Volcanogirl's Costa Rica Trip Report

Jul 13th, 2008, 07:07 AM
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Volcanogirl's Costa Rica Trip Report

Hi, everyone! We're back from our trip to Costa Rica, and we had a wonderful time. This trip was Arenal, which was a repeat for us, then Monteverde which was all new, and finally the Peace Lodge. Thanks to everyone who helped us with our planning. No matter how many times we go to CR, there are always things we learn and things we've never seen before - such a wonderful place! I'll try to provide some details that can hopefully help other people with their planning. If anyone has never been before, all I can say is go, go, go!
volcanogirl is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 07:26 AM
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Okay, well things started out on a bad note, just due to our own lack of information. We arrived at the airport and parked kind of far away because we had coupons for free parking, caught the shuttle, dropped everyone else off, got in line, and went up to the counter. At this point, it was exactly one hour before our flight, and they wouldn't let us check in! They said that our luggage had to be fully processed one hour before the flight and since we were at that mark that we wouldn't be allowed to board. My husband flies with Continental every week, and we were still clueless about this policy, so hopefully this will help someone else out.

They said they could call the gate to see if they would allow it, and the gate said no! Holy cow, this was kind of devastating, and we ended up sitting at the airport for seven hours. We went through security really quickly, got to our gate, and watched our entire plane board without us. Then at the last minute, they offered that ONE of us could get on the plane without the other! We wanted to be together of course, so we said no, and then had to scramble to call our driver, our hotel, etc. No fun! I'd highly recommend packing all your hotel and driver numbers in your purse or carryon; I was really glad we had this info. with us.

So from 10:00a.m. to 6:00p.m. we sat at the Houston airport and missed a day of our vacation. Finally got on a flight and headed off to the SJO airport. At this point, we were so glad we hired a driver because we had a long drive ahead of us and didn't arrive at the Lost Iguana until after midnight! Our driver Carlos was wonderful; he just went with our schedule and was waiting for us at the airport when we landed. We breezed through immigration, customs, and baggage in 30-45 minutes. We were so glad to finally be there!

The drive to Arenal was very smooth, even though there was a light rain falling. Carlos was interesting and told us that Bill Gates had just been in La Fortuna trying to buy some land! He knew we would be tired and even provided pillows and blankets for us, so we could sleep on the way there, but I was too excited! After the day we had, I can't imagine trying to drive into Arenal in the rain at midnight, so hiring a driver was a good choice for us. Arenal has a new road since we were there two years ago; it's newly paved with bright reflectors. The entire road was in very good shape, so if you're the adventurous type, you would have no problem driving; I would just avoid doing the drive in the dark if possible.

The Lost Iguana knew we would be late, so they left a room key with the guard for us. I had asked them if we could have our same room back that we had two years ago, and when I saw our room number, I was so excited that it was the same one. The LI is a wonderful property - highly, highly recommend it. We didn't get to sleep until about 1:00 a.m., and we had a 7:00a.m. pickup for the Cano Negro tour the next morning. It was hard to sleep because we were so excited!
volcanogirl is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 08:07 AM
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Welcome home! Sorry to hear about the rocky start to your trip. I recently encountered the same 1 hour check in restriction in the Carbbean (we were forewarned beforehand and planned accordingly). I wonder if that's a new policy that's spreading through the airlines?

At least you did make down to CR that same day!

I'm really looking forward to the details; particularly Monteverde since I haven't been there yet. So get to typing, girl!
cmerrell is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 08:57 AM
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Hi, c! I had some pretty heinous laundry from our night hike that was calling to be washed, but now I'm back to give details!

I forgot to mention that the SJO to Arenal drive only took 2 1/2 hours; it helped that it was so late and there was no one else on the road!

So we wake up to light rain and no view of the volcano whatsoever. If I hadn't seen it before, I wouldn't have even know there was a huge volcano there! We did spot two keel-billed toucans on the LI grounds - really beautiful with rainbow colored bills.

