January 17, 2019
Everyone was on their own for breakfast in the restaurant any time after 6:30. The buffet offered a large variety of selections including tropical fruits, assorted pastries and breads, and hot dishes of scrambled eggs, gallo pinto (rice and beans), fried plantains, and more, along with juices and coffee. For those who were interested, there was time for strolling through the garden to look at plants and watch for birds.
Everyone gathered in front of the hotel by 8:45 to wait for Andreas to arrive with the bus. We loaded into the medium-sized bus ready for departure at 9:00, under bright blue skies with puffy white clouds over the distant mountains. As we drove, Margherita talked about the different provinces of Costa Rica, as we drove from Heredia Province to Alajuela Province, and the geography of the area, coffee production, and other things. We drove the crowded streets of the metropolitan area, going by some small coffee plantations mixed in with lots of small businesses, colorful houses, and interesting tropical plants used as ornamentals or growing wild in open areas. Margherita pointed out cloud-covered Barva Volcano with its three peaks (Tres Marias) not visible off on the north side of the Central Valley, and talked about some of the other volcanos in the area. She pointed out the orange-flowered poró trees, Erythrina poepiggiana, planted among the coffee plants in places – a leguminous tree that helps fix nitrogen in the plantings and provide light shade.
We traveled along Highway 32 (Braulio Carillo Highway that goes to the eastern side of the country), with only a little traffic. It only took about 20 minutes to get to Sibu Chocolates, now under partly cloudy skies. We were there quite early, so had time to look at the little gardens, peruse the small gift shop before being given tiny cups of hot chocolate as a welcome drink. Eventually we went inside and sat at several tables where small wooden dishes with a careful arrangement of chocolates were placed at each seat. Co-owners Julio Fernandez Amón and George Soriano gave an excellent, entertaining presentation on the history of chocolate, from a bitter beverage of the indigenous aristocracy, through the present – stopping periodically to have us sample first the cacao fruit, smell the fermented seeds, and eventually their chocolates that demonstrated the different styles and tastes of chocolates through its evolution. Afterwards there was time to shop for bars or boxes of chocolates to take home, before boarding the bus at 11:30. For those that didn’t take any home, the only importer of Sibu Chocolates to the US is Chocosphere (https://www.chocosphere.com/ – with a limited selection of chocolate bars for sale online), but their drinking chocolate is available through Amazon or all of their products can be ordered directly for shipment to the States.
It was still mostly sunny with blue skies with a few patchy white clouds as we drove through Heredia on very narrow roads as Margherita told us about the geologic history and geographical reasons for the diversity of flora and fauna in the country. She also told us briefly about what to expect at La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a rescue center where the animals are all in cages to give visitors an introduction the native fauna of the country. There was some coffee production, lots of houses on the slopes, a few Nicaraguan coffee pickers relaxing on the roadside for their lunch break, and a hazy view of the city below. Up and down we went on the winding roads, then into the more regular streets of the suburb of Los Angeles de Heredia, past a park, schools and lots of houses and other buildings as Margherita explained the history of the country from pre-Columbian times, through the colonial era and Spanish settlement (starting in Cartago), independence from Spain in 1821, the influence of coffee production, and up to the present culture. We drove past the ornate church of San Jose de Heredia, through more urban areas, and on along winding roads past more coffee, a few pastures, and houses and shops along the roadside. We learned about building a railroad from the Central Valley to the Caribbean for coffee export, banana production, a conservation movement starting early in the 1930’s and 40s, and abolition of the army in 1948. The stability of the county encouraged greater development, investment and scientific research, and by the 1970’s many areas of the county had been protected, with National Parks, biological research stations, and private natural reserves. Now tourism is the main industry, partly because of these protected areas (approximately 30% of the county) and there is more forested areas now than 100 year ago.
We continued driving up and down through more urban and residential areas, past big churches, shops, and houses. Eventually we headed upwards, where large swaths of the slopes were covered with ornamental plants under black shade cloth grown for export, more colorful houses stacked up on the hillsides, a few mango trees in bloom, and the bright red bracts of poinsettia on tall, rangy plants in some of the yards. Past more coffee, long living fences of spiky-leaved yuccas, through the town of Roble de Santa Barbara, past more extensive areas of coffee edged with sheared hedges of Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus penduliflorus) or dracaena and tall causurina trees for windbreaks. We had to slow down on the narrow curves to give oncoming traffic plenty of room as we continued winding along the sinuous road.
Margherita told us about coffee production as we went through one small town after another as we headed into the Central Range toward the Continental Divide, still under bright blue skies. The landscape became more agricultural, with some citrus trees and pastures with native purple-blue Ageratum, but soon the slopes were covered with forest or cleared pastures. There was a little of the native Chusqueta bamboo in places, but more of the introduced blue hydrangeas in others. Small farmsteads were interspersed with green pastures and patches of native trees. Soon we were seeing some of the plants of the higher elevations, including Bocconia and skinny native alder trees. As we got nearer the top to follow along the ridge, we started to see the huge round leaves of poor man’s umbrella (Gunnera insignis), a plant characteristic of cloud forests. It was still sunny here (but clouds up ahead on the mountain top) as we went by more pastures, some tree ferns, patches of native forest and trees encrusted with epiphytes, and some plastic tunnels with tomatoes or ornamental plants grown for export. We began to descend the Caribbean slope, passing plantings of strawberries, fields full of blue ageratum, went through a small community, past more pastures and houses, some shade houses, a few roadside produce stands, and finally some native forest on one side of the road. Finally we pulled off at La Paz Waterfall Gardens about 1:15, with more clouds overhead, but still some breaks of sunshine.
