Sunday, December 28, 2014

Costa Rica - Final Checklist

Prior to leaving I had 3 mental checklists. What I wanted to see, what I wished to see and, the final category, wouldn't it be cool if I saw.

Toucans in the wild - Wanted to see

The first sighting we missed as we were already ensconced in seats on a shuttle which was taking us from the rain forest to our regular tour bus. Mildly disappointed but undaunted we were cheered later by seeing a group of the big billed birds on a roadside tree. Then, on our final rainforest tram a lovely bird with a jet black body and yellow beak perched in a tree, among several other of his kind, standing stock still on the branch as if posing for a National Geographic wildlife photo. We got a great shot!

Scarlett Macaws - Wanted to see

On a couple of occasions we spotted these magnificent birds from a distance appearing as silhouettes in the sky. On our final day one was spotted close to the bus. It banked spreading it's wings displaying the stripes of color which ran along them. Finding the group in the tree several minutes later was the icing on a scarlet cake.

Crocodiles - Wanted to see

This was almost a sure thing as scores of the reptiles reside along the banks of one of the rivers we cruised on. We saw at least a score of them.

Monkeys - Wanted to see

Hit the mother lode on this one, seeing all four species that are found in Costa Rica, albeit two for only seconds. The troupe of howling monkeys foraging over our heads on the river cruise and white face monkeys hanging like oversized Christmas ornaments from the trees in the national park are visual memories that will be with me for the rest of my life.

Volcanos - Wished to see

With only a 30% chance of seeing the crater of volcano Poa and the peak of Arenal due to Costa Rica's cloud cover I kept my expectations low so as not to be disappointed. Luck was on my side. The crater of Poa was visible on the day of our visit for only a brief period of time which happened to coincide with our visit. The view of Arenal was crystal clear all three days we were in sight of it. Our guide mentioned that she had never hosted a tour before that was able to see the peak all three days.

Water Walking Lizards - Wouldn't it be cool if I saw

I cheered and applauded as the reptile sped across the top of the water to seek safety from us on the shore.

The Unexpected

Rosette Spoonbills, a heron like bird I had not heard of prior to my visit. A most colorful and unselfconsciously elegant creature. A stork wading in the water foraging for food with it's long bill. The tiny bats, pit vipers and and brightly colored poison frogs of the rain forest. The sound of frogs at night at our resort at the foot of Arenal. The songbirds at that resort with their brilliantly hued plumage. Sticking my big toe into Costa Rica's neighbor Nicaragua. Parrots flying in pairs overhead. Tiger herons with their feathers arranged in alternating stripes down their bodies. The cat like raccoons and the iguanas picking up the colors of the world around them. The otherworldly huge cricket on the wall of our jungle side hotel.

Thank you Costa Rica!

Costa Rica - Our Divine Guide and Merry Band

I have often, while traveling, been lucky. Hence the name of this blog. This occasion was no different. Part of the charm of this tour was due to the other people we shared this adventure with. At the farewell dinner we said goodbye to several that had, over the course of the tour, become friends. As we spoke with other members of the tour group it was clear that we all felt we had been a part of something special. For 9 days a group of people of different backgrounds came together as a community. We were kind and considerate of one another. We shared life stories, laughed, joked and experienced together a unique and beautiful place. Wildlife sightings were treated with almost childlike enthusiasm. Natural wonders were greeted with shared awe.

Our guide was the catalyst. She was young, charming, intelligent and energetic. Her national pride was evident. She was radiant as she shared with us her extensive knowledge and her deep love for her country and what makes it unique and special. Exuberant and gleeful, she was sweet, her enthusiasm infectious, down to her farewell hug to each of us as we boarded the shuttle for the airport. She was truly one of a kind and we owe a debt to her for bringing this group together and making this trip a truly magic moment in time.

Costa Rica - Going Home

Normally when one returns from a trip it involves a relatively mundane series of events. There is the ride to the airport, in this case an hotel shuttle, then the increasing rigors of checking in for and boarding a flight. You take your seat, the plane takes off and you go home, plain and simple.

This trip had something else in store for us. Our last breakfast we were seated outside at a table for two next to the pool. News had been circulating during the last few days regarding a large volcano eruption near the capital of San Jose. The ash had traveled in the opposite direction of the airport so, fortunately,  flights were not affected. Unfortunately several towns and farms in the path of the ash were. We were told as we got on the shuttle that there was a possibility we would be able to see the still smoking volcano on our ride to the airport. We were also informed that a number of earthquakes had occurred, not unusual with a volcanic eruption, the largest measuring in at over 5 points.

We started on our way. At a stop light we found ourselves next to a white building capped by a golden statue. Someone said it was a Mormon Temple. I never even knew there was such a thing as Costa Rican Mormons. Continuing the volcano came into view. Not knowing, one might have assumed it's peak was simply obscured by dark clouds. To us the black smoke around the mountaintop told a far more destructive tale. We, along with three others from our tour group, were on the same flight to Fort Lauderdale. We checked in and moved through security. I had just put my shoes back on and stood up when the terminal began to tremble. This was accompanied by a light rumbling sound. I am from San Francisco. I know what an earthquake feels like, although it was my first where I could actually hear it. It took the others in our little group a few moments to realize what had happened.

