Costa Rica birdwatching paradise

December 2016

CostaRicaMonteverdeEcoSanctuarylookoutSMALL11 and a half hours direct from Gatwick in London to San Jose, in Costa Rica. Filing from the plane through immigration greeted by a model of a giant sloth in a Christmas hat and a friendly smile from the immigration officer.  Our driver Carlos was waiting to take us to El Sol for the next 4 days, high in the Monteverde Cloud Forest near to the town of Santa Elena, a 3 and a half hour drive.  Around 1,600 metres above sea level, the drive started out on tarmac, to potholed roads and finally over loose ground slippery with mud from daily rain. We stopped en route for drinks and local flan and stopped again at a small, basic shop for water and snacks. The sunset was spectacular; one side of the road blazing pink red and orange…a huge rainbow arching in to cloud on the other. CostaRicaMonteverdeElSolviewArrived at El Sol at 6.30pm in the pitch black. Another Carlos came out to show us to our cabin, accompanied by a small dog called Negrita who became a fixture over the next few days. The cabin is perfect; relaxing with spectacular views…appreciated the next morning from the rear balcony jutting out from the hillside.  The view sweeps down across miles of lush vegetation, mist wrapping mountain peaks. The rains have hung around later in to the season making the landscape vibrant and lush. Flocks of parakeets fly by, geckos sing from the roof rafters, frogs chorus in the dark and moths bash around inside the brightly coloured rice paper lampshades at night.CostaRicaMonteverdeElSolDavehammock

Monteverde day 2 El Sol Sunday 11 December

A long sleep, pancake and fresh fruit breakfast delivered to our room; Dave allegedly allergic to dogs and definitely short-sighted doesn’t notice Negrita blending in to shadows under the table. We head out to chat with the German owner Elisabeth in her cabin to get advice for the days ahead. Dressed in brightly coloured tie-dye she greets us with a deep embrace, folded in to her ample bosom.  She tells us how her inner voice guided her to Costa Rica 19 years ago with her partner, only rucksacks on their backs and little money to start this mountain life.  Elisabeth seems genuine and enlightening; we admire her tenacity and intelligence. Perhaps we should all heed our inner voices a more.  CostaRicaMonteverdeSanta Elena1A taxi to Bat Jungle (Bat museum) in Santa Elena. We wanted to walk downhill to the town, would have taken an hour or so, but recent heavy rains had churned up the road and there’s no path to follow.  Dave enjoyed exclaiming to the cab driver: “To the Bat Museum!”  We only made a couple of jokey asides to the bat museum’s door guy before he interjected that he’d heard so many bat jokes that he must have heard them all.  $14 each for a guided tour but we didn’t want to wait for someone.  Paid $5 each to spend 15 minutes in a dark room with a torch each and approx 100 bats of varying species behind glass. Fresh fruit feeders in the tree branches had been replenished.  We watched bats fly to hang upside down and feed.  Fascinating to see but we felt intrusive shining LED torches straight on to these amazing creatures.  We read the information in the adjoining room with exhibits; a worthwhile and interesting visit but a short one due to the tiny size of the place. costaricamonteverdesanta-elenabatjungle3.jpgA 15 minute walk took us in to the centre of Santa Elena the main town.  Brightly painted tin roofed houses and shops jostled to offer zip lining, hanging bridge walks, tours to various reserves. It’s a small town, catering to tourists but in an unobtrusive way.  Banana palms fringe the roadside labouring under the weight of exotic flowers.  Small homes decorated for Christmas are pretty, their owners watering plants, cleaning their porches ready for Christmas visitors. Hand-painted signposts for local businesses perplexed us as we tried to decipher them.CostaRicaMonteverdeSanta Elena3CostaRicaMonteverdeSanta Elena2We went to Stella’s Bakery; their rear garden has bird tables filled with fresh fruit. We must have seen about 15 different types of birds in the 90 minutes we sat there.  A local bird guide was assisting a group of 4 Americans, 2 of whom were taking photos with huge professional lenses. The guide was generous with his information and included us when pointing out the names of the different species. I’m not a birder but I have a keen interest in wildlife.  In the bakery’s garden we saw Grackle, Yellow Crowned Euphonia, Black Guan, Blackburnian Warbler, Red Legged Honeycreeper, Blue Grey Tanager, Blue Crowned Mot Mot, Baltimore Oriole, Brown Jay, White Eared Ground Sparrow, Hoffman’s Woodpecker…so many more.  We took a cab from Santa Elena back to El Sol; the mist rolled in obscuring the sunset but bringing its own magic…shrouding the mountains in a silvery cloak, visibly wreathing in to our cabin. CostaRicaMonteverdeElSolmistview

