Costa Rica Stories and Tips

Costa Rica 9 Days of R&R

Blue Morpho Butterfly Photo,

Before I left Connecticut I announced that if I could just see a quetzal bird I would die happy. Now that I've accomplished that, I need a new goal. I actually saw five quetzals.Let's back up. Years of dreaming about spectacular electric blue Morpho butterflies and brightly colored toucans with fat yellow beaks was coming true. We were going to Costa Rica for 9 days. So who knew about poisonous snakes? Lots of poisonous, scary deadly reptiles? Ugh. And then top that off with big, hairy tarantulas with orange knees. Orange knees? We almost bagged the trip. If we had known about the critters earlier we might never have gone. What a mistake that would have been.Tarantulas first. We never had one in our room, though we did hear of someone who did. Never looked under the bed. We heard conflicting stories on whether tarantulas are poisonous. Tarantulas are the selling point on night hikes. Go to bed early and you won't see tarantulas. In the lovely butterfly exhibits don't look at the insect trays and you'll avoid huge, ugly spiders entirely.Now about those snakes. We did see four poisonous vipers. One was a little closer than I cared for but a much braver hiker offered to walk between me and said snake, it was bright green, well hidden in sun, and dappled with fresh green leaves. I hope when I see the first little garter snake in my garden in Connecticut or even a more formidable, entirely non-poisonous black snake, this summer, I will quietly walk away instead of making a complete ninny of myself by screaming.The best advice is to stay on the path, keep your eyes open and do not walk in any leaves. Did I follow this eminently sensible advice? Nooo. Well, the guide whipped right off the trail and into the leaves in hot pursuit of a howler monkey. The monkey was cool and my heart stopped pounding quite soon upon returning to the trail.After the close encounters with the snakes and spiders we drove through miles and miles of steep washboard roads, well roadish gravel affairs anyway, to get to Monteverde to see the Cloud Forest.Up at a distinctly unfriendly hour even before the sun pulled up into the horizon to meet our guide. Francisco was a quite unexceptional fellow who clearly didn't know enough for his job. We were spoiled by Marvin, the guide who sang to birds in their own language and howled back to monkeys in a most convincing fashion at the Rainforest Tram. But off we went with Francisco. Parked our rental 4 wheel drive jeep and noticed that about 30 people were frozen in silence with their heads tilted back. I whispered, "What's everyone looking at?" with a pounding heart. "Quetzals eating the fruit," he said. I turned to my husband and said, "Notice how calm I am?" Then with shaking hands I set up the camera. Some quick shots and then just dumbfounded admiration. These birds are emerald green, with bright red chests and engaging faces. But what sets them apart from other showy tropical birds are the tails. Long and graceful the male's tail is twice as long as the body. It flutters with extraordinary grace as it soars and flashes the girls. That morning's babes were supremely indifferent but the humans were stunned by his soaring and dipping performance.Quetzals were sacred to Mayas and their kings wore the elegant luminous feathers as their headdresses.Spotting a quetzal is an unforgettable experience and we felt blessed to see them. And it wasn't luck. Quetzals love a type of small avocado but there weren't any at that time of year so they settled for second best and gathered in the fruit ladened trees over the parking lot.Costa Rica is the land of serendipity. As I struggled up the skirt of the Arenal Volcano I spotted something lavender. Lots of something lavender. Orchids. Orchids everywhere. Wow. They seem to be growing out of the lava rocks. Their graceful petals sway in the brisk wind. Next wonder: We are so high that we are actually looking down into a vulture’s nest. It was a mama vulture with fluffy, innocent white baby vultures. One lifts its angelic wing and we all sigh in wonder. Meanwhile the volcano belches burps and groans like a dyspeptic grandfather. A chatty volcano is not to be ignored or forgotten. Beside a busy road we glace up to a big tree just beginning to leaf out. It is home to six spider monkeys including two babies. The mother monkeys seem to be teaching the little ones how to stretch over to the branch with the most succulent fresh leaves. An amazing surprise.We bravely agree to go on one of Costa Rica’s famous night hikes. We arrive at the Children’s Cloud Forest at dusk. The sunset is brilliant orange, then plum and finally indigo. Darkness settles in and the forest grows quiet except for the chirping insects. Why am I doing this? Ah, we stop and the guide shines his light on a branch and we spot a fluffy white bird, one leg neatly pulled under its body, its eyes shut tight. The light doesn’t disturb its sleep. Who knew that birds sleep on branches at night? Then I remember, duh, that chickens roost at night. They’re birds too. Next we see two little green birds sound asleep. The guide worries a hollow log beside the trail with his foot. I step back, way back, with another hiker. Why didn’t I bring my boots? I have hiking boots. I could have brought them. So next the guide pokes a stick into the hollow log, dislodging a hairy tarantula complete with orange knees. One quick glimpse is sufficient for me. As we walk back to the pool of light where the little office awaits our return, the guide flashes his light on the window frame. Yikes there is the distinctive profile of a scorpion.Later in our trip we pull over at the end of a noisy bridge. We walk the narrow path as the trucks whiz by. Later we learn that someone was killed on that swaying bridge and now it is forbidden to cross on foot. Heedless of safety we race along our little track. Ah, at last. We peer over the vibrating bridge. A clutch of scary crocodiles are basking in the sunlight under the careful eyes of iguana, vultures and great blue herons. Quite a multicultural bunch. The vultures are hoping the crocs will spill some of their raw chicken that is tossed over the bridge so they can feast upon flesh. Guess they are always too full to contemplate tough human hides. They are huge and so ugly and so fascinating to watch. We look at them a long time. Then we notice the floating logs coming to join their relatives.We return to our car and are greeted by a raggedy police officer, perhaps 17 years old. A quick transaction and we’re out $10.As we drive around hairpin turns toward Alejuela to the airport we go through dry, inhospitable ground. And then we round a bend and are treated to the sight of blooming yellow trees, lots and lots of them. And they are brilliant against the rich lapis sky.Costa Rica challenges its visitors. The dreadful roads, eerie howling monkeys, deadly snakes, scorpions, spiders, crocodiles. But it offers a visitor the opportunity to see an unsanitized nature. I love the natural world but I didn’t really mean vipers. But they are part of the authentic natural world not the Disney version. And so I found a smidgen of courage within me and am the richer for it.

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