Tag Archives: Costa Rica.

Wildlife Encounters– Costa Rican Style.

1 Feb

It was none other than Christopher Columbus who gave Costa Rica its name. Although he “pretended” to be an ambassador for Spain and a missionary, the explorer was primarily a treasure hunter. Thus when he saw some of the locals wearing fine gold and jade adornments, he thought he’s hit the jackpot! Columbus named his latest discovery Costa Rica, or Rich Coast. Unfortunately for him and his greed, the natives he saw were important chiefs and the dazzling jewellery they sported was obtained largely through trade. Columbus never made his fortune here but today Costa Rica is indeed rich, although not in gold or precious stones. It is rich in pristine tropical rain forests and has a huge diversity of wildlife for such a small country. In an age when other countries are recklessly destroying their valuable rain forests to sell the timber or clear the land for cash crop farming, the Costa Ricans have bucked the trend and have succeeded in saving much of their forests and the increasingly precious flora and fauna that inhabits them. This is why I ended up following in Columbus’s footsteps, attracted not by gold but by the chance to see exotic: animals, birds, trees and plants in their natural habitat. A nature loving friend went there a few years ago and came back raving about what he had seen. Once I had saved enough money, I was determined to go and see for myself the rich wildlife of Costa Rica.

A blow by blow account of the entire trip would be too boring, but instead, here are descriptions of just a couple of my Central American wildlife encounters.

Wildlife on the Beach — Manual Antonio, Costa Rica.

Our hotel was set in tropical gardens just off the ocean front of Manual Antonio, on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Vibrantly coloured humming-birds darted around, collecting nectar from the flowers and every now and then a large iguana ambled across the lawn. It was just before the end of the rainy season and we had had a very wet night. Our first rain forest wildlife walk had been delayed until the weather decided to settle. It was just like being on holiday in Britain — sitting in a hotel room waiting for the rain to stop. Except of course, you don’t see humming birds or iguanas in Blackpool or Skegness. ( at least I’ve never spotted any!)

We sat on our little balcony and looked out towards the ocean. Wooded islands punctuated the middle distance and in the foreground, swaying palm trees fringed the sandy beach. Black vultures soared around and then landed in the tree tops, spreading their large wings to dry. Just across from our room, a man quickly shinned up a palm tree, using no ropes or special equipment. He hacked at a clump of coconuts until they dropped down to his waiting mates below. His climbing skill was amazing. Again, I suspect that this is not a regular occurrence in Britain. I remember Keith Richards falling out of a coconut tree but that was while he was on a World tour, not back in his homeland.

When we had arrived the day before we had taken a walk on the beach. It’s one of those magical places where the rain forest sweeps down to the sea. It’s a popular spot. We had just passed someone having a massage, when we noticed people pointing up to the top of a tree that had encroached on to the sand. We looked up and there was our first ever sighting of a sloth! This was one of the main reasons why we had decided to visit Central America — to see exotic wild-life. Once one has got over the excitement of spotting a sloth however, the actual “spectacle” can be something of an anti-climax. This is because the sloth rarely moves. It can spend up to 15 hours a day sleeping and when it does stir, is officially the world’s slowest animal. In fact the sloth is so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat. Its greenish tint helps to camouflage the animal as it sits high up in the rain forest canopy.  Luckily, “our” sloth, one of the 3-toed variety, was in a small tree so we got to see it more clearly than usual. It was hanging from a branch and its head was half-turned towards us, revealing  big, soulful eyes and a shy smile. It may not be the most thrilling of mammals to watch but it is certainly one of the most endearing. People love animals that seem to have human characteristics. The sloth’s natural mouth position makes it appear to be smiling, so as far as most people are concerned, it’s a winner.

Manual Antonio is a popular spot for picnickers but those that do so, find that having an open-air meal is not the most relaxing of experiences. We watched a lady and her children enjoying a bite to eat at the edge of the forest when they were suddenly surrounded by a family of raccoons which had appeared out of the trees. The lady let out a scream as a racoon snatched one of her sandwiches. She quickly had to pack away all her food and make her escape. This, apparently, is a very common occurrence. Later, as we were nearing the end of our  walk, a whole troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys bounced on to the beach, causing quite a stir. They sped around on all fours , sporting lovely, curling prehensile tails. Some had cute little babies clinging to their backs. They had been attracted by fallen coconuts which afforded an easy feast. However, like the raccoons, these intelligent monkeys are not afraid to grab human food it it’s unguarded or on offer. We were told not to feed the monkeys as this increases dependency and can lead to more aggressive behaviour. Being surrounded by a whole horde of teeth-baring monkeys can be quite intimidating. However, for us, just watching the coconut- eating from a safe distance, proved to be a fascinating spectacle. It made this Costa Rican beach so very unusual and exciting compared to what we were accustomed to back home.

