Costa Rica Trip, 1997

Tom Davis

Last modified: May 12, 2000
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Travel Story—2000 (Lots of photos)
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Travel Story—1996

Here's the story of our third trip to Costa Rica. We spent 3 weeks there, and intend to return next year, as there are still plenty of things we still want to see and do.

Ellyn Tom

Ellyn and Tom

On the left is Ellyn, birdwatching in style, at Bahía Gigante, and here I am at Wilson Garden.

Drug Running

In 1996, we helped with some biology research at Wilson Garden, and we planned to do the same thing in 1997 (See "Machetazo", below.) The year before, Ellyn noticed the county hospital in San Vito and wondered if we couldn't help out a little by bringing in donated medical supplies that they needed.

With the help of the directors at Wilson Garden (Luis and Gail), she was able to contact the physicians there to see if there were any supplies she could bring. The reply was that they needed "everything". A series of hurricanes during the winter had put a huge strain on the system, and they needed drugs, suture material, cervical collars ... anything.

So a couple of months before we left Ellyn started asking around and found that it's fairly easy to get medical supplies that are over-stocked, discontinued, or samples from drug representatives. It's also very easy to get expired drugs that are probably good for at least a year or two beyond their expiration data, but it turned out to be so easy to get non-expired supplies that we decided to avoid the expired medicines. Soon we had too much to carry so we sent down one huge load of suture materials with our biologist friends.

There are various organizations that collect medical equipment for donations such as this, and Ellyn had been playing telephone tag with somebody from one of them trying to arrange to pick up a load.

He called back one evening when Ellyn's singing group was having a rehearsal at our house. So as not to interrupt the rehearsal, she just let the guy talk into the answering machine, and her friends heard something like this:

"This is Doug. I've got your drugs. Let's meet at the XYZ storage lockers off Highway 101 in Redwood City at 2 pm on Sunday ..." I thought she shouldn't have said anything, but I guess she actually spent some time trying to convince them that she's not a drug kingpin (or would she be a "queenpin"?).

We packed our bags, and just barely got everything inside after a significant amount of drug repackaging -- often pills come 1 or 2 per box, but the boxes are large enough to hold 20 or 30, so we were able to condense the load significantly.

Of course, the day before we left, she got a huge load (2 cases) of Tylenol for children which would be very valuable anywhere, and somehow we managed to make room for that.

We did have a letter from the director of the hospital in San Vito explaining why we were hauling thousands of dollars worth of drugs (including some narcotics) into Costa Rica, but we never had to use it. On the flight down, they ran out of customs forms in English, so everybody on the plane got forms in Spanish, and to help, the stewardess translated and helped explain how to fill them out.

She said that when you're listing what you're bringing in, you don't have to be specific; just list what you've got in general terms. So I wrote down:

  1. Clothes
  2. Gifts
  3. Medicine
  4. Camera Equipment
  5. Books
  6. ...
It worked fine, in spite of the fact that "medicine" accounted for the vast majority of our load.

Ellyn has written a much more detailed description of the conditions of the hospital in San Vito. Click here to read that.


For the second year in a row, we returned to Wilson Garden to help Gretchen Daily and Paul Ehrlich with their biology research.

Until shortly before we left, we weren't sure whether we'd be working on butterflies again, or maybe spiders or moths. I was hoping for spiders, and Ellyn was hoping for anything but. Gretchen finally decided to do butterflies again, and I spent most of my time helping her. At the same time, Paul was beginning a project with wrens, and Ellyn worked mostly with him. Since I'm writing this, you'll learn about butterflies.

This year, we arrived early in the project, and most of the work I did involved setting up the traps. This involved a lot of hiking and bushwhacking to find suitable sites, and I learned less about butterflies, but had more interesting adventures.

My "best" adventure occurred with Paul and Gretchen. After lunch one day, we hiked down to the Rio Jaba and up the ridge on the other side, which was a pretty steep climb. We carried up a load of butterfly traps and left them hidden in the bushes near the sites we selected for installation the next day. We intended to spend an hour or so scouting out suitable sites for the traps.

Gretchen wanted to compare butterfly trap statistics in old, primary forest with similar traps set up in cow pastures that had been cleared of trees and now were covered with grass. From aerial photos, she knew there was some pasture a few hundred meters from the trail, so we headed for that.