Little else of note transpired. My passport at customs wouldn't scan electronically so I had to have a face to face with a security officer just like back in the olden days;. Our connecting flight was delayed over 2 hours which got us home at well after, know, stuff like that.

Goodbye Costa Rica, you have left me with rich memories worthy of your name. It was my pleasure to meet you.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Costa Rica - A Waterfall of Tranquility

Our last activity was a tram up a densely forested mountainside. By this point a sense of camaraderie had developed among many of the members of the tour group. We glided gently up the mountain. A waterfall flowed below us catching in pools before continuing it's downward plunge. The tram started at the lowest point in the forest canopy moving through the mid point before reaching the forests highest level and making it's turnaround. As we descended the view was expansive. The untouched wildness of the forest around us, 80% of it had never seen human hands, covered the mountains. In the distance we were gifted with one last look at the Pacific Ocean. Closer up we were given a view of a group of toucans playing in a tree. As we returned to the bottom we shared the wonderful sense of tranquility and serenity the forest's natural beauty had bestowed on us.

One last surprise awaited me. Driving to our hotel a group of spider monkeys cavorted in a short tree. There are 4 kinds of monkeys found in Costa Rica. Although I saw 2 of the species for only an instant this still made me 4 for 4!

The rain began again. The water poured down the mountains filling the gutters on the side of the road. Even when a small mudslide briefly slowed us down it did not dampen the spirits of our group.
We showered and dressed in the best we had with us for the farewell dinner that evening. We toasted one another and traded memories, addresses and e mails. We all knew we had been part of something very special.

Costa Rica - Scarlet Macaws - Another Item Off My Checklist

We were enroute to our last activity of the tour, another tram ride through a rain forest. Traveling down the road our guide, blessed with good eyes, yelled "Scarlet macaw!" Although we had seen    them as silhouettes in the distance several times we had not seen one up close. The brilliant red bird flew by the bus window then spread it's wings and banked to the right displaying the spectacular colors of the stripes that ran across them. A second macaw was spotted. The bus driver pulled into a scenic overlook and turned the bus around in an attempt to follow their flight path. There was another scenic overlook a short distance away. As luck would have it not one, not two, but an entire group of the birds were in a tree there, tussling and playing, their bright red bodies and striped wings creating a kaleidoscope among the leaves.

Costa Rica - Manuel Antonio National Park

The storm past during the night and the morning dawned bright and sunny. After breakfast we began our exploration of Manuel Antonio National Park. Although small it is touted as one of the most bio diverse areas in the world. We soon broke away from the main group and struck out on a side trail by ourselves. Within a few minutes we had our first of several wildlife encounters we experienced that day. High in a palm sat a white faced monkey. He scampered around the fronds before disappearing into the dense forest. Several moments later, sitting in the v formed by two tree branches was an animal with a reddish brown back. It was the rarely seen squirrel monkey. It looked down at us for an instant before swirling around the tree's trunk and also disappearing into the brush.

We continued up the steep hillside. Thankfully steps had been built which made the hike a relatively easy one. We crossed a small river. Continuing up we came upon a landing which afforded us a breathtaking view of the turquoise ocean below. Waves broke around small rock islands before lapping upon the shore. Roosting herons appeared as white spots scattered up the mountainsides. We heard the call of birds and the distinct bark of howling monkeys. We experienced a silence filled with the noises of nature. Climbing further we reached the end of the trail with another spectacular ocean view.

As we started to descend we heard a rustling in the trees above. Looking up we saw another white faced monkey. Then another appeared leaping from branch to branch with the grace of a trapeze artist. One by one the rest of the troop came into view leaping and swinging through the trees.

We joined the rest of our group on the beach. A brown iguana sat motionless on a tree trunk, it's color exactly matching it's chosen perch. On the beach was another, it's neck bright blue. Iguanas are camelions, it had picked up the color of the ocean. We spotted a raccoon, leaner, more catlike than the North American variety, it was feasting on scores of hermit crabs scuttling across the beach sand.

We began our trek back to the hotel to change into fresh shirts, the ones we were wearing soaked  through from the humidity and our exertions, and meet the bus for our last adventure. We took a new, less heavily traveled boardwalk trail. It began to rain. We quickly donned our ponchos. In the brush another raccoon, with two babies in tow, ran across the forest floor seeking shelter from the downpour. It was a brief rain, over by the time we had gone downstairs to board the bus.