NIGHT WALK IN THE JUNGLE. (MONTEVERDE– The Green Mountain.)

We had driven north along the Pacific coast on the Pan American Highway of Costa Rica. At one point we stopped on a bridge across a wide river and when we looked down, saw at least 20 huge crocodiles basking on its banks. Then we turned inland and started to climb. We were heading for the Quaker established settlement of Monteverde, up in the spectacular cloud forests. American Quakers had migrated there in the 1960s, in order to escape the dreaded Vietnam draft. Costa Rica is a good place for conscientious objectors as it is a peaceful country and is the only one in its continent to have no standing army. They set up a successful community and were instrumental in preserving large reserves of rain forest and cloud forest in the surrounding area.  After an hour or so of climbing, the road turned into a narrow, twisting, unpaved track. It has been deliberately left unsurfaced to discourage mass tourism which could end up destroying the very things the visitors had come to see — pristine rain forests and exotic, increasingly rare wild-life.

The rain started to lash down relentlessly, and as we slowly ascended into the clouds, it seemed as if we were travelling to the very edge of the known world. At one point the road had almost disappeared following a landslip. Our minibus had to manoeuvre very gingerly around the diggers which were attempting to restore it. Any slight mistake and we would have plunged down a precipitous slope to our right. Mid-November should have been the start of the dry season, but an unseasonal hurricane was hitting the north Caribbean coast and all the weather systems had gone haywire.

So, it felt as if we very lucky when, the next morning, we woke up to a fine, hot ,sunny day in the beautiful cloud forests. Some hurried off to go zip-lining or horse riding, but we, acting our advanced age, chose the more sedate activities of visiting a butterfly garden, a hummingbird feeding station and a tropical frog pond. Later we also visited a fascinating orchid garden.  Many of the orchids were so tiny that they gave us magnifying glasses to view them. However, irrespective of their daytime choices, the whole group came together for what was to be the highlight of the visit: a night walk, deep into the cloud forest.

I’ve always been frightened of going into dark woods at night. We had a large wood near where I grew up. I loved playing in it during the day but avoided it like the plague after dusk. So, when I heard of the Night Walk in the Monteverde  Cloud Forest, I was at first filled with trepidation. What if I got detached from the group and was left, lost in a strange, tropical jungle? I had heard the rain forest at night while down at Manual Antonio. After dark it was a cacophony of sounds — the constant loud chirping of the cicadas, the croaking of the frogs, the growls of the howler monkeys and all the other strange and frightening hooting and screeching. We heard all this from a road that ran alongside the forest, but now we were deliberately going to walk into that pitch black unknown! The prospect was a bit nerve- shredding. The trouble is, I had read too many frightening books about the jungle when I was a child. The rain forest was painted as a place of menace and danger with poisonous spiders, fierce wild cats and huge snakes dangling down to bite you with their venom or squeeze you to death. Then in the rivers and streams were crocodiles and razor toothed piranhas which can strip a man of all his flesh in just a few seconds. Why would anyone voluntarily want to go there?

However, as this was probably a once in a lifetime experience, I conquered my fears and signed up to go. Of course, I was completely safe. We were issued with torches and followed an experienced guide along well trodden paths. So it wasn’t really recreating Tarzan and Jane. The real reason for going at night was because up to 80% of rain forest creatures are nocturnal. In other words they are mostly active at night. For many, this is because they are safer from their predators. But “safer” is a relative term, as many of the predators operate at night too, as we were to see.

Our little group of 7 plus a guide set off into the darkness. We stayed close together. There was no hanging back to take that extra photo on this trip. We trained our torches on the ground as we didn’t want to trip over obstacles such as rocks or low branches. The first creatures we spotted were a couple of tiny tree frogs, one green and one a golden-brown.  They sat totally motionless on large green leaves. Think of the cover of David Attenborough’s original “Life on Earth” and you will get the picture. We would never have seen them without the guide as they were so minute. They didn’t seem to be bothered by our torches. A powerful telescope was trained on them and we were all able to have a close-up look. The guide could even take a picture with his camera phone through the lens of the scope. The same applied to a sinister looking scorpion, sitting completely still on a tree trunk in the middle distance. When the light was shone on it, the scorpion glowed an eerie, luminous blue. We could clearly see its curly, sting-tipped tail. Also completely motionless were yellow and green vipers coiled around branches with their heads in the attack position, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting passing mouse or small bird. We were warned not to go too close so as not to disturb the reptile and not to stray into danger. We heard of one foolish tourist who had touched a poisonous snake to make it move in order to get a better picture. He got bitten for his troubles and had to be rushed to hospital to be given the anti-dote.

