2019 Costa Rica Tour Day 7

By Susan Mahr

January 22, 2019

The birds and people started making noise around 5:00. Most people were up early, leaving their bags outside the rooms and up to the dining hall by 6:30 (or before to watch the same assortment of tanagers and other small birds we’d seen the previous day coming in to the feeder. We were on the bus at 7:30 and departed Wilson Botanic Garden under bright blue skies. We made our way down the mountain, driving between lush roadside plantings and living fences of variegated dracaenas and other plants. We drove through the town of San Vito – with its large regional hospital and lots of businesses – and continued on down, jostling through an area of road construction to drive through more open areas of pastures and houses, with just little patches of trees around. We continued descending through the isolated, rural area on Highway 237, seeing a few blooming poró trees and a roadside hawk in a tree, then Andreas slowed for four yellow-throated toucans in a rainbow eucalyptus. We crept along, with Andreas keeping to the should of the road for a while, as Margherita pointed out plants – especially the small tree Croton draco (targuá colorado, not the same ornamental plant with colorful leaves that has the common name of croton but is actually Codiaeum variegatum) that is distinctive-looking because it always has a number of red or orange senescing leaves – and other birds including a yellow-headed caracara, cattle egrets and swallowtail kite flying.

We kept going down, down, down through patches of native vegetation, small pastures and small houses, with expansive but hazy views of the valley below at times. The hillsides were covered in places with grass or in plants with tiny, yellow daisy-like flowers, the occasional buttercup tree with its bright yellow flowers, and assorted palms conspicuous in open pastures. The lower we went, the more the land had been converted to pasture and lots of small homes dotted the area, and soon we were under high clouds. Small beach almond trees edged the road in places; we could see the portion of the Talamanca Mountains with La Amistad, a transfrontier National Park that extends from Costa Rica into adjacent Panama; blooming mango trees. Margherita exclaimed that she saw a cashew tree with fruits on it (marañon), so we stopped and Andreas backed up to the entrance gate to a small finca. Margherita hopped out and talked to the little girl at the gate and was able to pick a few fruits and flower stem to bring back on the bus to show the group both young and mature fruits, with its sweet swollen yellow ovary (that is used for making juice, but it has to be consumed very fresh as it ferments quickly so is rarely seen in restaurants) and the “nut” at the end. A little further on we stopped near a Guanacaste tree, where Margherita picked up a small, ear-shaped seed and spring of the very small, mimosa-like compound leaves from the tree to pass around on the bus.

We passed over the wide Térraba River about 9:10 and continued on Highway 2 northward for a while. Now it was sunny again, with just a few small clouds above us but bigger puffy white clouds over the distant mountains. There were more buttercup trees in bloom here, where the grasses were a drier, golden-brown. Soon we were following along the river with native forest on the slopes going down to the water on the far side.  We continued along the winding road, passing over the river again, leaving it behind to drive past pastures and small fincas or clusters of houses, with white cattle grazing on steep grassy slopes in places, a few tall kapok trees sticking out amid the other vegetation, and little patches of forest. All of a sudden we were passing extensive fields of pineapple, a terrestrial bromeliad with blue-green leaves growing in the red soil (replacing former pasture or sugarcane fields) and shortly thereafter passed through the little town of Buenos Aires with its large pineapple processing plant, as Margherita talked about sugarcane production and the national drink guaro, an alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane juice (as well as rum and vodka). She sang several folkloric songs about guaro and sugarcane, translating the lyrics for us.

We were back to more pineapple fields covering the slopes, with some workers out cutting stems for replanting and in another area a harvester running and wagons for bringing the fruits for processing. Then it was sugarcane fields in one area, then more pineapple. We continued descending some more, now with more native vegetation than agricultural areas for a while in bright sunshine, then returned to more sugarcane, little fincas, burnt cane fields and patches of plowed bright red soil ready for planting. We passed through the hamlet of Mercedes, with many houses spread out and a few businesses and local restaurants. Bright orange poró (Erythrina poepiggiana) bloomed on the steeper hillsides; we stopped briefly for a spectacular corteza amarillo or yellow poui (Tabebuia ochracea) in full bloom; many more bright orange poró trees stuck out above the rest of the trees; passed a huge leafless ceiba, over a small river with cattle getting a drink in the low water. Bright white puffy clouds filled the bright blue sky all around us, but with plenty of sunshine as we followed a slow truck, then pulled off momentarily to view a large isolated poró tree in full bloom off in a field. We passed a large planting of papaya trees, through the towns of Palmares and Daniel Flores – where we had to stop at a traffic light – and on into the bigger town of San Isidro on the now four lane road.

