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A Week Birding in Costa Rica


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By Janet from New York, USA, Winter 2006
A week of birding, photography, sun and fun in Costa Rica

This trip report was originally published on SlowTrav.com.

The Central Lowlands: Sarapiqui and the La Selva Biological Station​

This was our third trip to Costa Rica and the focus was on birding and photography, so perhaps our itinerary was a little different than most. We spent two nights near La Virgen at Laquinta Sarapiqui Country Inn, two nights in the central valley at Poas Volcano Lodge, and three nights on the coast in Manuel Antonio, at Hotel Si Como No.

We rented a car through Avis with a Costco discount and paid about $350 for the week (automatic, sedan, not 4WD). This would have been somewhat less costly, but we couldn't find a gas station near the airport to fill up when we returned the car, and so part of this cost was an expensive tank fill-up. Although some people think you must rent a 4WD in Costa Rica, it really depends on where you are going, and in what season. We rented a regular sedan because we knew that the areas we were travelling in were served by paved roads; we really didn't go anywhere too remote on this trip, and it was also the dry season. We had no problems and were happy we didn't spend the extra for 4WD, we never had a time that we would have needed it. We also liked having the security of a closed trunk.

Our purpose for staying near Sarapiqui was to bird La Selva Biological Station, a tropical research station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies (a consortium of many educational institutions) and a top birding destination. We would have stayed right at La Selva Station, but at the time we planned the trip they offered only dormitory lodging, and as we were arriving on my birthday, I just didn't want to spend my birthday in a dormitory! As it turned out, they have since added private cabins and I wish we'd have known that as the setting of the cabins is wonderful; although they are rustic, and dining is communal institutional food at set mealtimes. It is, after all, a working research station and not a hotel, no frills.

La Selva is an amazing place. Beautiful habitat, very easy (paved) trails, and a proliferation of birds and butterflies. It is required to use a guide to walk the trails of La Selva, unless you are a registered guest. There are interns and researchers coming and going on the trails; the trails are paved so that these workers can get from one end of the station to the other on bicycles. We pre-booked, well in advance, the "full-day" guided private bird walk which ran from 6am to 11:30am (Its really too hot to bird after that hour, anyway.) They also lead shorter, more generalized group walks twice a day, which would be best for the average tourist or for families. We had an excellent guide, a young woman named (I think) Yelinda, and although she said she'd only been birding one year, she was very good, personable, and spoke excellent English. She knew the bird calls and found us many great birds.

At the end of our walk, she helped us book a private birding boat tour on the Sarapiqui river for the afternoon. That was really cool because we had an entire 20 person boat for just the two of us. We paid $25 per person for a two hour boat trip. The boat "captain"/guide didn't speak much English but he was excellent at spotting the birds and other wildlife and took his time maneuvering us for good photos, etc. Again, group boat tours are available for the more general tourist. You'll see crocodiles, herons, parrots and have a generally relaxing trip up the river.

Yelinda also recommended a good place for lunch in the town of Puerto Viejo Sarapiqui, Mi Lindo Sarapiqui, across from the soccer field. Simple but good Costa Rica cuisine and seafood, and boy that cerveza sure tasted great after our morning hike!

Laquinta Sarapiqui was a fine place to stay, about a 15-20 minute drive from La Selva. The rooms are in little cabins set in lush landscape; our room was spacious and comfortable, plenty of hot water, great bird feeders and some nice birding on their property. The food was very good too, a buffet of grilled steak, chicken, sausages for dinner (grilled right on the patio), as well as a full buffet breakfast. They have a small pool by the river, which we didn't have time to use. A little crowded with tour groups though, but nothing that would keep us from going back.


Pineapple fields on road to La Quinta Sarapiqui
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The Central Highlands: Poas Volcano and La Paz Waterfall Gardens​

Next, we spent two nights at Poas Volcano Lodge, a working cattle ranch that's been converted to a visitor's lodge. We had two goals for this area: to visit the volcano, of course; and also to visit La Paz Waterfall Gardens, principally for photography and birding. We'd heard from a friend who'd been there recently that their bird feeders were fantastic for tanagers and some hard-to-get species.

We arrived at La Paz Waterfall Gardens after a short 45 minute drive from Laquinta (which is actually closer to La Virgen then it is to Sarapiqui.) We thought we'd just spend a few hours, but we ended up spending the entire day here, from 9:30am to almost 5pm. The touted hummingbird garden was actually a bit of a disappointment; oddly, there were not very many hummingbirds, and only a few different species. Maybe just an off day! However, the butterfly garden, frog habitat, and the fruit feeders were awesome and well worth the price of admission. And the waterfalls were pretty cool too! The entire place is landscaped beautifully (but they are constructing still more "facilities." I hope they don't ruin it by over-developing.)

