Costa Rica is one of the top world destinations for birders, due mainly to a combination of high number of bird species (up to 800 depending on which list is looked at), the size of the country being relatively small (yet having a great diversity of ecosystems – it is divided into 6 different ecological zones), and, for a Central American country, being relatively safe to visit. Thus it was that we had to have our own piece of Costa Rican avian action. This wasn’t our first trip to the region, since we had previously safely and effectively navigated both Mexico and Trinidad. Both of these destinations share not only similar families to Costa Rica, but also many of the same species. However, there are many more non-common families and species within the Costa Rican borders, which made it a challenge for us when identifying new birds.
The position and history of birds here is interesting, since millions of years of evolution has apparently married the formerly divided North and South American continents with the isthmus that finally joined at Costa Rica and Panama. This partially explains the diversity of species that the country enjoys – families migrated from both the North and the South, but not all intermingled due to barriers such as the mountain ranges which form the backbone of the region. Thus while Costa Rica has only 6 true endemics, and many more if the Costa Rica / Panama subzone (the Chiriqui) is considered, the distribution of species and families within the different zones is high. Some North American and Mexican species reach their southern limit in the North of the country (many in the dry North-western Guanacaste area), and even more South American specialities finally end their northern expansion in the Chiriqui area.
Since our budgetary time diet is usually no more than one enjoyable week, we could only plan to visit a sample of the sites on offer. The focus of our trips is more on enjoying the quality of the birds than trying to rack up as large a list as possible, so we planned to spend more time at fewer places than intricate planning and high mileage looking for an extra tick. The week was thus focused around spending two nights at each of three bases, with a night each end of the trip near to the airport, at hotels which would offer some additional birding if needed. The three areas we decided to visit were in the mountains at the Savegre Valley, on the Pacific coast near Tarcoles, which is the northern most barrier for some South America family types, and the Caribbean lowlands near to La Selva. We purposely stayed away from the Braullio Carrillo national park since it was reported to have a higher than average likelihood of car crime, being on a good road just out of the capital of San Jose.
Since the time of year we visited was not only the dry season, but also the most popular time for visiting birders, we took the precaution of booking ahead via the internet. We used an agency called 1costaricalink to book all but one of the hotels. Despite most of the bookings being well catered for, I cannot recommend the company, since not only did they fail to pay our money to the last hotel of the trip (and losing our room in the process), but the manager responsible subsequently refused to apologise for the incident, and also to refund the money. It took some effort on my behalf to do this through the credit card company.
The hotels we used were:
Hotel Buena Vista
The flight from the UK landed at Alajuela airport at 22:30, so we used this superb little hotel, which was only 9km from the touchdown, and also offered a free shuttle pickup. Due to a mix up with our booking agents, who had failed to secure the Hotel Bougainvillea, we also returned to the Buena Vista on the last night. Apart from missing the 2 likely Ground-sparrows at the Bougainvillea, the Buena Vista offers at least as good, if not a better, birding experience. It has a small garden to the rear, but the Floridian owner also allows birding on his property which is adjacent, and has some very birdy coffee plantation terraces below. There were quite a few species that we only saw at the Buena Vista, including Blue-crowned Motmot, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Plain-capped Starthroat, Swainson’s Thrush, Brown Jay, and Yellow-green Vireo. Another plus in favour of the Buena Vista is that the food is superb.
Savegre Lodge Hotel
There are very few hotels in prime locations in the mountains, and this is one of those. Thus, it probably gets booked up very quickly. It is located at the end of a 10km downward track in the Savegre Valley, and is right in the centre of some excellent mountainous forest. For those who chase birding icons, there are also regular Quetzel sightings within the area, including a group of birds that visit the avocado trees right above some of the chalets. Another speciality of the hotel is the provision of excellent hummingbird feeders, which attract good numbers of some of the mountain specialities.
