Wednesday, February 9, 2011

3 Weeks in Costa Rica/Nicaragua - Day 1 Part 1

Yep, the title just changed to "/Nicaragua". I decided to take a venture north, to visit an ecological research center I'd heard about a couple of years earlier. I didn't have any guide books for Nicaragua. I realized when I was there that this was the first time I'd really traveled internationally without one, and I'd only done a little bit of internet research on how to get where I was going. It definitely made me realize how much those guidebooks make a difference orienting in an unfamiliar place, and what crazy adventures can be had without them. That is how this single day warrants 3 posts.

The next morning, He headed back to San Jose to fly home - and I caught a bus to Nicaragua. The bus had sold more tickets than seats, which I found out was a common practice, and it was always tourist that had been double booked a seat with a local, meaning one of them had to sit on the floor in the aisle - primarily the tourist - i.e. me in this case. At least I still got on the bus! To get across the Costa Rica/Nicaragua border meant waiting in long lines at each countries border crossing. Then, the bus drivers insist that everyone on the bus tightly shut their curtains as they go from one checkpoint to the next. I still don't know why. For the one in Nicaragua, the bus driver collects everyone's passports then disappears. No one else really seemed concerned, but it was definitely worrisome to have your passport just disappear into an old plastic shopping bag along with a few dozen others. I tried to ask about it, but just got told to wait where I was - so I didn't move a foot, stayed right by the bus door, until the driver returned about half an hour later.

At the checkpoint, everyone has to get off of their bus and wait - so there are dozens of vendors selling anything you might possibly want hawking their products to the trapped travelers. They all keep their products in round tubs, carried in front of them, or above their heads, and shout out what they are selling. Stuff like food, or drinks in plastic baggies with straws (the bottles have redemption value for recycling, so the vendors keep them). The women all wore ruffled aprons where they keep their change etc.

When the bus driver returns, they give you your passport back by shouting out the names of the passport, then giving it to the first person that grabs for it…I met a nice Nicaraguan girl on her way up to Granada, she had an "aisle seat" (i.e. floor in the aisle) also. She wanted to go into tourism, and was happy to practice her English on someone. Tourism was a popular career choice among many young Nicaraguans I met, who see it as a good future in that country, like it has been for Costa Rica.

At the border

The Cambio, or money exchange, at the Nicaraguan border - consists of people with a wad of cash walking up and down the line of immigration yelling "cambiocambiocambio" - they have a laminated tag with their photo, and a number. I wasn't sure what the exchange rate was - and no idea if I was getting ripped off - one of those handy things guide books help with. I exchanged for 10, 000 colones (about 20 USD).

The difference between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is visible within a few miles upon crossing the border. It is mostly rural on both sides of the border, but as soon as we started seeing town in Nicaragua - it really looked like another country - more so than the distance would warrant on its own. In this area of Nicaragua, people still use horse carts for transportation. The towns appear much older. The dogs are all very sickly looking. In Costa Rica, dogs ran around everywhere - but for the most part they looked healthy and fat. In Nicaragua the majority of dogs I saw that ran around were skin and bones, and looked mangy. The horses I saw in this area of Nicaragua are some of the skinniest animals that I have ever seen, many with large open sores on their back from the carts attachments, and these were still being asked to carry heavy loads at a run.

The town that I got off the bus at was Rivas.

Friday, February 4, 2011

3 Weeks in Costa Rica - Day 12-13

After dinner, the rest of the group headed inland, and He and I decided to try another night of turtle stalking. Thanks to his persistence, we actually got a spot in one of the groups - and got to go see a leatherback sea turtle dig it's nest and lay eggs! It was incredible to see her meticulously dig out the nest with her hind flippers. Carefully taking a scoop of sand out, dumping it at the surface - and patting it down to keep it from falling back in. Then, using her hind flippers - she pressed the sides of the hole that she had dug to make them more compact - then you could hear her breathing change as she started to lay the eggs. The number of people allowed on the beach are limited, and you had to be accompanied by an approved guide - who used a red light so we didn't disturb the turtle by watching her. We went back out during the day time, and walked to the spot where she had been. You could see the flipper tracks where she had covered the nest, then moved back to the ocean. After watching her lay her eggs, we went back to the hotel. The room was muggy and fairly moldy, and we talked in hammocks strung between palm trees outside instead. We fell asleep there for the night.

