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Honking at iguanas, threatened by monkeys--Guanacaste Costa Rica

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Jul 25th, 2018, 01:54 PM
  #1
RAC
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Honking at iguanas, threatened by monkeys--Guanacaste Costa Rica

We recently spent a week (last 7 days of May) after winning a silent auction for a stay at a resort in Guanacaste (Secrets Papagayo).The basics:

Lodging:

all 7 nights at Secrets Papagayo. This is a luxury (i.e. expensive) adults-only all-inclusive on Culebra Bay within the Gulf of Papagayo. As some regulars may know, we're skeptics when it comes to All-Inclusives in Costa Rica. Our skepticism went away after this trip. Not only because the experience (food, grounds, service, room, etc) at the hotel was so enjoyable, but also because with the right location, there's really no reason at all that a person can't stay at one and explore Guanacaste just like they would while staying at 99% of other accomodations. If anything, it was maybe even more convenient. 20 minutes to the airport, 20 minutes to Playas del Coco, 60-75 minutes to Santa Rosa, Rincon de la Vieja, and Corobici river. And, at least at his particular resort, nature and comfort seemed to coexist pretty readily.

Vehicle:

We rented from Budget, who apparently closed their office at the resort between the time of our booking and our arrival. No worries, they delivered the vehicle and picked it up with no problems. A couple of recommendations on vehicles--(1) it's really, really helpful to have one here--it will pay for itself in saved transportation costs very quickly if you intend to see more than 1-2 attractions; (2) be sure to rent an automatic transmission vehicle if staying in the stretch of beach between Playas del Coco and the Papagayo Peninsula--on the way between the beach areas and the rest of the mainland is a really steep hill you need to climb each way, and it's a real struggle if using a manual transmission whereas automatics handle it pretty easily.

Attractions/activities:

Corobici river float (Rio Tropicales)--we saw a lot more than we thought we would on this. It's a very relaxed ride (just under two hours) followed by a good Tico lunch (frankly a welcome break from resort food). Only note of caution is that it's a bit of a challenge getting out of the boat as it's on a relatively steep river bank.

Seabird boat tour: Our second time on this trip, and we were once again happy with our choice. We went on the morning boat tour, and the coastline was even lovelier this time due to the greening effect of rain. However, that also meant gray skies and rain for parts of the trip, but El Capitan Sebastien and the crew always make it an enjoyable ride.


Santa Rosa National Park:

What a difference the season makes. When we visted Santa Rosa in February 2016, it was brown, dry, dusty, with virtually no leaves in most of the park. This time, almost everything was green, and there were signs of moisture everywhere--puddles, small streams, wet leaves on the ground. And the wildlife behaved differently too. We saw two different army ant swarms, including one truly massive one that spread out over 15 feet wide--something we hadn't seen before when visiting. And, while we didn't see monkeys this time and the North American migrant birds were gone, we saw the resident Tico birds with much more ease--Long-tailed Manakins, Elegant Trogons, etc were much easier to see. And soooooo many iguanas. Unfortunately, a lot of them-at least a dozen--were on the road sunning themselves as we drove out. So, very frequently I would have to stop the car and, per the title, honk at the bugger until it moved off the road. A lot of them were missing tails (lizard brain is rarely used as a compliment).


Rincon de la Vieja National Park:

The Las Pailas trail was closed when we last visited this part of Costa Rica, and we were very pleased with our hike here--probably the highlight of the trip. During the rainy season the Las Pailas trail is really a great attraction--there's a seasonal waterfall, rainforest, dry scrub habitat, monkeys, birds, and a great chance to see, hear and smell actual volcanic activity at the fumaroles and boiling mud pits. Probably the most memorable moment was when we encountered a couple of young adult male white-faced monkeys who were so fiercely territorial/aggressive that one jumped down to about 5 feet above our heads, barked at us, and with both hands violently snapped off a small tree branch while staring us down. Message sent.