Monteverde Day 3
Woke at 6am.  We’d both crashed out exhausted at 9pm the night before. The jet lag/6 hour time difference feels beaten.  Had breakfast joined by Negrita begging for scraps, then met with our pre-arranged guide Carlos, (the third male Costa Rican we’ve met…all called Carlos).  In his Range Rover we drove to a hire place to pick up binoculars, his scope and tripod. Great that you can hire binoculars here for $10 a day for $400 worth of quality equipment…and vital for wildlife watching in the high tree canopies of the forest. There are several different reserves ranked by levels of difficulty.  Based on us not being regular hikers and on his experience of where to find a variety of different birds, Carlos led us to the Santuario Ecologico (Ecological Sanctuary) on the Cerro Plano; a smaller sanctuary on private property comprising Premontane and Secondary forest, coffee and banana plantations. We hiked the trails for three and a half hours not encountering anyone else, different routes marked by different coloured signposts. We followed Carlos along 2 separate forest loops, the rain held off and we enjoyed a lucky day with a high count of birds. CostaRicaMonteverdeEcoSanctuary6
Born in Costa Rica Carlos spent some time living and working for the RSPB in the UK and his skills and patience in showing us where and importantly…how to look…was a fabulous experience. We saw Golden Crowned Spadebill, White Hawk, Green Violet Ear Hummingbird, Common Black Hawk, Squirrel Cuckoo, Brown Billed Scythebill. We didn’t see any sloths or Howler monkeys but we did see plenty of squirrels, an Agouti Paca (rodent family/similar to the capybara in Argentina) and the highlight; a troupe of White faced Capuchin monkeys who came close, directly above in the tree canopy…eating, calling to each other… stopping to watch us. A couple of very young Capuchins trailed their mothers.
Monteverde Day 4 El Sol
Took a taxi to Selvatura Park high up in rain forest canopy. We were here for the hanging bridges but zip-lining is also a big draw.  $30 each to walk the bridges, it’s around a 3km walk on easy pathways. The 8 suspended bridges are constructed from metal ranging from 12 metres high to the highest one at approx 60 metres. They sway and bounce around a bit when a few people cross at the same time, but they feel very sturdy and you get used to it.  The views are fantastic; walking in the tree canopy…often above it. We came prepared with waterproof coats knowing the weather can change quickly and heavy rain is commonplace. We wore closed toe shoes, suncream and sprayed ourselves liberally in bug spray.CostaRicaMonteverdeSelvaturaHangingbridges7

Creepers, hanging moss, tree ferns and orchids have seeded themselves high on branches. Howler monkeys leapt above us in the canopy and we spotted a Coati just as we were leaving. The forest floor is a riot of ferns, fallen leaves, decaying tree bark and toadstools. It’s a living breathing environment that you can actually feel. Rain filtered through but the forest canopy is dense we barely got wet.  Palms and banana leaves shone green. We looked for tarantulas, we’d been told they’d been spotted close to the path but unluckily we couldn’t find one.

