Orchid hunting, bird stalking, and insect photography were just some of the endeavors husband Trevor and I did while traveling around Costa Rica from late 2021 to early 2022. This blog is a trip log of what we got up to, photographs of who we saw, and a few short stories. Instead of a short novel, which I’m prone to write, I decided to organize this blog like a Q & A, hope you enjoy it.
Where and to what cities did we go to? In chronological order:
- La Selva Biological Station, Heredia Province
- Manuel Antonio
- San Gerardo de Rivas / Cerro Chirripó
- San Gerardo de Dota
- La Fortuna
The last spot, La Fortuna, was not in the original plan, but a few positive Covid tests triggered a 10 mandatory quarantine in Costa Rica, which we spent in a house near the Arenal Volcano.
Why Costa Rica?
From LA, where we were stationed, the flight is five to six hours, one way. Costa Rica is also quite safe, very traveler/tourist-friendly, had low Covid rates, and most importantly FULL of interesting wildlife to look for. Additionally, while we love traveling to view nature, we’re increasingly concerned with the carbon cost of doing so. While not traveling for pleasure is the best option for our planet’s future, we are working on reducing our mileage (air and land) as well as other mitigation methods. For a little background, I’ve been to CR once before in 2016, and this was Trevor’s fourth.
Who was on our targeted species list?
Our targets spanned the taxonomic kingdoms. Locations were selected for their unique opportunities to see certain plants or birds, like Monteverde for the orchid diversity. Trevor compiled a bird list of species we had not seen, as he does in any of our travels. With the help of local guides, we found many lifers (birds we’ve never seen before). For plants, insects, and fungi we went in blindly, just observing and photographing everything we came across, and we saw A LOT!
What was our favorite spot(s)?
For both of us, our 6 days at La Selva Biological Station and our trek up and around Cerro Chirripo take the prize. La Selva felt like a naturalist’s dream location. Meals are included, a great network of trails, basic yet comfortable accommodations, and the ability to go on night walks ALONE. Many places in Costa Rica cater to Americans who want to see a sloth and have little to no patience for anything smaller than a hummingbird. But for folks like us who want to be able to explore on our own without being babysat, La Selva was perfect for that. Like other places we’ve visited (i.e. Glovers Atoll in Belize) it’s a “choose your own adventure” type of place, not for everyone, but perfect for us nature nuts that can entertain ourselves.
Cerro Chirripo was in a similar situation. But requires a bit of energy. You hike up 7,000 ft via a 14km trail to a refuge near the highest peak in Costa Rica, Cerro Chirripo. Cerro means “hill” or “peak” in Spanish. We stayed two nights at the refugio, where meals are booked ahead. While it was chilly, and had no electricity to spare to charge devices, it was pretty comfortable. Everything is brought up by mules, and the meals were large and delicious considering that. Hiking up the paramo habitat, analogous to alpine habitat in North America, allowed for a whole other set of species to observe and photograph.
We totally lucked out with the weather for our ascent, which we did first thing in the morning on day two. Since we were looking for at plants along the way it took longer than a normal group, but quicker than I expected. While we didn’t see both oceans, we could see many surrounding peaks, and the lakes below. After departing from our travel companions, Trevor and I explored the lake below, Lagos Las Morenas, which had tons of mountain lion scat, just OoOodles of it, much to my happiness. The ascent back up to the saddle before reaching the main trail to the refugio was BRUTAL. We both felt totally exhausted on the incline, which may have been the very beginning stages of meeting Ms Corona.
Besides feeling like crap we had a great rest of the day exploring the paramo, documenting new plant friends. I accidentally fell in the small creek while watching fish, which made the hour or so walk back to the refugio not so fun. Our descent the next day went well, but as we left under blue sky conditions we wished we could of had another day or two to explore a nearby peak and another part of the paramo. But we had to move along to our next location. So we took it slow, enjoyed the views, and retraced our steps down the mountain until we got “lost” at the very bottom having missed a turn. . . . All was well in the end, rejoined with our crew, and off we went to San Gerardo de Dota, the “last” spot on our trip.
Favorite Species we observed?
It would be impossible to choose one single favorite species, so I’ve grouped some of Trevor and I’s favorite photographs. To see the full list of everything we observed, you can check out our iNaturalist observations from the trip. I’m posting this before all our iNaturalist observations are put on the site, yesss it takes that long. . . . But currently, Trevor has uploaded about 3,900 observations, with 1,512 species accounted for. These numbers, especially the species count, will increase over time as other citizen scientists view our postings and contribute identifications.
I plan to make future blog posts going into more detail on the species we saw and the information I read about them. I currently have one other post up about lichen covered leaves
What about some memorable moments?
There was that one time we saw a Fer-de-Lance (aka Terciopelo) cross a road, on a night walk. This snake is arguably the most deadly snake on the planet because its venom kills quickly. That night’s walk ended earlier than planned, as our minds couldn’t get past the snake, and we were too on edge to enjoy or search for anything else. We were only a couple hundred feet away from our lodging, which thankfully was a “treehouse,” not like we had anything to worry about though.
