Pura vida! Costa Rica’s slogan for promoting tourism. Literally translated ‘pure life’, but meaning something like ‘enjoy life’. Almost every tourist promotion outing about Costa Rica uses this phrase, so surely this a ‘touristisized’ use of this term I figured. But I noticed the locals utterings these words all the time; as a greeting, a thank you, a goodbye. It reflects their way of thinking about life in a country that has been topping the ‘happiest countries on earth’ index several times. With no army, funds were invested in education, health and the conservation of its incredible natural resources. Good that they did, because Costa Rica is the land of nature, as it contains nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity while only covering 0.03% of the world surface.
A road trip through the country, crossing the diverse habitats and regions shows us the amazing nature, fascinating wildlife and the friendly locals.
In search of the Quetzal
The winding mountain road suddenly gets wrapped in a thick mist. We have been ascending for a while and the temperature has dropped significantly since we left the warm, lush and wet tropical rainforests of Rio Celeste and the mangroves of the Tarcoles river behind us. The vegetation is changing now that we are getting to an elevation of 3000 meters on the road to the village of San Gerado de Dota, located inland in the Talamanca mountain range. We are here to visit Los Quetzales national park, which main attraction is the eponymous bird, the Resplendent Quetzal, often considered as one of the most beautiful birds in the world.
‘The village has about 250 inhabitants, with more tourists, mainly birders, than inhabitants in high season’, Alex tells us. It’s five o’clock in the morning and Alex is a guide in San Gerardo who is going to help us spot the Quetzal and other wildlife today. This area is considered one of the best places in the world to see birds and attracts most birders for the Resplendent Quetzal. Indeed, when we arrive at the location there are about 50 birders, armed with telescopes and binoculars. The Quetzal doesn’t like sun and gathers his food in the shadow, which is why we are freezing our asses off at five in the morning to catch a glimpse of this magnificent bird.
The Collared Aracari
From the small mountain road we are scouting the mossy trees together with the guides and birders. Suddenly, one of the guides of the other group communicates that the bird has been seen a bit further down the road. An excited panic rises among the guides and the serious birders in the groups, and Alex urgently directs me to start our car and go. So there we go, following the small convoy of roused birders and guides down the road. Sure enough when we step out of the car, we see a Quetzal sitting on a branch, only a few meters away. This only lasts for mere seconds which was not long enough for me to get a shot. I blame it on the early wakeup for not being alert enough, whilst the bird flies away with its incredibly long tail hanging somewhat clumsily behind him and an excited murmur spreads through the crowd. For the rest of the morning we trot around between the two best locations and witness an occasional wave of birder’s panic but only see the bird once more, hiding in the tangle of branches.
The excitement has worn off for the non-birders now, so we leave with Alex to walk around the area, whilst he bestows his endless knowledge about local nature upon us. ‘The diet of the Quetzal exists for 80 % out of avocado (the small avocado called Aguacatillo), which makes it the most important disperser of the seeds of the tree. The seeds are warm when spat out by the Quetzal, allowing for faster growth of the seeds’. This makes me think about how important the role of every organism in the ecosystem is, remove one and it collapses. If the Quetzal is gone, there will be less avocado trees, and a snowball effect through the ecosystem takes place. Throughout this trip the importance of nature and wildlife conservation is sinking in more and more, how a healthy ecosystem is crucial eventually as well for the survival of human beings.
The Rio Celeste area
Thanks to the big difference in elevation from the start of town, at the top of the valley, to the end at the bottom, this area has different microclimates per elevation, resulting in diverse fauna specific to certain areas. In 1945 the first people moved here and until this day the area is still owned by several families. There are very strict nature management laws in place, no tree can be cut down without extensive consultation and permission from the governing instances. Conserving the nature allows the area to remain attractive for tourism, which generates the most income here by providing accommodation and guides. We are staying at a lovely little place with several tiny cabins scattered around on a small open patch of land, bordering the forest.