By 10:45 we had made it to San Isidro de El General, where we stopped at MaxiPalí supermercado for a bathroom break and shopping excursion while Andreas went to get fuel for the bus. Margherita assisted people in selecting and purchasing Costa Rican coffee, candies, Lizano salsa, and other things for snacks or to take home. We were supposed to be back on the bus at 11:15 but were delayed when Denise and Marsha got stuck in a long line behind two women with a huge basket full that they had to divide and pay for in three portions! Meanwhile, everyone sat on the air-conditioned bus and enjoyed butter cookies, chocolate sandwich cookies, and guava pastries. As we drove away at 11:30 Margharita had a quiz contest, giving away little prizes of chocolate-covered guava candies for the correct answers. Some of the questions were how many volcanoes (150), how many active volcanoes (5), number of native wild cats (7), name of bird that builds long, hanging nest (oropendola), name of the orange-flowered tree shading coffee plantations (poró or Erythrinia poepiggiana), the national bird (clay-colored thrush) and more. We wound our way along the low mountains behind a slow-moving truck, Margherita continued asking questions and giving out bigger and better prizes. Soon we were under cloudy skies again as we started passing tall, scraggly plants of yellow daisies (Senecio sp.), and Mary won the ultimate quiz prize of a small bottle of guara.

As we continued climbing the vegetation began to change, with some different Senecios with duller orange-gold flowers in a flat cluster, more and more highland species in the mix. We passed the firstGunnera insignis, or poor man’s umbrella, then some of the Bocconia frutescens with sharply lobed leaves and their long airy flower and fruit panicles, and some of the tall native Dahlia imperialis. We went in and out of the clouds, looking at the different plants with fingers of mist drifting over the road in places and were driving in a cloud for a moment. Bright red flower clusters of Bomarea hung down from the vines amid other vegetation and the Wigandia shrubs were covered with light purple spikes of flowers. Back and forth we slalomed up the hill, having finally gotten to a section of road with a passing lane to get by the truck we’d been following. We were back in sunshine as we started to see some of the native Fuchsia paniculata with clusters of tiny pink-purple flowers, the little round darker pink flowers of Monochaetum (melostoma) on lower shrubs, epiphytic bromeliads in many of the trees, and the endemic oak (Quercus costaricensis) trees. We also started seeing a few of the many wild avocados, with small fruits, that are the main food of quetzals and other trogons. Margherita explained how the birds move up and down the mountains as the fruits ripen seasonally. Then the arching branches of the native Chusqueta bamboo began to be intermixed with the other foliage as we got up to the summit of one mountain and headed back down for a bit before climbing again. The bright gold-yellow Senecio were in full bloom and very numerous in places. We went up and over another pass at over 10,000 feet with more typical low paramo vegetation and then went back down to more of the previous types of vegetation. There were tall native thistles and the shorter, bold-leafed Myrrhidendron donnell-smithii that looks somewhat like angelica along the roadsides. We went around a bend and were in tendrils of mist, but soon back to sunshine and more of the bright yellow and pink flowers.

About 12:40 we turned off the main road to make the 9km descent to Trogon Lodge on a narrow, bumpy road. We slowly made our way down with Margherita pointing out the oak trees and other plants as we went past pastures studded with trees and then on to native vegetation. Down we went around tight hairpin curves, stopping briefly in front of Miriam’s Quetzals, a little soda (café) where we’d come back to the next day to hopefully see resplendent quetzals, a type of trogon with the male having extremely long turquoise tail feathers. But for now we just headed further down to Trogon Lodge where most of us would be staying for the next two nights (Connie, Roger, Marsha, Denise and Pat would be staying at Savegre Lodge further down the valley as there weren’t enough rooms when they signed up for the trip). Down we went on steep slopes, crossing a narrow single-lane bridge (with the bus barely able to fit around some curves), stopping to let oncoming traffic pass in spots. Soon we could see the orange roofs of the lodge buildings down below us, all in bright sunshine.

