Costa Rica
February 17-26, 2001

1 - San Jose
2 - Pacuare River
3 - Turrialba
4 - Tortuguero
5 - Tiskita

Getting ready

We picked out the things we wanted to do after reading Frommer's Costa Rica guide and discussing activities with several friends who had been there. We had Costa Rica Connections, a company based in California, make all the arrangements for us. We would highly recommend both Costa Rica Connections and also Costa Rica Sun Tours, which provided transportation within Costa Rica.

Then, cautious folks that we are, we visited the international health department at Beaumont Hospital to get vaccinations for tetanus, typhoid, Hepatitis A, and Hepatitis B. We also got prescriptions for malaria prevention medication and an antibiotic for travelers diarrhea. We now think that most of these were unnecessary. We ended up drinking the water and eating pretty much everything we were served without having any problems. But we felt better being prepared for problems.

Saturday, February 17

We left mid-afternoon to fly Continental from Detroit to San Jose, Costa Rica, via Houston. Someone from Costa Rica Sun Tours met us at the airport and took us to our hotel, the Hotel Buena Vista in Alajuela just outside San Jose. We arrived late that evening and had to be ready for a 5:30 am departure the next morning. We had been warned that things started early in Costa Rica, but we had no idea just how early! It turns out that the sun rises at 5:30 am and sets about 6:00 pm at this time of year, so most of our days started about 5:30 or 6:00 am and we often were asleep by 9:00 pm.

Sunday, February 18

Sun Tours picked us up at 5:30 am and drove us to the Hampton Inn, where we met José, one of our guides for the next two days. We drove through the Braulio Carrillo National Park, a cloud forest which happened to be cloudless that day. The vegetation was lush and the views lovely. We passed over the Rio Sucio ("Dirty River"), which is quite yellow from the sulpher it carries; it was interesting to see it merge with a clear stream and gradually mix the very different colored waters into a single river.

We didn't see a lot of wildlife in the park, but after leaving the park we saw several 3-toed sloths. They truly do just hang upside down nearly all the time, coming down to the ground about once a week to relieve themselves. When they move, it is extremely slowly. As they age, their hair becomes covered with algae, making them even more difficult to see in the trees. We also saw a lot of coffee fields along amazingly steep hillsides. The farmers often plant a lovely tree with orange flowers (with a name like "poirrot") to provide shade to the coffee plants.

We had breakfast at the home base for Rios Tropicales, our rafting company. This was our introduction to "gallo pinto" (literally "spotted rooster"), the rice and beans dish which the Costa Ricans have with nearly every meal. We were surprised to discover that it is delicious, and we looked forward to having it frequently.

About noon we left for the put-in point for our white water rafting on the Pacuare River. This gave us our introduction to the famous "bad roads" of Costa Rica - a deeply rutted dirt road down to the river. At our put-in point, we met Christian (our rafting guide for our two day trip) and Alex (who carried all the luggage in heavy-duty rubber bags in a separate raft - we were told the luggage raft "rarely" tips over).

At this point, we got a lesson in rafting. We could quickly handle the orders "forward" and "back", but it took us a while to get used to the idea that the order "right back" mean the folks on the left side of the raft had to paddle forward. We were pretty proud the second day that we remembered that "high side right" meant everyone should quickly throw themselves to the right side of the raft; getting that order right kept our raft from tipping over the one time that looked likely. Our favorite order was "high five", when we brought the blades of our paddles together over the raft after successfully navigating a tricky stretch of the river. We were also quite pleased that none of us fell out of the raft, but we attribute it more to the fact that we were not in the front of the raft than to any inherent rafting skill on our part. The two folks in the front of the raft had a rougher ride than we did in the back and they did each fall out once. But Christian just reached over and pulled them back in, so our adrenaline got a workout but no harm was done. (We have no idea how much more difficult the river might become after a heavy rain).

The water was very warm - quite different from Colorado rivers - so splashing as we went through the rapids felt mighty good. The Pacuare is a really beautiful river, with lush vegetation along the entire 18 mile stretch we rafted during our 2-day trip. It is a Class III-IV river, with lots of Class III rapids the first day to get us ready for the Class IV rapids on Monday.

José traveled with us in a kayak, ostensibly to precede us through the rapids to determine the best path for us to follow. But we quickly concluded that he was there as much for entertainment as for assistance. He spent the entire trip clowning round in the kayak, rolling it over, coming back into the rapids once he was through them, and obviously having a wonderful time. He enjoyed it so much that he also spent hours playing in the rapids near our overnight camp.

