By Susan Mahr

January 10, 2018

It had rained overnight and skies were partly cloudy this morning when we met on the deck near the restaurant at 6:30 to watch the birds coming in to the feeder in the cool air. The howler monkeys that had been howling in the distance had stopped making noise, but the oropendulas and crested guans were still calling loudly, along with the little bird songs. Misty clouds obscured the top of the volcano, moving back and forth as we watched. It was a similar assemblage of birds coming to the feeder as the previous day, with the dominant oropendolas and a few brown jays, and a few smaller birds trying to get in on the action: golden-hooded tanager, emerald tanager, silver-throated tanager. Down below the feeder a coati foraged for dropped bananas, and two male and four female great currasows wandered around.

We rushed into the restaurant as soon as they opened to get our breakfast from the buffet – today with pancakes instead of French toast and tiny beef “enchiladas” topped with sesame seeds instead of banana bread – and eat quickly so we could leave by 7:30. The sun was trying to come out as we descended the bumpy dirt road once again, not stopping for anything until we reached the main road. As we bounced along Margherita told us about Lake Arenal, a man-made reservoir (expanding a small existing lake) that collects water from the rainy Caribbean side and sends water to the Pacific side for irrigation and municipal use. The lake is 30 km long and only 5 km long with a surface area of 85 km2 and produces a significant amount of electricity from the hydroelectric dam. The edge of the road was lined with tall caña brava or giant cane, the native grass Gynerium sagittattum, sometimes used for light construction.

We got onto the smooth paved road, driving over the dam again, but this time going past the turnoff to the Hanging Bridges and climbing up the hill though lush forest. The winding road followed the irregular edges of the lake, with periodic views of the water below us, lit up in the sunshine. Margherita told us to be on the lookout for the tree called burío (Heliocarpus appendiculatus), with matte-finished leaves and pink fruits on the top. We started seeing more open pastures and less forest, went by a German-styled hotel, past areas invaded by tall bamboo, and through more forest. Through a small community with colorful houses, several restaurants and a few souvenir shops, then back to more forest interspersed with occasional cleared slopes of pasture. Light rain speckled the windows as we continued along the winding road with Margherita telling us about the Guanacaste tree and its ear-shaped seeds that we would be seeing many more of later today. The rain came down harder and the lake that had been barely visible between the trees was completely obscured. In another 5 minutes we were back to sunshine, with wet pavement and water drops sparkling on the foliage, but rain squalls streaming out over the lake.

About 8:30 we drove through the small town of Nuevo Arenal, rebuilt here after the expansion of the lake displaced the community, and headed toward Tilerán, one of only two gold mining areas in the country (and only limited illegal mining by Nicaraguans occurs now). On the far hills on the other side of the lake we could see four large wind turbines, but soon everything was once again obscured by rain and clouds. We bounced through the little town of El Aguacate with its bright yellow church, and continued going up the hills on the poorly surfaced road. We passed a living fence of gumbo limbo along a pasture and some large trees of that distinctive species mixed in with the other vegetation; there was a long line of wind generators on the hill opposite the lake off in the distance; through another little town, slowing for the one speed bump there; along the edge of the lake just above shore level now, driving in steady rain. The forest was gradually giving way to agriculture and we passed more and more pastures with cattle and dairy cows and the remaining trees were transitioning from rainforest to deciduous dry forest types, with many more leafless trees here.

It was bright, breezy and a with a light mist blowing over us when we stopped in Tilerán – land of rain and wind – at 9:10 at a local restaurant for a bathroom break and to stretch our legs. We purchased some cookies and sodas before loading up to resume the journal about 15 minutes later. A few minute later, having passed over the Continental Divide into the Province of Guanacaste, it was now sunny with lots of cattle in the golden pastures and the Gulf of Nicoya just visible in the distance ahead of us. There were only a few clouds remaining in the sky and those were all high, thin ones. The vegetation was now very different, with shorter, deciduous trees, and lots of gumbo limbo, pink acacia, and golden grasses.

We drove through the large town of Cañas at 9:45, with its large plaza, and back out into more flat pasturelands, crossing an irrigation canal and going by a tilapia farm of several very large rectangular ponds with aeration devices working and then lots of fields of sugarcane or plowed brown soil ready for planting rice or other crops. Here the trees dotting the pastures have a typical low, spreading mounded habit. A triple trailer truck crossed the road in front of us, filled with harvested sugarcane headed for the refiner. Margherita pointed out water apple, calabash tree, mango trees, beach almond, Norfolk Island pine and cashew as we drove into Bebedero (the name means “place to drink”, as in watering the cows). We took a narrow road off the main street to get down to the water where we would start our river tour.

