Cairngorm Wildlife Diary for

Allan and Heather's Costa Rica Adventure

January 2004

Enjoy this very special diary and please do get in touch if you have any comments

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Cairngorm Wildlife, 23 Craigie Avenue, Boat of Garten
Inverness-shire PH24 3BL Scotland

 

 

 

For the previous two years my wife Heather (Bea) and I spent our January holidays in the Gambia.   This year we were determined to go somewhere completely different so, on the recommendation of some friends, we looked into what EXODUS had to offer.   We were immediately smitten by their "DISCOVER COSTA RICA" itinerary and booked our places without further ado.   The following is how it went.

Fri 9th Jan 04

Our close friends Bill and Nancy picked us up at our house at 1330 and the flight left Inverness pretty much on time at 1720, arriving Gatwick ten minutes early at 1900. We wandered the shops, drank coffee and settled down for the night on benches by the escalator outside the Body Shop. In the morning Bea and I had a committee meeting and, having slept at Gatwick once before and forgotten how rough it was, decided not to do it again if we could help it. Quite apart from the difficulty of sleeping and therefore starting the holiday knackered, we were joined by a young man, who was either drunk or on drugs, who lifted my jacket off the sleeping Bea and examined it in a bleary sort of way. I pointed out the error of his ways and he flopped back down on the bench beside me and went to sleep. Weird.

Sat 10th Jan 04

At 0850, after breakfast of cornflakes and coffee, we checked our bags in to Contintental Airlines and went through to the departure lounge and on to gate19 at 1050. The flight left on time at midday with an estimated journey time of 9 hours and 40 minutes, but we caught up a bit and the driver thought we would arrive around 1600 local - the time difference from the UK is minus 6 hours. Sure enough we arrived Houston at 1600 having had a little sleep on the plane and not feeling too bad. However, Houston was awful. We were herded into line by a dreadful woman with a German accent who was trying to separate the Visa holders from those on the Visa Waiver Scheme such as us. Unfortunately her German upbringing prevented her from saying "Waiver" so it came out "Visa Vaiver" much to everyvuns' amusement. Anyhow, there were so many people in the queues and the system ground along so slowly that we looked likely to miss our connection to San Jose. Fortunately an official came along to tell a group behind us that they would certainly miss thier flight but that they had been booked on the next one, so we told him of our position and he took pity and sent us to the front of the queue because ours was the only flight to San Jose that day and he mumbled something about not wanting people to be stuck overnight.

The baggage system at Houston was rough and ready. There are not enough Carousels to deal with the volume of luggage so you've got some officials loading baggagge on and others hauling it off and chucking it into piles. Chaos - but we found our bags without too much trouble and were steered through the airport to our flight quite quickly after that. We left Houston on time at 1805 and, after filling out yet more immigration and customs forms, landed at San Jose at 2130. No problems getting through the system this time and Camino Travel were there to meet us as arranged. We met some of the group members who had arrived at a similar time but we were delayed in getting away because some of their luggage had failed to get onto their flight. The poor people would not be reunited with their stuff until Tuesday, but we rallied round and lent them essentials and they topped up by buying a few bits and pieces along the way. Got to the Edelweiss Hotel at 2330 - much later than expected, partly due to the road being blocked and forcing us to make a detour. We had been travelling for about forty hours with not much sleep so we were rather tired to put it mildly.

The Edelweiss Hotel where the trip began and ended

Sun 11th Jan 04

Nonetheless we had to be up at 0530 to get the first leg of our tour started. We travelled light for this first phase, just taking a small rucsack of essentials, putting our trust in our guide's assertion that our main luggage would catch up with us two days later. We left San Jose at 0630 and headed along route 32 to Batan and then on dirt roads to Freeman where we met a boat.

On the way our guide Berny began to tell us about Costa Rica. There are great variations in weather across the country. The east side, where we would be spending the next two days, has two season - the rainy season and the rainier season which gives about 180 inches of rain per year. January is just the rainy season so might not be too bad. This was a hint of how things would be - it was wet for much of our stay in the country and the humidity made it difficult to get things dry so at times our luggage exhuded a damp, musty aroma.

The Americas are split down the middle by the great continental divide that runs from Canada to South America. In Costa Rica it comprises a range of mountains and volcanoes roughly down the length of the country. To the west, the weather is much drier at this time of year, especially on the low ground, but even here there is a lot of locally generated rain in the rainforests.

There are four million inhabitants in Costa Rica of which almost one million are Nicaraguans who come in to help with the harvests of fruit, coffee, and sugar cane. Many of them stay and become permanent residents, officially or otherwise. There are also about 1200 Guaymi Indians (the remnants of the original inhabitants of Costa Rica) plus a few thousand Americans and other foreign nationals.

The roads are often impassable due to mud slides or earthquakes that damage roads and take out bridges. Many of these bridges have been replaced by the US Army with temporary Bailey bridges - except that these are likely to be permanent till the next earthquake. Only the major roads have a tarmac surface, and even these are potholed along some stretches. The minor roads are dirt roads with stony or dusty surfaces depending on local conditions and, due to the problem with the bridges mentioned above, there is no guarantee any given road will be open so it is best to make local enquiries before leaving the main highways to go into the countryside. In short, Costa Rica can be difficult to travel around in.

Driving in Costa Rica is a fairly dangerous business with a distinct lack of discipline on the roads and some quite dangerous practises, so drivers have to keep their wits about them to avoid each other as well as the potholes. . Berny warned us that pedestrians have no rights on the roads and if we got knocked over we would receive no sympathy from officialdom, so we must take great care.

We climbed out of San Jose into an area of cloud forest, and then went through a tunnel which took us to the other side of the continental divide where we began the descent to the eastern side. We drove out of the cloud and soon passed a place where two rivers joined - one came from a volcano and was yellow in colour, the other did not and wasn't.

Near Guapiles at 0800 we stopped for breakfast of fruit juice, rolls and a mix of rice and beans - a combination we were to become quite used to. There was also egg and a selection of fruits.

As our journey east continued Berny told us that, compared to other Central American countries, Costa Rica is more expensive to live in but there is less poverty and there are laws to protect the workers. Once upon a time the big companies used DDT and other dangerous pesticides in the banana and coffee plantations, and this caused all sorts of health and genetic problems for the workers, but nowadays things are done in a more earth friendly way such that the companies have earned certificates of approval from environmental bodies.

Prices in Costa Rica seemed to us quite cheap but Costa Ricans do not earn as much money as we do so for them the prices are high. Some of the shanty towns we were to see later in the trip looked pretty awful, though we did not get close enough to get a true picture, but all in all, people seemed less deprived than those in the compounds we saw in Africa. This was certainly the case in the villages, where they had clean running water, decent toilets and in most cases electricity.

Half way to Batan we saw our first sloth high in a tree beside the road. After Batan the tarmac road ran out and we were on dirt roads for the half hour drive to Freeman where we were to meet the boat. We got there at about 1045 and the boat arrived half an hour later. It was raining heavily, but that did not deter the bird and animal life and in the course of the two hour journey we saw an Amazon kingfisher, cattle egrets, great white egrets, a snowy egret, some small fruit bats, swallows of some kind or other, howler monkeys, more sloths, wood storks, little blue herons, a northern jacana, great blue herons, a green heron, a great kiskadee, a caiman, a green ibis, a common sandpiper and two types of vulture - the turkey vulture and the black vulture

.

