A Travellerspoint blog

Can you get a contact buzz from the smell of roasting coffee

And I finally get my bath!

sunny 15 °C

16 March 2016
Intercontinental Hotel
San Jose, Costa Rica

Good morning, good morning! I am ever so chipper this morning, blog fans, because I finally found the holy of holies: a BATH TUB! And it’s a whopper—nice and deep, perfect for reading and relaxing. I had two baths yesterday evening, in fact, one before we went to the Gold Museum and one after! (You shower people cannot truly understand what it means for a bath girl to be separated from her tub.) More significantly, through several rearrangement efforts, everything went back in my suitcase except for the three nature books I bought, and I left those out more because of weight than space. Yay me!

But you all don’t really care about those issues. You want to hear about the travel adventures, don’t you? Of course you do! So yesterday was our last full day in Costa Rica, and it was a transfer day, as in transferring from one hotel to the other, with a few interesting stops thrown in. We rolled out of the Tilajari Resort at oh eight hundred, per Siggy’s plan and took a particularly curvy road out of town. Being from West Virginia, it didn’t particularly bother me, but I could see a few of my compadres popping a little Dramamine. Our first stop of the morning was a “comfort stop” (and you know what that means) at a little road side mom-and-pop bodega kind of a place that had loads of homemade Costa Rican candies and confections for sale. They were all absolutely beautiful, but as near as I could tell, about every single one of them involved coconut, so I was forced to abstain. (Side note: yuck!)


Then it was on to our first stop-stop of the day, in the village of San Ramon. San Ramon is known as the Village of Poets (although Siggy and Alejandro didn’t actually name any poet from there), but three former presidents of Costa Rica are from there, as well, including Don Pepe Figueres, who is pretty revered in Costa Rica. Apparently, there was a quasi-junta in power in 1948 who tried to nullify the election results when they weren’t to that president’s liking. So Don Pepe raised his own army of retired military folks, forced out the junta, instituted 834 constitutional reforms (seriously), including dissolving the army, and after 18 months in power, turned over control of the government to the legally-elected president. He was subsequently elected as president twice more. Anyway, there is a Don Pepe museum (and I use that term in the absolutely LOOSEST sense of the word) in San Ramon, and we paid a courtesy visit before heading to the central market to learn more about Costa Rican fruits and vegetables that are not common in the United States.

Okay, who can guess what this is?


If you guessed a cashew fruit, you are obviously a botanical genius and you can stop reading right now. However, if that wasn’t what came immediately to mind, you might want to continue. Yes, this is the “fruit” of the cashew tree. Actually, the orange/red thing is the epiphyte, and the nut is the fruit. Each thingy, for want of a better, more technical term, results in only one nut, which is one reason cashews are so darned expensive. The second reason is that cashews are a member of the same family as poison ivy, and the nuts are surrounded by a membrane that, if it touches your skin, will cause blistering, so it must be carefully removed. Makes you a little less resentful about paying $10 a jar at Costco now, doesn’t it? Anyway, the orange thing is full of iron, and, while not exactly sour, sort of dries your mouth out and puckers you up when you eat it. And yes, I tried it…

We also learned about the soursop plant, which I believe I mentioned in this forum before. It is not exported to the US because it ripens so quickly, but some of its benefits can be obtained in pill/extract form. Another one was the actual passionfruit, which looks like an orange, but with a skin that is easily punctured before the seeds inside are consumed. And no, I didn’t try that. It looked like eating a snotty pomegranate, and I had to pass. Alejandro also showed us a cassava root, which is the source of tapioca for you pudding fans. It can be peeled and cooked much like mashed potatoes, or fried like a potato chip. However it is eaten, though, it must be cooked: it contains cyanide that is destroyed by the cooking process! Yeah, that’d be a giant oopsy. The last thing on the day’s syllabus was how to tell if a pineapple is ripe. Costa Rica is the largest source of pineapple for the U.S. market (sorry to dispel your illusions that it is Hawaii), so these folks know some pineapple. He says to look at the eyes around the botton. They should be showing some gold, and the fruit itself should be symmetric, with round, even-sized eyes. The trick of pulling a leaf out of the top—nope. (And technically pineapple is a bracht, or a bromeliad…I’m going to have to look that one up…somebody remind me.)

Then it was back on the bus and off to lunch and a tour at the DOKA coffee farm. Mom and I actually visited a coffee farm living museum when we were in Hawaii, so I knew a little bit about how coffee is grown, but this was on a much more commercial scale. After lunch, we had a fabulous guide named Adriana who gave us a tour of the plantation and processing/roasting operation. The coffee beans are picked by hand when the coffee “cherries” are ripe, aka bright red (hence the name cherries). For you coffee types, and you know who you are, it is the unintended inclusion of unripened cherries by mechanical picking that gives coffee its bitterness. Here in Costa Rica, the coffee is picked by Nicaraguan immigrant laborers, with each bush typically being picked three or four times during the harvest season as the cherries ripen. Makes you feel a little less unhappy about the high price of fancy coffee, now, doesn’t it? Anyway, the beans are separated by density, with the highest quality beans sinking in a water flotation tank. These are processed through a mechanical peeling machine that removes the outer cherry and the sugar “slime” that coats the actual seeds (or “bean”) inside. The beans are dried, preferably in the sun for five days, where they are raked every 45 minutes during the day! Alternatively, they can be mechanically dried, but the producers believe this results in an inferior coffee and is a less preferred option. From there, the beans are stored for three months to age before they are shipped to the farm’s international customers, who do their own roasting. DOKA also roasts coffee for local sale at the farm, and we got to tour the roasting room. WOW does roasting coffee ever smell good! It’s a shame it tastes like swamp water to me. Much like wine, I guess it’s an acquired taste, and I’m just a plebeian. Anyway, 15 minutes for light roast, 17 for medium, and 20 for dark, and then it’s bagged for your morning worship! And finally, a tour that ended in the gift shop—I am back in civilization!!!!!!

