Costa Rica Has Made a Birder Out Of Me
We saw it – the Resplendent Quetzal – one of the world’s most beautiful, and rare, birds. We were in the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica when Phil spied it high up in a tree. He got me so excited that my hands shook wildly as I snapped the photo. Here is another view of this splendid endangered bird:
We were lucky to get to see them in the wild. The first time we were trekking with a guide and another time while we were on our own. People told us they tried for years to spot them with no success. I figured that since we had seen them we now had bragging rights, so when we came upon a group of people on the trail, I told them about our sighting. “Where, where?” they asked and their guide whisked them off in that direction. I felt like a real birder.
The quetzal (pronounced ket sel’) has iridescent blue/green wings, back, chest and head and a scarlet red belly. The males sport twin tail feathers that are up to 3 feet long. These birds were sacred to the ancient Mayans and Aztecs whose royalty and priests wore their feathers in ceremonies.
This Country cares for its birds
Costa Rica has over 890 species of birds, many of them endangered, all of them protected. Over 25% of the country has been designated as national park, refuges, preserves and more. 48% of the country is jungle. It is illegal in Costa Rica to cage exotic wildlife. You can be charged with the crime of “environmental damage” and fined 12 times your wages – more if the animal is endangered.
Costa Rica is a small Central American country about the size of West Virginia, and is it ever diverse. We were drenched in the rainforest, we shivered in the cloud forest, and sweltered at the ocean. We craned and swiveled our necks searching the jungle trees for wildlife. We scanned river banks for an American crocodile named Mike Tyson in a place where boats were the only transportation for locals and tourists.
We viewed perfectly conical volcanos, visited the 3rd largest crater in the world and walked among the tree tops on hanging bridges. And then, just for fun, we whooped and yelped while zooming along 10 zip-lines, a mile high up in the mountains with winds so strong they hurt my face.
Reptiles-Big ‘ens and the not so big
Tortuguero is the “Land of Turtles”. Each year turtles come to this northern Caribbean beach to nest. The small village sits on a sand bar and is reachable only by boat or plane. On the other side of the village there are miles and miles of navigable canals with an abundance of wildlife. This is where the crocodile the locals call Mike Tyson lives. We didn’t get to see him but we did see “Osama”, so named because he is illusive. Our boat guide had a keen eye. There Osama lay, sunning his 15 foot long, 1500 pound body. The river guides say he is over 85 years old.
Of the 225 reptile species in Costa Rica, 120 of them are snakes. Twenty are venomous, like the vipers, and there are 5 boas. We saw a few snakes and that was plenty for me. We didn’t get to see the turtles for which Tortuguero is most famous. It wasn’t the season for them to lay their eggs so we’ll just have to come back for that. For now Tortuguero is famous to us because of the massive crocodile we saw there.
The Mammals-Monkeys, cats and more
The 250 species of mammals include everyone’s favorite, the monkeys, 4 species in all. The white faced capuchin is entertaining to watch. These little critters are abundant around some of the beaches where they will open your pack and steal your food while you are out swimming. Many people know this monkey from fairs and movies as the organ-grinder monkey. It’s the one that holds out the cup for money into which no one could resist dropping a few coins.
Howler monkeys can be quite scary when you first hear them. One guide told us that he came from an area where there were no howlers, so when he first heard them he almost ran away. Other guides assured him he was safe, he said. Phil caught their dragon-like sound on a video which you can play here. Just click the back-button to return to carolsuestories.
Six severely endangered felines make Costa Rica home, including pumas and jaguars. Most live in nature reserves or in remote jungles and mountains. We only got to see them in wildlife preserves. The other four are ocelots, jaguarundis, margays and the little spotted cat.
We saw both the two-toed and the three-toed sloths. These tree-hangers cannot walk because of their odd feet. They give birth while hanging upside down in a tree. They are quite cute and cuddly-looking. We also saw raccoons, but more often we saw its relative, the white-nosed coati, an animal I had never seen before. I understand that the coati, like the raccoon in North America, has become a nuisance in the cities.
Butterflies and other insects
Eighteen percent of the world’s species of butterflies and moths live in Costa Rica – 1251 species of butterflies and 8000 species of moths. It was fascinating to walk through an area where they were hatching. There were butterflies swooping and dipping all around. It was almost magical.
The ubiquitous red-eyed tree frog – see our photo below – is one of the 175 amphibian species of Costa Rica, 85% of which are frogs. This frog with its bulging red eyes, blue streaks and orange toes is only about 1 to 1.5 inches long. It has suction cups on its feet so it can cling to leaves. The poison dart frogs were even smaller, about 1/2 inch or less. This frog got its name from its use by the indigenous people who would capture its toxic secretions to poison the tips of their blow darts.
Frogs have developed ingenious ways to facilitate survival of its species. Some seek out water that is free from predatory fish in which to lay their eggs. Others lay their eggs in leaf litter and then carry the eggs to bromeliads filled with water to hatch. Still others have adapted what is called direct development, skipping the vulnerable tadpole phase, and fully developing in the egg.
my new favorite country
Costa Rican people often call out to each other the phrase “pura vida”. Its literal translation is “pure life”, but it’s used to express so much more, like thank you, be well, that’s awesome, have a nice day or you got that right. To me it is a beautiful expression of life in what is now my new favorite country.
There are so many reasons why I like, and even admire, this country. Mother Nature gave it a very diverse geography, placing it on 3 of the world’s 11 tectonic plates, giving it 3 mountain ranges, 2 oceans fairly close together, and 112 volcanos, 7 of which are active. From this geography four factors come into play – elevation, temperature, moisture from the oceans and emissions from the volcanos. These factors give rise to the variety in the landscape, creating tropical rain forests in some areas, cloud forests, mangrove forests, tundra or beautiful beaches in other areas. Flora and fauna often vary dramatically from area to area.
I like it that the people and the government value their country and have committed to keeping Costa Rica beautiful, diverse and a good home for its people and its wildlife. The country’s electricity is already 100% renewable and it promises to be carbon neutral by the year 2021. No wonder it has been named The Greenest Country in the World on several indexes.
It has also been named The Happiest Country in the World. Who wouldn’t be happy in a country that chooses education over military? Costa Rica disbanded its army in 1949, pledging that the “army would be replaced with an army of teachers”. The country’s literacy rate is an astonishing 96.3%. Education is mandatory and free all the way through college. It has universal health care and social security for its elders. The crime rate is 6-7%, the lowest in Central America. There is no death penalty and citizens generally do not have guns. A whopping 65% of its citizens vote. To me those are some things to be proud of.
Costa Ricans realize the economic value of the country’s beauty and diversity. People like me want to see it and trek around to view its abundant wildlife. Tourism is now its main industry, surpassing coffee and other agriculture. Even the tourist industry is in line with the country’s values. For example, we found sustainability polices posted in many of our hotels and all of them encouraged guests to conserve and recycle. The local markets where we bought beer let us know that we could get refunds if we returned the empty bottles.
All of this comes with a price. Gas and cars are expensive and are highly taxed, partly to pay landowners to not clear cut the forests, but to create tree farms to help boost habitat for the wildlife instead. We found travel to be more expensive in Costa Rica than we had anticipated. Hotels were not cheap nor was food or activities. But was it worth it? You bet. I’d recommend a trip to Costa Rica for anyone who loves the great outdoors and an abundance of Mother Nature’s creatures in a place where its people care about the planet. I hope you go there. Let me know if you like it as much as I did.
Have you been to Costa Rica? What did you like about it? I’d love to hear your comments.Tweet