Costa Rica Trip Report - Part 1/7 - Background and logistics

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Subject: Costa Rica Trip Report - Part 1/7 - Background and logistics
From: "Paul Dodd" <>
Date: Sat, 26 Jan 2013 21:17:29 +1100
Hi birders,


Ruth and I have just returned from three weeks in Costa Rica. We were
originally going for two weeks with two non-birders, but they pulled out at
the last minute. All of a sudden we had the opportunity to turn this into a
full-on birding trip ? however nothing had been planned, and little booked.
We originally had four nights booked at Montezuma on the Nicoya Peninsula,
and four nights at Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula. I added a week to the end
of the trip but had to sacrifice a few days at the beginning, meaning that
we had to drop the four days at Montezuma, but decided to keep the four days
at Drake Bay. As it happens, Montezuma is not regarded as much of a birding
location anyway. I had previously booked a 4WD ? a Mitsubishi Montero
(similar to a Pajero), from Dollar Car Rentals ( and
I managed to extend the booking by almost a week.


So the problem was how to arrange the rest of the trip in short notice.
Based on recommendations from some birding-aus contributors, I contacted
Costa Rica Gateway ( Sonia Nuñez
 is the main contact at Costa Rica Gateway, and I
must say she was incredibly helpful and rose to the challenge immediately.
Just to be fair, I also contacted Tropical Feathers
( and they were helpful also ? the reason I
went with Costa Rica Gateway was simply that they responded very quickly and
I was somewhat nervous about getting things organised as soon as possible.
Costa Rica Gateway has sample itineraries, but they customise the trips to
suit the group. In our case, they organised all the accommodation, almost
all meals and various activities and side-trips, based on their ?Classic
Costa Rica? itinerary. Amazingly, Costa Rica Gateway charged us less for
this than if I had contacted the various lodges directly! Total price was
$3,500 for both of us, which works out to $205 per day ? accommodation,
meals and side-trips!


Incidentally, the flights I arranged were on American Airlines.
Melbourne-LA, LA-Dallas, Dallas-San Jose and return. It is not possible to
book Qantas flights from Melbourne to San Jose from the Qantas website,
which is odd. The American Airlines flights were less than 2/3 the cost of
Qantas flights from Melbourne to Dallas. Even more odd is that the American
Airlines tickets were a code share with Qantas ? so we actually flew Qantas
between Melbourne and LA!


Our itinerary was ? two nights in the capital, San Jose, staying at the
Hotel Bougainvillea (, which is a great introduction to birding
in Costa Rica. Since we were arriving late in the evening of 24th December,
and the following day being Christmas Day, we had to spend two nights in the
capital. Whilst in San Jose we had a side-trip to La Paz Waterfall Gardens
( After this we had the four nights that I had
already booked at Pirate Cove Resort (, Drake
Bay on the Osa Peninsula (south-western Costa Rica). This was followed by
three nights at Savegre Hotel, Natural Reserve and Spa (, in
the central highlands; three nights on the Caribbean side at Selva Verde
Lodge and Rainforest Reserve ( ? with a
full-day?s tour to La Selva OTS Biological Research Station (;
three nights at Arenal  Observatory Lodge (
in the shadow of the Arenal Volcano to the north of San Jose; three nights
at Hotel Villa Lapas ( on the Pacific coast; and one
final night back in the San Jose area at Orquideas Inn
( before departing the following morning.


