Granada, Nicaragua, 20-22 April 2019

5am, 20th April: The mist hung low over the San Juan River at Boca de Sabalos – beautifully quiet.

Above: misty morning on the San Juan River.

We took the 7.30am boat from Boca de Sabalos to San Carlos. Once again, when on board we had to complete a form with our name, age, passport number, current location, and destination. Upon arrival at San Carlos at 9.15am immigration staff searched everyone’s bags – I thought the searches were pretty brief to be honest. Nothing like Australian customs if they really want to check you out. We were amazed to see a minivan with a load of Western tourists in the wharf carpark – in our time at El Castillo and Boca de Sabalos we had seen three to four Westerners.

Above: map detailing our trip from Boce de Sabalos to Juigalpa in red; Juigalpa to Granada in blue.

There is currently a definite lack of tourism in Nicaragua. Toby Stirling Hill wrote an interesting article in The Guardian on 16 April 2019: ‘Nicaragua: one year after protests erupt, Ortega clings to power’. He discusses the background to the current political crisis. Put simply, Ortega commenced slashing social security payments and in April 2018 there was a nationwide civil uprising demanding his resignation. With the army neutral, Ortega turned to the police to control the demonstrators, but also recruited paramilitary forces. These were the men in black we saw in San Carlos. Between 325-535 people have been killed, many more still remain in jail. Over 80,000 are now refugees in other countries, as we saw in Costa Rica. When in San Jose, Costa Rica, we were disturbed to see many people sleeping on the streets – perhaps many are Nicaraguan refugees. Medical staff have left the country, and media has been repressed.

The San Carlos bus station is located almost next to the wharf, so we strolled over there. Rather quiet – indeed, nowhere near the chaos and activity when we arrived on 12th April. Our destination was Juigalpa – we considered the boat trip plus an eight hour bus trip in one day to reach Granada out of the question. Therefore Juigalpa was a half way choice with a bus journey of four hours.

We were glad to have boarded the bus at the bus terminal – such tactics pretty well assure you of a seat. While we waited for the bus to depart, numerous vendors came on board with items for sale: underwear; a Claro representative selling recharges – Claro is a leading phone company here; cakes; biscuits; cold bottled drinks; electrical items such as battery packs to recharge your phone – I always wonder about these – who would buy one when they have not been pre-charged and ready to use? The most interesting was the ‘snake oil’ salesman selling pills and potential cures for everything under the sun – even with our limited Spanish we could pick out certain words….and besides, he was showing all his magic bottles.

Pretty much after the bus departed all new passengers had to stand in the aisle. It simply amazed me that men, young and old, did not stand for a woman carrying a small infant. I felt like screaming. This was not the case when travelling in Costa Rica. In Nicaragua, women, with, for example, three kids under the age of ten would stand. Their kids standing as well, holding onto arm rests or the backs of seats where possible. Bus decorum is vastly different in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, the bus slowly comes to a halt, people then stand up and exit the stationary bus carefully. New passengers alight. In Nicaragua, the bus will slow down to a very slow rolling speed, or stop. People jump off at either speed. New passengers generally alight when a bus is stationary, however I have seen people hop on a moving bus.

Above: typical crowded scene on a bus – people standing in the aisle.

About an hour into the trip a couple of women came on board – one carrying a small green plastic bucket with a lid, the other a cardboard box tied up with string. A young man was cuddling a very young puppy. We were sitting in about the middle of the bus, and when the woman carrying the green plastic bucket got close to me she removed the lid to reveal a baby Red-lored Parrot. I signalled for her to put the bucket on my lap – she did so willingly. The box was handed to John – it contained another parrot along with four extremely young hatchlings. The trip to Juigalpa was approximately 140 kilometres and John counted six police roadblocks. Whenever the bus stopped near a police checkpoint the box was covered with a jacket, and the lid was put back on the green plastic bucket. We wondered if they were carrying out some illegal activity – pretty ironical if it was. Two birdwatchers looking after contraband birds on a bus trip…destined possibly for a life in cages. Who knows….I had noticed another family with a young bird travelling in a cut down plastic two litre drink bottle. They got onto the bus at the same time – perhaps it was just a breeder in a certain location and people had bought birds, rather than birds taken from the wild. I certainly hope it was the former. After about two hours I considered the poor things could possibly appreciate a drink. I took the lid off my drinking bottle, carefully filled the lid, and gave both birds a good drink. Together they consumed about a third of a 375ml water bottle.

Above: young Red-lored Parrot.

Above: John’s package.

The bus drove through what one would consider extremely marginal farming land. For those of you familiar with the western areas of Victoria where scoria dominate the earth, this was ten times worse. It became apparent that the only cooking medium was wood. We saw extremely humble homes – some constructions were of sheet iron only.

We arrived in Juigalpa at 2pm – it was stinking hot so we walked to the first hotel we could find – Hotel Masagua – and booked in. (Guru Maps are a great resource). A$29 with air conditioning and an ensuite bathroom – nothing flash, but totally adequate for an overnighter.

The next day, 20 April, our destination was Granada. To reach Granada we caught a ‘chicken’ bus to Manuaga (capital of Nicaragua) at 6.30am in Juigalpa. The bus arrived at a Manuaga bus terminal on one side of town at 9.30am and we caught a taxi to the other side of town for the Granada leg. At 10am, when the minibus was full, this is how it works in Nicaragua, the minibus departed and we arrived in Granada at the Central Park at 11.15am.

Not knowing what to expect, we were astounded: beautiful grand pastel coloured buildings and a church surrounded the park. It reminded us of other grand South American cities such as Buenos Aires in Argentina or Santiago in Chile. Granada is a stunningly beautiful city. High painted walls, wrought iron security doors in front of beautiful wooden doors. When these doors are open they often reveal lush courtyards and interiors. I felt like Alice in Wonderland looking in briefly at these foreign vistas.

We had made contact with a hostel catering for the ‘maturer backpacker crowd’ that promised a quiet environment. They had closed not long after the April 2018 demonstrations when tourism plummeted. The owner now resides in Costa Rica, and he very kindly offered us his home, with swimming pool, for US$25 per night. The home was wonderful. Many of his employees had left the country as well. However, one remained, and he was our ‘liaison’ person. I will refer to him as Tom.

Above: the pool.

Tom told us he had been pulled over by the police one night last year when going to the supermarket. Displaying a Nicaraguan flag used to be a sign of pride, and Tom always had a flag on his motorbike handles. But since the demonstrations that commenced in April 2018, a flag is seen as a sign of rebellion. On that night, Tom had a flag on his motorbike. Police standard tactics are to check a person’s mobile phone for social media posts – any mention of anti Ortega content, demonstrations etc, and you are taken immediately to jail. Tom was imprisoned for three days and tortured during that time. We did not discuss the torture at length, but he indicated they smashed rifle butts on his fingers and some form of torture on his back. He was glad to be released after thee days but has no idea why they let him go. He has been traumatised by what he saw other prisoners experiencing, and so many still remain there to this day. He longs for a ‘normal life’ and a job. But doubts this will happen soon. He said if we were robbed – highly highly unlikely – we feel very safe here – and attempted to report this to police they would not bother to investigate. However, should we report we saw a person bearing a flag they would immediately jump into action. We asked Tom about health care. He said you can be seen by a doctor, but there is little or no medicine available.

