Monday, March 21, 2011


Traveling to Costa Rica for the first time, I learned that this country has two particular political claims on me: It abolished its army in 1948 and it elected a woman president in 2010.
But most importantly Costa Rica invaded my senses and my heart. I hope the entries from my journals and a few photos explain why.
January 11, 2011 Bougainvillea, San Jose

When we arrived at the San Jose airport, I felt the soft air and have been savoring it ever since. I awoke at Bougainvillea Hotel to hear a rooster crowing at 5:30 and the soft call of a barn owl.

This morning I wandered through the and saw my first mot mot – an iridescent blue green bird with long tail feathers – and the clay-colored robin, Costa Rica’s national bird. Among the tropical plans, I most enjoyed the large dangling white “Angel trumpets.”

After breakfast of granola and Costa Rican beans and rice, we drove in vans up to the garden of Ileana Temar on a coffee plantation. The wife of the grower, she has been tending her beautiful orchid gardens for 48 years.

Ileana had stones on the patio from Old San Juan, which had been removed for the construction of buildings. In her garden and greenhouses, she used wood, trees, logs as planters as well as sugar cane pots for fountains, and arranged concrete or stone salt boxes (for cattle) and metates for grinding in various combinations to create walls and waterfall backdrops.

Entering her garden was like coming into fairyland, mosses and ferns sprouting from the steps, orchids clinging to trees and cascading from logs, large varieties of bromeliads, miniature orchids, begonias of all kinds, including clusters of miniature begonias and orchids, ginger bromeliad, fathgotis (flowers springing from leaves), the “little boy” plant, lady’s slippers and always sweet aromas wafting through the soft air.

The house is broad, opens to the gardens, and broad vistas. It is beautifully furnished, and a wide variety of modern art hang on the walls. Ileana gave us a tour of the garden and house, showed a DVD of the work of her foundation (which educates third and fourth graders about the natural world, especially Costa Rica’s native an national flower, the guaria morada, a purple orchid native to the country.
Ileana served us lunch of ceviche with cod and avocado, cilantro with a splash of lemon and cocktail sauce; chicken tamale, plantain, papaya juice, white wine and sangria.

From Ileana’s porch we could see Norfolk pines and much coffee in the valley below.

Birds here included the Inca Dove, Blue and white swallows and a brown swallow (tree swallow maybe?). We next visited San Jose: an historical museum, the gold museum and the National Theater.

Factoids: Costa Rica ‘s army was disbanded in 1948, and the money contributed to public education. The U.S. has a pact with the country to defend it in case any other nation attacks. Lauria Chinchillia is the new and first female president (2010-2014).

Although bananas are a major export, they originated in China; the Spanish brought them to the Canary Islands and from there to the Western hemisphere.
Coffee is another important export; Arabica is the best Costan Rican coffee.A bushel of beans produces two cups of coffee! After the beans are roasted, the small seeds which pop out produce the “coffee” we grind. Harvesting brings only $1 per basket to the pickers.

In the 1850s, Tennessean William Walker sought to create slave holding states in Central America, referred to as the Philobusters. I think my 19th century great uncle James Edwin Slaughter mentions this in one of his letters to his father from Mexico.

We learned there are over 100 snake varieties in Costa Rica, 24 of which are poisonous. We also were introduced to cecropia, a tree that emits a sleeping substance – sloths like it and it can be used by humans to cure insomnia.

We learned about the aboriginal peoples and their hierarchies of caliques, chammes, warriors and “ladies.” The people traded gold with Mexico, and they fashioned in into sheets, melted it for molds forming shapes such as eagles and frogs. In Costa Rica many of these animal figures have human features, and the golden objects are put in burial plots.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted, but we saw more as we drove through the city, the market areas and the diplomatic residential areas, including the home of former President Arias, a Nobel Prize winner for supporting Costa Rica as a peace loving nation.

Finished the day with a drink – guarne – and the Plato Tipico: black beans, salad and grilled sea bass. Muy bueno!