When we arrived at Trogon Lodge a little after 1:15, we all had lunch in the dining room there before getting our room assignments. The buffet included onion soup, white rolls with butter, almond rice, beans, ratatouille, BBQ pork chops, and trout fresh from the ponds on the grounds. There was also a salad bar with lettuce, shredded carrots, shredded beets, cucumbers, shredded cabbage, corn, canned peas and other vegetables, with a choice of three dressings. Dessert was a choice of pumpkin flan (with the intact squash topping the custard base), uchuva (goldenberry or Cape gooseberry, Physalis peruvianus, similar to ground cherries, another species of Physalis) in syrup or tres leches cake topped with a strawberry, along with coffee and tea. After the meal Margherita and Andreas took the five staying at Savegre down to their accommodation, while the rest of us hiked off to our rooms, huffing and puffing up the steps to our separate cabins on the steep hill at this high elevation (7,949 feet). We had time to relax and explore the nicely landscaped grounds before meeting again about an hour later. There are many introduced ornamentals here amid the huge rock outcroppings and manicured lawns interspersed with various paths, including the tender blue hen and chicks, Echeveria (probably a hybrid), huge ornamental bananas, orange and yellow-flowered black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata, native to southern Africa), Mexican bush sage, Salvia leucantha, blooming light pink roses and big blue hydrangeas, but also some of the more attractive natives such as Fuchsia paniculata and Gunnera insignis. Located right next to the narrow Savegre River rushing over boulders down the hill, the Lodge abuts native forest, including a wild avocado tree right next to the patio on the back of the bar and lounge – which had some small fruits (perhaps a bit too small) for quetzals to eat. The river is diverted into a series of pools where trout are farmed. In the past hummingbirds abounded here, but with the feeders removed there weren’t many of the tiny birds even though there were plenty of nectar plants around. There was very little bird activity, but it was midafternoon when many birds are resting.

At 3:00 we were waiting in the parking area for Margherita, Andreas and the five staying at Savegre to return to pick us up for our afternoon quetzal quest. It was only about 60F and a bit breezy, and as soon as the sun goes behind the steep mountains (well before sunset at 5:35) it would be getting even chiller than it already was in the shade. They were a little delayed (as we anticipated), so we weren’t on the bus until 3:25 for the short, but very steep, drive up to and slightly past (where it was safer for the bus to stop) the lone wild avocado tree on the edge of a pasture in a relatively accessible location. We all piled out of the bus and then slowly walked down the hill toward where other people – some with gigantic lenses on their cameras on tripods – were already waiting for the show to (hopefully) begin. It was sunny on this part of the road, but down further it was already in shade. We wandered down the road to where we had a good look at the wild avocado tree from across the way and stood around for a long time. Margherita pointed out a few plants, but there weren’t any birds to see. People milled about, chatting, donning more jackets in the chilly breeze. The other group with their giant cameras left. Richard walked down the other way toward where the bus had dropped us off – it was a little more protected from the wind there and we could hear birds making noises in the foliage. After a while we heard a black-faced solitaire singing its haunting melodic whistling song in the distance (but these birds are rarely spotted so we didn’t even try to look for it).

Eventually we wandered back to where the main group was, standing around huddled in coats and hoods in the wind, waiting, waiting and waiting. Richard headed down the hill toward where the bus was now parked just below the wild avocado tree and found a volcano hummingbird that was feeding on the tiny purple flowers of the Fuchsia paniculata, bright red flowers of the Bomarea clusters, and a few other more non-descript flowers. Susan went down to join him, and after about 20 minutes returned to ask Margherita the identity of a bird we’d just seen (a sooty-capped chlorospingus, a small dull olive tanager with black and white striped head). Susan looked up and spotted the female quetzal perched on the electric wires right above Richard’s head (if it had pooped, it would have fallen on his head!). Dan looked at his watch – the bird had arrived exactly at 5:15, just like Margherita had predicted! The bird sat there for a minute or two before flying to the small wild avocado. It plucked off a fruit, sat on a branch, fluttered around for another fruit and another perch, doing this several times. Meanwhile the main group ran down the road to get a better look at the most excellent bird, although it was often just in silhouette and not really that visible in the diminishing light. Finally it flew to another nearby tree for a minute, then took off for good down the valley. Since the male often follows the female in feeding, we decided to wait another 10 minutes to see if we might get to see the even more spectacular male quetzal.

At 5:30 we gave up on the male and loaded up the bus to return to Trogon Lodge, stopping briefly to look at an acorn woodpecker in the fading light. After dropping the main group off, Andreas took the others on to Savegre. Many of the Trogon group ended up in the bar/lounge where they had free appetizers (little skewers of watermelon cubes coated in sesame seeds and a cube of local farmer cheese) and a complimentary tiny sangria or mixed fruit juice.

Dinner was at 7:00, with a buffet of the salad bar with a large selection of vegetables, plus guacamole and pita chips; a delicious pumpkin soup; and choices of mashed potatoes, curry rice, chicken and olives in tomato sauce, cooked cauliflower, cheese cannelloni (long rectangles of cheese wrapped up in sheets of pasta), and local trout. Dessert choices were chocolate cake topped with blackberry sauce, vanilla flan, and goldenberry in syrup. We had two large tables for our group. Each of the tables was made of a single huge slab of wood or cross-section of trunk, with the edges smoothed, but uneven, from trees harvested in the area. By 7:45 everyone had finished eating, but many people lingered for another 15 minutes or so before braving the chilly air and steep slopes to head back to their rooms.

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