Why Costa Rica?
Well, that’s not really a question people ask. More like “when are you going to Costa Rica?” We went for a look around in March, just the latest in a long line of tourists lured in by Costa Rica’s rare combination of a warm climate, huge amounts of biodiversity, friendly people and – almost unique in Central America – stable, democratic government. No wonder they are the Happiest People on Earth!
It’s a popular destination for beach vacations, adventure travel and surfing, but the variety and density of wildlife makes it a very compelling destination for nature trips. For the record: Costa Rica accounts for 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface (51,100km2), but contains nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity., Costa Rica was also an early adopter of the notion of eco-tourism, and has made major efforts to ensure that all that biodiversity is protected and made accessible to nature-lovers, both foreign and domestic.
During the 1960s the growing demand for agricultural land, mainly cattle pasture, was leading to widespread deforestation. The resulting pastureland was not particularly productive, and the usual results of deforestation – flooding, erosion, loss of wildlife – were becoming increasingly evident. Unlike many developing countries, it seems that Costa Ricans, or Ticos as they call themselves, were unwilling to sacrifice their natural resources for short-term economic gain. Starting in the 1980s, programmes were established to protect large areas of the different ecosystems. The National Parks and Reserves now cover 12 % of Costa Rica’s land area, with another 16% protected by various refuges, indigenous Indian reserves, and nature reserves. So Costa Rica stands proudly with Colombia and Tanzania in the select group of countries that have preserved significant parts of their natural environment against the depredations of developers.
I’m not going to bore you with a minute-by-minute account, instead focus on a few sites that were highlights of the trip.
On Day One, enroute from San Jose to Arenal, one of our stops was the Pierella Ecological Garden – a butterfly ranch. Twenty years ago the proprietor of the garden was seized with the notion that he could make a business out of selling butterflies in chrysalis stage to zoos and butterfly sanctuaries (such as the Butterfly Conservatory in Cambridge, Ontario). He acquired some marginal pastureland and began planting the native trees and shrubs favoured by different butterfly species.
Of course as the garden grew into a forest lots of other wildlife recolonized it, so in addition to seeing the whole process of raising butterflies we had great opportunities to see birds, poison dart frogs, exotic insects, a caiman, and a sloth. We were completely entranced by a clutch of Honduran White Bats – tiny creatures that make a tent to roost in by clipping a seam in a heliconia leaf so it forms an inverted V. After our nature walk we had an excellent lunch while enjoying close-up views of birds gorging themselves on fruit at the nearby feeders. The proprietress also demonstrated the laborious process by which cocoa beans are turned into chocolate – with appropriate samples at each stage.
Our first two nights were at the Arenal Observatory Lodge and Spa, which sits at the foot of an active volcano. Fortunately it has not had a major eruption since 1998, and it continued to behave during our visit. The lodge is extremely comfortable, and well equipped with a swimming pool, a large whirlpool bath/hot tub, and a good restaurant. The large viewing platform next to the restaurant provided an excellent observation point where we could watch masses of birds in the trees and on the feeders and coatimundis patrolling below, all whilst sipping a refreshing Guaro Sour.
We spent two days exploring the network of nature trails that emanate out from the lodge and provide access to the rain forest. We also took a night walk to investigate the frog pond and were rewarded with good views of the iconic red-eyed tree frog.
The highlight of our time in Arenal was seeing a Margay (aka Tree Ocelot)– a rare and secretive jungle cat not much larger than a house cat. I had wanted to see one since I saw a photo when I was about 12, but never really expected to realize that dream. ¡Me quedé con la boca abierta! Fabulous.
Mangrove Boat Tour
On the southern end of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast lies the Osa Peninsula, a thinly-populated area mostly comprised of mangrove swamps. We took a small boat out of Sierte for a cruise of about two hours. Our skipper, Eagle-Eye José, was adept both at spotting wildlife and at manoeuvring the boat for close-in views. In addition to some highly sought-after birds, we also saw all three species of Costa Rican monkeys along with a selection of bats, lizards, a river turtle and the only snake of the trip. José’s ability to bring the boat in close meant that everyone was able to see all the wildlife without having to struggle with binoculars, and to take good photos even if they didn’t have a long telephoto lens. Being “all in the same boat” we moved at the same pace, and could all see the wildlife at the same time. It was hot and steamy on the river but the boat had a canopy and cold drinks were available so it made for a very pleasant excursion.
Bosque del Tolomuco
Up in the cloud forest near San Isidro is a scenic nature reserve and lodge owned by two ex-pat Canadians. Over the years they have planted a wide variety of native plants that are favoured by butterflies and hummingbirds, and the results have been spectacular. We stopped at Bosque del Tolomuco for about an hour and had close views of 14 species of hummingbird including the scarce White-crested Coquette and the stunning Violet Sabrewing. Silver-throated and Flame-coloured Tanagers and pair of Red-headed Barbet were features among the non-humming birds. Parrots and parakeets are apparently regular visitors as well. Sadly we were only passing through, but I have a strong desire to go back, rent one of their peaceful cottages and just hang out for a week or so.
Our trip was organized by Worldwide Quest, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in trips that combine excellent wildlife experiences with relatively luxurious accommodation. We had been to Tanzania on a Worldwide Quest tour so we knew that we could expect to be coddled … and we were not disappointed. However there are numerous other travel companies that can offer the same level of wildlife viewing and perfectly acceptable accommodation at a lower price. And it would be entirely possible to rent a car and do a self-guided trip. Once outside of San Jose the traffic is reasonable and most of the roads are in good condition. It is also possible to hire a vehicle and driver, and firms such as Tico Rides will help you plan your itinerary to make best use of your available time.
“It’s all about the list” – The Birdfinder General
My species list for the tour includes:
Birds: 262 species. Click here for a photo gallery.
– Monkeys: White-faced Capuchin, Mantled Howler Monkey, Central American Squirrel Monkey
– Sloths: Brown-throated Three-toed and Hoffman’s Two-toed
– Central American Agouti
– Variegated Squirrel
– White-nosed Coati
– Alston’s Mouse Possum
– Bats: Long-nosed, Honduran White
Frogs: 7 species
Lizards: 7 species
Snakes: Rainbow Boa
Turtles: Black River Turtle
Crocodilians: Spectacled Caiman, American Crocodile
Butterflies: 21 species
So… only about 600 bird species to go!
 The happiest country in the world according the Happy Planet Index, though merely the 13th happiest according to the UN’s World Happiness Report.
 Biodiversity can be defined as the totality of genes, species and ecosystems of a region. – Young, Anthony. “Global Environmental Outlook 3 (GEO-3): Past, Present and Future Perspectives.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 169, 2003, p. 120, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiversity
 For comparison purposes, New Brunswick is 72,908 km2.