I cannot speak on behalf of those affected by this political oppression. Tom’s story left me feeling teary, overwhelmed and depressed. My feelings are hollow and superfluous when compared to the ongoing daily trauma, frustration, hopelessness, and anxiety he, and others may feel. His employer, now in Costa Rica, (as I mentioned) implored me to communicate the current political conditions as he believes not enough people are aware of the current situation. The national paper, La Prensa, dedicated to the ‘service of truth and justice’ (issue 22 April 2029) had a headline on the front page titled ‘Political Repression over the Easter Week’. It reported further arrests and persecution of eighty people during Easter 2019. I have been checking The Guardian almost daily, but there are no reports of these events.

Above: La Prensa front page 22 April 2019.

Thinking about the current political events in Nicaragua and Sri Lanka led us to investigate the travel warnings by the governments of America and Australia. This is what they say, as at 25 April:

America:

Nicaragua: reconsider travel

Sri Lanka: high degree of caution

Australia:

Nicaragua: high degree of caution

Sri Lanka: reconsider your need to travel

As Westerners, we feel we are safer in Nicaragua than potentially in Sri Lanka. When travelling, there are always risks: potential pick pockets, minor crimes and theft. But Westerners in Nicaragua have never been targeted politically.

On that depressing note, it was extremely hot in Granada. We played ‘tourist’ in the mornings and retreated to the sanctuary of the pool and ceiling fans in living areas in the afternoons. We found the Granada streets to be almost deserted, except for the thriving ‘market street’. Numerous hostels and hotels were closed due to low tourist numbers. John aptly commented that Granada is like a museum. One morning when sitting at our favoured cafe having a fresh watermelon juice with a dash of orange juice – delicious – we were approached by a man selling beautiful hand made pottery. We figured he had probably not made many sales for a long time, so I am now the proud owner of two bowls that I will attempt to carry safely for the next two months.

We visited the Cultural Museum at the San Francisco Convent. A large interesting collection of Primitivist art, historical wicker rocking chairs, old wooden doors, a huge scale model of the city, numerous statues of Christ in various positions – always with blood, and a fantastic court yard.

Above: an example of Primitivist art.

Above: courtyard at the Cultural Museum at the San Francisco Convent.

Here are some photos taken around Granada:

Above: the famous Granada Cathedral that features in tourist advertising. Lake Nicaragua is in the background.

Above: street view of Granada Cathedral.

Above: buildings next to the city square.

Above: a ‘chicken bus’ in the busy market street.

Above: local housing. Note that the footpath has been swept, and in is the process of being washed.

There is a terrible mismatch regarding cleanliness, rubbish and the environment. Locals frequently sweep the path clean in front of their houses – see photo below – and rubbish is placed in plastic bags and left for the rubbish collection truck. I dare to say we saw rubbish trucks each morning. However, any stream bed or river is a filthy polluted mess of rubbish bags, plastic bottles and everything imaginable. I don’t understand how the streets can be so clean and the streams and rivers so polluted. It is though the collected rubbish is being poured into the streams, but I am sure that is not the case.

Above: more churches in the distance.

Above: another church.

Above: horses and carts are widely used.

Our next destination is Leon, known to be Nicaragua’s hottest city – temperature wise, that is.

El Castillo and Boca de Sabalos, Nicaragua, 14-19 April 2019

At San Carlos we walked to the wharf – 7.30am and the wharf waiting room was already full with people. A young boy was shining shoes – I was a little taken aback – we had not seen any children working like this in the far richer Costa Rica.

Above: young boy shining shoes.

We paid our fares and completed the form detailing our name, age, passport number, current location and destination. The ticket seller indicated to us to walk over to the boat departure area – we wondered why all the people in the seating area remained seated. We stopped at the armed guard and advised our destination – he indicated to us to proceed. Sometimes, when travelling, we feel as though everyone else knows what is going on except us. The last thing we want to do is to appear like privileged Westerners taking advantage and priority. We walked towards more armed guards figuring this is where the boats may depart. A boat docked and armed guards were checking bags. Yes….this was the departure area as well. Once again, our passports were required and more forms were completed. Ah! Maybe this is why the ticket seller indicated for us to proceed – more paperwork for Westerners. People commenced lining up behind us, and two empty boats pulled into the wharf. We boarded, and off we went at 8am. A clipboard was handed around on the boat – once again, we, and everyone on the boat, completed the form with all the details mentioned above. I can only guess every official destination requires a form for the army-immigration office.

Above: map detailing our trip from San Carlos to El Castillo (in red) along the San Juan River. The green line details our camping trip with Juan Ardilla.

The San Juan River is approximately 200 kilometres long commencing in San Carlos at Lake Nicaragua and travels east, ending at Greytown on the Caribbean coast. We had expected thick jungle all the way. Wrong. Large areas along the banks are devoted to farming and individual homes as well as villages. The boat trip was just over two hours dropping off and picking up people along the way. Sometimes people disembarked and there were no villages or houses to be seen. At some small villages women were washing clothes in the river, children were swimming. One little boy had home-made ‘floaties’ constructed with plastic Coca-cola bottles, the identifiable logo still visible.

We arrived in El Castillo and immigration once again recorded our details. El Castillo is a very small town with no cars or motor bikes. The main street is a stone’s throw from the waterfront with shops, homes and the odd hostel or hotel scattered amongst them. Smaller streets lead up the hill and into the ‘suburbs’ of El Castillo. Having not booked any accommodation we walked to one end of the town and commenced making inquiries. (We had of course looked online and had a list of preferred options). We commenced with Hotel Lara’s Planet. An unkempt pathway led to the reception area. We were greeted by a rather eccentric woman speaking English with a strong American accent. We asked if she had any rooms available.

She said ‘Well, how much do you want to pay? People tell me my rooms are very expensive’.

Us: ‘How much are your rooms?’

Her: ‘US$65 per night’.

Us: ‘Yes, that is above our budget…’ She did not offer to negotiate.

We walked the length of town rejecting rooms that were too small and pokey with no air flow or fan. And just when I was becoming too hot and frustrated and about to give up we came to Hotel Victoria. Huge attractive rooms, many with air conditioning. When they asked for US$60 and we hesitated and the price immediately dropped to US$50 – we were very pleased.

We settled in, and then visited Juan Ardilla to organise our camping trip to Reserva Biologica Indio Maiz. (For convenience, I will now refer to this reserve simply as Indio Maiz). Wikipedia states Indio Maiz is a protected area covering approximately 4,500 square kilometres in Nicaragua. It was established in the 1990’s. We had walked past Juan’s home when looking for accomodation and spoken briefly with him about the trip – he advised he required notice of approximately a day or so to organise permits and provisions etc.

Later that afternoon we relaxed on the wide deck at Hotel Victoria. The constant breeze was delightful. Below us two cows and a bull were tethered under trees by the water. Men were standing around. To our amazement, two men in a canoe motored across from the other side of the river. The men handed the long rope attached to one of the cows to the men in the canoe. They fired up the motor, and lead the cow into the river. It initially walked willingly into the water, but then of course the water became much deeper. Suddenly a dog appeared from nowhere and raced into the water to hassle the cow. The men pushed the dog away from the cow, and held the cow closely beside the boat so it’s head was supported out of the water as they motored across the river. A bit like a life saver….The dog tried to swim back to shore, but the swirling water of the rapids was making the task impossible. We watched in horror thinking the dog would drown. No one on our side of the shore was paying any attention to the dog. They were focused on the huge bull who was causing a little bit of trouble – he obviously did not like being tethered near the river. I was becoming increasingly agitated. Just when I was about to race downstairs and ask the hotel staff to intervene the boat journeyed back to collect another cow. People highlighted the struggling dog to them, and they motored out and fished the dog out of the water. A huge sigh of relief…

Above: the wonderful wide deck at Hotel Victoria. Afternoon breezes were always guaranteed.