After the hanging walkways we paid $5 to go into the Hummingbird Garden.  Nectar feeders were hung out for these jewel colour birds who flew so close, their wings were humming right close to our ears; used to tourists and totally un-phased.  We met Gina, an American girl also walking the bridges; together we took the free shuttle bus back to Santa Elena. She walked with us 5km along the roadside to Stella’s Bakery where we spent a couple of hours watching the birds on the feeders.
CostaRicaArenalLeavesLizardsroomview Arenal Day 5
Heading to the Arenal volcano area today and Leaves & Lizards (above) where we’re staying…Dave’s birthday surprises continue; I have no idea where we’re going ’til we arrive. Picked up at 7.45am we travelled for 4 hours by shared minivan with two Dutch girls and a German brother and sister to Lake Arenal where we would cross to take another van to Monterrey.  Our lake arrival was amusing. More minivans disgorged more travellers laden with huge rucksacks and suitcases. We waited 20 minutes for the boat to arrive; a flea-bitten dog rubbing up against legs, begging for food. I could only offer plantain chips, they were scoffed enthusiastically. It was a launch style passenger boat, open sides with a roof boarded by scrambling down a steep muddy rock and root strewn path; many caught unawares by the obstacle course, hampered with ridiculously huge suitcases. Young boys earned tips sweating as they lugged bright pink shellcased luggage to the riverbank. On board, the launch driver Miguel checked destinations to organise the onward transport from the other side. The 40 minute lake crossing saves half a day of driving circuitous potholed roads from Monteverde/Santa Elena to the main town in the volcano Arenal area of La Fortuna. The crossing was smooth, low cloud reducing visibility but we saw hawks hovering over the forest and herons diving for fish. We chatted with the Germans sitting behind us, bird spotting through the mist. CostaRicaArenalLeavesLizardsroom5
On the other side of the lake we shared a minivan with a group of 4 American ladies from San Diego heading to a large resort with 28 hot springs; celebrating a retirement and a birthday. After dropping them we continued on another 20 minutes searching for Leaves and Lizards, taking a few wrong turns on loose gravel roads past scrappy barking dogs snapping at the tyres, but we found it and were checked in by Andrea and Alejandro. One of the American owners, Steve, came to welcome us before heading off poolside to continue hand-painting a giant cement crocodile he’s sculpted. As you do when you drop out of the rat race and are free to live your life as eccentrically as you wish.

Our room for the next 3 nights is ‘The Hobbit’, an inventive cement built cabin with a rounded wooden door, an erupting volcano covering the wall behind the hand-built bed and curved sculpted walls, all designed and created by Steve. It overlooks cultivated planting across to the rainforest and volcano; still hidden by mist. A large picture window has no need of curtains (private and not overlooked) flashes of gem coloured hummingbirds flit between the flowers. It’s gorgeous.CostaRicaArenalLeavesLizardspool

This place is impressive. Steve and Debbie bought the farm 11 years ago and have since built it up, creating cabins, a riding school, a working farm and a restaurant for guests…the nearest places to eat are a 20 minute drive on steep potholed roads.  There’s a pool looking out to the volcano and acres of land and it’s so peaceful.  We saw 3 toucans in the trees next to our cabin and hawks circling; it’s beautiful. They’re currently building a crazy treehouse for additional guests.

We walked the trail around the property through re-forested secondary rainforest, passing by huge bamboos…towering golden canes soaring above us. Leaf cutting ants industriously scurry the forest floor. At dinner in the onsite restaurant we talked with Asia who lives in London, born in Poland. She’s here on a week’s therapy workshop learning about horses and riding.  Amazingly one of her favourite London bars is three streets away from our house. The world is small.

Monterrey Day 6

Horse riding today with Enrique.  Dave had booked horse training and riding for me as a surprise.  What was more of a surprise was that he was doing it too. After breakfast we headed to the horse block; stables, barn, tack room and training ring.  Enrique started by introducing us to a horse called Conan and went through several different exercises including teaching us about the horse and personal space, how to gain its respect so it will respond to instruction, how horses interact; resting pose (one hoof lifted slightly from the floor), sentinel (the guard), leader etc. We had to choose a horse that we connected with and go through some exercises leading them around the ring on foot, dropping the reign in the hope they’d continue to follow, making them stand respectfully a couple of steps behind us…not alongside and never in front.

