We decided in August to use up some expiring frequent flier miles from United, and chose Costa Rica (CR) because United didn’t fly to Panama. Besides, we had some unfinished birding business in CR. Marc and I visited Carara, Punta Leona Lodge, El Gavilan Lodge and Selva Verde Lodge twelve years ago. We had only been birding for about a year at the time, and were novice travellers as well, so we wasted a lot of good birding time on travel and logistics. Since then, among many international trips, I have been to Belize and Marc and I have been to Guatemala. So this time we decided to drive ourselves and just focus on the region southwest of San Jose, where the bird species would be most different. This plan meant leaving out the north and the Guanacaste area and most of the Caribbean side, except for our Tapanti stop. We spent about half our budget on the car alone (probably could have gotten better service for less than Hertz—wouldn’t recommend them). Driving ourselves kept the amount of time on the road during travel days to a maximum of 3½ hours, plus opened up lots of car birding opportunities (which was invaluable since we encountered lots of rain).
We also chose to hike the trails provided by each locale, rather than hitting hotspots mentioned in other trip reports. Some exceptions included 1) stopping at the Cerro de la Muerte summit and 2) driving through Sabalito on our way back from Wilson Botanical Garden to San Vito to look for Crested Oropendola and 3) a stop at the San Vito airstrip (where we missed the “good” pond). Finally, we originally intended to avoid being distracted by the numerous and complicated woodcreepers and flycatchers but, as it turns out, were rewarded for abandoning this plan early on.
I studied the book, tapes and trip reports for at least two months before going. We bought a used CR bird book and cut out the plates to carry on the trail. We had a complete copy of the book in our room. We didn’t hire guides, preferring instead to struggle on our own with IDs. We don’t add a bird to our list unless we have a 90%+ confidence level of the ID. Thus our brief look at Zeledonia on the Trogon Lodge trail, for instance, didn’t count. On the other hand, we are very confident of our identification of Slaty Finch, Long-tailed, Black-banded and Strong-billed Woodcreepers. We do not list any heard-only birds.
Our schedule for a 2 week trip was just right: 2 nights at Kiri, 2 nights at Mirador, 3 nights in San Vito, 3 nights at Barú, 2 nights at Trogon and one night in San José. It would have been nice to have had an additional day at most of the places if time had permitted. In addition, for a longer trip, I’d add more time on the Caribbean side and/or a visit to the Oso Peninsula. We had rain at all sites except Trogon Lodge and Villa Pacande, which probably affected our success. Nevertheless, we set out the door every sunrise and carried lunch provided by the various lodges so we could be out as long as we wanted.
We couldn’t find two flights to/from CR two weeks apart until the January-February dates appeared. So we waited 5 months for our adventure. Then it turned out United quit flying to Costa Rica after we had made reservations. They rerouted us via Guatemala City each way on Lacsa/Taca. This carrier was fine, and their planes had better legroom than United planes.
ACCOMMODATION, SITES AND BIRDING HIGHLIGHTS
12 km southeast of Orosi, 2 km south of Tapantí National Park entrance. Phone: 533-2272. Restaurant/Food, $45/night for a room for 2.
This small, family-run hotel offers easy access to the park. It has its own 123-acre private reserve, which unfortunately we did not get to walk because of the rain. The 8 clean rooms are small and simple, with tile floors and adequate bathrooms and open onto porches with beautiful views. The restaurant serves complimentary full, delicious breakfasts. Dinner choices (extra but inexpensive) included fresh trout, raised in nearby ponds. If you ask, the staff will put out fruit at a feeding station near the dining area that brings in great birds.
We really enjoyed staying here, although the hot water was non-existent for my shower (Marc’s was fine). Good food in good quantity, very nice hostess. Definitely could have spent another day there and Kiri would be on our return list.
Tapanti National Park $6 entrance fee per person.
The rain began as soon as we arrived at the fork between Kiri Lodge and Tapanti NP and continued on/off, hard and light, for the full day and ½ day we were in the region. Thus, we could not hike any of the trails. Despite that, we had good luck car birding, jumping out of the car if necessary. We immediately deviated from our plan to ignore woodcreepers and identified a few different species. Best moment was on the 2nd morning in a short period without rain, we found a tree containing Brown-capped Vireo, 5 species of North American breeding warblers and in the centre of it all, a male Red-faced Barbet.
Mirador de Quetzales Basic lodging. $90/cabin, 3 meals per day included, drinks extra.
The lodge is located on the Talamanca Mountain Range, following the Pan-American Highway south from San José at the 70Km marker. Coming from San José the lodge’s entrance is on the right hand side of the road and you will be able to see the sign. The lodge is 700 metres apart from the main highway. Driving time from San Jose: 1½ hours. Driving time from San Isidro: 1½ hours.
We arrived in a deluge that kept up all night. It was very cold in the modest cabins and luckily Marc thought to ask for a space heater. We kept it on the whole time we were there, and also used the 4 wool blankets that were provided. The bed was one of the worst we have ever slept on. The heating unit on the shower was inadequate. Service here was somewhat indifferent. The area behind the cabins is closed off except for the included Quetzal walk. Despite all of this, our plan to come here was a good one, because we saw birds with narrow ranges up close and personal. It made our later stay at Trogon Lodge more relaxing since many of our target birds were already bagged. Just be sure to bring proper clothing.