The Spanish built an impressive fort above the town in the 1500s and for years the rapids kept other invaders, including the British, at bay. The following morning we decided to visit the fort early hoping for some good morning light for photos of the fort and town, however it is only open between 8am to 4pm.

Above: the fort. It has an on-site museum.

Above: looking down onto El Castillo township and the San Juan River from the fort.

As it was about 6.30am we continued on and wandered through the town – locals were already up and about. The housing is generally wooden and humble. We kept walking out of town and passed through agricultural areas – some farms had signs of sponsorship from European countries. The road ended at a dairy farm and a couple of men were letting their cows out of the holding pens. To our surprise, the younger man, at a guess in his forties, spoke a spattering of English. With our spattering of Spanish we had an enjoyable exchange. We told him we were looking at birds, communicated our nationality, and he told us his father was 62 years old. We told them how old we were, and admired his cows – all very lighthearted, but friendly and enjoyable. I have a small stuffed kangaroo attached to my handbag, and one also attached to my backpack. Well worth the A$2 I paid for each of them. People assume we are either American, German or Canadian – at least now I can show them the kangaroo – it has caused some outrageous laughter on a few occasions. ‘Ah! Cangaru!’

Horses and donkeys are the mode of transport here. Old traditions combine with new – a young man on horseback rode past us – headphones connected to his phone. Rubbish collection is courtesy of horse and cart.

Above: rubbish collection

Above: El Castillo housing.

Above: another local home.

I mentioned above we had visited Juan to organise the camping trip to Indio Maiz. We warmed to him immediately as he took the time to explain various options – we found him to be honest and trustworthy. He was very thorough in discussing options for an overnight trip. One option was to camp by the river and sleep in hammocks or on a mattress on the river bank – he recommending we did not take that option as we would not get any sleep in the hammocks (as we were not experienced with hammocks). We agreed…The second option was to stay overnight at the base camp where there was a tent in a bungalow – well, that’s what we understood. All meals would be provided etc etc. We settled on the second option.

On the morning of our 6am departure the wonderful Hotel Victoria staff cooked breakfast for us around 5.30am. We had packed our backpacks with a few essentials for the trip, and gave them our luggage to store until we returned. Juan turned up right on 6am with the canoe, just as he had said when we made all the arrangements.

Above: early morning with Juan on the San Juan River.

Juan paddled us downriver along one side of the wide San Juan River for three hours to Indio Maiz headquarters. We saw various kingfishers and herons, jacanas, Howler monkeys, a turtle, Green Basilisk lizards, other ‘Jesus Christ’ lizards – thus called as they can run across water. At one stage Juan paddled us along a small tributary for approximately fifteen minutes – Juan said in the wet season he could paddle along that tributary for an hour. Such was the difference in water levels between wet and dry seasons.

We reached the Indio Maiz headquarters and paperwork was exchanged. Four or five military police were standing around on the wharf. (Guru maps indicates a military police headquarters at this junction). Juan then paddled the canoe along the smaller Bartola River – it was a sublime tranquil experience. The only sounds were Juan’s paddle dipping in and out of the water, the breeze overhead, the call of birds. I delighted in the ever changing reflections in the water. Combinations of browns, deep deep greens, bright limes, and blue from the sky.

At 9.30 we clambered out of the canoe to commence a walk in Indio Maiz. I commented to Juan that he must be tired – he had been paddling us since 6am. He replied in the negative, saying all locals use boats or canoes and it is just part of life in this region. He went on to explain how he knew this region so well. ‘Like the back of my hand’ were his actual words. He was born in El Castillo and at the age of thirteen he commenced working on boats that travelled the entire length of San Juan River. By the age of eighteen he was a captain. And knew every tributary of the river.

Above: our tour guide Juan Ardilla. Contact him via FaceBook: Juan Alberto Aruilar Gomez. He does not have a web page.

We walked for three hours along a heavily vegetated jungle circular trail – all of a sudden, some bats flew out from under a large leaf. The bats actually cut a line across a large palm leaf to create an angular shelter. Juan picked some leaves from a plant and suggested we chew the stem – our lips went mildly numb. Indigenous people would boil these leaves and stems to make an anaesthetic liquid for women to consume during child birth. Poisonous Dart Frogs were abundant. Two species: the beautiful green and black species, and the ‘Blue Jeans’ species. The latter also known as ‘Strawberry’ poisonous dart frog. Juan explained he could touch anything in the jungle, but not poisonous dart frogs. Once, a frog jumped onto him. Some poison transferred onto Juan’s skin, and he instantly felt giddy and a little nauseous. If the poison enters your body, via a cut for instance, you are likely to die.

Above: ‘Blue Jeans’ poisonous dart frog, also known as ‘Strawberry’ dart frog.

Above: green and black Poisonous Dart Frog.

It was remarkably quiet bird wise. However, we did see some Great Green Macaws. The bird highlight was a male and female Spotted Antbird – too difficult to photograph in the thick undergrowth. Further along we were delighted to see a Nunbird.

Above: male Spotted Antbird – courtesy of Merlin App.

We returned to the canoe and Juan paddled us upstream stopping at a small sandy bend in the river. This entire section of the Bartola River was a ‘kingfisher highway’. We constantly saw Kingfishers land near us or ahead of us – flashes of bright turquoise contrasting against the greens and browns of the river and vegetation. It was time for lunch, so Juan lit a fire and cooked us fish wrapped in foil. Cold coconuts from the esky were a delightful drink. At 2pm a couple of young men appeared from somewhere upstream. We were a little surprised when Juan indicated for us to hop into their canoe and head upstream with them. We had assumed Juan would be with us for the entire journey – obviously something had been lost in the translation. We were heading to base camp.

These two young men used poles to steer the canoe through at times extremely low water levels – the water so low the canoe’s hull would scrap against the rocks. It was extremely hard going for them when we had to traverse rapids. At one stage we hopped out and walked a larger section of rapids. The canoe was extremely old and leaked constantly – I acted as chief baler for the entire one and a half hour journey. It was a constant job to remove water. John thought the canoe could have been repaired with lots and lots of silicon. I thought it should have been decommissioned.

Above: river scene on the way to ‘base camp’.

We had reached the base camp – the ‘Sol y Luna’ (Sun and Moon) cooperative community. We walked up a very steep hill. Imagine our surprise – a tent set up on a wooden platform with a a thatched roof. Our bed was made up with sheets and pillows, and two white towels were on display. Two showers, two pit toilets, and a small kitchen with an attached dining area. We were not expecting this….Catalino came and introduced himself to us – our English speaking guide during our stay. He advised 23 families lived spread out over the land, with a total of 170 people. We would have liked to learn more about the community, but the opportunity unfortunately did not arise.

