By Susan Mahr

January 9, 2018

Birds started chattering and howler monkeys could be heard in the distance well before dawn (and people in adjacent room jabbering). The volcano stood out against the pale sky, with tendrils of clouds streaming across its slopes when we got up around 6:00, but 15 minutes later it was completely gone from sight, enveloped in white. We met at the restaurant for breakfast at 6:30, but it wasn’t open, so we watched the birds coming in to the feeder. It was cool with a slight breeze as we watched the constant activity. At first it was just oropendolas dominating the watermelon quarters skewered on branches on top of a tall pole, but a few brown jays came in as well. Down below a trio of great currasows – one black male and two brown females – foraged on the ground, and we saw another pair below the deck just sitting there preening. Commotion in the distant trees attracted our attention as a troop of spider monkeys swung through the trees. After a while a few smaller birds came in to the feeders, including golden-hooded tanager and blue-grey tanager. Several rufus-tailed hummingbirds and a female violet-headed hummingbird zipped among the purple porterweed flowers, with a small yellow and black bananaquit joining them. There was a fair amount of blue in the sky, but misty clouds still streamed across the volcano – periodically clearing to reveal a thin plume of smoke trailing out the top – but no direct sunshine on us. Off in the distance the sun shown on parts of Lake Arenal.

As soon as the restaurant doors opened a crowd of people rushed in to enjoy another buffet of rice and beans, fried plantains, scrambled eggs, and fruit, but this time with the addition of sausages, hash brown triangles, cinnamon French toast and cereal and yogurt. We hurried to eat and load up the van at 7:30, but people had forgotten some items so we got off just a little later than planned. Down the bumpy road again, stopping briefly to look at a pair of buff-rumped warblers flitting from bush to rock; seed pods of Mucuna h anging down off the tree; a broad-winged hawk perched on the power lines; and a field pockmarked with craters from an old volcanic explosion that rained down huge boulders and now had numerous guava trees growing in it. We stopped to admire a pair leafless red-barked gumbo limbo trees (Bursera simaruba) shining in the sunshine.

There was a tropical kingbird on the wires when we turned onto the paved road at 8:00, with Margherita pointing out the Tilerán Mountain range off in the distance, of which Arenal is a part and stretched all the way to Monteverde. We crossed the dam that creates Lake Arenal a few minutes later under mostly cloudy skies with just a few breaks of blue. Edgar deftly navigated the steep, twisting road to get up to the parking area, with a great view of the lake down below along the way. While Margherita paid the entrance fees at the registration area, we wandered around a bit.  The volcano, this time of the opposite slope of where our hotel faced, was mostly obscured by clouds.

Joanne had decided to stay behind to rest her sore knee, while the rests of us entered the private, 1600 acre rainforest reserve walking along the concrete trail, stopping frequently to identify certain plants or watch birds as they moved through. There were white-blooming begonias, a colony of about 10 small dark bats roosting in the underside of a hollow fallen log, and the bright red flowers of a Clusia vine. We learned about the holes in the dirt banks where motmots and kingfishers nest; monkey tail tree fern with its fuzzy stem resembling its namesake; trees with huge buttresses at their base; and lots of leafcutter ants parading along with their bright green loads. Margherita pointed out the “quality control” ants riding on some of the leaves – smaller individuals whose job is to make sure there are no parasites on the leaves being carried back to the nest.

We searched to see the two or three longtailed bats roosting on a tree trunk, the white zigzag pattern on their back barely visible as they blended in perfectly with the bark. Clouds came and went, dropping light rain on us at one point, then sunshine streaming through the forest canopy. We saw several types of gesneriads, with orange or white flowers, often with fuzzy orange bracts (Columnea, especially), a few tank bromeliads up in the trees starting to push out a single bright red inflorescence from the green rosette of leaves, and lots of ferns and mosses covering every surface. We got a good look at the large rufus motmot, but not it’s smaller look alike broadbilled motmot, both with a reddish-brown head and blue body.

