Mar 242010
 
Snakes and Other Deadly Critters

The gardens of the Veragua Hotel in Sierpe

It’s hot. It’s humid. I’m drenched with sweat, hiking up a mountain for a night in the jungle. Welcome to coastal Costa Rica. The beaches are gorgeous; miles and miles of wide, sand beaches broken occasionally by lovely, forested headlands.

After leaving Turrialba in the morning, I have to negotiate the unsigned streets of San Jose once again. It’s frustrating. The maps clearly show Ruta 2 ending on the outskirts of the city. What they don’t show is the highway disappearing into a warren of city streets. Oh well. Once again, my navigational skills get us through the city with only a couple of wrong turns and a little backtracking.

Passing the airport, we stop in at Tricolor, the car rental agency, to talk with them about the broken window and insurance. They’re very congenial and easy to work with. They’ve obviously dealt with this many times.

Our goal today is to return to Hacienda Barú with time in the afternoon to do some hiking. With the brand new highway from San Jose to the Coastanera, it shouldn’t be a problem. All we need is to get to the highway. The guys at Tricolor draw me a map and I’m off.

Once again, I’m astounded. There is no easy way to get from the airport to the highway! You would think that because this will now be THE route for tourists to take from the airport to the beaches, and that the highway runs quite close to the airport, there would be an obvious way to reach it. But no! Finding it requires miles of driving through busy, populated areas constantly wondering if the last turn you took was the correct one.

And once again, a total lack of signs. Call me arrogant, but it’s hard to believe.

Crocodiles congregated below the bridge over the Tarcoles River

The new highway is a beautiful road. Once I find it, it’s only forty-five minutes to the Costanera. It’s a lovely drive south past Jaco and Quepos, stopping at the bridge over the Rio Tárcoles to see the congregation of large Crocodiles below. (I swear they must feed them chickens to keep them there.)

We arrive at Hacienda Barú in the late afternoon and spend three wonderful days hiking the well-maintained trails and wandering the beach. Dinner is at their very good restaurant or a restaurant in Dominical. Excellent Thai food at Coconut Spice. After flying from one treetop platform to another on their zip line, Yolanda included, I make a reservation later in the week for a Night in the Jungle and head south.

Yolanda flying on the zip line at Hacienda Barú

Looking into the treetops at Hacienda Baru'

The Osa Peninsula, a large landmass jutting into the Pacific two hours south, contains Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica’s wildest and least visited. Access is difficult, lodging options limited. I want to check out logistics for the future.

The village of Sierpe is one access point.  The Veragua, a lovely B&B with charming cabins on the river, is a find! Benedetto, an Italian artist, built it twenty years ago and with the help of Ester, a lovely Swiss woman, provides European hospitality amidst beautifully landscaped grounds. Scarlet Macaws rule the trees during the day; a chorus birds wake us before dawn.

The terrace fronting the Estero Azul at the Veragua Hotel

Lacking enough time to do Corcovado justice, we settle for a half-day mangrove tour down the Rio Sierpe. Rafts of purple water-hyacinths float up and down the river with the tide. Monkeys, toucans, tree boas and crocodiles live among the mangroves. A walk along a gorgeous, deserted beach at the river mouth makes the trip especially rewarding.

Along the Rio Sierpe

A tree boa on the banks of the river

Low tide at the mouth of the Rio Sierpe

Yolanda wading along the deserted beach at the river mouth

A deserted tropical paradise

The Las Vegas Restaurant becomes our favorite. Very good food, excellent shrimp. Their deck overlooking the river is wonderful.

The village of Sierpe along the Rio Sierpe and the Las Vegas restaurant

After three, relaxing days, I need to return to Hacienda Barú by three PM when seven others plus two guides start up the mountain to the jungle camp. I’m quickly sweating profusely. It’s not a difficult hike, only a few miles, but it takes two hours. The guides stop frequently to explain the creatures and plants indigenous to the reserve.

Hiking to the jungle camp at Hacienda Baru'

Tall hardwood trees abound at Hacienda Baru'

Me on the roots of a pretty amazing though not yet fully grown tree in the secondary forest

It’s a wonderful experience. The forest is lush, verdant. Paths of Leaf-cutter Ants cross the trail. A sloth is sighted high up in a tree. Huge, thick-trunked trees climb to the sky. The guide points out the amazing eyebrows of a pair of Crested Owls. How they spot the them in all this density I’ll never know.

Male and female Crested Owls

The veranda of the jungle camp at Hacienda Baru'

My hut for the night

We reach the Jungle Camp spread out in a clearing at the boundary between the primary and secondary forest and relax to the sounds of cicadas, toucans and many other hidden birds.