Wednesday, January 13
We left at 7:30 stopping in San Ramon where I purchased new reading glasses to replace the ones I lost. Then on to Nectandra– a beautiful preserve started by Evelyn Lennette and her husband plus others. Nectandra is about 400 hectares but surrounded by other preserved lands. It is in the cloud forest although, as a result of climate change, the hot months are increasing and animals are moving higher to seek the cooler climes. Because of this there are more snakes, crested wren and kill deer and less cloud forest. I took pictures of the waterfall with pond above.

Evelyn and her husband were molecular biologists in San Francisco area who gave up their careers for the new adventure. They built trails, replanting ferns and other plants that had to be removed; and they carried heavy beams up mountains to build a visitor center. In addition to conservation and education at the reserve, they have developed a micro-loan program to local water districts to give
funding without interest for expansion and improvements in return for conservation measures to protect the watershed.
More recently Nectandra is negotiating with a private hydroelectric company to give them a loan with the expectation that it could become a lender to other water districts. For more on Nectandra, see

Evelyn also told me that, despite having a woman president, Costa Rica has not liberated women – the males still rule in government; the women rule the homes. Still, no women serve on the local water boards.
We had a fabulous lunch – salad with avocados, mango papaya and hearts of palm and lettuce; cassava (delicious root vegetable), chicken wrapped in palm leaf and of course beans and rice.
On the bird walk through the preserve we saw black and white warbler, bush tanager, tucanet, black guans (with orangy pink feet). These also included the black faced solitaire; silver
fronted tapacula; green hermit and purple throated mountain gem (hummingbirds), slaty-capped flycatcher. Enroute, we also heard a redstart and saw black buzzards and cattle herons as we passed many farms with Brahmin and angus cattle.

At Monte Verde, we also looked at a variety of plants and agin many birds, including Wilson’s warbler, yellow warbler, tropical kingbird, black crested flycatcher, grass quit, black throated green warbler, chestnut sided warbler, golden crowned warbler, and a red bellied trogdon.
From Nectaranda we went south back through San Ramon toward west and then north. Although inland, we had a number of Pacific Ocean views, and could see the Golfo de Nicoya clearly although the clouds hang above it like a mystical mirage. As the van ascends the mountains, the landscape keeps changing. First it has the steep hills reminiscent of Northern Tuscany. In Costa Rica, the pinnacles are punctuated by palms instead of Italian cypress. Longer ridges remind me of the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. Then, there is a steep incline from the valleys to the mountain tops, mostly covered with forests, but a few areas -- cleared fields – are dotted with golden Guernsey cows and Brahmin cattle accompanied by small herons – white with hints of Guernsey tan on their crowns and wings. Even the misty sky has clouds the color of the golden Guernsey.

The sign shows a mere 20 kilometers to Monteverde, but the road is hardly more than a narrow track, a graveled and rutted switchback, making this leg arduous and slow. Barely wide enough for two cars to pass, in some places, the road narrows even more. Ahead, an arc of a rainbow reaches up from the valley on the left-hand side; as the van follows the switch back, the other end of the rainbow appears on the other side. Back and forth on the road, we follow the rainbow arcs until, at last, as the road straightens out, the two arcs join in one bow. I ask the driver Juan Carlos, the Spanish for rainbow. “El arco-iris” he says pointing to his eye. We had left Nectaranda at 1 and arrived at 6 p.m. at Casa Vela.

Thursday, January 13, 2011 Fonda Vela, Monte Verde

Yellow throated euphonia. I love the word euphonia and we heard it sing yesterday at Nectandra. A fluted sound, truly beautiful.

This morning we walked with Jorge (Cokie) who’s been a guide for 18 years. We started at the Coffee shop shop where we got a good view of a toucanet.

A lot of mist and rain so we didn’t see a lot. Even so, we spied or heard 30 or so species plus white faced capuchin monkeys and we heard howler monkeys.

After lunch at the hotel, several of us go on a bird walk on the Baja de Tigre trail. Extremely windy, we did not see a lot of birds – black guans, some warblers, tanagers. After halfway, we hit a less windy side and sat for a while at a mirador looking across the valley – very peaceful and meditative.

