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Trip Report Trip Report, Costa Rica, February, 2010

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A report on a Wild Planet Adventures wildlife-oriented 9-day tour of Costa Rica: Cahuita (sloth rescue center, Cahuita National Park), rafting in Sarapiquí, La Selva Biological Station, Lake Arenal and Arenal volcano, Monteverde, St. Elena Cloudforest Reserve, and Manuel Antonio. Two travelers in their late sixties.

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    This is a report on a tour of Costa Rica that we took with Wild Planet Adventures, in February, 2010. The travelers are Margie (66) and Larry (68). This was our first ever organized tour – we usually plan our own independent travel, most frequently in France and Italy. We are most often found on the Europe forum. Our last report in the Mexico and Central America forum was on a trip to the Club Med in Cancún, Mexico, about a year ago. It can be found at:

    http://www.fodors.com/community/mexico-central-america/trip-report-club-md-cancn.cfm

    However, for our first ever visit to Costa Rica, we were attracted to Wild Planet Adventures’ nine-day wildlife-oriented Costa Rica tour, which would expose us to a number of different areas and ecosystems in that country. For the first time in our travel, we let somebody else do the planning and the driving. Margie was a bit nervous about all the walking, because we’re not particularly athletic, but we were very happy with the trip. Our photos, which also are ordered chronologically, can be seen at:

    http://www.kodakgallery.com/gallery/creativeapps/slideShow/Main.jsp?token=870072202506%3A2114345016

    The web site of Wild Planet Adventures is http://WildPlanetAdventures.com/.

    Preparing for the trip

    While selecting the trip and preparing for our departure, we communicated frequently with Josh Cohen, at Wild Planet Adventures, both by telephone and e-mail. He was easy to reach, always returning our calls quickly if he didn’t actually answer the phone when we called. The organization also sent out extensive documentation prior to the trip, with information on recommended immunizations, suggested packing lists, tipping suggestions, and so on. He also helped us with some additional arrangements – we came down a day early, and stayed two days extra after the tour. Josh arranged for our accommodations the first night, and for us to stay on at our last hotel near Manuel Antonio for two additional nights, and for our transportation back to San Jose on the day of our departure.

    The tour, day by day

    Warning: I kept a journal, so this section gets quite detailed. I like to keep this detail for myself, to remember the trip, and so I include it in the Trip Report. But you may want to skim it, or skip down to the conclusion.

    Thursday, 2/4/10

    The flights from Boston to San Jose via Houston were long, but uneventful. As Josh had arranged, we were met at the airport by a taxi. It was a husband and wife team – the wife met us with a sign with our name on it, and her husband drove the taxi. I immediately got to start using my Spanish, chatting with the wife during the drive. I noticed that the driver was going rather slowly, even on the highway portion of the trip. After leaving the highway, he seemed to have trouble getting up a steep hill. Just as we arrived at the front gate of the hotel, the Posada Canal Grande, the car died entirely – it turned out it had been overheating on the trip, and needed water. The driver’s wife helped us roll our luggage up the driveway to the reception desk, commenting “La aventura comienza” (“the adventure begins”).

    Unlike many earlier trips, we had not brought along our netbook computer. This was partly on Josh’s advice, as he didn’t seem to think most of the places we stayed would have internet connectivity. We also figured that the trip would be hard on a computer (humid, time spent in a hot car, etc.), it was only 12 days, and we could afford to be a little out of touch. But we were sorry we hadn’t brought it, as it turned out that WiFi hotspots were available in every single one of our accommodations, and Margie really likes to be in touch with home. In any event, this was not an issue at the Posada Canal, which had a computer for guests in the lobby, so we were able to send e-mail messages informing our family of our arrival.

    Day 1 of the tour, Friday, 2/5/10

    In the morning, we had a nice breakfast at the hotel, outdoors by the pool. At 11:15 AM, our guide for the trip, Koky Porras, arrived to pick us up. He then introduced us to our driver, Guillermo, and we went to the airport to pick up the other couple on the tour, Matt and Tomoko, from Washington, D.C. The trip would normally have had eight people or so, but two couples had dropped out due to relatively last minute health problems, so the tour went ahead with the minimum of four. Thus it was almost like a private tour.

    On the first day, it took us about five hours to get to Cahuita, on the Caribbean coast a bit south of Limón. That was not all driving – it included a stop for lunch, another “pit stop”, and some nasty Friday afternoon traffic (lots of slow trucks on the two-lane highway). Of course, we spent our time getting to know Koky, and our travelling companions, Matt and Tomoko, who are in their thirties. We were a bit concerned with spending so much time with a couple that turned out to be so much younger than ourselves, but they were very friendly, lively, and easy to get along with.

    We stopped for lunch en-route at “La Casa de Doña Lela”, which served typical Costa Rican dishes. For our first meal of the tour, we all had “casados”, a typical local dish which “marries” a number of local specialties on a single platter. I had mine with “carne con salsa”, others had fish. The Spanish word “casado” means “married”, and is derived from “casa” (house), so its original meaning was “housed”.

    We finally arrived at the Aviarios del Caribe Hotel and Sloth Sanctuary (http://www.slothrescue.org/), where we would spend two nights in a large and comfortable air-conditioned room. That evening, we saw some baby sloths in the sanctuary, and a troop of Howler monkeys in the nearby trees.