More details (and photos) to follow)
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Jul 25th, 2018, 01:55 PM
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Day 1: We have a an early morning flight (6:48 AM) flight from JFK to Liberia airport. Ugh. JetBlue's terminal is a zoo, and better yet not only were we unable to check in online, we were unable to use the kiosks the check in too. So, we have to stand in line at the very cleverly hidden help desk area for about 30 minutes. Then another 30 minutes in a chaotic, unpleasant security line. And then there's the food court area where all we want is a couple of donuts and a coffee. 20 minutes and $15 later, we finally have some food and caffeine we can ingest before proceeding to our gate. There are lots of loud people who will be on our flight. Perfectly nice, but really loud for it being before 5:45 in the morning.Anyhow, flight goes according to plan, since we're arriving early immigration, baggage claim, and customs go very quickly and we're met by our shuttle service. Within 25 minutes we're at the resort getting checked in. We're there about 4 hours before check-in for our room.

And it is HOT. I know it's supposed to be not as hot as March and April, but with the rainy season humidity, it's probably worse. Good news is that courtesy of the people who booked the trip for us, we've gotten a free upgrade to an ocean view room in the "Preferred Club." Bad news is that we left swimwear, sunscreen and sunhats in the luggage now in storage at the bellhop station. We could retrieve it but inertia wins. . And of course after check in we meet with someone to 'explain' certain resort coupons we can receive. Of course, the catch is you have to sign up for some kind of 90 minute sales pitch. We politely but firmly decline three different times and that does the trick.

From there we're read to explore the grounds. One thing we run into right away is that the reception area is pretty much on its own island perched above the rest of the resort, and that to get down to the restaurants and pool/beach area you can either walk down a steep incline in the mid-day sun, or catch a shuttle. We catch a shuttle down and stop at the air conditioned little coffee/desert place, stroll the grounds languidly but carefully (sun is very bright and we're very pale), having our first lunch, and lounging in various pieces of lovely furniture.

Eventually we get checked into our room, and a shuttle van takes us and all of our luggage to our casita, #234 (dos-tres-cuatro is a number we would recite often during our stay). Every location on a sprawling resort like this has its ups and downs, but this is a pretty sweet location--we're overlooking the Bay of Culebra with the Papagayo peninsula on the other side. It is more like a lake view than an ocean view. And we're about halfways between the two pools and beach areas. Room is very lovely and modern, but a bit small for the price. No place is perfect. We unpack a week's worth of stuff, shower up, and head down for an early dinner at the Italian ala carte restaurant, and then to bed as we're exhausted (Costa Rica is also two hours behind NYC time, so our bodies think it's later than it is).

Day 2: I get up early to hike around the grounds and do some birding. I head to the spa end of the resort where there's a nature trail leading up to the top of the hill overlooking the resort. It's humid, sweaty, and very, very steep getting up there, but worth it for the views and for the birds. A couple of hours is enough (I'm dripping sweat at this point even though it's only about 25 degree celsius outside. I quickly shower and we head down to breakfast. The rest of the day is spent eating, lounging in our cabana between the pool and beach (a perk for people in Preferred rooms--not sure how much we would have paid for this, but it is nice), and swimming. My wife, who is very sensitive to water that's less than warm, absolutely loves the water temperature of the pool. The weather forecast had predicted clouds and rain for today, but instead it's bright and sunny the entire day. The only accomplishment of the day is getting a car delivered in the afternoon so we can do day trips the next four days.

Overall thoughts on the resort: it's a lot more intimate than one would expect out of an all-inclusive resort. Even the buffet restaurant feels like a high end ala carte (most resort buffets--even the high end ones--can feel like a high school cafeteria). The service is excellent (best room service ever--more on that later) the feel is more like a village than a resort with the layout. There are plenty of birds and wildlife on the grounds--monkeys make semi-regular appearances by the spa and by the tennis court, and at least during the rainy season it's very lush and beautiful.
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Jul 25th, 2018, 01:57 PM
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Day 3: It started raining during the night and boy oh boy it's still going. Complete garbage weather.