Unfortunately, it was through mostly secondary forest, which is what you get if you cut down primary forest and let it start growing back. In primary forest, huge mature trees block out most of the light, and there's very little foliage on the ground, so it's quite easy to walk around. In secondary forest, it's basically a jungle -- thick brush, vines and creepers, et cetera. It was slow going through this, even though we were going down a pretty steep hill.

And of course we didn't find the shortest path to the patch of pasture...

Finally, we were able to spot the pasture with binoculars, and it didn't take too long to get there, but it had taken so long that it was clear we could not return the way we'd come and get back to the garden before nightfall. Even worse, we might miss dinner.

But we knew from the aerial photos that the pasture was only about 500 meters wide, and on the other side was a dirt road that would take us to within 50 meters of the trail to the garden, and from there 20 minutes of hiking would take us home.

Unfortunately, there hadn't been any cows in the pasture for quite some time, and most people wouldn't call what was growing there "grass". The pasture's "grass" now had stalks 2 cm in diameter, was 3 meters tall, and was packed together so tightly that it took a machete to hack through it.

When we stood in it, we rarely stood on the ground -- we stood on grass stalks that had been bent over. This was a lucky thing, because underneath the grass, there was usually water and mud (and maybe snakes or other horrible things). Occasionally, to add to the general excitement, the grass would collapse and we did get to stand on the ground. Sometimes when it collapsed, you'd drop a few centimeters ... and sometimes, a meter and a half -- nothing was particularly level.

We did have a machete, so Gretchen took the first turn. Our Costa Rican assistant Yimer had told us earlier that the most dangerous animal in Costa Rica is a gringo with a machete. He's probably right, but it was sort of fun. The problem is that we could only hack through a couple of meters of grass per minute, and at that rate, with 500 meters to go and only an hour and a half of sunlight, things weren't looking too good.

Once while it was my turn to be hacking, I glanced down at my hand and noticed there was blood all over. I was thinking to myself, "What an idiot -- I've just proven that I'm as incompetent and dangerous as any other gringo; I've hacked myself with the machete." Then I noticed that the blood was on my right hand, which was holding the machete. I had sliced it open on the sharp grass blades.

At the same time, I was doing other damage that I didn't notice until later. The grass was so thick that quite often the machete swing was stopped because my knuckles rammed into a grass stalk, and my whole hand was black and blue the next day. But at least I didn't swing my hand into any spine-covered plants like Gretchen did.

The other problem we had is that the grass was so tall that we couldn't see where we were going. Every now and then there was a tree we could climb to get a fix on our position, and then we'd change direction slightly. In fact, after we got back, you could drive down the road to San Vito and see "our" pasture in the distance. It had a long, straight trail hacked in it that suddenly took a 40 degree turn when the initial straight path got to the first tree.

We finally discovered that a more efficient way to travel was to hold our walking sticks in front of us with both hands and fall forward into the grass with all our weight behind it. This would crush down some grass and we could crawl on top of it. We only used the machete in the really nasty spots.

It's amazing how black the humor gets in situations like this. Paul came up with the "funniest" line when things were looking grimmest. He wondered if the farmer whose field it was would choose that exact moment to do the burning part of "slash and burn farming".

We finally got out of the grass with about 10 minutes of sunlight left and headed for the trail back to the garden. The last 20 minutes were spent hiking up a muddy jungle trail in the dark, but it wasn't too bad because we'd been on that trail many times before. Still, there was a lot of tentative poking around with the walking sticks as we stumbled along.

We got back in the middle of dinner covered with sweat and mud, and with pieces of grass stuffed in every opening of our clothes. During the rest of the trip, I always made sure to carry a flashlight in my pack, but that was sort of like closing the barn door after the horses get away.

I understand from Gretchen that Paul has been retelling this same story and his version has gotten much better over time. She said I probably wouldn't even recognize it any more. It is one of those great stories -- I've already spent more time telling people about our adventure than it took to happen.

Army Ants

No matter where we went, we always carried a pair of binoculars in case we saw any interesting birds. There's a whole set of birds called "ant birds" that tend to follow army ants in the forest. It's a good strategy because the ants flush a lot of insects out of hiding, and when they try to fly away, they become easy targets for the birds. When you see an army ant raid, it's a good idea to take out the binoculars and look around for unusual birds.