Above: our tent at ‘Sol y Luna’ cooperative.

A river night tour after dinner – fireflies, bats, and numerous frogs were seen. The canoe was extremely shallow – we were actually really tense as both of us felt we could topple out very quickly. Nothing adverse happened of course, as these experienced people spend their lives in and out of canoes and have such an incredibly toned sense of balance. We were asleep by 8pm – exhausted after an extremely exciting day.

We slept in until 5.05am – breakfast was ready at 5.30am. Pancakes, fruit and freshly brewed coffee. A bird watching walk with Catalino, and a chocolate making demonstration – the cocoa beans were cooked over an open fire, the skins removed, then the beans put through a grinder. The ground beans were then cooked to a thick paste with fresh unpasteurised milk and a small amount of sugar. Very rich….Catalino advised the cows were used to make milk, cream and cheese for the community. They grew rice , corn and other vegetables. Chickens provided meat and eggs. Fish from the river. There were only a few pigs as they tended to cause too much damage in the cropping areas. The only strictly rationed items were the cocoa beans.

Above: roasting the cocoa beans prior to grinding.

Above: grinding the cocoa beans

After a bit of confusion regarding arrangements we stayed for lunch. We sat under a shelter and bird watched in comfort. At least six Great Green Macaws flew past, and we saw quite a few Scarlet Macaws as well. We heard them frequently. We were then ‘poled’ down the river, this time in a non-leaky canoe to meet Juan. By the time we returned to El Castillo, right on 4pm, just as Juan had initially discussed, we had seen all the kingfisher species in Nicaragua on that trip: Ringed Kingfisher, Belted Kingfisher, Amazon Kingfisher, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, and Green-and-rufous Kingfisher.

The thoughtful staff at Hotel Victoria had put our bags in our room. Everything ‘El Castillo’ had been a wonderful experience.

On Easter Thursday morning (18 April) we took the boat to Boca de Sabalos – about half the way towards San Carlos. We always knew we would need to ‘hunker down’ somewhere during the Easter period, so this was a solution for a couple of nights. Besides, I liked the look of a hotel jutting out over the river on poles. When boats travel past the hotel, waves wash under the poles of the hotel – it is like living on a wharf….Easter has been busy here with lots of loud music (!) from a residence on the other side of the river opposite the hotel. Thankfully they turn it down around 8pm (!) Boca de Sabalos is a small town in transition – we have seen a water skier, and can imagine in a few years it may be altered terribly with jet skies etc. There was no evidence of such behaviour at El Castillo.

Above: John in the dining area at Hotel Sabalos.

Our next destination is Granada.

San Carlos, Nicaragua, 12-13 April 2019.

We waved goodbye to Renato and Orejas – his delightful dog, and caught the 6am bus from Cano Negro to Los Chiles. The air was heavy with moisture.

Above: morning landscape leaving Cano Negro.

Then a taxi to the border town Las Tablillas, a distance of six kilometres, arriving around 7.30am.

Note to anyone who plans to do this crossing:

The Lonely Planet guide (Costa Rica 13th edition October 2018) states:

1. immigration is open 8-4pm.

2. you can only pay by credit card.

The above information is incorrect.

Immigration is open at 7am and we saw no evidence of credit card machines – however they may have been out of sight. We paid C5,000 per person to exit Costa Rica.

All quite straight forward really, when you know what is going on.

We walked over to the Nicaraguan immigration and paid US$12 per person to enter the country. Already we witnessed a lack of infrastructure in Nicaragua compared to Costa Rica – the two immigration officials shared one carbon copy receipt book!

Once clear, there was a short walk to a waiting mini van. It departed for San Carlos when the van was full – US$5 for two people.

Above: red line indicates our journey from Cano Negro, Costa Rica, to San Carlos, Nicaragua. Yellow line is the border.

For what ever reason, I always seem to become a little ‘unsettled’ when moving to a new destination. Once there and settled in, I am fine. However we had spoken with other travellers about Nicaragua, and in particular an expat (ex-Zimbabwe and the UK) now residing in Costa Rica. He told us he hated Nicaragua – far too dangerous and starving animals everywhere. Of course, this was his experience going back five or six years ago. Add that to the general warnings in the Lonely Planet…and the social unrest in 2018. Sometimes I can make a few shadows seem larger than life.

Our mini van arrived at the San Carlos bus terminal – a dusty square surrounded by shops. It was hot….’Chicken buses’, vans, and people were everywhere. Being located right next to the market, and about 9.30am, it was extremely busy. I had glimpsed open air butcher shops with meat hanging on hooks – a world away from Costa Rica. A bit of a shock…I immediately drew parallels with India: the chaos, but without the overlays of caste, the smell of sewerage, the beggars, and religious people. Street hawkers draped numerous belts over their shoulders and wore other articles for sale around their waists. Other vendors carried boards of sun glasses for sale. My emotions were on ‘high alert’ as The Lonely Planet warns you to be extra vigilant around bus stations. No hassles…

Above: butcher shop.

Above: street hawkers.

We walked to our hotel – Hotel Grand Lago – I had make a booking through one of those online booking agencies. However, there was not much choice…When we arrived I managed to say in my best Spanish that we had a booking – she seemed a little surprised and I noted no computer at the front entrance cum reception – just a desk with a few books etc. We were shown a very nice room and I was a little surprised that the price was half that quoted by the online agency. I was pleased though – US$40 for the first night, and US$35 for the second night as no breakfast would be supplied on the Sunday – fine by us. The air conditioning was an absolute delight. (I later discovered I had booked a Hotel Grand Lago somewhere else in Nicaragua – thank heavens there was no upfront credit card payment!) As it turns out, when I paid the owner he charged us even less – US$35 and US$30….

There were two pressing issues. First, and very importantly, we needed some local currency – cordobas. Second, we required a sim card. Using Guru maps we located an ATM in front of a bank a couple of streets away from our hotel. It did not accept Mastercard. The security guard scanned everyone entering the bank. There were three tellers – one assisted people perhaps conducting ‘small’ transactions. The other two tellers were assisting people requiring ‘larger’ amounts of cash. It was like in the movies – people were putting blocks of notes into brown paper bags or their backpacks. I was astounded. What is going on in this country? Finally, my turn. No, they had no provision for Mastercard withdrawals and we were told to go to a Banpro ATM. Found the ATM – not working and had a canoe stored inside it! We were feeling rather despondent. We were rescued by a delightful young man speaking English who worked in a hostel opposite the closed ATM – his young sister had seen we were ‘stressed’ and told him to help us. How wonderful! He gave us directions to the Banpro bank and ATM, (5a Avenida Este, past the dock and market) and we withdrew as much cash as possible. (The following morning there was no cash in the ATM).

The Claro sim card process was much easier, albeit it took a fair while as we had to wait three quarters of an hour for the cashier to arrive. Together, the young sales assistant, and John and myself used a combination of limited English, limited Spanish and good old Google translate to achieve and activate the purchase.

From the balcony outside our upstairs room at Hotel Grand Lago we looked onto tall trees and the marshy shore fringing Lake Nicaragua, also known as Lake Cocibolca or Lake Granada. Small boats were moored in front of the hotel. Numerous bird species frequented the close by tall trees and swampy shore. It is a freshwater lake covering 8,264 square kilometres, and is the largest in Central America. It is the 19th largest in the world. With the high humidity the aluminium coloured skies often merged with the lake horizon; afternoon vistas were beautiful.