The walk had many highlights. A rustling in the tree tops revealed a feeding kinkajou — a sort of ferret w Iith a large prehensile tail acting as a fifth limb. It was as agile and lively as a monkey. A rustling in the undergrowth revealed what for me was the most exciting spot — an armadillo. The silver, linked, armour-like body made it look like a tiny knight returning from the Crusades. Both the armadillo and the kinkajou took me right back to my childhood when I saved the Brooke Bond tea cards. On one side was a coloured picture of the creature and on the other was the description of its appearance, habitat etc. My sister and I bought special albums to stick the cards in. I distinctly remember our albums of: Tropical Birds, Wild Animals of Africa and Wild-life of South America. Maybe the planting of that early seed in my brain was one of the prime reasons that had led me to the jungles of Latin America all those decades later.

The next highlight was seeing a large, female tarantula sitting menacingly at the mouth of her lair, halfway up a bank of earth. When the telescope was trained on her she looked enormous. I was mesmerised by it and must have looked at the frightening, magnified image at least 7 times. The tarantula had orange and brown striped hairy legs. I know it posed no danger to us but a chill still ran down my spine. Maybe I was thinking of the scene in Ian Fleming’s “Dr No” in which James Bond, on a mission in Jamaica, finds a large tarantula crawling up his body as he lay in bed. Fleming, who lived in Jamaica, which is not a million miles from Costa Rica, greatly exaggerated the danger posed by the spider for maximum dramatic effect. The sight of a real tarantula just a metre away from me was still a pretty chilling moment though.

The jungle night walk lasted for 2 hours but the time just flew by. We saw sleeping toucans with their spectacular bills tucked into their feathers. We saw endless columns of leaf cutter ants and when we switched off our torches, we were surrounded by the incandescent lights of glow-worms or fire-flies. We also saw sloths perched high up in the canopy. One was actually moving, painfully slowly, collecting leaves to eat. Apparently they stay up there most of the time and only come down to earth to defecate, about once a week.

It was a memorable and spectacular walk in my opinion. It encapsulated perfectly the reasons that I had so much wanted to visit Costa Rica. I think it’s important to see and appreciate wild animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians while they are still with us. Destruction of habitat is threatening so many species around the world, especially in sensitive areas such as the tropical rain forests. Zoos are fine for getting prolonged close ups of animals and also have praiseworthy breeding programmes for threatened species. However seeing a creature in an enclosure or a cage is nowhere near as satisfying as seeing it in the wild , in its natural habitat. Catching a glimpse of a feeding kinkajou or an ambling armadillo is a priceless, probably  once in a lifetime experience for me. One churlish reviewer on Trip Adviser expressed disappointment that he had only caught brief glimpses of the jungle creatures. He said that he would have been better off staying back at the hotel and getting a superior view on Google images! Just think, if I had read this review earlier, I could have saved a lot of money and watched a DVD or TV wildlife programme back at home. Come to think of it, I missed BBC’s “Life on Earth2” because I was foolish enough to go on holiday to Central America!  I’m just joking of course. I couldn’t disagree with that reviewer more. I think the live experience thrills much more than the canned, on-screen one. My wildlife experiences on Costas Rica’s beaches and in its rain forests have left me with a whole array of wonderful, indelible memories!

 

 

 

 

 

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Now I Know the Way to San Jose.

26 Dec

As Chris and I set off on our recent travels, I could barely contain my excitement! We were journeying by taxis, trains and planes to San Jose! Ever since the classic Dionne Warwick hit; “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” in 1968, I had dreamed of visiting that magical sounding place. Penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the song tells of someone desperately wanting to escape the Hollywood rat race, where people seek fame and fortune on screen but often fail. They end up as gas pump attendants or in other menial jobs, thinking sadly of what might have been. The singer yearns to get away “to find some peace of mind” in San Jose, apparently her home town. So now, unbelievably, we too were going to San Jose. It would be a dream come true. It would be almost as thrilling as meeting the girl from Ipenema!

Our journey however, didn’t involve slipping on to the L A freeway and gliding off into the Californian sunset. It would involve catching crowded trains from N E England to London, chugging west on the interminable Piccadilly tube line to Heathrow, staying at an airport hotel and then flying across the Atlantic early next morning. We would then change planes in New York, an exciting event in itself, before flying on to our legendary destination. We would at last be following in the famous footsteps of Dionne, Hal and Burt.