The following day was damp and cold but at least there was no rain. We did not do the included Quetzal walk. Instead, we hiked the somewhat strenuous trail that began on the road below the restaurant. Marc found our own male Resplendent Quetzal. At one point, we found ourselves surrounded by a feeding flock. Spangle-cheeked Tanagers were so close we could have touched them. Another magical moment was being able to watch a group of 6 Silvery-throated Jays feed and frolic around us for a good 15 minutes. Back at the lodge, from the Mirador above the cabins, we watched a Slaty Finch for easily 5 minutes. Having seen Slaty Flowerpiercer, we could rule that out and later views of Peg-billed Finch made us absolutely sure of our ID. Being able to see a Dusky Nightjar so close we could almost count whiskers (in front of the dining area) was great too. We added Golden-winged Warbler to their bird list.
At Paso Real, make a quick left off the Pan-American Highway to go over a bridge spanning the river. Keep going on a pot-hole-filled road until San Vito. Upon arrival at the town center (a 5-road intersection), go straight through to enter the Hotel El Ceibo grounds. A right at that intersection leads to Wilson Botanical Garden.
Hotel El Ceibo Tel. 773-3025 (reservations at 255-1280) has 30 rooms, $45 for double.
Clean rooms, the water is hot (which was like heaven after Mirador). Highly recommended. Ask for a room on the top story in the back so you can watch birds in the trees of the very nice garden. We saw Fiery-billed Aracari and Rufous-breasted Wrens among others. The clean dining room of the Hotel El Ceibo offers good meals for $6 or less and good Chilean wines. Leaving the Hotel El Ceibo property, turn right to find an excellent panaderia (bakery) just down the hill.
Wilson Botanical Garden Six kilometres south of San Vito de Java, owned by the Organization for Tropical Studies. The entry fee to the garden is $6/person.
We arrived at sunrise, passing through open gates and paid later in the day. The first day we paid for lunch ($10/person), making arrangements before 10am. It was definitely one of the most expensive meals of the trip, very average, except for the raspberry juice I drank a gallon of. I was told that overnight accommodations and meals can also be arranged for about $60 to $80 per person. To reserve and confirm rates, contact the Organization for Tropical Studies (P. O. Box 676, 2050 San Pedro, tel. 240-6696, fax 240-2783; or PO Box DM, Durham, NC 27706 U.S.A., tel. 919-684-5774). The direct phone number at the Wilson Garden is 773-3278.
Several interconnecting trails emphasizing different plant families, plus other trails contain secondary forest. We hiked all of the trails in the 2 full days/one AM stop. Watching the feeders near the dining hall under a canopy was great when we waited out the periodic rain. A bottlebrush tree at the same location was good for hummingbirds. However, we were lucky to see all of the same species when we were out and about on the trails.
Best moments in the Gardens were finding the Marbled Wood-quail on the Tree Fern Hill trail and spotting a male White-ruffed Manakin on the Wilson Terrace trail near the Banana section. The first afternoon just across the street from the Wilson Botanical Garden entrance, we spotted Gray-headed Chachalacas, plus a bonus Rufous-capped Warbler. Shortly thereafter Marc found a group of Brown-hooded Parrots in a bare tree. Then we had a Yellow-headed Caracara fly over and we somehow managed to spot it again perched for a great view.
The next afternoon we headed toward Sabalito to look for Crested Oropendola, following a hastily drawn map from a friend. We determined that that road (even if unsuccessful) would take us to the San Vito airstrip. We drove slowly along, peering into any stand of pines. Finally at one point, Marc pulled over into a parking lot of a Sabalito auto-repair shop to let someone pass and behold, a Crested Oropendola flew overhead and landed with two others in a bare (non-pine) tree, affording great views. Our “what might have been” story is that at the airstrip along a row of houses we heard a Chiriqui Yellowthroat. After waiting patiently, it began to emerge just as the occupant of one of the houses bounded toward us to enthusiastically show us a hummingbird nest. Still, good views of male and female Garden Emerald and a pair of Lesser Elaenias were adequate consolation.
Hacienda Barú $67.50 for a cabin/night.
Upon reaching San Isidro, watch for a sign indicating the road to Dominical. Turn at a Texaco gas station, drive through town (following your noses—there are no other signs) and follow the very pot-hole-filled road 37Km to the intersection of the coastal road where there is a HB sign. At this junction turn right on to the dirt road signed towards Quepos. Hacienda Barú is 3Km up this (very rough!!!!!) road. You will find the entrance immediately after the gas station on the left.
Dinner (good) and drinks are extra. They kindly provided sandwiches in place of the included breakfast. Lodgers can hike certain trails without added cost. Other trails are locked and only available on a guided tour (bummer). Cabins have plenty of fans and a kitchen with fridge. Bathroom had hot water but the closeness of the toilet and washbasin forced me to use the kitchen sink to brush my teeth.