After a couple of purchases, it was back on the bus for the short trip into San Jose, where we said good-bye to Alejandro at the bus station. He had to catch a ride back to Guanacaste to meet his next tour group. <sniff> <sniff> Adios, Alejandro! Then we headed here to bathtub heaven, the Intercontinental Hotel. When traveling with Tauck, they take care of putting the luggage in your room, typically. I saw the hotel gift shop, and made a detour there first before going to my room. Now, you all know how I can browse, so I was really shocked when I got to my room, saw the miraculous bathtub, and had no suitcase, no toiletries, and no change of clothes with which to enjoy said miracle. So I just hied myself down to the front desk and said, “Donde esta mi equipaje?” Turns out, I was supposed to be in another room and that’s where my suitcase was. (The same thing happened to another couple on the trip, but they waited almost an hour before they followed up with a personal visit, so they didn’t get to have two baths yesterday!)

After the marvelous bath, it was off to the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum for our private tour and farewell dinner. The museum was closed for the night, so it was just the 21 of us and the staff, which was really swanky! No lines, no crowds, no pushing, and good photo ops. The museum houses artifacts from before Columbus’ contact with the New World (that’s their definition of Pre-Colombian), and we got a private tour of them. They used two techniques, lost wax casting and lamination. Now, if you think about it, that’s pretty advanced technology for pre-1500s people with limited equipment, especially since a lot of gold refining today uses some pretty nasty chemistry involving cyanide or mercury. I really, really wanted a book on the metallurgy, but they didn’t have anything like that. (What they DID have in the gift shop was an absolutely stunning fused glass bowl that WOULD have been mine if they shipped, but there was no way I was even going to try to get that home.) Lots of frog motifs, which represent fertility, and birds to be seen, but nothing that I would have chosen to wear! They had a local artisan there, Dominga, who was demonstrating some of the crafts of the indigenous peoples of the Guanacaste region. She was carving jicara, which is a non-edible fruit that is hollowed and dried, then the shelled is carved in a chiaroscuro fashion that was incredibly detailed and beautiful. (Of course I bought something—why do you even ask such silly questions?)

After dinner, it was back here to finish packing and watch the Super Tuesday results (in English this time!). And now I’m waiting on my airport transfer and my flight back home. It’s been an absolutely fabulous trip, and I would urge all of you to consider coming to Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful country, and the people are warm, friendly, and hospitable. Tourism is a huge focus here, so most everyone speaks at least some English, and you don’t even have to change your money! How easy-peasy is that? Just don't come in search of a bath!

Hope you have all enjoyed my ramblings, and thanks for riding along on this installment of “Heidi’s Travel Adventure.” It’s been fun sharing it with you.


Posted by hidburch 07:42 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged san gold ramon cashew doka Comments (0)

Lions and tigers and bears…almost!

I've seen more animals than Dr. Doolittle!

sunny 24 °C

14 March 2016
Tilajari Resort
Near Mt. Arenal Volcano
Costa Rica

I know it’s hard for you, my adoring public, to go so long without an update from your intrepid foreign correspondent, but sometimes I’m too busy having the adventure to write about it! However, we finally have a free afternoon, and instead of swimming in the pool with some unfortunately-clad British tourists (seriously, you all know my rule: unless it says USA on your ass and you’re swimming for the gold, wear TRUNKS), I am sitting beside of it preparing this missive for you. The sacrifices I make…

Anyway, the name of the game for the last three days has been hanging bridges, hiking, and hot naturalists. Oh, yeah, and we saw some animals, too. If you’re playing along at home on your animal bingo cards, here are the species we’ve found thus far in one mostly comprehensive, easy-to-read, alphabetized list. In order to comply with the rules of species bingo, only animals observed in the actual wild may be counted towards your bingo.

• Bats (humming, long-nosed)
• Birds (crap-ton, will not enumerate except the aforementioned toucan)
• Butterflies (numerous species)
• Crocodiles (note the plural)
• Frog, poison dart (blue jeans)
• Iguanas (big-ass)
• Jesus Christ lizard (aka the basilisk, but I like the other name better)
• Kinkajous
• Monkeys (capuchin, howler)
• Naturalist (smokin’ hot)
• Scorpion
• Sloths (two-toed)
• Snake (side-striped Palm pit viper)
• Tarantula (orange-kneed)

So, if all you care about is the body count, you can stop reading now. If you want more details, continue on…

…Oh good, you’re still here. Authors, just like any other performers, are frequently paralyzed with insecurity and worry that their friends and family only read their work because, well, they’re their friends and family. So glad that’s not the case here!

On Saturday morning we headed out from Monteverde Lodge to the Selvatura Adventure Park, which has a variety of “canopy” activities, which is Costa Rica code speak for “crap that happens way up high and you’d better not be afraid of heights.” No zip-lining for us, today, but rather hanging bridges. These are similar in theme to those you see in the movies, but more robust in construction—they only rock some, and rather than being composed of planks and vines, they are built out of steel cables and interlocking steel mesh decking. (Note the mesh, as in, you can see through it to the bottom and your potential death that will serve as a cautionary tale to all.) The gist of the “adventure” (and I use that term advisedly) is that there are eight suspended bridges at various levels throughout the canopy, from the understory of the cloud forest to above the treetops, allowing you to explore the forest and its species at all those levels, which is scientifically fascinating, but I’d be much happier with it if it happened ON THE GROUND. However, it’s a CLOUD forest, which name is derived from the presence of lots of CLOUDS and ergo, lots of rain. And it did. All morning. Without stopping. That’s why there are no pictures, because microelectronics and water DO NOT MIX and I didn’t bring enough rice with me to dry out an entire camera. I can help you recreate the experience domestically, if you are interested, though: go to the banana house at Longwood Gardens, and spend three hours balancing on a rolling board while standing in front of the output from about 20 cold-mist humidifiers. That’s not to say that there weren’t lots of cool plants (not so many animals—they weren’t dumb enough to come out in that slop!), including a balsa tree, a “broccoli” tree, several strangler figs, vines, etc.

After a rather protracted lunch stop (mango shrimp curry, quite tasty), we headed to the Monteverde Butterfly Garden (http://www.monteverdebutterflygarden.com/index.html), where the day picked up CONSIDERABLY. We started our visit there with a presentation about insects by Bryna, one of the co-owners. Ya’ll, I can’t say that I’ve ever been particularly affectionate toward bugs, but Bryna’s enthusiasm for her topic could turn even the biggest spider-squisher into a convert! She put stick bugs in her hair and a giant ROACH named Timmy in her mouth while doing what amounted to stand-up comedy about BUGS. I laughed like a maniac and thoroughly enjoyed myself! This is Bryna, and that little thing on the right side of her head is a stick bug. I couldn’t force myself to look at her when she had that roach in her mouth, so there is no photographic evidence of that fete.