The boat that took us from Freeman to Tortorguero

The boat trip started on a river but then we turned off onto the Tortuguero canal which runs all the way from the port of Limon in the south to the Nicaraguan border in the north. Our journey to Tortorguero would cover 45 kilometres of the canal. Parts of the canal were very shallow and we ran the risk of having to get out and push - indeed we watched the occupants of one craft do just that. However, our skipper knew enough to avoid that indignity.

An hour short of Tortorguero we stopped for a break and Bea bought her first tee shirt of the trip. We arrived at the amazing Laguna Lodge, Tortorguero, at 1345 where we were presented with a cold drink of banana, papaya and pineapple mixed into a thick delicious liquid fit for a king. Lunch was soup, then meat and rice and beans followed by desert. A briefing from Berny was followed by a free afternoon to get organised. We intended to sleep till 1600 but were so tired we overslept by an hour, then managed to lock ourselves out of the toilet. A nice man came and fixed the door, then we went for a walk to the nearby beach where Bea had a paddle in the Carribean Sea. Apparently it is dangerous to swim here because of barracudas, sharks and rip tides. On the way back we encountered a column of leaf cutter ants carrying their leaves.

Dinner was at 1930 and comprised salady things followed by chicken, new potatoes and veg of some kind with caramelised banana to finish. For some our group this was the fourth meal of the day because they had missed the briefing that said breakfast would be on the road, so they had breakfasted at the hotel before we left.

Which brings me to introduce the group. We could not have been luckier with the people whose holiday we were to share. We muddled along together very well indeed and I like to think we have made some friends among them. They were John Hodgson and Jackie Bell, Celia Dunkley, Francis and Charlotte Josephs, Grant Hazlehurst, Sandra and Mike Freemantle, Adrian Fordham, Barbara and Ken Warren, Barbara and David Turnham, Caroline Bates and ourselves.

In our different ways we had all travelled a long long way over the past two days so nobody hung around very long after dinner. We fell into our bed at 2130.

A Black Iguano

Mon 12th Jan 04

There was heavy rain overnight and it continued into the morning so the planned early morning boat ride was cancelled. Breakfast was at 0700 and included fruit and omelettes made to your own design. We were to have had a walk up the local hill this morning but we did a boat trip instead. Almost at once we saw a tiger heron up fairly close, then an iguana and a yellow headed night heron. Next came a snake bird, related to the cormorant, and a couple of caiman.

Berny explained a bit about the Tortorguero National Park. No one is allowed to live in the park and no hunting is allowed anywhere in Costa Rica. Honestly - it puts us in Scotland to shame.

On the way back we stopped at Tortoguero village which is just outside the park boundary. We visited its museum and gift shop and walked among the houses for a while. Tortorguero means the Land of the Turtle, and the people who live here used to make their living entirely from the turtles but now they are employed in the local tourist industry as staff in the hotels and lodges or driving boats or acting as guides. They still collect the spare turtle eggs which occur when turtles dig up the eggs of other turtles to lay their own, but the total exploitation of turtles, which once threatened their survival, has now stopped.

Tortorguero Village

Profits from the tourist industry help provide facilities for the village. Unfortunately the newly provided day centre has had to close for lack of someone willing to run it. Other problems include too many dogs and too much garbage. There are no roads, just muddy paths, and the six hundred people who live here are almost exclusively of local origin apart from an Italian and a Canadian. Bird and insect life abounds here and we saw various hawks, flycatchers, butterflies and spiders during our stay.

We walked back part way to our lodge along the beach - some of the group walked all the way while the rest of us took the boat. Lunch was beans and rice and chicken and fruit and a banana fritter that tasted a bit fishy so it might have been fried in the fish frier. We had planned to do the morning's cancelled walk in the afternoon but the weather was so bad we went on another boat ride instead to look for more wildlife. Bea and I decided against taking all our camera gear to avoid it getting soaked again - a decision that we soon regretted because we had a really close encounter with a two toed sloth and have no pictures to show for it. We also saw howler monkeys and a spider monkey with her baby.

On the way back to the lodge most of our group were dropped off for a walk, but the walk required wellies and we had not managed to find any to fit among those on offer so we could not go. Instead we walked through the butterfly garden, watched some leaf-cutter ants doing their thing and had a coke by the pool.

An excellent dinner of fish and all the usual rice and fruit options was followed by another early night at 2130.

An Iguana

Tues 13th Jan 04

Up at 0530 and out for a bird walk at 0630. First bird seen was a toucan, followed by a collared aracari, a mealy parrot, a baltimore oriole and a broad winged hawk. Of the butterflies we saw one was called the postman butterfly because it always travels the same route. Breakfast included pancakes and maple syrup which we enjoyed as much as the flies did.

We packed up ready to leave and already all our clothes, even the clean ones, had a damp feel to them due to the humidity left behind by the heavy rain. Exodus did hint that it is difficult to stay dry in the rainforest so we should not have been too surprised.

We left by boat at 0900 for the two hour journey back to Freeman where a local bus would take us back to the Ponderosa near Guapiles where we we would meet up with the bus and driver that would remain with us for the rest of the trip. We would also be reunited with our main luggage. In the course of the boat journey we saw a great pitou (related to the nightjar) roseate terns, two large crocodiles, several caiman and some small turtles. In many ways we were sorry to leave Tortorguero because we were unlikely to see as much in the way of wildlife at the other places on our trip.

We left Freeman by bus at 1215 and were back on the main tarmac road at Batan half an hour later. At 1345 we lunched at the Ponderosa restaurant near Guapiles and then switched to the bus that would stay with us for the rest of the holiday. We were all glad to find our main luggage safely stowed on the bus, including that belonging to those whose bags had missed the plane on Saturday.

We set off again and continued to reverse Sunday's outward journey for a short distance till we reached the junction with route 4, where we turned north and headed for La Fortuna near the Arenal volcano. Our route took us through Puerto Viejo, San Miguel and Muelle - a region known as the breadbasket of Costa Rica due to the vast quantity of food that is produced here. We passed fields of sugar, vegetables and fruits of all kinds as well as some herds of cattle. At Muelle we stopped for a short visit to an Iguana garden where, as well as iguanas, we also saw a variagated squirrel, a flock of brown jays and a black shouldered kite.

We arrived at our hotel, the Arenal Paradis hotel, La Fortuna, at 1730 and after a short rest went out to dinner in La Fortuna. On a weather note - today was the first day of our journey so far without rain. Hooray. Once again we were in bed before 2200.

Weds 14th Jan 04

0630 got out of bed and looked out of the window to find we were in the clouds, despite being less than 1500 feet above see level. The birds did not seem to mind the cloud and the dawn chorus was quite loud, and Grant, our dedicated birder, was already out and ticking new ones off his list. Todays plan was a walk to a waterfall, then another walk across the lava fields below Arenal volcano. We hoped at some time to see the volcano - a spectacular sight to behold, judging from the postcards in the shop - but the weather remained wet and cloudy so we just had to use our imaginations. Bernie told us he gets to see it on about sixty per cent of his trips. I guess we are the forty percenters.

