So the first day in Arenal ends with Paul being annoyed that not only do I still have my hacking cough but that I have terrible sunburn all down my back, in a place where we are meant to be going to the hot springs. Paul pronounces that we “really should be healthier”. Famous last words. In the middle of the night it becomes apparent that he really isn’t “healthy”. The less said about that night the better. So for the rest of this bit I get control of the blog.
At half five I am there for my pick up, a birdwatching tour at the Arenal Hanging Bridges, minimum two people. I explain to my guide that Paul isn’t coming and it’s soon apparent that it’s just me on this tour! I meet Jason my guide and Yeudy the driver and head off towards the hanging bridges.
Before we arrive there’s spotting to do; we see two white throated magpie-jays sitting on power lines, and they’re rare to see in this area; Jason was excited, it means their distribution is widening and it’s quite an achievement to see a few, including one without a crest. My first thought was that it’s the difference between male and female, but apparently both should have a crest; this individual must have lost theirs somehow. I was too sleepy to get the camera out in time.
We move on and very soon we are stopping again to spot a black mandibled toucan, who moves just a fraction too early before I can get a picture. Jason explains that it’s much easier to see toucans out in the open than in the forest, and indeed that was my only toucan spotting during the tour. We also see vultures, and I learn about the differences between black vultures, turkey vultures and king vultures. Jason explains that experienced birders often miss the king vultures as they don’t realise that groups of vultures can be mixed species, so they assume that if one is a black vulture they all are. The king vulture is around more than most people imagine, although has a far more limited distribution in Costa Rica. The view from below watching them fly is mainly white feathers with a black body, rather similar to the Turkey Vulture, the critical difference is the yellow head of the King and the red head of the Turkey. Seeing the black vulture is easier, with their black wings and white tips.
We stopped again a few more times – looking at creatures both Jason and Yeudy the driver had seen. Yeudy is an especially good spotter, a natural.
It’s still early when we arrive and at 6am we’re the only ones here. It doesn’t officially open until 8am. Before parking we had already seen a Coati. A quick fuel stop for some fresh coffee from a thermos (espresso style) and some juice from our packed breakfasts and we head onwards.
Before we leave the car park we see a great kiskadee flycatcher and a gartered trogon. In the park, but still only heading to the main paths, we immediately see a female great curassow, which is roughly the size of a peacock and was nonchalantly walking across the path ahead of us. Apparently they don’t bother flying unless they really have to, or to roost. Then another bird, a crested guan. At 6am our viewing has started very well.
It is apparent that I’ve been very lucky with our driver. Jason says he has never met a driver like this, most of the others are not really interested but Yeudy has an innate talent for spotting and is genuinely interested and excited about wildlife. I feel like I have two guides. Yeudy doesn’t speak english very well and is a bit shy but Jason explains the names to him in English and Yeudy is clearly trying to learn the Spanish and English names for the things he spots. It is clear that these two get along really well and have a lovely jokey relationship and it is a bit of a shame that I don’t speak Spanish as I think it would be quite entertaining to understand their banter.
The hanging bridges are a circular walk including solid bridges and then hanging ones, that gradually get higher without you really noticing, it’s about 2 miles total.
We see a hill inhabited entirely by termites and we see lots of birds. The first big bird we see is ahead of us perching on a handrail post, it’s a rufous motmot, the first of many wonderful motmots. I’m still trying to work out the appropriate settings for the 400mm lens which I haven’t really used before so most of the pictures are just vague blurs. Behind us we see a broad-billed motmot and a rufous tailed hummingbird.
Jason has a quick go with the 400mm and realises just how hard it is! Throughout the visit I see many motmots, mostly of the two common ones for this area, but quite early on we also see the keel-billed motmot, with a blue eyebrow. I’m not really fast enough with the camera to capture it, but I did get one snap before it flew away. Its colours aren’t nearly as ostentatious as the other motmot varieties but it has a subtle elegance to it that I really like.