Hotel Punta Leona
A few kilometres South of Tarcoles, this is a very new family orientated resort. This isn’t the sort of place we would have aimed for, but the price was surprisingly reasonable, and it is also in an excellent location for Pacific coast locations such as Carara. Villas Lapas, which are on the opposite side of the road to Tarcoles, are in a much more favourable setting, without the sunseekers and manicuring of the Punta Leona, but are also twice the price. We made do with an afternoon visit to the Villas, including a good buffet, but still found some good trails within the Punta Leona, again with birds that were seen only there, such as Black-throated Trogon and Dot-winged Antwren.
La Quinta, Sarapiqui
We were also lucky with this very hospitable and endearing hotel. Some birds were present at the feeders, but another benefit is the provision of a small frog garden, where some of the local poison dart frogs can be found. The buffet dinners are good, with the added benefit of being served in an open air restaurant. La Selva, which is a must see reserve in this area, is also just 15km away, and the reception can book a guide for La Selva, which is a must if the reserve trails are to be visited. As with all the hotels we frequented, directions given were accurate, and we had no problem in finding them.
It is likely that superb birding can be experienced at any time of the year. The months of February and March are the drier months of the year, and so this is the period that most trips aim for, including ourselves. Dry season is something of a misnomer, since the term is only relative, and the amount of rain encountered also depends on which ecosystem is visited. We had more rain as the week progressed, but this was more likely to be due to moving between areas than the increase generally of poorer weather. So, we encountered mist and light drizzle as we climbed up towards the higher peaks, dry weather in the Savegre Valley (also cooler and more temperate here), hot and dry at the Pacific coast, and then hot with rain in the Caribbean lowlands. All these weather systems tallied very well with those predicted. The dry season is outside of the breeding season, and although only a handful of the birds change into a more drab non-breeding plumage, there is some dispersal from breeding grounds. Later in the year is probably much better for singing and displaying birds.
Biting insects can be something of an annoyance, without being a major irritation. Mosquitoes were encountered mainly in the forested areas of the lowlands, as well as chiggers, which seemed to prefer grassy lawns. Far from being a threat, we had hoped to see some snakes and spiders. We were warned to take care to avoid being bitten by the former, which are more of a danger in the forests at night, but unfortunately we didn’t even get a sniff of one.
We had been forewarned that roads in Costa Rica were very poor, with an attendant lack of road signs. Because of this, we invested in a 4x4, or what was supposed to be a 4x4, since the Toyota Rav4 we booked was actually two wheel drive. We also took a GPS and decent road map. There is no doubt that there are many potholes in the country, and that some roads were little more than rocky gravel tracks, but navigation was much better than expected. We didn’t get lost to any major extent at all, even when traversing San José. However, I would still strongly recommend a 4x4, more for the clearance and better suspension than the 4 wheel drive, since I am sure that a normal saloon car would be easily broken.
English is quite widely spoken, particularly in the hotels, but we did come across some folk that spoke only Spanish, including at reserves such as La Selva. We had learned some basic Spanish, and this was not only useful in certain situations, but was also well received by the locals. Electricity, always an essential for charging camera batteries, was also no problem. The US style sockets are used, and all hotel rooms had an ample supply.
The currency in Costa Rica is the colon, and the frightening fact about it is that it takes many colones to equate to other currencies, such as £1 having the equivalent of 1000 colones. The dollar is widely accepted, but it is still useful to have the local currency to hand. The downside is that the currency can only be obtained in Costa Rica itself, so we used the cash machine in the airport. As we travelled around, it became evident that there were also cash machines in the towns, so they were easier to find that originally thought.
There is only really one identification book to take – Stiles and Skutch. Despite being a little weighty, which seems to be the norm for Central and South American ID guides, it has good illustrations and species accounts.
We had tried to track down the now out of print 1:200000 map of the San Jose area, since we wanted as much detail for self navigation as possible. However, the 1:330000 scale map by International Travel Maps (www.itmb.com) which we used was more than adequate.
Site guide – “Where to watch
birds in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean” (Wheatley & Brewer,
Princeton Press) gives a good overall idea of the main sites within the