We had our best mammal sighting of the trip here, a Tayra (huge black marten-type critter) visited the fruit feeders as we watched. We spent at least an hour just parked in front of the fruit feeders watching and photographing the birds. We spent a good hour in the butterfly habitat too, supposedly the largest in Costa Rica, which was fascinating and included exhibits as well as free-flying butterflies. We never even got to the fishing pond area or the trails in that section, which looked less travelled and lush. La Paz is definitely a "tourist attraction" and a bit "Disneyesque", and from 10am on, there were many tour groups, but it never seemed too crowded. It's not inexpensive; the cost was $25 per person plus another $12 pp for an extensive buffet lunch. But for us, it was worth it for the easily accessible wildlife and the photo ops, and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. I would highly suggest visiting on your own, and not taking a tour, as the tour groups seemed to just breeze by the most interesting features and head straight to the falls and the lunch area.

The next day was our day to visit Poas Volcano, unfortunately this was the one rainy day of the trip, we woke up to a socked-in volcano. But, we drove up anyway, because, heck, we were there! Its about a 20 minute drive up the mountain from Poas Volcano Lodge. Of course, we had no crater view whatsoever, just a mass of clouds, and no birds. We took the two short hikes to the crater's rim but didn't stay long, descending the mountain in hopes of finding clearer weather.

The "standard" rooms at Poas Volcano Lodge are quite basic - and small - and I think it would be worth the few extra dollars to get the superior room. Our room was adequate though, with plenty of hot water and cheap at $55 a night. The lodge itself is really quite nice, roaring fire at night, billiard table, friendly staff, some good trails through some adjacent forest, and we saw a spectacular rainbow across the pasture the morning we left. Breakfasts are excellent, eggs, bacon or sausage, homemade jams (great home-baked biscuits at dinner too.) Dinner (not included, but you can tell them in the morning if you would like to have dinner; I think it was about $15 a person) was simple but good one night, beef or chicken fajitas, and delicious lemon meringue pie! The second night we ate at Colbert's Restaurant up the road, which was okay, not great, and rather odd; we were the only customers there the entire evening. The chef/owner was attentive, classical music playing, but the whole thing seemed a bit surreal, not at all like Costa Rica.

On to the coast...


Blue Morpho butterfly, La Paz Waterfall Gardens

The Coast: Manuel Antonio National Park​

Then, on to our final three nights in Manuel Antonio.

We had no trouble finding our way from Poas to Manuel Antonio, especially with the help of our Garmin Etrex GPS unit.

We stopped at the famous Tarcoles Bridge to view the crocs and birds, and had the fabulous luck of three Scarlet Macaws flying overhead. Be sure to lock your car here; best bet is to park on the side of the bridge where the restaurants/shops are; this area is notorious for break-ins. There's now a police hut on the other end, although we did not see any police! We had no problems though. We stopped at Steve and Lisa's seaside restaurant for a wonderful seafood lunch, right where the road first hits the coast, on the beach side; you can't miss it - it's very popular and will likely have a full parking lot if it is around lunchtime. There will be signs as you approach "Steve and Lisa's ahead!"

After lunch we headed on to Manuel Antonio, with one "unanticipated" stop; we stood at a total standstill for one hour and fifteen minutes right before the one-lane bridge into Quepos. We were at least a half mile back when the traffic just halted. No one knew what was going on. People were getting out of their cars, locals were getting out and walking (you couldn't see the bridge from this spot, but we figured from the GPS that it was just ahead.) No cars were coming the other way on the road, so we supposed there was a problem on the bridge. Anyway, after a hot and frustrating hour, traffic started moving in the other direction and eventually our line of traffic moved across too. No visible reason for this, although later the guy at our hotel said they had been working on the bridge earlier in the day. (And believe me ... the "bridge" desperately needs work!) The lesson from this, expect the unexpected and don't cut your time too close! We were glad we weren't heading for the airport.