All of you with munchkin-type people that live with you should PRAY that your progeny get someone like Bryna as their science teachers, then they will turn out as someone like me!

After Bryna, it was over to her much more subdued husband, David, for a tour of the butterfly gardens. The butterflies were divided into different houses based on common characteristics, such as those indigenous to Monteverde, or transparent, or glasswing species. I had never heard of a glasswing butterfly before, but you can see clear through their wings, which helps camouflage them to predators. We also got to see their colony of leaf cutter ants—you know, the ones you always see in cartoons carrying little pieces of leaf somewhere in a big long row? Turns out they are organic gardening back in the colony! That’s right, they are turning the pieces of leaf into compost to support the fungi they live in. Nasty, but true.


Then it was on to serpents and amphibians. Ordinarily, I would have given this a pass, being no lover of things that slither, but I thought, “Eh, what the heck—the frogs could be cute!” And they WERE! Those little tree frogs are just darling. It’s a shame that their skin is covered in a neurotoxic poison, it really is…and here’s an interesting scientific factoid for you: some of the poison dart frog compounds have shown promise in medicine, but the frogs lose their toxicity when they are removed from their natural habitat because they synthesize said toxin from the insects they ingest, such as formic acid from the ants they eat. We also saw a large collection of indigenous Costa Rican reptiles, pretty much all of which can kill you before you can say, “Pardon me. Do you have any Grey Poupon?” Pit vipers of several types, coral snakes, a particularly large and hungry-looking boa constrictor, and a fer de lance. And here’s another scientific factoid for you, this one about snakes: pit vipers (which includes rattle snakes) inject their prey with a hemotoxin that destroys red blood cells, screws up clotting, and causes tissue necrosis, whereas coral snakes, mambas, and cobras use a neurotoxin that paralyzes their prey. Fun stuff, eh?

I bet you are all wondering when Jay, the smokin’ hot naturalist comes back into our story, aren’t you? Well, your wait is over, because that night, we went on an after-dark nature walk led by none other than Jay, the smokin’ hot naturalist. (I’ve even got the other people on the tour referring to him this way, now. Such is my power.) It turns out that Jay and Andres (he of the quetzal and bell bird fame) own their own business and one of the other tours they offer is a night walk, complete with infra-red cameras and night vision goggles, to look for critters that come out at night. (Parenthetical note #1: for those of you who are just itching to book this trip with Tauck, the night walk will be standard starting next year. Parenthetical note #2: I totally signed up for the walk because of the opportunity to use the night vision goggles…Jay turned out to be my free gift with purchase.) Andres was not feeling well, so Jay and Sergio had to lead the tour. What a shame. Anyway, they picked us up at the hotel, then took us to their shop to get outfitted for the evening with special binoculars (I think they called them high twilight factor, but frankly, I wasn’t paying that much attention to the binoculars!) and flashlights, then away we went to a different, private reserve close to town.

The six of us, plus Jay and Sergio, headed into the woods armed with lights, cameras, spotting scopes, insect repellent, and, fortunately, cellphones, but more on that in a moment. The walk started out kind of slow, with the spotting of an anole, a little itty-bitty lizard definitely not worth writing home about. Then there was a bird asleep up in a tree, the only thing interesting about which was the fact that it sleeps standing on one leg to conserve body heat and doesn’t have to wake up to switch legs (or so Jay said, but would that face lie?). Then came another bird, and another lizard. Then things got more interesting: we spotted the orange-kneed tarantula coming out of her burrow. Apparently the girls burrow, and the guys roam the neighborhood looking to get laid, that’s how we knew it was a female tarantula. After that, our evening took a turn for the better, although when you hear what we found next, you may not agree: a scorpion! Ordinarily, I would agree, but the scorpion was cool not because it was a scorpion, but because it fluoresced. That’s right: we turned off our regular flashlights, and Jay hit it with a UV light and the little bugger lit right up. That’s where the cellphone comes in: both Jay and Andres like the light compensation on iPhones for taking low-light photos like that, so they used one of the guys’ cellphone to take a picture (which he has promised to share, and as he’s a retired DuPonter, I tend to trust him).


After that, it was all uphill. Next we saw the aforementioned side-striped Palm pit viper, which was poised in a strike position on the low branch of a tree, ready to take down dinner. As snakes go, it was actually rather pretty: green on top and yellow on the bottom. Turns out Jay the smokin’ hot naturalist had kind of sand-bagged us on the snake, though: it had been hanging out in that general area for a week or so—apparently many animals, including snakes and birds, will favor particular perches or spots and can reliably be found there. Then there were two kinkajous fighting over a perch WAAAY up in a tree. A kinkajou is related to the olingo I told you about the other day, and is in the raccoon family. After the kinkajous, we got to try out the night vision goggles. It’s very different than what I was expecting based on TV: the image wasn’t green at all, but rather very clear, very sharp black and white. We got to take turns watching the hummingbird feeder and watch it be strafed by humming bats. (Same idea as the birds, but bats.) Then it was time for the tour to be over, and for my time with Jay the smokin’ hot naturalist to come to an end. But not before one last big find, literally on our way out (seriously…we were in the cars driving down the road and Jay and Sergio stopped and told us to hop out IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD!) to see a two-toed sloth. From the ground, all we could really see was sloth butt, but that’s okay—it still counts! Bye-bye, Jay the smokin’ hot naturalist <sniff> <sniff>.

Sunday was a transfer day, which meant loading up the bus for the drive here to Tilajari Resort on a road that, if it’s even possible, was worse than the one to get to Monteverde. Very wind-y, very windy, and very, very unpaved. Even I couldn’t read because the book was bouncing around too much! We did get to break up the bus ride with another of Siggy’s interesting potty stops, this one at a café where the owner showed us how juice is extracted from sugar cane using a traditional two-roll mill. We got to sample the juice (I abstained—it was green, and you know my policy on stuff like that), then the sugar cane moonshine made from the juice (I abstained—you know my policy on moonshine) before it was back on the rumble-bus and on to lunch.

