Costa Rica Tour – Tour Day 4

By Susan Mahr

January 8, 2018

The rain continued for much of the night, but it was just incredibly damp when we woke in the morning. As the avian dawn chorus diminished a few howler monkeys could be heard in the distance. Margherita was waiting with her spotting scope near the dining area at 7:00, but only Nancy, Joanne and Susan were there early to eat breakfast and look at the birds coming in to the fruit feeder in droves.  Today the buffet had scrambled eggs and little discs of spicy sausage to go with the gallo pinto, fruit, milk oatmeal and other things. Although there were a few tiny breaks in the clouds, it was still too dark for taking good bird photos. But that didn’t stop the birds from visiting to eat bananas and papaya. In addition to the tanagers and other colorful small birds, a flock of a dozen grey-headed chachalacas took over the feeder for a little while, completely covering the large platform. Later five collared aricaris (small toucans) came in to gulp down bananas. The sun was trying to break through the clouds as Bev and Kathy were eating their breakfast, having slept in a little. Instead of doing a garden walk, we ended up just watching the interesting bird show until 9:00, when we returned to the rooms for final packing. We loaded up for departure around 9:15, made a brief stop at reception to drop off keys, a nd were on our way at 9:25.

We drove under completely cloudy skies past small colorful houses, restaurants, cattle pastures, and entrances to other lodges while listening to a CD of Costa Rican bird songs and natural sounds. Then we went past lots of pineapple plantations and tilled fields of red soil ready to plant; disturbed a group of black and turkey vultures feeding on a roadkill anteater; Margherita pointed out balsa and cecropia trees, both pioneer species that colonize light gaps so often are seen along road ways. We pulled off on the roadside to look at a few howler monkeys just visible in a leafless tree and then another in a cecropia tree. Margherita told us about the pre-Columbian indigenous peoples as we drove by more pineapple, pastures, and a field with towers of black pepper. As we drove by more pineapple fields we saw a tractor with huge booms spraying ethylene on one field and other fields being harvested, and yet others dead brown, killed before replanting. We went by a large Ceiba tree, then lots of coconut palms as we continued on Hwy 4 toward La Fortuna in a very agricultural area. The skies were getting brighter, with little patches of sun, as we went by passed TicoFrut, a processing plant for citrus where they make juices and other products (because the citrus produced in the area is not of high enough quality for use as fresh fruit or for export). As we made our way along the road, Margherita told us about Holdridge’s Life Zones based on amount of rainfall, humidity, temperature and elevation. There are 116 zones in the world based on these four characteristics so that habitats around the world can be compared. This classification system was further refined to accommodate special situations such as mangroves (that otherwise would fit into tropical rainforest, which is characterized by tall trees). We went by another huge tropical fruit processing plant, and then sugarcane filled the fields on both sides of the road. When we went past a large planting of manioc or cassava, we broke out a bag of yuca chips – the root of the cassava plant sliced thin and fried like potato chips.

We turned off the highway to go through the small town of Muelle, past the local bull fighting ring, and on to the bridge where numerous green iguanas congregate in the tree tops. The large scaly reptiles hang out in the tree tops, which are at bridge level here, with the river way below, and are very easy to observe from this vantage point. The breeding males have bright orange coloration and a greatly enlarged dewlap compared to the subdued color and smaller size of the females. A couple of the males were showing off, wagging their heads to make the orange dewlap flap around to try to attract females, but because it wasn’t sunny they weren’t very active. In addition to looking at the animals we enjoyed an ice cream or sorbet in the Restaurante de las Iguanas, choosing from about 20 different flavors with everything from standard chocolate to unique tropical flavors including pitahaya (fruit of a type of cactus, the night-blooming cereus Hyalocereus costaricensis – which Kathy enjoyed) and coconut. Nancy also made a purchase in their gift shop.