The next day we drove into Canas to go on a river tour down Rio Corcabachi. It was run by the same group that has the rehabilitation center. We got there in the afternoon, and took a leisurely ride down the river - and saw an incredible amount of wildlife. The guide had been working there for 10 years, and knew all of the local species well. We passed a family along the river, and two little boys ran out and yelled "I love you papa", - in English - . The whole family is getting in on the tourist gig. We saw huge crocodiles, lots of howler monkeys, river otters, wood storks, ospreys, herons, variegated squirrels, and tons of other species. We saw more species along that river than any of the other hikes or walks that we had gone on.

Crocodile resting on the rocks

Closer view


We stayed in Liberia that night.

3 Weeks in Costa Rica - Day 11-12

The next morning we headed out to Santa Elena preserve, which is adjacent to Monteverde, to go on a "sky walk" of suspension bridges through the forest canopy. It was misting heavily/raining lightly, and the first bridge is rather high and totally exposed to the wind blowing at it while you try and walk across it. It was lovely though.

Most of the critters were hiding from the weather. It wasn't until almost the end of the walk that we came upon a troop of howler monkeys, curled up to fend of the rain, sleeping in the top of the canopy right next to the bridge.

We stayed there and watched for a long time - until we were thoroughly frozen, and even the monkeys thought we were crazy for being out there. Many of the trees along the hike were huge, with vines and epiphytes covering them.

After the hike, we opted for some indoor activity and went to a ranarium called the "frog pond". It was great to get to see all of the famous species of dart frogs, and dozens of other colorful tropical varieties - even if it was in captivity. The camouflage of these animals was incredible, I can't imagine actually locating them in the wild.

There really are at least 3 large frogs visible here.

Check out those toe pads.

We drove out of the cloud forest that day, and descended back into the clear cut, dusty, dry grazing areas.

We were driving to Playa Grande that night, and stopped at a place called Las Pumas along the way. This is a private wildlife sanctuary started primarily for large cats, although it now supports everything from Toucans to Pacas.

The regulations in Costa Rica are a bit different for such places, and they really don't protect visitors from themselves (i.e. being stupid and trying to pet the cats). The enclosures are made of loose chain link, and there are no further barriers to keep people away. I witnessed a family playing with one of the cats by getting it to swat at a flip flop, and later one of the kids got grabbed by an angry little capuchin monkey because he leaned against the enclosure. The animals looked very well cared for and healthy, and it was an incredible opportunity to see species such as jaguars, gray foxes, ocelots, and toucans up very close.

We then got to Playa Grande in the dark. We stopped and tried to see if we could see the turtles laying their eggs that night, and we got put on a stand-by list. We were told we had to be there at 8, so we scarfed down a very rushed dinner - then went and sat on the porch waiting for a turtle until 3 in the morning…no turtles for us that night though. We did play a great game of international scrabble with others waiting, all languages were accepted as long as someone in the group was fluent in it.

The next morning was a bit lazy as we woke up from the late night of turtle stalking. I went with our group to the beach and watched pelicans grab fish from the waves around surfers, and then to breakfast. On the walk back from breakfast, we got to see a dinosaur! Ok, it was actually just a gigantic iguana, but it really leaves an impression in the wild.

I went with the rest of the group to look at a hotel that one of them had spotted earlier - called Hotel SiSiSi. When we started talking with the owner, it turns out that she had just moved there from Boulder Creek (near Santa Cruz, Ca.). When she heard that I was planning on going on to Nicaragua next, she got all excited and told me about a private wildlife preserve called Domitila - and gave me all the contact information to go and visit. (Side note: This is an important leader to later in the story).

