Costa Rica Trip, 1996

Tom Davis

Last modified: May 12, 2000
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Other Costa Rica Pages

Photos of Costa Rican Animals
Butterflies of Costa Rica (Photos)
Weird Moths of Costa Rica (Photos)
Travel Story—2000 (Lots of photos)
Travel Story—1998
Travel Story—1997

My wife Ellyn and I spent three weeks together in Costa Rica. I went a week early to study Spanish.

Spanish Lessons

Two of the best teachers from my Spanish school in 1995 (Laura and Rodolfo) left that school and formed one of their own (called Ad Astra). Since they're just getting started, they taught classes in their home, and teach most of the classes themselves. It was great; I would recommend Ad Astra to anyone. (Note: I visited Costa Rica in 1997 and had dinner with Laura and Rodolfo; I understand Ad Astra is doing very well as of 1999.)

Rodolfo met me at the airport at about 10:30 pm on Saturday night, drove me to the home of the Costa Rican family with whom I would stay, but when we got there at about 11 pm, there was so much noise inside the house that we had to pound on the door for 5 minutes before anyone heard us.

It turns out that the 19 year old daughter was celebrating her birthday with a big party that included a live mariachi band. I managed to stay awake until midnight, but after a couple of beers, I went to bed, and I have no idea how long the party lasted.

It was a pretty good place to live -- the mother and daughter were very talkative, and after 6 days of non-stop conversation in class and at home I was so hoarse that I could barely talk.

It's hard to say exactly what I learned, but I'm sure it was useful. I think that as a student, I had one of the highest ratios of vocabulary to grammar that my teachers had ever seen. (But note that this ratio can be improved more easily by knowing less grammar than more vocabulary.)

I still can't understand how Costa Ricans (called "Ticos", by themselves and others) find their way around. They never use maps, and hence maps are almost unavailable. All directions are relative -- "two hundred meters north of the Burger King", or "50 meters east of where the giant oak used to be" are typical. In fact, and probably for tourists, only the streets in the very center of town are numbered -- avenues east-west and streets north-south. But these numbers are unused by the locals. My tica "mother" went so far as to insist that there were no such numbers.

If you have a map when you ask directions, it's usually of no help. The Tico usually gets a funny look in his eyes, and then makes a wild guess. Of course I could never follow the tico instructions, either.

Amateur Scientists at Wilson Garden

Ellyn arrived late Friday night, and we spent two nights in San Jose, the capital city. We wandered through downtown San Jose, went through the central market, bought some "tico boots" (more on these later), went to the Gold museum (a great collection of mostly gold pre-Columbian artifacts), and finally took Rodolfo and Laura out to dinner.

On Sunday morning we rented a car and drove to San Vito, near the Panamanian border. It was the first time I had driven in Costa Rica, and I was expecting the drive to be pretty scary, considering what I'd seen on the roads as a passenger. Somebody told me that Costa Rica has the highest traffic death rates in the Americas, and it's easy to believe.

But I needn't have worried. Maybe there's something in the air, but within 5 minutes, I was driving like a tico, passing at dangerous times, cursing at other drivers, and trying to knock our teeth out by hitting giant pot-holes at full speed. I still haven't gotten the knack of using the horn, however.

Costa Rica is small, about the size of West Virginia, but the roads are terrible, and it takes forever to drive anywhere. San Jose is at the approximate center of the country, but the time estimates I got for the trip to San Vito ranged between 7 and 8 hours. It wasn't that bad, and we made it in just over 5.

We were actually staying at the Wilson Botanical Garden, an OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) field laboratory about 6 kilometers south of San Vito. At the garden our record of beautiful rainless days was shattered in the afternoon by a real gully-washer -- torrents of water. At the time, it seemed like a lot of rain.

At Wilson, we met our friends Paul Ehrlich and Gretchen Daily of the Stanford biology department who were doing an experiment with butterflies to learn something about their migration patterns. There were 70 traps divided into 4 trap-lines, and teams of two of us visited one line (17 or 18 traps) every day. (photos)

At each trap, we'd identify all the butterflies, determine their sex, mark the larger species with identifying numbers, and release them. Then we'd replace the bait and go on to the next trap. Sounds easy, right?

Unfortunately, most of the traps weren't on trails. Worse, lots of them were in primary forest. The problem is that except for the national parks, Costa Rica has cut down almost all its primary forest. Well, all except the stuff that's in ravines too steep and nasty to get the trees out, so that's where the traps were.