I had problems with a lot of my motmot pictures, they’re slightly out of focus, or perhaps it was just that they were noisy and I didn’t think to reduce the ISO. Anyway, the lighting wasn’t perfect, it was very dark, and I kept cursing myself for not bringing the tripod. When I left that morning I figured I couldn’t carry it as well as the two cameras and two big lenses. Once I had the cameras round my neck I practically had nothing in my rucksack so could have probably taken the extra weight. I also didn’t expect to have two strapping young men to help me who could have easily carried my tripod for for me. Unfortunately the tripod for the scope didn’t match the fittings for my tripod attachment. Annoyingly, Jason’s other scope probably would have been compatible. Never mind, you live and learn.
Inside the park there are less opportunities to see mammals, but there are so many birds. We get to the highest hanging bridge, which is the first one that really freaks me out (from a vertigo point of view), it wobbles like crazy. I wait for the people just ahead of us to move off the bridge before getting on, but what they were looking at standing in the middle of the bridge was a family of howler monkeys. They are beautiful. Once I get Yeudy to stop moving and wobbling the bridge, I manage to get a shot of mother and baby looking straight at me.
We move on around the corner to get a different view of the family, but the light isn’t quite right for good photos. As we move on Jason, points out how high I was and congratulates me for conquering my fears. I take a picture from below, just to prove how high I went – such a brave girl.
And soon it is over, way too quick. I see another broad-billed motmot and I’m determined, this time I’m gonna get it. I keep trying again again, keep thinking I’ve got it. The others go ahead and sit down for a moment. I give up. Whilst I am looking I point it out to a few American tourists that are now catching us up. Jason asks if I want a rest and I answer no and he thinks I am a ‘strong girl’, well really I just want to enjoy it and once you sit down it is hard to get up again. Before we leave, I decide I am gonna give it one more go to no avail.
So we carry on. Just as we are approaching the bridge there is a huge queue of others in front of us and we decide not to bother waiting and just go around. The tour guide for the large American group lets us go ahead of them on the bridge, so I get to enjoy the last and longest hanging bridge and before I am ready, it is over and 3 hours have gone just like that. It was fantastic. Jason and Yeudy were both very good spotters and I’ve had a lovely morning. I try and take some pictures of the volcano vista but the sun is now too bright for a good shot. I ask if we have time for the souvenir shop but we have to go. I’m not that bothered.
We spend the minibus trip back looking through Jason’s rather large book of birds of Costa Rica. Talking about what we have seen today and taking pictures of the relevant pages for each sighting; both picture and info including their distribution. Jason said he used to be a good birder and would write down where he first had a sighting of bird, but he’s been through 4 copies of this book now, they keep getting wet! I’m really happy with the bandana birds (the flycatchers) and there are some that were indistinguishable, but perhaps it was the rarer one from the body shape. And no I don’t count my birds, which maybe I should?
- Great Curassow (female)
- Black Vulture
- Turkey Vulture
- Crested Guan
- Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer - Hummingbird
- Gartered tailed trogon female
- Black throated trogon female
- Keel-billed Motmot
- Broad-billed Motmot
- Rufous Motmot
- Black Mandibled Toucan
- Buff-throated foliage-gleaner
- Great Kiskadee
- Boat-billed flycatcher
- White collarded Manakin (male)
- White throated Magpie-Jay
- Black headed Nightingale Thrush
- Wood Thrush or Swainson’s Thrush
- Melodious Blackbird
- Clay-coloured Thrush
- White-nosed Coati
- Family of Howler monkeys
Having spent some time talking with Jason about how best to spend the next day I began formulating plans, but back at the hotel it was soon clear Paul wasn’t any better. I showed Paul the pictures, and tried not to be too excited about what I’d just seen. We had some lunch – I had some yummy enchiladas, Paul tested some chips and cola, that did more harm than good, and then I left the hotel on another excursion for one.
I was first on the bus. Marcus was driving and Andy was the guide, quick to pick up my name as it was also his daughter’s. He seemed to pick on me throughout our tour, but I think because mine was the only name he’d remembered.