After lunch at Restaurant Lajas (decent food, nice gift shop, great view), we took a cruise across Lake Arenal. Lake Arenal is a 33 square-mile man-made lake that was formed behind the Arenal Dam, which was built for the express purpose of generating hydroelectricity (12% of the country’s total!). It sits at the foot of Mt. Arenal, a volcano that has been dormant since October 2010 (a little too recently for my particular comfort!), which is also a source of geothermal power (98% of Costa Rica’s electricity is renewably sourced). The lake cruise provided some great photo ops, and we got to get off the bus for a little while, but after that it was back on the bus. As we were pulling out from the cruise, Wilmer, our bus driver, spotted a couple of capuchin monkeys in a stand of bamboo, and he stopped the bus to let us get a look. (Apparently pretty much everyone here in Costa Rica is at minimum an amateur naturalist and can pick out capuchin monkeys in a stand of bamboo while driving a tour bus on a horrible country road…) The little buggers were too fast to get a picture, though. But you can trust me-- I wouldn’t lie about something so important as animal sighting bingo!

Next stop: Sky Adventure Park, where they had, you guessed it: more hanging bridges, but also the added bonus of a sky tram. The change-up this time was that this is a straight rainforest, not a cloud forest. So it wasn’t schvitzing on us the whole time, and I was able to get a few pictures of the forest from the hanging bridges. (Thank heavens there were only two this time, but there was that tram…) After the bridges, it was the sky tram up to the top of the mountain, where we were finally able to get some clear shots of Mt. Arenal not blanketed in fog. I must say, generally I hate a tram just as much as I hate a hanging bridge, but this one was remarkably smooth, with none of that herky-jerky bumping over pulleys that you normally get.


Back on the bus for the remaining one hour ride to the Tilajari resort, and (again), just pulling out, we spotted the toucans! Fortunately, Wilmer was able to pull over long enough that I could snap this picture. Yes, it’s a toucan. Compare it to the Fruit Loops box.


We finally made it to the resort, and honest to God, I really don’t have much of a clue where I am! Eventually it all starts to blur together, and a death grip on the seat to avoid being bounced out makes it kind of tricky to take notes! Siggy’s goal was to make it here in the daylight, and we did, which was helpful since this place is kind of spread out, with lots of little pods of rooms. It’s the same company that owns the Hotel Bosque del Mar hotel from the first three nights of the trip, and they also use that stanky, not-foamy shower gel here, but washing with the lovely ylang-ylang shampoo works just fine. (Hey, a surfactant is a surfactant, and we’re mammals, after all: head hair, body hair—it all needs to be washed!) This hotel is also much bigger, and has several other tour groups here, as well, including the aforementioned scantily-clad British crew. But it also has a couple of other excellent amenities (not, sadly, not a bathtub, but close): water pressure in the shower and a gift shop! You all know how I love a gift shop, and this one’s pretty good—several nice local crafts, and a book about Costa Rican mammals (hey, I refrained from buying the one about Costa Rican Spanish!).

Today’s activities consisted of one thing, but it was a biggy: a four-hour float trip down the Penas Blancas and San Carlos Rivers. This was our last real opportunity for wildlife spotting, and it was absolutely a delightful trip. The river was below a class one, with just the slightest little ripples from time to time, and we had a wonderful float guide named Umberto. There were five rafts of us, but unlike white-water rafting, we didn’t have to do anything but go along for the ride! We spotted the Jesus Christ lizard (so called because it walks on water), iguanas, birds, some bats, another sloth, a poison dart/tree frog that the guides hopped upon the bank to catch (and release) for us, and crocodiles (which, frankly, I could have done without, especially considering that I was floating along in a person-propelled rubber raft, looking for all intents and purposes like a crocodile hors d’oeuvre). My favorite, though, was seeing the troop of howler monkeys crossing from one side of the river to the other by swinging from the trees on one side to the trees on the other side. There were perhaps 10-15 monkeys, and what was fascinating was the fact that they all followed exactly the same route, using exactly the same branches and jumping in the same spots.






Along the way, we made a “comfort stop” (Tauck speak for potty break) at the house of a Costa Rican family. When the hotel started doing these float trips, they approached the former owner of the farm, Don Pedro, about allowing groups to stop at his farm for coffee and a rest break, and he was agreeable, but refused to take any compensation for the service, saying that he would not accept money from his friends for a cup of coffee. Two of his daughters, Leonora and Isabella, and his grandson Mauricio, inherited the farm when Don Pedro passed away at the age of 103, and they continue the hospitality. They served us coffee, homemade bread, friend plantains, and cheese, all prepared in a wood-burning stove! They did, however have a modern flush toilet, I am THRILLED to report!

After our break, it was back in the rafts for about 45 more minutes, then we put out at a boat ramp where Wilmer was waiting with the bus, cold water, and damp towels—the cool towels really are the bomb when you are hot, sweaty, and stanky. Siggy took us to a place that makes homemade dragonfruit ice cream, and it was really good, with a very light taste but a disturbingly hot pink color that he says is completely natural. There were also some large iguanas there…or at least what I thought were large iguanas, until I saw the ones here at the hotel restaurant….at which time I also spotted the crocodile here at the hotel, but thankfully on the other side of the river!



As I mentioned, we had the afternoon free before dinner here. After I beam this over the airwaves to you all, I’ve got to dig out some clean clothes for tomorrow, our last full day here in Costa Rica. We’re headed to a coffee demonstration and a private dinner at the Gold Museum in San Jose (where Siggy promises the gift shop will be open). I’ve also got to figure out how to get my suitcase closed—despite the lack of places to buy souvenirs, I seem to have filled up the spare room in my bag, and then some!

Hasta luego!

Posted by hidburch 21:00 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged iguana crocodile frog arenal sloth tilajari Comments (0)

Pajaros, pajaros, pajaros, pajaros

I bet Hitchcock didn’t have this many pajaros!

sunny 20 °C

Friday (Now technically Saturday)
11 March 2016
Monteverde Cloud Lodge
Puntarenas, Costa Rica

See what I did there? That was a little hint for those of you who no habla espanol to figure out the theme of today’s post. Are you picking up what I’m throwing down? But before we get to the pajaros, as promised, a picture of me on the zip-line from yesterday (today’s resort has computers with internet access AND CD-ROM drives, so I emailed it to myself…I’m quick for my size.)


