Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Costa Rica - Departure (Jan 17, 2009)

We are all sad to leave Costa Rica. This has been a truly marvelous experience and we all vow to return to Costa Rica one day. I start my day by taking a few last minute photos at Borinquen, one of which is shortly after the last sunrise seen this trip.

From Costa Rica - Departure

We arrive at the airport to find no lines at the windows where we must pay our departure tax of $26/person and too early (around 10:30 AM) for check-in for those on the earliest flights out of Costa Rica. But by the time we've all paid our departure taxes and filled out the required paperwork for departure, Len and Leslie are able to check in. American Airlines agents finally open for check in (for Mike and Tamar), after staff have thoroughly cleaned all counter surfaces which anyone might have to touch! Once the early crowd has checked in, we head for a local tourist trap, a souvenir shop where we can purchase last minute items for ourselves or to give as gifts. We also take more photos... some gender-bending photos using the 'head shot' board at the shop and a few photos of our trip leaders, Charlie, Mark and Niño, all of whom contributed greatly to our enjoyment of this trip.

Shopping done, it's back to the airport to bid good-bye to Len, Leslie, Mike and Tamar. The DC area six (Micah, Elaine, Nancy, Evan, Aliza and myself) check in next after which we have about 90 minutes to go for lunch. And then we too bid good-bye to Costa Rica, Charlie, Niño, Mark and Paige as we head for our flight to the cold north.

Costa Rica - Day 14 (Jan 16, 2009)

Our last day in Costa Rica turns out to be our most strenuous adventure of the trip (at least, the most strenuous one where we all participate). Shortly after breakfast, we all pile onto the bus for a ride to Rincon de la Vieja Park nearby. We see a double rainbow along the way, the end of the prominent rainbow seems near enough to the road that we might be able to find the pot of gold. We also see a very young gaucho roping a horse (he succeeds).

From Costa Rica - Day 14

On our arrival at Rincon de la Vieja, we venture forth on a hike to view some of the geothermal features along a trail that winds around about half-way up the volcano slope. The wind is howling and it is raining as we exit the bus but once we are into the rain forest, the wind dies down and we opt to shed our rain gear in favor of remaining cool as we continue our hike. The first third of the trail is relatively easy along level ground with few obstacles in our path. We see mud pots, hot pools and fumaroles, familiar sites to those of us who have been to Yellowstone Park but made interesting by the differences in the landscape around this park's geothermal features.

We decide to continue on the trail rather than retrace our steps and this is when we encounter river crossings, up and down portions, rocks and tree roots and water hazards (real muddy spots) as we continue our hike. Some of the river crossings are quite challenging for most of us while they are easy for others. Wherever the trail becomes treacherous, Charlie arranges support as we continue our hike.

Our trickiest river crossing occurs at a spot where the original trail was recently washed out (left photo below), requiring us to either wade through hip deep water in the pond above the wash-out or find an alternate way to cross. We find a way most of the way across by walking along a rotting log (right photo below). The last part of the crossing is done over a hastily built "bridge" of rocks and tree branches made by some of the men in our group.

We are relieved to finally exit the rain forest after encountering still more obstacles (steep steps, rocks, roots) after our last river crossing. We are happy to be able to eat our box lunches on Niño's spotless bus while heading back to Borinquen for much needed massages (for some) or naps (for others), showers (for all) and a marvelous facial for me! This hike took longer and was harder than most of us expected so relaxation time is great.

Dinner our last night is a festive affair as most of us have agreed to dress up with some of us wearing items we purchased at Villa Lapas. It took two photos to get all of the group 'visible' to the camera and we all agreed that we'd had simply marvelous adventures and made many wonderful memories over the past two weeks.

Costa Rica - Day 13 (Jan 15, 2009)

Today is our first full day at Borinquen and the group has various plans for how they are spending their morning after our breakfast gathering... some are riding horses to the waterfalls and then to the zip line tour, some are being driven (by Hummer) to the start of the zip line tour and some are hiking to the start of the zip line tour for photo opportunities (this is my choice).

