take photos of the Lodge down below. We moved slowly through the area near where we’d seen the quetzal the previous night as Margherita and Andreas scouted for more wild avocados in fruit that the birds might be visiting. Once we passed over the one-lane bridge we drove more quickly up to the top of the valley to rejoin the main road, although the bus couldn’t go too fast on the steep slope with hairpin curves to negotiate.

It was 8:45 when we turned left onto the main highway and sailed downward on the smooth road. There were lots of tall yellow-flowers Senecios, arching sprays of Chusquea bamboo, and the layered-looking Escallonia shrubs, as well as the bright red clumps of tubular flowers of the Bomarea vines and deep red tank bromeliads perched in some of the trees. People chatted as Margherita passed plant books around to show some of the distinctive things we were seeing.

At 9:10 we stopped at El Trailero, a “truck stop” with bathrooms, a produce and snack vendor, and small restaurant to stretch legs and for a bathroom break. Many people purchased treats to share or take home, including the local sweet, fudgy caramel-flavored cajeta. Margherita passed out little individually wrapped guava jelly candies as we re-boarded the bus. Fifteen minutes later we were on our way again, jostling past farms with plots of cabbage and other vegetables, little houses surrounded by blue hydrangeas and pink roses, pastures and patches of trees. Many of the little roadside houses or shops had racks of potted plants for sale out front. At 9:40 we got to the little town of Los Santos and turned down a side road to head to Santa Maria de Dota. We took a winding road between small houses, nurseries, pastures, and some slopes covered with tall, thin native alder trees. We got to the large town of Santa Maria de Dota about 10:00 and a few minutes later arrived at Coope Dota, a large coffee growers cooperative.

We trooped out of the bus into gift shop where we waited a few minutes for our guide, Oscar. Soon we walked over the metal bridge, past a tree filled with blooming Tillandsias, along a road on one side of a cemetery filled with white memorials and niches. We gathered around one end of a large shade tunnel filled with seedling coffee trees growing in small cylinders of soil wrapped in black plastic. Oscar told a bit about the life cycle of coffee plants, the cooperative that has over 900 growers from the area, and different types of production systems (conventional, rainforest alliance, etc.) they employ on the different farms. From there we trooped past the roasting building and to the small demonstration planting to see coffee bushes amid the Erythrina, citrus, banana and other trees that provide shade for the coffee. Only some of the bushes had fruit on them, mostly green. Oscar demonstrated the picking basket used these days and talked about harvesting as we huddled under the shade of the trees out of the strong sun. People began shedding layers of clothes as the sun warmed the air after the chilly start to the day.

Then we walked back to where we’d started to go to “coffee school”, learning about how coffee quality is evaluated through smelling and tasting. Professional taster and teacher Carlos discussed the process and demonstrated, letting many people try their hand (or nose) at each of the different steps of evaluation. Then it was on past the receiving station, where a couple of little trucks were dumping their loads, to the milling facility, where we donned bright red hard hats to walk through the are of huge vats, lots of pipelines and conveyor belts. We learned about how the beans are fermented initially to soften the pulp surrounding the beans, and the various processes to get to the green beans. They are dried either naturally (in huge shade structures to protect them from the weather and birds) or in heated drum dryers – which we walked by, spewing chaff as they rotated. We walked through the storage area where huge bags of green beans were stacked up, with much smaller burlap sacks on pallets ready to ship to Europe, North America or Japan. We ended our tour in the gift shop/restaurant where we enjoyed a cup of coffee or icy frappucino, and those who were interested made purchases of various types of their high quality coffees to take home.

Everyone was on the bus at 12:45 (with just a slight delay for our good shoppers Denise and Marsha who were last on the bus because the slow cashier ran out of change and it took a while to get more ). Soon we were on our way, going back on the same road we’d come down on. It wasn’t long before we were driving in the misty clouds by the time we got back to Los Santos to join the main highway. We bumped along the pitted and badly proad for a while, with lots of white outside surrounding the pastures, trees and houses. Then we were back to sunshine as we went by El Trailero and on past more little houses, some vegetable fields, a small church, a school and more trees. Back into light mist we went, and then had to stop for a few minutes for a tree cutting operation. In and out of light fog and thick soupy clouds that obscured everything but the things right next to the road.

We turned off to Paraiso Quetzal Lodge at 1:30 and were to the restaurant about 5 minutes later. Before we sat down to eat we had time to look for the various birds coming in to the feeders out back. There was a large, leafless tree encrusted with large red tank bromeliads and other epiphytes just off the deck and many of the trees around were coated with furry-looking white lichens.  At first there were only a couple of birds around, but after a little while more showed up. Unfortunately the staff was painting the deck of the hummingbird observation platform, so there were nasty paint fumes and restricted access, but we still had a good show, especially after eating, including the fiery-throated hummingbird, the tiny scintillant hummingbird, lesser violetear, and the very large Talamanca hummingbird (which used to be considered the magnificent hummingbird, which extends all the way to Mexico, but now has been divided into two species) and the small slaty flower piercer, with its unique upturned bill that steals nectar from flowers.