But, we're starting things off on a good note. Why?

Secrets as a chain has probably the best room service ever.

We were going to be getting a bit of an early start since we were going on a morning float that was about an hour away. So we decided to take a chance on breakfast served in our room.

Here's how easy it was:

1. The night before, we picked up the proprietary e-tablet that's part of the room. Opened up the room service menu, chose everything we wanted, and specified what time we wanted it delivered.

2. At the exact minute we had specified, a van pulled up to our casita and food magically appeared in our room. Okay, not magic. Secrets has a "room service box" that opens from both outside and inside the room--effectively a pass through the wall. So, we wait until they're done putting the food in the box, and then we open from our side and there it is. They even called right as it was being put inside the box to let us know it was being delivered.

So, pretty much you can have freshly cooked food in your room at any minute of any day you want, without needing to talk to, or even see, another person. No need to clear space, or pick up the room, or even get dressed-complete privacy. We did this for the next 4 mornings and it was the same story--every order was perfect and delivered on the exact minute we requested.

Anyhow, the weather is really awful (rainy, dark, gross) and we're a bit nervous about our day trip--a float on the Rio Corobici. We head out on the Pan-Am highway towards Canas, and the weather is definitely a little better as we get inland. Not great, with pockets of rain, but not absolutely miserable like it was on the coast.

We arrive at the Rincon Corobici restaurant between Bagaces and Canas, which is right on the Rio Corobici and where the put in is for our float. It's just the two of us along with our guide, who does both wildlife spotting and the actual steering/propulsion of the raft. The float lasts just under two hours, and we see a lot more than we thought we would. Some monkeys, some great birds like Roseate Spoonbills and my wife's favorite, Boat-billed Herons, tons of Turquoise-browed Motmots as well as basilisks (Jesus Christ Lizards). We even have a National Geographic moment as a motmot chases a Great Kiskadee (common flycatcher) off a branch right on the river--and then we see why--the motmot has killed a baby basilisk and wanted to enjoy a riverside meal. We even, against all odds, get some moments of sunshine. We have a bit of a mishap once the trip is over--it involves getting out on a steep, slipper riverbank and my wife's arthritis rears its ugly head. We get through it but not before getting some mud on ourselves. The van waiting for us is parked under a big tree with a parent and juvenile Gray Hawk calling out very loudly.

We get dropped off back at the restaurant, get cleaned up, and have a Tico-style lunch (we like the resort food but it's nice to have a change of pace) and then head back to the resort. Pretty soon we're running into really gross weather again. We chill out at the room for a bit, then do a workout at the gym, then shower up and head down for dinner (the rain has paused briefly). Then back to the room (it's raining again), we order the next morning's breakfast, and go to sleep.

Day 4: The morning is gray and unattractive, but at least it's not raining. We get our room service, and still marvel at how it works at Secrets, and then we're on the road for this day's activity--a boat tour of the Coast with SeaBird sailing. We drive down the coast 20 minutes until we reach Playas del Coco, which honestly doesn't make a great visual impression on us. Sprawling, lots of unattractive buildlings, etc. We park near the beach where Heather from SeaBird is waiting for us. Things go perfectly smoothly and very quickly we're picked up by a motorboat and transported to the main sailboat. The crew are as friendly as we remembered them from last time, and the trip goes smoothly up the coast until just before Santa Rosa national park. The only thing that isn't perfect is the weather, but no one can control that. But, we consider ourselves lucky to not get rained on very much, ( just a few sprinkles). But, as soon as we get in our car after the trip, it starts raining. Hard. We cross our fingers and hope this is just an isolated shower and that we'll have decent conditions back at the resort.