After getting our entrance bracelets and using the restrooms (which are worth visiting just for the interesting sinks), we hiked down to the main restaurant to enjoy the lunch buffet. They offered a selection of salad ingredients, refried beans with chips and pico de gallo, and hot items including BBQ pork spareribs, roasted chicken, plantains, rice, vegetables, and more, along with juices and coffee. Desert was cinnamon-scented rice pudding with raisins and sliced watermelon and pineapple. We sat at several tables for 4-6 people in the open air restaurant, watching the rain fall and a few birds (mainly yellow-thighed tanager and rufous-collared sparrow) lurking about hoping for handouts.
At 2:00 it was time to head out to see all the displays. We headed back up the steps toward the aviary to begin the tour, leaving Kathy and Siri behind to return to the reception area since they didn’t want to navigate so many steps. We went through the double-chambered entrance with a chain curtain hoping to see some of the rescued native birds, but there wasn’t much activity in the large enclosure, other than in the toucan enclosure where there were several black-mandibled toucans and the smaller collared aricari, plus a keel-billed toucan flying and perching above us. There were a few grey chacalacas in the trees above us, a couple of small green parrots nearly invisible amongst the same-colored foliage, and a green honeycreeper and palm tanager at one of the fruit feeders, but not much else to see as we slowly made our way through the wire mesh enclosure. The raptors – including a gray hawk and crested caracara – and the parrots – including scarlet macaws – are in their own individual large cages, and were easier to spot. There were several fulvous whistling ducks walking on the paths or perched on railings. The last part of the aviary has a few scarlet macaws in cages, before we went through another double-chambered exit into a tunnel taking us to the butterfly house.
Here lighted cases on the wall display pinned insect specimens in artistic groups, with a case of cecropia and other large moths, batches of beetles, beautiful butterflies, and some dramatic mantids and huge lanternflies, among others. There weren’t a lot of butterflies active in the big butterfly house, with a few malachites and others fluttering against the glass wall and a few others here and there. There were racks filled with chrysalises, many just empty shells with the butterflies already eclosed, but others in various stages of maturity and a few with the recently-emerged butterflies still hanging down expanding their wings. Interpretive signage provides a lot of information on their life cycle, the rearing process, and conservation of butterflies.
We quickly went by the monkey enclosure, where the animals were moving around in their large wire mesh cages. From there we moved through the hummingbird garden, where many species were zooming in to use the red feeders strung up all over the area. Large, purple violet sabrewings chased off the smaller purple-throated mountain gems and copper-headed hummingbirds, while the green crowned brilliants held their ground, along with the occasional green hermit, green thorntail, and blackbellied hummingbirds, among others. It was mostly sunny, with a few clouds drifting over occasionally, but nothing like the “normal” conditions (clouds and drizzle or rain) of this area.
Next we headed over to look at the snakes in their individual display cages in a darkened room; the jungle cats – including ocelots, margay (tree ocelot), pumas, and jaguars – several moving around in the relatively large, landscaped enclosures (and a pair of jaguars having a noisy play fight right by the window); and both leaf and poison dart frogs in the ranarium. The pair of oxen that are often hitched to their brightly painted oxcart were looking rather bored in their small covered shelter.
Then most of the group headed down the steep slope on the nicely paved, stepped trail to the waterfalls, with just a few people returning to reception rather than trying to navigate the hundreds of steps. It was comfortable under the high tree canopy as we made our way to the Rio La Paz (Peace River), where the falls were full of water and roaring loudly. It was starting to get late, so we made our way as fast as possible along the 3 kilometer long trails – including lots of steps – to see three of the falls cascading over precipices up to 125 high, although we didn’t stop to take time to photograph all of them.
We finally made it to the end of the trail about 4:30 to load up the bus and return to the main reception building. After everyone had used the restrooms we loaded back on the bus for trip back to the hotel. It was a little before 5:00 when we departed, returning on the same twisting, winding road over the mountains we had come up on as the sun began to slide toward the horizon. The tops of the trees were still lit up in the late afternoon sun, with a fat white moon high in the sky, but the bus now in deep shadow on the road on the side of the mountain surrounded by tall trees. Around 5:30 we went around a bend and emerged back into golden light with the orange sun glaring into our eyes, lighting up the sky above the distant mountains a gold and peachy haze. By 5:45 the sun had completely dipped below the horizon as we continued along the narrow road through small communities and soon the lights came on in businesses, shops and homes. The lights of the city sparkled, spread out in a large expanse below us. The western sky glowed orange, creating dramatic silhouettes of rounded trees and spiky yuccas here and there for a while, but most of the color had left the sky by the time we reached the outskirts of the metropolitan area. We continued on through the urban areas of the Central Valley, going very slowly in heavy rush hour traffic as darkness settled, finally getting back to the hotel around 6:50.
Dinner was scheduled for 7:15, so there was just enough time to go back to our rooms to drop off our stuff and freshen up slightly. We reassembled in the hotel restaurant to find seats at the same long table we’d been at the night before, and once again made our selections from the set menu. This time the choices included Caesar salad, tomato cream, consommé with sherry for starters; corvina with tomato onion, basil and onion, pork tenderloin with passion fruit sauce, or fettuccini alfredo for the main; and a weakly mango-flavored mousse for dessert. We enjoyed cas juice (Psidium friedrichsthalianum, a close relative of guava, P. guajava). Margherita had already given us the daily briefing on the bus, so she didn’t join us (instead going home for the night). No one lingered after the meal was finished, with everyone returning to their rooms by 8:45 to repack for the next day’s early departure and relax after a long first day of the tour.