There was one final encounter with wildlife as we left our jungle view room. A cricket like insect, the size of a man's hand, clung to the wall of the hotel. While exotic, it was also slightly creepy.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Costa Rica - Thunder and Lightening, Very, Very Frightening

As I've mentioned the roads in Costa Rica tend towards tiny 2 lane affairs devoid of any artificial lighting. The traffic jam that day had delayed us and the night was beginning to creep in. Adding to the problem of the lack of light was a spectacular yet grim and vicious thunderstorm breaking out around us. Flashes of lightening followed by loud claps of thunder were accompanied by a heavy pelting rain. We were gladdened by two things, we were within the dry confines of the bus and our driver had proved himself by this point more than competent.We moved through the storm once again amazed by nature but this time in a somewhat different way than we had been amazed by nature earlier in the day. The scene outside was indecipherable. Occasionally lights from the homes and businesses of the towns scattered along the way would reveal people walking through the storm trying in vain to keep dry under umbrellas. Occasionally a flash of lightening would illuminate, for an instant, our surroundings.

Our driver wound cautiously along the winding roads through the storm and eventually we reached the town which serves the visitors to Manuel Antonio National Park. We were met by hotel staff who handed us large golf umbrellas as we got off the bus to keep us in a semi arid state till we reached the covered reception area. After our luggage, remarkably dry, was delivered to our room we moved downstairs, once again umbrellas in hand, to the hotel's restaurant for dinner. After our treacherous travel that night the hour long, open bar happy hour was welcomed by all.

Costa Rica - Big Brown Native Fauna

Returning to the bus we crossed a bridge and looked down at the mud brown crocodiles lying on the muddy brown bank of the river below. Our next stop would be a boat cruise which would get us up close and personal with the ancient species.

Arriving at a primitive dock we boarded the shallow keeled tour boat and set off. Our first encounter was with a massive male, his long white teeth visible poking out of the sides of his closed snout. A female, one eye damaged in a fight with another croc, swam in the water nearby. Our boat pilot took us to within a few feet of the reptile. Mangrove swallows accompanied us the entire way, skimming over the water and flying around and about our boat as we drifted along. White herons stood like sentinels along the shore. Groups of cormorants roosted in the trees. A stork with stately legs foraged for food with it's long beak in the shallow water along the muddy bank. A large blue heron stood surveying the scene. A smaller, brighter blue heron joined it briefly before going off it's own way. In the distance a rosette spoonbill waded in the water. Pink, like the flamingo it's coloring a result of the pigment of the small water creatures in it's diet, the bird sports along it's side a bright coral stripe. It uses it's long spoonlike bill, hence it's name, to catch it's tiny prey. Later this incredible bird came closer to us affording us a better look. Lovely and graceful, it appeared both noble and self assured of it's breathtaking beauty.

Our boat captain spotted something on a log. Piloting us closer to it we saw a small brown lizard sitting on a dead plantain tree floating in the river. Our captain approached it attempting to startle it. Our ever exuberant tour guide started yelling "Go baby, go baby go!" The lizard sprung up and sped away, walking across the top of the water to the shore. We all burst into applause at the show the reptile had provided for us.

At one point a dozen crocodiles appeared. Varying in size and age they swam in the murky water or lazed along the shore. The crocodiles are able to survive in both the brackish water of the river and the salt water of the nearby Pacific. Some use the ocean's salt water as a place to recover from injuries when the animals fight. Although seeming almost invincible in adulthood, some live to a great age, few reach that stage as the eggs and hatchlings make for easy prey.

As we returned a tiger striped heron stood on the top of the boarding platform as if welcoming us back. Once again amazed by nature we were set on our way to the music of marimba players performing in the, by this point, ubiquitous open air gift shop.

Costa Rica - A Traffic Jam, Then Lunch

It would be impossible to overstate how narrow the roads can be in Costa Rica. Two lanes, thick foliage or lush farmland on either side. No easements as we are accustomed to in the United States on even the most rural of roads. Although it can make for some spectacularly scenic drives, if something goes wrong....well....things can get ugly fast.

We are traveling through the cattle ranches, farms and small towns of the Pacific Coast. We pass a monument to marimba players, a statute of 3 boys playing the percussive instruments. Later we are treated to marimba music over the buses sound system from our tour guides I phone. A few miles outside of a restroom and ice creme pit stop the traffic along the country road slows, then stops. There is a line of cars and trucks ahead of us, a growing line of cars and trucks behind., Word comes that there is an accident ahead. We are stuck, glass half full, at least the bus was in an area that was tree shaded so we didn't roast inside it's metal shell. We sit and wait, and wait. There is nowhere to go. Although there is an alternate route to our destination 5 miles behind us there is no way to turn the long bus around on the small, narrow road. Kindles appear, I pull out these blog notes and write, people take out cell phones or try to nap, after all, at this point there is no passing scenery to view.

Eventually traffic begins to crawl forward. Although an accident we're told caused the initial back up, a stalled truck exacerbated the already exasperating situation. Traffic regains it's normal pace and soon we are at our lunch spot for the day. We file out of the bus glad to finally be released from it's confines.

We have lunch that day in a beautiful open air pavilion surrounded by meadows and mountains draped in Costa Rica's rich mantle of vivid, varied shades of green.