Horizons Travelblogue

Sailing vessel Horizons, a Tayana 37 cutter, has been cruising the West Coast of Mexico and Central America for the past 9 years. This is the ongoing story.

Friday, March 17, 2006

More Costa Rica Travels

[Double click on any photo to enlarge.]

Much of the period following Tony’s return to Canada was taken up with general domestic and boat chores – topping up fuel and water tanks, laundry, refilling propane tank, cleaning, polishing stainless steel, futile electrical troubleshooting, new zippers on a sail cover and the sun awning, genoa sail repairs (as described earlier), paying Vancouver property taxes online, renewing my townhouse mortgage via e-mail and fax, various equipment repairs, changing engine oil and filters, etc., etc

One particularly bothersome chore was trying to renew my boat insurance. I was expecting to simply complete and fax the renewal forms to the Vancouver agent and pay the premium to cover another year, as I had done in previous years. But I was told that my current underwriter was no longer insuring offshore boats and that I would have to get a new policy from another underwriter. The quotes I then received offered much less coverage for higher premiums, on top of which I was required to have an out-of-water (US$400 haul-out) hull and rigging survey (US$500 survey) and comply with all survey recommendations (US$x,xxx.00 repairs/replacements, if such were possible or available).

The boat is currently in need of a haul-out and comprehensive standard maintenance, and I was planning to begin this work in June. Some of the additional hull maintenance requires that the boat dry out for several months, so completion would not be possible pursuant to the new insurance requirements without major changes to my plans for the Spring and the coming year. Fortunately, after a series of e-mail exchanges and negotiations between myself, the agent and the current underwriter, it was agreed by the current underwriter to extend my current policy to June 15th of this year. So my present insurance will continue until my planned haul-out. More later, on further complications to this plan.

During this period, Carol (“Yoo hoo, I’m from Canada!”) managed to get flights for a two-week visit with me in February, arriving in just over a week. She doesn’t hang around once she’s made up her mind. Her last visit to Horizons from Vancouver was when I was in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, in early 2002. That time, we spent a week in La Paz enjoying the company of other cruisers and the Carnaval, and a further week cruising in the islands near La Paz. On this visit, she wanted to see some of the attractions of Costa Rica by land.

The International Airport for San José is actually on the doorstep of nearby Alajuela, Costa Rica’s second largest city. I met Carol there at the appointed time and we returned the next day to Horizons in Puntarenas for a short organizational stop-over. Then we were off on our travels.


There is a bus which runs conveniently from beachside Puntarenas direct to Santa Elena, the village close to the Monteverde Cloud Biological Forest Preserve which acts as the centre for visitors in the area. It is not a luxury bus. It was a slow, multi-stopping journey high into the mountains, the latter part of the ride being over suspension-challenging (what suspension?) dirt roads. But the scenery was beautiful, and increasingly magnificent the higher we climbed. The clear sunny weather was perfect for the trip, and some of the vistas were perfect for glossy coffee table books. Unfortunately, bone-shaker buses are not the ideal platform for photography.

The first chore on arriving in a new place is locating suitable accommodation. In Santa Elena we had no worries. On getting off the bus we were immediately surrounded by about half a dozen English-speaking operators of local cabinas. It was a bit overwhelming, but they were all very pleasant and good humoured in offering their competing accommodations and distributing to us their coloured glossy leaflets. There was not much to distinguish between the various facilities as they all appeared to offer the same attractions for the same US$10 per person price. We ended up choosing the hotel of the first person who had approached us. Cabinas El Pueblo was down a rough and rocky short and steep road just around the corner from the main street.

Carol and I spent some time going through the wad of glossy pamphlets and information leaflets given to us by our enthusiastic hostess. The star attraction was the Cloud Forest Preserve, so we noted the time of the first shuttle bus going there the next morning. The earlier the better, for seeing some of the wildlife.

An early small version of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve was initiated in the early 1950’s by a group of Quakers who had left the United States in protest over the military draft for the Korean War. They settled in an area near to Santa Elena and developed their own community. They also set aside a section of their land for the benefit of all. This area was expanded in 1972 and in subsequent years, and made into the current Preserve of 5,000 hectares owned and administered by the Tropical Science Centre (http://www.cct.or.cr/). See also http://www.cloudforestalive.org/ and http://www.fccmonteverde.org/.

One hundred species of mammal can be found in the four different life zones of the Preserve, along with 400 species of bird, 500 varieties of butterfly and more than 3,000 species of plant, which includes 420 types of orchid. Animals include jaguars, mountain lions, two toed sloths, howler, spider and white-face capuchin monkeys, armadillos, anteaters, coatimundis (also known as pizotes, of the raccoon family), kinkajou (a tree climbing member of the raccoon family) and numerous other species.