After a short bus ride we set off at 0900 on our walk of 4 kilometres uphill along a dirt road to where we could climb down to a beautiful waterfall. We did some casual birding along the way and saw a house wren, a yellow faced grassquit, some kind of seed eater, a clay coloured robin (Costa Rica's national bird), and a scarlet rumped tanager. We also saw a black squirrel - evidently there are about six different types of squirrel here. Part way along the road we came to a compound containing tourist chalets and of all things it sported a crazy golf course (they called it Mini Golf) so we could not resist taking a piccy to show Bea's boss at Boat of Garten golf club.

At 1015, having climbed about 800 feet, we reached the top of the waterfall in thick cloud and steady rain. Most of us walked down to the bottom of the fall but some did not go down all the way and some quite sensibly stayed at the top. The descent of about 600 feet was very steep on a narrow path among wet, dense trees such that we could not even see the waterfall for most of the way down. It was our first real taste of walking in cloud forest and it would be easy to imagine Tarzan himself swinging through the trees beside us. I don't know how others got on but by half way down my thigh muscles were cramping up so I only lingered for five minutes at the bottom and then came straight back up before I seized up altogether. In fact the ascent was slightly easier and my legs, although a bit stiff for a couple of days, survived. I also suspect the afternoon walk did much to loosen them off before rigor mortis set in. The waterfall itself was very dramatic and quite noisy but the weather was so drab and uncomfortable that only Francis was brave enough to risk a swim beneath it. He reported a strong current and a freezing temperature but lived to tell the tale.

We spent lunchtime down in La Fortuna where people went to banks and post offices before assembling in a restaurant for lunch - Bea had spaghetti carbonara and I had a burgher. I checked my emails in one of the shops.

We drove back to the hotel at 1400 with a view to reassembling at 1500 for a walk to the lava fields. Several of us used the spare time for a swim in the hot pools. I intended to have a drink at the bar in the pool but the guy would not trust me to buy a drink without an official card, whatever that was. Spoil sport. Not to worry - I am certain the hot water did wonders to ease my stiff legs after the waterfall climb and I think some of the others felt the benefit too.

The Arenal Lava Field

At 1530 we set off from the car park at 1900 feet ready to begin the walk over the lava fields. Immediately we spotted a white throated magpie jay. The first part of the walk was through tall grass which the local famers use as canes for their tomato plants and for thatching their roofs. After a while one of our group, without explanation, ran off ahead along the path through the tall grass. As things turned out she simply felt the need for some exercise, but we were not to know this and we assumed she was off to deal with a call of nature in the bushes. Twenty minutes later we had not caught up with her and we began to worry because by now, if she had diverted sideways into the bushes, she was just as likely to be behind us as ahead of us. We began to get quite concerned, and in the end David, Jacquie and I walked all the way back to the start to eliminate that possibility while the rest carried on. They came across the lost sheep further along the path, sent Francis running back to inform us and we eventually caught up with the main party on the lava field. The episode was all rather unnecessary and it wasted time as well as causing a little tension in the group.

The lava field was an innocent looking broad ridge of grey lumpy rock that you could hardly imagine sizzling down the slope and eating everything in its path. That afternoon it was just a wet bedraggled mess. After the lava field, which we crossed at a point just over 2,100 feet above sea level, the path descended through a wet muddy forest where the front runners saw an ant-eater toddling across the path. The rest of us were very jealous. At 1730, with the light nearly gone, we crossed a small river to find Marlon and his bus waiting. We did our best to help each other get across the river without going in too deep but it really hardly mattered - it had been another very wet day and we were all fairly well soaked by then. Even so, the group remained in good humour.

We got back to the hotel soon after 1800 where Berny and Marlon invited us to join them at 1900 to go down to La Fortuna where we would find a restaurant that would feed us and let us watch the big footie match on TV in which Berny and Marlon's team Sapprissa was playing. In the event, only Bea and I turned up - the rest of the group ate at the hotel and very sensibly went to bed.

Down in La Fortuna Bea and I had chicken and rice with chips and salad plus wine and papaya juice. The papaya juice was a bit slow in coming but that was because they had gone out to pick a fresh papaya - amazing. The footie match was very good and "our" team won 2-0, both goals coming from a guy with a Scottish name "Drummond". We got back to the hotel at 2140 so again we were in bed before 2200. This never happens at home - I am often still working at that time.

Typical Cloud Forest

Thurs 15th Jan 04

Up at 0630 to another rainy day. The plan was to travel to Monteverde but there would be a walk somewhere along the way and therefore it was really difficult to know what to pack and what to wear - should we suffer wet gear, or put dry stuff on, or what? Sadly the cloud and rain meant we had no chance of seeing the Arenal volcano that day, and our disappointment was in no way reduced by speaking to a lady who a few days previously had experienced amazing views of the volcano erupting like a firework display.

At 0830 we set off towards Monteverde. To do so we had to drive around Arenal lake which is one of the largest man made lakes in Central America. We had a bit of a walk, during which we saw some southern rough-winged swallows on an overhead wire. The rain continued throughout the walk and soon after resuming our journey we stopped to interact with a male coati-mundi that was wandering along the road. A little further on we came across a group of females with young, so that prompted another halt.

Bea and a Coati Mundi

The journey beside the lake was slow and difficult. Frequent streams ran down narrow re-entrants with bridges, many of which were in bad repair requiring our wonderful driver Marlon to take great care. The bridges and other parts of the road quite often get washed away after heavy rain and we passed two or three gangs of workers repairing recent damage. Some of the road had a tarmac surface but potholes were a regular feature and again Marlon had to stay alert. The water rushing down the streams was brown and muddy after all the rain and we were given to understand that the weather this week was fairly typical so one could deduce that the rate of erosion on the surrounding hills is collossal.

At 1100 we had a break in Arenal itself for a coffee and a rest from the bumpy roads. Half an hour later we resumed our journey and after passing round the head of the lake we crossed the continental divide and emerged dramatically from our world of cloud and rain into sunshine and blue skies. The contrast was quite breathtaking.

The low ground to the west of the mountains has a well defined dry season from Nov for four months when not a drop of rain falls and water is like gold dust. However, our route did not take us down into that cauldron but contoured round the mountain mass to approach Arenal again from its western side. This brought us back into the clouds and rain along dirt roads through poor villages.

Up here is coffee country where the local workers pick beans and put them in buckets weighing forty pounds. They get one dollar for each bucket and they average eight to ten buckets per person per day so the most they can make is ten dollars per day. We met up with some of the workers and they let us taste the beans. While we are on the subject - it is interesting that here where the coffee is grown we were served coffee of only moderate strength and very nice too. This contrasts strongly with the strong bitter coffee that some so-called coffee afficionados serve back home. I will probably be outlawed for saying so but the coffee we drank here tasted not unlike the Nescafe instant coffee that Bea and I like so much.

 

As we approached Santa Elena and Monteverde the roads remained bumpy and unsurfaced. This is partly deliberate on behalf of the local communities, who do not wish mass tourism to swamp them. They only want dedicated wildlife and environmental enthusiasts such as ourselves to visit them - people who appreciate the cloud forests and who are content to endure the discomfort of the journey for the privilege of visiting them. They even sell tee shirts proudly sporting the message "I survived the road to Monteverde".

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant just a hundred yards from our destination, the Montana hotel, and then walked the short distance there to find our rooms. We then had a walk along towards the local cheese factory which was actually shut when we got there but they didn't mind selling us some ice cream. We also called in at the local shop that is run by the womens cooperative. I declared this a contradiction in terms but got ruled out of order by the ladies present. During the walk we acquired the company of a very friendly dog and she was certainly cooperating nicely with the male dogs that she met along the way.

