Monday, January 18, 2016

Tortuguero Rain Forest - Part 2

Howler Monkey
Our second day in the rain forest turned out to be a slog. We began by trying to find boots that would fit us. Linda had some success, but we had to use an old plastic bag to get mine to slip on as they were two sizes too small. I guess I was supposed to bring my own. I thought maybe I could get by with my own boots, but our guide was insistent. He turned out to be correct, much to Linda’s dismay. We had to slog our way through muck and mud up to eight inches deep. I had to hold her hand through parts of the walk just to help her pull her feet out of the muck without losing her balance. It was a more difficult walk than the one we did in October between Vernazza and Corniglia in Cinque Terre. That walk took us 4.5 hours and this one only 1.5. At least in Italy we weren’t fighting just to keep our feet moving.

Grey-necked Wood Rail
Even with the difficulty of walking, it was worth the effort. We saw lots of different plants, spiders, and other creepy-crawlies, and a brown iguana. The iguana was difficult for us to see at first because it is so small relative to the other iguanas we have seen. The body is only about six inches long instead of the two or three feet other get. Of course, we also saw several birds including a couple of new ones. Just as we emerged from the forest a couple of gray-necked wood rails graced us with their presence and stuck around long enough for a photograph. Then after washing off our boots, we enjoyed two mail white-cheeked manikins as they danced for the lady that must have been nearby. Manikins are one of those species of birds that dance for their love. Some of them perform some exciting hopping rituals accompanied by clucking or singing. These two performed a circular flight. How the female would decide between these two I’m not sure, but she would – or she might reject them both. After a short walk back to our cabin we enjoyed the two hours of rest before lunch.

Turtle nests are under the sand here. Walking over them is ok. 

Several pieces of old equipment are reminders of logging days.
After lunch we had a tour of Tortuguero village. While it was interesting, I would have rather spent another couple of hours in a boat on the river. If you make this trip someday, I would recommend asking to do this tour on your own over the lunch break. Unless, you are here during turtle season when you will want to visit and get the opportunity to see the nesting sea turtles. This is between May and November.  Tortuguero is really just a tourist town with restaurants, small hotels and B&Bs, and guide services. I doubt that any job available there is not attached in some way to tourism and the national park.
The main street is paved

Some others are not

Small children will play
It is a pleasant enough village and does offer a less expensive way to visit the park. Upon landing, we walked the 100 yards or so across the land to the Caribbean Sea. There we got to look at the sea and see where the turtles do their nesting. They have divided the beach into zones and during nesting the tourists must stand and wait for one of the observers who will let the guide know when it is safe to move up or down the beach to see the turtles without disturbing the process. This careful monitoring has led to a significant increase in the survival rate of the turtle population. Otherwise the town really consists of only one main street about 1 kilometer long filled with the restaurants, hotels, and guide services. The park office at the end of the street offers information and an entrance to a 2 kilometer trail through the rain forest. The people live in houses between the street and the Caribbean. The main street and some others are paved.

One of the many tour agencies

Creatively decorated garbage cans are everywhere in town

Town harbor
The village used to be the center of the logging operation here before the creation of the Tortuguero National Park. Machine parts rust along the main road as a reminder of the old days. One result of the logging is that this park is nearly 100% second growth forest. We could see remnants of the logging days with trees growing out of the old stumps. Fallen trees also serve as nurse logs. We counted 14 trees growing out of one such fallen log.