Now, back to those pajaros…

Today we left the Hotel Bosque del Mar in Guanacaste and headed for the second stop on our trip, the Monteverde Cloud Lodge near the Monteverde Forest Preserve in the province of Puntarenas. Monteverde stands in sharp contrast to Guanacaste; whereas Guanancaste is a dry, ocean-side province, the Monteverde section of Puntarenas that we’re in is at about 1200 m (unit conversion for the non-metricized: about 3600 feet) and receives ample rain, so everything is very lush and green. It’s also remote and can only be reached by a truly crappy, treacherous road. The directions to the hotel literally include “turn off the paved road,” so I guess we might be redneck tourists! Also, it is very reminiscent of West Virginia: virtually every house we passed had a satellite dish on the roof and many had cars up on blocks somewhere in the yard. Frankly, ya’ll, I got a touch homesick. But I digress…

We pulled out of the Hotel Bosque del Mar parking lot at oh eight hundred sharp (Siggy runs a tight ship…or should I say bus?) to a waving line of hotel staff (I felt like we were in an episode of “The Waltons,” frankly) with our first pit stop of the day scheduled for 9:45. We pulled in at 9:41 am. Just like a Swiss watch. Anyway, the place where we stopped may have a name, but I don’t know if Siggy ever even told us, but it was a combination coffee shop, souvenir stand (mostly postcards, magnets, and tacky T-shirts), book store, and animal attraction, with that animal being green and scarlet macaws that flock to the area to eat the mangoes that grow wild in the trees around the coffee shop. The macaws were absolutely spectacular flying free, and occasionally buzzing your head! They also seemed to know they had paparazzi, because from time to time, they would strike a pose, like this guy:


After the macaws and buying an excellent book on the plant life of Costa Rica (have you all ever known me to resist a book?), it was back on the bus and the crappy road for the rest of the journey to Monteverde. Since we had about two more hours of travel, Siggy and Alejandro gave us another mini-seminar about Costa Rican life and customs. The focus of today’s seminar was sustainability and education. Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948 and redirected that money toward education. In fact, they spend 7% of their GDP on eduction. In Costa Rica, every child has the right to a free public education through the 12th grade. After that, the students can go to a trade school completely for free, or to enter one of three national universities at greatly reduced prices relative to what we are used to in the United States. The choice of university and career field are determined by an exam on which one must score 800 points; however, if one does not, one can take a year of general studies, then retest. Here are a couple of really interesting statistics: 44% of students go on to college, and 45% of the population speaks a second language. (And speaks it well—lots of beautiful English speakers here.) I’m going to skip sustainability—it’s a little bit harder to explain, and breakfast is in half an hour. And like I’ve said before: my blog, my rules.

We arrived at the lodge, which Siggy had tried to prepare us for as being “rustic.” He calls it rustic because there are no TVs in the rooms. Frankly, it’s just like the national park cabins we used to stay in when we were kids: no TVs, no phones, and no A/C, but up this high, you don’t really need it. What it does have: really good WiFi (or WeeFee as they say here in Costa Rica), a lovely garden view, much better lighting (I thought the other place was dark…you know I like things lit up like a runway), and an absolutely beautiful bathroom. (Still no tub, though…what is WRONG with these people?) One note about bathrooms and sustainability: as part of the sustainability effort, all the hotels here have refillable soap, shampoo, conditioner, bath gel, and lotion dispensers rather than giving out those little tiny bottles. I like the concept very much, but I do miss stealing all the little stuff for my guest bathroom stash at home!

We had a really delicious lunch, then had time to explore their garden and butterfly garden (those darned butterflies are not nearly as cooperative as the macaws…you try getting one of those little suckers to pose for a picture and let me know how you fair!). There is an absolutely gorgeous pool here that looks like a little grotto at one end, and all kinds of varieties of flowers. Two garden sightings worth noting: orchids growing in the wild up the trunk of a tree (as often as I’ve seen them positioned like this at the Longwood orchid exhibit, it was WAY cool to see them like this growing wild!); and several varieties of hummingbirds. I have to tell you, those garden hummingbirds were just perverse. I sat very quietly on a bench near one of the feeders, hoping to snap a good picture. One of them would land, I would take a crappy picture, then he would dart away. I would sit some more, and the hummer wouldn’t come in for a landing. I would turn the camera off and cap the lens, then he would come back, almost like the little fart was taunting me! This happened five or six times. (Don’t call out the men with the butterfly nets yet—I know he really wasn’t doing that, but it sure felt like he was sticking his tongue out at me!)

At 2:00 pm, it was time to get them dogies rollin’ for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, which is a private cloud forest preserve that initially began with the Quaker preservation of their watershed in the 1950s (more on that in a bit) and has expanded to over 4,000 hectares (~10,000 acres for the metrically challenged). There we met up with the local guides that would supplement Alejandro, our group naturalist, for our bird walk: Andres, Jay (he would be the smokin’ hot one: blond hair, blue eyes, (not all Costa Ricans have the brown hair and eyes that we typically associate with Hispanics) and perfectly bilingual), and Sergio. They gave us a wonderful introduction to the cloud forest preserve, but I can’t remember very much because I didn’t have my iPad or my notebook, so go to the website for more information and lots of beautiful pictures! http://www.cloudforestmonteverde.com/index.html

Anyway, they divided us up into small groups, with one guide and one spotter each. Even though we were looking for birds, it’s just like hunting or being on a game drive: you’ve got to know where they are. The guides all share information about where particular species have been spotted, and they use a combination of 60x spotting scopes and (my favorite) laser pointers to help you see the birds, too. Trust me, finding these birds at up to 100 yards away in a forest of green is NOT easy! Anyway, the big “get” for the day was to be the quetzal bird, a rare and beautiful bird that was revered and considered magical by the ancient Mayans, Aztecs, Incans, etc. and that is a bucket list bird for serious bird watchers. The quetzal has two long tail “protector” feathers that come out easily, and Montezuma was said to have a headdress composed of over 400 such feathers. In fact, it was death to anyone who killed a quetzal! Much like the peacock, the male of the species is much more resplendent than the female (poor girl), with feathers of iridescent red, green and blue. The iridescence comes from the oils of the wild avocadoes the birds eat! (I geeked out and asked if it was a photonic structure that gives the birds their iridescence, but apparently it’s more like reptile scales.) (For more information on quetzals, visit http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/quetzal/)