Back at the hotel Celia reported there had been an agouti outside her chalet so as dusk fell Bea and I went to see if we could spot it. No luck. Most of us went off to dinner a mile up the road but one couple stayed behind, too tired to bother. We were quite restrained and just had breast of chicken and rice in a nice sauce, and nothing else.

Some of our group had been on the local guided dusk-walk that evening and had seen all sorts of birds and mammals and creepy crawlies so the rest of us determined to go the following evening. Once more we were ready for bed before ten - just as well because the next day was to be a long and busy one.

Fri 16th Jan 04

Up at 0530 again to get ready for a birding walk in the hotel grounds at 0630. It was cool but dry with blue sky overhead, but any hopes we might of had of seeing the Arenal volcano were dashed again by thick cloud in that direction. We were to get to know that cloud intimately later on. Anyhow, the birds we saw this morning included a rufus collared sparrow, a Baltimore oriolle, a blue and grey tanager, a yellow faced grassquit, a woodpecker known as a yellow bellied sap sucker, a black throated green warbler (we watched it eat a moth), a tropical king bird, a golden olive woodpecker, a flock of parrots, an emerald toucanet, a flock of brown jays and a grackle.

Breakfast was at 0730 and at 0830 we were on the bus heading for the cloud forest above Santa Elena. This reserve is owned by the local people and the money they raise from it is used to buy extra land around Santa Elena as a buffer zone to try and prevent the spread of hotels which might lead to inappropriate mass tourism in this sensitive area. We were quite lucky with the weather because we were told that it is very often cold and wet up here at over 5,000 feet, but the sun shone for us in a hazy fashion and we only entered the clouds on the higher stretches of the jungle path. There was a very noisy group of people at the park entrance at the same time as us so we headed off without delay in a different direction to get away from them.

We walked for two and a half hours in that forest along paths surfaced with waffle-shaped concrete blocks along the stretches near the park entrance and with discs cut from the trunks of fallen trees in the more remote parts of the forest. Even though it was not actually raining, everything was wet and dripping. Every tree was covered in moss and draped with vines and roots of trees that climb up their host tree and some of them kill the host and some don't and those that were dead quickly returned their nutrients back into the system and the net result was a lush, thriving environment full of life and worthy of the title National Park.

Berny warned us we would not see many birds in this forest - those that there were would mostly be high up in the canopy. Towards the end of the walk we emerged onto the crest of a ridge at 5,600 feet where there is an observation tower. Some of us climbed to the top of the tower for a better view over the top of the forest canopy and even though we were in the cloud it was noticeably drier up there because there were no trees above to drip on us. This ridge forms part of the great continental divide and on a clear day one could see the Atlantic ocean to the east and the Pacific to the west. We did see a few birds up there including a collared redstart and a black guan.

At 1150 we got back to the start having just had a lucky break - I dropped our digi camera and as well as denting the casing the seams had begun to spring apart. Fortunately I was able to click them back together and the camera continues to work perfectly. Poor Grant was not so lucky because when he dropped his camera the lens cracked. Speaking of damage - the trip was quite hard on our gear and by the end of it we had wrecked in part or completely a watch, a bum bag, a rucksack, a pair of shoes and an alarm clock.

We just had time to purchase a hot chocolate drink and watch the humming birds at the feeders beside the cafe before heading off a little lower down the mountain for our next walk. This was to be a stroll through the canopy along suspension bridges that had been erected between the ridges that run down through the forest. It was quite an experience. Our guide for this walk was one of the local ladies called Marcella. She explained that much of this forest had been cut down in the past and the rain had then washed all the nutrients out of the ground. To get the system kick started again they had to plant trees that could cope with the impoverished soils. The forest thus created is called secondary cloud forest. In years to come these trees will die and rot into the ground to provide the nutrients required by the main species of trees that will develop into primary cloud forest.

One of the many suspension bridges through the canopy

The first part of the walk was through secondary forest just ten years old, but soon we entered the primary forest. The bridges swayed in an unsettling fashion as we crossed them and the centre of each bridge was high above the gully floor, often with a serious stream flowing along that we could hear but could not see due to the dense canopy below us. We saw a few birds up there in the canopy such as a wood creeper, a nightingale thrush, a common bush tanager, a tufted flycatcher, a slate throated redstart, and an emerald toucanet. We also met up with the only lizard to live in the cloud forest.

At 1500 we were all glad of a rest and some lunch because we had already been walking for six hours today. Bea had a chicken baguette and I had a burgher and we both had a mango drink. We got back to the hotel in time to get ready for our dusk walk, and although we were quite tired we were determined to press on and make the most of our once-in-a-lifetime holiday. There were quite a lot of people on the dusk walk and although they split us into groups, each with its own guide, the groups were really too big for everyone to get the full benefit because whoever was bringing up the rear tended to miss out on what was being found by the front runners. 

A Tarantula Spider 

All the same we found agoutis, a porcupine up a tree (very difficult to pick out among the branches), a large ants nest (the guide said it might be as much as twenty metres deep), two tarantula spiders, a sloth, a tiny frog, a stick insect and several birds asleep in the lower branches of the trees.

Altogether we had walked for eight hours today so we were all exhausted. Most of us ate at a Tex Mex restaurant on the way back to the hotel but a few were too tired even for that and went straight to bed. We were not far behind them and just had spaghetti bollognaise before turning in - again before ten.

Sat 17th Jan 04

Up at 0630, breakfast at 0730 and away at 0830 for the long journey south and west to the Pacific coast then south east along the coast to Manuel Antonio near Quepos. Before leaving the area we visited the Monteverde humming bird garden where we took some pictures. Altogether there are 57 varieties (!) of humming birds in Costa Rica, of which about 15 to 20 live in the Monteverde area.

The road down the mountain side was narrow and very steep with vertical drops to one side and poor Berny, our guide, who declined to come on the walk over the suspension bridges yesterday due to not liking heights, was not happy. There are no barriers between the edge of the road and the precipice and we met large lorries from time to time so it was a bit tense as Marlon squeezed us past. Driving here is seriously scary and because young people learn to drive on these roads and they know no other, they drive as if they were on tarmac. Berny says it's a miracle there are not more accidents. It is no surpise that tyres and suspension systems don't last long out here.

We saw a few birds on the journey but they were not easy to identify what with the dust and the bumping along. Two were birds of prey (one large and one small) and there was a yellow throated euphonia. Some of the trees were quite unusual, particularly one that the locals call the Gringo Noses tree due to its bark going red and peeling in the sun. 

Gringo Noses Trees

They plant these trees a few metres apart along the roadside and around their fields and use them as fence posts to string their barbed wire along. We also got our first look at a spiny tailed lizard, sometimes called the black iguana. Unlike other iguanas it is carnivorous and not very friendly so it is best to keep away.

Eventually our road had a tarmac surface so progress speeded up, and a few miles further on we reached route 1, the Pan American highway that runs all the way from Panama to Alaska. It did not seem all that special for a road with such a grand claim - this section was just a two lane single carriageway with regular pot holes and not much traffic. We stopped briefly near Cebadilla for the loo and a drink before turning off onto route 34 which took us along the coast to the Carara national park where we stopped to look at the crocodiles from a bridge along with quite a lot of other people. There were several crocodiles on view along the bank and in the river, and apparently, since this country no longer has armed forces, the crocodiles are known as Costa Rica's Navy. We drove a little further on to a place where we could take a guided boat ride on the river to get a closer look at the crocs and to see the many local birds. This was to prove a particular treat for Bea and I with our special fondness for ospreys.