Night descends quickly. After a typical Costa Rican dinner of fruit, rice, beans and chicken, we grab flashlights and VERY slowly move along a trail.

Somehow, the guide spots a tiny, red and green Poison Dart frog about the size of a nickel. Touch it, lick your finger, and you’ll become at least, very ill.

A Poison Dart Frog, a Costa Rican icon

He leads us up a boulder-strewn creek. Big, hairy tarantulas lurk in the nooks and crannies. Spiders, five inches across perch on rocks. I joke about this being the Valley of Death; Abandon hope all ye small reptiles and mammals who enter here.

As we climb out of the stream bed, coiled next to the trail, the guide finds a Terciopelo, Costa Rica’s deadliest snake. Just then, one of our group spots something slithering amongst the tree litter ten feet away. I chant, “Red and Black, Friend of Jack. Red and Yellow, Kill a Fellow.” Sure enough, a Coral Snake!  Too many creepy crawlers for me though you’re much more likely to be hit by lightening than bit by a snake.

A Terciopelo also known as the Fer de Lance, Costa Rica's most dangerous snake

An interesting fact: many biologists of all stripes spent over 450,000 man-hours traipsing through the extreme wilds of Costa Rica before one was finally bit. He lived.

Nevertheless, upon returning to camp, I retire to my small, well-screened hut and, before crawling between the clean sheets of the freshly-made bed, carefully, unapologetically, check EVERYWHERE!

My very comfortable bed

Hiking out the next morning through the stream bed of the "Valley of Death"

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com


Mar 152010
 

The Wildlife Preserve of Hacienda Barú and Volcan Turrialba Struts Its Stuff

The landscape around Turrialba from the Turrialtico Lodge

After leaving the relative coolness of Amy’s farm, Yolanda and I head to the surf town of Playa Dominical. Amy and other friends told us of the ecological preserve of Hacienda Barú, just across the river from Dominical.

We bump and grind our way over the last, few, unbuilt kilometers of the Coastanera, Costa Rica’s new coastal highway. The Coastanera is a god-send, as is the brand new highway linking San Jose and the airport to the Coastanera. With the completion of these last 4 kilometers, it will be possible to drive on a very good highway all the way to Panama.

Previously, access to the Pacific beach resorts and to southern Costa Rica, necessitated navigating the chaos of San Jose and over two mountain ranges.

The trail to the beach through the secondary forest of the preserve.

Upon checking in at Hacienda Barú, http://www.haciendabaru.com/ ,I meet a bit of a legend; Jack Ewing, a Coloradan born in Lamar who, after graduating from CSU, came down to Dominical to run a cattle ranch. That was 1972.

It didn’t take him long to fall in love with the complex and valuable ecology of the area. With the support of his wife, Diane, he has devoted his life and those of his family, to returning the land to its natural state.

Over the decades, what once was pasture, is now dense forest filled with monkeys, coatis, sloths, birds, and yes, deadly snakes.

Jack’s vision, combined with the foresight and financial resources of Pennsylvanian Steve Stroud, enabled Hacienda Barú to be decreed a National Wildlife Refuge. It is a link in the Meso America Biological Corridor, an international attempt to restore a continuous stretch of forest between North and South America. This enables animals, especially large mammals like Tapirs and Jaguars, to once again roam over range sufficient to their needs and increase their endangered populations.

Our cabin is quite nice, with three bedrooms, a kitchen and living room. Only $68 for two people. There’s a restaurant and pool, beautifully maintained gardens, several kilometers of private beach and the adjacent preserve.

The deserted beach at Hacienda Baru' and only part of the largest flock of pelicans I've seen in my life, at least 80 pelicans!

A short hike to the beach through the reserve brings us face to face with a troop of White-faced Capuchins, the smallest of the monkey species in the area. Scampering and jumping through the trees as they forage, they show no fear of humans. A group of perhaps a dozen Coatis, a raccoon-like animal, their 24” tails straight in the air, follows beneath, scarfing up what the monkeys drop.

A white faced Capuchin.

A Coati forages beneath the monkeys.

We still have a broken passenger window so only spend one night. We make reservations for the following week and head back over the mountains to San Isidro. Tricolor, the rental agency, sent the window to a body shop there and within twenty minutes we are on the road.

Heading back into the mountains, the Mirador Valle de General, http://valledelgeneral.com/valledel/, beckons. Another remembrance from the previous trip, it offers clean, very private, inexpensive cabins with breakfast and a restaurant with killer views of the valley. A lovely Tico family owns the lodge. Dinners are reasonable and I have a trout in lemon sauce for $8 that is divine.