The whole caravan headed off to Conchel beach, just north of Playa Grande. This is mostly a local vacation area. The way to access it involves driving along the beach. Actually driving along the hard packed sand by the tideline, over an estuary - and to the roads in the adjacent town. There was actually traffic moving in both directions along this section on the tideline - you just couldn't slow down at all or you would just sink…I could never have imagined actually driving in an area like that, critical ecosystem and all, until you are trying to get from point A to point B - and that is the road.

3 Weeks in Costa Rica - Day 9-10

This was the start of our time in northern Costa Rica.

On the road to Arenal, we saw that it was possible for bridges to develop pot holes. Not just little bridges. But large metal and concrete suspension bridges that are hundreds of feet above the water can developed 4 foot wide potholes that span the bridge. The solution…throw some twigs across it, maybe a metal plank - and drive over it. This was the bridge, and one of the concrete planks was missing.

By the time we got to Arenal, it was very cloudy. The volcano was totally covered in clouds, as it had been for days. We never did get to see the top of the volcano, with it's glowing lava pouring out, but we did hear it rumbling at night! There were lots of hotels all along the base, all lined up to give tourists a view of the volcano - all expensive for that view. This was the first very touristy place that we had been. I was surprised to see everything listed in U.S. dollars, and everyone spoke English. This explains what we had heard from other travelers, which we found not to be true in our earlier excursions that were a little further off the beaten path.

I took a walk through a butterfly garden - it was incredible, they had different buildings set up with different host plants. Butterflies were everywhere, and they had chrysalises stuck on a board where you could compare types and watch butterflies hatch. There is one species that looks like it is made from shiny silver.

The next day we drove to Monteverde along Lake Arenal.

On the way out of Arenal we got to see Coati. Whole family groups of them would come out onto the road to beg for handouts. Although it is sad to see wildlife doing that, it was incredible to get to see them up close. Their noses are very mobile, the whole front part of their noses are like miniature elephant trunks.

The road to Monteverde is very bumpy. We were told the residents like to keep it that way to limit the amount of tourists that make it out that way. I'm sure it helps somewhat, but it was swarming with people regardless. The drive out winds up through dry grazed lands, overlooking a large bay. It seems impossible that there is a forest hidden in the cleared landscape, until you gain enough altitude to get into the clouds - then the trees start to come together. We got a room at a local hotel. He and I ended up with a brand new room that they had just finished working on that day. So new, in fact, that they hadn't actually finished building the stairs or the deck to this second story space - so we got to scramble up the construction scaffolding, and walk across the boards made from roughly cut tree trunk planks, just to get to the door.

That first day near Monteverde we went on a night hike to see nocturnal critters. Right as we got there a white faced capuchin monkey came to visit the building, and the guide fed it a banana - which it took right from his hand. Then we took a walk to a huge ancient strangler fig tree. It was so old that the original host tree had long ago died and rotted away, leaving a living hollow truck for the animals to hid in. We saw a Kinkajou, Mexican Porcupine, and an Olingo running around this tree. The porcupine apparently comes to this tree to go to the bathroom every evening. Porcupine feces smell horrible, even from 10 feet away. The guide admitted that they do place bananas in the tree to attract the wildlife to it, but that he didn't feel bad about doing so because there were banana plantations on either side of the preserve that provided lots of bananas to the wildlife anyway. I do have to wonder why they still came to his tree if there were lots of bananas anyway, but it was still incredible to see them. Along the walk, we saw many sleeping song birds, long-winged butterflies, and huge orange tarantulas. The guide saw a mountain lion during one of the hikes a few months previous. The guide also talked about how the majority of the amphibian species in Costa Rica have become recently extinct, and they still aren't totally sure why. There are no lights in this area, and you could see so many stars in the sky it was unbelievable - it looked like the high desert in the Sierras, but from here you could see the southern cross and the north star.