Most of the hiking was through "degraded cow pastures" -- mud and cow shit, choked with waist-high bushes and grass, hidden barbed-wire fences, and teeming with spiders, chiggers, and God-knows-what-other kinds of insects and other critters. We had our own colorful geographic names -- "cow ladder", "cow drop-off", and "cow sewer", leading down to "cow cesspool", which had a trap hanging over it. At the time, it seemed like a lot of mud.

Our "trails" to the traps were not scientifically switchbacked -- they were generally straight lines, and each trap visit converted them more and more into the Costa Rican equivalent of California's water-slide amusement parks. The only difference is that these were much more slippery, were made of mud, and generally didn't land you in a pool of clean, chlorinated water at the end of your slide.

The traps were baited with a combination of way-over-the-hill bananas, molasses, and a bit of the cheapest rum available. Of course, in the heat, it fermented like crazy, and if you were carrying two jars of bait, you had to be careful to open them alternately to keep them from exploding. A day or two before we arrived, a jar exploded in the car. Luckily, all we had were rental cars.

Of course bait like this attracts a lot more than butterflies. We found weird beetles, earwigs, and grubs/maggots squirming around in the bait. Besides butterflies, the traps contained moths, more beetles, flies, wasps, and honey bees. This doesn't sound too bad until you realize that in Costa Rica, virtually all the honeybees are africanized "killer" bees.

Each of us had a "stick" -- a walking stick made from a branch of a coffee tree. The sticks were almost indispensable for getting around in the steep, deep mud. Given the cow-pastures, "cow cesspool", et cetera, the tips of the sticks were not exactly what you'd call sterile. In fact, at least one of the sticks had the words "No Shit" written on the end you were supposed to hold on to.

So among the researchers, the rudest thing you could do would be to touch somebody else with the wrong end of your stick, even by accident. The second rudest thing was to flick the festering, maggot-ridden, 2-day-old bait onto your partner. The "flicker" always claimed it was an accident. The "flickee" was never quite sure ...

We also had some trouble with larger animals and the bait. On one of the trap lines, we regularly found the bait stolen, the trap frame bent, or the fabric ripped. In fact, once we found the bait tray licked clean, and, to add insult to injury, with a half-eaten guava on it. We decided that it was probably a large mammal, so we started putting tabasco sauce around the rim of the bait plates. The more damage to the trap, the more tabasco we used. I understand that the tabasco was pretty effective.

Paul said that the job had all the advantages of fighting in Guadalcanal (the stories we can tell for the rest of our lives about mud, bugs, et cetera), and none of the disadvantages (nobody was shooting at us).

During the week, I only saw one thing that could have killed me (other than the tico drivers), and that was a coral snake. But it was dead inside a whisky bottle when a farmer was trying to sell it to me.

The locals were generally very nice, but it was fairly clear that we wouldn't have seemed much stranger to them had we been aliens from outer space. Who, in their right mind, would spend hours every day trekking through the mud to catch, mark and release butterflies? Our equipment consisted of a stick, tweezers, a magnifying loupe, a book about butterflies, a spoon, and a jar of rotting bananas. I guess if I were a poor farmer I'd try to sell dead snakes to people like that!

We'd usually finish our trap lines before lunch, eat at the Garden, take a nap, and then goof around for a couple of hours birdwatching, wandering through the garden looking at the weird plants, or whatever. It almost always rained in the afternoons, so we often got a little wet. Then we had a "happy hour" (Otra cerveza, por favor!) with Paul, Gretchen, and the rest of the crew, followed by dinner.

At dinner, we learned about 2 things -- "lizard sauce", and Gretchen's penchant for desserts. To spiff up the beans and rice, almost every table in Costa Rica seems to have a bottle of "Salsa Lizano". If all you can see is the "Liza" and part of the "n", it's easy to imagine that it says "lizard". It's sort of greenish-brown, like you'd imagine the insides of a real lizard to be, so that's what we called it. We disbursed the name "lizard sauce" throughout Costa Rica, sort of like one of Richard Dawkins' "memes".

Gretchen has an amazing ability to concentrate totally on the subject at hand, and at dinner, that was dessert. At any point, she could tell you not only how many cookies (or whatever) were left on the dessert plate, she could tell you how many were on the plates at the other tables!

Since Costa Rica is pretty close to the equator, the sun rises and sets at almost exactly 6 o'clock every day, and there are none of those drawn-out sunsets we non-equatorians experience -- the sun goes almost straight down, and it was always quite dark after dinner. (In fact, while I was taking Spanish lessons, I had a hard time convincing my tico family that the days in California get longer and shorter.) To take advantage of the darkness, Paul invented a game called "Dodge 'em", where we'd wander along the road in the pitch dark, using our flashlights only when a car came into view. We'd tell stories and jokes, and occasionally had to take evasive maneuvers when we encountered particularly erratic drivers.