    We met a couple of women, Elise and Kelli, who were travelling around Costa Rica by public bus, and who were also staying at the Sloth Sanctuary. I might as well throw in a plug for their company, http://ZippyDogs.com, which sells promotional products. Since they didn’t have a car, we offered to take them into town in our van, where they joined us for dinner at the Restaurant Coral Reef (Matt was not feeling well, and didn’t come along). Margie had a fabulous whole fish. I shared a large “mariscos” (mixed shellfish) dish with Koky, which was only so-so (it was somewhat overcooked). Overall, the food on this trip would not be described as “gourmet”, but we are used to travelling in France and Italy. The best of the dishes were usually the fish dishes, particularly the whole fish. Most of our meals were accompanied by wine or beer, usually “Imperial”, the national beer of Costa Rica. We rounded out the evening with “guaro”, a strong liquor fermented from sugar cane (often taken with a slice of lime).

    At the dinner, I was able to get to know Guillermo better (our driver), as I didn’t talk with him while he was driving. Although he speaks some English, he’s not that comfortable with it, and I spoke to him mostly in Spanish. I suppose that there could be tours in which the guide also does the driving. But having a separate driver is a big advantage. For one thing, you get a professional driver, someone who drives for a living, not just a guide who also has a driver’s license (and Guillermo had a commercial driver’s license). For another, Guillermo always stayed with the van when we were out on walks, meaning we could always leave valuables in the van if that was more convenient. And he was an excellent driver, very cautious, and we felt very safe with him.

    Back at the Sloth Sanctuary after dinner, we began to get an idea of how eagle-eyed Koky was when he pointed out a “Jesus Christ lizard” (its official name is “common basilisk”). Now, this lizard was hiding in the middle of a bush, and it was pitch black outside. Nevertheless, he spotted it, and I put my camera on “macro” setting, stuck it into the bush, and took a flash portrait. They’re called “Jesus Christ lizards”, or sometimes just “Jesus lizards”, because of their ability to walk on water. Although we saw several of them during the trip, we never saw them walk on water, but you can see examples of that activity on YouTube.

    Day 2, Saturday, 2/6/10

    Our earliest wake-up call: we met for coffee at 5:30 AM to get an early start on a canoe trip, for some bird (and monkey) watching (the canoes are provided by the sloth sanctuary). Actually, Matt and Tomoko had been awakened anyway by a nearby troop of howler monkeys, which were whooping it up in the treetops (our room was a bit more interior, and they didn’t wake us). Matt was feeling better. Elise and Kelli also came along for the canoe ride, which was gorgeous. Margie and I are not what you’d call serious bird watchers, but between the canoe trip and our subsequent hike, we noted a toucan, a collared aracari, a snowy cotinga, a green heron, a great kiskadee, a yellow crowned night heron, a groob-billed ani, a pale vented northern jacoma, pasarini’s tanager, a Montezuma oropendola, a bay wren, a whip-poor-will, and many black vultures (who circled overhead as if they were pessimistic about us surviving the trip). We also saw wild sloths in the trees, and howler monkeys and white-faced capuchins.

    Back at the hotel, Koky pointed out a hummingbird nest he had located the night before, with babies in it – hidden in the middle of a bush, and only about an inch and a half across. We then had a hearty breakfast, with assorted fruit, Spanish omelets, and juice, after which we went off for the day’s hike along the shores of the Caribbean in Cahuita National Park. In addition to more of the birds listed above, we saw two-toed and three-toed sloths in the trees, two vine snakes (one of which dropped from a tree into the water and swam off), a poisonous yellow eyelash viper, many huge spiders, blue morpho butterflies, a large number of different types of land crabs, hermit crabs, lots of lizards (anoles and Central American whiptail lizards), iguanas in the trees, a crab-eating raccoon, and countless leafcutter ants. We even got to see one of the huge leafcutter “guard” ants, when it came out and bit Margie on the ankle. OK, she was standing on its anthill while watching the monkeys.

    And I’ve saved the most numerous animal for last: white-faced capuchin monkeys were all over the place. They swiped anything that looked like a plastic bag, apparently on the theory that it probably contained food. One of them had successfully stolen a bag of potato chips, and it sat on a tree branch over the path to open the bag and eat the chips. Although the walk was about 3 Km. each way, it was a leisurely stroll, because we stopped frequently to look at things. Margie and I, the old folks, had no trouble with it. Although it was hot, we were by the shore, and a light breeze kept the temperature tolerable.

    Back “home” at the sloth sanctuary, we went out for dinner at the “Cha Cha Cha”, where I had a good fish dish – shark. It was the day before the Costa Rican presidential election, and a noisy parade of cars went by, electioneering for candidate Laura Chinchilla.

    Day 3, Sunday, 2/7/10, election day in Costa Rica.

    We got the official tour of the sloth sanctuary, learning about how sloths are sometimes orphaned. Many of the orphaned sloths are twins. A sloth mother carries her babies around so long (about a year) that two of them get too heavy, and often one falls off, and then generally dies (unless it gets brought to a rescue center).

    We then set off for Sarapiquí, with one stop for lunch. Arriving there, we took an easy trip down a still river in a rubber boat (it had been described as a “drift downstream”, but we were in fact expected to paddle, although it was hardly difficult). Our guide, Jose, pointed out an otter, various monkeys, iguanas, and lots of birds (including a gray-necked wood rail, egrets, herons, anhingas, sandpipers, a “snake bird”, another Montezuma oropendola, a lineated woodpecker, kingfishers, toucans, a great kiskadee, a clay-colored robin, and again, lots of circling vultures. At the end of the day, we were driven to La Quinta hotel, and checked in for two nights.

