After reading through the blog posts about my recent trips to Cuba and the Costa Rica trip just concluded, I have realized I am becoming one of those people. You know. Bird people. The ones who get excited about the birds they are seeing, missing out on the fabulous plants altogether. Okay, well maybe not that extreme – I still get pretty excited about the plants, but I am starting to see the attraction of birds. Especially large, colorful birds like the mot mots, which sit still long enough for you to find them in the binoculars. I don’t expect to become a birdaholic like many of my fellow travelers, especially if it means getting up before dawn, but I do see the attraction.
As for plants, in addition to the Gunnera insignis that I mentioned earlier, my second favorite new species in Costa Rica is probably Pitcairnia brittoniana. It is a epiphytic bromeliad that grows on the sides of trees or embankments with an impossibly red inflorescence that also grows sideways, rather than the upright form of most bromeliads. Its vibrancy shouts “look at me!” through the gloom of the cloudy forests of Monteverde.
Another favorite at Monteverde was a liana in the pea family. For many years it has been known as Mucuna urens, but recent studies have thrown that species into question. The seeds are quite large and the pods have an interesting reticulated pattern. They provide nectar to the bats which pollinate the flowers, food for the larvae of the beautiful large blue morpho butterflies in the forests, and the large seeds are food for agoutis, a common large rodent. And they look cool.
It was also fun to see so many of the houseplants we grow in their native habitat. The split-leaf philodendron (Monstera deliciosa) was everywhere. Plants in the African violet family, like Columneas (goldfish plant), were both understory and epiphytic plants. Dieffenchias (dumb cane) found in every bank lobby in North America, are tropical understory species that are a favorite food of peccaries, a kind of wild pig. And the orchids were amazing – we visited an orchid garden that had only orchids found in Monteverde – and there were hundreds of them.
But back to the trip: we left Volcan Arenal by boat, specifically an open-sided sort of water taxi that unofficially operates on Lago Arenal, a lake greatly enlarged by a dam to generate electricity. “Unofficially,” because the government agency that manages the dams does not want it used for such things, though it is clearly very common. It was misty as we crossed the water, landing at a location that is apparently a major ferry stopping point for travelers (lots of backpackers!) making their way between the cloud forests of Monteverde and Arenal. Despite the apparently hundreds of people using the site for embarking/disembarking every day, we scrambled up a muddy slope. Our guide, Jimmy, said that they do not put in pavement and steps because it is an “unofficial” landing spot.
We bumped along in our hired van for about an hour, before landing at our very nice hotel, with fantastic views out to the Pacific Ocean. The next morning we had our excursion to the cloud forest, where we reveled in spotting the Resplendent Quetzal. In the afternoon several of us experience zip-lining for the first time. It was supposed to be a canopy line, but it was VERY cloudy – and windy – as we allowed ourselves to be clipped to cables to zip off into the unknown – truly unknown because you could not see more than a few yards into the clouds. Forget seeing much of the canopy. It is bizarre to see your friends zipping off and disappearing into a cloud and even more bizarre to do it yourself. More than once, we questioned our wisdom at embarking on this journey, especially as the winds whipped at us. By the end, they were sending us down two at a time (legs of the rear person wrapped around the body of the front person) to increase the weight and prevent us from getting stuck part-way across because of our cable attachments “braking” on the cable as we were tossed around by the wind. It was a grand adventure but we were all (except maybe Jana) relieved to come to the last of the eight lines.
After the intense experiences we had together, it was sad to have our final dinner, knowing that by early morning some of us would be heading home, while others went on to further adventures in Costa Rica. It was a great group to travel with! We shared some amazing adventures and I can’t wait to meet up with them again soon.