We had a glorious time, learned a lot, and met a lot of interesting people.

Albergue Savegre and The Quetzal Hoax

We left a week later, and drove to our next location -- Albergue Savegre (also called "Cabinas Chacon") -- a lodge on the Savegre river about 90 kilometers by road southeast of San Jose. It's high up in the mountains (elevation 2200 meters), so its wildlife and forests are quite different. The main draw is the quetzal -- "the most beautiful bird in the world". It's the national bird of Guatemala, and the name of Guatemala's currency, I think, but they've probably killed most of theirs, so Costa Rica is a pretty good place to see it. It generally lives at high altitudes in cloud forests -- big trees with lots of mist and fog. Last year we were in Monteverde, another likely spot for quetzals, but we didn't see any.

As we were checking in, I looked through the window, where there was a hummingbird feeder. At our feeder at home, we often have two, and sometimes 3 hummingbirds fighting over the sugar water, but this one was incredible -- there was almost always a swarm of 10 or 15 near the feeder, and the nearby bushes were loaded with them. There are supposedly 6 species there, and we saw 5 of them at the feeders. It seems like more than 5 species, since the male and female of a species generally look quite different.

On the way to the cabin, we were shown a couple of trees right behind it with nesting quetzals. Unfortunately, the quetzals weren't there at the moment (they had been there all the previous day), but they were usually visible between about 4:30 and 6 pm, and would certainly be there at 6:30 or 7 in the morning.

We unpacked, searched for the quetzals a bit, and then hiked up the hill for an hour or so, were we saw a bunch of new birds, including an emerald toucanet (very pretty -- like a miniature toucan). We got back by 4:30 and looked for quetzals until 6 with no luck.

The meal setup at the Savegre lodge wasn't as good as at the other places we stayed, where there are generally large tables with family-style meals, making it quite easy to meet other people. There were lots of small tables at Savegre so people tended to sit apart. We usually managed to eat with someone, however.

Even near the equator it can get quite chilly at 2200 meters, especially if all you've brought is clothes suitable for the tropics. We piled on all the extra blankets, and it took some mental effort to get up at 6 am to see the quetzals.

After a couple of icy hours without quetzals, it finally dawned on us that the whole quetzal thing was probably a hoax. In Monteverde the year before and this year on the Rio Savegre it was the same story. Lots of people who claimed to have seen them, or who knew somebody who had seen them, either right here a couple of days ago, or somewhere far away in the last half hour. Quetzals have all the earmarks of a classical "urban legend", or UFO sighting. There are even fanciful drawings of the quetzals in the bird books, and purported photographs of birds so bizarrely beautiful that it's difficult to believe that they really exist.

Finally, the next morning we did see a quetzal, and I took a lot of photos. Or perhaps I've just become part of the conspiracy -- and you know how easy it is these days to digitally alter photographs. Eventually, we saw 5 different individuals.


Male Quetzal

Here's a crummy photo of a quetzal. It was taken with a 300 mm f/4 lens plus a 1.4x tele-extender. There wasn't much light, so I was using a flash with a fresnel lends in front to try to concentrate the beam at a long distance. On the original slide, the quetzal only occupies half the frame, so it was quite a ways away.

A quetzal is a very large trogan, and the male has a couple of extremely long tail feathers, sometimes 50 centimeters long. They eat small avocados and live in hollows of dead trees. (Did you ever notice how all the photos of UFOs and the Loch Ness monster are also crummy? Coincidence? Perhaps...)

To get a larger image (also crummy), click on the image on the left.

All in all it was a nice place: secluded, lots of birds, and plenty of interesting people. One couple was from England and another from Scotland, and we learned that the translation of the American English word "birder" is "twitcher", and the translation of "LBB" ("Little Brown Bird", used to describe a generic bird that you can't identify) is "LBJ" ("Little Brown Job") in British English. After only a couple of days, we found we could do a pretty good Scottish accent, but that ability disappeared as soon as the scots left.

But we were just amateur birders. While we were at the Savegre lodge, there was a group of college kids from a bunch of smaller US colleges doing "research" there on various topics, and at least some of them were from Bible colleges. We entered the dining room one night, and an entire table seemed to be filled with people praying. I first thought it was the college kids, but a second glance showed that it wasn't. When the "prayers" continued for 20 minutes it was pretty obvious that something else was going on.

It was a group of obsessed twitchers going over their lists, arguing about exactly what birds they'd seen that day. They "prayed" for hours, through dinner, and then moved the prayer meeting into the lounge to continue. It was exactly the same pattern every night they were there.