Gretchen and I ran into such a raid while we were setting up traps one day deep in the forest, and had about 10 minutes of great birding. It was very enlightening, but unfortunately, I'm a slow learner.

A couple of days later Ellyn and I were wandering around the garden looking for birds, and we found an amazing spot. The birds were going nuts, and there were all sorts of them hopping through the bushes. After a few minutes, I found myself thinking, "Wow! This is a great spot. The only other time I saw this many birds was in that army ant raid with Gretchen."

Suddenly my brain clicked to life and I looked down to find that my boots and legs were seething with army ants; I was standing right on top of a column of them.

It wasn't as bad as it sounds. They're not fire ants so the bites aren't bad, and when I'm hiking in the jungle, I don't cut a dashing figure; I'm the ultimate nerd. I always wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and double socks with the pants tucked into the outer ones. The "Gilligan" hat flops down over my ears, and I use plenty of insect repellent and sun block. Paul says that it just takes once stepping into a fire ant nest to convert you to the nerd religion for the rest of your life.

Movie Night

Instead of playing "Dodge 'em" as we did the year before where we hiked down the roads at night after dinner and tried to avoid being hit by the Costa Rican drivers, this year almost every night was movie night.

We'd rent movies from the video store in San Vito, and after dinner we'd race to the presentation hall to use the VCR. The chairs in the hall were hard as rocks and extremely uncomfortable, so we always took pillows to dinner that we could use on the chairs later. I sort of wonder what the other guests thought of us -- none of them brought pillows to dinner.

I think all the rental movies there are pirated. Many of them had not yet come out on video in the United States, and many of them had little network logos superimposed in the corners as if they were taped off cable TV. They were all in English with Spanish subtitles, but there's something wrong with the subtitling machine, since it superimposed a black stripe on the bottom of the frame so the text would show up well, but the text didn't print on the black stripe.

And the translations were hilarious. If I didn't understand English, I can't imagine how I'd figure out what was going on in the movies. When we got back to San José, I talked to my Spanish teachers from the language school Ad Astra, and they said that it often is almost impossible to figure out what subtitled rental videos are about.

One of the movies we watched was "Braveheart", and the name of the king is "Longshanks". Each translation seemed to be different, but among them were "long sharks" and "loan sharks". In "Scarlet Letter", the translations of "Hester Prynne" were so bizarre that I can't remember any of them. And it wasn't just names; a high proportion of the translations were either exactly opposite of the English, or, more likely, completely off the wall. We often had trouble following the movies ourselves because we were having so much fun reading the subtitles.

I have watched movies in theaters there, and I assume that they show "official" translations, because in those, the translation quality is very high.

After our adventure in the overgrown cow pasture, we rented "Mosquito Coast", which was highly appropriate.

Arctic Turnips

Perhaps the most important thing I learned on the entire trip was about arctic turnips.

This doesn't have much to do with Costa Rica, but I understand that when you're working in the arctic and sleeping in a tent, and you've got to pee, but it's far too cold to go outside, you can pee into condoms, tie them off, and set them outside.

In the morning, you've got arctic turnips!

A Quinky-Dink

When we returned to San José from Wilson Garden, we spent two nights there, and I wanted to see my Spanish teachers, Laura and Rodolfo, as well as Virginia and Rodrigo, the parents in the family I had stayed with while I was studying there. I'd been in contact with all of them over the year, and Virginia and Rodrigo were no longer on speaking terms with Laura and Rodolfo, but that was no problem; we'd just go out to dinner twice.

I called Laura and Rodolfo first, and they were free the first night, so I asked them to suggest a restaurant where we could meet. They suggested a place called "Antojitos" in the town of San Pedro where we met them and had a great time.

The next day I called Virginia, and she said that Rodrigo had just gotten out of the hospital, but she'd come over and meet us at the hotel. I figured we'd then go to a nearby restaurant, but when she got there, she insisted that we go to a restaurant she liked -- Antojitos in San Pedro.

Now the San José area is huge -- perhaps 2 million people with a corresponding number of restaurants, so it was pretty amazing that they both picked the same place. It's not like the restaurant was in an obvious central location, either. Right near our hotel were plenty of good places to eat, and Antojitos was a 20 minute taxi ride away. I was sure we'd get "caught" by having the waiter recognize us or something, but everything went smoothly, and we didn't blow our cover.


