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Travelogue: Costa Rica

Posted on 2/4/2020 12:00:00 AM in Traveler Insights

Costa Rica is a bird watcher’s paradise, with travelers spotting over 100 different species of birds, including this keel-billed toucan.

By Marj L., 7-time traveler and 4-time Vacation Ambassador from Vista, CA

When I was eight or ten—can’t remember exactly—my cousin, several years older, was arrested, tried and convicted on a violation of the Selective Service Act. That was in the days before the government wrote into the law provisions for alternative service by those who identified as conscientious objectors—or CO’s, as we called them. Having been raised as was I in the Quaker tradition, Fran wrote to his draft board upon reaching draft age and informed them he would not be following the dictates of the law, but rather the dictates of his conscience.

He was a student at our local Quaker college, the somewhat uncomfortable harborer of several young men of similar persuasion, and because of the number of students so inclined, the feds had developed a pattern. They would appear at the domicile of a CO early in the morning and place him under arrest, thereby triggering a telephone tree on which calls went out to all the other miscreants to notify them that the feds were on the prowl. I remember all this because my parents, moral supporters of the CO’s, were part of the telephone tree and were notified when trouble was afoot. When the phone rang at our house early in the morning, I knew it was another day in paradise—or not.

By now, I imagine you’re asking . . . what does that have to do with Costa Rica? Well, about the same time that was going on in Indiana and other pacifist strongholds, a group of Alabama Quakers, having served their sentences, decided they’d had enough, collected some like-minded friends and departed the U.S. for Costa Rica which, in 1948, had decided bombs and bullets were poor substitutes for real problem solving skills and abolished their military forthwith. To this day, they’ve found they don’t miss it much and have never seen the need to re-boot. It’s a point of pride. On our first full day in Costa Rica, as we exited Sr y Sra Ese’s wood factory in Alajuela, we came upon these signs:

These signs of peace welcomed travelers into Costa Rica, representing the county’s strong connection with nature over war.

The Quakers who emigrated to Costa Rica settled in an area called Monteverde and, despite its name (which translates roughly to Green Mountain), I had envisioned them in a tropical paradise of swaying palms and balmy nights. That is hardly the case. At an altitude of approximately 4600 feet, Monteverde is actually in a cloud forest, now officially called the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve and covering 26,000 acres. Having built houses, a meetinghouse, and a school, the Quaker settlers gradually integrated into the existing community and became actively involved in donating land, expanding, and protecting the preserve.

Starting their Costa Rican lives primarily as dairy farmers, they further contributed to the economy when they established the Monteverde Cheese Factory in 1953. At first, the factory produced about 22 pounds of cheese per day. Though no longer owned by the Quakers, who sold it to a company based in Mexico, the factory continues to thrive, now producing nearly 3,500 pounds per day, employing more than 300 workers, and using milk produced on 250 area farms.

On the winding dirt roads to Monteverde, motorized cow herders were spotted.

Much to my surprise, as we made our way up the bumpy gravel road enroute to Monteverde, Esteban, our trip leader, recounted much of this Quaker/Monteverde history. Until then, I hadn’t realized how much Quakers had impacted the area or how aware the rest of the world was of their story. On this little mountaintop, the pioneering band of Quakers has become an integral part of the community.

But for most travelers, the attraction of the area is two-fold: for birders and other naturalists it’s the cloud forest with a wealth of plants and wildlife; for the adventurer it’s hanging bridges and zip lines and other foolhardy adventures. (Bungee jumping, anyone?)

The canopy above Monteverde is home to more than 100 mammal species, 400 bird species, and 120 amphibian and reptile species.

Because my bent is towards the latter category (more on traveling with birders later), I could hardly wait to get on the zip line. My only other opportunity to dangle from such a cable had been in Zimbabwe where I could have chosen (but didn’t) to zip over the gorge at Victoria Falls, where the Zambezi River flows more than 350 feet below. Having passed on the Zimbabwe adventure, I looked forward to zipping through the cloud forest, which struck me as A) more interesting, B) more fun, and C) arguably more survivable in case of an untoward event. Well, it was even better than I expected with 12 lengths of cable between start and finish, some stretches above the canopy, some through it (where optical illusion or poor eyesight—not sure which—could make you believe you were soon to crash into the vegetation), and some high above an open field. And then there was a bonus event at the end—leaping off a tower, tethered to a line that let you freefall until you were quite sure you were going to pass out before yanking you to safety and letting you swing happily like a two-year-old until a spoilsport staffer slowed you down.

On a zip line ride through the dense rain forest, it may seem like you are going to crash, but as Marj realized, the thrilling freefall ends safely on a platform below.

But, I get ahead of my story. We had begun our Costa Rican travels in San Jose but stayed only overnight before leaving for San Carlos, where we stayed at the El Tucano, our introduction to the unpredictable delights of Costa Rican lodging. (Sometimes air conditioning, sometimes not; sometimes a safe, sometimes not; sometime a TV, sometimes not; sometimes lights that allowed you to see what you were doing, bleary-eyed, as you prepped for the day; usually not—dim bulbs, strangely placed, being the order of the day.) But always in the rural areas where we spent most of our time, we—or at least I—awakened to birdsong. No pleasanter way to start the day. The alarm I set on my phone was just a back-up but never needed.