Above: early morning aluminium sky and horizon.

Above: Hotel Grand Lago foreshore – late afternoon sky.

Above: Purple Gallinule near Hotel Grand Lago.

We quickly discovered that the chaos only existed near the bus terminal and market – streets were mostly almost deserted. This was a very pleasant difference to the often constant traffic and noisy motor bikes in Costa Rica. Humble houses are built slap bang next to one another – their doors and windows facing directly onto the footpath, if the footpath exists at all. Wrought iron security grills are obvious, but we noted no razor wire – the latter frequently seen in Costa Rica. As you walk past you look directly into their interiors – rocking chairs are popular here. The sense of privacy is very different compared to our 2.4 brick wall built by our neighbours in Northcote.

Above: busy street

Above: another busy street.

Above: hand cart.

We dined at Restaurant Kaoma a few times – an open upstairs restaurant catching the breeze and good views of the lake. Great food. Undoubtedly the most expensive restaurant in town, but we wanted a break from ‘soda’ type eateries. On the Saturday evening we ate ‘late’, departing around 7.30 – late for us. The plaza in front of the restaurant was in full swing with music and people and children line dancing. As we exited the restaurant a ute drove past with at least six men in the open back section. It pulled up abruptly ahead of us. The men jumped out quickly – they were wearing black uniforms and balaclavas, and carrying automatic rifles. Possibly ‘political police’? They seemed to be on a mission and quickly walked to the edge of the lake. I felt a cold shudder go through my body. We have been told to leave the country quickly should an unrest break out.

There has been political unrest recently in Nicaragua. Wikipedia states:

The 2018–2019 Nicaraguan protests began on 18 April 2018 when demonstrators in several cities of Nicaragua began protests against the social security reforms decreed by President Daniel Ortega that increased taxes and decreased benefits. The total number of deaths are 309.

Above: lake foreshore near plaza and Restaurant Kaoma.

Our next destination is El Castillo.

Caño Negro, Costa Rica, 9-11 April 2019

Getting there:

We understood the transport booked by our hostel would collect us at 8am, so we were sitting in front of Pension Santa Elena well before 8am.

At 8.30am the young man on reception asked us where we were going – he had not worked on reception during our stay, so was unfamiliar with our plans. We told him La Fortuna. Did we have a booked ticket from reception? No….however I said we had inquired with reception staff on three occasions if our transfer was booked. We were always reassured everything was under control. He said ‘I will fix it’. And commenced making some phone calls.

8.35am: a taxi arrived, courtesy of Pension Santa Elena and we drove along winding, potholed dusty roads to the jeep transfer station.

9.10am: we departed in a jeep immediately. Of course, we were incredibly worried that we were holding up the boat and inconveniencing other tourists.

9.45am: arrived at Laguna de Arenal. To our surprise, tourists were standing by the waters edge waiting for the boat.

10.15am: our boat departed for the La Fortuna side of Laguna de Arenal. We had impressive views of the Arenal Volcano looming in the distance.

Above: crossing Lake Arenal.

Above: Arenal Volcano in the distance.

During this leg of the trip the captain told me about the 1968 eruption. Prior to the eruption the lake did not exist – a river ran through the valley. On the morning of the eruption people in the town of Arenal thought they heard helicopters overhead, and remained in their homes – it was the sound of Volcano Arenal erupting. Forty-two people in the Arenal township were killed. After the eruption, the river was dammed and a lake created. The Arenal township lies at the bottom of the lake where we boarded the boat.

The following information is from arenalobserveratorylodge.com:

At roughly 7:30 a.m. on Monday July 29, 1968 – after having lain relatively dormant for over 400 years – Arenal Volcano erupted with violence and fury. Extreme eruptions and volcanic activity continued for several days, killing some 87 people and burying over 15 square kilometers in rock, lava and ash. The eruptions affected a total of over 232 square kilometers in the surrounding area to varying degrees, with damage to crops, property, livestock and forests.

At the height of its activity this La Fortuna volcano was spewing out massive amounts of lava and ash and tossing giant rocks for distances of up to a mile at speeds of some 600 meters per second.

The explosions formed three new active craters.

Since that time, Arenal Volcano has maintained nearly constant activity ranging from soundless explosions with large mushroom-shaped clouds of ash overhead to booming explosions sending hot rocks nearly a kilometer into the air to pyroclastic explosions highlighted by rushing gases and flowing lava pouring down the side of the volcano. For visitors to Costa Rica, volcano viewing is the most promising at Arenal – no other volcano has been this consistently active.

Arenal Volcano rises to approximately 1633 meters at its summit, although the exact summit height changes frequently due to the volcanic activity.

11am: the boat landed on the La Fortuna side of the lake – tourist vans were waiting to transport everyone to their hostels etc. Extremely efficient, as we have discovered in Costa Rica – our mishap mentioned above has been the only non-efficient experience.

11.30am: arrived at the La Fortuna bus station

12.15pm: bus departed for Cuidad Quesada

1.45pm: arrived Cuidad Quesada bus station

Five minutes later a bus bearing the sign Los Chiles pulled into the bus station

2.00pm: departed Cuidad Quesada for Los Chiles

It was hot, no air conditioning, but at least the windows opened so we had a good breeze when the bus was moving. Unfortunately we sat on the sunny side, so there was little respite from the heat, except for the breeze.

4.30pm: arrived Los Chiles.

A five minute walk took us to Hotel Carolina – I was delighted with the air conditioning in our room. Some days bus connections work just brilliantly!

Above: map detailing our journey. Red indicates the journey from Santa Elena to Los Chiles on 8 April; blue indicates our trip from Los Chiles to Caño Negro on 9 April. The faint grey line above Los Chiles is the Nicaraguan border. (Quesada on the map is actually Cuidad Quesada).

On 9 April we caught the bus from the Los Chiles bus station to Caño Negro, a distance of 26 kilometres. We understood the bus departed at 12 noon, however for some reason it departed at 12.30pm. The bus headed south along the highway towards Cuidad Quesada, then turned onto a rough gravel road. Approximately one hour later we were we in Caño Negro.

We booked an Airb&b residence called ‘Caño Negro Experience’ and had a delightful three nights staying with Renato – Tatiana (his partner) was working elsewhere at the time. We find it a little nerve wracking to book a room in someone’s house – Renato, having an extremely friendly relaxed disposition made us feel immediately at home. I fell in love with Orejas, their dog. Orejas means ears in Spanish, and Orejas had long beagle like ears and an outward friendly disposition. Not a mean streak to be seen. We heard Howler Monkeys every morning around 5am.

Above: Howler Monkey.

Above: Caño Negro experience.

Renato, with a background in ecotourism, was working as a park ranger in Caño Negro. Along came Tatiana, originally from Bolivia, to develop her Master’s thesis in biology. They fell in love, and in love with everything Cano Negro. Their relationship has resulted in buying a house in Caño Negro, renovating it, and creating a business called ‘Caño Negro Experience’ offering a variety of tours. Their home is a typical ‘Tico’ home with iron roofing material nailed to the roofing beams – this creates an exceptionally hot environment at certain times of the day. (Thank heavens for the fan!) Renato said he would like to line the roof eventually – makes great sense. But it is certainly very typical of houses we have seen in Costa Rica. The front of the home has a lovely sitting area enclosed by cyclone wire with passion fruit vines winding their tendrils through the wire. Hummingbirds would flit in through the wire holes and sit on the tendrils. A large shuttered window opened so one could sit on stools and look into the garden – great birdwatching. Some windows had simple wooden shutters, and would remain open during the day – on the odd occasion birds would simply fly through the house! Simply delightful.