It was warm, sunny and windy when we arrived at Adventuras Arenal at 10:00. Kathy decided to stay behind in the shaded restaurant area, while the rest of us walked down to the river and loaded into one of the long wooden boats with a canopy. There were a few mangrove swallows perching on a branch sticking out of the water near the dock. Our boat driver, Moises, backed away from the dock and pointed us downstream in the muddy brown of the Rio Bebedero, a tributary of the Rio Tempisque. We slowly made out way along the flat, placid river, with Moises pointing out the various wildlife and Margherita mentioning some of the more distinctive trees or other plants. There were lots of green iguanas, with both colorful orange males flapping their dewlaps and the more cryptic, smaller green females in the trees and on the muddy banks. An osprey perched on top of a leafless tree, and later on we saw that one or others flying around overhead; a green kingfisher perched on a branch hanging out over the water. We pulled over toward the other bank where a colony of longtailed bats roosted along the underside of a big branch of a large tree in a long line. Then we spotted a medium sized crocodile swimming in the water, with just its bumpy brown head and back showing in the brown water; a bare-throated tiger heron walking on the bank before flying into a tree; a snowy egret with its black legs and yellow feet; a tropical kingbird; more iguanas; a couple of small (3 year old) crocs blending into the muddy banks they were sunning on.

We headed across the river to a high vertical mud bank where a barn owl was sitting inside a large hole. Moises drove right up to push the nose of the boat into the bank, and motioned Susan to step up on the bow for a better picture. When she did, the bird got nervous and flew out unexpectedly, fortunately making a sharp turn to go away from the boat as it let loose a big splatter of white guano. We pushed back out into the main channel and continues drifting downstream, spotting a little blue heron walking along the edge of the water and further on a group of black stilts resting on the muddy shore, and beyond them a large crocodile lounging half exposed in the shallow water. Then we floated on looking at the ceiba trees (which are much shorter here than in the rainforest where they also occur) with Moises quizzing Margherita on the different species (his father was a woodworker who knew all the trees and their wood, so he knew all of them well), with her passing the test on nearly all of them. Past more crocodiles in the water; a lone juvenile white ibis; more iguanas; and a pair of lapwings (a fairly recent immigrant to Costa Rica from further south, only seen commonly in the last 10-15 years) standing on the muddy bank not far from another group of resting black stilts.

Some of our last sightings were a small group of groove-billed anis foraging in vegetation near the water and three howler monkeys hanging out in the tall trees above us. After an hour we turned around and headed back to the dock, zooming along on the smooth water with a stiff breeze which felt nice in the warm sunshine.

When we got back to the dock, the cook had our lunches ready (we’d placed the order when we’d arrived) and we were served our casado with fried tilapia and sweet tea. This version of the typical Costa Rican meal included creamy zucchini, a large pile of finely shredded cabbage and carrots, and some crunchy tortilla chips to go with the usual rice and beans. It was pleasantly warm in the shade of the covered open air restaurant as we enjoyed the meal, followed by a tiny cup of pineapple custard. By noon we had finished eating and had about 10 minutes to look at the grounds, watching a few tiger swawllowtails, heliconia butterflies and longtailed skippers flitting about on a large patch of multicolored zinnias.

We departed Bebedos and drove back along the same road we’d come in on to get to the Pan American highway at 12:30, going fairly slowly on the two-lane road following behind some large trucks. Pink acacia with its pale pink flowers bloomed in places; we went through an area where teak was planted on both sides of the road; large Guanacaste trees with their rounded canopies dotted open pastures; shops, sodas (little informal restaurants), and colorful buildings. While we were stopped for road construction there was a roadside stand offering with vino de coyol, an alcoholic drink made by fermenting the sap collected from the palm’s trunk of the coyol palm (Acrocomia aculeata) which Margherita had just been discussing. So she purchased a small bottle of the wine while we waited and we all got a little sample of the mild, clear liquid that tasted somewhat like a cross between beer and vinegar. A long stream of vehicles kept coming at us, until we were able to go forward several minutes later, going by a road crew clearing a gigantic tree that had fallen across the road.

We continued on under partly cloudy skies along the road surrounded by pastures mixed with trees, at time driving through a tunnel of foliage and others with open fields. Some of the trees here were dripping with epiphytic cacti, but there weren’t many bromeliads or orchids in the trees. The sparse brilliant yellow flowers of an occasional buttercup tree (Cochlospermum vitifolium) stood out among the other vegetation. There were also a few corteza amarilla, or yellow poui (Tabebuia ochracea) with their more numerous, softer yellow flowers and Margherita pointed out some of the leafless flamboyant tree (Delonix regia, introduced from Madagascar as an ornamental) with its large seedpods. Roadside stands offered wooden slabs and souvenirs; produce vendors displayed watermelons and vegetables; white cattle grazed in shaded pastures. We passed hillsides covered with young teak trees, while other areas had native vegetation with many leafless deciduous trees amid the greenery. Then it was pineapple plantations or pastures, followed by another short stop for road work shortly before we crossed the Rio Aranjuez with some yellow flowered trees on the banks upstream. Traffic was still moving slowly behind a big truck, with a very long line of vehicles behind us, and the occasional impatient driver trying to pass in the short gaps between oncoming traffic on any even partially straight section of road since there were no passing lanes or pullouts.