Our final evening at the Cabinas Chacon corresponded with the final evening for the student researchers, and they invited the community in for their presentations. Each of the 12 had selected some topic from ecology and had studied it for two weeks, and each talked for about 10 minutes on his/her topic.

It was pretty appalling. Obviously, you can't do too much in two weeks, but it seems that had their advisor given them the tiniest bit of direction, they could have done studies with some hope of a result. One did a good job on a spider study, another's work was fair, eight poor, and two almost too horrible to imagine. And these kids were mostly junior and senior biology majors!

Of course I can't resist describing those that were almost too horrible to imagine!

One studied the local medicinal plants. She had asked locals (none of whom were indians -- only folks with at most a generation or two of experience) about the medicinal plants. She then listed the diseases that they supposedly cured -- baldness, epilepsy, stroke, et cetera. Her conclusion (based on nothing but a few interviews with informants of unknown qualifications) was that we should probably switch to using these plants rather than traditional western medicine. Her study was clearly flawed, one blatant example being an unmentioned huge datura plant (yielding atropine) right outside the door of the dining area!

Another studied the number of fungi growing in the forest. The researcher counted mushrooms and concluded that fungus only grows in the wet season since there were so few mushrooms. She hadn't bothered to learn that the mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies, and that the mycelium is always there. She concluded that there were no mushrooms because the spores couldn't make it through the dry leaves in the dry season.

Rara Avis: How To Make Cow Cesspool Look Good

We returned to San Jose and spent a couple of nights there which included a trip to the nearby city of Cartago to visit the Lankester Gardens, famous for their orchids. It was fun figuring out how the bus system worked.

The next day at 6:30 am a driver picked us up to drive us to the town of Horquetas on the Caribbean slope where we were to meet our "limosine" to Rara Avis. There's a 15 kilometer dirt road from Horquetas to Rara Avis, and the first 12 kilometers aren't bad -- if there's not a lot of mud, a four-wheel-drive vehicle can make it without too much difficulty.

But then the road goes bad. It turns into a sea of mud that's sunk a couple of meters into the ground in places, with huge holes, rocks, et cetera. The only reasonable vehicle is what we used -- a cart pulled by a tractor, and the 15 kilometer trip typically takes 4 or 5 hours, assuming the tractor can make it at all. If it can't, you walk. In Horquetas, if you don't have them already, you can borrow the required footwear -- rubber boots that come up to just below your knees (these are the "tico boots" we bought in San Jose). They seem like total overkill until you get to that last three kilometers.

Since our tractor blew a tire 3 kilometers from Rara Avis, we got plenty of valuable mud experience right away. We followed a trail rather than the road; the driver assured us that we couldn't get lost. If you're careful, you can usually find places to step where the mud doesn't flow in over the tops of your boots, but of course there are occasional accidents. The 3 kilometer walk took about an hour and a half, and we weren't goofing off. It started raining about half way in and the rain got harder and harder until we got there. We arrived pretty wet and muddy and we discovered, to our horror, that they'd sent porters back to haul up all our luggage on their backs.

If I'd known that there was a chance that this would happen, I probably wouldn't have brought my rock collection! Actually, we had brought everything we owned. Usually you can leave stuff at the hotel during such tours, but we couldn't get the same hotel on both ends of the trip, and we figured it was just riding in the cart, so we didn't worry about it. I had about 15 kilos of camera gear, my Spanish books, and all the clothes and other stuff I'd need for a month. Ellyn's load wasn't so big. But at least if we'd known about the porters, we could have carried a bag each to Rara Avis; as it was, there was too much for the porters to take in one load, and there was only time for one load, so Ellyn was missing some stuff the first night.

There are lots of trails to explore around Rara Avis, and the one we hiked to get there was in the best shape of all. Although we were there for 5 nights, we didn't have time to hike all the trails.

We saw plenty of birds and insects, a couple of poisonous snakes (a coral snake and an eyelash viper), lizards, various frogs, and even a couple of non-homo-sapiens mammals -- some coatimundis and anteaters.

But what was impressive was the rain and mud. We got heavy rain almost every day, and on the three wettest days, we got 62, 60, and 50 millimeters of rain (that's a total of almost 7 inches in three days for the metric-impaired). Everything was wet. The only way to dry clothes was to wear them. If you hung up dry clothes, they'd be wet in a day. The pages of my English-Spanish dictionary absorbed so much water that they swelled to half again their thickness and broke the back of the book.