Ya’ll, we must be vacationing under a lucky star, because we walked about 500 meters (when in Rome…) up the trail, and, just like in the national parks where a crowd of people by the side of the road means somebody spotted something besides a buffalo (because you can’t miss a buffalo), we knew the quetzal by the crowd! That’s right—we found one straight away! I, of course, couldn’t see it at all until they set up the spotting scope, but I did get a look at it through the scope. After I saw it through the scope, I wanted a picture, but couldn’t spy it again with just my little eye, so that’s when Andres deployed the laser pointer and I could see it! And it was just like one of those 3D stereograph pictures: once you see it, you can’t not see it, so I was able to snap this picture:


We went up the trail a little farther and found his lady friend, which is even trickier, since the females are not nearly as iridescent as the males. Andres said that there are only about 100 total quetzal birds in all of Costa Rica and Guatemala, so to see 2% of the total population in pretty darned cool!


As we walked (I should probably say hiked—there was some heavy breathing and steepness involved!) a little further, Andy and Sergio (no, sadly, I did not end up in smokin’ hot Jay’s group) said they kept hearing a bell bird, which is also apparently another good “get.” It took them a bit to find the beastie, since the call reverberates quite a bit and getting a fix on it can be tricky. However, they finally got it in the spotting scope, and I was able to see it: imagine the same coloring as a bald eagle, but about the size of a toucan. Sadly, even with the assistance from both Sergio and Andres’ laser pointers, I never did see that guy with my naked eye. It was just too hard to spot the brown among the greens of the canopy.

After seeing these magnificent birds, it was time to head to the hummingbird garden. With a name like that, I thought it was going to be a super-fancy garden designed to attract them, but what it was was a collection of feeders that have apparently been there for many, many years and the hummingbird intelligence network has put the word out, so there are lots of visitors. There are over 10 species of hummingbirds in Costa Rica, and we saw a BUNCH of them. Unlike the little tease from earlier, these hummingbirds clearly knew what to do when the paparazzi appeared, because they just sat and ate while we snapped hundreds of pictures (ya gotta love digital photography!). Here’s one of my favorite shots:


There was one particularly beautiful purple one that simply wouldn’t hold still for me to get a picture of, and I had chased him over to a corner by ourselves. I was THIS close to getting a picture, when I saw something crawling out of the tree toward the feeder! At first, I thought it was a raccoon or a possum (hey, I’m from West Virginia…my first impulse naturally goes there!), so I grabbed Alejandro to show him. As the thing came out of the tree toward the feeder, he said “That’s an olingo!” They are a mammal species that is indigenous to Central America (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bassaricyon) but they are nocturnal and it’s incredibly rare to see one in the wild! Anyway, this little guy simply wanted a drink from the hummingbird feeder. How cool is that?! (And I spotted him first—screw that fickle purple hummingbird!!!)


We headed back to the lodge for our evening lecture with Marvin Rockwell. I wish you all could have met this little old man—he was truly fascinating. He’s 93 years old and is one of 6 original Quaker settlers who founded the Monteverde community in the 1950s. He’s still sharp as a tack, and tells wonderful stories! He is originally from Fairhope, Alabama, and being a Quaker, he served in a noncombat position as a medic in World War II. However, when the United States instituted the Universal Military Training Act (the draft) in 1948, he and three others in Fairhope refused to register, were arrested, and were jailed for one year. After they were released, they decided to move somewhere less militaristic. They briefly considered Canada, but, as Marvin said, they were from Alabama! So they settled on Central America. By that time, Costa Rica had abolished their army, so they thought it would be perfect. Seven families sold all their possessions and moved to Costa Rica (the story of getting here was truly an epic saga involving planes, trains, and automobiles!), where they purchased land in the region that became known as Monteverde, a name that the Quaker community gave to the land they purchased! They selected the area because at this elevation, they were above the zone where mosquitoes carried yellow fever and malaria, at that time diseases with no known treatments. They established their community, then because the aforementioned road was so bad, decided to go into the cheese-making business to earn money to support the community. They chose cheese because it has a high value-to-weight-ratio and is not particularly perishable. Marvin eventually married a Costa Rican woman, and they adopted two children and had two more. They moved back to the United States for six years in the 1970s so the children would learn English, but now he and his wife live here in Monteverde, where they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary recently. (Marvin also celebrated his 80th birthday by going to Africa on safari and his 90th birthday by going zip-lining!) It was a truly remarkable evening with a wonderful man!

Today’s adventure is the Selvatura cloud forest sky bridges (not too sure how I feel about this one), but apparently we’ll be getting yesterday’s naturalists back. Come on, Wheel of Fortune—bring Jay back to us! Then we’re going to a butterfly garden (yay!) and a serpentarium (yuck!). And I fear that today’s update may actually occur tomorrow, because I’ve signed up for a night animal tour—night vision goggles are involved, and you KNOW I’m not going to miss that!

Hasta luego!

Posted by hidburch 05:41 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged monteverde macaw hummingbird quaker quetzal olingo Comments (0)

Survivor: Costa Rica

Is zip-lining really the best idea if you're afraid of heights??

sunny 30 °C

10 March 2016
Hotel Bosque del Mar
Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Where to begin, where to begin? Should I begin at the beginning, with the monkey breakfast? (And to be clear, I am talking about breakfast WITH monkeys, not a breakfast OF monkeys.) Or should I follow the rules of good journalism and not bury the lead by telling you that I zip-lined and survived to tell the tale? Even though Dr. Scott always trained us that you didn’t necessarily have to tell the scientific story in chronological order, it just sort of makes the most sense when relaying one’s vacation adventures, and since, technically, I have followed the rules of good journalism and disclosed the highlight of this day’s episode, chronological it shall be.

I polished off yesterday’s Day of Nothing (or El Dia de Nada, if that makes it sound more official) by getting a truly awesome massage by the pool here at the hotel. She was able to get just that spot, the one that we all get from simultaneously slouching as we type and holding the phone in the crook of our necks.