The boat ride began at 1300 hours and took us down the river nearly to the sea and then back up into a mangrove creek before returning to the start point two hours later. At first I was unable to use the big lens on my camera because the change in altitude, temperature and everything else had caused it to steam up with condensation inside, but it cleared in time to get a few shots. Among the birds seen were a great kiskadee, a blue heron, a yellow brown night heron, a green back heron, a northern jacana, a whimbrel, a wood rail, a tropical cormorant, two mangrove black hawks (adult and juvenile), some brown pelicans, a yellow warbler, a roseatte spoonbill, a woodstork, lots of vultures, common and western sandpipers, a scarlet macaw, a boat billed heron and, to our great delight, four ospreys. It was nice to see some mangroves because we are told the mangroves of Central America have been cut down to just two per cent of what there used to be. Hopeful the mangroves here will never be cut down because they are in a specially protected area. One of the differences between the mangroves here and those we saw in West Africa is that these do not have oysters attached to their roots.

As we left to continue south we saw a crested carara which is the national bird of Mexico. We arrived at the hotel at Manuel Antonio at 1700 after roughly eight and a half hours of travelling. At the start of the day Berny thought it would be about four and a half hours so in future we would add a generous percentage to any time estimates he was to issue.

Our room was very nice and after settling in we soon headed to the Marlin bar near the beach for happy hour. Due to some confusion over if and what we might buy from grocery shops along the way we went without lunch today so the bacardi went straight to our legs. To be honest, we had eaten so much already in the past week that a twelve hour fast probably did us the world of good.

Sunset at Manuel Antonio on the Pacific Coast

After happy hour we toddled across to the beach for a paddle in the Pacific and to take pictures as the sun went down. We then all had dinner in the Marlin restaurant. I had beans, rice, chicken and salad while Bea had pasta Alfredo. The waiter forgot to bring the garlic bread we had ordered so he gave us some free drinks - very noble of him. The whole lot came to less than 9 for the two of us - very cheap and fairly typical of the prices at the restaurants in other parts of the country.

For once we did not get to bed till after ten and the air conditioning unit in our room was fairly noisy so we turned it off, prefering quiet heat to noisy cool. We slept just fine.

Sun 18th Jan 04

Grant and Adrian found a variagated owl during their early morning walk this morning, and it was being mobbed by humming birds. Breakfast was at 0730 and we met for our morning walk in the Manuel Antonio park at 0830. It was a very hot day so we all applied plenty of sun block. Near the entrance to the park we spotted a king vulture - so called because when other vultures see it coming they give way to it.

This park is a relatively small area of coastal forest that has become isolated, which means the animals that live in it are at risk of becoming inbred. The squirrel monkeys that live here are exclusive to this small forest and unless they can be provided with a way of spreading further afield they may die out altogether. Officials would like to see corridors of forest planted to connect Manuel Antonio with other forests further along the coast and negotiations are under way to try to achieve that. Unfortunately it will not be easy because due to the popularity of the area as a holiday resort there is a lot of building going on around the edge of the park.

In the course of the walk we saw white faced monkeys, bats and a black iguana. We left the main track and negotiated a small path through dense trees and across two slightly awkward stream beds to a waterfall which we reached at 1045. Most of us stripped off into swim gear and braved the cold deluge. 

An awkward stream crossing in the jungle

After half an hour we retraced our steps and made for the beach. We had to be quite careful when passing the spiny palm trees because the spikes on its trunk, which are there to deter birds and animals from climbing it, can cause injury. Two of our group received cuts on the way to the waterfall. Soon after rejoining the main track we came across a three-toed sloth high in a tree, so we paused to take photos.

At the beach we went into tourist mode and swam and sunbathed and took happy snappy photos. The sea was warm and friendly with just a small swell to let you know it was there. I used a little of the time left to get needle and thread out and repair my poor old rucksack.

At 1305 we set off on our afternoon walk which was to do the circuit of a local headland called Cathedral Point. We came across more white faced monkeys with youngsters and also a howler monkey asleep in a tree. Further along there was a coati-mundi and a bird called the ant shrike. It was just as we completed the circuit that I checked the time on my watch only to find it was full of water. It must have received a bash at some time during the trip and cracked the glass and the rain, mist, waterfall and Pacific ocean did the rest.

At 1500 we made it back to the Marlin restaurant feeling quite tired. The day had not been as physical as some but it was so hot the effect was the same. Back at the hotel we had a dip in the pool and I at least achieved my ambition of sitting on a bar stool in a swimming pool with a bacardi and coke on the bar. Francis thought it was iced tea so we let him think that for a while.

At 1700 we went looking for squirrel monkeys and eventually found them when Berny and Marlin came to tell us they were down beside the Marlin bar. Off we all trooped and had great sightings, plus the bonus of a sloth and her baby. We then all crossed the road to the beach to watch the sun sink into the sea and then adjourned to the Marlin for happy hour and to consider what to do about dinner.

Berny, Bea and Marlon at the Marlin Bar

We reassembled at 1930 and set off to find somewhere different to eat. It wasn't easy but eventually we struck lucky at a little place in the back streets called La Mono Loco which might mean the singular nutcase. The name well suited our waiter who was a funny little chap who we nicknamed Manuel, although some thought he was more like Uriah Heap. He did almost everything with one hand behind his back for effect, but managed to serve all of us remarkably quickly anyway - a wonderful little chap. As with everywhere we went, it was standard practise to put lots of tables together in a row so that we could all sit together. In the UK this would be frowned upon in many places but here - no problem. However in this case the tables were round so it was a bit of a challenge to make it work. The meal was excellent and we left the place soon after 2200. However, we were not quite finished with La Mono Loco because Dave had tried to pay with his credit card but it did not appear to work so he paid with cash. After we left, some kind of delayed reaction kicked in and the system accepted the card after all so Manuel came chasing after us to give Dave his money back. It somehow put the finishing touch to a super evening, and underlined the basic honesty we found in our dealings with people here.

2230 - bed time.

Mon 19th Jan 04

This was another travelling day, our destination being Esquinas Lodge in the rainforest at La Gamba near Golfito on the Pacific coast. We left on time at 0830, headed back into Quepos and then onto route 34 which runs south eastwards parrallel to the coast. It joins the Pan American Highway at Palmar Norte which we were to follow as far as the turning to La Gamba.

Soon after leaving Quepos the tarmac road ran out and we went back onto the usual dirt, dust and stones of the country roads. The bridges on this road were as bad as any we had seen and in one case you could see down through the holes in the surface to the river below. These conditions persisted for over an hour before we reached tarmac again and Berny told us that the dust created by traffic along this stretch causes respiratory problems for local inhabitants. The road runs across a flat area between the coast and the hills which is suitable for farming. In the past bananas were grown here but the banana companies failed to make a decent profit and moved away. This gave the local people huge problems for a time but now the land produces palm oil for use in cooking so once more at least some of the people have jobs.

We stopped at a cafe at Coronado for coffee and ice creams. The cafe overlooked a stretch of mangrove forest along the coast opposite a large island, all of which is now protected. It was very very hot and sunny there and it was hard to take seriously Barbara's assertion that we should make the most of it because we would soon be back in the rain forest.