    During the course of our day’s driving, we passed lots of voting stations, with lots of activity, and after the polls closed that evening, we found out that Laura Chinchilla had indeed been elected – Cost Rica’s first woman president.

    (More to come.)

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    LindainOhio, they recommended Hepatitis A, Typhoid, and the anti-malarial Chloroquine. I think this is probably excessively cautious for Costa Rica, but it comes right out of the CDC recommendations, and we followed them. We had previously been vaccinated against Hepatitis A for other travel. For this trip, we both took the Vivotif Berna typhoid vaccine capsules (finish the treatment a week before the trip), and weekly Chloroquine (which we are still taking, as you start the treatment before departure, and continue for a few weeks after you return).

    The Chloroquine is really overkill in the dry season. The only area with any real potential for malaria is the caribbean coast (around Limòn), and malaria really doesn't exist even there at the moment. On the other hand, we've both taken Chloroquine before without the slightest problem, so we figured, why not. The only mosquito bite I recall getting was in a different area of the country.

    The van carried a large bottle of water, from which we refilled our own water containers each day. We generally drank bottled water, although I've been told that the tap water in Costa Rica is safe to drink. We had a lot of fruit juices of various sorts, and you never know what they might be reconstituted with behind the counter. Nobody had any stomach problems at all, except for Matt on the first day, and he probably arrived with that one from the US.

    Here's a story, odd but true. Our two daughters had previously been in Costa Rica, on separate trips. There, by coincidence, both of them had been nipped by stray dogs. Also by coincidence, both of them had received pre-exposure rabies shots, for previous travel (one to Madagascar, and one to remote area of various third-world countries). After the bites, they both received rabies boosters, one in San Jose, and the other upon returning home. The nurse who gave the shots in San Jose thought it was overkill, but our travel doctor pointed out that the dog could not be traced, rabies is invariably fatal, and the booster shot was extremely low risk.

    Medical care in Costa Rica is generally excellent. It's a very safe and easy country to travel in.

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    Very much enjoyed the report. We are Sr. citizens (73 and 74)
    We have had a few health problems in 2009 and were looking
    to get away for some sunshine in March or April 2010. I have a few questions re. Costa Rica. Is it really hot and humid
    in March and April? Also, because of our age, we do need to use the facilities more than younger people. On the tours
    is there plenty of locations that we can stop at, probably every two hours or so? We were also concerned, because of our age that tours might be a little ambitious for us, as we are not very active at home. Sound like you made it okay.

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    fishee, there were stray dogs all over Costa Rica, and many Costa Ricans seem to have pet dogs. Tomoko, who travelled with us, loves dogs, and patted them all (the pets, not the strays). Remembering my daughters' experiences, I steered clear of them. But it really wasn't that traumatic for them. With their pre-exposure shots, they weren't too worried, and since they only needed boosters, it was quick and easy (although the boosters required two shots, two days apart).

    Dinky37, I think that Costa Rica would be a fine place to get some needed R&R. We loved Costa Rica, and it is an easy and friendly country to visit.

    It’s really not possible for us to say how you’d do on the Wild Planet Adventures tour. You might do fine with it, or it might be a bit too ambitious for you. We had no trouble with it, and we’re not very athletic, but you’re about six years older. The walks were not rigorous, but sometimes they were lengthy, as long as 3-4 hours. The pace is quite leisurely – after all, we were looking for wildlife. The sun wasn’t a problem, because you’re in the shade deep in the forests, but the heat and humidity sometimes made it difficult, particularly for Margie.

    Costa Rica is quite modern, with bathroom facilities available along the roads. Thus bathroom breaks while driving were not a problem. If anyone needed to stop, we stopped for ten minutes. Most of the others welcomed a chance to stretch their legs. If you’re in the forests, however, you won’t find toilets, and occasionally on our tour, one of us would disappear behind a bush. For the most part, though, it was not a problem. Your body tends to store up water in the heat. Margie usually drank three bottles of water in the course of a long walk, and never needed a bathroom break. It’s easier for men to step behind a tree. In most places, there aren’t that many people around, and where there are, as in Manuel Antonio Park, there are bathroom facilities.

    I don’t know much about other tours available, but I would imagine many of them are active as well. Costa Rica has very diverse ecosystems, and some areas are usually hot and humid, while others are drier and cooler. It was the dry season, but even so, the weather was unseasonably hot and humid in some areas we visited - the locals said that it was more like April or May weather. Margie seems to suffer the weather more than I do, and although she had a hard time with it, she was able to complete all activities.

    A possible approach for you: instead of a tour, you could visit one or two of the cooler, dryer areas, and have the hotel find you guides for private tours. That way, any tour could be tailored to your needs. The cooler areas tend to be in the mountains, like Monteverde, but getting there is difficult, up a bumpy dirt road. You might be happier going to a resort on the Nicoya Peninsula, which is less humid, and again, taking day or half-day tours arranged by your hotel. You could fly into Liberia instead of San Jose. It’s really not that hard to set these things up for yourself, with the help of some of the hotels. Other folks on this Forum know Costa Rica better than we do, so consider asking your questions under a new thread.