Our hike takes us up the side of the mountain to the end of the paved road and continues on a dirt road through a cow pasture to the start of the zip line tour. It is very windy high up on the mountain and once I see the first platform, I'm happy that I've opted out of this adventure. The first "zip" is over a very deep chasm in the rain forest and looks extremely scary to me and the others who have opted out of zipping along down the mountain through the rain forest. Paige is happy to be having no part of zipping as others mill about getting their gear checked and being instructed before setting out on the zip tour. Mike has perfect form and Tamar goes tandem on the first of 9 (or 10?) zips on the return to Borinquen.

From Costa Rica - Day 13

After all the "zippers" have taken their first step on the zip tour, Elaine, Micah and myself opt for a ride down the mountain in the hummer... a bone rattling experience! Then it is off for a quick hike on the Petroglyph Trail through the rain forest for the three of us... we want to be back in time to greet the crowd doing the zip tour when they return via the last zip line which ends near the stables. The guides encourage upside down zipping at the end of the tour and all our crowd does this.

The afternoon is spent by some lounging in the hot pools or around the swimming pool while others take advantage of the mud baths and/or massages in the spa. My choice is to relax, take a nap and then go birding with Charlie and Niño from ~3:30 pm to sunset. This turns out to be a great adventure because I have them all to myself and Charlie spends a great deal of time capturing bird photos for me on my Nikon P4 which he uses paired with the bird scope to get closer than I can with my Nikon P80. We have very good viewing of some birds I'd seen before but not seen well and spot new birds (new to me on this trip) also. It's hard to choose the best photos from the many taken today by Charlie... but I do like his "extreme close-up" of the Turquoise-browed Motmot and the Double-striped Thick-knee we saw. Additional photos (both by Charlie and by myself) are in the complete album from our thirteenth day in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica - Day 12 (Jan 14, 2009)

Our day starts with great views of the Scarlet Macaws dining on berries high in trees on the grounds of Villa Lapas. Travelers who have been to Costa Rica previously are amazed that we are seeing them so close up. They really are spectacular birds. Both Charlie (using my Nikon P4 and a bird scope) and myself get nice photos.

From Costa Rica - Day 12

Today is a fairly long travel day so we stop for lunch and a walking break at a delightful restaurant along the Pacific coast. The food is wonderful and the gardens are pleasant for our bit of exercise. We encounter some heavy traffic on the road after lunch and arrive at Borinquen, our last stop on our wonderful tour around 4 PM. This place is an elegant retreat with spa facilities and lovely grounds. Our rooms are wonderful, furnished with two double beds, a writing/computer desk, a wet bar (we don't touch it), a small table with two chairs, two comfortable chairs (one a rocking chair), TV (we don't watch it) and a bathroom with a nice large shower. We also have a porch which is separated from our neighbors (Aliza's parents, Evan and Nancy) by a flowering hedge. Special touches include towels folded as swans with a fresh hibiscus flower. The windows are screened so we can take advantage of the cross breezes instead of using air conditioning. We unpack, relax and shower and change for dinner. We each take photos of the sunset from our porch.

Costa Rica - Day 11 (Jan 13, 2009)

Our day starts VERY early so that we may be the first ones to the Canopy Tour at Villa Lapas. There are five suspension bridges, some crossing high above the rain forest below can be pretty scary. It is best to be on the trail soon after the sun rises, before it gets too crowded and before the jungle gets too hot. We have coffee and pastries in the dining room and get onto the bus bright and early. Our day starts with sightings of the Scarlet Macaws dining on balsa flowers and flying across the skies high above us. Once on the Canopy Trail, we see army ants, leaf cutter ants, birds and more as Charlie and Mark are sure to point out interesting sights.

We learn that Leaf Cutter ants will go up to 1.4 mile from their nest to search for leaves to cut and bring back to the nest (top left photo below), following pheromone trails through the rain forest. One trail we see crosses our path 4 times as we descend down the many switchbacks at the end of the trail. Once across the trail, they go straight up the side of the hill to the next switchback and so on until they return to the nest. They carry out their waste (right photo below) and pile it up a few feet away from the nest until the pile gets too big and then they will relocate. The bottom left and right photos show the ants carrying leaves and a traffic jam caused by a leaf that has fallen across their pheromone trail back to the nest.