Shortly after we joined the Pan American highway at Palmar Norte Berny told us something about the De Osa peninsula that lay immediately south west of us. It is one of the most remote areas in the country and contains some of the rare cats such as jaguars and cougars. The only realistic way to penetrate the area is on foot so it is strictly for the serious adventurer.

The piece of rain forest that we were heading for is a project run by the Austrian government as part of the agreement they signed in Rio to assist in world biodiversity. (Come on UK government - what are you doing?) The Austrians were prompted to choose this place by a member of their National Symphony Orchestra who came here on holiday and was horrified at the damage that was being done by loggers to the rainforest. The project began by buying up the land around the edges of the forest and then denying the loggers access to the centre, which then became available for purchase. Quite brilliant. The process is a continueing one and during our visit we were shown an area of fields beside the forest that have recently been added to the project.

The local villagers benefit in various ways. Some of them are employed in the tourist trade and some of the profits made from tourism go towards providing facilities in the village and support for the school.

Our Chalet at Esquinas Lodge

We arrived at this wonderful place at 1300 in time for lunch before going to check out our rooms. Esquinas Lodge comprises a central building that houses the restaurant, bar and lounge, surrounded by chalets that are well spaced out among the trees. There is a swimming pool, and between the pool and the restaurant lies a pond containing a large caiman - which struck us as slightly dodgy because it could easily choose to share a swim or a meal with the residents, but the locals were not in the least concerned. A little further up the road is a turtle pool and a bike shed that also houses the stock of wellies - all of this in dense rainforest that sweeps down to the buildings on all sides.

After settling in to our chalets some of us set off in ones and twos to explore some of the local walks. We were advised to wear wellies but the choice was not great and I made the mistake of wearing a pair that were too small. To get them on I did not wear socks, the result of which was skinned ankles requiring plasters and padding for the next several days. Ho hum.

Lost !!!!!

Navigating the paths was not easy because in places they went along the bed of streams and it was not always obvious which gap in the trees was the way to the next bit of the path. Others found the same problem and Mike, and perhaps others, also found themselves tangled up with a waterfall and slippery rocks during their walk. We nevertheless all survived to share our stories around the pool later.

The rain began as we left the pool. Not much at first, just a shower to ease us into what was to come later.

Back at the chalet we found some fruit-eating bats asleep hanging from the ceiling of our veranda while on the floor beneath them some ants were tidying up the mess. Nothing gets wasted here. The bats left as darkness fell and we saw them on and off hunting the flies that were attracted to the veranda lights.

Dinner was soup, shepherds pie and a delicious but unidentified dessert. Half of the group then got ready in wellies and waterproofs for our night walk with the two guides Jose and Sabina.

The rain began again as we set out and it became heavier and heavier and heavier but we pressed on for a time looking with torches to see what we could find. We found some small poisonous snakes, various frogs, spiders (including a large water spider), millipedes, a crab, a fresh-water lobster that looked like a transparent jumbo shrimp and a few birds asleep in the branches. Did I mention it was raining ? At one point Jose cut huge leaves for us to use as umbrellas which worked for a few seconds till the water funelled straight down the sleeve of the hand that was holding up the leaf so we were now even wetter than before. The locals don't have this trouble and they do this all the time so there must be a trick to it that we could not fathom in the dark. Eventually we took refuge under a thatched shelter and Sabina asked us if we would like to go back or if we would like to continue. We elected to continue but Jose said "Vamoose" and we soon found ourselves back at the chalets so Jose must have misheard us, to put it generously.

Back in the chalet we strung up a washing line and filled it with wet gear, although the prospect of anything getting dry, or even drier, did not seem great, even with the ceiling fan on. There was also a line along the outside of the chalet wall but that would be even less likely to dry stuff with torrential rain falling a few feet from it, but by this time we were tired, damp and past caring and all we wanted was our beds.

We turned in at 2130 but were kept awake much of the night by the noise of the rain lashing our chalet.

Tues 20th Jan 04

Got up at 0600 to the pleasant surprise that some of our clothing had actually dried on our impromptu line. Outside, I was fooled once again into believing it was still raining whereas in fact it had stopped but the continual dripping under the trees gave the impression of rain. Grant was already out birdwatching and our bats had returned to roost under our veranda roof, albeit in a slightly different spot.

After breakfast we assembled at 0800 for our morning walk on the Ocelot Trail which was expected to take about two hours. The walk was steep and slippery and, although most of us tackled it, one or two declined due to dodgy knees or not feeling one hundred per cent that day. The drips continued to rain down on us and it was hot and steamy in the jungle as we climbed the narrow zig zag path up the side of a high ridge. We saw very little in the way of birds but there were centipedes, spiders, frogs and lizards to keep us amused. There were a number of holes in the muddy banks beside the path that might belong to armadillos, agoutis or any of several other burrowing creatures.

Once we reached the crest of the ridge and started down it things became very muddy and slippery indeed and we could hardly keep our feet. In some places branches and long grass had been cut down to provide a better grip but mostly we just had to be careful and take our time. One bonus of the mud was it showed the footprints of passing animals, and in among the prints of horseshoes and wellie boots there was the most perfect print of a medium sized cat. Berny thought it was probably a margay but we prefered to imagine it might have been an ocelot (we were after all on the Ocelot Trail) or even a young jaguar. Dream on !!

A jaguar print ?

On the way back we passed the turtle pond and Bea enquired of a local gardener about the turtles. He did not speak Scottish but got the general idea anyway and came over to splash the pond with a long palm leaf. A caiman obligingly came to see what the noise was all about, followed shortly by a turtle. There were also a number of good sized fish in the pond, and that was typical of everywhere we went in this fertile country. Generally speaking if there was water there were fish that you could actually see.

Back at base we ran our wellies under taps in the gardens to try and remove the worst of the mud but when we returned them to their shed we found a tap and brush right there for the very purpose. Pity nobody told us.

We then grabbed a coke and drank it by the pool and then decided to have a swim. We were very wet and sweaty from our walk so we complied with the request for people to shower before entering the pool. The pool is feed by jungle streams and has no chemicals in it - they just empty it and fill it up again every three, four or five days depending how many people have been using it. The pool is very cold but totally refreshing after struggling through the jungle for hours.

The caiman between the pool and the restaurant

Back in the chalet we sorted out some of our gear and decided which items of damp clothing we could bear to put on again rather than wet more of our few remaining dry items. We headed for lunch at 11.30 and tiptoed careful past the caiman who was lying across the very narrow strip of grass that separates his pool from the open restaurant door. Lunch was very nice soup made of lentils and beans followed by a complex main course of egg, cauliflower, meat, sauce, and sweet potatoe. Uncooked coconut macaroons and coffee completed things.

At 1330 we set off on foot for the village, passing out of the jungle through fields with horses in and then past a large area of rice fields which will soon cease to be rice fields and become forest instead. After about an hour Marlon picked us up in the bus to complete the journey more quickly because the children were waiting for us at the school. I think most of us we were quite relieved because it was getting very hot indeed.

At the school we were shown around by the staff and then the children sang their national anthem for us. We responded by singing "The Wheels On The Bus" and "If You're Happy And You Know It".