No such luck. It's raining hard at the resort too. We grab some lunch and then get a shuttle ride back to the room. Uh oh. We get out of the van at a point too close to the edge of the path/street, and my wife steps on the edge of the rain gutter at its side and falls down. She's in pain, and in a rotten mood--pain and garbage weather are not a very good combination for a beach/tropical vacation. The saving grace is room service for dinner. My wife spends the night working on writing sample for a job opportunity/interview that came in after we arrived and is due before we leave. Which adds a somber note to the evening. To make things worse, these were supposed to be the two days dedicated to stuff my wife likes--relaxing boat trips that don't begin terribly early in the morning. The next two days will be early morning bird hikes in Santa Rosa N.P. and Rincon de la Vieja N.P. For each, we'll need to wake up around 5:30 a.m. My wife is not a morning person. Wish me luck.
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Jul 25th, 2018, 01:58 PM
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Day 5: The night before, the tablet listed the earliest delivery option for room service as 6:00 am, which doesn't work for us since we' need to leave around 6:15 to meet our guide in Liberia at 6:45. What on earth are we to do? Oh yeah, just call the room service number and ask a live human being for a 5:30 delivery.
At 5:30 sharp the shuttle van pulls up and puts our breakfast in the magic food box. It's hard to capture just how useful this is when you're trying to get an early start on the day. We eat our breakfast, grab our sunhats, binoculars and my camera, and head off to the town of Liberia. About 34 minutes later, we meet and pick up our guide Andres, whom we booked via Natural Discovery Costa Rica. Very quickly we're off to our morning's destination, Santa Rosa national park. Along the way we stop at a small pond on the side of the highway that's a noted spot for seeing some interesting birds. Sure enough, we see some really good stuff, including what we thought was a young Gray Hawk, but actually turned out to be a young Snail Kite instead. A roadside Snail Kite is a good way to start the day.

Soon we're back on the road and then turn off into Santa Rosa National Park. We drive very slowly in to watch for and listen for birds. We can already tell it's going to be a much different experience than when we visited in February a couple of years ago. Back then, everything was bone dry, with the trees and plants bare and the ground brown. Now everything is green and wet--we even see a pair of wood rails crossing the road--these birds are normally found in swamps and mangroves. But that's how much of Santa Rosa is now, especially after two days of rain. We keep on driving until we reach a spot inside the park where there's a very unofficial trail to explore. We get some really good birds on the roadside, including a Striped Cuckoo, before heading down to chase after some calling Long-tailed Manakins. My wife decides to stay in the car and read, rather than head down the slippery, wet terrain (given the slips and falls she's had, probably a solid choice). Pretty soon Andres and I come across a massive army ant swarm--a good 5 meters wide and moving perpendicular to our preferred path. Andres navigates us through while urging "quickly, quickly" and we're clear of it. As a birder, I'm a little disappointed because there are no birds--there are birds in the forest that specialize in following ant swarms to pick off the bugs and lizards that get flushed. But, we do get to see the Manakins as well as some other quality birds before heading back to the car. From there we drive to another trail as Andres asks "would you like to see a Northern Potoo?" Well, yeah of course. We start hiking for just a bit when we hear a familiar sound like a frog's 'ribbit.' Keel-billed Toucans? I ask. Yep. Though these birds are usually associated with the rainforests of the Caribbean side, they're also in the dry forests on the Pacific coast in select spots (though in far smaller numbers). We proceed up along the path, cross another army ant swarm--this time in a column formation and much easier to just step over. Of course, just as we start hiking through the part of the forest with less protective foliage, the sun comes out and is bright, and of course I left my sun hat in the car. Fingers crossed. Andres walks ahead to see if the potoo is still where he saw it the other day while my wife and I stay behind and try to locate a calling Elegant Trogon. We don't have much luck but Andres reports that the potoo is still there. Or rather, that a potoo is there--there is a juvenile but not its parent who was there a few days ago.