We continued on along the winding trail, going up and down and across bridges of various lengths spanning low or high chasms, all with a stream at the base. Some of the bridges were short and fixed, while the longer ones were hanging, necessitating a swaying, bouncing walk across, but also interesting views from the middle. The trails were crowded, with many large groups, so we often stepped aside to let the noisy groups to go first so we could focus on nature. There was a small brown basalisk with just its head visible perched in a clump of dead leaves in the crotch of a tree; stingless bee nests with the long wax tube entrance sticking out from a cavity in two different trees; a very large grey witch moth roosting flat against the inside of a hollow tree. Margherita pointed out palm inflorescences, in all stages from unopened bud to flowers to fruits; the small plants of the fern-like Selaginella growing on banks on the trail edges; and the woody monkey ladder vine (Bauhinia guienensis). We spied a lizard poking its head out of its hole in a dirt bank, then Margherita heard a green hermit (a type of hummingbird with a curved bill) calling in a lek, and spotted it sitting on a branch so we got a good look at it.  Soon we went through the short Pit Viper Tunnel before crossing three more short fixed bridges.  As we crossed the last suspension bridge, swaying across the long span to reach the trail on the other side, we looked up to see the fuzzy ball of a sloth sleeping in a tree crotch above us. Soon we were back at the entrance where we had a few minutes to peruse the gift shop or watch the volcano amid the clouds.

We departed a little after noon, driving down the hill and across the dam again. As we made our way along there was a traffic jam on the narrow road as some people had stopped and gotten out of their car to look at some white-nosed coatis, a large animal related to racoons. The animals had disappeared into the foliage by the time we passed by. We drove by some terrestrial Sobralia orchids with white flowers growing on the road cut. As we went along, Margherita asked what we wanted for lunch and called in the pre-order for our food. We were back to La Fortuna by 12:30, and to Rancho la Perla Restaurant a few minutes later.

We were seated at dark wooden tables in the open air restaurant surrounded by tropical foliage and flowers. We served glasses of fresh juice, a mixture of orange, pineapple, and soursop along with a basket of toasted bread with rosemary while we waited for our lunch. It wasn’t long before we were served our meals of casado with chicken or fish or chicken with rice. A variety of birds including blue-grey tanager, buff-throated tanager, and palm tanagers were feeding on the fruits of a banana tree outside the restaurant. We watched as a chestnut-mandibled toucan (colloquially called ki-oro for the sound the bird makes) flew in, scattering the smaller birds. It proceeded to pluck out a couple of the small fruits and gobble them up, flying off with one whole small banana in its mouth.

We departed at 1:40 for the 5-minute drive to North Fields Café for their coffee tour, getting there very early, standing around looking at hummingbirds and flowers until it was time to go on the tour. Guide David took us, along with three Asian women, across the street and told about how they grow the plants from seed as we sat under a small, rustic metal-roofed structure. We moved out to a wheelbarrow filled with compost and had Joanne and one of the Asians fill small plastic sleeves that they grow seedlings in. We walked to one of several old tires filled with compost that they use as germination beds, where Susan plucked two seedlings (with just their butterfly-shaped cotyledons) to plant in Joanne’s container. Then we went to the nursery area where many of the plastic containers sat with seedlings in various stages, and left ours there, too. As we moved throughout the area, David pointed out different plants, such as the blooming orchid tree (Bauhinia purpurscens) that provides nitrogen and young chocolate trees, and described their uses.

After examining some very young coffee shrubs – which are planted on ridges here to drain water away in this rainy climate – we walked across the road to another section filled with mature coffee and many other useful plants. There David had Joanne and one of the Asian women put on traditional coffee picking baskets around their waists. Then he pointed out lemongrass, heliconias used as ornamentals, sugarcane, avocado, guava, banana, and others as we walked around in the intense sun. He picked a spiny-looking pod of achiote and split it open to show the orange seeds that are used for coloring cheese and other food products. We saw coffee flowers, but few fruits, as they normally strip the plants to being another year-long picking season at this time of year (unlike in other regions where the crop matures synchronously; because of year-round precipitation instead of distinct wet and dry seasons, the plants produce and can be harvested year-round). As we passed some large banana plants he heard a blue jeans frog calling, captured the tiny amphibian in a leaf and brought it out to show us. The little thing quickly hopped back to its habitat as soon as it was released.