From Costa Rica - Day 11

After we return from our Canopy Tour, we have lunch and free time until 3 PM. Some rest, some take walks in the rain forest and some adventure forth to do the zip line tour at Villa Lapas. I walk with the zip group to their first station and get videos (short ones) of each of them on their first zip through the jungle. Then I wander back through the rain forest, taking a wrong turn at one point which I correct once I realize I'm not on the same path we took earlier. The Tarcolito River bank beckons me and I capture several photos of butterflies along the river before heading back to our room for a short nap.

At 3:00 PM, we assemble for a short bus ride to the Tarcoles River for our "Crocodile Man Tour." We not only see crocodiles on this boat ride, but also have sightings of new birds, the Roseate Spoonbill being the most beautiful, as well as some we've seen before and now recognize easily. We end our day on the river watching the setting sun before heading back to Villa Lapas for dinner and packing up to head to our next stop in the morning.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Costa Rica - Day 10 (Jan 12, 2009)

Our first full day at Villa Lapas starts with a flurry of bird sightings shortly after sharing coffee before dawn... there are trees on the property with fruits and berries which attract a wide variety of birds, Trogons, Toucans, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, White-tipped Dove, Fiery Araçari and more. It's a wonderful way to start the day. Photos below are of a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan having breakfast and a Black-headed Trogon.

From Costa Rica - Day 10

An addition to our usual buffet breakfast is eggs (either scrambled or as an omelet) cooked to order with items we select from the choices offered. We then gather gear for the day and pile into the bus for our ride to Villa Vanilla, the home of Rainforest Spices, where we have a tour of the plantation and learn about their production of vanilla, spices and essential oils. The bus ride to get to Villa Vanilla is mostly over unpaved roads which we begin to refer to as giving us a Costa Rican massage. Our tour is extremely interesting and educational and starts at the drying and processing shed. (items shown drying below include allspice, black pepper, white pepper, cacao beans and LOTS of vanilla beans) After learning about the drying and processing steps, our tour winds along the Epiphyte Trail past examples of every spice produced at the plantation as well as cultivated epiphytes. Epiphytes (some shown below) are plants that grow on other plants and take the nutrients from air and rain; they are not parasitic.

We are pleasantly surprised (since we had NO IDEA this was happening) to find that lunch at the "viewpoint" is included after we are nearly through with our walk through the plantation. A cool breeze at this high point is a welcome respite from the heat and the light rain that has begun to fall. The lunch is wonderful, consisting of black beans, plantains, and arroz con pollo (chicken with rice). Dessert is the most wonderful part of lunch with chef Chelsea's hearty cookies and cinnamon-flavored, home-made ice cream. The teas served are delightfully refreshing as well.

Our last stop is the Spice Shoppe where most of us spend cold cash to purchase some of the options available... I brought home vanilla beans, vanilla powder, cacao nibs and Ceylon Cinnamon (both ground and dried chunks before grinding). All-in-all a wonderful experience. (I will add to the information about Villa Vanilla after I get some of the information from others that I cannot recall myself.)

On our way back to Villa Lapas, we stop at a public beach so some of us can dip our toes into the Pacific Ocean. We get more than we bargained for when waves come crashing in and go up higher on our legs than we'd rolled up our pants. Thank goodness for quick-dry fabrics.

Costa Rica - Day 9 (Jan 11, 2009)

The day starts off with a chuckle when I see a familiar bumper sticker on my way to breakfast. Seems that Costa Ricans are quite happy with the outcome of our presidential election.

Morning dew on daisies and a calla lily are among the last photos taken before leaving Savegre for a day of travel and fun en route to Villa Lapas.

From Costa Rica - Day 9

We stop before lunch at Our Lady of the Angels Basilica in Cartago to see the fabulous Basilica revered by Costa Ricans as their national church and as a source of healing waters. An interior and exterior view are shown below (more photos are in the complete album).