LI isn't serving breakfast yet, so we eat a couple of granola bars and get picked up by Sunset Tours at 7:00 a.m. They drive us to the office where all the people from different hotels combine onto one nice air-conditioned van for the 2-hour drive up to Cano Negro. We're kind of shocked that we're the only Americans on the tour, but it came to be a pretty common observation throughout the trip - lots of people from the UK, the Netherlands, Spain, etc. The guides say that the economy is really affecting tourism there, and that they are seeing fewer Americans lately. I guess Bill Gates is still doing okay though!

We meet our tour guide Zender, and he's wonderful - really interesting and a bubbly, fun personality. On the drive up, he spots a sloth, and we all pile out to see it and take photos. The tour has changed a lot since we took it 2 years ago. For one, they don't stop at the Iguanas restaurant anymore; I loved that spot for taking pictures of the huge iguanas in the trees, but a woman was recently hit by a car while she was taking photos from the bridge, so they think it's too dangerous now. Also, the put-in point is different and involves a really bumpy last leg of the drive over an unpaved road - good practice for our upcoming ride to Monteverde!

We all board the boat, and Zender introduces us to our boat driver - both of them have great eyes for spotting the wildlife, and right away we see all kinds of birds. We have a birding book and enjoy learning about all the different animals; we start checking off all the birds we're seeing. We saw black-bellied whistling ducks, crested guans, anhingas, cormorants, bare-throated tiger herons, a green ibis, snowy and cattle egrets, a green heron, a roadside hawk, a crested caracara, a gray-necked wood rail, purple gallinule, northern jacana, ringed and Amazon kingfishers, a collared acari, great kiskadees, Passerini's tanagers, golden-hooded tanager, and a red-winged blackbird. We're a little disappointed that no one else on our tour seems interested in learning about the birds. Zender says he loves to have excited people on his tours, but that lots of time people just want to see the biggies like sloths and monkeys. He seems pretty stoked that we're carrying a birding book! The boat is really comfortable and covered, so we don't need to worry about the rain. Sunset has a cooler full of cold drinks for us; we love all the mango juices, etc.

Next up we see a troop of howler monkeys, and the most exciting thing: they have a cute little baby with them that is bright orange! Zender says it's an albino baby howler and very rare - it was so funny to see that little orange ball amongst a sea of black fur. We also saw a 2-toed sloth, long-nose bats, iguanas, and caimans. It's a great day, and we head off to a nearby restaurant for lunch. This is another thing that's changed about the tour; Sunset used to have their own palapa on the river, but now with the new spot, they've changed that. The restaurant gives us a choice of chicken or beef casados or arroz con pollo. He tells everyone that the chicken in the arroz con pollo is very tiny, but several people order it anyway. When they get it, they complain that it doesn't have enough chicken in it! The restaurant is kind enough to give them all chicken breasts in addition to what they already have. The food is okay but nothing to write home about. Dessert is rice pudding. After eating, we notice a waiter with a string dangling in the water; he pulls it and out comes the biggest caiman I've ever seen! It almost looks like a croc, and everyone crowds around for pictures. He feeds it all the leftover chicken, and it turns around and disappears under the murky water. We loved our tour but
Zender offers to take us birding on another day to give us a more in-depth tour; we're excited to have him all to ourselves! We all get in the van and head back to Arenal; on the way we pass a check point where police are standing with machine guns. That's a little disconcerting, but Z says they are just checking for illegal immigrants since we're near the Nic. border. The entire trip lasts from 7:00-4:00. We head back to the LI, and they are having a power outage. Luckily I have a little headlamp for when it gets dark. The restaurant says they are still able to prepare dinner, so we eat at the LI just in the interest of convenience; the food is prety bland and overpriced - it's really the only part of the hotel I don't love, but after a long day the convenience is nice. We're looking forward to the next day when we'll take a volcano hike and visit EcoTermales for the first time!

It's interesting to see the changes in La Fortuna; there's a Burger King now and a Church's Chicken. Somehow it just looks out of place! One of our drivers also told us they are building an upscale hotel that will go for $800-$1,500 a night with a two-night minimum. There's also a huge new hotel called the Royal Corin that overshadows the cute little hotels around it. Things are a changin'.

volcanogirl is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 09:20 AM
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c, I wonder if that's a new policy too. I had never heard it before, but at least we'll be prepared for next time. It seemed weird to us that one of us would be allowed to board the plane at boarding time when we couldn't board it an hour before. The person that got that one last seat was very happy though!