Very rustic and basic, but possessing all the more charm than a big luxurious lodge. The cabins are managed by a family; Alex’s wife and her mother and it has a property with a garden that provides delicious fruits like papaya and blackberry that we find back in our tasty meals at the tiny restaurant. Alex is guiding people every day but stills gets excited when he even hears about a sighting of the Quetzal, and can talk passionately for ages about it. We would soon learn on this trip that all the tour guides in Costa Rica have a genuine passion for the nature of their country and are excited to share this with you.
Hummingbirds were abundant near our cabin in San Gerardo de Dota
On our way to Sarapiqui de Puerto Viejo, heavy rain announced that we are once again in the rainforest area. The ‘dry’ season is relative in Costa Rica, as it is raining almost every day while we are here. Upon arriving at the lodge it is still pouring but I just have to take a look in the lush green rainforest. Alas, a preliminary stroll on the trails of the accommodation takes its toll when a tiny little fucker takes me out. As I’m making my way down the muddy path I’m holding on to a handrail. Suddenly, I feel a burst of sharp pain in my hand that is holding on to the rail. I turn it over and see a big black ant walking and flick it off. It hurts like hell but I figure it will fade away. It doesn’t though and slightly concerned I am going online and to the reception of the lodge and quickly find out that it was a bullet ant that bit me. The internet tells me it is the most painful insect bite there is according to the Schmidt sting pain index, who described the pain as: “Pure, intense, brilliant pain … Like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel”. Having never experienced that particular situation I don’t know if that’s how I’d describe it, it just really fucking hurts. I read that it lasts 24 hours and there’s nothing you can do about it, so I got something fun to look forward to in the next 24 hours.
It is absolutely incredible though how such a small creature can inflict so much pain to something that’s probably a few hundred times bigger. Luckily, I can still manage to hold my camera with the affected hand the next morning when we have arranged a guide to show us around at La Selva Biological station. This is a research station located inside the rainforest and is considered one of the premier sites in the world for research on tropical rainforest. The area is regarded as one of the most biodiverse of the country and has been used in many nature documentaries like BBC’s planet earth. Students and researchers from around the world come here to study the biodiversity and ecosystems. They cruise around the campus on their bike over the hanging bridge and to the several huts, classrooms and research labs nicely integrated in the forest, which gives it a kind of Jurassic park vibe. We are seeing a lot of wildlife with again an excellent guide who literally knows everything about nature. All the guides and locals we meet continue to amaze me with incredible facts about nature and wildlife, so I’d like to present a few facts here to you, in case you’d ever need to randomly throw in a ‘did you know that…’ in a conversation.
This forest is very much alive and at one point we are seeing simultaneously Toucans in the top of the canopy; one level lower are Howler monkeys and Spider monkeys (named because the way they hang on to separate branches with 4 limbs and their tail) hanging around and on the forest floor a mother Pecari is scavenging around through the leafs with her young, accompanied by an Agouti. We spot a few sloths high up in the trees, nothing more than a ball of leaves on first sight. They need to hide well so they don’t fall prey to predators such as puma’s and jaguars, as pumas can even climb trees. Sloths are arboreal animals, which means they spend most of their time in trees. They only come down to the ground once a week to urinate and defecate!
More often than not our path gets crossed by a line of leafcutter ants. First you’ll see a line of leafs and twigs moving across the floor and on closer inspection you’ll notice the hard working ants carrying the load to their nest. They can carry up to 50 times their bodyweight (beat that, weak humans!). Apparently there are different types of ants with different functions within the colony, which is represented by their physical appearance. For instance you have the ‘bodyguard’ ants, who only appear when the weather is changing which means it is either getting sunny or going to rain (imagine a weather presenter giving this forecast). They search for a new nest, and they’ll march in a straight line and not budge for anything while doing so.