Children at La Gamba School

The school was actually on holiday but some fo the staff and children had come in specially to talk to us. The government provides a basic education for the younger children but the village has provide some of the facilities. Also, in this case the Austrian foundation that runs Esquinas lodge provides additional funding for the school. We brought with us presents for the school purchased by Exodus out of the money we paid them for our holiday. The parcels contained paper, rulers, a stapler, folders and other basic materials. The villagers try to help themselves by making things to sell, and we were each taken by the hand by one of the children and led along the road to a shop where the ladies were selling naturally made shampoo. On if the ladies explained how it was made and which herbs (such as natural Aloa Vera) from the forest went into the shampoos. We took lots of piccies of the children and then went further along the road where a young man was selling carvings and paintings he had made. Between us we bought a number of items to take home.

Next we were taken by the hand again and steered to the local cafe where the proprietoress had prepared drinks for us made of rice and cinnamon, and pastries, some of which contained cold meats and others fruit or jam. We then chipped in and bought the children frozen sweeties.

We got back to the lodge around 1600 and sat in rocking chairs on the veranda reading our books and watching the rain come down just like a couple of old fuddie duddies. After a while we went to find ourselves some coffee and spent some time with the rest of the group in the restaurant till someone spotted a coati mundi feeding on the bunch of plantains that was hanging in the tree outside our chalet. On returning to the chalet we watched our bats wake up and set off about their business.

At dinner we were entertained by a couple of singer/guitarists who sang local songs for an hour or so. They were not to everyone's liking but we were very polite and after a decent length of time passed the hat round for them so that we could reasonably move away.

At 2045 we returned to the room and packed as far as our damp gear would allow. We have been advised that tomorrow's journey will take us to a place that is cold and wet, so we should have rain gear handy. Nothing new there then.

Weds 21st Jan 04

Up at 0600 after a restless night for reasons unknown. At breakfast we had a whip round to provide a new blackboard for the school that we visited yesterday.

This might be a good point at which to contrast attitudes that we came across in Africa in previous years with attitudes here. Everything seems so much more honest in Costa Rica than in Africa and therefore it feels worthwhile making a contribution here because the money or the equipment you donate is likely to end up where it was intended whereas in Africa you can never be sure. Another example we came across was a Costa Rican oil pipeline that runs for hundreds of kilometres across the surface of the ground and nobody interferes with it. Apparently one man once did drill into it to steal some oil but the pressure in the pipe killed him so no one else has tried. We are quite sure that if this had been Africa the people would have kept trying until they found a way to steal the oil. Or the pipe.

Just as we were leaving today Berny informed us we might need our passports so there was a ten minute hold up while we unloaded the bus to get into our bags again.

We left under blue skies but already you could see the patches of mist rising up through the trees and you just knew they would form bigger and bigger clouds as the day wore on and there would be a downpour later. Before leaving La Gamba we called in at Jose's house where he keeps agouti pacas as a sort of emergency supply of fresh meat for himself and the neighbours. If someone needs an agouti paca they are not allowed to hunt for one so they can get one from Jose. I don't quite understand how that works because as far as we could tell he only had a handful, but there you are.

Agouti Paca

Berny was quite right about the passports and we had only just joined the Pan American highway when we were stopped at a check point for what amounted to border formalities. We were only a short distance from the Panama border so there are all sorts of worries about drugs and illegal immigrants. Apparently two years ago someone escaped from a jail in Panama and sneeked across the border into Costa Rica. He got it wrong though, and fell asleep beside a river where he was killed by the Costa Rica Navy (a crocodile).

We made good progress in the morning despite Marlon having to frequently slow down or swerve to avoid the potholes. We passed one of the universities, of which there are several.around the country - some are government run but most are private. It is difficult for the children from rural areas to make it to the universities, but even so there is a relatively high literacy rate in Costa Rica - about 92 per cent - and this compares very well with other Latin American countries.

Mid morning we entered the valley of the Rio Grande de Terraba, which is the longest river in Costa Rica. The government are planning to build a huge dam on this river, probably the biggest ever in Latin America, the idea being to sell hydro electric power to other countries to help ease the huge national debt. Unfortunately this will dispossess some of the local inhabitants. There are twenty two indian reservation in this area belonging to 8 different indian tribes. The tribes all have their own diallects but they all also speak Spanish. When the Spanish invaders first conquered the country the indians in this area survived because the Spaniards could not reach them in these diffcult hills. Sadly the rising waters may achieve what the Spaniards could not. The countryside in this valley is spectacular and it is no wonder the indians were secure here. There are steep sided hills as far as the eye can see, covered in jungle so dense you could easily hide an army.

Which raises a point about everything being relative. Parts of Costa Rica are being rescued from the loggers and are the subject of reforestation plans. It is wonderful to know this, but being from Scotland where "the hills are bare now" it seems slightly ludicrous that anyone could think this richly forested country is in dire need of reforestation. I'm glad someone in authority does though - because that way it stands a chance of at least keeping what it's got.

On leaving the Terraba valley we entered a vast plain where, near Buenos Aires, we were in the heartland of the pineapple growing industry. Del Monte has their base here and we could see across mile after mile of fields of pineapples. A little further on the road began to climb towards the high hills of the Cerode La Muerte (mountains of death) so called because in years gone by, before proper roads and mechanised transport, the farmers here used to try and take their produce over these mountains to market on hand carts and ox carts but many of them simply froze to death in the attempt.

Near San Isidro we all saw an ant eater at last. Sadly it was a dead one on the road and was being eaten by vultures. At this point we had moved away from pineapple town and entered a region where coffee and sugar cane are the main crops, and we had already encountered a couple of lorries loaded down with cane. In San Isidro town we saw lots of car dealers. Evidently they import second hand vehicles from the USA and resell them here. Many of the men from this area have gone to live in the USA so Berny told us this is a good place to find a new girlfriend.

On the outskirts of San Isidro the road climbs past a tall cliff with a large statue on top of it just like the one in Brazil. The figure of Jesus is said to stand guard over the valley. From here the road climbed steadily between steep hills covered in trees. Trees and hills. Hills and trees. What a fabulous country. Once again we were passing through an area where no one has been permitted to live for more than thirty years, thus giving the trees and the wildlife a real chance to prosper on their own terms.

At this point Marlon had to turn off the air conditioning in the bus to divert more power to the engine, otherwise we would have to get out and push. We stopped for lunch at La Georgina restaurant at more than 10,100 feet above sea level, where lunch was rice and potato hash and coffee, followed by a session photographing the local humming birds. Once again the views were breathtaking - yet more vistas of forested hills with no human habitation for miles.

We continued our journey at 1330 with Bernie forecasting that we would be at our destination, Savegre, in less than an hour. Nobody believed him but in fact he was right this time. After fifteen minutes we left the main highway and turned south onto a dirt road that angled steeply downhill through the forest. That road is amazing. It falls more than three thousand feet in just a few miles in a succession of tight bends between sheer drops, making slow progress down a steep wooded valley which in places you might describe as a gorge. One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for the first settlers to penetrate this area, and what a major undertaking it was to constructed the road into it. Most of us were too absorbed by the landscape to particularly look out for wildlife during the descent, but the ever watchful birders among us were hopeful that the famous and elusive quetzel might show up. It did not, but a sooty robin was seen.