So, a new day - We woke up to a glorious view of the volcano - sunny and the cone in full view. I'm pretty excited because it's our volcano hike day. We head out to LI breakfast which is included, and it's really good. They have fruit, cereal, and juice on the buffet line and then let you order pancakes, eggs, bacon, etc. from a menu. It's all good and filling. We spent the day hiking around the LI grounds and see more toucans. The property has 120 acres of grounds, and they have a list of animals spotted there: deer, howler monkeys, pecaris, sloths, anteaters, tayras, porcupines, cougars! and pumas! We don't see any of those guys, but we do see a coati, and something gray and furry that we later learn is an olinga! We head out to the volcano hike with Sunset Tours. It consists of learning a bit about the volcano, hiking on trails through the forest, and then heading out to the observation point to view lava. The hike is nice, but it starts raining - luckily we have our rain ponchos with us. These are a must-pack item for me since you never know when it will start pouring on you. Despite the rain, we see more toucans, and howlers, and some spider monkeys! We then drive up near the Arenal Observatory Lodge to view the lava. We all wait by a river for it to get dark, and then we see our first bits of lava - a big thrill and everyone claps. Then it starts pouring! Since some of our gang doesn't have rain gear, we all decide to head to EcoTermales to enjoy the hot springs.

We loved EcoTermales! We did Tabacon on our last trip, but I enjoyed ET a lot more. They limit you to 100 people, so it's a lot less crowded and not so Disneyish. The lighting is subtle, and they have 5 pools of varying temperatures to choose from. They also serve drinks on the honor system - you just order at the bar and at the end, you tell them what you had. Drink prices were very reasonable. We met people on our tour that went to Baldi and did not enjoy it at all, so we are glad we picked ET. They let us decide which dinner seating we'd like, and we picked 8:15. We get to enjoy the springs, and then at 8:15 they served us a wonderful dinner - our first good CR food. I had an orange chicken that was really good and flavorful, and it also came with black beans, rice, and a wonderful salad. My husband had the beef and loved it. Thumbs up for EcoTermales!
volcanogirl is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 10:14 AM
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Time flies - can't believe you are back already, vg! Glad you had another wonderful trip. Great report so far, looking forward to the rest!
janenicole is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 10:34 AM
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Your trip sounds wonderful so far, I would be so excited to see an albino too! We're doing the Cano Negro tour too, I'm happy to see that you had a good time on it and it makes me that much more excited!

I'm sorry to hear about your problems at the airport, it's hard to find any information on check-in times for international flights so we're planning to just get to the airport extra early. Seems like with the prices rising the airline service is dropping and they won't try to help their customers as much as they used to. For us there's 2 different buildings for flights depending on if it's a morning or evening flight (and our flight is at 2 AM, which could mean either one!), lol.
immelbatoast is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 10:53 AM
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You're off to a fantastic start, VG.

I'm so glad Cano Negro was wonderful for a second time. Sometimes when you revisit places you've seen in the past, they don't live up to quite the same sense wonder because you know what to expect (although with wildlife viewing, you never know what you'll see which always makes those kind of excursions exciting). Bummer about the iguana rest stop. I loved the great photo ops there as well.

I had to look up a picture of an olingo, because the name didn't ring a bell with me. I'm sure I would have assumed it was a kinkajou if I had seen one. Very cute little guys!

I'm glad you liked EcoTermales. I also went to Tabacon the first time around and figured I would try ET the next time I make it to Arenal.

Very much looking forward to the next instalment!
cmerrell is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 11:20 AM
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I can't believe you're back already! What a rough start to your trip...but it sounds like once you got there, things went really well! I'm enjoying reading about all of your adventures so far. And I'm looking forward to hearing about Monteverde!

ShellD is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 12:20 PM
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Thanks, guys; I keep thinking that with return trips to CR we might be disappointed, sort of been there, done that, but we loved this trip as much as the others! Olingo was a new one for me too; we had to look it up on those laminated wildlife i.d. cards! It sort of looked like a gray, fuzzy kinkajou!

I forgot to mention one of the birds we saw at Cano Negro - a great potoo - I had never heard of it, but it was huge, and the guides seemed very excited about it, so I thought I should mention it for any birders! It looked like it was almost 2-feet tall and blended in really well with the branches.