It is not uncommon for them to walk straight through people’s homes, we saw a few massive troops trekking around our cabin a few times, and there is nothing you can do about it but to just let them pass. In a few hours they have moved somewhere else (unless the found your home a suitable new nest of course). Free tip, I tested to see if they bite by accidently sitting on them and I can report that they do (got a thing for ant bites apparently). The ants have sensitive feelers with which they touch each other to pass on information such as the route. When they find a new nest, a different group of ants, the workers, bring all the leaves to the nest (the role of the bodyguards is over and they die in 3 weeks). The leaves and other material gets converted to fungi and is food for the queen.
The queen is 5 times as big as the others and can live up to 5 years. She stays in the nest all her life, making new ants. The biggest ants, the soldiers, are only deployed when a threat warrants their use. Smaller threats are dealt with by smaller ants.
Sorry for my long explanation about ants but I find all this very fascinating. It is incredible how these tiny creatures have such a complex and sophisticated social structure. If I ever find myself in the situation of running out of things to say in a conversation at least I have plenty of ant facts to throw in there, guaranteed crowd pleaser I’d say.
Sloths chilling out upside down and Green Ara’s in the sky
Our guide halts and point to something in the bushes. We stare and stare and only after a full minute we see the bright yellow (hardly a camouflage colour you’d figure) Eyelash pit viper stretched out over the leafs. They always look bigger in pictures but the males only grow about 60cm in length while females get 80 cm. These vipers are highly venomous and have an extra sense, the pit, which allows it to ‘see warmth’. This means they can find their prey by their body heat which comes in quite handy if you hunt mainly at night. Sometimes they hunt during the day and are even able to catch the extremely fast hummingbirds!
There is a great abundance of cool reptiles in Costa Rica, such as the ancient looking Green Iguana, resembling a dragon of sorts with its imposing appearance. Despite its fierce look, with the impressive spines running down the back and tail, it gets regularly attacked by hawks, who aim for the eyes. But the Iguana has a trick. It has a round cheek scale on both sides that can trick the hawk in believing it is its eye. It doesn’t mind losing those and it gives him time to escape. Although I can’t find a second source for this so this might be something the local I was speaking to made up to dramatize his story. It did work because I find this a sensational fact. Iguanas also have a special third eye on the top of their heads. This eye, called a parietal eye, doesn’t see images like normal eyes, instead, it senses light and dark and movement. Iguanas use this third eye to detect predators. This defence mechanism sounds a bit more believable.
Left: the Yellow Eyelash pit viper
Unfortunately, the green Iguana is under threat locally, as the owner of the Costa Rica Treehouse lodge and Iguana foundation informs me later on. Due to hunting by locals, habitat loss from human activity and climate change. The climate change is especially interesting with reptiles because the warmth of the nest determines if the offspring will be male or female. If temperatures are rising, only iguanas of the same sex are born which naturally is problematic for reproduction.
Right: the Green Iguana
This was my short selection of wildlife and nature facts out of an overwhelming abundance that was presented to us. You’re welcome, use them as you please. More nature facts available on request.
Alright, one last one; the Jesus Christ lizard can walk on water.
Walk. On. Water. Look that shit up for more explanation, I’m done now.
Left: the water walker (official name:Common Basilisk)
Here is a serie about monkeys eating. Monkeys love to eat. I love to eat. And I love watching monkeys eat..
All this wildlife makes you feel like a true kind of David Attenborough explorer but you are not the only one here. Some places are filled to the brink with tourists, flowing out of big tour coaches. At the Tarcoles river we made a boat tour with sunrise and were the only ones. But when we returned the guide told us he has 23 tour buses coming today, 23! The transport to Tortuguero national park gave me a mass tourism feeling as well. Tortuegero is surrounded by water and can only be reached by boat.