Our tour officially kicked off at 6:00 pm with a get-acquainted cocktail reception. Our guide is a really cool guy named Siggy Jiminez, and he’s actually Costa Rican. His Spanish, as you can imagine, Angie, is beautiful and mas rapido! That’s when we actually first saw the monkey troop, but it was getting dark and I wasn’t able to get a really good picture. And in this day and age, if you don’t get a selfie with it, it doesn’t count! I met several members of the tour group at dinner, including a neurologist, a retired OB/GYN, a guy that sold electron microscopes (including one to DuPont!) before he retired, a woman who does medical lab quality audits (whatever the equivalent of ISO for medical labs is), a child psychiatrist (I should probably avoid talking to him so he doesn’t provide a clinical diagnosis), and a very lovely retired lady from San Francisco. As usual, a very diverse and distinguished crew of Tauckians. Siggy introduced us to the Costa Rican concept of “pura vida” (literally, “pure life), which I equate as similar to the Hawaiian “hang loose” or the Australian “no worries” philosophy of life. And apparently it is used somewhat like “aloha”—if someone says “pura vida” to you, “pura vida” is the appropriate response in return. Despite what the bus driver may tell you.

This morning at breakfast is when we got to really see the monkeys. Apparently they found the trees around the restaurant to be more attractive this morning. Several members of the tour group reported that they heard the alpha male (pictured below) vocalizing at about 4:45 am this morning, but frankly, I was asleep and didn’t hear squat. However, there was no mistaking him while we were eating breakfast. He clearly objected to our omelets and French toast and shared his displeasure with us. Either that, or he thought we were after his women—he wasn’t specific. But regardless, still pretty cool to have breakfast with primates other than one’s own species!


After breakfast we loaded up the wagons for the day’s adventure: a trip to the Vandara Hot Springs and Adventure (www.vandarahotsprings.com) in the Rincon de la Vieja (Old Lady’s Corner…I swear) of Guanacaste. It was about 90 minutes away, so Siggy and Alejandro, our naturalist (oh yeah, you know I’m all over that like a rash!), gave us a bit of an introduction to the history, lifestyle, customs, and biological diversity of the country. And me being, well, me, you know I am honor-bound to share some of it with you. (For those readers who have traveled with me before, my note-taking during lectures has been greatly enhanced by the recent purchase of my iPad. The nerd factor has increased at least geometrically, and possibly exponentially.)

So, for your social studies lesson for today:

• Costa Rica is a country of approximately 19000 square miles, about the size of West Virginia (honest-to-goodness they said that, I didn’t look it up or anything…I AM on vacation).
• It is 50% mountainous.
• It represents about 0.001% of the earth’s surface, but contains 4% of its biological diversity, so it’s punching above its weight, ecologically speaking (this is my favorite factoid of the entire day).
• There are seven administrative provinces and three distinct geographic regions of Costa Rica: the Caribbean slope, the Pacific slope, and the Central Valley.
• Costa Rica is really North American and South American flora and fauna converge and are separated by the central mountain range. For example, coyotes, which are native to North America, are only found in the northern part of Costa Rica, while squirrel monkeys, which are native to South America, are only found in the southern part of the country.
• The unique banana shape of the country protects it from hurricanes.
• The Guanacaste region joined Costa Rica of its own accord in 1824 and is renowned for its…um…slower pace of life. (Siggy called it “Guanacaste mode.”)
• The region is known for growing rice, sugar cane, watermelons, and cantelopes.

Now, on to the Vandara Hot Springs Adventure. And an adventure it was! You could choose whether you wanted to ride horses, zip-line, both, or neither and just swim in the pool, which is fed by the hot springs. While the latter sounded like a really appealing option, I do endeavor to be your intrepid woman on the street, so I opted for the zip-lining. (We already discussed the horses. There will be no negotiation on this subject. I write the blog, and no means no.) After a pre-emptive potty break (wouldn’t that be an embarrassing story?), they fitted us all with helmets (note to my family: mine was initially too big, so there’s someone out there in the world with a head bigger than me) and loaded us up in a wagon pulled by a big John Deere tractor and up the mountain we headed. (I suppose the true adventurer would have hiked to the first platform, but it is HOT here, ya’ll!)

When we got to the first platform, we were fitted with our harnesses and the trolleys (load rated to 14,000 lbs, I was happy to note), given a pair of reinforced gloves, and shown the rudiments of zip-lining, which are basically this: hold onto the harness with your weak hand, circle the cable with your dominant hand as far behind you as you can manage without dislocating your shoulder so you don’t start twirling around, bend your knees, and keep your head tilted to the side so you don’t get a concussion if the crew has to deploy the e-stop on your behalf if you’re coming in hot. As for brakes, pull down on the cable, but not so hard as to get stuck on in the middle of the cable (quelle horreur!)

With that amount of instruction, it was time to take the plunge. Literally. I started thinking better of it at that point, but I refused to be one-upped by two 79-year-old women (seriously). So then it was bombs away, fire in the hole, Geronimo, etc. I made it across without dying, wetting my pants, getting stuck, or smashing into the very tiny little guy at the second platform at a high rate of speed—all in all, a rousing success! Which I repeated six more times without having to hail a cab. (They call it taxiing when one of the staff has to tandem you across if you lose your mojo en media res.) Yay me! (And I did one-up the two 79 year-olds, both of whom needed a cab at various points!) There will be pictures at some point in the future, since there was, of course, the prerequisite pictures for purchase; however, this place has evolved the service to provide a CD-ROM of your pictures and, sadly, my laptop doesn’t have a CD drive. But I have 20 witnesses of unimpeachable character!

I followed up the zipline with a dip in the pool, which is fed from hot springs that are warmed via the thermal activity of the volcano. It would be more apt to call them “pleasantly warm” springs, not hot, because the pool felt absolutely delightful after the sweatiness and abject terror of the zip-line. I would have stayed in a lot longer (there was a swim-up bar!), but the sun here is awfully hot, and as I told one of the other travelers, you don’t get this butt-white winter pale by accident! Besides, it was time for lunch, a lovely pumpkin soup to start, followed by a choice of chicken, tilapia, beef, or pasta, with a refreshing watermelon granita for dessert.