Costa Rica is also well known for its numerous species of brightly coloured frogs and toads, many of which are found (and some, like the golden toad, are no longer found) in the Preserve. (The rainmaker harlequin frog is also thought to have recently become extinct as a result of the effects of global warming, according to a study published in the British scientific journal, Nature.) Birds to be seen in the Preserve include the endangered Three-wattled Bellbird (birders are very imaginative in giving names) and the rare Resplendent Quetzal, usually referred in the guide books as elusive.

Carol and I must have been living right, as the first thing we became aware of on our arrival at the entrance to the Cloud Forest Preserve at 6:30 am was a number of Resplendent Quetzals in the trees above our heads. They seemed completely oblivious to their mystique and rarity as they fluttered around the fruit bearing trees having a good early morning breakfast.

The Resplendent Quetzal, with its bright and exotic plumage, is frequently described as the most beautiful in the New World. Of the five species of quetzal, the Resplendent Quetzal is unique in having a train of long feathers, sometimes incorrectly described as a tail, which flows down from its back. The bird was a prominent feature in the mythology of pre-Columbian Indians, such as the Aztecs, whose royalty used the feathers as adornments. The quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, but unfortunately it has become so endangered in that country that a sighting is exceptionally rare. Fortunately, there is still a lot of cloud forest habitat in and around the many national parks in Costa Rica which enable the Resplendent Quetzal to survive in this country, although much is increasingly under threat.

Seeing these Resplendent Quetzals sitting in the branches and flying above our heads was quite a thrill. There must have been about five or six of them, mostly males - the female does not have the long feathers trailing from its back. Their favourite food is the small wild avocado and in the Monteverde area they eat about 18 species of it. They swallow them whole and then later regurgitate the seed. The remaining 20% of their diet is made up of other fruits, insects, small frogs and lizards.

Getting photos of these quetzals was not a snap. In the trees, the light was not very good most of the time. So crisp photos were not possible. The 3 to 1 zoom lens on my little digital camera was significantly underpowered. I also had to boost up the “film” speed, introducing a bit of added grain to the images. But I did get a small number of “barely acceptable” shots which I’ve cropped and blown up and included here. I also got a couple of almost reasonable shots through the tripod-mounted monocular of a guide who appeared on the scene.

My video camera was a better bet, with its 20 to 1 optical zoom lens. But where was my chunky tripod when I needed it? (It’s like an umbrella – it only rains when you don’t have one.) But I did get some reasonable if slightly shaky telephoto video of the quetzals. I’ve captured some still frames from parts of the video, which I’ve also included here. Due to the much lower definition of the video digital images, the quality of the still frames leaves much to be desired. So I’ve also included one professionally taken photo to give a clearer image of the bird.

Into the park we went. Another reason to start early, in addition to possibly seeing some of the wildlife foraging for their first meal of the day, is the fact that there is a limit on the number of people allowed into the park at any one time. We were up there with the first arrivals – no problemo. On top of the entrance fee (US$11), we decided to pay the extra (US$17) to have a guide. So we joined a small tour which, overall, we found to be worth it for getting the best out of our visit.

The tour started off with a short slide presentation about the Preserve, which included a section on the now-extinct golden toad and its indiscriminate sexual practices – the ancient Romans would have been shocked. Nearby was the Hummingbird Gallery which had a number of feeders hanging around the patio. I lost count of the numerous varieties of hummingbird which darted and flitted to and from the feeders in the short time that we were there. Many different sizes and a multitude of bright colours.

We then proceeded along various trails, with the guide educating us on the life of the cloud forest and pointing out various indigenous birds, such as the black turkey bird (also described as the crash-landing turkey bird) and identifying some of their birdsongs (listen to some of them at www.cloudforestalive.org/library/sounds.php). He explained how much of the forest grows from the top down, with the seeds lodging high in the forest canopy as a result of bird activity and then growing long roots down to the ground.

The strangler fig is one of the most notorious and successful exponents of this process. From its beginnings, several of its increasingly thick woody roots extend down to the ground from the upper parts of the host tree, where they take root in the forest floor. These roots, both above and below ground, grow thicker and gradually encircle the host tree and its roots. Over many years they grow closer and tighter around the tree, eventually strangling it to death. The dead host tree ultimately rots away, leaving the strangler fig tree with a hollow centre where the original tree used to be. The power exerted by strangler fig trees over many years has also caused much damage to ancient Mayan ruins in various parts of Central America.

Colonies of leafcutter ants are also a feature of the cloud forest and we saw the exterior of some large ones, not to mention major highways of these ants carrying their cut up green booty back to the nest.

At a clearing on one of the trails, we had a magnificent view of the Gulf of Nicoya in the distance, including the long skinny peninsula of Puntarenas.

Towards the end of the guided tour, we were shown the lair of an orange kneed tarantula. It was in quite a deep hole in a clay bank. Parts of the fuzzy legs of the spider could be seen just over the top of a small ridge deep in the hole, with most of its body being concealed below the ridge. Nobody in our group could be persuaded to provoke the tarantula with a stick in order to get it to reveal more of itself.