Above: Birdwatching from the front of the home.

As relative newcomers to a small village with many established traditions and ways of life, it is always going to be a challenge to show locals the benefits of ecotourism and protection of the wonderful environment they reside in. Renato’s love of this region and everything special that goes with it sees him working in an exceptionally outgoing friendly manner with locals, greeting those he knows, and those he does not know. The word traditions reminds me to mention that men often rode their horses through town – clip clop, clip clop, clip clop.

Above: horse and rider.

We opted to do a walking bird watching tour with Renato on two mornings rather than a boat tour. (Unfortunately I was not well on the second morning, nothing serious, and remained at home with Orejas). 120 bird species were seen over the two days. Some highlights included: Jabiru; Roseate Spoonbill; Yellow-throated Euphonia; Northern-crested Caracara; Nicaraguan Grackle; Northern Jacanas – we have never seen this many Jacanas in one area; and a Slaty-tailed Trogon – sitting on electricity cables in front of the house. Honestly, there are too many species to list here!

Above: Roseate Spoonbill.

Above: Caimen.

Renato knows this region like the back of his hand and on the first day took us to see some lagoons and forest areas. Why is this region so special? Well, it was RAMSAR listed in 1991 and covers 6,506 hectares with wetlands, forests and grasslands. Caño Negro is a ‘protected area’ that allows for a mixed use policy – this means farmers can graze their cows and horses on the large flood plains that have become grasslands in the dry season. The wet season commences sometime in May, and lasts roughly until December. Renato said when the rains commence you see daily changes in the landscape, and it is magical. The rain mostly occurs late afternoon and overnight, and tourists visit all throughout the year. Renato is able to access private properties not inundated with water during the wet season. 315 bird species, 160 mammal species, 49 fish species, and 310 plant species have been recorded.

Above: dry season: boat in the foreground – note the wooden jetty behind the boat.

On the first morning walk there was a heart warming incident along the way. The Frio River still had plenty of water, however the lagoons had varying water levels. Lagoon edges were very boggy. We can across a cow that had become bogged in the mud. A couple of farmers had tied a rope around its neck and were trying to drag the poor cow out of the mud. (A side story here is a number of years ago I became bogged in mud at Broome Bird Observatory, Western Australia, while collecting mud samples, so I could understand the cow’s stress and exhaustion). The rope around the neck did not work, so they tied the cow’s back legs together, then all of them pulled on both ropes. It worked! A girl came running with a large  bucket, they filled it with water and allowed the cow to drink. They collected more water and washed all the mud off the cow’s hide. A group of other cowes came over to inspect the action. All of a sudden the cow stood up, walked a few paces, albeit with a slight limp, and began to eat some grass. What a relief for all involved. I hope the limp was temporary. And such a wonderful communal effort to rescue the cow. I have inserted below some photos taken while the cow was being rescued.

Above: cow resting while rescuers provided drinking water.

Above: cow eating grass with curious fellow cows looking on.

We also saw three tourist boats in the river – a man was attempting to lasso a caiman using a rope – certainly not a practice that should be accepted. Renato indicated to the man to put the rope away, and this he did.

I have been forgetting to mention that the Clay-colured Thrush is Costa Rica’s national bird. A few days after we arrived I heard a kitten mewing – I went searching, but no kitten. It just so happens the Clay-coloured Thrush sounds very much like a kitten crying for its mother.

On Friday 12 April we bid Renato and Orejas farewell and caught the 6am bus to Los Chiles, then a taxi to the Costa Rica-Nicaraguan border.

Hummingbirds at Monteverde, Costa Rica, April 2019

A selection of hummingbird photos – all the photos were taken at the bakery-cafe opposite Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve where there were abundant feeders.

Hummingbird identification is extremely tricky as males and females can look totally different. Adding to the confusion is the variety of species, and the below list is just in Costa Rica:

Jacobins, Sicklebills, Hermits, Barbthroats, Lancebills, Violetears, Fairies, Mangos, Thorntails, Coquettes, Brilliants, Hummingbirds, Starthroats, Mountaingems, Woodstars, Emeralds, Sabrewings, Plumeleters, Woodlymphs, Snowcaps, and Goldentails.

Mexico and Central America have 109 birds in the Hummingbird family.

Identification made much easier by using the Merlin app. The app can take a photo of your photo and identify it! Simply brilliant!

Above: Green-crowned Brilliant – male

Above: Coppery-headed Emerald – female

Above: Purple-throated Mountaingem – male

Above: Lesser Violetear – sexes similiar

Above: Violet Sabrewing – male.

Above: right: Purple-throated Mountaingem – female.

Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica, 1-7 April, 2019

Getting there: it was another three bus day.

After a wonderful breakfast at Posada Andrea Christina – scrambled eggs, home-made bread, fresh fruit juice, great brewed coffee, fresh fruit, and more – we caught the 8am bus from Puerto Viejo Sarapiqu to San Jose. A little while out of Puerto Viejo Sarapiqu the bus suddenly came to a stop. No traffic in front of us. Not a bus stop. John always sits on the window side – I prefer the aisle side. I asked if he could see what was going on. Yes, the driver has stopped to ensure a turtle did not get run over. It made it safely onto the verge.

There is a term used widely in Costa Rica – ‘Pura Vida’. We have been hearing it for weeks now and I had loosely translated it to a life lived well caring for others and the environment. That said, I thought I should do a google search to validate my thoughts. The following statements are from costrarica.org:

‘Costa Rican people tend to be much more relaxed and worry free’. Pura Vida means ‘simple life or pure life’…’and it’s a simple appreciation of life and the realisation that life is what you make of it’…I could spend hours googling life, health, happiness and poverty indices to validate my thoughts but I will leave that to another time.

John and I certainly have found the ‘Ticos’ as they are locally known, to be extremely friendly – I have commented on this in previous blogs. Even truck drivers wave at us – definitely a friendly wave, even when walking along the footpath.

So, the turtle made it safely across the road. We arrived in San Jose at 10.25am – the journey was supposedly two hours, but once again road works and San Jose traffic madness added an extra twenty-five minutes. We grabbed our bags from the stowage area and two minutes later we were in a taxi heading across town to another bus station.

Ticket buying is a very orderly affair with everyone taking their turn and forming a queue – just as you would expect. No pushing in, no unacceptable behaviour. I am now proficient in asking for ‘two tickets to Santa Elena’ for example. A far cry from our first trip to South America when we wrote down our destination and stumbled along.

At 11.15am, on the dot, our bus departed from San Jose for Punta Arenas. An extremely comfortable bus, but no air conditioning. This time we were heading north-west and the scenery was the complete opposite of the dense, moisture laden green jungle we had been in on the east side of the country. Dry, dry, dry with a mixture of bare trees and trees with leaves, and layers of brown dried leaves on the ground. The heat was dry and at times the breeze coming into the bus felt like opening the oven door.