The next pick up were friends from our transfer yesterday, Peter and Karen; an architect and nurse from Sweden. Next, a retired English couple from Worthing! (Even crazier, the wife had lived in Weybridge until she was 9 and went to school in Walton on Thames! Exactly where I grew up, isn’t the world small?) Then Robin joined us, a lovely lady from the US who’d lived all over America, had gone to college in an American University in London, and had lived in Croydon. She was an American who wanted to live anywhere but America. She was considering a move to Costa Rica when she retires. Soon the bus was full and we arrived at Arenal Volcano.
We picked up our walking sticks and were off up the path. The path was made by an eruption in 1974 which killed 100 people. A small grave (the only one remaining from the church that stood within the village – a village that is no longer there) stood as a reminder of the lost, a loss which is commemorated annually.
We continued on through the secondary forest which is reasonably barren compared to other forests we’ve seen on this trip. Of course it is only what has grown again since the last eruption, a process which relies entirely on a moss taking roots, which later allows further vegetation to spring up.
As the vegetation is limited so too is the wildlife and I saw very few birds, barring some turkey vultures and a fleeting toucan. We did however see some lovely flowers and planted agriculture, they felt like they’d been planted just so that Andy could introduce us to the local produce and plants. Pineapples, bananas, sugar cane and a liquorice plant were among them.
Along the path we reached a large and old looking object. “You won’t be able to guess what it is”, Andy said. Silence, “what do you think it is Samantha?”. Still silence, “I’ll give you $100 if you can guess, I’ll give you $200, $500”. All guesses are wrong. It is a piece of Will Smith’s spacecraft from a film called ‘After Earth’ which has been left here for posterity. Robin and I joked how easy it would be to tell someone on his next tour and split the money. You could hustle him now, if you’re on his tour - although I doubt he would pay up!
The walk was uneventful and steep. Andy tried to engage with us but there really is little wildlife or plant life to talk about. The paths leads to the summit of the 1974 lava flow, and the view from up there is beautiful. A 360° view takes in the volcano (which was actually visible today, apparently quite a rarity) and a large man-made reservoir. I assumed it was formed after the volcano erupted, but it was more recent and a village was flooded to form this lake, to produce hydroelectric energy for a large proportion of Costa Rica. It’s very beautiful but I’m not sure if the dam was such a great idea. It was expected to use 10% of the water to make energy; but it left just 10% – all the fish and fish migratory patterns are long gone, so even in an eco-friendly country, with green energy production, mistakes will happen and the environment is adversely affected.
Anyway I digress, we continued the walk down, myself and retired couple from Worthing lagging behind. Andy didn’t seem to want to wait for us and our photography. We walked through a field of what looked like really tall grass, it’s wild cane (gynerium sagittatum) and it seemed to make everyone look like a borrower in a grain field.
Back at the van and I was slightly disappointed by the tour, though I had enjoyed the company. On route to our hot springs we dropped off a couple at a posh looking spa first – I later found out that it costs an extra $50, and is more crowded. I’m glad we didn’t upgrade. Our hot springs were the “Eco Termales“, which felt like a lovely spa and swimming pool. Towels and wristbands were provided, which you can use to order drinks and cocktails spa-side.
As I was severely sunburnt I was cautious about going in. My new friends assured me it would help. Then they saw my back and they really understood what I meant. Just the cold pool for me, which in itself was cooling and probably good for my sunburn. From the cold pool I spoke with Robin, as she enjoyed a glass of white wine. Then we moved to one of the hot pools, I sat on the steps and dared to put two feet and an ankle in the water - I was happy with that. We all had cocktails (mojito), and again the world felt small; the Costa Rican barman had heard of Brighton football club.
When our cocktail glasses were empty we again ventured into the pool, and this time I was braver; first getting in up to my waist, then sitting on the side with my legs dangling in and eventually in entirely. Woooo! I was in and it was lovely. With my new found freedom I ventured to all the pools, each a different temperature (I at least poked my foot in all of them). What a lovely and relaxing way to spend the afternoon with new friends. The six of us enjoyed a lovely buffet dinner together, myself and Robin indulging in a glass of wine.