Potoos are weird birds. During the night, they hunt bugs and make ghost-like noises. During the day, they seek out dead tree trunks or large limbs and pretend to be snags/dead branches by sitting upright and perfectly still while sleeping.

We head back down the path, finally get those Elegant Trogons, and then drive to the park headquarters in the old Casona, pay our entrance fee, and then explore the area around the campground. My wife says she'll just hang out and bird by sitting, while we start off walking. We get about 20 meters away before my wife yells out, "did you guys see these two trogons here?" She's very good at spotting birds, my wife is. Better than she wants to admit. Sure enough there's a pair of Black-headed Trogons building a nest right over where she's standing. That proves to be the highlight of the time in this area of the park.

After about an hour, we start driving back to Liberia to drop Andres off. This is an extremely slow process, as there are MANY iguanas now out and looking to warm up after the unusually wet and cool weather of the past two days. And their favorite place to do so is the paved road leading out of the park. Seemingly once every minute or so I have to stop the car in front of one that's fallen asleep on the road. Most of the time honking the car horn several times wakes them up and irritates them to the point where they get off the road. At one point we run into three, one of which is particularly stubborn and refuses to move. Making sure the other two have moved safely off the road, I very carefully drive around him. This stubborn genius of an iguana--like many of the others we see on the road--is missing his tail. Lizards are not renowned for their ability to learn.

Eventually we emerge from the park, without harming any lizards, and are back in Liberia fairly quickly. We offer to keep Andres's spotting scope in the car, but he declines, saying that a friend wants to go chase a special bird. I ask what kind, and he says it's a type of rail (birds that like to make noise but remain hidden in tall vegetation). The temptation to invite myself along quickly dissipates and my wife wishes him "Buen suerte!"

We head back to the resort, along the way looking in the agricultural fields for a species of hawk Andres told is us quite common there, and sure enough there's one right on a fencepost. Our guy knows his stuff.

Once back at the resort, we grab lunch and then decide to go for a swim in the pool by the spa on the other side of the resort. So much different here. The vibe is very, very relaxed and chill, with soothing spa music instead of throbbing dance music. While looking out at the open water, surrounded by thatched roofing and palm trees, watching birds fly over. Aahhh. (if you've ever flown Avianca or Copa, it's almost exactly like the ads the vacation ads they play on the video monitors while you're boarding the plane). It starts to get a bit cloudy and we head back to the room. By the time we're ready to head down for dinner, it's raining yet again. But, hard to complain when we've had a beautiful day while the sun was out.
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Jul 25th, 2018, 02:00 PM
  #5
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Day 6:
Our day starts much like the previous day--early breakfast in the magic food box, and meeting Andres in Liberia before heading up to our destination for the day--Rincon de la Vieja. When we pull in, we're happy to see that we're the first ones there. We secure a coveted parking spot in the shade of the big tree in the parking lot (it's very bright and sunny today--yay!) and are eager to get going on our hike.Unfortunately, while we're there when we thought the park opens (7:30) in reality it doesn't open until 8:00. A few tour vans full of people show up but nothing too bad, and in any event we're the first ones in at 8:00 and hit Las Pailas trail, a fully paved trail that goes through everything from rainforest to dry grasslands.

The first leg is through an extremely wet area (this is where the seasonal waterfall is). Right away, we run into a couple of young adult male White-faced Monkeys. And they are ... not happy to see us. They scowl, make some kind of barking/screaming noise and head off down path from us as we look around for birds.

We wind our way down the path after seeing some excellent birds, only to run into the monkeys again. They're angry, and they get even angrier when I take photos instead of going ... not sure where they wanted us to do (I don't speak monkey). Sensing the communications breakdown, the larger of the two monkeys jumps down fairly low, and grabs a fairly thick (1 cm) small branch/ twig. Staring right at me, he barks as he snaps the branch clean in half. That language I do comprehend. Fortunately, the human path diverges from where the monkeys are heading, so further escalation is avoided.

