Travel

Costa Rica: An incredible (mostly) birding adventure

Great guides! An amazing cadre of learned and enthusiastic guides ensures travellers to Costa Rica get the most out of this paradise

  • Sep 30, 2022
  • 1,618 words
  • 7 minutes
At 6 a.m. the views of the Arenal Volcano are spectacular. The sleeping giant, which looms over emerald-green hillsides, is a top tourist draw — along with the hot springs it feeds.
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Edwin Arce is practically vibrating with excitement — and so is the hanging bridge suspended in the misty canopy of the cloud forest at Sky Adventures Monteverde Park. We’re the only two people here and the resplendent quetzal — a holy grail for birders — has just soared beneath us, a shimmering apparition of turquoise and jade, its twin tail features floating behind. “We have to get a photo,” he whispers, as the bridge bounces and the breathtaking bird perches, unconcerned, in the shady branches of a distant tree. 

The resplendent quetzal — a holy grail for birders. Standing on a swaying sky bridge, I was lucky enough to get a series of blurry, here’s-the-proof shots through the rainforest mist. Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest is a mecca for birders from around the world.
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“No one will believe that we saw him!” It’s true. Even as I reluctantly put down the binoculars and scramble for the camera to take a blurry series of here’s-the-proof shots, the regal bird shifts and takes flight, nonchalantly swooping through the foliage and disappearing into the haze. Two minutes later, the skies open, the rains pound down, and that brief glimpse of the quetzal already feels as it might have been a dream. 

Indeed, each day of my week-long tour takes on the feel of a dream — my phone and camera filled with shots of iguanas and frogs, monkeys and sloths, and dozens of fuzzy half-captures of birds flitting through misty forest canopies and lush tangles of rainforest undergrowth.

Costa Rica is home to an extraordinary wealth of biodiversity — a dozen unique climate zones are squeezed into this narrow country, which is bounded by the Pacific on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. The country has prioritized the training of an extensive cadre of learned and enthusiastic guides who ensure travellers get the most out of this natural paradise.

Hereto follows a snapshot of an ode to the wonders I experienced, but, as importantly, to the guides who made it happen.


Day 1-2 Adventure: Tortuguero National Park

Ecosystem: Canals and rivers weaving through lush rainforest

Famous for: Turtles! The beaches of Tortuguero are a critical nesting site for the endangered green sea turtle, and a major nesting site for the critically endangered hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles. Unfortunately, I’m visiting off-season

Coolest encounter: Red-eyed leaf frog

Guide says: “Keep your eyes open; everywhere you look there is a possibility.” ~Willy

No surprise that the red-eyed leaf frog is the poster amphibian for travel to Costa Rica. Amazingly, it is almost impossible to spot when it's resting under a leaf — it blends in perfectly once it closes its eyes and tucks in those orange toes.
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An early morning shower has set back the tour of the rainforest-lined canals of Tortuguero National Park and our guide, Willy, is philosophical about whether we will see any wildlife. “Dawn and dusk is the time for being social, finding a girlfriend, marking your territory,” he explains. “This time of day is for resting.”

Two minutes later, Chico, the eagle-eyed boat captain, slows up and Willy points to a caiman as it slides beneath the surface. Then a massive river turtle, a lazing iguana, an anhinga on a log at the confluence of the river and canal — “it uses the breeze to dry its wings” — and a green-backed heron — “an amazing bird. It hunts by grabbing and injuring a bug then tossing it into the water. When the fish comes to investigate… Bam! Dinner!” Willy sees a long-legged jacana as the wading bird deftly walks across some vegetation, a slight sway to a branch high up in the treetops signals a troupe of howler monkeys, and the mottling on the trunk of a canal-side tree turns out to be a clumping of sleepy bats. If this is a slow day, I can’t wait to return for a dawn tour.

That afternoon, guests of Mawamba Lodge are invited to take a quick tour of the resort’s gardens. The guide, Brian, hosts an extended botany lesson, pointing out what’s edible, what’s not, and challenging guests to find one of Costa Rica’s famous red-eyed leaf frogs hiding under a banana leaf in the gardens. “Pay attention,” he admonishes as we walk around and around, searching in vain. “That beautiful frog you all want to see is within a foot of you. Think how you would hide if you were a frog!”


Day 3-4 Adventure: Selva Verde Lodge and Rainforest Reserve

Ecosystem: Lowland tropical rainforest

Famous for: Wildlife and birding, but the area is also as a food belt — outside the parks, you’ll see banana and coffee plantations, pineapples and cacao

Coolest encounter: Red-capped mannikin (a.k.a. the Michael Jackson bird)

Guide says: “I learned from my grandfather. He said if you walk into the forest with a good feeling, Mother Nature will reward you.” ~ Randy Gómez Alvarado

Randy Gómez Alvarado is a third-generation conservationist and an expert birder and guide who takes travellers on tours through the lowland tropical rainforests around Selva Verde Lodge and Rainforest Reserve.
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Do not miss the chance to tour with Randy! A third-generation conservationist, his knowledge of the flora and fauna in this region is incredibly deep. But it’s his enthusiasm and knack for explanation that makes his tours stand out. Dare to call a group of toucans pretty and he just laughs. “Those are the gangsters of the jungle, right there! They’ll eat eggs, chicks, baby squirrels, bats, iguanas.”

