Our first day of exploring began with a morning hike through Carara National Park with our expert local guides Wilke & Santiago. We saw Blue-crowned Manakins, Black-throated and Gartered Trogons, a Rufous-tailed Jacamar, several Green-and-black Poison Frogs, and even a Northern Ghost Bat, which is a large, solid white bat that is rarely seen. Another highlight was the pair of Scarlet Macaws we found looking down at us from their nest high in a Kapoc Tree.
After lunch we got to take a private boat tour of the Tarcoles River, which is home to a staggering number of large crocodiles, and the mangrove forest along the edge gave us the chance to see endemic species like Mangrove Hummingbirds and Mangrove Vireos, plus Panama Flycatchers, Prothonotary and Yellow Warblers (some of which sported bright red heads, which means they are the much less common non-migratory subspecies), plus hundreds of herons, egrets, and other shorebirds. The most unusual sighting was a pair of Rufous-necked Wood-Rails seen stalking along the bank!
The next day we bid farewell to Carara and drove south and east up into the Highland Cloud Forests of the Savegre Valley. This remarkable place is home to dozens of endemic species found only on the high slopes of a handful of mountains in Costa Rica. We enjoyed the best Trucha (Trout) of our lives at Miriam’s for lunch on our way down the valley, and her world famous bird feeders behind her restaurant did not disappoint - we saw dozens of Talamanca, Fiery-throated, Scintillant, and Volcano Hummingbirds as well as White-throated Mountain Gems, Lesser Violetears, Large-footed Finches, Acorn Woodpeckers, Northern Emerald Toucanets, Flame-colored Tanagers, and more before we even sat down for lunch. The highlight came right before we left, when a beautiful male Resplendent Quetzal flew into the trees right in front of us!
The next morning we got up really early to meet our guide Agniel, and we were rewarded with more great views of Resplendent Quetzals, as well as several Black Guans and lots of other great highland birds, plus a good look at a Spiny-tailed Lizard. We returned to the lodge for breakfast before we took a short-but-bumpy ride up the hill to the Batsu Gardens, an amazing spot to watch Hummingbirds and dozens of other species from a covered deck nestled in an old apple orchard filled with native flowers as well as bird feeders. We were treated to spectacular close-up views of eight types of hummingbirds, more toucanets and woodpeckers, Sulphur-winged Parakeets, Chestnut-capped Brush-finches, Silvery-throated Tanagers and more before we went back to Miriam’s for another delicious trout lunch and another hour of enjoying the bird feeders out back.
That afternoon some of us ventured out for one more walk along the Savegre River, where we saw Torrent Tyrannulets, Ocracious Wrens, Salty Flowerpiercers and much more. One of the highlights was when a trogon came within six inches of pooping right on a guest's head!
We left early in the morning for our next stop, which gave us a chance to visit one of the most unique habitats in Costa Rica - the Paramo. The highest mountain tops in Costa Rica tower over 12,000 feet above sea level, which is above the timberline, and is home to a stunning variety of small, hardy plants and flowers as well as birds found nowhere else on earth. Our quick stop gave a chance to see Timberline Wrens, Peg-billed Finches, Volcano Juncos and more.
Lunch was at a little family restaurant nestled well off the beaten path and with a breath-taking view of Lake Angostura far below and lots of birds to watch as we enjoyed deciduous traditional Costa Rican casados. After lunch we checked into our next lodge perched on the slopes of the Turrialba Volcano with a beautiful garden, a jungle valley across the road, and amazing views in all directions.
We woke to clear skies in the morning and decided to try and make it up to the Irazu Volcano before the clouds rolled in that afternoon. Sadly the clouds beat us to the volcano, and when we arrived,the visibility was down to only about 10 feet and a steady, cold rain made us retreat back to the lower elevations of Guayabo Lodge. While we missed the Volcano, we made up for it when the owner of the lodge gave us a private tour of their property and their organic coffee farm (which is some of the best coffee any of us had ever had - it’s possible some of our guests bought a rather large amount of their coffee to bring home…) We also saw a Bicolored Hawk swoop across the road in front of us, as well as Yellow-faced Grassquits, Brown Jays, Montezuma Oropendolas, Mountain Elanias, Crimson-fronted Parakeets and much more.