At the little docking place the tour coaches unloaded the tourists and distributed them on the boats of all the lodges, which sort of gave the impression of cattle transport to be honest. Once you arrive at one of the lodges it is quiet again but running into several groups on the water and in the village is normal. In fact, when we walked around in Tortuguero village there were more tour groups to be seen than locals. Pale legs in sandals and clicking cameras were literally overflowing the village.
I sit down with our guide Jorge in Tortuguero, who’s been guiding tourists around for many years, to discuss this issue. He says that; ‘In high season, which is in summer when sea turtles come ashore to breed, it is the busiest time with all the 11 lodges completely fully booked and the tourist numbers outweighing the local population considerably. The waterways are crowded with the boats picking up and dropping off guests and doing tours’. I ask him about his views on tourism development, as surely it has brought many good things but clearly there are downsides to it as well. ‘Advantages are the job opportunities that it brought and that jobs in tourism have replaced hunting, as the local population now realises money can be made with the preserving of wildlife and nature.
People in Costa Rica basically have the choice to work in agriculture like their parents did, or study longer and work in tourism. There is more competition in the tourism sector because of the high number of people that choose to work in this industry, which means companies have employees up for choosing. As competition is high, so is the level and quality of service. Along with infrastructure improvement these are the greatest advantages that tourism brought. The biggest disadvantage would be the impact on nature. Visitor numbers are higher than nature can carry. Everybody wants to make money, and more visitors simply means more money. More visitors also means more waste, more rooms in hotels, more space needed etc.
Ergo, more pressure on the environment, not to mention the decreasing sense of authenticity with an increasing number of tourists. At one point there were plans to build a freeway to Tortuguero, cutting straight through the forest and over the waterways. In the end the town was allowed to vote for it via a referendum. It was almost half/half but finally they decided against it. The whole charm of the region is that you can only get there by water. It would spoil the views and the experience immensely. The pros were cheaper transport so more tourists could come visit of course, but also facilitating the possibility of building clinics and other high quality facilities. However, the village managed to do this anyway without the road’.
I believe that this situation is the paradox of tourism and a very difficult situation to resolve. When do you say that tourism development should stop because it is causing places to lose its charm, appeal and is diminishing the experience, due to better developed infrastructure and commercialised experiences? Because I for one rather drive on shifty, winding, pothole-filled roads through the jungle to get somewhere than a clear cut freeway that gets me there as quick as possible. I can’t imagine cruising on the rivers of Tortuguero with bridges full of cars and coaches crossing, like the plan once was.
But who are we to deny the local people of developments and infrastructure improvements like that? It is hypocritical that the Western tourist doesn’t want to see development on its destination as it ruins his experience. Doesn’t everyone deserves good infrastructure, an internet connection and proper facilities? Or does not everybody want that? In the end the Tortuegero villagers voted against the freeway development, which surely would have brought more tourists and more money for them. But apparently they value the vibe and atmosphere of their village as more important.
There are so many questions to raise about this issue and I feel that it is very important, as worldwide tourism numbers have been and will continue to grow exponentially. Tourism can be a great tool for bringing development, poverty alleviation and other benefits but one should be extremely cautious about its possible downsides, like rapid and unsustainable development with all its consequences. This has already caused major destinations over the year to lose its charm and even having to implement measures to reduce the number of tourists as they have become a victim of their own success, such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Venice.
It’s absurd that some islands in Thailand now have to be closed off for several months a year to recover from the tourists. Surely not a permanent solution as it starts all over again when the island are open again. Growing destinations should implement sustainable development from day one, which is of course easier said than done as it is more costly and time consuming. But the end result is a tourism experience that is beneficial for both the visitors and the locals, without harming the environment.
The tourism industry in Costa Rica is greatly developed, but I feel that it sits at the limits of its expansion with the possibility of losing its authenticity and becoming more of a mass tourism destination. Although it deserves praises for the way they conserved their nature and the sustainable measurements that are implemented with these amounts of tourist, something many countries could take an example from, as well as the recent announcement of their goal in becoming the first carbon neutral country in the world.