We passed around snacks of sugar-coated peanuts, cookies and yuca chips even though it had only been an hour and a half since lunch (mostly to relieve the boredom of the slow, monotonous drive). On and on we went through more deciduous dry forest, interspersed with small pastures, braided rivers, and restaurants and shops, with yellow-blooming trees on the hillsides as the clouds moved in to cover most of the sky. Margherita pointed out howler monkeys in the trees above the road in a couple of places. Finally the big truck pulled off at a crossroads so we could go a little faster. It was still more of the same scenery, just with more bouncing in the back of the van at the higher speed. But a few minutes later we slowed for another line of traffic before turning off onto the road to Puntarenas, what used to be the main port and now is mainly for fishing (there is a tuna processing plant there) and tourism.

At 2:00 we pulled off at a gas station on the outskirts of the city to use the clean toilets and check out the supermarket for about 15 minutes. It was warm outside, especially after being in the air-conditioned van for so long. We purchased some snacks for later, and were on our way to join the queue for the ferry. We could see the estuary lined with red mangroves on one side of the road and the steely green water of the Gulf of Nicoya on the other as Margherita talked about mangroves and other estuarine plants that can tolerate high salt levels – the importance of mangrove ecosystems as breeding grounds for many marine animals, especially crustaceans; the viviparous seeds that help stabilize coastlines; and the need of parrots to obtain salts excreted by white mangrove to counteract chemicals in their diet.

We took a lot of back streets lined with colorful buildings to get to the waterfront about 2:40, well before the 5:00 ferry. She was concerned that we wouldn’t actually get on if there happened to be many vehicles attempting to take the ferry – but we were so early that we were the only people waiting at this time. Margherita went to the ticket office to pay, while we hung around in the passenger area, under the canvas tents to shield us from the sunshine. There were high thin clouds overhead in places, so it wasn’t as hot as it could have been. Everyone just chatted, people and bird watched, and patiently waited.

Finally at 4:20 it was time to walk on board. Cars, motorcycles and buses were driving into the lower area, while we went up the stairs to the second level to sit indoors in air conditioning for a while. We enjoyed some snacks we’d brought with us while waiting for the engines to start revving. At 5:00 the ship pulled out, turned around and we were on our way, leaving the cloud-topped mountains behind us for the 75-minute journey across the calm ocean to the Nicoya Peninsula. There were a few magnificent frigatebirds and pelicans, and the distant mountains and shores to look at, but not a lot of activity.  Some of us went outside and stood at the rails in the light breeze, or sat on the benches chatting, as the sun went down and colored the interesting clouds in the sky. Then we went back inside until we approached the dock around 6:15 in total darkness. A lot of people raced down the stairs to be first off, but our group hung back for a bit, waiting to be some of the last to disembark. We walked to the embarkation area, where vendors hawked local fruits and grilling meat in the darkness. Three large buses waited to transport passengers without vehicles, with people milling around trying to find their rides. Cars and other buses blocked traffic as they stopped in the single lane to take on passengers, so we walked a little further away where there was a clear space on the roadside where Edgar could pull out a little while we hopped in.

At 6:35 we pulled away and headed into the small town of Paquera and out the other side for the 40-minute drive to the other side of the peninsula. There wasn’t a lot to see as we drove in the darkness with not much more than the living fences on either side of the road visible. For the first 20 minutes we were stuck going slowly behind a small cattle truck, and then we were stuck behind a slow-moving dump truck. We went through little towns or by small ranchos where there were a few lights, but mostly it was just blackness beyond the back end of the truck as we made our way along the curving road. Finally there was a place to pass the truck and then we could go slightly faster – until we caught up with another truck a minute later. We kept passing one truck after another only to get stuck behind another one, until finally at 7:25 we got past the last one, just a couple minutes before we turned off the main road onto the long driveway to Tango Mar Resort, bumping slowly down the dusty gravel road. Instead of turning into the resort, we went a little further on the road where two common pauraques (a cryptically colored nightjar; a bird that is active at night) sat in the road, easily seen by their eye shine in the headlights, until they flew off in front of the vehicle at the last minute.  We turned around and went back to the gate to the resort. It was opened for us and we drove the bumpy avenue lined with palms with the bases pained white, and around and down a curve in the road before we finally arrived at reception for the hotel set right on the ocean about 7:35.

We walked up the wide concrete steps to the open air reception, with the waves crashing on the shore just outside, to be greeted with a chilled towel and welcome drink of papaya and other fruit juice. We sat down for a brief orientation with the Belgian owner and after we learned about meal times, hikes on the property, and optional tours and services, we signed some paperwork to get keys, got our stuff off the bus and found our luxurious rooms with a view of the ocean. Everyone was tired and not interested in dinner, so just headed off to the air-conditioned rooms about 8:30 for a good night’s sleep.

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