Before we get into the birding, I should talk about the geography of Costa
Rica. Costa Rica is a country smaller than the state of Victoria in the
Central American isthmus ? bordered to the north by Nicaragua and to the
south by Panama. The Caribbean is to the east of the country and the Pacific
Ocean is to the west. The western side contains two ?bent? peninsulas ? the
Nicoya Peninsula to the north and the Osa Peninsula to the south. Much of
the country is mountainous, with a central spine of mountains running
north-west to south-east. The spine divides into two to the south of San
Jose so that the capital is in a valley between the two branches of the
spine. This is known as the Central Valley. The Caribbean side is flatter
with an extensive lowland to the north-east of the country. The eastern side
of the country is known as the Caribbean Slope (as the country gradually
rises to the mountain range), and the western side is known as the Pacific
Slope. There are a few large volcanoes in Costa Rica, with Poás being
closest to San Jose and Arenal to the north of the country. One of the
highest peaks in Costa Rica is Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death) almost
in the middle of the country. Cerro de la Muerte is 3451m high, so is more
than 1000m higher than Kosciuszko ? and it pays to be aware of the altitude
and not to over-exert yourself when hiking near the summit (more on this
later). The prevailing weather comes from the Caribbean so the eastern side
of the country is much wetter than the west ? some areas receiving 5m of
rain per annum! The country occupies latitudes 8-12 degrees north of the
equator. The south of the country is very, very tropical and reminded me
very much of Borneo. The north of the country ? and the north-west in
particular, is very dry (although certainly very humid in the lowlands). All
of this makes for great variety in habitats with some species confined to
certain locations in the country, also the mountain range means that Costa
Rica has a large degree of altitudinal separation of species, very much like
peninsular Malaysia.


A little on the logistics and other aspects of getting around in Costa Rica.
The country is not a third-world country ? in actual fact it is ranked 69th
in the world on the Human Development Index. That being said, Costa Rica is
definitely not first-world either, although in terms of services such as
education and medical it is definitely very first-world. Also, despite being
in Central ?America? there is absolutely no resemblance between Costa Rica
and the USA. Costa Rica struck me as being much more European in outlook and
attitude than American. Spanish is the main language spoken in Costa Rica ?
however most people that we met and dealt with spoke English.


Food in Costa Rica is basic ? almost all meals come with rice and beans
(generally black beans). Breakfast generally consists of ?gallo pinto? ? a
dish of rice and beans mixed together with onions and capsicum ? with a nod
to western cuisine, this is usually served with scrambled eggs. The
traditional Costa Rican lunch is a ?casado? ? a plate containing rice,
beans, generally a piece of fish, chicken or steak, some salad and some
vegetables, often served with plantain (a kind of banana cooked and served
as a vegetable) ? we had versions of this almost every day. Sometimes we ate
Arroz con Pollo (rice with chicken) or Arroz con Mariscos (rice with


Roads in Costa Rica are generally narrow and often badly potholed ? large
semi-trailers and busses often make driving somewhat frightening. Road rules
are generally ?advisory? ? despite there being transport police who are
supposed to enforce the rules. Overtaking on double-lines is not only
common, but essential, as there are often cars travelling at 20km/h on major
roads! There are basically two roads that cross the country from north to
south ? the Pacific coastal road, which is quite good and the Pan-American
Highway, which is very narrow, twisty and crosses the highest mountains. Car
rental in Costa Rica is not cheap ? the Mitsubishi Montero that we rented
cost $2700 for the three weeks ? however, this did include full no-loss
insurance (which I was glad of), and rental of a GPS ? which is essential as
there are almost no street signs in Costa Rica!


Costa Rica is very much a dual-currency country, the local currency being
the colón, however the US dollar is universally accepted ? this came as
somewhat of a relief when we encountered a toll-booth on one of the highways
and had no local currency! We only took US dollars, which I withdrew from a
multi-currency ATM at Melbourne airport. Everywhere in Costa Rica accepts
credit cards, which is very useful. Unlike the US, tipping is not expected
in Costa Rica.


We took one suitcase each and one Thinktank camera backpack each. Ruth?s
backpack contained her Canon 7D, 100-400mm ?walkabout? lens and her Canon
500mm lens. My backpack contained my Nikon D800, Sigma 120-300mm ?walkabout?
lens and my Nikon 600mm lens. Whilst my backpack did technically meet the
specifications for carry-on luggage, at 12kg or so, it was overweight and
I?m glad I didn?t get challenged.


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