Then it was time to saddle up and head back to the ranch to rest before the evening’s entertainment: a cocktail party and bonfire on the beach at sunset. It was romantic enough that even I was slightly moved. Some S’mores would have hit the spot, though. After that, a lovely dinner of grilled snapper in the company of two other travelers from Delaware, the husband of said pair is a retired DuPonter. That conversation is left to the reader to imagine.


Tomorrow we’re headed to the Monteverde Cloud Forest and some serious nature peering. Keep your fingers crossed for macaws and toucans!

Hasta luego!

Posted by hidburch 19:18 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged zipline guanacaste vandara Comments (1)

Let The Adventure Begin!

The Curse of the Bambino

sunny 31 °C

9 March 2016
Hotel Bosque del Mar
Playa Hermosa
Guanacaste, Costa Rica


Good morning, blog fans! I realize that for most of you, it’s warm where you are, which is a little disappointing to me, since one of the points of coming to the tropics in early March was to be warm while the rest of you are cold. (Yes, sometimes vacation decisions hinge on something that trivial.) If it makes you feel any better or less envious, it’s not warm here—I would classify it as HOT. But it’s not bad here in the shade by the pool… (and before anyone asks, I am slathered in sunscreen and insect repellent, even though I am wearing clothes and sitting in the shade!)

Anyway, I arrived late last night after the adventure of two three hour flights with, it seemed like, every baby in Christendom. When I got to my gate yesterday morning in Philadelphia, there was the cutest little guy who was quite taken with me. For those of you who know my track record with babies, you’ll know this is quite rare. Most of them hate my guts, and apparently the sight of my face or my smell makes them scream bloody murder. More on that in a moment. Anyway, he and I flirted for a little while, then his parents asked if I would keep an eye on their bag while they stepped away for a minute. Sure, no problem. They proceeded to disappear for over a half hour!!! The boarding lounge was starting to fill up, so I gave their seat away to a sweet little old man who had had two knee replacements. Hey, you snooze, you lose! They still didn’t show up. The flight was getting ready to board, so I deputized the wife to guard their stuff so I could run to the restroom before the flight to Miami boarded. The people still hadn’t returned by the time I got back from the bathroom. (I sure am glad they only asked me to watch their suitcase, not their kid!) They finally showed up just as the gate agent made the first boarding announcement. Who does that???

Baby number two belonged to the rabbi who was in my seat when I got on the plane. Now, I know what you’re thinking: that I should have just sucked it up and let the rabbi have the aisle seat and taken the middle seat. Between him and his wife and their baby. Ain’t happening, people, especially on a three-hour flight. I wouldn’t give up an aisle seat for my mother, let alone for a rabbi with a potentially screaming kid, especially after said rabbi, wife, and baby had filled and closed the entire overhead bin before I ever got there. However, after boarding was done, there was an empty aisle seat diagonally from that one, so I moved so they could have room to sprawl out. This was not entirely altruistic of me, since the middle seat beside the one I moved to was empty. Cha-ching! I think the rabbi’s baby was pretty well behaved during the flight, but it’s hard to be sure since I had my noise-cancelling headphones on. Those suckers do work!

I had two tasks when I got to Miami: exchange money and get some dinner. Both were equally challenging. For reasons surpassing my understanding, there was only one money exchange office in all of Terminal D at the Miami airport, at Gate D19, and of course I had to be at Gate D60 to catch my flight (and there are no skipped numbers). I had time to kill, so I walked rather than taking the little skyway. When I got there, I made the exchange, and I have to say that, at least in Costa Rica, I think I’m rich! I got 415,000 Costa Rican colones for my US dollars! (And that is the correct plural. I checked. Otherwise, it would be multiple internal organs, and that’s just nasty. ) Dinner was less exciting, but definitely an adventure: any time you eat airport Chinese food in advance of a 3 hour flight, you’re pressing your luck!

The curse of the bambino struck on the flight from Miami to Liberia. There were three babies on that flight and they all screamed bloody murder for three hours. Then, to add a little hilarity to the mix, the littlest one had a sleeper blowout during the flight. (I wasn’t sitting beside him, but this was confirmed by the hub-bub by his seat and by the fact that he was wearing clean clothes when we all got off the plane.) Amar Bose’s marvelous invention is the only thing that kept me out of jail yesterday, I assure you of that.

I got picked up at the airport by the tour company’s driver, who took me the ~30 minutes to the resort. I am not completely sure where I am relative to the airport, but it’s “a fur piece” as we say back home. In fact, I think I heard banjo music a couple of times. A couple of observations about Costa Rican driving: everyone drives with their high beams on at night, whether there is oncoming traffic or not, but that’s because it’s so dark here. No street lights at all, very much like the Big Island of Hawaii. I read in my travel book that there are lots of sea turtles that come to Costa Rica to lay their eggs, and ambient light pollution can confuse them, so maybe the darkness is intentional, but regardless, it’s disorienting! Another thing is the rolling altos. (Alto is the Spanish word for stop.) Perhaps my driver didn’t think I knew what the red octagon signs that said “alto” meant…

The resort is lovely, if jungle-esque. That’s not a problem if they show you to your room in the daylight, but in the dark, you are very reluctant to go back out without a machete and a map! It was late, so I hung out in my room and checked out my television options: standard US broadcast stations from Miami (so lots of nasty election commercials), or American TV shows dubbed in Spanish. “Bones” in Spanish was particularly funny! A couple of comments on the room. First, there is no bathtub. For those of you that know the Burch family predilection for baths, this is pretty much a deal breaker. There is, however, a very cute little foot shower, so you can at least adjust the temperature of the water before you get hit in the face with it. Also, this being anywhere but the United States, the air conditioner setting is in Celsius, not Fahrenheit. However, being an above-average engineer with exemplary knowledge of all major temperature scales, I did the conversion in my head and selected 24C for my cooling comfort.

So what am I doing now, you ask? The tour doesn’t technically start until 6:00 pm this evening, so I had a little breakfast, followed by a walk on the beach. I didn’t see many shells, but the ones I found were this lovely shade of pink.
I scheduled a massage for later this afternoon, but for now, I am going to give nothing a try. That is, if I am not interrupted again by this iguana…


Hasta luego!

Posted by hidburch 08:36 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

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