A number of coatimundis (raccoon family) were wandering about near the beginning of the trails and further inside the Preserve boundaries. They seemed to be used to people and were quite unafraid.

After a snack in the restaurant, Carol and I continued our visit by exploring some of the trails we did not cover with the guide. It was enjoyable to be able to now take it at our own pace. By one of the trails we came across an “atmospheric” waterfall in the dense vegetation – a convenient Kodak moment. We had been looking for monkeys, both with and without the guide, but didn’t spot any. And it appeared that the two-toed sloths were actively avoiding us.

Back in Santa Elena, we then booked an evening guided forest tour in the hopes of seeing the many nocturnal creatures of the cloud forest so prominently featured in the brochures. This tour (US$17 including round trip transportation) was in the El Refugio forest just to the north of the village. But it was a disappointment. We didn’t experience much more than we had during the daylight tour that morning. With the aid of his powerful spotlight, the guide manage to locate a spotted owl, a kinkajou climbing in the trees, a leaf disguised insect, and a large lizard sleeping on a tree branch. He also showed us another tarantula lair – it’s a good idea not to wear open sandals on forest walks. At the beginning of the walk, we also were shown a toad in its hole – I know it was not ceramic because I saw it move.

We had also booked a Canopy Tour for the following day. I was of two minds about this “attraction”, as it seemed more of a Disneyland/Adventure Park novelty ride designed more for thrills than sober wildlife and nature observation. I didn’t see how riding on a pulley down an aerial cable through the trees at high speed from one elevated platform to another was going to advance my opportunities to see sloths, monkeys and jaguars. I suspect that the areas where these adrenalin rides are located are studiously avoided by any self respecting forest animals.

A change in the weather resolved the issue. After a stormy night, we arose to find the area soakingly enveloped in heavy cloud accompanied by strong winds. This was the cloud forest at its cloudiest. When we went outside onto the muddy street, it was like standing in a gale force horizontal downpour. The winds must have been in excess of 30 knots. If this was a common feature of local weather, it’s no wonder that they have rows of wind turbines on the ridge above Lake Arenal, near Tilarán, not far to the west. The air temperature was even cooler than it had been the day before. Canceling the Canopy Tour in these conditions was not a difficult decision.

Our morning alternative was a visit to the Butterfly Garden, outside Santa Elena to the south east and easily reachable by taxi. We were initially given a presentation on many of the various insects of Costa Rica. This included an introduction to their pet orange kneed tarantula, which by this time I’d learned could not do me much harm. Fuzzy it was, cuddly it was not. Our timing was also perfect for watching a Blue Morpho butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. We then had a very enjoyable and interesting guided tour through the four separate butterfly habitat enclosures.

Two children were in our small tour group and they were each given a newly metamorphosised butterfly to release from a box when we entered the first habitat enclosure. The little girl released the bewildered Owl butterfly from her box. Then her young brother opened his box to release a Blue Morpho butterfly. But it was at first reluctant to move. The boy shook the box and the butterfly fluttered out and flew right at me, clasping its spindly legs across my mouth and sitting there. Not used to being kissed by butterflies, I instinctively shook my head to dislodge it. Everyone thought it was hilarious.
After lunch, the strong winds and even stronger gusts continued to blow the drenching heavy cloud droplets horizontally. Those who know Carol will be aware that gravity does not have a lot to work with in keeping her in contact with the ground, and a few heavy rocks in her backpack may have been a sensible precaution in these strong winds. As it was, my flimsy plastic rain poncho got shredded as it was constantly blown around my neck. But it was not a very long walk to the Frog Pond from the restaurant, and we then received some further education.

It was an interesting although not enthralling visit. We saw mostly very small and brightly coloured frogs as well as some larger toads. A good number of them were poisonous in various manners and to varying degrees, which is probably why they were all contained in large glass enclosures. In the circumstances of the displays, photography was not feasible.

The weather continued stormy overnight, and the electrical power was cut off several times. When we got up, the power was off and there was no hot water for the shower. Given the chilly air temperature, cold showers were vetoed. Time to move on. Still gale force winds and horizontally driven cloud spray. 07.15 am bus to Tilarán and then, after a windy and chilly wait, on to La Fortuna by way of the slow route around the north west end of Lake Arenal. I traveled this same route last September, but it appeared that they had paved the dirt road section since my last transit.

No surprises. It was drizzling on our arrival in La Fortuna. But – halleluja – the wind had dropped. I was here last September in the hopes of seeing the Arenal active volcano. But on that occasion it was enveloped in cloud for my entire visit and I never got to see it. This was strike two. The rain continued. Arenal volcano remained in obscurity. We bought new plastic rain ponchos, and wore them. We had a few meals, a few drinks. Volcano still socked in. Drizzle persisted. Watched a TV movie in the hotel room. Did some Internet.

Carol wanted some sun. Me too. Time to move on. So the next day we caught the 12.45 pm bus to San José.


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