Costa Rica: jeep-boat-jeep!

Monday we were due to leave Arenal to travel to the UGA Costa Rica lab in Monteverde (Santa Elena). We packed early, settled our bill (most had been paid ahead of time through UGA) and then waited for the “jeep-boat-jeep” transfer to the Monteverde area. The first “jeep” in question turned out to be a bright new white “Turismo” van. On the ride we struck up a conversation with a British woman (didn’t catch her name), who spoke on behalf of her husband Dan and their two kids, a boy in his teens and a cute girl of about 8 who was occupied with practicing her “times tables”. They turned out to have quite an interesting background: Dan worked in some capacity for the UN, and this was their first trip after about a year in Manhattan, after having been previously stationed in the wilds of East Africa. They were having a rough time getting used to the cold and bustle of NYC, so for their vacation they packed up the kids and headed to Costa Rica, which they’d visited earlier as a couple. They seemed to be having a good time, and certainly traveled with the ease and confidence of people who had seen their share of the world, but it became obvious that they were a bit disappointed with the commercialization of CR since their last visit.

We drove along the shore of the lake, across the dam, and pulled over on the far side to unload our luggage. At the direction of the drivers we carried our luggage down a steep concrete ramp to the shore of the lake, where several broad beamed fiberglass boats with canopies were tied. We boarded one of the boats and waited for about 30 minutes for additional passengers. We entertained ourselves watching an egret fishing in the shallows, and swallows building nests in the vents and engine cowling of a nearby houseboat. A team of local workmen were cutting the vegetation on the slope of the dam, and like many scenes in Costa Rica it was a mixture of the modern and the old: several of them wielded gas powered string trimmers, but those following them were raking up the weeds with newly cut forked sticks.

Finally several large vans disgorged about 20 young american and international tourists and our boat was ready to leave.
We ran down along the length of the lake, the cone of the Arenal playing hide and seek in bright white clouds behind us. I could tell from snippets of overheard conversations that several of our fellow passengers had not seen the volcano clearly during their stay in the area, which made us feel even luckier.

The lake was beautiful, surrounded by verdant rolling hills, some covered in mixed forest, others clear pasture with the occasional grazing cows and horses. We admired a few impressive haciendas from afar, watched a pair of anhinga zipping along just over the water, and before long our speed dropped and the boat aimed for a grassy bank.

We originally assumed our destination would be a dock, or at least a boat ramp similar to our embarkation point, but the captain drove the boat up onto a grassy slope, where a half dozen Turismo vans (the final “jeeps”) waited on a dirt road. We stepped carefully down a set of steel steps placed on the mud at the bow of the boat, and were directed to our van (“Carro cinco? Si!”) which turned out to be the same van our new friends boarded, so we were able to continue our conversation.

As we boarded the van our driver asked each party for their destination, and he seemed a bit puzzled by our prepaid UGA Costa Rica vouchers, but he shrugged and waved us inside.  We bounced over the dusty rutted road, climbing out of the lake valley, passing dozens of modest fincas (farms), hilly plots of pasture fenced with wire strung between stakes of locust (or something similar) that had rooted and sprouted new branches. Brahma cattle grazed in the bright tropical sun, and bony dogs slept in the shade of the low farm buildings.

After about an hour we pulled over in front of a large low building with a shaded dirt patio that served as the shopping and dining stop on the route. Our drivers grabbed a quick lunch, we all rushed thankfully to the tiny bathrooms, and then browsed a dusty collection of souvenirs, including some colorful scenes of parrots, toucans, monkeys and sloths painted on what looked like turkey (chachalaca?) feathers. I bought a coke (1000 colones), paid with a 5k note, and spent an awkward few minutes wondering if our host was planning to give me any change. I stood to one side, he smiled at me and continued to wait on others, and after a few minutes a young man rushed in with a handful of bills. The old man apologized profusely as he handed over 4000c, and I realized that we’d all been waiting on change.

Back in the vans for another hour or two of driving on the twisting, dusty roads. Gradually the houses became more frequent, the hills greener and the vegetation more lush, and we began to see rushing streams in deep valleys, and signs for ziplines and canopy tours. A few miles more and we plunged into the cacophony of bustling Santa Elena, tour center of the Monteverde area. Our driver dropped off one couple in town, and teams of hawkers in sunglasses descended on the van to offer deals on lodging and tours. I heard the departing couple dismiss them with shouts of “we paid already” and I was glad that we didn’t have to deal with the crush of commerce that seemed to be the lifeblood of the town.

We zipped around a block and up a hill to the Sapo Dorado (Golden Toad, named for a critically endangered local amphibian), where our British friends were staying for 3 nights. Then back into town to drop off another couple and a woman who had been typing into her Blackberry for the entire ride, and it was back out of town on a different road, the only passengers left. We drove up and down a twisting, rutted dirt road, passing a small dairy (a group of Quakers settled in the area in 1951) and finally spotted a small sign for “Universidad de Georgia”. Our driver took that turn, a few more miles of bumpy ruts, and we were there.

Not the little road sign, but the sign at the main campus.

Our home for the next 4 night was Ecolodge San Luis, the tourist accommodations at the UGA Costa Rica campus in San Luis.  It was everything we expected and more–beautiful buildings made of locally harvested sustainable woods, lots of peace and quiet (we visited between semesters), lots of tasty food, friendly staff and student naturalists, and plenty of wildlife and walking.

The student center, site of dining hall and offices, and center of activity for campus.

We signed in at the main student center, and almost immediately ran into Scott Connelly, a friend and teammate from my days in the dart league (Shaved Monkeys rule!). I knew Scott as a graduate student, and he’s now the Faculty Director for the UGA Costa Rica study abroad programs. We ate lunch w/ Scott and everyone else there at the time (meals are served family style, and everyone digs in with gusto). During lunch we met Sam, a student naturalist from Canada who offered to show us our cabina and help plan our stay. After lunch she guided us down the dirt road that we would get to know well, since we walked it several times a day going to and from our cabin. It was a beautiful walk, past the shops of the campus, up a hill overlooking a small pasture, and down the hill and up a road past the plot used to grow native trees. The trees are planted as part of the UGA Costa Rica carbon offset program, and to support the Pájaro Campana Biological Corridor, a reforestation program to protect the habitat and migration patterns of the Three Wattled Bellbird and Resplendent Quetzal.

Our daily scenery.

Agouti near the tree farm.

We settled into cabin #6, and almost immediately spotted what turned out to be my favorite bird of the trip, a resident pair of Blue Crowned Motmots. We dubbed them the “moot moots” after their soft calls. I realized later that serious birders consider them boring birds, because they’re common and easily watched (they prey on lizards and insects, and spend a lot of time sitting still on low branches). I think their plumage is gorgeous, and took dozens of pictures, most of which turned out to be out of focus, since I didn’t understand the autofocus on our new Canon PowerShot SX103IS.

Mr (or Mrs) Moot moot

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