We arrived at Savegre Lodge at 1425 and after dumping our luggage in our chalets we set off at 1500 for a local walk. The quetzel was top of almost everybody's wish list but Bea and I would have settled for a jaguar. Fat chance. We were accompanied by a crazy dog who felt the need to dash backwards and forwards along the narrow path, bashing people on the legs as he passed and very nearly causing an accident on more than one occasion. One of the few drawbacks of this country is the way that most dogs are not kept under proper control so if you get a stupid or badly behaved one it can be a real problem.

The forest we were in was mostly Costa Rican oaks with a few other species interspersed between them plus the usual crop of vines and undergrowth. This made it slightly different in character from other forests we had walked in.

Endless vistas of forested hills

Savegre Lodge lies at 7,200 feet above sea level. It is a cold place, often in the cloud and usually wet. Several types of fruit are grown in the steep fields here - peaches for example. The owners began here as squatters. They fenced off a section of land and called it their own - thank you very much - and now they employ many of the locals at their lodges and in the fields. Fishing in the river is popular and they imported some trout from America to add variety. Unfortunately the trout ate all the local fish and now trout is all there is.

We dined in the lodge's restaurant, then sat in the bar near a roaring fire and watched Berny and Marlon's football team win their match on TV for the second time this trip. Also for the second time "Drummond" was the hero by scoring the only goal of the match.

Most of the chalets were equipped with a heater but we were not to know this at first as our chalet did not have one. When we discovered the truth we lost no time in asking for one and matters improved. Nevertheless we kept our socks on in bed - it really was quite a chilly night.

Unfortunately the hit-and-miss heating arrangement was not the only failing at this lodge. Our room was shabby, the electrical socket on the wall was loose and there were bare wires showing in the flex to the bedside lights. We also thought the food here was by far the worst of the holiday, and as this was our last venue it meant the trip was ending on a downbeat. Pity.

Thurs 22nd Jan 04

Up at 0630, breakfast at 0700 and another search for the quetzel at 0730. I had a dodgy tummy so passed on the walk this time but everyone else went. I did a quetzel hunt of my own close to the chalet but unfortunately the bird declined to show itself to anybody that morning. The quetzel is the national bird of Guatamala and their currency is named after it, but the Guatamala indians hunt the bird to get its tail feathers which are used to make headresses for ceremonial occasions to the extent that it has died out in that country. Costa Rica still has some and attempts are being made at Savegre to improve breeding numbers by providing nest boxes similar to our goldeneye duck boxes in Scotland, but we gather there has only been limited success.

Despite the cold and the absence of quetzels it was a beautiful morning with blue skies and gorgeous scenery and if the accomodation had not been so crummy we would have been more reluctant to leave than we were. We drove off at 0950 for the drive back up the valley to the main highway. Again we were staggered by the steepness of the road, which although it was mostly just dirt, they had managed to tarmac some of the steeper bits otherwise the wheel spin on the dirt would have wrecked the road in no time as well as reducing the chances of climbing the slope at all. Marlon took it all in his stride and the bus made its way slowly but steadily up the hill, helped by having the air conditioning turned off again, although at this height nobody cared because it was still quite cold anyway. Most of the hairpin bends were blind so Marlon kept his hand on the horn to let anyone coming down know we were coming up. Common sense would suggest that vehicles going uphill should have priority although as luck would have it the first two vehicles we met were in places where it was easy to pass anyway. However the next one was not and the driver got a right mouthful from our Marlon for hogging more than his share of the narrow road.

I tried to take photos of the road and its surroundings, but, not for the first time, the camera was incapable of capturing the scale of what we were witnessing. I'll probably bore people to death with the pictures anyway !

It took thirty five minutes to climb to the main highway, where we turned north west. Near a place called Trinidad we met up with some of the staff of Camino Travel, who are Exodus' agents in Costa Rica, for a walk down towards Copey village where we would meet a local farming family and then continue to Toucanet Lodge for lunch. We had not been forewarned of this walk so not everyone had suitable footwear on for quite a lengthy downhill hike on the loose stony sloping road. The people in sandals really struggled in some places.

As we dropped down the side of the valley we came to a less steep area where cattle farming was possible. We were struck that the herds were not very large in size, just big enough to be manageable for the local families that have to farm without lots of mechanisation.

After a couple of hours we stopped at a lady's farm house just short of the village of Copey. She very kindly supplied us with fruit drinks and coffee and buns that she made herself. We were then given a demonstration of milking the cows which they do by tying the cows back feet and tail together with a length of rope and then milk them by hand into a bucket. The milk is made into cheese and the cheese is sold locally and to the restaurants on the main highway. 

Milking cows the Costa Rican way.   Note the rope.

They also grow huge amounts of blackberries which they take to market and sell. Some of the fruit is exported to the USA.

Celia was taken by our hostess on a tour of the flower garden and the fact that neither lady appeared to speak the other's language in no way prevented them chatting merrily together. Bea and Jackie meanwhile tried to make friends with a small fluffy dog that had been helping to herd the cows but the dog was too worried about all these strangers at its house to let itself be petted.

We then had a group photo session and continued our walk, getting hotter and hotter in the blazing sun, when Grant pointed out an acorn woodpecker catching insects just like a flycatcher. At length Marlon collected us in the bus to finish the journey to Toucanet Lodge at Copey. A large lunch of fish and salad was waiting for us, which was not all that clever because we had eaten at the farmhouse less than an hour previously. I declined to eat at all in deference to the dodgy tummy and instead wandered off by myself to take photos - although I have to say that the Imodium tablets were already working their magic and by evening I was pretty much fully recovered.

After lunch we presented Berny and Marlon with cards of thanks and a financial token of our appreciation in making our holiday the great success it was.

We left Copey at 1445 and headed along yet another hair-raising road to climb out of the valley onto the Pan American Highway once more. Two hours later we were driving into San Jose, heading for the hotel where the adventure began twelve days previously.

In the evening we all went out to a restaurant within walking distance of the hotel for a farewell dinner. It was quite cool but a glance at the GPS told us San Jose is at nearly 4,000 feet above sea level so cool was hardly surprising. We did not stay out late because some of us had a very early start next morning and all of us had a long journey. We said our goodbyes to those not on the dawn pick up bus next morning and went to bed.

Fri 23rd Jan 04

Up at 0400, down for cereal and coffee at 0500 and ready to leave at 0530. We got to the airport at 0600, two hours before our flight, and swept through immigration, customs and the check-in quite quickly.

The journey home could hardly have gone better. All three flights took off on time, all arrived half an hour earlier than scheduled, we had a row of three seats to ourselves on all three flights and Houston was nothing like the nightmare it had been on the outward journey due to there being so few people travelling at that time. The published schedule was:

Depart San Jose 0812 arrive Houston 1202, depart Houston 1600 arrive Gatwick 0655 (six hour time difference), depart Gatwick 1700 arrive Inverness 1855.

At the Gatwick baggage carousel we bumped into Mike, Sandra, Adrian, Celia, Ken and Barbara whose flight from Newark USA had arrived almost at the same time as ours from Houston. We propose to keep in touch, at least long enough to exchange photos, and to that end Mike had already compiled a list of everyone's emails which he would circulate in due course.

We did a bit of retail therapy at Gatwick, including buying a new watch to replace the one I busted, had some food and wanderd through to the departure lounge nice and early. We phoned Kevin (who was to collect us at Inverness) to let him know we were safely in the UK and settled down to read our books till the flight was called.

Kevin collected us 1900 and we were home by 2000. End of expedition.

Conclusion - the holiday of a life time (so far!).