Town Church
A pair of trogans

After our return, we wandered around camp and had a drink in the bar before dinner. After dinner came the most interesting part of the trip so far. We were sitting in the lounge area checking the internet when a group of Dutch visitors came running and shouting in excitement over a frog they had found. I quickly added myself to their group to see the excitement. As they headed off, in another direction the guide invited me along. I expected to see another exotic frog which we did. Actually it looked to me like the eyes were mounted on one side instead of in front, something I had never heard of. When I mentioned this, the guide said that the smaller male was on the back of the female. She is laying the eggs and he is dropping his sperm on them. I went back for another look and was able now to see what my eyes had fooled me about before. Then I went to get Linda so she could share the excitement. The guide said that this is particular frog lives in only a couple of small areas in Costa Rica so we were seeing something quite rare. Enjoy the pictures.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Tortuguero Rain Forest - Part 1

This is the rain forest and it rains here – a lot. This is much different than when we visited the Amazon rain forest when we were in Ecuador for Christmas two years ago. We spent three days at a camp there and it did not rain once. The first rain came as we were transferring from our bus to the boat that would carry us to the camp. Our guide suggested that we just wait for a bit before venturing out. That was a good plan as by the time he let us go, the rain had mostly stopped and we only had to worry about slipping in the mud. The next rain came as we were heading to our room. Fortunately, most of that was covered walkway so we did not get too wet.  It seems to rain about once every two hours for 30 minutes or so.

We were all checking out the sloth.
Beautiful red frog with blue legs

The drive was interesting. First we passed over the mountains through a cloud forest, an environment we will return to next week. It was interesting to climb up the pass, head through the fog and see the changes in plant life as we did so. Our lunch stop included a look at both two and three toed sloths and some red dart frogs, also called strawberry frogs. These tiny beasts are as poisonous as they are beautiful. Most of the body is a lovely red color contrasting with their bright blue feet and legs.

Bananas on their way to the production facility
The last part of the ride was through banana and pineapple plantations. We got to watch the men working in the banana orchards and the bananas hauled into the produce plant. The boat ride was very similar to our trip in the upper Amazon rain forest in Ecuador a couple of years ago with the trees coming right down to the water line and the foliage so dense it would be very hard to walk through. One nice difference is that we saw no evidence of industrial activity. In Ecuador, we met several freight barges and more than a couple of oil transport stations. It helps that there isn’t much oil here and the government is much stronger when it comes to protecting the environment.

Our camp is literally carved out of the forest. Unlike our camp in Ecuador, the buildings are surrounded by the natural forest. The trees have not been removed and replaced by grass as they were in Ecuador.

Young basilisks can run on the water

This plant looks like a banana. Hummingbirds love the flowers

In the afternoon, we took a slow boat ride on the Tortuguero Canal and its tributaries looking for animals and birds. The rain held off and the clouds even parted giving us some sun for a few minutes here and there.  While we did not see many birds, we did get a couple of great views of caiman and good looks at sloths and turtles and iguana.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Hotel Bougainvillea

At the end of our first day in Costa Rica, we are enjoying and evening in our room at the Hotel Bougainvillea after a relaxing day enjoying the hotel’s gardens and their excellent restaurant.

Entrance to the garderns
Another of the several sculptures
 We arrived at the hotel 30 minutes from the airport after a 60 minute drive. We saw one accident, a police regulated corner that slowed traffic considerably and a broken down truck that blocked two lanes of traffic. It was after dark so we just took a look at the gardens and headed down for dinner of sea bass, shrimp and chicken.

This morning we ate a nice buffet at the window overlooking a bird feeder graced by our first two birds: a clay-colored thrush and a blue-gray tanager. Both of these birds we had seen in Ecuador. After breakfast we spent a couple of hours wandering through the gardens. Five acres of land in the midst of a city have been turned into a peaceful place for wandering and relaxing. Spaced throughout are the tennis courts, swimming pool, exercise rooms and various meeting areas. The space is large enough and the plants positioned to hide the buildings from those of us just enjoying the area.

Rufous-naped Wren
A Baltimore Oriole enjoying the warmer weather just as we are.
We did not see as many birds as expected, perhaps because of the strong breezes blowing through the area. One spot was particularly birdy and even there we only managed to see ten different birds. I was able to identify most of them with the help of the bird book and bird app, but a couple are still eluding identification. Most of them were birds we had seen in Ecuador or are here after their fall migration from the US. The best bird was a Hoffman’s Woodpecker, a beautiful bird with a red head and golden neck. Then on the way back into the hotel we heard another bird which turned out to be a Rufous-naped Wren.