    As for the Wild Planet Adventures tour, I would certainly recommend them, if you feel comfortable with the planned activities. The average age of their guests is usually higher than on our tour. Our traveling companions, Matt and Tomoko, were younger than the average client. I’d recommend that you call Wild Planet Adventures, and ask Josh Cohen what he thinks. While of course he might be inclined to encourage you to go for it, in our experience, he was pretty straight with us about what was required, and he’s willing to take the time to work through any issues with you. There might be ways to make you feel more secure about it. For instance, it could be possible in some cases to cut a walk short if need be, and return before the others (having a separate driver who stays with the van means there’s always an air-conditioned van to return to). I don’t know what Josh might suggest, I just made that idea up, but Josh will be willing to discuss all the possibilities with you.

    (More of my report soon.)

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    Day 4, Monday, 2/8/10

    We got an early start after a high-protein breakfast, preparing for a long morning of white-water rafting with Jose (and a late lunch). The raft was led by a kayak, for safety (to be able to quickly reach anyone who might fall out of the raft), and to help find the best path to follow. It had been a rather dry season, so the Sapapiquí river was low. Thus, while the trip was a lot of fun, the rafting was level 2 - not extremely challenging. That was fine with Margie, who was a bit nervous about it, but the trip could be level 3 in the same month of a wetter year. Our lunch was not until around 1:30 - we actually changed into dry clothes at the restaurant. Then back to La Quinta hotel for some free time. La Quinta has fairly extensive trails on their property, which we walked, visiting their butterfly collection. We also checked our e-mail. We had dinner at the hotel. The hotel's web page is at http://www.hotellaquintasarapiqui.com/english/index.html.

    Koki then took us on a night hike on the La Quinta grounds. We saw a walking-stick insect, two caimans in the ponds, and lots of frogs, including a few brightly colored "poison-dart" frogs which he somehow found in the dark ("Oh, look, there's one of the world's smallest frogs, under that leaf").

    Day 5, Tuesday, 2/9/10

    We left La Quinta early, and visited La Selva Biological station, http://ots.ac.cr/en/laselva/. Our tour there was led by a guide named Octavio, who was provided by the station. Many of the visitors there were serious birders, sporting cameras with enormous lenses mounted on tripods. We saw spider monkeys for the first time, the third type of monkey on the trip (so far: howlers, capuchins, and spider monkeys). We also saw more sloths, a collared anteater, and some peccaries (which crossed the path right in front of us). Not to mention the ubiquitous leaf-cutter ants.

    On the road again, we stopped at a roadside restaurant, where I had a fabulous whole tilapia cooked in garlic sauce. I was beginning to learn that the whole fish dishes were my best choice.

    Another stop: since we were nearing the active volcano Arenal, we were able to stop and soak in some natural hot springs, where hot water bubbles up from the ground (http://arenalvolcanohotsprings.com/eco_termales/). It slowly cools as it runs from pool to pool, so you can choose your temperature. It was a great way to soothe our sore muscles from the previous day's white-water rafting.

    This was the time to visit the volcano Arenal. But there's only a fifty percent chance of that, and in our case, the day was cloudy, so we were unable to see the live lava display. Thus we went straight to the Villa Decary lodge (http://www.villadecary.com/), where we stayed in high rooms overlooking Lake Arenal (this was the only hotel in which we only stayed for one night). Dinner was at "El Indio Pelado" (The Naked Indian), which served primarily Italian food. Margie had a very good lasagna, but I stayed with more Costa Rican fare, a chile relleno (also very good).

    Day 6, Wednesday, 2/10/10

    After a pancake breakfast at the hotel, we drove on extremely bumpy, pothole-filled dirt roads up to Monteverde. There we picked up Koky's girlfriend Rebecca, her daughter Keity (pronounced like the English name "Katy"), and Koky's daughter Aylin (pronounced like "Eileen"). I don't know if Koky would have had his family members join us if the group were larger, but when he had mentioned the possibility earlier, we were enthusiastic about it.

    We had lunch at Stella's Bakery, which served various lunch specialties as well as baked goods. Then up the mountain to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, for a guided walk with Koky. We were in particular looking for the elusive resplendent quetzal, a spectacular bird with a long tail. We saw none of them, but we could hear their calls in the distance.

    We did see other birds, and spider monkeys. In a separate section of the reserve, hummingbird feeders attracted a large variety of hummingbirds. There must have been a dozen varieties, but I got photos of only a couple before my camera's SD-card failed (I immediately removed it and write-locked it, and all the previous pictures were intact when I returned home).

    All nine of us had dinner together in Santa Elena at the restaurant "Mar & Tierra" ("Sea and Land"): Koky and Guillermo, Matt and Tomoko, Rebecca, Keity, Aylin, Margie, and me. We checked in at the Hotel de Montaña (http://www.monteverdeinfo.com/hotel-montana-monteverde/), and in the evening, Margie and I had drinks at their bar with Matt and Tomoko (I was becoming fond of guaro).

    Day 7, Thursday, 2/11/10

    After breakfast at the hotel, we set off for a 2.5 Km walk through the St. Elena Cloud Forest Reserve (http://www.reservasantaelena.org/), over a series of suspension bridges at tree-top level that traversed deep gorges. Koky seemed determined to find the resplendent quetzal, and on this second day in the area, we did. We saw four of them, actually. I got some pretty decent pictures. We also spotted other interesting animals and plants, including quite a few spider monkeys. Despite being nervous about it before the trip, and the view through the metal-mesh deck hundreds of feet down into the gorges below, Margie had no problems on the long suspension bridges. Although they moved a bit as you walked, they seemed sturdy and well-maintained. Nobody in our group opted to take an optional zip-line tour through the canopy, although Matt considered it. Margie said, "I don't pay to be anxious."