During the second part of our trip, we were the lowest form of tourist -- we had a package tour to the Mawamba Lodge, just north of Tortuguero National Park.

Many of the Costa Rican tours are arranged the same way -- you're picked up in a bus or van at your hotel in the morning and transported to your destination. Once there, everything is paid for -- meals, guides, lodging, et cetera. In Tortuguero it makes sense to do this because the only way you're going to see anything is from boats in the canals. There's so much water that you can't go far without a boat. Most of the lodges have guides that know the animals fairly well and know where to find them.

The disadvantage, of course, is that the only people you meet are other tourists. The only Costa Ricans you meet are the employees of the lodge, and from them you only get the most sanitized version of what's really going on. You don't find out who's taking advantage of whom, or why the swimming pool that appears in Mawamba's literature has been "almost finished" for years and years.

But for the first time ever on a tour, we did meet a Spanish-speaking tourist couple. Of course they weren't Costa Ricans -- they were Spaniards from the Canary Islands.

Another problem is that you get pot-luck with regard to your guides. There were certainly some good ones, but although our first guide, named Miguel, was the nicest guy in the world, he has a long way to go before he's mastered his animals. He didn't know a lot of the birds, and I think we really blew his mind when he pointed out an insect outside the dining area and told us it was a moth. We disagreed, and said it was a butterfly; in fact, its scientific name was Caligo atreus. We didn't bother to let him know that we'd just gotten back from a week of butterfly research.

We did see plenty of wildlife, however, and met a lot of nice people, even if they were mostly Americans.

What was interesting is that none of the standard tours actually go into the national park. The lodge was just north of the park, and the boat tours always took off going north. The reason is that there's a 6 dollar fee if you want to do anything more than pass through the park on the main canal on your way to something on the other side.

We did go on a special hike one day (for which we paid our 6 bucks) into the park, and it was well worth the money. We were probably the first tourists on that trail in months, so everything was overgrown and the animals were a bit less skittish.

The most impressive thing I saw was a hollow acacia tree whose trunk was about 4 cm in diameter that had been hacked off a minute earlier by the leader to clear the trail. Acacia trees often have a symbiotic relationship with Azteca ants that live inside the hollow trunk and branches, sometimes feed on nectaries provided by the plant, and savagely defend the plant against predators.

With the whole tree chopped down, the ants weren't pleased at all, and I was lucky not to be badly bitten. I didn't stick around to get a photo.

We did some night hikes while we were there, and saw a couple of insects (katydids) emerging from their larval shells. We also saw a great frog.

Bahía Gigante

We were returned safe and sound to our hotel in San José where we spent the night, and the next day we rented a car with 4 wheel drive to go to Bahía Gigante on the Nicoya peninsula. Nicoya is much drier than the rest of Costa Rica and the wildlife is very different.

The main highway through Costa Rica is the Pan American Highway, which we'd driven earlier to get to the Wilson Gardens. Costa Rica was hit by a couple of large hurricanes during the year and south of San José the highway seemed to be more pothole than road. North of San José, however, it was in great shape and we made extremely good time to Puntarenas where we planned to catch a ferry over to Nicoya.

We really wanted to visit the private biological reserve at Curú, but our travel agent said she had had a hard time contacting them, and was only able to get us reservations in the nearby town of Bahía Gigante. On the ferry ride over, we talked to a very strange individual who just laughed his head off when we told him we had actual reservations. We found out why when we reached Bahía Gigante.

It was a large motel with perhaps 20 rooms, a giant swimming pool, huge grounds, a dock, and a large restaurant. We had it almost completely to ourselves. We were there for 4 nights, and shared the whole place with one Costa Rican family on 2 of those nights.

The manager told us that it was originally envisioned as a sport-fishing paradise, but due to mismanagement it had been a total failure. They even managed to sink their two fishing boats. It's probably some kind of giant tax writeoff, because they're paying a manager and three or four full-time staff, but there are virtually no visitors. We were there in "high season".

The disadvantage of staying at Bahía Gigante is that the roads are terrible, and to get to the southern part of the peninsula you have to drive for 45 minutes on them. We made that trip (and back) every day while we were there.

The advantage was that it was cheap (about $27 per night), beautiful, there was lots of local birding, and the cook at the restaurant was good. We even had lobster tails a couple of times.