After breakfast and more of their amazing coffee the next morning, we made the short drive to the Guayabo National Monument - the oldest Pre-Columbian Ruins in Costa Rica. Archaeologists have uncovered several stone foundations for large round-houses, as well as tombs, paved roads, and an aqueduct that still carries water thousands of years after the city was mysteriously abandoned. The clearings made in the middle of the jungle are also great habitat for wildlife. We saw White-faced Monkeys in the trees, and found several Coyotes lounging in the ruins when we walked into the clearing. Even more exciting was the spectacular look we got of a Sunbittern as it walked slowly along the aqueduct, stopping briefly to spread its wings, showing the beautiful sunburst pattern that gives the bird its name. We also saw Green and Long-billed Hermits, a Crested Guan, a Russet-naped Wood-Rail, Gartered and Collared Trogons, a Spotted Antbird, Stripe-breasted Wrens, a Mourning Warbler, Bay-headed Tanagers, a Keel-billed Toucan and much more as we explored the trails around the ruins.
We returned to the Lodge for lunch, and afterwards a few of us hiked the steep - but beautiful trail down to the waterfalls along the Aquiares River below the Lodge. The path went along an old Lava Flow, where the most recent eruption sent a river of molten rock down the hillside scouring the area to bare rock. We saw Purple-throated Mountain Gems, Slate-colored Redstarts, White-naped Brush Finches, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaners, and more. The hike became a bit more adventurous when we tried to take a different trail on the way back up the hill. On previous trips the Coyote Trail was a great path back from the waterfall, but a recent landslide had apparently taken out a chunk of the trail and the whole thing had not been maintained since then. We found this out after navigating the narrow and overgrown path for quite a ways only to come to the landslide and have to turn back. It was a great hike that none of the participants will forget any time soon!
The next day we drove south to the Caribbean Coast, then we went a bit inland to a tiny little village where we met our local guide Abel and boarded two motorized dug out canoes to travel up the Yorkin River to spend the night at an indigenous BriBri community. The weather was a bit on the rainy side, and while the boat ride was beautiful, we all ended up getting rather wet by the end of it (some of us got significantly more wet than others).
That evening we learned how to make chocolate by hand - from roasting the organic cacao seeds to removing the outer skin by breaking up the seeds with a large rock and carefully sifting out the outer shells, and then grinding the seeds by hand to make the freshest and purest chocolate. There are few things as good as pure, handmade chocolate served on fresh sliced bananas and pineapples from deep in the jungle!
That night we slept in a traditional open air roundhouse that is actually very similar to the structures that would have stood at the Guayabo Monument - the BriBri are the closest descendents of the people who built the ancient city, and some of the architecture is still used to this day.
In the morning we enjoyed a farm fresh breakfast and a tour of the gardens around the village. The BriBri grow dozens of species of edible and medicinal plants around their houses. We also got to take a shot or two with a traditional BriBri bow and arrow - luckily none of us had to hunt for our lunch! We got to watch dozens of Turkey and Black Vultures as they kettled over the village and continued their migration south. To our great delight they were joined by four King Vultures, who flew right over our heads and gave us spectacular views of their white and black wings and strange-looking heads! We also saw Fasciated Antshrikes, White-collared Manakins, Blue-chested Hummingbirds, Bronzy Hermits, Long-tailed Tyrants, Olive-backed Euphonias, Ringed, Amazon, Belted, and Green Kingfishers, and many others birds as we explored the community. Finally we bid farewell to the BriBri and took a much drier boat ride back down the river.