We continued on at 10:45, with about an hour to go to our lunch stop. We drove by more pasture delineated by fences or lines of trees, the roadsides punctuated with the orange flowers of Heliconia psittacorum in places, and green as far as the eye could see. We drove by patches of bananas and more extensive fields of pineapple, crossed the Rio Peñas (easily distinguished from a distance by the tall trees following its curves), and went on past more pasturelands under dark, cloudy skies. Margherita pointed out birds such as crested caracara, black vulture, and a tropical kingbird that flew by or perched in trees or fence rows. We stopped to look at a teak tree (Tectona grandis) in flower; despite being an introduced plant grown for timber, many species of parrots have learned to eat the fruits. Another few hundred meters down the road we pulled off to look at some young Cedrela odorata, a type of native mahogany, that has furrowed bark and a reddish color to the underside of the leaves. Margherita continued to tell us about the various trees, crops and birds as we went by them.  We turned off the main highway and continued on through more agriculture, stopping on the roadside by a banana plantation to look at the plants with their fruits bagged in blue plastic to protect the bunches. It was starting to sprinkle now.

We went through a little town, passed more cassava fields, colorful little houses, pastures, and more cassava, then went by some small pineapple fields. We passed a banyon tree in someone’s yard, mango trees in bloom, a field of papaya, lush green pasture and tall trees filled with epiphytes. Margherita told us about Volcan Arenal – completely obscured by clouds – and pointed out a toucan in flight as the sun tried to come out.

We drove through the outskirts of La Fortuna, the big tourist town near Arenal, by its bullring and past little houses and restaurants, and out through more agricultural lands before we turned off the paved road to bounce and jostle along a stony dirt road for a short distance to get to Finca Educativa Don Juan (Don Juan’s Educational Farm) about 11:30. Since it was too early to eat lunch, we walked around the property to see some of the crops they are growing organically. There was a very healthy cacao tree, loaded with fat red fruits, dried corn, some cassava, naranjilla (Solanum quitoense, a plant in the tomato family with a fruit with a citrus flavor, sometimes described as a combination of rhubarb and lime), and many ornamental plants. One of the young guides offered to show the group how they crush sugarcane to get the juice, so Nancy, Bev, and Kathy followed him to see that demonstration while the rest of us wandered the grounds looking at various plants.

When everyone was ready we walked to the dining area where a display of locally-grown fruits and vegetables in large basket decorated the entry. We were seated at a wooden table on the open air verandah above the small gurgling river amid the trees. There was a plate of salad (carrot, tomato and lettuce) with various vegetable salsas on the table and a pitcher of water and another of tamarind juice. We were invited up to the stove to take what we wanted from the large pots of rice, black beans, shredded papaya root (that is reminiscent of shredded, dried meat), boiled cassava mashed with cream, potatoes with light curry, pan-fried tilapia and cornmeal-dusted fried cheese. enjoyed the meal in the comfortable weather, surrounded by the rainforest. After we’d finished the meal, we were served little pieces of rich, fresh coconut ice cream on a toothpick for dessert (and banana chunks for Kathy, who didn’t want any dairy).

Before we left, Don Juan himself came in and sold Nancy some of their packaged coffee (grown elsewhere – it’s too hot here). He then took us up to the garden to see a small plant of culinary ginger that Susan had asked about.

At 1:30 we said goodbye to Don Juan and drove to La Fortuna, slowing briefly to take photos of the white cattle in the pasture and to watch kids using a rope swing to go into the small river as we drove over the bridge. Edgar left us off on the central square of La Fortuna where we had an hour to explore. Most of us first went to the local grocery store to see the difference between theirs and ours at home, with some people purchasing salsa, coffee or other small items. Then we wandered around, looking in some of the many souvenir shops, through the planted area in the middle of the square, or into the church. The top of Arenal Volcano came and went behind a swirl of clouds as the sun came and went behind the fat, dark clouds. It was quite warm in the strong sunshine, but very pleasant in the shade.

Edgar picked us up in front of the church at 2:45 for the 45-minute drive into the countryside to get to our accommodations. Once again we were driving past lush green pastures with their light colored brahma-type cattle grazing in the shade of small trees, now with the looming cone of the volcano always on one side of the vehicle, obscured by clouds. Margherita told us about the history of Volcan Arenal, which suddenly became active in 1968 but has subsided in recent years and is on its way to becoming dormant again. When we got to the other side of the volcano – which has almost no vegetation on the side where the lava flows used to be – we pulled off for some photos of the iconic conical volcano under mostly sunny skies. With ever changing weather we were lucky to see nearly all of the volcano exposed, with just a few tendrils of mist clinging near the top.