So, another new day; we're excited because we get to go birdwatching and animal spotting with Zender. He brought along 2 other guides from Sunset Tours, and we got picked up at 5:30a.m. Ugh, that was early! This turned out to be one of our very favorite tours that we did - so much fun to have a guide all to ourselves. Z said it's very hard to lead guided tours because some people want to know every detail about each animal, and other people get bored pretty quickly. He said that he's really seen a change in people coming to CR - used to just be biologists, then birders, and now lots of people just wanting to see the sloths and monkeys. We really like all of it, so it was fun to spend the day with him and his eagle-eye guides.

Luckily we didn't have far to go; our excursion took place near Lake Arenal and the dam which is just a couple of minutes from LI. We had our own van, and the guys made hot coffee for us, and we had cookies - kind of like a little tea party in the jungle. I loved it! We just hiked and hiked and saw so many awesome things. We saw a keel-billed toucan, an anteater!, loads of howlers, swallow-tailed kites, an ornate hawk eagle which was beautiful, a red-billed pigeon, crimson-fronted parakeets, red-lored parrots, a Passerini's tanager, a rufous-tailed hummingbird, a streak-headed woodcreeper, great antshrike, vultures, yellow tyrannulet, boat-billed flycatcher, social flycatcher, a crimson-collared tanager, a grayish saltator, a buff-throated saltator, a bronzed cowbird, a yellow-billed cacique, montezuma oropendola, and a yellow-crowned euphonia. The ornate-hawk eagle was gorgeous, and we watched it for about 15 minutes. It really looked like a big eagle; the guides were excited about it, so I knew it was a good one. It's funny being new to birding because I don't know the rarity of each one. Just seeing a toucan is a thrill for us!

We hiked over near where the power company owns the land, and it was just filled with animals. As we were walking along the main road, a pecarie walked right out of the woods in front of us, posed for a picture, and ran across the road to the other side. I almost had a heart attack trying to get to my camera! It's fun to see all the new animals we've never spotted before. I liked it that the guides were able to see things we'd never find; the anteater was up in a tree, and we would have completely missed it. Also, they carry powerful scopes so you can get a great view of everything! I'd highly recommend doing a private tour if you can. We just loved it! It's fun to be around people who are so passionate about their work! This tour was $60 each, and we thought it was well worth it.

We head back to the Lost Iguana to pack up and head off to Monteverde - very sad to leave wonderful Arenal but looking forward to a new adventure in Monteverde. I've always read very mixed reviews of Monteverde, but my husband was dying to see a quetzal and I thought this would give us some good odds at spotting one.

volcanogirl is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 02:51 PM
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Wow VG, you had some tremendous wildlife sightings! It really makes me yearn for CR!

Your birding tour sounds absolutely wonderful. Gotta love those Sunset Tour guides! They do such a terrific job.

Looking forward to Monteverde...
cmerrell is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 03:34 PM
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An albino howler, that must've been awesome! Sorry you got off to a rocky start, good to mention though so people know and also note that most airlines require a 2 hour check-in, even if you don't have a direct flight. Saw a great potoo on the drive to BdC once - actually I should say I stared at a tree for about 10 minutes til I finally saw it, it looked just like a broken off branch and never moved an inch! Sad to hear about all the development in Arenal, $800 a night is beyond ridiculous and the sad thing is they'll probably be booked up. Have avoided Monteverde after several trips so looking forward to your impresssions!
tully is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 04:15 PM
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c, we did have some great sightings! The pecarie was a big thrill for me! tully, I feel the same way about all the development. My husband said it made him a little sad to see all the changes. One of our drivers told us Bill Gates offered 20 million for a piece of land and that the family said no because the land had been in their family for several generations - not sure if that's true or not, but it's nice if it is.