Large glasses of dark purple mora (blackberry) juice were set at each place along the long wooden table set up paralleling the big picture windows. Our lunch today was casado, a typical Costa Rican meal of rice, beans, vegetables, a little salad, fried plantains and a choice of trout, chicken, pork chop or vegetarian. Dessert was a dish of fluffy cream topped with a few sliced strawberries.

After eating many of us took a short walk down to another bird blind, seeing a pair of long-tailed silky-flycatchers along the way. We didn’t see any other different birds down there, but did see Fuchsia microphylla, and a volcano hummingbird visiting its tiny pink flowers and the dramatic red tubular flowers of Brugmansia sanguinea, native to the Andes from Columbia to Chile.

We departed at 3:40, stopping briefly on the way back to the highway to look at a cycad-mimic fern (Blechnum buchtienii) and some lycopodiums on the roadcut bank. Then we jostled through misty clouds getting back to the road down to Trogon (altitude about 9,900 feet) about 4:00, to descend under bright blue skies on the steep switchbacks hugging the side of the mountain. We had to slow several times to let oncoming vehicles go by or to negotiate the tight turns.

At 4:20 we stopped at Miriam’s Quetzals, a tiny restaurant overlooking a wild avocado tree, to see if we might see the elusive bird here. Instead of that we saw all kinds of other things coming in to the platform feeders stocked with cooked rice and a few banana/plantains and the normal hummingbird feeders. First there were a few sooty-capped chlorospingus, then some drab dark olive green large-footed finches that moved around on the ground before flying up to the feeders, and a flash of orange-red as a male flame-colored tanager flew in (sparking a few oohs and aahs), followed by some duller-colored immature males and females of that species. A red-tailed squirrel moved in to appropriate one of the platform feeders for itself. A pair of acorn woodpeckers flew into the nearby nearly leafless tree, and one came down to the feeder, dapper in his little red cap. A sooty thrush, with a dark grey body and yellow legs and bill, remained high up in that tree, and didn’t come down to the feeders. As we watched those birds, a swirl of hummingbirds moved around the nectar feeders at one corner of the deck (the same species we saw earlier), occasionally zooming though the crowd of people on the little wooden deck. Margherita rattled off the names of the birds as fast as possible, but often the bird was gone before she finished speaking. A mountain elaenia (a tiny flycatcher) came and perched momentarily on a nearby shrub then disappeared. After a while the bird activity slowed down and Margherita got us some of the sweet bread the café is known for, cut up into small pieces so we could each get a taste.

We left there at 5:00, and since we would be passing by the wild avocado tree anyway on our way to the Lodges, decided to stop there and see if the quetzal would grace us with its presence again – and hopefully the male would show this time. The light was fading fast as we slowly made our way down to the place we needed to stop, having to stop multiple times to let vehicles pass on the narrow, twisting road. We piled out of the bus at 5:17 and walked down the road to discover the female quetzal already sitting in the small wild avocado tree. It ate one more fruit and flew to an adjacent tree, sat there for another minute, then flew off down the valley. We continued to wait, hoping in vain that the male would follow, standing around in the cool, but comfortable conditions (not feeling nearly as cold as the day before, despite wearing fewer layers of clothing, with only a faint to no breeze) but by 5:30 decided it wasn’t going to show. We hiked down the road to load the bus and by the time we returned to Trogon Lodge at 5:50 it was nearly dark.

Almost no one gathered in the bar tonight, but instead just met for dinner at 7:00 in the restaurant and enjoyed their drinks with dinner. Tonight’s buffet included the usual salad items, rice with hearts of palm, pureéd sweet potato (but an off-white, not very sweet local variety), cooked carrots, beef tenderloin in sauce, pesto pasta, and trout in a delicious anise sauce. Dessert was a choice of chocolate truffles impaled on a toothpick with a groundcherry on the other end, Chilean papaya conserve (lightly spiced, similar to watermelon pickles) and/or butter cookies. But the best part of the dessert presentation was the gigantic bright red epiphyllum (an epiphytic cactus) flower decorating the basket the cookies were in. By 7:45 most people had finished eating and started drifting away to their rooms to relax and prepare for the last day of the tour the following day. Once again it was very quiet, with the sound of running water in the nearby creek rushing down to the river predominating.

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