Costa Rica is the land of tours. Wannaâ€™ zipline? Thereâ€™s a tour for that! Wannaâ€™ â€œadventure hikeâ€? Join our tour! Wannaâ€™ swim with sloths? Simply sign up for thisâ€¦wait.
With a few exceptions, Sarah and I prefer do-it-yourself travel to tours. We like the freedom to explore at our own pace and the flexibility to adjust when an opportunity arises. Weâ€™ve traveled enough that we rarely need the logistical benefits of a tour, and good research often comes cheaper than a guide.
So, it was funny that we were excited about having booked not one but two tours for the same day in Bosque Monteverde Nuboso, a private reserve in Costa Ricaâ€™s cloud forest. The place has an interesting story; it was started in part by Quaker expats who were conscientious objectors during the Korean War. Established in 1972 (I know those timelines donâ€™t match up, but damn it, these things take time!), the reserve is now run by a biology research center, and proceeds from the reserve go back into conserving the land. The lodge is often booked for researchers, but we lucked out and got to stay right in the park!
Our tours were set for the next day, but that didnâ€™t stop us from getting a head start exploring the park. We hiked some easy trails in the pleasant cloud forest, which was surprisingly sunny for the duration of our stay. Giant ferns, large vines, liana trees, and oodles of moss hung from a thick canopy of large trees in the primary (old growth) forest. Many of the oldest trees held about twice their size in other species of plants growing from them; one medium-sized tree in front of us hosted over 70 separate species!
Several types of flowers caught our eye as well. There were pretty little orange trumpets and delicate white blossoms to contrast the green forestâ€¦.pollinate me! In the same fashion, trees that couldnâ€™t attract pollinators by produce their own buds managed to fake it â€˜til they make it by disguising their leaves as â€œfalse flowers.â€ Also interesting were the bundles of dark fruit called mountain corn for their kernel-like shape; the plant is a relative of coffee plants and provides food for both animals and humans.
Since it was a busy mid-afternoon, we didnâ€™t expect to see many animals but did encounter a few treats: coatis (a very common relative of raccoons)â€”including a baby, a small black hawk, and a puffy-breasted mountain thrush. Some other people pointed out a tiny hummingbird nestâ€”we later learned that hummingbirds steal spider webs to build elasticity into the nests in case they need to expand them. A coffee shop right outside of the park put out feeders, so we saw tons of hummingbirds too.
Our birding tour was a splurge, but it was also a good deal for a nearly private (one other person joined) guide and six hours of birdwatching. Plus, the first hour was before the park even openedâ€”perfect for spotting shy birds. Our guide was a young man named Juan; although a trained naturalist, birdwatching started as his hobby but became a career. I think he was 22 with only 4 years of experience, but he really knew his stuff! When he said he goes birding during his vacation, I knew we had the right guide!
Juan suggested we poke around the entrance because he suspected the parkâ€™s main attraction, the Resplendent Quetzal, might hang out there early in the morning. He knew where they tended to go later, but heâ€™d been trying to figure out where they started their day. Well, he knows now because we saw one within five minutes of starting the tour! He spotted it in the viewing scope, but it flew away after just a brief glimpse. Luckily, Sarah found it again a couple of minutes later, and it had been thoughtful enough to perch in full view from our vantage point! Quetzals are quite rare, and Monteverde is the best place to spot them; apparently, they are Guatemalaâ€™s national bird, but Guatemalans come here to see them. Iâ€™ve always thought that resplendent is a stupid word (thanks mostly to an episode of King of the Hill), but this bird actually deserved the fancy descriptor: emerald feathers on its back, a bright red breast, a fancy crested green head, and beautiful long tail feathers.
Later, Juan found one more quetzal hanging out in a tree. It was digesting its avocado breakfast, so we had time to admire it while Juan told us more about the birds. Quetzals have some crazy parenting habitsâ€”they share all the tasks from building the nest all the way up until the chick leaves for the first time. At that point, whichever parent is closest takes full responsibility for one week before leaving the chick on its ownâ€¦the other parent evidently enjoys a luxurious week of rum daiquiris or something.
Another highlight was the Northern Emerald Toucanet. We saw several of these green delights high up in an avocado tree; they are smaller than other toucans but still feature the large beak and crazy eye. I think between Ecuador and Costa Rica we saw most of the main species of these exotic birds, and they are one of the animals that sort of excite me like every time I see them is the first time.
Some of the medium-sized birds were also very cool. The prettiest were the Prong-billed Mot Mot and the Red-faced Barbets. Weâ€™d seen both in Mindo the previous month, but I think we enjoyed better views here because they were chilling out after breakfast. The Mot Mot was calling out, and through the scope you could clearly see its throat expanding to emit its song. Barbets are apparently somewhat rare in Monteverdeâ€”at least that early in the yearâ€”so Juan was pleased to find one that day.