So, Monteverde - we decided to use Jeep, Boat, Jeep for this portion of the trip. We booked it through the Lost Iguana, but Desafio was the company that they used. It was only $25 a person and saved us a good portion of riding on those bumpy unpaved roads because they cut across the lake instead of going around it. The pickup is right at the lake by the Lost Iguana, so it ended up being just Boat, Jeep for us! There's a really steep "driveway" heading down to the water, and one of the guides picked up my 50 pound suitcase and carried it over his head! I know I'm backsliding after taking only 22 pounds to the Osa, but since I didn't have the Sansa weight restrictions, I brought the big luggage again. I noticed all our guides carried the bag over their heads even though it has wheels; those guys are in great shape! We spent about 30 minutes going across the lake, and it was really pretty - the boat was covered, but no bathroom on board. As we were going across, we came across another boat that had had its engine go out - felt bad for the tourists on that one, but they got it fixed pretty quickly.

All the land around the lake is green and lush, saw lots of cows grazing, and it started looking a little like Switzerland with all the hills. After the boat ride, they put us into 2 vans, and we headed out on the unpaved famous road to Monteverde. It was really hilly, bumpy, and full of potholes. I was glad we weren't driving it ourselves! The entire trip took about 3 hours. The road was pretty bad, but I was expecting it after reading all the advice on the boards. We made one stop to use the bathroom and get a cold drink and we met a nice family from DC - they were convinced they had seen a puma near Arenal! After chatting, they decided it was more like an olinga or a kinkajoo. It's hard to i.d. this stuff! One couple in our van asked to be dropped off in downtown Santa Elena because they didn't have a hotel reserved. I was surprised at how touristy SE was. When they got dropped off, they got surrounded by hordes of people pushing their hotels on them - reminded me a little of Cancun, and I was expecting more of a quiet little spot. It was busy, busy, busy.

About 6:00 we pulled into Fonda Vela, our hotel of choice in Monteverde. I liked this hotel a lot; Monteverde isn't really as posh as some of the other areas, but we stayed in a new junior suite that was nice and clean and had a great view of the gardens. The area isn't tropical like Arenal; it's more foresty. We saw several beautiful birds in the trees right outside our window, including toucans and an emerald toucanet. I was glad we had decided to book a hotel that was so close to the reserve.

MV was very cold when we got there; I had to wear a fleece jacket zipped up over my long-sleeved knit top. The temperature change was a bit of a surprise. We had dinner at the restaurant that night. FV has some great-looking waiters. My husband and I were joking they that looked like Mario Lopez and Matt LeBlanc. After dinner, an American woman came over and said, "Doesn't that waiter look like Joey from Friends?!" So I guess we weren't the only ones!

The food at FV was very good. I was surprised by how good it was compared to what we had had at the Lost Iguana. I had lemon butter trout the first night and loved it. Also had a wonderful fresh mango juice drink that was pretty tasty. The lodge feels more like a swiss chalet than a Costa Rican experience - it even had a cuckoo clock! We told the concierge that we'd like to hike the reserve in the morning, and he reserved a guide for us. We were looking forward to finding the elusive quetzal, but they said they hadn't seen any for 2 weeks! I crossed my fingers that we would get lucky.
volcanogirl is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 06:33 PM
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The next morning Fonda Vela arranged for a taxi to take us to the cloud forest at 7:10. We had a 3-hour hike reserved with a guide, and he met us in the parking lot as we pulled in. As soon as he saw us, he asked us if we'd like to see something very special, and we said of course. He took us just a couple of feet and pointed to a tree, and there was a quetzal! It was that easy! It was a beautiful blue-green color with a red front and tail feathers that looked to be a couple of feet long. Boy, did we get lucky with that one! It flew away shortly, so we went to pay our $15 entry fee, and when we got back it had landed in another nearby tree. A crowd was gathering below, and a man let out a loud "yee-haw" yell because he was so thrilled, and everyone started shushing and hushing him! Then everyone stood there silently in awe of the quetzal - it was so cool! I'm so glad we got to see it!
volcanogirl is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 06:51 PM
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That's so cool, VG! I would love to see a quetzal!

Looking forward to rest of your adventure...
cmerrell is offline  
Jul 13th, 2008, 07:55 PM
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We went to Cano Negro at the end of June and did stop at the Iguana restaurant but we just stayed on the restaurants view area because the guide said it wasn't safe to go up on the road. Too bad your guide didn't do that. We also looked for that albino howler but couldn't find it, glad you did. And my daughter will be so jealous you saw an anteater! That was her one request, and of course we never did see one.
MonicaRichards is online now  
Jul 13th, 2008, 08:20 PM
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Thanks volcanogirl ...I am enjoying your report very much.