It was unbelievably humid. Our clothes, even the clothes made of that special quick-dry material, never dried out, even when hung in front of a running fan all night long. It rained every evening (hard) while we were there, but the trails held up well. We hiked all available trails and the garden in front of the cabins was birdy. We drove down to the Barú River one afternoon for some birding from the bridge. Although we had to work hard to see birds, we ended up with 107 species over 2 full days and 2 half days of birding.
We saw Barred and Black-hooded Antshrike pairs up close. It was great to find a pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds and a pair of Mourning Warblers. Other great moments were the pair of mating Red-faced Caracaras we saw very early morning on the Teak Trail. These and a good view of a Strong-billed Woodcreeper on the Lookout trail and Cinnamon Becard along the Teak Trail and again behind the MINAS headquarters adds to the HB bird list.
Trogon Lodge At Km 80 of the Pan-American Highway, 7Km down the very narrow, pot-hole-filled road. $74 per cabin/night, dinners $12/person.
Trogon Lodge is an incredibly beautiful, peaceful location. A river runs by the property, a stream flowed just outside our cabin where we could watch Volcano Hummingbirds bathe. There are 24 or so cabins scattered up on a steep hillside. The gardens throughout the property are beautifully cared for. There is a balcony outside the restaurant for watching the hummingbirds.
The cabins were clean and beautiful, with propane gas heaters (perfect as it was a bit cool there in February) and warm showers. The staff at Trogon Lodge was terrific. Alex (the head guy it seemed) even carried our 50lb suitcase on his shoulder all the way up the very steep hill to the most remote cabin we’d requested and he also gave us useful tips on the birds. The kitchen staff was great too, reserving us a table next to the woodstove at our request. The meals are served buffet style in the cosy restaurant. The food was good (especially the trout). Tea, very good coffee, juice and cookies are available all day. Sandwiches prepared for us ($3/person) in place of the missed Continental breakfasts. Each morning, Alex made sure a box of juice was included in our lunches. At our departure, a gardener dropped his tools to ask Marc if he needed help with the luggage.
We hiked the lodge’s two trails rather than those above a lodge further down the valley. I don’t know why more birders don’t stay at Trogon. We could easily have spent more time there. I can only hope to find other lodges of such beauty and quality service in my future travels. We car birded down to the bottom of valley and then up the windy, narrow, pot-hole-filled road after we checked out of Trogon.
Best moments were looking eye-to-eye with two Spotted Wood-Quails while rounding a steep bend and then looking down on the pair and their fluorescent orange crests. The second morning Marc and I were bemoaning our inadequate looks at Zeledonia and Quail-dove when we happened to check the top of a 100ft tree. There, an Ochraceous Pewee sat in full sun. Buffy Tuftedcheeks were as cool as their name.
Villa Pacande Telephone: 443-8481 cell: 369-4666. $38/room. Breakfast included.
From the central park of Alajuela, the “villa” is 2kms north towards the Póas volcano. The “villa” was unmarked and it took us a while to find it. 10 minutes from the Airport.
We stayed here on the tip of a trip report. For us, it was a mistake. It was difficult to find. The “villa” is really just a regular house with extra built-on rooms and a small yard. The room was small and smelled of toilet. The water-heating unit was inadequate. Single beds were very uncomfortable. Breakfast was good, although any other service was missing. Luckily we had a car so we could go out for dinner. The Hertz Rental Agency wouldn’t retrieve the car from this locale and there was no free ride from the “villa” to the airport (only from). They had an empty hummingbird feeder. It was a very disappointing end to an otherwise successful trip. If we had it to do over we’d stay at the Bougainvillea Hotel or La Casa que Canta .
We arrived at the clean, organized CR airport only to find the flight number issued by United didn’t exist. Luckily TACA agents ably handled the situation. We also found TACA agents in Guatemala very helpful. The changed itinerary set by United prevented us from arriving at LAX in time to catch planes to our final destinations. We spent the night (actually 4 hours) at a clean Super 8 motel by the airport that had a free shuttle.
Our species total was lower than most reports but better than we expected given all that rain. We did end up seeing most of our target species, along with many great hummingbirds and rarities like Slaty Finch and Red-throated Caracara. We got great looks at a surprisingly wide and interesting variety of woodcreepers. I am very happy we saw two Wood-Quail species. One of Marc’s favourites was the Olivaceous Piculet .
We saw raccoon, coatimundis, a peccary, agoutis, white-faced capuchin monkeys (a troop of 20 or so crossed over our heads at Hacienda Barú) and squirrels of various sorts. Reptiles included American crocodile, Black Spiny-tailed and Green Iguanas, a beautiful emerald-and-black-chequered snake at Mirador de Quetzales and another that was chocolate brown at Hacienda Barú. There was a large toad near the Hacienda Barú dining area and ferocious anole-like lizards on the Hacienda Barú Lookout trail. We saw great butterflies and insects (especially at Hacienda Barú). One insect had legs mimicking dead leaves, which it waved slowly back and forth from its perch alongside the trail.
All-in-all, a pretty fun and relatively inexpensive trip. Except for staying at a different hotel near the airport, there’s not much else we’d change. The bird list is available. Feel free to email me if you’d like additional information.
Sonia Santa Anna