We spent the night in a "camp" of thatched-roof cabins along the river. They were much more civilized than we had expected: comfortable beds in each room with flush toilets and cold-water showers in nearby buildings. The central building where we ate all our meals had a thatched roof and was open on all 4 sides. We ate overlooking the river and spent hours reading in hammocks which also overlooked the river. We saw a lot of birds and several blue morpho butterflies; the latter hardly look real they are so large and are such an amazing blue color.

We were astonished (most pleasantly so) to discover that bugs were not a problem. We had prepared for the worst - taking malaria prevention pills, soaking our clothes in Permethrin, and bringing along 7 bottles of repellent! But seldom did we see a single mosquito!! They may be a problem during the rainy season, but we certainly had no problems.

This first day of rafting we discovered another thing which we found to be true throughout Costa Rica. All of our guides were marvelous. They were very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna we were seeing, their English was quite good, and they were all personable men who enjoyed their jobs and shared their enthusiasm with us.. In the case of the rafting guides, they were also very strong (useful for pulling lost rafters back into the raft) and they were great cooks (preparing all our meals at the camp). We learned that being a tourist guide is controlled by the government because tourism is such an important source of income for Costa Rica, and guides make as much as school teachers.

All night long the only sounds we heard were the nearby river rapids and the animals in the jungle around us. It was truly wonderful - the phrase "tropical paradise" kept going through my mind.

Monday, February 19

Back on the Pacuare River, with both Class III and Class IV rapids. We've heard it said that this is some of the best white water rafting in the world, and we can readily believe it. Again the scenery was wonderful, with one stretch though a beautiful gorge being particularly memorable. Along the way we saw many birds (turkey vultures and black vultures - which are beautiful to watch as they soar gracefully through the sky over the river, cormorants, herons, flycatchers, oropendula) and more of the lovely blue morpho butterflies.

After a bus picked us up at the take-out point, we returned to the Rios Tropicales home base for lunch and dry clothes. Then a taxi took us to our hotel for the night - the Casa Turire outside Turrialba. Casa Turire is a small hotel (16 rooms) which looks like a lovely old plantation home. Our room had a balcony overlooking the nearby lake. This was one of two places we had "gourmet" dinners during our trip - things like cold beet salad with mint lemon dressing, yuca croquettes, and papaya mousse.

Tuesday, February 20

Another early start, this time to drive to Matina near the Carribean coast. Leaving Turrialba we saw fields of sugar cane, then later more coffee fields and also fields of bananas. One of the biggest surprises was to see the kind of cattle we associate with India in the fields.

We drove to Matina to catch a boat through the 30 mile long inland waterway to Tortuguero National Park. More lush rain forest vegetation and wildlife all along the way. We saw some river turtles and many more birds: snowy egrets, great egrets, black max stilts, roseate spoonbills, kingfishers (some of which look like the kingfishers we have in Michigan and others which were quite different in coloration), king vultures, black vultures, great blue heron, and little blue heron. Our guide at Tortuguero was Atilio, another delightful and enthusiastic person.

We stayed at the Mawamba Lodge, which is between the inland waterway and the Carribean, so we could enjoy the black sand beach and wading in the Carribean as well as swimming in their lovely pool. That afternoon we took a short boat ride to the village of Tortuguero (not very interesting in our opinion) and walked back to Mawamba Lodge. The reason we took this trip was to stop at the Carribean Conservation facility to see the video and exhibits on the green turtle, which nests along the Carribean beach later in the year. Then we walked back along the black beach and watched the lovely sunset before dinner. When we got hungry, we could pick bananas off the trees for a quick snack.

Wednesday, February 21

A busy and highly structured day. We took two boat rides through the jungle canals of Tortuguero and also did one hike in the park. The wildlife was again wonderful, seeing many of the same birds we had seen coming to the park as well as many new things. Among the new birds we saw were tiger heron (both the immature birds and the adults, which look quite different), green backed heron, grebes, cuckoos, guans, broad tailed hawks, and toucans. One thrill was seeing 10 great green macaws flying (we couldn't see the color, but were thrilled anyway because they are extremely endangered - one guide told us there are only 50 left in the Tortuguero area). The only fish we saw was a gar. We were lucky enough to see all three kinds of monkeys which live in the area: howlers, spider monkeys, and white-faced capuchins. The capuchins used trees and vines to cross the river right above our boat.We also saw several reptiles which were interesting: iguanas, both the male and female Jesus Christ lizards (named that because they can "walk on water" for short distances), a caiman, and a bright yellow eyelash viper (extremely poisonous, so we were glad it was on shore and we were in the boat). We were very impressed with the ability of Atilio and our boat drivers to see well-camaflaged critters along the shore and also to hear things like the macaws so that we were watching for them when they flew out of the jungle. They gave us rubber boots for the rain forest hike, and that was good because the mud was sometimes up to our ankles. We enjoyed talking with other tourists including a Swiss couple who spoke many languages fluently.