That was our dream, but now, sit tight and I’ll tell you about the reality. The journey began on a small branch line with our train grinding its way through industrial Teesside. ( We live in a lovely seaside resort, but the industry is not far inland.) Finally we reached the delights of Darlington, the nearest station on the East Coast mainline. The express train arrived to whisk us down to the capital on this British leg of our exciting journey. To our surprise we were greeted by a large contingent of transport police! They seemed to be guarding the train from some terrible threat. We hadn’t heard of any terrorist alert so were completely bemused as we stored our luggage and sank into our seats. All the other passengers seemed to be quite relaxed so it couldn’t have been anything too scary.

Then we heard it — the loud, raucous singing of a large group of inebriated Scotsmen. They made a mockery of the concept of the “Quiet Coach.” The penny suddenly dropped. It was the weekend of the England vs Scotland World Cup football match at Wembley. The train was travelling from Edinburgh to London. The good humoured singing and chanting continued all the way south. We were quite safe but unable to use the toilet as it was permanently being occupied by an unending queue of kilted revellers. One wag in our coach commented that this was an interesting experiment in recycling, as the Scots fans were draining cans of beer as they waited to relieve themselves! It made for an interesting journey south. At Kings Cross we were treated to a spectacle of: hairy legs, bulging tattoos, swaying kilts and jaunty, tartan hats. Emblazoned on the backs of their dark blue football tops were the names of legendary Scottish footballers — Dalgleish, McLeish, Strachan. The echoing vaults of King Cross station resounded with the songs and chants of the eternally optimistic Scottish fans. Sadly, their beloved team got hammered 3-0 by England at Wembley, the next day.

By then we were up in the air, having survived the soulless automation of Heathrow Terminal 2. Instead of meeting a real person we were confronted by a row of machines. Presumably, many of the real employees have sadly been made redundant. It reminded me of the supermarkets back home where machines are rapidly replacing people. We now had to scan our passports, print our own boarding passes, print our own labels and attach them to our luggage by following the on- screen instructions. I quickly re-entered “grumpy old man” territory. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be getting a part-time job at an airport! We eventually made it through to our United Airlines plane which proceeded to sit on the tarmac for an hour and a half because some paperwork hadn’t been done properly. Finally we launched ourselves up into the sky and damp, grey Britain soon disappeared beneath the clouds. We were on our way to the blue skies and constant sunshine of San Jose. Once again  60’s tune and Dionne’s beautiful, velvety voice played in my head. ( I didn’t need head-phones.)

The journey to New York took 7 hours or so. I lost count. They tell you to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. This is nothing but a joke because basically we are stuck in a droning metal tube, squashed into seats with little leg-room. Attendants bring drinks and an excuse of a meal. Fellow passengers retreat into their head-phones. Chris tried to nod off, drifting in and out of sleep. I read my book for a while but got distracted by the movies being played on people’s laptops. I only saw the pictures as I wasn’t plugged in to the soundtrack. I was treated to the Ninja Turtles rescuing New York from a ridiculous looking monster. It was a clichéd blur of: fights, car chases, explosions and other daring exploits while hanging off skyscrapers or helicopters. This was mixed in with the adjoining person’s dated rom-com about 2 couples going to a tropical island holiday camp. It was the usual mix of: misunderstandings, flirtations, jealousies, confrontations and reconciliations. The break-ups and the make-ups were all laced with clumsy, slapstick comedy.

I drifted off for a while, then decided to check where we were on my back-of-seat screen. I studied a route map charting the plane’s progress. To my surprise and excitement the map showed we were just skirting the south-east corner of Greenland! The nearest town, hundreds of miles away was Nuuk ( or Godthab.) Now there’s a destination! I’ve never been to and never seen Greenland. So, trembling with anticipation, I leaned toward the window and looked out. And there it was  — Greenland, its rows and rows of snowy mountains glistening in the bright sunlight. Miraculously, the clouds had parted to reveal this magical, other-worldly sight. We were 1855 miles from London, flying over the North Atlantic Ocean and I was looking at Greenland! Suddenly every penny of the airfare was worth it.