We knew this was going to potentially be a very tight schedule as the bus from Punta Arenas departed at 1.15pm. Any roads works and delays would have meant staying there the night. It was a very unappealing spread out town from what we saw of it. Situated on a long narrow isthmus, the narrowest part was approximately 60 metres.

We arrived at 1.05pm, grabbed our bags, and walked over the road to a bus stop next to the beach. The bus was standing there, and already people were onboard. The driver could only fit John’s bag in the stowage area. The driver opened the wheelchair access door, and shoved my bag under the feet of a tourist with a surfboard and large backpack. In front of him was a washing machine in a box. I don’t think our fellow tourist was impressed as it meant he could not sit comfortably due my bag taking up his ‘feet room’.

We arrived in Santa Elena around 4.15pm – along the way the bus had to climb some steep ascents. At one stage the bus stopped and slide backwards a few meters – I thought the driver was going to ask us all to walk up the incline. But no, he managed to inch the bus up the hill. Very, very slowly in the lowest gear. It was a relief to finally arrive.

That all said, the three bus day was necessary as the alternative was returning to San Jose and staying overnight. There are two buses daily from San Jose – one departs at 5.30am – a tad inconvenient; the other at 2.30pm – also inconvenient due to accommodation check out times and given it is an approximate three hour journey. All travelling arrangements are due to John’s diligent internet research and use of the local timetables.

Above: map of Costa Rica showing the Monteverde region. Santa Elena is right next to Monteverde but not shown.

The township of Santa Elena is located in the famous area of Monteverde – the home of remarkable cloud forests. Situated at the peak of the continental divide, warm humid trade winds sweep up from the Caribbean and over the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The air then cools and condenses into clouds – a continuous mist that settle over the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. This is “billy-goat’ country – you would become extremely fit living here walking around the steep hills. Every so often we would see an extremely fine mist in the air, almost like fine clear dust particles if any such thing existed. One moment they were there, and then they were gone.

Quakers have an association with Monteverde.

The following information is from quakersintheworld.org:

The small Quaker community in Costa Rica was founded in 1951 by a group of eleven Quaker families from Alabama. Four young Friends had recently been jailed for refusing to serve in the Korean War and the families were seeking somewhere they could live in peace.

Hubert Mendenhall travelled overland by truck from the US, looking for suitable land for the group to settle, eventually arriving in Costa Rica.  The country had just abolished its army and the government was encouraging foreigners to come and develop the land. Once Mendenhall found Monteverde in the centre of the country, which was then accessible only by ox cart, he knew he had found what they were looking for.

The families purchased 1500 hectares of land, which was divided between the families. Each family then built their own house, with the community holding “house raising bees” to set the foundations and raise the heavy frames’…’However, the community also made the far-sighted decision to set aside an area on the mountain slopes as virgin cloud forest – high altitude forest cooled by moist air from the Pacific.  In the early 1970s, when scientist George Powell began buying up land to prevent forest clearance, this land became the kernel of the newly established the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, now an international model for conservation. Wolf Guindon, one of the original Quaker settlers, was among the leaders of these pioneering conservation efforts’.

We visited three reserves during our one week stay: the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and the Curi Cancha Reserve. All three reserves are different environmentally due to their locations and elevations, and influence of the trade winds. Prior to our visit I imagined they would all look the same – how wrong!

Weather. John says I only comment about the weather when it is stinking hot and I’m not ‘coping’ – fair enough. So, that said, here is my official comment: the weather here has been a wonderful period of respite. Cool enough to use a blanket at night – heaven!

We took the 6.30 am bus up to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Admission price: A$20 each. The reserve covers 765 acres and the elevation is generally 1600 metres. It is a communal project managed by the administrative board of the Santa Elena Technical High School since 1992. Strong winds swept overhead and the tallest trees swayed back and forth – the wind sounded like waves rolling onto a shore in the far distance. It is like an enchanted forest. Here all the trees are heavily draped with lichens and mosses. Epiphytes and bryophytes line the branches. Tree ferns, vines and mosses add to the overwhelming shades of green upon green. A visual and sensory experience.

Above: a ‘window’ into the forest at Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.

The excellent walking trails were constructed of concrete, brick or gravel.

Above: trail at Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.

It was extremely quiet bird wise – we did not hear birds calling until later in the morning. A sudden swoosh through the trees and two Black Guans landed almost above us. These large black birds have turquoise-purple bills.

Above: Black Guan.

Later in the afternoon I watched some videos in the cinema room. It was heartening to learn they have set up motion sensor cameras and amongst numerous mammals, have recorded five felines – amongst them jaguars, pumas and jaguarundis. Alas, I have no photos to show you, but it is wonderful to know these animals are protected here and hopefully safe from poachers.

Above: fungi – Coprinellus disseminatus – thank you for the information Kush!

We caught the 6.15 am bus to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, arriving around 6.45am. The admission price is A$31 each, and the entrance opened at 7am, which we thought was a bit late….the reserve is located south-east of the Santa Elena township and is not as heavily ‘draped’ in lichens as was Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. It promised sightings of the Resplendent Quetzal, however we were not holding our breath, having not seen them at Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. We walked for hours, and when eating our brunch around 11am began chatting with a fellow tourist. Had she seen a Quetzal? ‘Oh yes, it’s easy!’ she replied, and gave us instructions on where to see it.

We followed the trail she mentioned, then all of a sudden we came across two security guards! Two! Crowd control as a pair of Resplendent Quetzals had chosen a tree right next to the trail to nest in. The hole was only two to three metres from the ground. We took numerous photos, none of which are extremely good. John reckons we will see heaps more in Nicaragua and Guatemala – therefore more photo opportunities. I won’t hold my breath. Above: male Resplendent Quetzal, female behind.

Above: male Resplendent Quetzal inspecting the nest.

Above: security guard on the left. The other guards was around the corner – thus tourists were controlled from both directions. People were asked to speak quietly.

A white-nosed coutimundi crossed our path:

Above: white-nosed coutimundi, also known as a couti. Sorry, a little blurry.

We visited the bakery opposite the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve – a coffee and cake was essential by 1pm. The feeders were well attended by all the local hummingbirds, and even the odd species that I would not usually associate with such a feeder, such as a Banaquit. These feeders contain a sugar-water solution to attract hummingbirds -admittedly this is how you can have a really close look at hummingbirds. When visiting flowers they flit so quickly from flower to flower it is difficult to focus on them. Sugar solution is contentious and opinions differ as to whether this harms the birds or not. I plan to do a seperate hummingbird blog post.

Curi Cancha Reserve. Admission price: A$20.50 each. Once again, the 6.15am bus going to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, however Curi Cancha is located a few kilometres before Monteverde and at a lower elevation. What an amazing difference! The trails were dry and dusty, a thick carpet of fallen leaves lay under the trees and vegetation that was no where as dense as the two reserves mentioned above. Numerous huge strangler figs – perhaps we were noticing them because of the more open environment. And the ‘openness’ led to some nice viewings of difficult little birds normally elusive – for instance, Grey-breasted Woodwren and Rufous-capped Brush Finch.

Above: John standing in front of a tall strangler fig.

Above: looking up.

Above: John and tree.

We were excited to see a nine-banded Armadillo scratching around in leaves – John has posted a video on FaceBook.

Above: unknown impressive orchid species.