The Valle de General from the Mirador Valle de General.

Detail of a plant in the forest preserve of the Mirador Valle de General.

After two, relaxing nights, we head north over the mountains and then east to the city of Turrialba. Passing through Cartago once again, we travel in heavy traffic on a winding, two lane road along the flanks of Volcan Irazu. The decent into a warmer climate is through extensive fields of coffee and sugar cane. We wonder at the large farms completely covered in black, shade material, later learning that they raise house plants.

Just before arriving in Turrialba, we follow a sign to a hilltop hotel, Hotel Valle Verde. Perched high up on a mountainside, it offers front row seats to Volcan Turrialba’s latest eruptions. For only $21 a night, we have a large room with wrap around windows and an open air sitting room. Toucans and many other birds inhabit the trees outside our windows.

Once again, we have the entire hotel to ourselves. Turrialba woke from it’s slumber a week or so before and blew a big cloud of ash miles into the air, covering the upper elevations in a gray shroud. The eruptions now prove to be little more than a column of gray smoke rising into the sky.

Volcan Turrialba

As dusk arrives, the lights of Turrialba below and those of the pueblos on the mountainside of the volcano come alive, sparkling in the darkness. Seeing as how the restaurant is closed mid-week, we drive to another hotel listed in the guide books, the Turrialtico Lodge, http://www.turrialtico.com/  It is situated on the opposite , eastern side of the large valley. Also on a hilltop, it offers a sweeping view of the city with the volcanos behind. It’s lovely, open air restaurant serves us breakfast. I take advantage of their wifi to call via skype and deal with American Express who offered us supplemental auto insurance when we used their card.

An amazing pump organ with bamboo pipes at the Turrialtico Lodge.

The afternoon is spent exploring the lush campus and botanical gardens of CATIE, the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación and Enseñaza, one of the premier biological research facilities in the world. http://www.catie.ac.cr/magazin_ENG.asp?CodIdioma=ENG

The campus at CATIE.

Driving through the extensive orchards is edifying. Who knew there are over twenty species of Cacao from which chocolate is made? As well, the huge collections contain numerous species from around the world of Palms, Guayaba, Macadamia, Mango, Bamboo, Coffee and exotic trees.

The addictive fruit of the Cacao tree.

A path in the botanical garden.

One of the many species of palm at CATIE.

After wandering around the beautifully, landscaped campus and its lovely lake whose trees and lily pads are filled with egrets and many other birds, we stumble upon the cafeteria and have a wonderful meal for very little money.

Rain falls as we return to the Hotel Valle Verde. We settle in for the night in anticipation of the following day’s long drive through San Jose and down the coast to Hacienda Barú.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

Mar 112010
 

Organic Farming and a Celebration of Costa Rican Democracy


The view toward the ocean from San Luis.

That afternoon, we travel to another tiny pueblo, San Luis, high in the mountains for a small feria. On the way, we detour to see the fortress built by an American who was murdered there only a couple of weeks prior.

The Fortress

The government removed over $3 million in jewels from the incredibly ugly fortress he and his wife lived in. He surrounded himself with an 8,000 acre preserve. Several guard shacks and twelve guards protected the approach. In addition to the jewels, the government removed three semi-trailer loads of furnishings and art work, not a small feat on these bad, narrow, dirt and rock roads.


A small waterfall along the road to San Luis.

It is a beautiful, long, slow drive on a bad road to San Luis. The town is perched spectacularly on a mountainside which drops steeply away several thousand feet into a valley surrounded by mountains leading to the ocean. What a view!

Leif, Deiner and Amy discussing organic farming.

We meet some of the warm-hearted locals and buy lunch. They’re having a benefit to raise money for the community. We also meet, Leif Palmer, a Peace Corps volunteer from Portland, Oregon. He is living in the village trying to bring in phone and internet service. He also is working on obtaining government grants to add computers and a computer room to the school. One young local, Deiner Fallas, takes us to visit his greenhouses where, with the encouragement of Amy and Leif, he is learning to grow organic vegetables for his family and the market. His enthusiasm is contagious. He clearly expresses joy and pride in his accomplishments.

Deiner Fallas and his organic greenhouses.

The next day Amy joins us to experience the Costa Rican national election in San Isidro. A friend recommended visiting a city to see Costa Rican democracy in action. It is so different from our elections. There is much hoopla. Everyone from young to old participates. The streets are filled with honking, flag-waving cars and trucks full of supporters. People must to travel to their home town to vote. Trucks and buses ply the countryside throughout the day, ferrying voters to their polling places.

Bringing in voters.

Everyone participates.

Supporters of Otton Solis.