Thursday, February 22

An early morning flight to San Jose on a 20-passenger plane. It was interesting to see the Tortuguero canals from the air and then to fly over the Braulio Carrillo National Park and over the mountains into San Jose, which is in the central highlands region of Costa Rica. There we transferred to a 6-person single engine plane, with Alan in the co-pilot's seat, for a flight over the mountains west of San Jose and then over Manuel Antonio National Park to Quepos on the Pacific coast. At Quepos we made a quick stop to pick up two more passengers, then flew along the Pacific coast to land on a private grassy airstrip cut out of the rain forest at Tiskita Jungle Lodge. The flight along the coast was lovely. Since we were flying quite low (about 1700' as I recall), we had a wonderful view of the forested steep hills, black sand beaches, and deep blue Pacific all along the coast.

When we arrived at Tiskita, we were a bit dismayed to find it quite hot and humid - the first time we had been uncomfortably hot since arriving in Costa Rica. But after a walk up a steep hill, we found juice and a breeze awaiting us at the top. We quickly changed into our suits and went back down the hill to play in the surf of the Pacific and watch the brown pelicans glide over the waves in search of fish. We spent the early part of the afternoon sitting at the top of the hill overlooking the ocean, admiring the view as well as the flowers and trees and birds.

Tiskita is a 400-acre privately-owned experimental orchard and rain forest. About 3:00, as the temperature was beginning to drop, Peter (the owner of the lodge) offerred to give a tour of his orchards. When I heard about the "orchards", I pictured neatly laid out rows of various fruit trees. Was I ever wrong! The entire place is steep hills and the orchards don't look all that different from the rest of the jungle. One of Peter's goals is to keep the fruit trees low to the ground so the fruit can be picked by hand without traditional harvesting equipment which wouldn't work on the steep hills. The tour was fascinating. Peter has collected fruit trees from all over Central and South America and other parts of the world, some to try to produce for a profit and others just because he was so fascinated by them. He is very enthusiastic about the fruit and frequently climbed up a tree to pick fruit for all of us to sample. Most of them were fruits we had never heard of, and the ones we knew were so much better than the versions we can buy in Michigan that we were astonished. For instance, star fruit is actually very juicy and delicious! At home I used to put it in fruit salad just because the shape was interesting but I never use it any longer bacause it has no flavor. We spent nearly 3 hours walking through the orchards and adjacent rain forest. Besides the fruit trees, along the walk we saw a number of birds and also an agouti (a short-tailed short-eared rabbit-like animal which is quite similar to the South American capybara). Near the end of the walk we heard a loud, high-pitched whistling sound. Peter said it was made by cicadas.

Our room was again more civilized that we expected. We had three comfortable twin beds in the room, with most of the upper half of each wall being a screened window. We also had a private bath - that is, we didn't have to share it with another room, but it was open to the air on the back side. It's wonderful showering while looking at the marvelous folliage of the nearby plants.

Friday, February 23

After breakfast we took a 3-hour hike with our guide Luis through the rainforest. It was quite humid so we were literally dripping wet before we were done, but the hike was such fun that no one complained. Not a lot of wildlife on this hike, but the vegetation was interesting and the steep trails a challenge. One of the interesting plants we saw was a "walking palm", a palm which has no central tap root. Instead, it puts out roots in all directions from about 3 feet up the trunk. As some roots sense more light, they grow in that direction and the roots which are getting less light atrophy. Over time, the tree actually "walks" towards the light - about 6" per year. We also saw many termite nests; we were surprised to find that they are located up in trees rather than on the ground, but we quickly realized that they would fill with water during the rainy season if they were on the ground. Some of the trees we saw had large "buttress" roots, large triangular outgrowths at the base of the tree which look much like the flying buttresses on medieval cathedrals; these buttresses help support the trees in the shallow and wet soil of the rain forest.

Our guide Luis pointed out that the rain forest tends to have a wide variety of trees in a limited area, unlike northern hardwood forests which tend to be composed predominantly one or two species of trees. The rain forest trees must compete for light and so the seeds of a tall tree don't have much chance to germinate in the shade of an existing tall tree. The toucans eat the fruit around such seeds and then regurgitate the seeds, so they are critical to dispursing the seeds to other parts of the forest.