    This might be a good time to say a bit more about the abilities of our guide, Koky. How he spotted the things he found is a mystery to me. He would look off into the deep brush, and suddenly say, "Look, an XXX!" (name whatever bird or animal). We would then peer off in the same direction, and see nothing. He would then have us stand directly behind him, while he described in great detail the exact location of the target. Often, still nothing. Eventually we'd see it. Sometimes, the animal's protective coloration made it almost impossible to pick out. But sometimes, when you did see it, it proved to be brightly colored, and you couldn't imagine how you had ever missed it. The major mystery for us was how Koky managed to pick it out in the first place, a tiny speck in the huge panorama of the cloud forest.

    Koky also has the ability to produce bird and monkey calls, to which the animals often responded (although at one point he admitted that he doesn't really know what he's "saying" to them). He was instrumental in the founding of the Association of Naturalist Guides of Monteverde, which is setting standards for professional guides (see http://www.aguinamon.com/).

    We had another late lunch at Stella's Bakery. I had ribs; Margie had meatloaf. We then returned for some free time at the hotel. The hotel had free WiFi available, but didn't have a public computer (and remember, we had no notebook with us). Margie was hankering to be in touch with our families, so we walked the short distance into town to an alleged internet café. I say "alleged" because the ancient computer was so insanely slow, that we were able to accomplish absolutely nothing in a half hour. Seeing what we were going through, they didn't charge us anything. Back at the hotel, Margie made a phone call to the US from a phone in the lobby. The charge was added to our final bill - it was only a few dollars. Dinner, with Koky's daughter Aylin, was at the "Restaurante de Lucía" - steak.

    Day 8, Friday, 2/12/10

    This was a day with a lot of driving, although it was broken up with a few stops. We first stopped at the Carrera Biological Preserve, where, in addition to the ubiquitous leaf-cutter ants, we saw quite a few scarlet macaws. I also got the only photo I was able to obtain of the blue top of the wings of a blue morpho butterfly (since when they land, they close their wings and expose the drab underside). I was able to get my photo because the blue morpho had become trapped in a spider web, and was in the process of being eaten by a spider. Only one wing was left.

    The weather on this day was particularly hot, and Margie was suffering from the heat. I would generally carry one bottle of water with me, and Margie would carry two. Usually, she would drink her two, and then drink mine as well. Talking with locals, most agreed that the temperature was unusually hot - more like April than a typical early February. Although Margie suffered from the heat, she completed all the walks on the tour.

    When we stopped for lunch, it was at a restaurant near a bridge, under which there were a large number of crocodiles. A little later, I photographed a long line of migrating pelicans through the car window. The photo doesn't give a good idea of how many there were, all strung out in a long, straight line. We finally arrived at Manuel Antonio, on the Pacific coast, and had dinner at the Byblos hotel (http://www.bybloshotelcostarica.com/). We had driven from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean. That takes a bit longer in the US.

    Day 9, Saturday, 2/13/10, the last day of the tour

    After breakfast at the hotel, we went off to Manuel Antonio Park (http://www.manuelantoniopark.com/mapk/default.asp), where we walked around with Koky on an easy, flat gravel road. We started off with the usual sloths and monkeys, and then saw a deer, just off the road in the woods. To our surprise, the deer casually walked down onto the road, and strolled along with the tourists for a while. This is an area where the wildlife has obviously gotten used to people. Lots of colorful land crabs were all around.

    We returned to the beach, where a troop of white-faced capuchins were running around, not very far from the people, always looking to steal something good to eat. Despite all the signs warning the people not to feed the monkeys, they had a great deal of success. One of them grabbed a Tupperware container of melon or mango slices, and I got some good photos of him up in a tree, eating from the container. He also had to fend off other monkeys trying to steal slices from him. The monkeys didn't just steal food from the people, they also stole from other monkeys. I wasn't fast enough with my camera to get what would have been the greatest shot: the monkey's face seen through the bottom of the plastic container, licking off the last bits of juice.

    The owners of the container waited patiently below for the monkey to finish off the contents, hoping he'd then drop it to the ground (he did). I overheard a woman speaking Italian, and chatted with her a bit in Italian. It's always fun if I can use all my languages on a trip, and I did on this one. After the Americans, the second-largest tourist contingent were Germans, followed by a much smaller number of French, and then that one small group of Italians. There were no doubt Spanish speaking tourists from countries other than Costa Rica, but my Spanish is not so good as to allow me to pick out the differing accents of other countries, so I couldn't tell a Spanish speaking tourist from a native "Tico" (Costa Rican).

    We spent the rest of the morning on the beach, just Margie and me. Tomoko and Matt had gone off for a walk on their own, and Koky had arranged to meet us after lunch (this was one of the few lunches that was not included in the tour). It was a welcome cool-down, sort of. I say "sort of", because I don't recall ever in my life experiencing such warm ocean water. Of course, I've swum in Maine. We chatted with a woman there with her family from Chicago, who told us that when she had briefly left her backpack unattended, a capuchin had run across the sand up to it, and had unzipped one of the compartments, pulling out some T-shirts and things, searching for food. The monkey had chosen badly, as the food was in an adjacent zippered pocket. The owner came running back and shooed the monkey off before he got to the food.