We plan to meet up with our naturalist guide, Charlie, at our lunch stop today. A last minute change in plans (Charlie says there is no parking for a bus at the chosen restaurant) has us having lunch at the Gomez home. We have delicious food (take-out of typical Costa Rican meals from the nearby restaurant) and get to meet Charlie's family and see his lovely home and gardens. It is truly a delightful break and a special bonus to see Charlie's home and meet his family.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Costa Rica - Day 8 (Jan 10, 2009)

Once more on to the bus after breakfast for our morning adventure... relatively clear skies greet us so there is a good chance we will be able to see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean from the highest point on the Pan American Highway, Cerro Bellavista. There are many radio towers as well as a Biological Research Station at the end of the road. The highest point is over 11,000 ft and the research station (off limits to tourists) is at 10,500 ft.

An option that some of our group are taking for the return to Savegre is to hike down the mountain on a trail that goes through old growth oak forests for part of the descent. I opt out of this adventure due to sore knees (it includes a 4000 ft elevation drop on the return to Savegre) since I'm certain that I would slow down the group considerably. Four members of our group (pictured below) plus a guide (required) hired at Savegre set out on the hike about 9:30 am and we expect them to return by 3:30 pm since the hike is supposed to take about six hours. Raul, the local guide, is in fantastic shape and our folks must be too since the group returns in slightly under 4-1/2 hours!

From Costa Rica - Day 8

Meanwhile, those of us not hiking the entire distance wander down the road awhile with Niño following in the bus. We snap photos, watch birds, marvel at being above the clouds (photo above right) and generally enjoy the beautiful scenery as well as the balmy weather. Niño calls a halt to our wandering ways around 10:45 am and back into the bus we go. Before getting on the road to Savegre, we make a much needed stop for baños at a local bakery, restaurant, shopping mart, bird watching area. About every place we've stopped so far has at least one, if not more, bird feeding and/or hummingbird feeding stations as well as gardens we can wander through. Photos below show an orchid and bromeliad (both epiphytes) growing together on a tree (left) and the so-called Poor Man's Umbrella plant (the leaves are large enough to shelter one from the rain) in bloom on the right.

Once back at Savegre, we have lunch and are on our own until 4 PM when we are scheduled to meet for another trip to view the Quetzals. Len, Leslie and myself opt to hike down the trail to the first waterfall along the river on the hotel property. It's not possible to hike to the second one because the trail is washed out beyond the first waterfall. We are only hiking for a short while when it starts to rain and continues, harder at times, for the duration of our hike. Most of us opt out of the 4 PM birding trip to view the Quetzals since the rain is still coming down. Relaxing in the bar with a warm cup of coffee laced with brandy seems a better option. Tonight is, sadly, our last night in Savegre so we don't party because we are all tired from the day's activities and must pack before going to bed.

Costa Rica - Day 7 (Jan 9, 2009)

We are really getting into the routine now... early morning bird watching followed by breakfast and then on to the day's adventure. Today finds us taking a short bus ride to a nearby farm (admission of $2/person is part of our package) where rumor has it that the Resplendent Quetzal is dining daily on wild avocado fruits. We catch a glimpse of a male and female Quetzal in the trees shortly before they fly away, not to return even though we watched and waited for another 30-45 minutes. While waiting, your intrepid blogger took a few photos of the flora and fauna seen nearby and Niño and others in our group gathered kindling so our fire wouldn't fail tonight.
From Costa Rica - Day 7

We make a plan to meet for lunch and return later in the day for another attempt at better viewing. Some of us hike back to the hotel (~2.3 km from the farm) and some take the bus. After lunch is free time for whatever we want to do until our 4 PM meeting for another try at viewing the Quetzals. I take a NAP to refresh myself.

While waiting for our trip to view the Quetzals, I manage to catch 4 of the 5 Hummingbirds that can be seen at Savegre on film.

Then it is off to try to see the Resplendent Quetzals again and we have much better luck in the afternoon. Once seen, it is truly understandable why they are named "Resplendent." I've included just two of the photos I took below; more can be seen in the complete Costa Rica - Day 7 album (which doesn't include ALL of the over 100 photos taken on this day).