January 18, 2019
This morning we had to get up early and eat hastily, with a request to have the luggage out when we came down for breakfast at 6:30 when the restaurant opened. While we quickly enjoyed the same buffet – this time with pancakes – Andreas and the bellboys loaded everything onto the bus.
It was bright and sunny, with almost no clouds anywhere – and still quite windy – when we left about 7:15 to make our way through the urban area to head west towards the Pacific coast. As we drove through the extensive urban area, everyone introduced themselves, talking about their gardening and other interests. It was very, very slow going in heavy traffic as we gradually made our along crowded streets of the big city, having to stop frequently. There were bright orange poró trees (Erythrina poepiggiana) blooming above small plots of coffee, as well as the duller-orange blooming related E. fusca trees. Finally about 8:00 we got to the Pan American highway and started going faster, going past the airport – as Margherita told her story and talked about her learning center. When she had finished that, she started to talk about the vegetation of the area we were heading toward, the dry forest of northwest Costa Rica. To the right we could see Poas Volcano with just a little bit of clouds up on top. Margherita talked about some of the other common trees here, including the introduced mango with its glossy, dark green foliage, the distinctive Guanacaste tree (the national tree of Costa Rica, Enterolobium cyclocarpum, with the distinctive domed canopy and ear-shaped seed pods that can be used for soap if soaked overnight in water), various banyans (several species ofFicus), the mostly leafless Bursera simaruba trees with their peeling red bark, which is commonly used for living fences, and the very common Cecropia trees with their large, palmate leaves where sloths can often be spotted because of the open canopy. About 8:15 we turned off the main highway to get to the toll road Highway 27 to the coast, with Margherita offering a running commentary on the plants or birds we saw as we drove past. Here we started seeing balsa (Ochroma pyrimidale), bright yellow-flowering Cochlospermum vitifolium, a huge, evergreen espavel or wild cashew tree (Anacardium excelsium), and some introduced teak (Tectona grandis) being cultivated along the roadsides. We started to see more deciduous trees as we entered the transition zone to the tropical dry forest, along with yuccas, erythrinas and many other plants. Many of the hillsides were covered with grasses introduced from Africa, good for livestock but a fire hazard in the dry season.
Around 9:15 we stopped for a quick bathroom and snack break at a gas station/rest stop. Margherita purchased a variety of snacks (bizcocho – puffed fried corn rings, fried plantains, malanga chips, made from the tubers of Xanthosoma, a type of elephant ear) and everyone picked a soda or ice cream to go. We were on the road within 10 minutes, heading down toward the ocean. Connie passed out some local coconut candy she’s bought as everyone sampled the bizcocho con queso rings. Margherita pointed out a crested caracara in flight, and talked about the scarlet macaws we might see down by the coast. We crossed over the Tarcoles River about 9:30, not stopping to look for the crocodiles that typically hang out there, and only seeing one resting on the bank. As we came to a stop and sat there for over 10 minutes, waiting to pass through a construction zone, everyone put on sunscreen and organized all the supplies they wanted for the first stop. Finally we moved on, continuing on the busy road to Jaco following along the edge of Carrara National Park in the transitional forest and were suddenly driving right by the water, with a magnificent frigate bird soaring up in the nearly cloudless sky. Margherita pointed out the beach almond (Terminalia catalpa) with its large paddle-shaped leaves (and fruits favored by scarlet macaws), teak trees, a woman selling red snapper by the roadside. We continued along as the road went inland slightly, up and over hills, past resorts and restaurants before turning off onto a bumpy dirt road heading inland. We saw a pair of crested caracara flying around and some oropendolas and a pair of scarlet macaws in a Guanacaste tree, but didn’t stop to look at them.
We got to Rainforest Adventures about 10:20, where we were met by our guides for the aerial tram ride. It was already warm when we broke into three groups to go on the tour. We loaded into the gondolas that could hold 8 guests in 4 rows and one guide in the back and were slowly taken up the mountainside, gradually leaving the ground behind so we were quietly gliding through the forest canopy. We looked at a few birds, a sloth, and the guides pointing out numerous interesting plants as we moved along in the strong sunshine, grateful when the tall canopy shaded us. There were balsa trees in bud, a few large wild cashew with light green leaves, some yellow-flowering Schizolobium parahyba on the lower slopes that had just finished blooming, an inga (Inga vera subsp. vera) with its pompom-like white flowers, ferns and palms, bamboo, and all kinds of other plants.
After the 1-mile up and back tour, that took about an hour, we went to the open air restaurant for the lunch buffet of chicken, beef, rice, beans, mixed vegetables, salad and juice. That was followed by ice cream and coffee for those who wanted it.
After lunch we divided into two groups and went with different guides on a short walk around the property. It was warm and steamy (air temp in high 80’s, but humidity made it feel like low 90’s) as we set off under mostly sunny skies, but with a few large white clouds around in the sky. Our guide pointed out a few tent-making bats roosting on the underside of palm leaf they had cut the top of (to make it sag down to make a more protected spot). From there we walked a short loop trail through a small garden of ornamental and useful plants – stopping briefly to learn some facts about annatto (Bixa orellana), oregano, and cacao among others – and continued on to look at small collections of snakes and frogs in cages in different places, and then a small enclosed pond with snapping and black wood turtles and a caiman. From there we headed down the hill again, and went through the butterfly enclosure where owl butterflies, morphos and other smaller, more colorful heliconia butterflies sat around on the foliage or fed on the fermenting bananas put out in trays for the butterflies. The other group did the same tour, but in the opposite direction.