We saw as many butterflies as birds
Leopard frog - hopefully we will see many more prettier frogs before we return home.
This has been a good start to our trip here in Costa Rica. Tomorrow we head to the Caribbean coast and Tortuguero National Park. We will end out trip to Anhinga Lodge on a some sort of boat. Tortuguero is one of the places that host sea turtles. We won’t see them this trip however as the turtle season ended in October. Nevertheless, we expect a couple of days with lots of wildlife viewing.

Saturday, January 2, 2016


A few years ago we watched In Bruges in a theater and immediately added Bruges to the list of cities we wanted to visit. The movie is about a couple of contract killers who lie low in Bruges when they kill an innocent child. They explore the picturesque town while they wait for orders. It’s a dark comedy like that could have been made by the Coen brothers. So instead of spending the four days at the end of our Rhine River cruise in Amsterdam, we decided to spend two of them in Bruges. It was the right choice. 
The main square at night
 At least 1200 years old, Bruges was one of the most important trade centers in the world in the 12th – 15ht centuries. In 1309, the Bourse, probably the first stock exchange, opened and became the most sophisticated money market in the region. Bruges, this major trading center was not, however, located on the ocean. Ocean-going ships would anchor at Damme, six kilometers away, transfer their cargo to barges which would move the goods to Bruges. In Bruges, the barges would enter a covered warehouse where they would be unloaded and reloaded. This building is long gone, but it must have been an amazing structure since it was large enough to handle several barges on the water and inside the building.

Heus Ter Beurze, the first stock exchange
 For the tourist Bruges is a great town to visit because it is small enough to easily walk and large enough to have a good variety of attractions. Our hotel was only a few blocks from the main square. The winding narrow, winding streets led us on several  different routes as we made that short trip. We walked past shops, restaurants, coffee shops, churches, museums, and several statues in a matter of just a few blocks. On our last walk back to our hotel after dinner, we passed a building with a three story high ceiling beautifully lit inside. Curious, I asked a man leaving it. He told me that it was the site of the first stock exchange and was now used for private functions. What a surprise.

While most of the paintings were of the wealthy or religious, I most enjoyed those of daily life
Premonition? This artist was killed in a concentration camp
The stern mother look
For tourist activities, we visited one art museum which showcased Flemish art including some modern paintings with a very different look. We were especially interesting in the bright colors used by the early artists. We had expected something much darker. I think some of that may be because so many of the old masterworks have lost their luster as the covering varnish aged and the paintings succumbed to the air polluted by the coal fires. 

We also visited a museum call the Historium, an interesting mix of artifact and multimedia. Visitors are led through a series of rooms outfitted as in the past. Each room has a video which tells the story of a young man apprenticed to Franz Hals, the painter. He is sent to pick up some items to be used as props. One of the items is a young girl with whom he falls in love. Through his adventures, we learn about the various markets and trade items and the stock exchange. At the end a couple of rooms showcase some of those items and offer quizzes to test your learning. It also offers a third floor balcony overlooking the main square and a second floor pub with its own balcony where you can enjoy one of the Belgian brews. It sounds a bit schlocky, but we did learn more about the history of Bruges in an entertaining way and enjoyed the process. 

We also found a couple of pubs to sample the local brews and two very nice restaurants for dinner. We also had a good time just wandering the streets and enjoying the Christmas market. The evening fog enhanced the beauty of the buildings in the evening light. Among the things we missed on this trip were the chocolate museum, the diamond museum, the fries (yes, like French Fries) museum, several other art museums, and the tour of the belfry with a climb up the tower. It is always good to leave some things for the next trip. It makes us more anxious to return. 

Early morning at the Christmas market