The high point was our visit to Curú. It's a tiny private reserve on the coast about an hour south of Bahía Gigante. After missing it a few times, we found the entrance and drove in a couple of kilometers to the reserve. There's a little wooden bridge over a stream just before the administration building, and within 10 feet of the car were a group of wood storks, great egrets, and even a roseate spoon-bill.

I planned to come back and take photos, but we never saw quite such a good collection of birds there again. They weren't afraid of us while we were in the car, but later, when I tried to approach them on foot, they were very skittish. Later, from that bridge, I was able to get some nice shots of a belted kingfisher.

For 5 bucks you can get lunch at the station there -- it's a bit expensive for Costa Rica, but the money goes to Curú, and besides, there's no place else to eat.

There was a large tourist group eating there that day, and they completely filled the dining area so we ate in the kitchen with the old woman who runs the place. Everything was alive with ants, so the juice was made without sugar, and we added sugar before drinking it. Of course the sugar jar had its own ants, so we still had to fish a lot of them out of our juice.

By coincidence, Dusty Becker, the principal investigator for an Earthwatch expedition I'd done earlier in the year, (see cloud forest) had also done research on howler monkeys at Curú. According to Dusty, Ellyn and I didn't really get to know the old lady very well. She has apparently seen and spoken with Jesus, and spends a lot of time trying to do something about the half-naked "gringas" profaning her beach.

The old woman's daughter (Adelina) is one of the tour guides there, and her English is so good (her mother spoke none at all) that at first Ellyn and I thought she was an American. She was a surrogate mother for a baby spider monkey, Pepe, whose parents had been killed by poachers. Pepe rode on her shoulders except when he was trying to steal food. The old woman's main concern was to "keep that damn monkey out of my kitchen".

Adelina was extremely helpful to us, even though we weren't on her tour. She told us where and when to look for the more interesting animals. We returned the next day and saw a lot of new things. We even saw a snake in the process of swallowing a frog. Or at least we think it was a frog; all we saw were the feet disappearing.

Our biggest disappointment was that we missed a visit to Cabo Blanco Absoluto. It's another nature reserve at the southern tip of the Nicoya peninsula, and it's supposed to be spectacular. Unfortunately, our guide book was out of date, and it's closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. We were there on Monday, and had to leave on Tuesday. Still, we parked outside the entrance, and saw a few of the birds that "leaked out".

Playa Tambor

When we were looking for a place to stay near Curú, one of the names that came up was Playa Tambor Beach Resort. We didn't give it a second thought because it was insanely expensive (around $250 per night). And Costa Rica is relatively low-cost; this place is insanely expensive no matter where you are.

But during our stay at Bahía Gigante we learned a bit more about this place. It's apparently run by the Spanish corporation Grupo Barcelo, and as they were building it, they violated so many environmental laws that the government of Costa Rica shut it down. Of course, the little Costa Rican government doesn't really have the power to enforce laws against large multinational corporations, so the building just continued.

The resort paid to refurbish one of the public ferries from Puntarenas to Nicoya, but now they have complete control over it. Although it's nominally a public ferry still, guests at the resort no doubt get first priority.

The roads on the eastern side of the peninsula are terrible, but there's a great section of paved road from the ferry to the resort. The paving ends at the driveway to the resort.

Palo Verde

From Bahía Gigante, we drove to the Palo Verde National Park, and stayed at another OTS station there. The difference between the Palo Verde and the Wilson Garden OTS stations is like night and day. Palo Verde was far more rustic, although they are currently in the process of replacing some of the older buildings.

At Wilson Garden, most of the accommodations for guests are private rooms or suites for 2 or 4 people; there's a dormitory as well. At Palo Verde, there's only a dormitory that sleeps 30 people, so that's where we were going to stay. But it wasn't as bad as we feared; we were the only guests and had a 30-bed dormitory to ourselves. All the beds were equipped with mosquito netting and after a single sloppy job of tucking it in for the night, it's amazing how anal you can get on the following nights.

The Gulf of Nicoya that separates the Nicoya peninsula from the rest of Costa Rica begins at the mouth of the Tempisque River, and Palo Verde is near the mouth. Near the park headquarters the river widens into a huge marsh that is now almost completely covered with cattails. The cattails are a relatively recent addition to the marsh, and there's a great deal of disagreement as to whether the introduction of cows or the later removal of cows, or upstream alterations in the Tempisque river's course itself caused the change, but the result is that most of the original vegetation in the marsh has been replaced by a vast sea of cattails.