I gazed at the myriad of mountain peaks, fjords and islands. The sea surrounding them was dark blue and very still. No breakers washed up on the shore. It was a completely empty, pristine landscape, seemingly untouched by man. There were no buildings, no roads, no people. The sea was devoid of ships. There was no vegetation either belying the island’s name. As far as the eye could see stretched long ranges of jutting, snow-capped mountains, fringed by the dark, still sea. I imagined being down there, alone and isolated. The hairs stood up a little on the back of my neck with the thought of it, a combination of excitement and fear. Wasn’t there a William Golding book about a man stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean? “Pincher Martin” it’s called. Maybe I should read it. It was difficult to imagine an existence stripped of all the multiple technologies of the modern world. Imagine– no TV, no radio, no phone, no roads, no Internet! In reality, I wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours in Greenland, what with the cold, the isolation and probably: the polar bears. However, looking down at this empty, beautiful, almost surreal scene far below, made me feel strangely calm and content. Slowly the islands and the mountains receded into the unfathomable distance. As we flew towards Labrador, the curtain of clouds returned. If I was being corny, I would say it was all like a dream!

We were now on our run-into New York City, crossing Canada and then New England. New York is another place I’ve never visited, but always wanted to. As we approached I could see nothing but cloud. By now I had forgotten all about the Ninja Turtles and the antics of the rom-commers. I kept looking out of the airplane window. As we descended towards Newark New York airport, another minor miracle occurred. We passed through the clouds and there were the clustered sky-scrapers of Manhattan, spread out below us. This was the second most thrilling moment of the journey because, as I’ve explained, I’m a New York virgin.

I had expected to be gob-smacked by the sheer, soaring size of the buildings, but to be honest, from up in the air, they looked like toy-town. At first I wasn’t even sure whether this was central Manhattan, until I spotted a small island in the bay with the instantly recognisable statue of a lady in flowing robes thrusting her hand up into the sky. We were too high up to distinguish the Statue of Liberty’s famous flaming torch. The sight of this huge statue was the welcome that millions of  poor migrants got in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After their difficult, dangerous sea passage from Europe, Liberty summarised all the hopes and dreams of a better life in the New World. Like the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty is something that every serious tourist yearns to see and tick off their “bucket list.” Now we’d seen it and it was definitely one of the highlights on our way to San Jose.

With the terrible threat of terrorism stalking the world, America gives a very suspicious, even paranoid welcome to its visitors. The passport queues are long and tiresome as each arrival is interrogated at length. The security checks are extremely thorough and the officers often brusque and rude as they bark out their orders without a “please” or a “thank-you” in sight. Sniffer dogs check your hand-luggage, presumably looking for drugs or explosives. But New York was not as bad as Houston, Texas on the way back, where we had to endure whole body scans and being shouted at for not carrying out an order immediately. It was all very intimidating, especially as we were merely tired travellers and not terrorists.

After another wait, we finally boarded our early evening flight to San Jose. We flew across the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan’s scrapers once more, and then New York disappeared. At last we were on our way to San Jose!

But now I must come clean. We had known all along that we weren’t travelling to the  idyllic-sounding Californian city made famous by Dionne Warwick’s hit song. That city, north of San Francisco, is now known as the “Capital of Silicon Valley.” Thus thousands of people have made their way to San Jose since the song was written in those far-away, pre-internet days. It doesn’t sound such a lovely or restful place anymore. Would I have really wanted to go there , only to be thoroughly disillusioned? The reality would probably have shattered my long-held, romantic dream.

No– we were actually travelling to the capital of Costa Rica, a tiny country in Central America. It’s chief city is also called San Jose. The Spanish conquistadores must have loved their saints as they murdered their way around the New World — San Francisco, San Diego, San Pedro, San Salvador, San Jose. They were named after favourite saints and Saint Joseph( or Josephine), must have been more popular than most.

We weren’t flying to Dionne’s “Mecca”, but were travelling to the Costa Rican capital to begin an exotic, wildlife spotting tour. We would be visiting rain forests, cloud forests, mountains, lakes and coast. We arrived at the Costa Rican San Jose after dark. We were exhausted and ready for journey’s end. Only one more passport queue and one final security scan and we were in. The hotel had sent a taxi to collect us. There was  just time to change some Dollars into local currency (Colones) and help an old, confused American lady who had lost both her luggage and her tour group. We drove into the city. a mish-mash of old and new dominated by traffic. It wasn’t exactly the kind of place to find “some peace of mind.” When we walked out into it the next morning we found a lively town full of street sellers shouting out their  wares in the local version of Spanish. We saw numerous people selling colourful-looking lottery tickets and street entertainers such as xylophone bands and contortionists. It wasn’t the idyll that Dionne had sung wistfully about 50 years ago. It wasn’t even the right San Jose! But it was the beginning of a fascinating and memorable Central American adventure!