Registering supporters for Otton Solis.

Each party has their colors and flag.

Supporters of Laura Chinchilla.

Voting takes place at various schools. You must find your name outside the room you need to vote in.

Only one person or family is allowed in the room at a time.

Lovely Laura supporters holding the three ballots, one for President, another for National Deputy and one for Regidor or local representative.

It’s one big party. Almost the entire population joins in. Ticos are very proud of their democracy and express it much differently than we do. Costa Rica elected their first female president, Laura Chinchilla, by a 20% margin.


Laura supporters celebrating democracy Costa Rican style.

After taking Amy home, we pick up our luggage at Capt. Jan’s. It starts raining hard, most unusual for this time of year. Not having felt a need to immediately replace the broken window, there is still no passenger window. Yolanda holds a piece of plastic over the space, trying to keep the rain out. It rains most of the way to Dominical on the coast where we have a reservation at Hacienda Barú, a much recommended Eco-Lodge and National Wildlife Refuge. After the mountains, we are looking forward to the coastal jungle and beach.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

Mar 082010
 

A Lot of Good and a Little Bad


The view from the cabin at Los Chorros. The ocean lies obscurred in the distance.


After a wonderful afternoon exploring Amy’s finca and eating deliciously fresh fruit, we head down to a Tico house she had found for us to rent. We agree to meet at her finca the next morning at 9:00 AM.

The house is in San Salvador, a tiny pueblo a couple of kilometers from her farm. It is pretty basic but fine, especially for only $20 a night. As evening quietly falls and fire flies light the trees, we sit outside, enjoying a meal of greens, fruit and heart of palm Amy provided us. Around 7:30 I lay down in bed to read and suddenly, my legs are crawling with big, black ants. Turning up the mattress reveals a nest, larvae and all.

Yolanda is freaked out and insists we find another place. We had checked out Capt. Jan’s B&B, Villa del Diamonte, that afternoon, so we head back up in the dark. The TV is on, her two doberman are barking, but I can’t rouse anyone.

The gutless wonder parked well off the road with the cabin beyond

Heading out to the highway, we rent a cabin at Los Chorros, a restaurant with incredible views. I’m told to park the car well down a road off the highway. “Es seguro.”, “It’s safe.” assures the manager. In the night, someone brakes a window stealing a jacket. There was almost nothing in the car but some dirty underwear, shoes and the jacket.

We never could get all the broken glass out.

Lesson learned: leave nothing, not even trash, in the car.

My phone doesn’t work. Tricolor, the rental agency, can’t be called until the restaurant opens at 10 am, an hour after we are supposed to be at Amy’s. They said if anything happens, don’t move the car until you call them. It turn’s out this applies only to accidents. I could’ve moved it and gone to Amy’s. That would’ve been so much easier and caused much less stress all around.

On the way back to Amy’s, Capt. Jan is home and gladly takes us in. Of all nights, last night had been darts night. She was at a neighbor’s. Jan has led a very interesting life commanding luxury yachts for rich folks. She provides a contrast to Amy’s mindset and the gentle, loving, helpful mindset of Amy’s ex-pat friends toward Ticos. We learn a few things about the arrogant attitude some Gringos can have.

Amy, of course, was very concerned when we didn’t arrive around 9:00. She left messages on my phone, called her mom in San Diego and emailed me. She called the Tico’s who rented us the house and found out we had left. I had no way to contact her so there was relief all around when we finally show up.

Amy's rancho

Once again, we spend most of the day together. I interview her, we hike around her land, and I take more photographs for the article I’m writing on Amy and sustainable living in Costa Rica for the Organization of American States, www.oas.org/americas/.

A water ram pump Amy uses to move water from a spring up to her fruit trees. It is powered solely by water.

The next morning, we’re up early. I had volunteered to do portraits of the students in La Florida, another tiny pueblo, and to photograph their new library. Students and teachers from Landmark University have been visiting La Florida for the past five years. They were brought in by Drennan Flahive, a 10 year resident of La Florida. Each year they worked in the community and brought $2,000 to go toward building the library. Drennan designed the library and donated the labor of his company, Jungle Brothers Construction. http://sustainablesolutionscr.com

Amy as well, solicited donations from family and friends,raising almost $10,000. One friend donated $6500! Probably a total of $27-28,000 was required to build a truly lovely library for the community. It provides a connection to the world through books and the internet for a community that has historically been isolated.

The biblioteca in La Florida

Another gringo organization, Creer, http://www.truenaturecommunity.org/creer-site/index.php, has also benefited the community, bringing in America students who spent part of their vacation repainting the school adjacent to the library.