I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but I understand that in the late 1940s, about 150 species of birds bred regularly in the Tempisque marsh. The number has been dropping, and now there are about 7 species that breed. Like most environmental disasters, people are finally starting to take notice, now that it's basically too late to do anything.

There are still a lot of birds, but you see the same ones over and over. If you like red-winged blackbirds, have I got a spot for you!

In spite of the low number of breeders in the marsh, we did see lots of kinds of birds. Hawks, herons, wood-storks, northern jacanas, and egrets (and vultures, of course) were very plentiful.

The bird you want to see is the jabiru. Assuming that the harpy eagle is extinct in Costa Rica (which is quite likely -- they haven't been seen for years), the jabiru is the largest bird in the country, averaging 1.5 meters tall and weighing 5.3 kilos. Our (old) guidebook said there were something like 900 pairs of jabiru in Palo Verde, but we asked two or three people where to see them, and they all gave directions that appeared to be the same, so the locals only knew where to find one pair, and we didn't see it until our last day there.

When we arrived, it was the middle of the day and already hot, so Ellyn and I just took a slow stroll on the local trails and I got the best look at a paraque (a bird very much like a whippoorwill) I've ever had. Usually they panic when you're crashing through the forest and when they explode into the air, all you see is the flash of white on the tops of brown wings, and then it's gone. Our paraque was motionless, trying to blend into the leaves in broad daylight, and was so close that I had to step back a bit to focus the binoculars.

The next day we went out to look for a "puente" where we could see lots of birds. I wasn't thinking clearly and I translated "puente" to "point", and on the way, we crossed over a bridge that looked interesting, but I figured we'd come back after we'd been to the "point". Of course, "puente" means "bridge", so it was tough to find the "point".

The road sort of petered out, and while we were stopped and scratching our head, a guy came out of one of the buildings at the end of the road and introduced himself as Carlos. He said for $10 he'd take us birding for the rest of the morning, and that seemed like a pretty good deal, so we started off.

But apparently Carlos is an employee of the national park and was supposed to be doing something else because he carried a 2-way radio and listened to it anxiously as we drove around. He spotted a lot of nice birds for us and gave us our first set of directions to the jabiru nest.

Finally, Carlos got a call that obviously required him to be elsewhere, so he suddenly decided that what we really needed to to was take a boat ride on the Tempisque river and he had a friend of a friend who did that sort of thing. And we should do it right now because the boat was free and the tide was low. He arranged things and although we only saw about half the places he'd promised to take us we let him keep the $10.

The boat ride was $50 for 3 hours, and it was $50 no matter how many passengers there were, up to 8. Obviously, we got the $25/person ride, but that wasn't bad -- we could go and see exactly what we wanted.

Our guide on the boat knew his stuff, and what I hadn't realized is that perhaps more famous than the jabiru is the number of crocodiles in the Tempisque river. They were all over the place. Most were small, but there were some real monsters. It was a little spooky how completely even the giant ones disappear when they slip under the muddy water. Crocs are apparently far more dangerous and aggressive than our Florida alligators or the Caimans from Tortuguero.

We birded our way to bird island "Isla de Pajaros", which is completely packed with nesting wood storks, herons, egrets, et cetera. There was bird shit everywhere, and thousands of squawking birds. It was an amazing sight!

Crocodile Bait

On the return, Ellyn warned me to move my feet because of a pool of water shifting around on the floor of the boat. This disturbed the boatman a little, since when we started, there wasn't any water there. In fact, a little poking around revealed a significant hole in the fiberglass -- perhaps a centimeter in diameter -- and the water was coming in fairly rapidly.

The driver had 3 giant sponges aboard which we used to bail, and it wasn't too hard to keep ahead of the leak, but you had to keep at it. With a river full of crocodiles, it wasn't too hard to stay motivated.

After continuing this way for a few hundred yards, the driver got the bright idea that if all three of us sat in the stern of the boat, and the boat moved fast, it would lift the bow of the boat (where the leak was) out of the water. We didn't do too much sight-seeing on the trip back, but we decided that was preferable to swimming with the crocodiles.