Our next lodge was nestled deep in the lowland rainforests along the Caribbean Sea. We were woken up early by the bellowing of Mantled Howler Monkeys, and after breakfast our excellent local guide Abel took us on an amazing tour of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. We saw Eyelash Pitvipers, Helmeted Basilisks, Lovely and Strawberry Poison Frogs, Slaty-tailed Trogons, Collared Aracaris, Yellow-throated and Keel-billed Toucans, a rare and endemic (but rather drab looking) Plain-colored Tanager, and many other amazing birds. We got to explore a Primary rainforest never cleared by humans and our path took us to a stunning rocky point overlooking the Caribbean Sea, where a Pomarine Jaeger graced us with a fly by view. Our walk back for lunch was delayed when we found a mom and baby Three-toed Sloth hanging out in a low branch just off the trail. We were all pretty worn out by the time we got back for lunch, but the fresh Caribbean cooking had us ready to go again in no time at all.
It's a good thing, because after lunch we drove up the road to visit the ARA Project, which is doing an incredible job reintroducing the endangered Great Green Macaw back to the Caribbean lowlands they used to inhabit. We got to watch dozens of these magnificent (but very noisy) birds flying all around us, as well as Toucans, White-fronted Nunbirds, Masked Tityras, Rufous-winged Tanagers and more. We also saw hundreds of vultures flying past on their migration south, with Swainson’s Hawks and a Peregrine Falcon mixed into their flocks.
The next day took us to Cahuita National Park, where Abel took us along a raised boardwalk through the flooded rainforest out to Puerto Vargas and a stunning view of the Caribbean. We saw some great birds along the way, though most of them showed up on the walk back when we were all very hungry and ready for lunch. Such is the way of things for birdwatchers, and while we were a bit late for lunch, we saw Squirrel Cuckoos, White-necked Puffbirds, Black-crowned Antshrikes, Checker-throated Stipplethroats (I have no idea who named that bird), White-flanked Antwrens, Ruddy-tailed Flycatchers, Red-throated Ant-tangers, White-lined Tanagers, more Swainson’s Hawks, and a great view of a Pied Puffbird in the parking lot at the end of the hike.
We went into the town of Cahuita for lunch and a brief walk into the other side of Cahuita National Park. We saw several Two-toed Sloths, Emerald Basilisks, and Green Iguanas, but the highlight was a great look at an American Pygmy Kingfisher on our way out of the Park.
Our guests were pretty worn out by that evening, but several still ventured out for a short night hike where we saw Fishing Bats and several Spectacled Caimans in
the lagoon at the entrance of Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. We ended the night with a drive up a little dirt road to get great looks at two Common Paraques before bed.
In the morning we bid farewell to the Caribbean and headed into the foothills of the Talamanca Mountains and Braulio Carrillo National Park. This narrow range of elevation gets a staggering 12 feet of rain a year and is home to dozens of endemic species that thrive in this incredibly wet rainforest habitat. Ironically this was the driest part of our whole trip, and it never rained while we were there. Our lodge was deep in the rainforest down a very long and steep road, but it had an incredible aerial tram that let us cruise through the canopy and several paved walking paths through the jungle to see birds like Snowcaps, a White Hawk, Red-fronted Parrotlets, White-ruffed Manakins, Tawny-capped Euphonias, Orange-billed Sparrows, Carimole’s Tanagers and more. One of the highlights was a great view of a Great Tinamou that was spotted standing in the middle of the trail.
While the birds were incredible, the non-feathered residents were equally spectacular. The lodge was home to a resident Baird’s Tapir that had figured out that the human presence kept jaguars away and was not at all afraid of us. We also saw a Fer-de-Lance (Terciopelo) just off one of the paths, as well as a Costa Rican Milk Snake, several Eyelash Vipers, a Bush Racer, Banded Snail Eaters, an incredible Spiny-headed Tree Frog, Red-eyed Leaf Frogs, several species of stunning Morpho butterflies, and much more! None of our guests will ever forget the meals at this lodge - their chef was very proud of his wide range of fajitas!
When the sun rose on the last day of our adventure we packed our bags one last time and began the short drive to the airport for flights home. We ended our tour with 325 species of birds and dozens of other incredible species, as well as new friends and many great memories!