I chose Conan, a chestnut horse and Dave chose Negro (Spanish pronunciation for the colour black), a larger horse, more muscular with a beautiful glossy coat. Dave’s horse wouldn’t follow him so he had more training, using a whip to gently clip the ground behind the horse whilst holding his reigns and making the horse trot in a tight circle. It was impressive to see Dave working with the horse, he’s never done anything like this before and wasn’t comfortable around horses, plus a group of fellow guests were watching him.   Enrique used Star Wars analogies to help us to understand ‘using the force’ to channel our energy in to directing the horse.  Once saddled up we put helmets on; mine was bubblegum pink, looked like a 6 year old’s scooter helmet. Another of the horse hands joined us and led from the front, Dave and I following on Negro and Conan with Enrique keeping a watchful from behind. Two of the resident dogs ran alongside darting in and out of towering grasses chasing for squirrels.

Immediately we left the stables a sudden downpour drenched us, our jeans steaming when the sun came out.  For a first ride out, it wasn’t easy going but we LOVED it!  We scrambled up steep slopes churned with mud, the horses’ legs sinking in to the quagmire…sucked out as they pulled forward, trotting out quickly to avoid getting bogged down or seeking higher ground…climbing up steep slopes to narrow bands of grass. We joked that Dave’s horse was prissy; it would seek higher ground wherever possible to avoid getting muddy whereas Conan ploughed through the deepest sections of mud, caking my shoes with it. If it wasn’t mud then it was slippery loose stones covering steep descents; leaning back on the horses to prevent sliding straight down their neck.  We waded through a small river, Enrique gently tapping Dave’s horse on the rump because it has a habit of lying down in the middle for a soak.  The water was deep, running fast from heavy rain, reaching high up the sides of the horses soaking our shoes and lower legs.  We felt like cowboys. The horses scrambled out over large rocks and after another steep muddy ascent we reached open ground.

Tying our horses to trees and our backpacks slung over the pommel of the saddle, (definitely cowboys) we hiked a steep muddy trail down to a waterfall.  Declining to change in to swimsuits and jump in because the forest was humming with mosquitoes, we clambered back up where the guys gave us a packed lunch and guanabana to drink. Sitting on a rotting log in the grass we watched as a Howler monkey clambered through the tree canopy above looking for food.

Riding back we saw a pair of Crested Chacachaca feeding their young in a nest at the top of a lightning struck tree.  Red-barked trees nicknamed ‘tourist trees’ for their blistered red appearance dotted the route and Motmots, squirrel cuckoos, blue grey tanagers flitted as hawks circled and vultures rested in trees.  Showered and rested we had an early dinner and a chat with Gary and Wendy, now residents in Monterrey, both studying the week long horse-training course.  We sat at the bar, one of the owner’s dogs jumped in to Dave’s lap; not a dog fan he tried to ignore it…for some reason they always gravitate to him. We were sound asleep by 9.30pm. What a fantastic day.CostaRicaArenalLeavesLizardsDavedog
Monterrrey Day 7
A 7am start in a taxi to drive 1 hour to Proyecto Asis; a volunteer animal rescue sanctuary near La Fortuna. The parrot at the front is a hybrid; artificial insemination results in more colours; note the additional green on the head. Sadly, this bird is viewed as a ‘freak of nature’ by other parrots and will never be able to be released. It wouldn’t be accepted by other macaws in the wild and would be singled out and killed. Hybrid parrots can exchange for as much as $50,000 on the black market. It is an illegal practise in Costa Rica. They are born sterile but hybrids can live up to 60 years. That’s a likely possibility of a monogamous bird having to spend 60 years alone. A very sad example of mankind playing Frankenstein with nature for money. The parrot at the back is a red macaw. There is a chance that if successfully paired with another red macaw, that this bird will be released back to the wild…leaving the hybrid macaw alone.
CostaRicaArenalLaFortunaProteyctoAsishybridmacaw1
Proyectoasis try to rehabilitate every bird or animal brought in to their care with the goal of releasing them in to the wild wherever possible. Many of the birds and animals have been kept as pets or as attractions in a hotel; they have no natural skills such as hunting or self defense. In the case of a macaw, this can mean a lifetime in captivity. A naturally born macaw can live up to 100 years. There was a racoon with nerve damage, jerkily negotiating the natural wood climbing frame in his cage; hit by a car and very thin when rescued but steadily improving it was a sad thing to watch.  There was a young porcupine also hit by a car and a toucan with the top half of his beak missing where someone had poured acid over it.