Quetzal in the Canopy
After a long day exploring the canopy bridges and trails of Sky Adventures–Monteverde Park for birds, orchids, and insects, with hilarious and knowledgeable guide Adrian Mendez. We already had an amazing day, totally tuckered out, when we were startled by some movement beneath the bridge. Hmmm who could it be? Well, some scuttering, some gasping, and then a final swoop of some feathers revealed a Resplendent Quetzal! WHA! He sat out in the open, essentially eye level to us about 20-ish feet away, tail flowing so graciously downwards into the canopy leaves. Wow, what a sight! Besides being arguably one of the most beautiful birds on the planet, this species is on the list of any birder who comes to the region. We had an incredibly full day already, but this sight was the absolute cherry on top, we couldn’t believe we both got such an incredibly clear view, which lasted a long time for a bird sighting, but not forever, as it swooped down into the greenery, not to be seen again by our eyeballs.
Sometimes all it takes to see a species is a little tip, or hint from a fellow Naturalist, or hiring a local guide. We’d been on the hunt to photograph a basilisk, also called a “Jesus Christ LIzard.” They live in and around water sources like streams or rivers in humid rainforests, so we knew to check in those habitats when possible, but it’s the freakin jungle yall, many creatures are tough to see. Well after befriending an exceptional macro photographer, Jeremy gave us a tip to look at a certain tree, near a certain bridge, and at night. So that night on our way back to our accommodation which required crossing this same bridge, I scan the tree Jeremy mentioned, and BOOM there’s our dude! A Green Basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons), just chillin like a villain in the tree’s canopy. Just fantastic!
Got out of bed for this bird
The intended last stop on our trip (before we all got sick) was Sevegre Lodge in San Gerardo de Dota. Stopping here was mainly intended to tick off another few birds, as well as the surrounding area for unique plants and insects. Unfortunately, I experienced the peak of my Omnicron journey and stayed in bed for most of the two full days we were there. Upon the last night of our stay, having finally shaken off some symptoms, I felt good enough to go on an owl hunt. But it wasn’t much of a hunt. Our local guide who has a special fascination and dedication to this owl brought us to a special spot after trying a few others along the long steep road that traverses the deep valley. We stopped, listened for roughly 30 seconds before hearing a call. The call of the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, Aegolius ridgwayi! Moving in closer to some trees, we heard it again, but this time there were two owls calling! Within a minute or two, one swooped in above our heads, less than 10 feet above us! WHAT! Watch the video if you don’t believe me:
HOLY SMOKES! This was a special experience. But it didn’t stop there. After a few photos, we backed away from the owls, who had now flown back a bit, into the oaks. Our guide wanted to record their calls since the owl pair was so close. Much to his surprise, the pair started making buzzing noises, beuzz beuzzz buzz, something he had never heard before. The recording would be shared with a researcher he was working with to understand the natural history and behaviors of this rare and mysterious bird. Our guide suspected the pair were hunting prior to our arrival, and perhaps these calls were part of their hunting ritual. Since there were two birds, likely a pair they could be using that spot as a roost, or future nest site, so we made sure to be extra respectful.
Shortly after we were back in the car, and heading down to the hotel, back within two hours of being picked up. A short but successful trip was the perfect way to “end” our Costa Rican adventures.
The biggest click of them all
We saw so many insects during our month in CR. Night walks especially were SO full of insects, many nights blend together, probably because we walked the same trails at La Selva multiple times, which is where we saw the most diversity. However, a few insects stand out, like this one, a freakin gigantic click beetle. I found this sucker while waiting for Trevor and our guide Lenny to creep in on a bird off-trail. Meanwhile, on the trail in the Braulio Carrillo National Park, I was scanning the foliage for bugs, and this gorgeous click was just chilling! We have a special affinity for click beetles because we have a connection with a scientist back in BC to who we send specimens. Most clicks we find in BC are around 1cm long, but this one was nearing 3! WHA!
Any Costa Rica Travel Tips?
- Understanding what you want to see, and how you want to see it is important. We prefer to go galavanting on our own, and hire guides when desired or necessary because we like to go slow. So that means hiring a private guide when we do. Group tours are a pain in the a$$, in our experiences. There are SO many touristy things to do in CR that its important to see past the marketing of “sloth walks” and “zipline tours” and find places you can walk on your own, and areas with primary forest and good secondar in order to see more.
- Renting a car is the easiest way to get around from city to city, especially if going to more remote spots, or if choosing accommodation further out from major hubs. However, renting is expensive and hiring private taxis is very doable, and if the booking agent is fair, prices are reasonable. If their quote sounds absurd, it probably is, don’t be afraid to get creative and ask random taxi drivers to make a private trip. Scamming gringos is non uncommon. Uber works well in major towns, the more touristy the better, DiDi is a similar app, and can work better in some spots.
- If interested in searching for orchids, don’t pass up on sky/canoy/suspension bridges. These are typically at zipline facilities, and seem gimmicky, but getting up into the canopy will get you closer to orchids and birds that are otherwise impossible to find, unless you stumble upon a fallen branch. We went to both Sky Adventure locations in Costa Rica, and both had good bridges, the Monteverde location was superior though.