    Although we sat in the shade of some palm trees, I had carefully checked to be sure we were not sitting under any coconuts. My elder daughter, who has travelled extensively in the tropics, had told me that being killed by a falling coconut is considered to be a very ignominious death. So I thought we were safe, but there was suddenly a loud crack, and a huge palm frond came crashing down on us. It didn't do much damage, because we were hit by the leafy end. The heavy end that had been attached to the tree landed closer to the trunk, so it missed us.

    On the beach, we saw yet another Jesus Christ lizard, a couple of iguanas (one sunning in a tree, one on the ground), numerous land crabs, assorted hermit crabs scurrying across the sand, and, as already mentioned, the ubiquitous capuchin monkeys.

    We walked out of the park, which required wading over a damp sandbar (there might have been a few inches of water, if the tide had been higher). Since we had already cleaned the sand off our feet and put our shoes on, we took a 30-foot boat ride offered by a local entrepreneur for whatever we wanted to tip, thus staying completely dry. We then found a nearby restaurant for lunch. A vendor selling decorated pots passed by on the sidewalk, and prevailed on us to buy one of them. He said that he was the actual artist. I think he was - he offered to personalize one of the signed pots (it was decorated using a technique in which lines are drawn on an overall black glaze by scratching it with a stylus).

    Back at the Byblos, I took a picture of the resident agouti, who prowled all around the grounds. A troop of noisy howlers was carrying on in the treetops across the street. They seemed to get upset whenever a large truck passed, since trucks make a noise that sounds a bit like the howlers themselves. They would then respond with loud cries of their own. The humorist Will Cuppy, writing in a tongue-in-cheek "zoology text" called "How to tell your friends from the apes", once wrote, "The howler monkey's howl is caused by a large hyoid bone at the top of the trachea. It can be cured by a simple operation on the neck with an axe." Perhaps they woke him up one morning.

    Every afternoon at the Byblos, and sometimes also earlier in the day, the property was invaded by a large troop of the fourth and final type of monkey seen on this trip: squirrel monkeys, locally called "titis". By the end of our fourth day at the Byblos, I had gotten as many close-up photos of titis as I'll ever need. Many of them were carrying babies, either on their backs, or slung underneath, nursing. They're cute as can be, and so used to people that they came right up close, often running across the pool deck. They travelled by swinging through the tree tops, often taking long flying leaps across space. The road was a bit too wide for them to jump across, but they ran across on the telephone wires. We ended the last day of our tour with a good dinner at "La Barba Roja" ("The Red Beard"). Margie had a fabulous mahi mahi cooked in a banana leaf. In general, Manuel Antonio was more "upscale" (and also more touristy) than the other parts of Costa Rica we had visited.

    ----------------
    That completes the activities that were part of the Wild Planet Adventure tour, but we stayed on another two days in Manuel Antonio. My final installment, still to come, will cover those two additional days, and then I'll close with some final thoughts.

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    Great trip report, dad! I enjoyed reading all the little details.

    I remember that saying about getting hit by falling coconuts - I read it in an old Costa Rica Travel Guide (circa the mid-1990's). I believe they wrote "getting hit on the head by a coconut is an inglorious way to die."

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    The conclusion of my report:

    Sunday, 2/14/10, our first day after the tour ended

    In the morning, we saw Tomoko and Matt off for the airport, and said goodbye to Koky and Guillermo. Through Wild Planet Adventures, we had, prior to the trip, arranged an extra two days at the Byblos, so we didn't have to move to another hotel. After nine days of pretty constant activities, we had a sort of low-key, relaxing day. We walked to the butterfly garden in the Wildlife Refuge at the "Sí Como No" hotel, right next door to the Byblos. There, we had an interesting guided tour. We had lunch at the hotel, and then took a bit of a siesta (the hotel delivered a rose to each room, for Valentine's Day).

    In the afternoon, we both got treatments at the Spa Uno (http://www.spauno.com/), across the street from the Byblos. I got a hot-stone massage, and Margie a manicure and pedicure. They started our appointments annoyingly late, but apologized and gave us a discount on the price. My massage was out on an outdoor deck, and there was a tropical downpour during it, with flashes of lightening. I thought it was pretty spectacular, and it was also a great massage. It was pouring so hard that we actually took a taxi from the Spa Uno to La Barba Roja, which we had liked so much the day before that we returned there for dinner. The taxi ride was probably only a few hundred meters, and other than the rain, we certainly could have walked it. I actually had brought a couple of small umbrellas, but the downpour was so intense that we would have gotten soaked anyway. I had a rack of lamb, and Margie had the same mahi mahi dish that she had loved the night before. The desserts were great - a mango mousse, and a crème brulée. We walked back during a break in the otherwise continuous rain (this was supposed to be the dry season).

    Monday, 2/15/10, our last full day in Costa Rica

    The day began with a troop of about 30 squirrel monkeys crossing the treetops in front of our porch, and the usual cries of the howlers in the distance, across the road. We took a long walk to photograph some signs I had noted along the road, getting as far as the Costa Verde hotel, where I had admired a sign with their motto, "Still more monkeys than people". Since this walk was very much downhill, we hailed a cab to return uphill to the Byblos, where we did some packing up for our return the next day.