Macaws with broken wings which will never fly again, beautiful spider monkeys and Capuchin monkeys handed in on leashes and wearing baby diapers, unwanted household pets.  We were encouraged whilst being overseen by a guide, to hold the hand of an older capuchin monkey because she seeks human comfort and interaction. The stupidity and cruelty of humans resulting in so many animals now too domesticated or too damaged to be returned to the wild but finding a home here with this amazing volunteer run rescue centre.  CostaRicaArenalLaFortunaProteyctoAsis6
Exiting the sanctuary we saw our first sloth of Costa Rica; we could only determine a brownish sleeping ball in the branch of a tree above us. It has become a quest to see them and each time we meet someone new they tell us how they saw 5 sloths in one small group of trees, or 13 of them in one day trekking, 1 basking right next to their pool or hanging from a tree right outside their room. I walk away each time quietly seething. CostaRicaArenalLaFortunaEcoTarmaleshotsprings
Steven our driver drove us 40 minutes to Eco Terminales Hot Springs just outside La Fortuna.  Based at the foot of the Arenal volcano, there are several hot springs along this stretch of road. Leaves & Lizards made reservations for us the day before. We were in the pools by 11.30 allowing ourselves 2 hours before having lunch in their restaurant. Lockers and immaculately clean spacious private changing rooms, showers and toilet facilities are a 3 minute walk away from the pools where the hot springs empty in to. We walked along black volcanic sand down to the pools which lie under rainforest canopy with sunlight filtering through,  dappled light playing across the pools. It’s beautiful and out of peak season in the morning it was almost empty with only one other group of people here. CostaRicaArenalLaFortunaEcoTarmaleshotsprings2
Three pools at 37, 38 and 39 degrees, a larger pool lower down, a small inset pool at 40 degrees and one smaller inset cold pool (approx 22 degrees) to cool off in between relaxing in the hot thermals. They recommend that you spend no more than 15 minutes in the hot pools before dipping in to the colder to regulate body temperature, before returning to the hot pools. Small waterfalls run in to some pools with a larger fall of water running down a stepped pool from the volcano base… where we lay in the water.  The bottom of the pools and surrounding edges are made from stones or volcanic rock, some people wore flip flops but I liked the feeling of the stones on the soles of my feet. Stone seats and and stone ‘beds’ line some of the pools.  Sun loungers and free towels are provided.  Absolute bliss floating in the thermal waters or lying on a smooth stone bed looking up in to the tree canopy for birds whilst sipping on cocktails sold at the bar. After 2 hours we got out to change and have lunch in the restaurant. CostaRicaArenalLaFortunaEcoTarmaleshotsprings3
Feeling so relaxed I struggled to stay awake on the ride back to Leaves and Lizards, we laid around in our room for a few hours, Dave attempting to dry out his shoes from the day before with my feeble travel hairdryer.  For dinner we joined everyone for ‘make your own taco night’ in the outdoor dining area overlooking the pool. A Fishing bat circled, dazzled by the underlit blue water, flying figure of eights looking for fish.  We spent a couple of hours talking travel adventures and horse training with South African Gary, a travel guide living here and specialising in night walks and day treks in the rain forest and his partner Wendy who runs a successful local business. We chatted with the owners Debbie and Steve, Asia visiting from London, Alejandro local to the area and several others seated at a long table we had tagged our table on to. A lovely evening eating great food with fascinating people. We will miss this place when we leave tomorrow. I could stay here for weeks.
At this point Dave landed another massive birthday surprise on me…we made a detour to Panama City for 3 days!  https://thetraveldiarist.com/2016/12/30/detour-to-panama-city-from-costa-rica
From Panama city an 80 minute flight back to San Jose airport in Costa Rica where a driver called Alex picked us up around 10am.  Dave was still being secretive, I had no idea where we were heading; a long traffic jam delayed us almost an hour.  I read the road signs, guessing aloud as to our destination but Dave had told Alex the birthday surprise element of our holiday, so Alex wouldn’t give anything away. We approached a bridge over the Rio Tarcoles getting out to walk across it to see the infamous crocodiles. CostaRicaRioTarcolescrocodiles
It was hairy walking single file on a narrow raised footpath with other people squeezing by as lorries and cars hurtled by and looking down to see 20 crocodiles idly floating beneath us. One of them was huge. Allegedly a few years ago three Nicaraguan men were ejected from a bus at the end of the bridge as one of them was very drunk. They wandered to the river for a wash, remarkably two of them walking away unscathed but the third eaten by one of the crocodiles…his head washed up a few days later. Different versions of the story online report that a sole male Nicaraguan had jumped off the bridge but according to Alex this wasn’t the case. Whatever the truth, Alex told us there are 6 beaches in Costa Rica unsafe to swim in because of crocodiles.CostaRicaManuelAntonioGaiaHotel1