He suddenly stops dead in the middle of this toucan lesson, cocking his head to the side. “Did you hear that? That’s the Michael Jackson of the jungle! Let’s find him and you’ll see why.” Sure enough, within seconds he spots the feisty moonwalker strutting his stuff and has the scope set within seconds: a red-capped mannikin. We’re smitten.

But in a rainforest overloaded with iridescent flyers of all shapes and sizes, Randy sees just as much beauty in the non-descript denizens. “Aaah, my day is made,” he whispers a few minutes later, dropping to one knee as a plump, greyish pigeon trundles across the trail. “The olive-backed quail-dove. Rare!”

On a night tour, a coatimundi, a more agile version of the Canadian raccoon, skips across the narrow girders of the bridge over the river and into the jungle. This night there are frogs and fire ants, howler monkeys and hooting owls. His flashlight picks out a lump in a tree. A sloth. “Don’t worry,” says Randy. “The only thing lazier than a sloth is my dog; it’ll be here tomorrow.” He’s right. The next morning, the sloth is still up in the same tree and puts on a surprisingly energetic show, eating and scratching, then scratching and eating for the assembled crowd of birders.

“I’m crazy in love with nature, and nature teaches me,” says Randy. Each day at Selva Verde is a lesson in wonder.


Day 5 Adventure: The Fortuna Waterfall and Mistico Hanging Bridges

Ecosystem: Transition premontane tropical rainforest

Famous for: Fantastic canopy views of treetop wildlife — and the Arenal Volcano

Coolest encounter: Clear, turquoise waters filled with silver-hued river fish just downstream from the storied waterfall

Guide says: “Always look for the smaller things.” ~ Edwin Arce

Views of the Arenal Volcano from the grounds of the Arenal Manoa Hotel are breathtaking. The storied volcano spewed smoke and lava on a daily basis until 2010. For now, the area is most famous for hot springs, hanging bridges and as the base for adventure travel.
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The spectacular La Fortuna waterfall plummets 70 metres into a crystal-clear pool. Swimmers enjoy the waters at the base of the falls.
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The early bird catches the volcano. At 6 a.m. the views of the Arenal Volcano from the grounds of the Arenal Manoa Hotel are spectacular. An hour later, the clouds have rolled in, completely shrouding the sleeping giant, which looms over emerald-green hillsides, the very definition of postcard-perfect. Although currently in a resting phase, the storied volcano spewed smoke and lava on a daily basis until 2010. For now, the area is most famous for hot springs, hanging bridges and as the base for adventure travel.

La Fortuna and Mistico. Picture a nature-park Disney. Here, the quiet canals and muddy paths of Tortuguero and Selva Verde have been replaced by wide pathways busy with visitors eager to swim at the base of the Fortuna Waterfall before heading to Mistico Hanging Bridges — a nature theme park whose meandering 3-km trail includes eight hanging bridges with enchanting views of the rainforest canopy. And yet, somehow, the rainforest magically absorbs any crowds.

Within minutes of leaving the parking lot, we disperse into the greenery and Edwin strolls at a leisurely pace, educating as he goes. Today he talks about the small things — orchids and bees, figs and butterflies. There’s time to stop on the hanging bridges and appreciate the canopy below and the mighty Arenal Volcano in the distance.


Day 6 Adventure: Sky Adventures Monteverde Park

Ecosystem: Cloud forest

Famous for: Treetop adventures, from the sky tram to walks along hanging bridges to ziplines

Coolest encounter: The resplendent quetzal

Guide says: “Listen well. We often describe the rainforest as an orchestra. There are different musicians and sounds at different times of the day.” ~ Edwin Arce

Costa Rica is a butterfly paradise, with more than 1,500 species. None is more famous than the Blue Morpho, which can be spotted on canopy tours. The spectacular butterfly — 15 cm across! — lives for just 115 days.
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Swallow-tailed kites soar on the air currents above and below us as the open-air sky tram gondola heads for an observation platform on the highest point of this cloud-forest reserve. Between 1,200-1,750 metres above sea level, Monteverde has a variable climate that has helped produce an extremely high biodiversity: more than 2,500 plant species, over 100 species of mammals, more than 400 bird species,120 reptilian and amphibian species, and thousands of insects. The tram operator offers a running narrative of the tree species, punctuated by “Watch out! Duck! Wasps!” as we pass through the insects’ flight paths.

The skies are growing progressively darker on this, the last day of my Costa Rican adventure, and my full-time guide, Edwin, is in a rare hurry, moving steadily along the paths and hanging bridges in the hopes of making it to the jeep ahead of the deluge. “No quetzal, but maybe we can stop for a good Costa Rican coffee,” he promises. Which is, of course, when it happens.

The resplendent quetzal, elusive and elegant, swoops out of the mists. It seems to glow, pulling in the what light there is and reflecting it back, a shimmering trail of turquoise in a sea of grey and dark green. Trip made.

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