We marched also through a colony of army ants which went on for some distance. Fortunately we knocked off a few that had made it onto our clothes, but it was a close call. I found myself racing down the path to get away from them.
Once back, we had about a mile walk home, mostly uphill. About halfway through that, as the others, I trod homeward. It was a time when the destination - my bed - seemed more important than the proverbial journey.

Just at the entrance of Fonda Vela, a group of monkeys ran across the road into the culvert. Our guide Vern later told me they were probably howlers.

Dinner that night was grilled corvine (sea bass) with two martinis and a glass of wine. I slept like a rock.

Friday, January 14, 2011 Fonda Vela Monte Verde

This morning we rose for breakfast at 6:30 and departure an hour later for Sana Ana Preserve. As it rained hard, the cloud forest transformed into a rain forest.

Our guide – “Johnny” – was excellent – showing us birds when they appeared, explaining about the Caribbean and Pacific sides of the Preserve, the old growth versus first succession forests, etc. He found plants and bugs, told us about the many species (he counted 78 species in the Xmas 2010 down from 98 in 2009).

We heard: Ruddy capped nightingale thrush; Spangle cheeked salator; buffy cheeked tanager; striped warbler; ochraceous wren; golden cheeked warbler; black faced solitaire.

A shopping excursion into Monte Verde before dinner: Chile relleno with veggies, salad and soup and chocolate cake. We also had a rum sour popular with the locals, acc

Mirage? Pacific gulf in the mists below Monte Verde

Saturday January 15 La Quinta

This morning we left Fonda Vela - a long ride back through San Ramon, stopping at a restaurant by the Rio Seco and then on to shopping at a so-called "artisans' mart", really a tourist trap, but a pleasant one, in Sarichi, and then lunch around the corner overlooking the flame trees. A long drive to La Quinta in the Carribean lowlands.

Bird of the Day: White Tailed Kite.


Ginger deserves its own heading. I love ginger in recipes and salads, pickled ginger with sushi and candied ginger as a sweet so I truly enjoyed seeing all the various varieties of ginger in om. Here are but a few.

Sunday January 16, 2011 La Quinta

Today we toured La Selva Biological Station run by a consortium of universities including Duke. Our guide Edgardo was most informative and showed us around the plants and birds: including sloths, old growth forest, tropical kingbird, Tennessee warbler, blue gray tanager, white collared swift, rufous wren, yellow billed elenia, cholortona, rose fronted parakeet, long billed hermit; montezuma orapendual, crested guan, golden hooded tanager, rufous mot mot, wedge billed wood creeper. Also boat billed toucan, chestnut mandible toucan, white crested parrot, cinnamon woodpecker, long tailed tyrannulet, chestnut sided warbler.

Whew ! (see montezuma orapendola above).

Tuesday, January 17 La Quinta
Gale and I continue to lose items in either our room or our purses and then find them. This morning after an early breakfast, we left for a boat trip on the Sarapiqui. We travelled on a flat river boat, two and one-seat wide separated by an aisle and with a canopy. We motored up and down stream viewing critters and birds including 8 howler monkeys in one tree, iguanas, sloths, egrets. We returned to the hotel for lunch salad with beets, cukes, chayote. Then we travelled to Helleconia Island to view the gardens there. Birds seen: chestnut collared woodpecker; cinnamon woodpecker; black faced woodpecker; black cowled oriole; dusty faced tanager; spectacle owl (a pair roosting in a tree); blue cheeked hummingbird; belted kingfisher; bare throated tiger heron; Nicaraguan seed finch; crested caracara; honeycreeper; buff throated salator; red throated ant tanager; Baltimore oriole; blue green honeycreeper. At hotel: crimson cowled tanager; redleg honeycreeper; golden hooded tanager; palm oriole.

Active Turrialba Volcano

Wednesday, January 18, 2011 Rancho Naturalista

We arrived here early afternoon. Now it is only 9:30 but Gale has been asleep for a couple of hours. Today, we drove today south into the central highlands, stopping first at Costa Flores near where we toured the gardens (privately developed but now owned by the CR government). When we left they gave each of us a bouquet of ginger and other flowers (which we photographed).