The mud matched the rain. After a while, you got pretty good at guessing where the mud was only 5 inches deep, and where it might go over the tops of your boots. In the rainforest, it's generally a bad idea to touch trees or plants because of spines or poisons or creatures, so you try to walk carefully enough that you don't need to grab onto plants for support. Often you'd come to an "interesting" spot on the trail where you really wanted to use a "vegetable hold" before you took a step. Quite often, there would be a spot on a plant where all the moss was worn off because every other person before you used exactly the same spot on the plant to hold, and it was obviously safe since so many others had used it. Quite often, the spot was only big enough to put a couple of fingers for balance, and that was usually enough. But we certainly had our share of errors where the mud went in over the tops of the boots, or where a mud stripe got painted from your knees to your hips (or higher, if you really screwed up).

I actually think the overwhelming mud and water was a great thing -- all the guests were in the same boat, and most became friends pretty quickly. There was no electricity, so beginning at about 6 pm, the only place with decent light was the dining area which had one very long family-style table. You'd go down an hour before dinner (which was at 7), and drink beers and talk through dinner, and then for some time afterward. When you got back to your room, you couldn't really do anything except go to bed.

Although the quetzal hoax at Albergue Savegre turned out not to be a hoax at all, there was a real hoax at Rara Avis having to do with the lanterns. Since there was no electricity, we were each issued a kerosene lantern to use in the cabins. They all smoked like crazy and then went out in less than 5 minutes. We think they were designed to do this to prevent fires. Only one group managed to get theirs to work, but only but extending so much wick that the room immediately filled with smoke.

At Rara Avis, it's also possible to climb a tree and sit in a sort of tree house and look directly into the canopy. It's about 30 meters high, and takes about 3 hours to do the whole thing -- the climb, looking around from the platform, and then descending. It was a lot of fun, and that's where I saw the eyelash viper and a new toucanet. The crew the next day had a troupe of howler monkeys pass through the tree, and the next day, the climbers were in pouring rain the whole time.

Getting the Shot

We decided to hike out of Rara Avis and get as far as we could before the tractor caught us, since it's much more pleasant to walk than ride. As we walked along, I saw some leaf-cutter ants walking on the mud walls by the side of the road. I was leaning over, trying to get a really tight close-up shot of the parade, when I slipped, and face-planted the camera into the muck. I could tell that Ellyn had finally entered the world of serious photography when her first question to me was not, "Are you OK?", but rather, "Did you get the shot?"

(Note: I didn't get that shot, but the next year I did get some decent photos of leafcutter ants in Wilson Garden. It's on this page.)

The camera was covered with mud, but luckily I had a protective UV filter in front of the lens. We hiked another half-mile or so to "El Plastico" -- an ex-prison colony just outside the rainforest where the prisoners had to sleep in plastic tents; hence the name. It's now a biological research center where, among other things, they're experimenting with raising butterflys to sell to collectors. At least they had running water there, and I was able to get the camera almost clean.

We continued hiking and the tractor finally caught us after six or seven more kilometers. I was quite relieved to see the tractor since I'd hiked the whole distance in Tico boots. I'd done plenty of similar hikes at Rara Avis, but this time I was carrying a 15 kilo pack, and that made a significant difference in the blister department.

We did have one pretty amazing small-world experience at Rara Avis. We met a family (father, mother, and son) from Australia. The father was a mathematics professor in Sidney, and I knew one of his classmates who's now a computer science professor at Stanford. Then it turns out that his son Arthur is a Caltech graduate student (my old school). Without mentioning names, we told Arthur that we'd been working with some biologist friends in Costa Rica, and that they had another project in Colorado later in the year. He immediately asked, "Do you know Jen?" Jen is Paul Ehrlich's graduate student we'd met earlier in the year, and who arrived at the Wilson garden on the same day we left. She's apparently dating one of Arthur's roommates. We gave Arthur the FAX number at the garden to reach Jen, and told him to say "Hi".

A few nights after we got home, we attended a lecture at Stanford by Richard Dawkins, and Ellyn was convinced we wouldn't meet anyone we knew. I was convinced of the opposite, and it was Jen who proved me right. She said she'd gotten a FAX from Arthur out of the blue at Wilson gardens, but it didn't directly mention us. It did, however, contain the sentence, "Rara Avis makes Cow Cesspool seem like the Mojave Desert".

On a walk with one of the Rara Avis naturalists, we heard a dove that we'd heard the year before. Last year, our guide had told us we could remember the call because it sounds like "Who cooks for you?" The Rara Avis guide told us it is actually "Tres tontos son." (There are three fools.) But we knew he was wrong. On top biological authority, we were previously assured that the correct mnemonic is "Who fucked the dog?"

(Note: Science marches on. The next year, we simply referred to that dove as, "the dog bird".)

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