Above: this interesting insect visited at lunchtime.

Costa Rica is a progressive country, and the population is proud of its environmental credentials. And tourism figures back that up. Apart from this, cigarettes are hidden from view in shops, and no smoking signs abound in public places. Anti sexual harassment and foul language signs are in shops and even buses.

Above: sign in bus.

Above: sign in shop stating sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

There is an interesting article in The Saturday Paper article titled ‘All Torque, Not Enough Action’ by Mike Seccombe, (6 April 2019). The paragraph of interest commences: ‘Also, on the fast growing list of nations….’

Above: screen shot from The Saturday Paper 6 April 2019.

Our next destination is Cano Negro in northern Costa Rica near The Nicaraguan border – yes, another birding and wildlife hotspot.

Puerto Viejo Sarapiquí, Costa Rica, 27-31 March 2019

On the 26th March we travelled from Cahuita back to San Jose, arriving in the early afternoon at the wonderful Hotel Casa Ridgeway. Imagine our surprise when we were told there was no water available between the hours of 10am to 10pm. The entire city was on restrictions. The reason? El Nino and altered weather patterns resulting in reduced rainfall.

The following morning we caught a bus to Puerto Viejo Sarapiqui (PVS) – a journey of two hours. So very civilised. As Costa Rica is a small country, we are not experiencing any of the long haul bus journeys in our previous trips to South America.

Above: the blue dots indicates Puerto Viejo Sarapiquí.

Our delightful host Alex, and his family, own Posada Andrea Christina Bed and Breakfast in PVS. It is located approximately half a kilometre from the town centre. A sloth was high in the trees near the front gate. Alex bought two acres of deforested land, a block sloping down to a creek, back in 1975. He lived overseas for ten years, then returned in 1985, and commenced planting numerous species in 1987. E-bird indicates 248 species have been identified on these two acres. Alex, however, has a list of 260 species. Aged 69, he has not lost any of his passion about nature and the environment – he delights in sharing his knowledge. We experienced a couple of sunny warm days when we first arrived – it was a delightful relief to walk into his gardens and experience the immediate cooling effect of all the tall trees and vegetation. I must add the other days were overcast with rain in the afternoons or evenings. This was wonderful as it brought out all the frogs. Alex showed us Red-eyed Green Frogs one evening – four pairs were in full ‘courtship’ mode. The next afternoon, he showed me some of the jelly-like eggs sacks laid under hanging palms leaves. He was like a proud new dad….. On our first evening, Alex was very excited to show us ‘Click bugs’ that appear shortly after dark. Yes, they made a clicking sound, but they are Pyrophorus – they glow constantly when in flight. In contrast, fireflies flash.

We frequently heard Mantled Howler Monkeys, and breakfast near the bird feeder was a delight with Scarlet-rumped Tanagers, Blue-grey Tanagers, and Green Honeycreepers being regulars.

Above: at the bird feeder; left: female Scarlet-rumped Tanager; right: Blue-grey Tanager.

We visited the La Selva Biological Reserve located nearby and participated in a three hour guided tour. The reserve covers 1600 hectares of well preserved old growth forest and sixty-one universities are involved in research. E-bird indicates 493 species. Our guide George asked us what we were interested in. We said we were interested in anything he wanted to show us. John and I found the tour fascinating. For me, it was one of those experiences where you understand the tour guide was highly knowledgeable in his given field, and he explained so many fascinating interconnections between plants and animals and insects. Apart from other general information. It made me realise what a small bubble of a world I live in. So, that said, here is some information and photos from that morning, in random order:

Above: Strawberry Poison Dart Frog

There are two types of sloth. The two toe sloths are brown, can’t hear and can’t swim. The three toe sloths are grey – they can hear and swim. Sloths defecate (poo) once a week. And only on the ground. When on the ground they are very vulnerable to an attack by either pumas, jaguars, leopards and ocelots. All these fore mentioned animals inhabit the reserve. When sloths poo, they loose about a third of their body weight.

Woodpeckers have a cavity behind their brain – when they drum, or peck on a branch, their tongue rolls up into this cavity. Thus they don’t bite their tongues when drumming on branches.

There are 114 bat species in Costa Rica and 72 in La Selva.

Above: Honduran White Bats

George told us about a philodendron type of plant that opens its flower/s around 6pm every evening. Beetles are attracted to the pollen, then after a certain time the flower closes so the beetles are then trapped until 6pm the next evening. Bingo! The beetles are covered in pollen, and are able to pollinate other philodendrons.

Above: Peccary – a pig species.

Above: Keel-billed Toucan. The bill is lime, turquoise and red – it’s a shame the morning was overcast when I took this photo.

Above: Collared Aracari.

We strolled home from La Selva and along the way were extremely excited to see a solitary Great Green Macaw – these birds are endangered. (A few mornings later we saw two pairs fly overhead). We met an older man with a bag of tuber like vegetables. He appeared to be perhaps a little drunk, or maybe had a hang-over as I thought I could smell alcohol. He was very keen to engage us in conversation, and I did my best to explain our limited Spanish. John commenced wandering along the road, leaving me to ‘deal’ with him. Suddenly he was kissing my hands, and had he had the opportunity he would have been hugging me. I pulled away, saying ‘Adios, mi amigo’ and walked to John and told him what had happened. And I said: ‘Well, he hasn’t heard about the #Me-too movement’.

We took back roads for a large portion of the walk home, but eventually we had to walk along the main highway. There was no footpath along the section we walked, and the side of the road sloped down towards fields. Billy-goat slopes. As an aside, the township of PVS has decent footpaths. I became extremely tense at one stage as two huge trucks had to pass on this narrow road – I swear the truck missed me by only inches.

Above: narrow bridge

Other mornings we would walk along a grassed road between paddocks – this road was great for open canopy birdwatching. At one particular location some trees were ripe with small berries – each morning we saw Collared Aracaris, Yellow-throated Toucans and Keel-billed Toucans. Then we followed dense jungle trails looking down onto the Sarapiquí River – some great birds seen were: Snowy Cotinga, Laughing Falcon, Amazon Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Rufous Motmot, Keel-billed Motmot and Black-cowled Oriole. We had hoped to see a Sunbittern, but no luck. We have been using the Merlin bird app from Cornell University (USA) for this trip – it is a wonderful free resource with pictures, maps and calls. We have downloaded maps for countries we plan to visit – it is well worth having a look at this app. Their aim is to eventually list every country and bird….The Merlin app describes the Sunbittern as: ‘One of the most dazzling of all the world’s birds; the intricate yellow, red and black pattern on the spread wings is otherworldly’. Oh well, we still have a chance when we visit Nicaragua. You simply can’t see everything!

Above: squirrel

Puerto Viejo Sarapiquí has a population of 9,600 as stated in the October 2018 Lonely Planet Guide. This seems hard to image as there is one main street with shops, restaurants, and various stores. We were constantly surprised by a high police presence – whenever we were in town late afternoon for a meal we always saw police cars driving slowly around with flashing lights. No sirens. We wondered why there was such a high police presence – we certainly never felt threatened, here, or anywhere else in Costa Rica.

There was a carnival over the weekend at the end of March – these ‘toffee apples’ caught my attention and I thought they would make a good entry in the Royal Melbourne Show.

Above: ‘toffee apples’.

Our next destination is Santa Elena.