I remember how excited I was whenI saw my firt quetzal.

Looking forward to more about your trip

Percy is online now  
Jul 13th, 2008, 08:30 PM
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Wow, vgirl, good job on the Great Potoo!

What a great trip you had, even though it must have been SO disappointing at the beginning! Can't believe you saw so many animals, and I'm impressed with your bird list. I assume you're keeping a life list? Good job! Does your husband enjoy it as well? Would love to see the Ornate Hawk Eagle. Next Sat. will find us arriving at BdC, and there was one there recently. Maybe he'll still be around. . .

Enjoying your report--so glad you had a a great time!
shillmac is offline  
Jul 14th, 2008, 03:03 AM
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Hi, everyone! I don't want to finish my report because then I'll have to admit my trip is actually over! I almost wish that quetzal had played a little hard to get. Wow, it was gorgeous! Everyone had told me how wonderful it was to see one, and it did not disappoint. We're new to birding, but I like to keep a list of everything we've seen. My husband is more into it than I am. I'm noticing we have a tendency to pick our destinations based on what bird he might see. We went to the Osa to see toucans and now Monteverde for the quetzal - where to next?!

shillmac, I really hope you get to see the Ornate Hawk Eagle. It was fun to see even the guides get excited over that one.

I forgot to mention a weird thing that happened on our Cano Negro tour. We had a man on our boat that hit on our tour guide - actually touched him and told him how he thought Costa Rican boys were so pretty. It really offended our guide, but he had to keep on a happy face for the sake of the tour. He had said we'd stop at the iguana bridge on the way back, but I think he was just ready to get away from that crazy guy. I didn't find any of this out until later. What an uncomfortable position to be in.

volcanogirl is offline  
Jul 14th, 2008, 03:26 AM
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So, the morning of our reserve hike, we met our guide and another couple at the reserve. Our guide was quite serious about respecting nature and wouldn't let us use a flash in our pictures because it was bad for the animals; he wanted to keep things as natural as possible. In fact, he was leading a charge to keep everyone in the park from using a flash. He would scold the other guides that had tourists using them and spoke to the park about banning them altogether.

He turned out to be a terrible match for the other couple with us. They were a nice couple, but I think they were having a pretty hard time in CR. They had left their luggage in the car near the Sugar Beach hotel and all their stuff got stolen. So I think they were just ready to see some wildlife. We were behind another group and the guide was poking around in a hole and everyone was oohing and ahing. We came to the hole, and he said it was a tarantula hole, but he wouldn't show it to us because it was a nocturnal animal, and it shouldn't be disturbed. The girl protested that the other guide did it, etc. but he refused. From them on, she seemed pretty angry and disinterested and never even stood with our group. It was awkward, and we were really starting to realize how much a good group can make a good hike. I asked the husband if seeing pictures of our albino baby howler sighting would cheer her up, and he said, "Probably not." He was actually very sweet, and I think he was sad that his wife wasn't enjoying herself.

We ended up seeing quite a bit of wildlife, so I hope that helped her trip a bit. We saw coatis from a distance through the scope, and we also saw howlers, a 2-toed sloth, and a variety of birds - the quetzal, gray-headed chachalaca, black-breasted wood quail, band-tailed pigeon, green-crowned brilliant hummingbird, blue-crowned mot-mot, emerald toucanet, a brown jay, great kiskadee, gray-breasted wood wren, slate-throated woodstart, common-bush tanager, and a golden-hooded tanager. The weather was really pretty all day, so it was a nice hike - only $15 each for the guide here.

We headed back to Fonda Vela for lunch; the taxi cost us $8 each way. We sat outside for lunch and had delicious casados with rice, beans, plantains, and salad. I also had a fresh strawberry juice drink that was excellent. Definite thumbs up for the FV food. We went hiking around the grounds and then headed back to our room to get ready for our night hike. This was something I was a little skeeved out about, but I was determined to do a night hike since I chickened out in the Osa. Temps were in the 60s and sunny, so it looked like it would be good weather for us!
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