We drove past the expensive Tabacon Resort and Hot Springs, then by the Arenal River, which has volcanically heated water flowing in it and saw a number of Costa Ricans having a good time in the free, natural water feature. There was a stretch of native vegetation before we were driving past more pastures again and turned onto a heavily potholed road to bump our way along, passing the entrance to the National Park for the volcano, and on with forest or tall grasses on either side of the road. The road ascended the mountainside, with forest closing in on the narrow road. We arrived at Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa at about 3:30, and after going through the entrance gates stopped to look at the “welcoming committee”, a couple of collared aricaris that were perched on an aroid growing on a tree, feasting on the fruits of that aroid. It took another couple of minutes to drive up the steep hill to reception, passing some rainbow eucalyptus with their colorful striped trunks. After Margherita got our room assignments, she directed us to our rooms down the hill and then Edgar and a porter brought the bags down. We had less than an hour free to relax or walk the trails around the grounds. All the rooms had huge window and a walk-out balcony that faced the volcano, so there was no need to go anywhere for spectacular views. And birds chattering or whistling and howler monkeys calling added to the ambiance. The clouds drifted across the mountain face, and sun came and went, providing an ever-changing show out the window. But all too soon it was time to go again.

At 4:30 we met at reception to head out for the evening’s activities. We went back down the bumpy, dusty road we’d come in on, with the sun beginning to head for the horizon in the west, on the 35-minute drive to Eco Termales Hot Springs. Margherita told us the story of the Hidalgo family business and how it developed over the years and rifts between the siblings that divided some of the holdings. By the time we turned off the main road to go through a narrow tunnel of green foliage to get to the Hot Springs, the sun had set, leaving streaks of pale purple and peach on the few streaks of clouds in the sky. We had to check in at the attended gate before driving up to reception (the gate was new). Once inside we were each issued a towel and locker keys, stowed our clothes, and walked down the paths of volcanic silt to the large pools constructed of blocks of volcanic stone. Each of the four pools was a different temperature, so you could choose the most comfortable one. Ledges around the edges allowed you to sit partially submerged. Beverages were available from the nearby bar, so Bev and Susan indulged in a piña colada which were served in plastic glasses so they could be enjoyed while sitting in the hot water. The light slowly left the sky as we soaked for over an hour. Once it got dark the steam rising from the warmest pools was more visible, and the dark water illuminated by overhead lights in places, created a magical feeling with the foliage and dark sky above enveloping the place.

By 6:30 everyone was thoroughly steamed and we all got out of the water and headed back up the hill to the lockers. We showered and once everyone was back in dry clothes we walked down the hill to the large, brightly-lit open air restaurant below and were seated at one of many wooden tables. Waiters poured water, but pineapple and fresa-mora (strawberry-blackberry) juices were also available from dispensers. We were free to choose what we wanted from the extensive buffet, which offered several types of prepared salads, lettuce and many vegetables including heart of palm, shredded carrots, shredded beets and more, plus pineapple and watermelon on the cold table, and rice, beans, yuca chunks, tortillas, pasta, beef in mushroom sauce, chicken, fried tilapia with coconut sauce on the side, and mixed vegetables on the hot table. There was a cauldron of pumpkin soup and tiny homemade rolls and little cups of runny rice pudding, passionfruit flan, or fruit for dessert. It was very pleasant in the balmy air, with the humming and buzzing of insects outside competing with the noisy chatter of the many diners in the place. After settling the drink bills ($7 per cocktail, with the tally determined in the computer system by wrist band number), we loaded up the van for the long ride back. On the way Margherita saw a barn owl fly across the road in front of us, but no one else saw it. Then we turned off the smooth main road and jostle our way up the hill in pitch blackness for another 20 minutes. Just before we got to the gate to the Lodge, there was an opossum eating something on the roadside. We were back to our rooms by 8:15, tired and relaxed and ready for a good night’s sleep. It was delightfully quiet here, with just the soft lullaby of crickets and frogs to help us drift off…

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