    We were then picked up at the hotel for a Damas Mangrove Tour by Iguana Tours (http://www.iguanatours.com/), which we had booked the day before. At $60 each (the tour over, we now had to start paying for things), it included lunch before the start of the tour, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the lunch was quite good. The mangrove tour was on boats, divided up to put all the English speakers on one boat, and the Spanish speakers on another (a few people also toured in kayaks). The tour was fascinating, and the guide and boat driver were very skilled. We learned about the four types of mangroves trees in the area, and the ecology of mangrove swamps. We saw lots of birds, monkeys, crabs, a very large crocodile, iguanas, and other lizards.

    And the boat driver spotted not one, but two silky anteaters, a feat that I can't really comprehend. These are rare, tiny, nocturnal animals, and during the day, they sleep up in a tree, curled up into a ball, about the size of a tennis ball. Although they're orange in color, they are quite well concealed by leaves, and each of them was about five meters into the mangrove forest. When we found the second one, the boat driver tied up the boat, climbed onto the "shore" (there really isn't any "land" in a mangrove swamp), and climbed the tree with the animal sleeping on it, carrying the camera of one of the tourists in the boats. He then took a picture of the sleeping anteater, which the owner of the camera sent to us after our return (it's posted among my photos).

    A bit later in the tour a group of white-faced capuchins came down to investigate the boat, no doubt hoping for a handout. One of them jumped onto the roof of the boat, and stuck his head down over the edge of the awning to watch the tourists. We very much enjoyed this worthwhile tour.

    For our final dinner, we went fairly early to the Agua Azul ("Blue Water"), which doesn't take reservations. We had an excellent dinner there, overlooking the setting sun (I discovered my camera has a "sunset" setting). There was an old-fashioned television set mounted on a wall bracket nearby. It was not a flat-screen TV, but rather an older TV with a CRT (Cathode Ray Tube). This meant that there is a static charge to the screen (remember how your old TVs used to attract dust?), so little gnats were being attracted to the glass. A small gecko was making the most of this. He (or she) prowled over the glass, approaching and eating each small gnat as it landed on the screen. The gecko appeared as a silhouette on the flickering screen. Somehow, this seemed a fitting final image of Costa Rica. Back at the hotel, we finished packing.

    Tuesday, 2/16/10

    Wild Planet Adventures had arranged for us to have a driver take us from Manuel Antonio to the airport in San Jose. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the driver turned out to be Guillermo, who we thought we had said goodbye to a couple of days before. With a new highway, opened only a few weeks before, the trip took less time than expected, and we arrived well before our flight. But we're always happier to not be rushed, and our early arrival was actually beneficial We whizzed through the line to pay the airport exit tax, and then quickly checked in for our flight. When we then looked behind us, the lines had gotten enormous.

    This left a lot of time for lunch at the airport, which seemed to be in a state of perpetual construction (once past security, there was a long, convoluted walk through plywood hallways to get to the food area). In the food court, in the capital of Costa Rica, we were disappointed to not find a single restaurant serving Costa Rican food. We had to settle for Church's Chicken. I would have much preferred one final casado.

    Our flights on Continental, via Houston, were relatively uneventful, although the second flight departed two hours late, due to snow on the east coast, and some sort of incident at Logan airport in Boston. Thus we got in around 1:30 AM, and I then had to dig my car out of the snow before driving home.

    Conclusion

    Overall, we had a fabulous time on this tour. It's a great choice for anyone interested in seeing and learning about lots of wildlife. It samples quite a few of the different ecosystems of Costa Rica. Pretty much everything is included in the tour price, and there's nothing much you need to worry about. The major extra costs are alcoholic beverages, and tips for the guides. The latter are up to you, of course, but we found the guides to be uniformly excellent (the Wild Planet Adventures pre-trip information sheets discuss guidelines for tipping, but the suggested range is pretty wide).

    What we liked least about the tour is that lots of time is spent on the road. Of course, that's inevitable if you're going to get a taste of multiple ecosystems in Costa Rica. Nothing can be done about the distances involved, which are mostly too short to fly (someone I met told me that the local flights often have long departure delays, so that flying often takes longer door-to-door than driving). The van was roomy, comfortable, and air-conditioned, and the driver cautious and highly skilled. The trips were always broken up with stops, some short, and some longer. Nevertheless, there were days when it seemed that more of the day was spent in the van than not.

    It was also extremely hot and humid. That doesn't generally bother me, but Margie has trouble with it (that's why we never travel in Europe in July and August). And we had the bad luck to hit a streak of particularly hot weather. Nevertheless, Margie and I are 66 and 68, respectively, and although the heat was uncomfortable at times, we completed all the walks without any problems (and we're pretty much couch potatoes). Josh had presented the activities to us as "active, but not rigorous", and we found that to be an accurate description. Between the long walks away from civilization, and the towering suspension bridges in the cloud forest canopy, Margie described the trip at the outset as "outside her comfort zone", but in the end she was proud to find that she had completed all the activities without difficulty, and we never felt that we had in any way held Matt and Tomoko back.