Besides incredible nature, Costa Rica is well known for their coffee and cacao. And rightfully so. Coffee is consumed a lot by Costa Ricans and production dates back from the late 1700’s. The country is perfect for growing the Arabica coffee plant (the only type of bean that is allowed to be grown in Costa Rica), thanks to its high altitude and volcanic soils, that create an optimal micro climate for the beans.
The main coffee growing regions are the Central valley, West Valley, Tarrazu, Tres Rios, Orosi, Brunca, Turrialba and Guanacaste. We visit Orosi, a small town that lies in a valley, with a national park that was almost empty and no big lodges in the surroundings. It is probably the least touristic destination we’ve seen in Costa Rica and very enjoyable. The quaint Orosi lodge where we stayed pours local organic coffee from the Finca Cristina farm which we decided to visit.
“Costa Rica has the perfect climate for growing the prestigious Arabica coffee, which is the only bean that is allowed to be grown here”.
I wish there was smell with pictures. Just imagine the smell of these freshly roasted organic Costa Rican Arabica beans for a minute.f
The owner explains to us that they are a strictly organic farm. Even when coffee rust (an aggressive coffee plant disease that can only be eradicated by chemicals) hits the planation, they refuse to use chemicals. This surely means that their profits are not as big as they could be, but they value this natural way of growing more than bigger profits.
The plantation is nothing like we imagined, it doesn’t consist of a neat line of plants and looks more like a little forest. There are all sort of other trees in between the coffee plants, like banana trees and shade providing trees. They used to sell bananas as a by-product but can’t compete anymore with large scale banana production in nearby Limon.
Now the bananas are for the birds, who in turn eat a lot of insects and thus act as natural exterminators. There are many different species of birds, butterflies and reptiles on the farm that comprise of a natural system that keeps things in balance naturally instead of artificially with chemicals to optimise growing conditions.
Coffee making is a complicated and arduous process, from growing and picking the berries at the exact right time to processing the beans. It is hard work with small profits. But these people do it with passion and care, which comes back in the flavour.
Above: the best way to get around in Puerto Viejo is by bike
In laidback Puerto Viejo de Limon at the Caribbean coast, there are number of cacao and coffee fields you can visit. Unfortunately, I’m tied almost completely to the bed by a sudden hit of a heavy disease that shares similar symptoms from Dengue fever. In an optimistic spur I walk around the property of our cabin with a local. He tells me that in 1800 the railroad to Limon was constructed to transport coffee and people from Jamaica were brought in to construct it. They remained here which is the reason for the Jamaican vibes on Puerto Viejo, conveniently exploited with several reggae bars and Rastafari souvenir shops in town now. Still, the village has a very true Caribbean and relaxed vibe about it that is quite different from the Pacific Ocean side.
While we stroll along the beach, wind rustling through the palm trees and ferocious waves crashing into the rocks far away in the distance, he tells me that Colombus came here ashore and named it the rich coast. Other explores followed and met with Indians and the Indians asked how they can get the stuff the explorers had. They told them to bring them their most valuable possession. The next day a big pile of cacao was lying on the beach. The explorers said this is no use to us, it will be bad by the time we have it back in Europe. We want the gold. The Indians thought they were foolish and gave them all their gold. It is just a stone, they thought. You can’t eat it, it will not keep you alive.
Perhaps this value still reflects in Costa Ricans today, choosing to be happy over making a lot of money. Costa Rica’s GDP per capita is less than a quarter of the size of many Western European and North American countries, but people living in Costa Rica have higher wellbeing than the residents of many rich nations (see this link). America is on the 108th place out of 140, USA’s material wealth isn’t being translated efficiently into sustainable wellbeing for its residents (source). What do you know, turns out material wealth will not bring you happiness! Though it is easy to forget this every now and then when you live in an Western country, but travelling through Costa Rica will surely remind you of this.