The recently painted school in La Florida

Clearly, ex-pats are benefiting Costa Rica. Many, like Amy and Drennan, come looking for alternatives to the materialistic culture they were born into. They actively seek ways to involve themselves in their chosen communities and are creating sustainable lifestyles as well as influencing the people in their communities toward the same.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

Mar 032010
 


Two Beautiful Birds of the Costa Rican Forest

Male Resplendent Quetzal.


Amy Shrift on her finca with her home in the background.

The most beautiful bird in the world. That is our destination before visiting the farm of my friend Amy, who left Manhattan to live alone in the jungles of Costa Rica.

After two wonderful nights in the Orosi Valley, we head south via the Pan-American Highway across the Cerro de Muerto, the summit of death. It is so-named not from the narrow road and its death defying drivers, but because at over 10,000 feet, unprepared people die from hypothermia.

We reach 8,500 feet and the turnoff to El Mirador del Quetzales. For $80 there’s a small, basic cabin with meals and a Quetzal tour. Relaxing on the porch presents a stunning panorama dropping away to lush Costa Rican forests and mountains.

The view from the Mirador del Quetzals

Cabins at the Mirador del Quetzals


An afternoon hike in their private reserve of ancient, bromeliad and moss encrusted oaks reveals no Quetzals. The manager assures me Quetzals for the morning guided hike, “Guarantizado!”.

We dine with a Dutch family and a Brit, all very congenial, with stimulating conversation.

Afterward, we prepare for a cold night. I doubt there’s insulation in the walls and only two blankets. We’re grateful for having brought our thermals and the thin, down sleeping bag we’re taking Amy.

5:30 comes too early. Coffee, thankfully, at 6:00 and then the guided tour into another private reserve directly behind the cabins. Within ten minutes I spot my first, male Resplendent Quetzal.

Male Resplendent Quetzal high up in an oak tree.


It is a magnificent 14” tall bird, glittering green, with a crimson breast, white tail feathers and two 25” long turquoise streamers that float with the breeze. His fuzzy, green, helmet-like crest gives it a somewhat bewildered look.

For years I’ve wanted to see one and here are four males and two females, even three on the same branch. A satisfying morning.

Our next stop is south of the mountains, the city of San Isidro del General, to meet Amy at the market and take her and her week’s worth of supplies to her farm. Five years ago, Amy Schrift exchanged her life as a jazz trumpeter in the concrete jungle of Manhattan for life in the jungles of Costa Rica.

Yolanda and Amy on her finca.


She has transformed a former coffee finca (farm) into a veritable Garden of Eden. Amy appears an unlikely pioneer. Slight of frame with thick, black hair framing lovely, dark eyes that betray her intensity of purpose. She speaks passionately of growing her own food, working with local farmers developing markets for organic produce, translating for sustainable farming classes and teaching English to young Ticos.

Wandering through her stream, her bathtub.


On the forty-five minute drive to her finca, up the mountains and then down the dirt road into the Valle del Diamante, we catch up on the happenings over the four years since we first visited. Arriving at her finca, we are overwhelmed by the changes.

Four years ago, where a newly built palapa was surrounded by bare earth, a stone path  now meanders between lush, flowering bushes and fruit trees. We are surrounded by so much natural beauty it’s breathtaking. Amy’s hard work has been richly rewarded.

Amy at the door to her bodega (store room). Bare dirt four years ago.

Talking on her rancho (palapa).

Talking on her rancho (palapa).

We spend the afternoon learning more about her sustainable philosophy. Amy is dedicated to eventually eating only what she grows herself. She sleeps without walls, usually under the stars. Up well before sunrise for two hours of yoga and meditation, then it’s to work, nurturing the abundantly, fertile land she is so fortunate to have bought and become it’s temporary caretaker.

What a place to meditate!

Morning yoga.

Over these past four years, she has planted pineapples, guavas, papayas, mangos, avocados, jackfruit, oranges, durian, bananas, berries, and an amazing fruit, guanabana, with the taste and delicate texture of custard. Through a government program, Amy has planted over 3,000 hardwood trees to help with the reforestation of her former cafetal (coffee farm).

A jackfruit tree she planted a couple of years ago.

The rancho with banana trees below.


As we hike down to the river flowing through her land, she plucks edible leaves and flowers from trees and bushes, urging us to taste; peppery, sweet, lemony, sour, salty, each a surprisingly different flavor. Toucans fly overhead. Bird song surrounds us and the lion-like growls of Howler Monkeys reach us from the primary forest surrounding her finca.

If only humans could learn that the Garden of Eden is not some fairy tale place, but a possible living reality right here and now.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com