We probably only remember a portion of the small birds we saw during the tour. Many times, we would only get a quick peek through the scopeâ€¦one per branch as they flitted aboutâ€¦before the busy little things would bump out of sight. Some of the coolest were the Black and White Tanager with its zebra color scheme, the tiny green Chlorophonia, and the even tinier Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant with the big-ass name. As I mentioned earlier, hummingbirds were very common, and they seemed to relish the chance to buzz me while I was intently focused on the binoculars; Sarah enjoyed watching me jump.
What a tremendous morning! We were fortunate enough to see nearly all the main attractions during our tour, and we even lucked out to see some rare ones. While this was nice for us, it is not necessarily a good sign for the forest. It was unusually dry and warm in Monteverde for the time of year, and birds were appearing at high elevations earlier than normal. Juan noted that abnormal is fast becoming the new normal in places like Monteverde as Global Warming changes our world. I try to keep things light on this blog as much as possible, but I also hope that people will demand the changes necessary to keep beautiful spots like Monteverde special for many generations to come.
Birding is Monteverdeâ€™s big draw, yet much of the parkâ€™s wildlife is nocturnalâ€”particularly everything that is not a bird. Weâ€™d done a night tour in Amazon during our time in Bolivia nine years ago and really enjoyed it, so we signed up for one here as well. Our guide, Felix, was another naturalist superstar who was not only great at spotting animals but also offered excellent commentary on the importance of the research being conducted in the park. Like Juan, Felixâ€™s enthusiasm for both animals and humans was evident throughout the tour.
We got off to a pretty amazing start when Felix led us to a tree just inside the entrance (which was also basically our front porch); little did Sarah and I know weâ€™d walked underneath a sloth about a dozen times in two days! It wasnâ€™t active quite yet, and even in the scope I wouldnâ€™t have identified it myselfâ€”it was just a big grey ball that seemed like a node in the tree. Sloths can stay up in a tree for a week before climbing down to poop in a different location to divert potential predators. I canâ€™t even make it an hour most mornings! At night, they lock their toes (we were watching a 2-toed Hoffman sloth) around a branch, which allows them to hang from one foot without fatiguing their musclesâ€”sort of like good rock climbers hanging on their skeletonsâ€”while they slowly pluck leaves for their dinner.
Sloths have come into vogue in recent years, so many people know crazy facts about them already; for instance, I am certain that our niece could tell you that sloths grow their own moss! I did not know, however, that researchers currently believe that theâ€¦umâ€¦sloth moss may be able to fight certain cancers in addition to another fatal disease that stems from bug bites but doesnâ€™t manifest for 5-10 years. Remember that preachy paragraph earlierâ€¦well the bugs are relatively common in Ecuador, so thereâ€™s a method to my madness!
During the rest of the tour, we hiked the popular waterfall trail that Sarah and I had actually explored on our own that afternoon (We saw a couple of Mot Mots, a coati, and a Yellow Warbler and felt pretty good; we also heard a quetzal but never spotted it.); it was interesting to revisit the area at night because we most likely had passed some of the same animals unknowingly earlier in the day. For instance, Felix pointed out two huge orange-kneed tarantulas, a bunch of tiny spotted rain frogs, and two poisonous side-strike pit vipers. One of the vipers was high above us in a tree, but the other one lived in a stump right beside the trail.
We expected to see the animals listed above, but some other surprises featured wings. The first treat was a Masked Trogan sleeping in a tree near the trail. This was one of the few highlight birds we hadnâ€™t seen that morning, and we had only enjoyed a partial glimpse of them in Mindo. This one was easy to see, which was great because its red feathers glowed beautifully under the viewing scopeâ€™s interior light.
Another winged highlight was the barn owl butterflyâ€¦it even got Felix goingâ€¦and I had to agree that it was the coolest butterfly Iâ€™ve ever seen. About the size of my fist, this sleeping butterfly was aptly named for its color and spots. It also featured an interesting decoy that had nothing do with owlsâ€”the bottom of one of its wings looks just like a snakeâ€™s head!
The coolest, though, was the sleeping quetzal! Remember the one that Sarah and I heard but couldnâ€™t spot earlier? It was now asleep in the same exact area weâ€™d searched that afternoon. Felix was able to position the scope perfectly and adjust the lighting so that we could admire its impressive long brown but light-catching tail feathers before readjusting to focus on its magnificent green face!
What could make the night tour even better? Stumbling upon an armadillo did it for me. It was on my wish list for Costa Rica, but I didnâ€™t really expect to see one. It was pretty small, but we got a decent look at its puffy armor-like hide and long head before it darted off surprisingly quickly. Felix thought it might be injured, which would explain why we snuck up on it right on the trail. Armadillos donâ€™t fight well, thus the thick hide, but evidently even coatis are strong enough to take one down sometimes.
After an eventful couple of hours, we finished the night tour back with our buddy the sloth. It was creeping around the tree branches now, feeding itself at a super slow pace while hanging by its locked-off toes from the tree. What a great ending to a very special placeâ€¦Monteverde actually hadnâ€™t even been on our original itinerary, but it ended up being our favorite place in Costa Rica!