We continued walking through the small plantation, David explained golden, red and black coffee “honey” and the slightly different process for how each is made from the liquid extracted from the flesh around the coffee beans. Dark storm clouds gathered in one corner of the sky and clouds now shielded us from the hot sun, while there were big patches of blue elsewhere. We continued walking through the area of coffee plants intermingled with many other types of plants, looking at a cherimoya fruit, and a fungal disease of the coffee leaves that produced orange spores on the underside of the leaves.

We then returned to the reception building and went out behind there to see the chickens, puppies, a rabbit in a cage, papayas, a lone tent-making bat roosting on the underside of a banana leaf and then to where they dry the coffee beans in trays under a plastic tent. Before learning about the roasting process, we sat down on stools to watch a demonstration of using a trapiche to press sugarcane juice. David ran a length of fresh-cut cane through the rollers of the contraption, and with the help of a young boy who cranked one of the two handles, they crushed the piece of grass enough to squeeze the liquid out into a waiting bowl. They tightened the rollers after the first pass, and on the third pass, David twisted the fibrous stem before going through the press to get out even more liquid. We got to taste the mild, barely sweet liquid in little metal cups. Then he showed the cake of sugar made by boiling the liquid, and offered us a “tea” made of water mixed with a small piece of the molasses-flavored sugar cake.

Next we saw how they were hand-roasting a very small batch of beans in a homemade contraption made from a tiny propane tank that had metal baffles welded inside, and could be turned like on a spit over a fire. Another man was cranking away at the handle to keep the beans constantly moving as they were heated. David used a length of pipe with the end cut off at a slant to extract a few beans from inside the cylinder, to show us how the beans were changing in color from pale tan to medium brown to dark brown each time he took a sample every few minutes. He had a demonstration basket filled with the three types, making it very easy to see the difference. As the beans cooked longer, more and more steam escaped from the cylinder, until they were done and were dumped out into a wire tray to cool.

Then we went inside to learn how the roasted beans are ground, and how coffee is prepared the traditional way in Costa Rica. It began raining lightly as we were waiting to taste the coffee, but it wasn’t long before there were bits of sunlight again. The fruit feeders outside the building were swarming with birds in a never-ending parade of little things fighting for the impaled bananas. There were clay-colored robins, orange-chinned parakeets, great kiskadee, Hoffman’s woodpecker, black-cheeked woodpeckers, palm tanagers, blue-grey tanagers, a crimson-collared tanager, Passerini tanager, buff-throated saltators, several yellow-crowned euphonia, and male and female red-legged honeycreepers. We got to taste their dark roast and medium roast coffees, along with some homemade flat biscuits. When we were nearly done, David asked if anyone drank alcohol and gave those who were interested a sample of their delicious cream coffee liquor similar to Bailey’s Irish crème.

After purchasing a few packages of their coffee, we left at 4:15, with low dark clouds hugging the mountains on one side and bits of sun far off in the other direction. At 4:30 we turned onto the bumpy dirt road and bounced around for another 20 minutes to get back to the Lodge. It was still dark and cloudy, with a light breeze that felt very nice in the humid conditions. We had until nearly two hours to relax or walk the trails around the Lodge.

We met in the restaurant at 7:00 for dinner, choosing from a set menu that included a choice of three appetizers (we had either the Carbonara Salad (with kale, lettuce, arugula, bacon, hardboiled egg, and croutons) or Sea Bass ceviche), many entrees – we enjoyed braised ribs with BBQ sauce, a pasta dish, eggplant Parmesan or chicken with mashed potatoes, and dessert of coconut flan, cheesecake with blackberries, or rice pudding with pineapple. We sat around talking for just a little while after we were done eating, heading back to our rooms a little before 9:00 to enjoy the quiet insect and frog symphony and mild air outside out comfortable rooms.

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