We loaded up a little before 2:00, bouncing over the dirt road back to the main coastal road, expecting a 2-2½ hour drive to our hotel. We’d barely made it few hundred feet down the road when we had to stop to look at a couple of scarlet macaws partially visible up in the top of a Guanacaste tree with leaves, and a nearby group of oropendola nests. We made it back to the main road and headed south as Margherita told the group about the diversity of birds in Costa Rica and some interesting facts about some of them. A pair of scarlet macaws swooped into a guanacaste tree close to the road as we went by a collection of buildings. There were many cecropia, balsa, and beach almond trees along the roadsides, and we were afforded occasional views of the rocky coast just below the road and more expansive swaths of blue ocean off in the distance. Coconut palms, tall light-green wild cashew, and kapok trees with striped green trunks mixed in with the other vegetation as we went past Jaco Beach. There were bright green grass pastures some with the typical long-eared Indo-Brazilian Brahmin cattle (that tolerate the heat of the tropics better than other breeds) and their associated white cattle egrets, people walking on the roadside, little houses, roadside restaurants and food stands, and the occasional yellow tropical kingbird or brown Inca doves on the electrical wires. Before we got to the extensive African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) plantations, Margherita explained how the economy of the area transitioned over the years from growing bananas to growing oil palms. We kept seeing a few scarlet macaws here and there sitting in or flying into some of the larger, more open trees. The clouds were stacking up over the land, with some dark grey ones mixed in with the puffy white ones now.
On and on we went, with people dozing, reading or staring out the windows as we sped along the two lane road with little traffic going in our direction. Margherita passed around the plantains and malaga to sample (like we really needed more food!) just about the time we got to the first oil palm plantations. We rolled through Parrita about 3:00, with far fewer clouds in the sky here than further north. The streets were crowded with parked cars, people walking on the sidewalks, vendors with piles of watermelons and other fruits, clothing shops, local fast food places and more. As we headed out of town and across the Parrita River, spotting a great egret, and then were back to more African oil palms. We went through a series of small towns as we got closer to Quepos and went by the oil processing plant, with steam billowing into the sky from the large building where the oil is extracted from the fruits. Margherita pointed out the cloud-topped Talamanca Mountains off to our left that we would be going into a few days as we continued to drive between more extensive oil palm plantations. We saw many of the harvested fruit clusters in big bins ready to be hauled off to the processing plant.
As we drove under now mostly cloudy skies through the relatively monotonous landscape of pastures and palms, Margherita told us of our dinner options, then came around to take our orders so things could be pre-ordered. Many of the trees had big tank bromeliads and other epiphytes weighting down their limbs. We passed more processing plants, small clusters of buildings, and some pastures, but mostly just palms, palms and more palms. We pulled off at a restaurant around 3:45 for a 15 minute bathroom break, and then continued on down the road, now with the forested slopes of part of Manuel Antonio National Park on one side. As we drove Margherita had to keep going over the dinner order, recounting several times since her original numbers didn’t add up, especially when the chef added another dessert to the mix!
We got to the small town of Dominical around 4:15, with the sun dipping low enough in the sky now that it was streaming through the bus on an angle where trees weren’t shading the road. It was more native vegetation than agriculture here, but still with some resorts, little farms, a few restaurants, houses and small businesses mixed in with the roadside stands, hedges of red hibiscus, and the occasional mango tree. We saw a sign advertising Cristal Ballena, only 21 km ahead! The ocean was just off to the side of the road, barely visible through the thick layer of plants along the roadside.
We pulled into the road leading to the resort about 4:35 and a few minutes later drove through the gates and onto the property of Cristal Ballena Resort. We took a narrow lane winding up a steep hill to get to the reception area perched on the top overlooking the ocean. It was warm and humid as we enjoyed our welcome drink of chilled watermelon juice, and got our room assignments and keys, and found our very nice accommodations. People wandered the manicured grounds, watched oropendulas building nests in a coconut palm, relaxed in their rooms, or enjoyed a drink from the bar near the pool. By 5:30 the sun was getting really close to the horizon, lighting up the sky above the ocean in deep orange fading to peach and pink-tinged clouds above, and it quickly slipped behind the water a few minutes later. The lingering softening colors painted the western sky in a glorious gold and orange for a long time until it was completely dark by 6:15.
We met in the restaurant at 6:30 for dinner where we sat at a long table out on the terrace in the soft, warm air overlooking the hillside leading down to the now-dark water. Tonight’s choices were onion soup, heart of palm salad, or sea bass ceviche for starters; curried chicken, chicken in mustard sauce, fruita de mar pasta (seafood) or pasta ala primavera, or mahimahi with a choice of various sauces were the choices of main courses (although Dan managed to finagle a steak to avoid all his allergies and intolerances). Dessert choices were coconut flan, “Passion of Saints” (a dessert drink of coffee, ice cream, whipped cream and cinnamon), strawberry cheesecake, or ice cream. While we were eating, everyone had to decide what they wanted to do for their free day, particularly if any optional tours that needed reservations were booked. Those who would be getting up early headed off as soon as the meal was over, while others stayed to chat well after the meal was over, with the last group heading off to their rooms about 8:45 where the night chorus of softly whirring katydids, crickets, an occasional bark of geckos and other musicians serenaded us to sleep.