We carried on driving.  I asked Alex how much longer, I reckoned on 15 minutes based on the time Dave originally suggested and factoring in the traffic jam, but Alex said another hour. I watched as the town of Quepos rolled by, local people out Christmas shopping, kids playing and small shops doing a brisk trade. We drove up a steep hill and the car took a sharp right past a sign reading Gaia Hotel and Reserve (photo shown above). Dave broke in to a grin (as did Alex now enjoying being complicit!) and we were dropped off inside the main gates, piled on to golf buggies, yes….golf buggies…a first for us, to ride a steep path, passing a large spiny back iguana with a striped back sunning himself on a wall. This place is POSH!

CostaRicaManuelAntonioGaiaHotelIguana5I could hear squawking in the trees and our golf buggy driver explained that the hotel was a luxury 5 star retreat and a Red Macaw rescue rehabilitation reserve based only 5 minutes from the entrance to Costa Rica’s most famous national park; Manuel Antonio. Knowing my love of wildlife Dave had secretly arranged all of it. At check in we met Ayrene, would you believe our personal concierge. It was a bit overwhelming but they’re not stuck up here, it’s privately owned.  Whenever we walked in to the concierge room, all of the staff stood up….sitting down again once the guests have sat. It could have been a great Monty Python sketch. It was a lot to take in; I’m not used to places like this. Ayrene showed us around; a spa, stepped pools, a beautiful restaurant at the top of the property overlooking the rain forest trees with incredible views and finally to our lovely room with a long walkway overlooking trees with red macaws squawking in them.

A free guided tour of the trail through the red macaw sanctuary was leaving 40 minutes after we checked in. We dumped our stuff and hooked up with a small group of 9 people and a flamboyant guide. Walking down a steep muddy trail leading directly from the hotel grounds we were in the red macaw sanctuary. What we hadn’t been told was the rest of the walk after the macaws was a back breaking uphill climb in sweltering heat with precarious drops in to the undergrowth…but hell what are these types of trips for if not to push you out of your comfort zone and look back and laugh at the memories…like seeing this bloody huge grasshopper.CostaRicaManuelAntonioDragonGrasshopper

We stumbled back to the open air dining room at the top of the building,  collapsing in to sofas we ordered cold drinks and wallowed in the luxury of Gaia Hotel.  It’s not stuffy, not pretentious, it’s comfortable and the service is great…incredible attention to detail.  The owner has created something unique. We lounged, eventually getting changed and coming back for a great meal and to watch the sun set over the rainforest; it’s a privilege to be here.

Up early next day to join a tour of Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. The main entrance is a short trip from the hotel in a minibus with a guide. There’s been so many trips around the world where we’ve turned down opportunities to explore with guides because of the element of self discovery, but in this instance I was glad we paid to go with a guide. The paths through the park are wide and paved with no genuine sense of ‘exploring’ but with a guide and his scope we are able to see much more and learn about what we’re seeing. CostaRicaManuelAntoniobeach1

Manuel Antonio is the smallest of the Costa Rican National Parks but known to be the most beautiful. With hiking trails and beautiful natural beaches, the park is based in a tropical forest amidst mountains and stunning foliage, with access to four beaches: Manuel Antonio, Espadilla Sur, Teloro, and Playita. It’s best to visit early as the park gets crowded and the temperature rises. Our guide took us around and then gave us the choice to go back with them or to stay on the beach and follow one of the hiking trails alone. We saw a fair amount of wildlife including raccoons harmlessly attempting to steal food from tourists, lots of lizards which the guide helpfully let us view in closeup through his scope and take photographs by holding  iPhones to the scope’s lens…a trick that pays off well and produces decent results.