We saw a lot of holes in the ground as we were hiking. Some of these were snake holes, but most were holes for land crabs. We have heard tales from others who had been to Tiskita of the large and colorful crabs migrating right through their cabins down to the ocean to lay their eggs, but we were unfortunate enough to miss that sight.

In the afternoon Rich and Alan did some more hiking, including a visit (up yet another steep hill) to see the 8 scarlet macaws which are being prepared for release back into the wild. Scarlet macaws are prevelant on the Osa Penninsula across the bay from Tiskita but aren't present at Tiskita. The owner of the lodge is involved in several wildlife conservation efforts, including the reintroduction of scarlet macaws into the area. There were two college students at the lodge who were working with the birds to get them accustomed to the local food supplies before releasing them. Rich and Alan also hiked to a waterfall and several jungle pools to look for poison dart frogs.

Later that evening Alan swam in the pool and we watched bats flying overhead. That was the only time we saw them, but there are many different varieties of bats in Costa Rica.

Saturday, February 24

Before breakfast we spent some time with Luis near the lodge looking at a variety of birds: scarlet-rumped tanagers, flycatchers, and several others including one that was brilliant green. Then Alan and I decided to have a day of relaxing and reading on the hill overlooking the ocean rather than taking any more strenuous hikes. That turned out to be a good decision, because the squirrel monkeys - which we had never found on a hike - passed through and spent about 30 minutes playing very close to us. Some of them certainly behaved like young children, wrestling with each other and knocking each other off the most desirable branches. Others were grave adults with babies on their backs, calmly eating and ignoring the rambunctuous youngsters. Fortunately, Rich got back from his hike in time to see them also.

Rich got to see quite a few animals on his guided hike including several sloths and agoutis, 3 kinds of woodpeckers, and a tiny red poison dart frog. Luis also pointed out a small white bat sleeping on the bottom of a palm leaf.

A bit more time in the Pacific, with boogie boards this time, in the afternoon. For dinner we had the "gallo" (rooster) fish caught by one of the other guests staying at Tiskita. We enjoyed talking with Luis about how he learned English and learned so much about the plants and animals of the rain forest. Then on our way back to our cabin that evening we caught a brief glimpse of an armadillo.

Sunday, February 25

Yet another early morning flight along the coast and over the mountains to San Jose. We walked around the city of San Jose, watching gymnasts at a small local festival, visiting the Metropolitan Cathedral briefly, and stopping at the Gold Museum which has 20,000 troy ounces of gold in the 2000 items on display - many pre-Columbian artifacts (unfortunately, we only got to see pictures of the things because the gold was not on display due to conservation which was underway). Then we took a bus tour to the famous Butterfly Farm outside San Jose. This farm was started by a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1980's; it raises butterflies (and also coordinates the efforts of individuals who raise them) and ships the pupas to butterfly exhibits around the world. It was interesting to learn more about the butterflies and about how they are raised, but there weren't actually many butterflies on display. The Detroit and Denver exhibits are more fun in terms of actually seeing the butterflies. Our guide was a young woman who is studying archeology, French literature, and ballet at the university. She rode back into San Jose on the bus with us, so we got to hear a lot of her thoughts on life in Costa Rica.

Our hotel for our last night in Costa Rica was our most elegant, the Hotel Grano de Ora. Lots of tile and a fountain in a courtyard on the way to our room. We ate all our meals in another courtyard with about 6 tables with umbrellas for protection from the sun. The courtyard was walled to keep out the city noises and was full of wonderful trees and flowers. We had our most elegant meals of the trip here. It was quite a contrast to the rustic places we stayed most of the week and a great end to the trip.

Monday, February 26

Our final early morning wake-up call - leaving the hotel at 5:40 am to catch at 8:30 am flight back to Detroit.

Ready for adventure!

Rich, Mary, and Alan

Braulio Carrillo National Park

Rio Sucio ("Dirty River")

Rafting on the Pacuare River

Christian and Mary


José (having fun)


Christian and one of the waterfalls along the river

Our overnight camp

It's a tough life, isn't it!

Casa Turire at Turrialba

View from our balcony


Our plane on the private grass landing strip

The view of Manual Antonio as we flew to Tiskita

San Jose

Band stand in the city center

The municipal cathedral

The dining courtyard at the
Hotel Grano de Oro

Courtyard fountain at the
Hotel Grano de Oro


Animals (scanned from post cards)


Sloth with her baby

Scarlet macaw

Poison dart frog

Blue morpho butterfly