It was beautifully sunny early in the morning, but a chill breeze that reminded us we were still in Monteverde, some 1800 m (5,900 feet) above sea level, and undoubtedly even higher at the hotel, which was located up on the mountainside.
After breakfast at the hotel, we left Monteverde, heading in a distinctly downhill direction, towards the Pacific coast. This time we took the main road, but don’t think it was a super highway. It was a bumpy, crooked gravel road that twisted left and right, up and down. Still, it was much better than the road we took on our way to Monteverde 2 days earlier. The views were superb: steep mountainsides clothed in forest relics and pasture, a narrow valley far below, and interesting trees and plants, but there was really no safe place to stop and take pictures, so I simply took a few through the bus windows.
Suddenly a herd of cows surrounded the bus, their owner following behind on horseback and dressed very much like a cowboy. Were we in the Wild West? Of course not, but it’s quite surprising to see a main road used to herd cows. We had no choice but to wait until they had wandered past.
At the foot of the mountain, the road is paved and much less twisting, almost as good as North American roads. It is here that we saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time… from a distance. We followed the coastal highway for the rest of the day: not that the ocean was always visible, but it was never far away. This area is in the transition zone between the tropical rainforest that we had seen so far in Costa Rica and the tropical dry forest of the Northwest (Guanacaste province), so many trees in this area lose their leaves during the dry season (December to early April), entirely or at least in part, creating a much more arid landscape than the jungles we had been in until now.
We stopped at a roadside rest centre called El Jardín near Orotina, where there was a restaurant, a huge souvenir shop and – most importantly – toilets. I took a photo of an artist who paints pictures for tourists: he was painting Costa Rica’s floral emblem, the orchid Guarianthe skinneri.
Our next stop was a boat tour through the mangrove forest, a unique environment where trees grow with their roots in salt water. But to get there, we had to get down to the river following a road that was not suitable for buses, so we used a most unusual transport system: a trailer pulled by a tractor. There were several rows of seats in the trailer and if you don’t mind a little jolting (it was a rough road), it was quite a nice trip (it had a nice “primitive means of transportation” feeling, very Costarican) and only took about 10 minutes.
When we got to the river, we got into a flat-bottomed boat, the same type we had used in Tortuguero. The captain seemed to be looking for crocodiles at first: after all, the company was called Crocodile Tours. The American crocodile is endangered in most parts of Costa Rica, but is abundant in the Tárcoles River where we were. And we did see several crocodiles, only some fairly small ones (less than 2 m/6 ft in length), but they were in river, not along the shore, so we could only see their heads and backs. The captain even jumped off the boat at one point to try to attract a smallish crocodile with a piece of chicken, but it was too skittish and fled rather than let itself be tempted. You couldn’t have gotten me to hop into the crocodile-infested Tárcoles River for any amount of money!
We saw lots of birds as we headed downstream towards the mangrove forest and the closer we got to the mouth of the river, the more there were. We saw 5 different species of egret, herons, stilts, ospreys, jacanas, a few common black hawks, an American stork and at one point the sky was full of frigate birds.
The Tárcoles river widens considerably at its mouth and we could see the waves of the Pacific Ocean in the distance, but the captain changed course to take us away from the ocean into the mangrove forest along the coast. There are actually several species of mangrove trees belonging to different plant families, but all have in common the ability to tolerate salt water. The mangrove forest itself is a tangle of branches and roots, as each tree species uses different “living props” in order to remain standing in a world made up of mud. It would be impossible to walk in a mangrove forest with all those roots and branches, so the best way of seeing it is from a boat.
It was in the mangrove forest that we saw the most spectacular birds of the trip: there was a colony of roseate spoonbills and white ibises up in the tree branches and, further on, a separate colony of white ibises. We also had a great view of an osprey (and actually saw it dive down and come back with a fish) and we even saw a raccoon asleep high in a tree.
We took the boat back to our starting point and climbed back into the trailer to head back to the main highway. There we had a good lunch, then went by foot to visit the nearby bridge over the Tarcoles River. The bridge overlooks a beach where American crocodiles come to sunbathe. There were about 15 of them and really big ones this time. Andrea, our guide, told us that some can be up to 6 m (20 ft) in length and we had no difficulty in believing it: theses beasts were monsters!
The next stop on our programme was the town of Quepos/Manuel Antonio, on the Pacific coast towards the south. Much of the drive was through vast oil palm plantations. These contain African oil palms (Eleais guineensis) whose huge masses of seeds are harvested and crushed to make palm oil. These plantations replace the banana plantations that were wiped out by Panama disease in the 1950’s.
We arrived at our hotel, El Parador in Manuel Antonio, towards the middle of the afternoon. It is a luxury hotel with fountains, gardens, swimming pools, and beautiful rooms.
It also offers a stunning view over Manuel Antonio Bay on one side and of Quepos Bay on the other… although the latter view can only be seen if you’re in one of the upper level, more expensive rooms.
In spite of the intense heat (it is about 40˚C/104˚C and very humid at noon and in early afternoon much of the year in Manuel Antonio), when I arrived, I went straight to the the hotel’s nature trail as soon as I had deposited my luggage in my very comfortable room. I saw such creatures as a mother sloth and her baby and the colourful scarlet-rumped tanager, plus several other birds.
The other travellers went instead into one or another of the hotel’s pools. I ended up joining them after my nature tour, but to my disappointment, the pool water was far from refreshing: it was like stepping into a hot tub! I only stayed a few minutes: it was just too much for me. I did discover that the pool shower was nice and cool and for the rest of our group’s stay at El Parador, I avoided the pool, but instead took frequent cool showers. Or I stayed in my room: at least it was air-conditioned!
Throughout the trip so far, the meals had been included, but at El Parador, that was only the case for breakfast. We therefore had a choice that evening: either eat at the hotel (very good but expensive) or go out to eat outside the compound. Half the group stayed at the hotel, the other half went out. I was among those who left. El Parador would be a long, hot, 45-minute walk along a twisting, hilly road to get to any other restaurant by foot, but fortunately we had an air-conditioned bus to take us! We went to the El Avión restaurant, actually built in and underneath a Fairchild C-123, a relic of the Contra war in Nicaragua. Quite an unusual decor and the food was delicious. The specialty is a huge hamburger: I only managed to eat half!
Afterwards, we returned to the hotel and went off to bed.