3 Weeks in Costa Rica - Day 7-8

We were meeting with friends in Arenal (northern part of Costa Rica) in a few days, and it took three mostly travel days to get there. Even through Costa Rica is a small country, the pot holes and dirt roads make for very slow travel. Here are some images from those days.

We stopped at Mirador de Quetzal along the interamericana on the way north. This is a beautiful private farm that has many pairs ofresplendent quetzals. This is a wonderful example of the motivation for conservation that eco-tourism provides. The owner noticed people looking for the species that he had on his property, he invited them to come onto his land. Now the family receive visitors for a fee, and generate a good deal of income from people coming to see the birds, and so has conserved the incredible cloud forest on his property.

There were no other visitors there when we stopped by, so we had the cloud forest to ourselves. One of the sons was working as a guide, and took us out into the moss and epiphyte covered forest calling for the birds. It was misting heavily, and the fog hung tightly around the green forest, but we got to see a number of female quetzals, and one male with the long tail feathers. On the way back, we stopped at an overlook that stood above a bush that was swarming with dozens of hummingbirds.

Even though many of the homes or ranch buildings in the rural areas are very simple and sparse from our perspective, from what we saw, they are always noticeably meticulously maintained. There is never any broken boards, or fallen wire. There is never any trash laying around.

Something else we noticed also: It seemed that everyone uses machete's. Even little old ladies will be out trimming their hedges in front of their house with a two foot machete.

3 Weeks in Costa Rica - Day 5-6

There was a mix of information about the road to Bahia Drake, the town near Corcavado. Some of the guide books said it was impassible, others said that it was do-able in the dry season. So we decided to try - we could always turn around…We start down the bumpy dirt road, and we aren't to far along when I saw some movement in the bank going up the hill next to the road. I look closer, and it is a crocodile!!! Right there, just on the side of the road - a little bit up the hill - it was a small one, only a meter or so long. I was so excited, I tried to hop out of the truck to get a better look, but he grabbed the back of my belt and wouldn't let go. He was worried the bigger one was waiting in the bushes…So we headed down the road, and got to our first bridge/river decision. The bridge here was two rusty metal planks, with cast concrete slabs just sitting on the top of it. The road split, and there was obvious signs of traffic going through the river also. Oddly, it seemed much safer to go through the river - so we took that option.

We had to do that a few times along the road. The road was carved out of the side of the mountains, and we had to climb over a pass to get to the coast. This area was classic rainforest, teeming with birds, vines, and palm trees. Overlooks with views of mangroves, blue water, and fishing boats in bays. I was fairly sick by now, so with a fever it all look surreal and incredibly beautiful.

When we got close to town, the river spread out and we had to cross a growing delta area, then go down a heavily eroding road to get to the camping area (3 foot deep ruts, almost couldn't get back out). We set up the tent on a grassy knoll just inches from the sand of the beach. Jason got to go swim. My fever spiked that night, nothing like a high fever in hot humid weather.

The next morning I was human again. We woke up to small green parrots calling and flying overhead. I went for a guided wildlife hike in the rainforest. He'd had enough of snakes already, and decided to go snorkeling out at a nearby island to avoid running into any in the rain forest. I saw no snakes that day, and he ran into a deadly venomous sea snake…besides that, he had a wonderful time, he saw dolphins, sea turtles, moray eels and lots of other reef creatures. I got a great trip out into the forest, taking a boat from Bahia Drake around to the center of Corcavado on the Oso Peninsula. I saw Macaws, a 3 meter crocodile, a sloth, 100 year old vines, a white hawk, spider monkeys, and tons of other critters. I got to go swimming in a stream that formed a swim hole just as it let out to the ocean, under palm trees and vines, with butterflies everywhere. We camped in Bahia Drake for one more night.

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