As we head down the trail, we see an army ant swarm crossing the path. This time, there are at least birds. A Gray-headed Tanager about 10 meters off trail and a pair of Lesson's (f/k/a Blue-crowned) Motmots right by the trail. One flies off but the other just sits there, about 3 meters off the trail, facing away from us, studying the ant swarm for signs of disturbed bugs or lizards. Carefully straddling the column of ants (don't try this without plenty of protection!) we take a long time taking photos (my wife even got one using her iPhone) before heading back down the trail.

We stop by the beautiful waterfall there (it's only active during the rainy season, but this week has provided PLENTY of rain) before we start winding out of the forest and through various fumaroles (vents where volcanic gas escape). The first fumaroles are actually surrounded by rainforest--so there's a weird juxtaposition of lush, green foliage with columns of steam and the smell of sulfur gas. There are many fumaroles to see, some just steam vents, others having boiling mud. The areas immediately surrounding the fumaroles are often stained in various colors by the gases passing through. It's a weird sight.

Surprisingly, there's a fair amount of birds right around the fumaroles--everything from Red-legged Honeycreepers to Elegant Trogons to Long-tailed Manakins, to the best bird of the day, a very cooperative Lesser Ground-Cuckoo. This bird is a LOT more impressive and beautiful than you'd expect from guidebook illustrations, which don't come close to doing them justice. We even see a pair of Keel-billed Toucans. That's three sightings of this bird on the trip--a bird we didn't think we'd ever see in Guanacaste. May is definitely an excellent month to see the resident species here.

As if to prove that point, just as we get ready to leave the trail near the visitor center, a pair of Turquoise-browed Motmots land in a tree almost right over our heads. Our final sighting is in the visitor center itself--a walking stick insect right there, inside, on the concrete floor.

We then drive Andres back to Liberia, and then head back to the resort for some lunch and then pool time. There's not a cloud in the sky, and it's absolutely perfect pool weather. Very nice to come back from a half-day of hiking to this kind of relaxation and comfort. At some point the rental car company comes out to pick up the car, and seem very grateful that I didn't beat the car up. The only blemish really are the remnants of a dookie that some forest creature had dropped on our car while we were on our rafting trip (I speculated that the critter must have eaten superglue, because that was 4 days and several rainstorms ago).

The rest of the evening goes well--my wife sends off a writing sample (both requested and due while we are on vacation) in connection with a job interview (she got the job btw!) and we have another lovely dinner on site. We then reserve a cabana/daybed for the next day and then to bed.


Day 7

The next morning (our last full day), I do something I almost never do on vacation--I sleep in (until about 7:30). Without looking for birds or anything. Very lazy day ahead. We pack up our swim/pool gear and head down for breakfast (I do bring the camera so I can get the Rose-throated Becards nesting by the tennis court), which kicks off a day of eating, hanging out in the pool, and lounging. Perfect day for it day--bright, sunny, warm. We managed to get away with two bad days out of our 6.5 days in the country--not too bad. That night we have dinner at the Asian restaurant's hibachi table, and then turn in for our last night.


Day 8
The next morning goes smoothly--we get picked up by a shuttle which takes our bags to the reception area while we have breakfast, and then we're up to reception, checked out and in our shuttle heading back to the airport.

It was an atypical trip to Costa Rica by our standards--rainy season, beach location all-inclusive, entire trip spent at one place. But, we're very glad we did it (though being fortunate enough to afford a place like Secrets and getting lucky with the upgrade there certainly didn't hurt).
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Jul 25th, 2018, 02:02 PM
  #6
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And, now the photos:

Photos taken on the resort grounds over the span of our trip:

https://flic.kr/s/aHskAbmNvz

Photos taken from Santa Rosa (including those taken along the way)

https://flickr.com/photos/[email protected]

Photos taken at Rincon de la Vieja

https://flickr.com/photos/[email protected]
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