Of course, once I arose, there were all those birders to contend with. I am not a birder, but I knew before the trip there would be some of that ilk in our tour group. For one thing, my brother went along and he’s been a birder since childhood. My sister-in-law was there, too, but I’d call her at most a “birder light,” more interested than I but not in thrall to those winged creatures. There were 16 travelers in our group with severity of bird fever ranging from almost non-existent (me) to raging (my brother). A true birder has a “life list.” My brother added a whopping 102 species to the 371 he had before the trip.

Our first day at the El Tucano began with an early morning walk with the express purpose of bird-spotting. The plan was to emerge from our rooms shortly after the crack of dawn and stroll to the entrance of the resort less than a quarter of a mile away, sighting birds as we went along. I decided to indulge in a leisurely arising, confident I could catch up with the group whenever I was ready. I was right. Their progress was slow. Ambling out 15 minutes after the appointed time, I found them about 30 yards from my room.

Esteban enthusiastically points to a distant bird, helping travelers to spot the colorful creature and add a new species to their list.

By breakfast time, they had made it all the way into the parking lot, another hundred feet away. Birding is a slow and painstaking business. The hike to the entrance was left for another day.

Costa Rica may be best known for its avian population and the birds did indeed seem to delight in entertaining us groundlings as they swooped from tree to tree, often stopping to perch on the highest branch and generally behaving as though they knew they were the best show in town. Some of the wildlife wasn’t quite so welcoming, however.

While our trip leader was the “master spotter” of all wildlife, we soon discovered that bus drivers and boatsmen are able assistants. Cruising the Rio Frio, I watched (didn’t think to snap a photo, of course) as our young skipper encircled his eyes with his fingers to block out side distractions, gazed into the riverside forest, pointed out a capuchin family barely visible through the leafy vegetation, and halted the boat near the shore to allow us a better look. We’d barely settled in to peer through the vegetation when a very grumpy adult emerged, crept as far as he dared on a branch overhanging the water and, glaring ominously, shook the branch until our skipper, fearing the creature might hurl himself into the boat, revved the motor and took us away.

With tourism the top contributor to Costa Rica’s economy, care has been taken to protect the precious resources that draw travelers there. Fifty percent of the country is protected, either publicly or privately, and this allows natural environments, such as that in Monteverde to thrive. Hunting is forbidden except for the purpose of obtaining food for one’s family or collecting specimens for scientific study.

Early in our trip, I attempted to take a few bird photos myself. This effort resulted in a nice assortment of pictures of leaves, trees, and clouds, along with a few shots in which, with an active imagination, you could make out a blur that just might be a bird. Preferring to photograph things I can actually see, like elephants (no, there weren't any of those in Costa Rica), I was happy to hand my phone to Esteban for photos through the scope.

We didn’t spend all our time gazing at the flora and fauna, however. Visiting the Doka Estate, a 100-year-old coffee plantation, we were taken through the coffee making process from growing and harvesting to drying, roasting and preparing for shipment.

Our liveliest visit with the locals hands down was at the elementary school in Altamira. We were greeted at the entrance by some of the older students who had obviously been told to take each of us by the hand and escort us to the meeting space. If you’ve ever wondered about that old claim that a great deal of communication is non-verbal, all you need to do is spend a little time with a group of kids and a language barrier.

Marj’s reluctant escort poses during the tour of the small elementary school which serves only 96 students.

While most of the girls couldn’t wait to get ahold of one of these strangers, my young escort was a pre-adolescent boy who obviously considered this a mild form of torture. During our tour of the school which followed the students’ program, he managed to slip away a time or two (urged on by a couple of his freer compadres), whereupon I was immediately snagged by one of the young ladies who evidently had drawn a short straw and wasn’t assigned to a traveler. Eventually, my young man was busted and returned to me and at the end of the tour warmed up and agreed to a photograph.

But prior to all that, during the students’ program, I was intrigued by how much they revealed about themselves. No words needed.

Enroute to the school, we had stopped mid-morning to visit a village family who taught us how to make the pastries they served and spoke about life in rural Costa Rica. The house was simple—with a climate so mild, much of the living can be done outside. We ate and chatted on the front porch and waited in the open-air work area at the back of the house for our turn to help in the kitchen.

This friendly hostess and her daughter welcomed travelers into their home to chat about life in Costa Rica.

The last stop on our journey before returning to San Jose and flying home was in the Savegre Valley, at 7,000 feet, one of the most populous quetzal nesting areas on the planet. By the time we got there, we had already seen a quetzal in Monteverde so the pressure was off and we were able to enjoy the lush gardens around our lodge and the cloud-covered mountains that surrounded us. A leisurely hike took us to the Savegre River which gurgles happily through the valley floor and a rainy afternoon gave some of us an excuse to gather on a covered patio to unwind and get even better acquainted.

Our group was together for 12 days and, like most other groups I’ve traveled with, we bonded quickly. If we’d been in kindergarten, we would have all gotten A’s for “plays well with others.” On our last night in the Savegre Valley, we gathered to play a game that involved guessing the answers to such questions as “Who has been in all 50 states?” and “Who has a twin?” and “Who plays a musical instrument?” We paired up to write out our answers—or guesses, as the case may be. After only 10 busy days together, it was surprising how much we knew about each other.

Whether you’re an avid birder or a thrill seeker—or a mix of both—you’ll find plenty of exciting experiences on Costa Rica: Natural Parks & Tropical Forests.

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