And finally – we saw sloths!  Such fascinating gentle creatures.  We saw a Hoffman’s Two-toed sloth and a three-toed sloth.  This image photographed through the scope. We watched them moving through trees for several minutes before they disappeared from view.  We saw a Squirrel Monkey which we were told was rare to see…but amusingly on returning to Gaia we encountered an entire family swinging through the tree canopy close to the hotel. CostaRicaManuelAntonioparkslothscope2
CostaRicaManuelAntonioparksquirrelmonkey

We went to find the local bars and restaurants which line the hill down from Gaia to the town of Quepos. It’s underwhelming; the place we chose to eat was okay but the food was expensive for basic fare. It’s over touristy and if it had been daylight we would have wandered off the beaten path and found something more authentic….being dark and no footpaths along the main road we stayed local.  We dropped in to the infamous El Avion bar; a Cold War relic Fairchild C-123 plane turned in to a bar and restaurant (photo credits: http://www.elavion.net).  When the C-123 was shot down over Nicaragua in 1986 by the Sandinista guerillas, it left behind an American owned sister plane.  This Fairchild C-123 was a part of one of the biggest political scandals in the 1980s known as the Iran-Contra Affair.

CostaRicaManuelAntonioGaiaHotelElAvionbar2

Sadly our trip was coming to an end…time to leave the incredible Gaia Hotel and head back to San Jose to stay one night in the city before flying out the next morning to London, arriving on Christmas Day. We had a walk around San Jose where Christmas shoppers were in a frenzy.  San Jose stood true to general opinion; it is not an attractive city; nondescript buildings, a lack of a true centre, ugly streets and some very run down areas to pass through before reaching anything you’d want to explore. It didn’t engage us and was a huge contrast to the wonders we’d seen in the wilder parts of the country. San Jose feels like it’s been grafted on as an afterthought to the rest of the country.  A more realistic view of Costa Rica and the economic struggles the people struggle with but as a tourist it’s not a place you need to linger. Skip the capitol and leave the country with images of spider monkeys and rain forest canopies.  What an incredible birthday…Costa Rica is stunning.
Places we stayed
El Sol Monteverde Cloud Forests. Elisabeth doesn’t have her own website but can be contacted here: Puntarenas Province, Monteverde, Costa Rica Phone+506 2645 5838 or through the i-escape website who take her online bookings. Book way in advance if you want to stay; El Sol is very popular and one of the more quirky and private places to stay in the area.  Can provide a car service and airport pick up.
Arenal Volcano area Monterrey. Leaves and Lizards  http://www.leavesandlizards.com/  Can provide a car service and airport pick up.
Manuel Antonio Gaia Hotel and Reserve https://www.gaiahr.com/
Can provide a car service and airport pick up.
Places we visited and Guides
Monteverde Santa Elena Guide Carlos is a very experienced and educated guide who genuinely knows his stuff. You can contact him directly: Carlos Mora Cavallini: email oznog123@yahoo.com Tel: Costa Rica 506 843 83611. I definitely recommend taking a guide, if you don’t you will have no idea where to find anything or know what you’re looking at if you do find something.  Carlos brought his own scope which was a great expereince in itself.
Monteverde Santa Elena Bat Jungle http://www.monteverdeinfo.com/bat-jungle
Monteverde area Selvatura Park Hanging Bridges Hummingbird Garden and Zipwires https://selvatura.com/
Arenal Volcano area Monterrey Horse Riding and  https://Retreat Workshops http://www.leavesandlizards.com/tours/horseback_riding/
Monterrey area near Fortuna Animal Rescue Centre Proyecto Asis If you’re an animal lover and can make time to visit, to volunteer or to donate to them, this was a really impressivley run set up with very well trained considerate guides. https://www.institutoasis.com/
Monterrey area Fortuna Eco Termales Hot Springs https://ecotermalesfortuna.cr/
Manuel Antonio area El Avion Restaurant and Bar  http://www.elavion.net/

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