I've seen more animals than Dr. Doolittle!
12.03.2016 - 14.03.2016 24 °C
14 March 2016
Near Mt. Arenal Volcano
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)
• Monkeys (capuchin, howler)
• Naturalist (smokin’ hot)
• 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!