    The extensive documentation that Wild Planet Adventures provided before the trip was very useful. The one piece of omitted equipment that I think should have been listed is a monopod, for steadying your camera. I'm not a super-serious photographer, taking pictures more to document my trip than to produce National Geographic quality images. My camera is compact, a Canon PowerShot SX200IS, with a 12X optical zoom (35mm equivalent: 28mm - 336mm). But in the field, operating at the extreme telephoto setting, it becomes very hard to hold it steady. I think that I got images as good as I did because the "IS" in the camera's model number refers to "Image Stabilization" (the specifications say the image stabilization is "lens-shift type"), but still, a monopod would have made it much easier. The really serious bird photographers we met all carried tripods. One man had an enormous 500mm image-stabilized lens mounted on a tripod. When we asked what he did with the photos he took, he said he used them on his home screen-saver. "Nothing else?", we asked. "No, nothing else."

    There is an optional extension of the trip, days 11-14, to the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado, which we did not take. Although this area is described as "Costa Rica's Jewel", we were leery of the very long drive to get there, and the length of the longest hike on the peninsula. We may return some day to see that area, but if we do, we'll probably fly in instead of taking the long drive.

    We'll be happy to try to answer any questions Fodorites might have.

    Regards,
    Margie and Larry, "justretired"

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    Thank you for your report. If you don't mind me asking, what type of camera did you use? Your pictures are very good and I'm looking to try to go a little lighter than I went the last time. Took an Digital SLR. I want to get a point and shoot with a 10X to 18X optical zoom. Thanks.

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    I actually specified my camera just above. It's a Canon PowerShot SX200IS, with a 12X optical zoom (35mm equivalent: 28mm - 336mm). The "IS" in the camera's model number refers to "Image Stabilization" (lens-shift type), which helped a lot at the full zoom setting. A monopod would have been even better.

    I used this camera for the first time in France, and wasn't very happy with the pictures. But this time, I read the manual, and I was careful to always press the shutter button down half-way before shooting, and to give the camera ample time to focus. If the image appeared at all fuzzy, I'd release the shutter, move the focus point, and re-press it half way. In that way, I usually got well-focused shots. I think that the first time I used in in France, I had a tendency to just point and press the shutter button all the way in one operation, and it didn't give good results.

    I got this camera at Costco, and bought it primarily for the 12X zoom, which was very important for the Costa Rican wildlife shots.

    I'm not sure I understand the need for an SLR in a digital camera. The whole point of an SLR is to let you see exactly what the camera is seeing through the lens. But all digital cameras do that as a matter of course, since you can preview the image on the camera's screen (in order to provide the largest possible viewing screen, most digital cameras these days dispense with a viewfinder). So why do you need the complexity, noise, and vibration of the SLR mechanism? That was for film cameras, where there was no other way to preview the shot exactly as seen through the lens.

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    Great detailed report. Glad you survived the warm weather. The nice thing about Costa Rica is that you can plan trips based on your temperature comfort level. I live in the mountains surrounded by national parks and see all kinds of animals but am quite comfortable most of the time. When I head down the mountain into town I am always sooooo hot. There are areas all over the country like this. Even places like Bosque del Cabo can be comfortable or hot depending on what you are doing. They are on the Osa and just the perfect place for most people unless you prefer the city. Trails for many abilities and lovely grounds and gardens for those who prefer just a stroll. I am so addicted to that place that I have been 3 times in the last 1 1/2 years. Not to mention numerous times previously. You should think about this place if you should head to CR again.

    A friend is a guide/driver and has a senior group that comes down every year for a week or two. Plenty of things to do for all ages.

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    Keep in mind that there are many people like my friend who is a licensed tour operator that can arrange a tour specific to your abilities and what you enjoy seeing and doing. We took custom tours for several years. Sometimes I would do the research and ask them to make it happen. Other times I would ask for their suggestions.

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    Hi, Suzie2. I'm just checking in after a few days absent. Thanks for the Bosque del Cabo recommendation. I'll make a note of it for our next Costa Rica trip, which will probably be to the Osa. But it won't be for a while; our next trip will be to Spain.

    - Larry

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    Justretired. Sorry, my laptop is acting up. What I wanted to ask is how long it takes for your shot to focus while pressing the shutter down halfway. I've been doing some research and I have read some comments about losing the shots (i.e. birds) due to the length of time it takes to focus. Thanks for your help.

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    Usually the camera focuses pretty quickly, in around a quarter to a half a second. It's bound to take some time, since focusing is a mechanical operation - it's actually moving the internal lenses.

    The problem with it taking longer is when it doesn't succeed on the first try. The camera focuses based on an optical analysis of the scene, and it displays a small rectangle around the part of the image it is using for this. Sometimes I would roughly aim the camera, press the shutter half way, and find it to be focusing on a tree branch much closer than the one the bird was on. A problem with forests is that there are things in the scene at many different distances from the camera. When that occurred, I released the shutter button, moved the camera to get the bird into the focusing box, and again pressed the button half way.

    Another thing that could happen was that the focus box would fall on something with no sharp edges in it for the camera to focus on, such as a large leaf in a dark area of the scene. In that case, again, I needed to pick something better to focus on.

    You also need to be careful about the focus "mode" - the camera has many of them. I usually had it focus on the center of the image, the most basic mode. But there were other modes in which it would pick several spots, and focus on a compromise distance. It also has a face recognition mode, in which it locates faces in the scene, and focuses on them. I often used this mode when taking pictures of people. Again, it displays boxes around the faces on the viewing screen, so you can verify that it's focusing on the right things. I usually used this mode only for people, but I once left it in this mode by mistake, and I'm pretty sure I saw it properly identify the face of a squirrel monkey as the object to focus on.

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