Nicole and Mauricio

The most interesting people we met at Palo Verde were a couple of kids -- Nicole and Mauricio -- who are about a year away from graduation from the Universidad Nacional in biology. They are in love with Palo Verde, and have arranged their classes at the university so that they have 3-day weekends, and can spend as many weekends in Palo Verde as possible.

They've hooked up with the director of the station and in exchange for helping out whereever they can (anything from kitchen duty to leading visitors on tours), they're getting direction, tutoring, and even a little money sometimes. They're working on writing nature guides to the local trails, are working on a small museum for the station, and many other things.

They were incredibly enthusiastic and took us out on night hikes and told us where to look for birds and animals. They'd come to get us when they found any strange or interesting animal. Mauricio was particularly interested in herpetology, and one day when Ellyn and I had just returned from climbing one of the trails to a local lookout point, Mauricio's first question was, "Did you see the giant rattlesnake that lives there?"

Mauricio dragged us to their room where they'd caught an interesting marsupial "mouse", and when we opened the box to take a look, we found that the box also contained the first whip-scorpion I'd ever seen. (A whip-scorpion is a creature that has some scorpion and some spider features. I don't think they're particularly dangerous, but they sure look weird. When I was in Ecuador earlier in the year I caught a pseudo-scorpion, and it seemed similar to the whip-scorpion, but I don't know how they're all related. The pseudo-scorpion I caught was tiny -- about two millimeters long -- so it was difficult to examine closely.)

On the night hikes we saw a ferruginous pygmy owl, some giant toads, plenty of real scorpions and centipedes (enough that I took great care in pounding out my boots before stepping into them on the following mornings), spiders, insects, and so on.

The pygmy owl was a real surprise. We'd heard them before but had never seen one. Our best bird guide in Tortuguero told us that he'd heard them many times, and when he finally saw his first one, it became obvious why he was having a tough time, and after that first sighting, they were not so hard to find. They're tiny -- perhaps 6 inches tall, including the tail. I guess everyone thinks of something like a barn-owl as a "typical" owl, and decides that a pygmy owl is probably smaller -- maybe half the size. I know I did. Well, you're not going to spot many ferruginous pygmy owls if you're looking for something that's half the size of a barn owl!

Nicole spotted it, and I have no idea how. It wasn't making any noise, but she flashed her light up into the trees and managed to spot the tiny little guy.

Nicole and Mauricio are real treasures; Ellyn and I made a "donation" to their college fund for which they were very appreciative.

The Jabiru

In addition to Carlos' directions, we met a man at the OTS station who also knew where to find the jabiru. The two sets of directions meshed pretty closely, so we took off by ourselves one day to find it. It was a long drive, since the site is outside the park, and the roads are, at best, gravel.

None of the roads are marked, but I knew where I was going, and being a guy, I wasn't about to ask for directions. Not being a guy, Ellyn knew that I didn't know where I was going, and was anxious to ask directions of everybody. But I was driving, so we didn't.

As we drove toward where I "knew" the bird was, the road got worse and worse, and finally Ellyn convinced me to turn around, and we went back. When we got to the park entrance, the ranger was there (we'd missed him all the other times we'd passed that point), so we stopped to pay the park entry fee and to ask for help finding the jabiru.

He drew us a map that indicated a route that didn't have too much in common with the route I'd been following, and more important, he gave us some idea of how big the tree the nest was in, which side of the road it was on, and how high up the nest was. He told us there had been three chicks, but one of them had recently disappeared, so now only two remained.

We followed the map, which was pretty good. There were turns and forks where he'd indicated them, and most of the distances were right. But when we took the final turn, we found ourselves exactly where we'd been earlier, and had turned around. The jabiru was 100 meters down the road.

It's an amazing bird. When I first saw the wood-storks, I was convinced that they were jabirus because they are so large (a meter tall, perhaps). But they are tiny compared to the real thing. It's a monstrous bird in a nest 15 meters off the ground, and perhaps 2 meters in diameter. There were 3 chicks in the nest that seemed as big as our dogs. It was an amazing sight. We watched for a half hour or so, hoping that the female would return and change the guard, but she never appeared.

On the way back, we stopped at the station and the ranger was really pleased to hear that all three chicks were still alive. I guess one of them must have been lying down on his previous visit. From what we could tell, all three seemed to be pretty healthy.

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