Our hotel in Manuel Antonio was Si Como No. We absolutely loved this place, although its gotten mixed reviews on Tripadvisor and other forums. I was a little afraid it would be too "resorty" for us, but it was very laid back and comfortably laid out. The property is wonderful and we saw and heard three species of monkey from our balcony, along with countless birds. We were in room #5, a Superior Double and it was perfect in terms of being at eye level to the canopy and also having a lovely ocean view. The room is nothing fancy, and we had a couple of very minor peeves: no over-bed reading lights, no luggage racks (and simply no place to put luggage! Had to strew it about on the floor, while there was plenty of room for a rack or two.) Finally, there were screens on some, but not all of the windows, and we really didn't want (or need) the a/c, so we ended up just sleeping with the blinds drawn and window open, taking our chances with the bugs. Fortunately it was not very buggy there in February.

We loved that there is a separate adult pool ... it was never crowded. In fact the whole place never seemed crowded even though it was a peak week in February. A tip: No one seems to know about the wooden walkway that goes from the Rico Tico Restaurant to the "events" space, Rancho Muy Gusto (which apparently is rarely used, if at all.) The events space overlooks the entire hillside and valley below the hotel and this is a fantastic spot for bird and animal watching, especially early morning or late afternoon. We saw Toucans, Motmots, and Chachalacas from here and there was a sloth that lived in the tree next to the boardwalk. From here we also saw our only Mono Titi monkeys of the trip. The walk is gated, but unlocked. No one was EVER on it, except every morning we saw staff sweeping the leaves off the walkway. And there was a security guard that hung around the "events" area who greeted us each morning and showed us where the sloth was hanging out that day!

We ate one night in the "fancier" of Si Como No's restaurants, Claro Que Si! and were unimpressed. Okay, but nothing special. The next night we ate at their more casual, Rico Tico Restaurant; we had delicious Caribbean lobsters and ceviche and loved it. Great service and good food, so the next night we returned for more lobster and this time we just had to have the signature Bananas Flambe, in fact three tables had it at the same time, it made for quite a light show. Both these restaurants are open air with sea views. In the mornings, a huge and yummy buffet breakfast was served in the Rico Tico and the monkeys cavorted in the trees and on the rooftops(do not feed the monkeys!!)

We just loved this area, so much accessible wildlife; the national park does get crowded but we entered about eight-ish and it wasn't too bad at that hour; we didn't hire a guide (as birders, we had our own spotting scope and didn't really need help finding the wildlife.) You can follow where the guides are looking and pointing and for the most part, when they saw we were birders they helped us out happily. However it might be worth hiring a guide if you are inexperienced with the tropical forest and would like the advantage of having a spotting scope for the animals and birds. Within 15 minutes in the park we found three birds that are normally very hard to spot: a roosting Common Potoo, a Paraque (nesting on the ground!) and Lesser Nighthawks roosting in the trees. In addition we had: White-faced monkeys, both two and three-toed sloths (one on the ground, crossing the road, very unusual!), White-nosed Coati, Crab-eating Racoon (also known as cookie-eating; they stole our cookies on the beach) and numerous iguanas and other lizards.

One word of warning: I had a nasty encounter with jellyfish in the water at the park, so keep an eye out. I walked right into a swarm of them in shallow water and both my ankles were stung badly. This may be a seasonal thing, but one should be aware. Otherwise, the beaches in the park are beautiful and the water was calm and warm like a bathtub. But after the run-in with the jellyfish I was a little spooked, so we did most of our swimming at the lovely pool at Si Como No.

We had a good, simple seafood lunch and an ice-cold cerveza (to kill the jellyfish pain!) at one of the places right outside the park entrance, not sure of the name. They are all probably equivalent. On our second day we'd hoped to lunch at El Avion, an old WWII airplane converted to restaurant, but discovered it didn't open until 2:00pm (and it was around one, and we were famished from hiking) so we drove up to Quepos (10 minutes) and lunched at El Gran Escape. A good change to have a burger after lots of fish.

Finally - last but not least - the Expresso Milk Shake at Cafe Milagro is to die for. I had one every day, and I'm not a coffee drinker. But oh how refreshing! Excellent coffee and you can buy their beans (including organic and shade-grown) to bring home. We brought home several bags. Cafe Milagro has a branch in Quepos as well.

We only wished we had one more day here so we could have done the Damas Island boat trip among the mangroves. Next time!

One last tip, on the way back to the airport we stopped for lunch at Mirador El Cafetal outside of Atenas ... fantastic view ... great smoothies and sandwiches ... a perfect place to stop. You can't miss it ... there were clever signs coming and going for quite a stretch with pithy little sayings that escape me now.


White-faced Capuchin, on the rooftops at Hotel Si Como No



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