We had lunch on the way at a nearby restaurant and then drove to Rancho Naturalista –our final stay. It’s the best !

We watch hummingbirds at the feeder and then a group embarks on a hike. We stop at a feeding station to observe more hummers – in hope of seeing the snow capped. We don’t see them yet.

As we descend the trail it grows darker and we worry about whether it is circular and where we would return. We decide to turn back.

We arrive back where we started. After showering and changing I arrive for dinner – pork and mashed potatoes, green beans, gravy and salad and a delicious cake with a sweet milk sauce.

Back in the room I read “Mint Leaves” by Aguilar but when I finish I realize Gale is asleep. Early Wednesday: I’ve been awake for at least an hour, feeling fully rested and wondering if I reset my clock by mistake when I reset the alarm. I want to go at 5:45 to see the birds feeding on the moths.

Wednesday , January 19
Starting with the evening, dinner was delicious – chicken, rice, beans.
Today we went to a research center SIECE ( and visited the agricultural fields as well as the botanical gardens with lunch in between0. One building was was named for Henry Wallace who apparently helped found the center in 1942. As usual, a great guide a young man named Marco.

We saw so many different plants and trees. Both Gale and I truly felt the spirits animating the environment here.

Thursday, January 20

Today, our final day, we went to the archeological national monument of Guaybo which also is an “engineering” monument because it shows that the aboriginal people had advanced infrastructure – viaducts conveying water from underground springs into a sedimentation pond and then into a reservoir for future use.
We drove south from Rancho Naturalista to Turrialba near the volcano then north again along a local road to the monument.
From a visitor center we descended into an open area where there were mounds (each for a home for a different group in the hierarch with the chief in the center and the highest mound). The village is placed between two rivers, a mountain range and the volcano, thus in a secure spot. It is dated from about 800 BC existing until about 1400 or 100 years before the Spanish arrived. Along the way we viewed tombs and a plinth into which a cougar and an alligator (legato) are carved.

After a picnic at the park, we split into two groups – I went into Turrialba for shopping – and most important for me – to get dollars for tips, traveller tax and hotel bill. Gale and I walked around town purchasing a couple of things including two great collages of people but mostly looking at the fish and meat market, vegetables many stores of “stuff”, shoe stores, etc.

Upon return we got ready for dinner and prepared the book on plants which I donated as a gift to Vernon and Juan Carlos. Dinner was festive – beef in mushroom sauce, cauliflower tempura, salad and potatoes, chocolate mousse.

Home to our room early so we read aloud two Costa Rican stories, including one about Elena Gonzalez, who disappeared. These are wonderful mystical realism and Gale and I now are thinking this way.

Food: Almost every morning we have rice and beans, prepared with touch of parsley, peppers, onions, salt and pepper). Today we had eggs probably fried, then basted with water, still soft, parsley and pepper, tortillas and fruit and delicious sausage.

Friday January 21, 2011 Rancho Naturalista to San Jose: Leaving Costa Rica

Views of Turrialba volcano from all sides. Steep valleys through coffee plantations shaded by eucalyptus trees, chayotes growing, other plants, including Boston ferns. Through Cartago, the early capital: photo of the ruined cathedral, bottlebrush trees.
I did not sleep well. After reading two costa Rican stories, I went to sleep but awoke again at 1:30 so I got up went to the bathroom, read some more and by two something I went to sleep again until 5:45. This morning after an omelet with mushrooms, avocados, peppers and bacon and fruit, we departed from Rancho Naturalista. Even before we left we saw another bird, the brown headed orapendula, my favorite. This morning the volcano was more active or at least the steam or lava was going vertically into the air – we all got many pictures on our way.

We stopped to purchase our coffee beans at Cristina’s – she worked on the Panama Canal with the US Army communications and her husband was a pilot (I joked “Agency people”). They retired, according to Vernon, and bought the coffee plantation.

In the air now, I’m looking at Costa Rica from 34,000 feet – saw a volcano which I’m guessing is Turrialba. This would mean we are traveling northeast – I can see the Caribbean coast with a line of islands.

Homeward bound!
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