In late 1994, the folks at United Plus credit card company let me know I needed to use my frequent flyer miles by February, 1995, or I would be required to supply 15% more miles for the same destination. Knowing of my growing need for warm, dry winter vacations, I looked at my options for winter 95-96. It was either Maui or Costa Rica, and having been to Maui and never Costa Rica, the decision was made. So I reserved the first half of December for a combination snorkeling, windsurfing, birding vacation in Central America.
This article is written for those who want to know about the opportunities and problems of a low cost, unguided birding trip to Costa Rica. If you have the money, and want to add the maximum number of birds to your life list in the shortest amount of time, and with the least frustration, the style of travel described in this article is not for you. This is for those who want to eat, sleep, and travel cheaply; and who want to experience the exuberance of finding and identifying exotic birds in exotic lands on their own, and at the least (or at least reasonable) cost.
It is important to keep in mind that Costa Rica is not all that big, so that you can have a sunrise-over-the-Caribbean breakfast, lunch in San Jose on the central valley plateau, and conclude your day with a sunset-over-the- Pacific dinner. All of this done by taking public transportation, in which you, the gringo, constitute less than 10 % of the bus passengers. Total transportation costs for the day...less than $15.
The first thing you must decide is how you are going to get around. In San Jose, walking and taxis work well. Buses to other destinations around the county work well and you can get an up-to-date 10 page computer print out from the tourist office which lists every bus route with stop locations and times. Buses are particularly good if you don't want to deal with the terrible roads found in some areas, or if you want to avoid paying $25 to $40/day for car rental. There are some locations to which buses do not go including back roads near Tarcoles that offer prime viewing of macaws and ibis doing their daily flights; another area that would be difficult to bird from a bus is Cerro de la Muerte, and in particular the gravel road leading down to San Gerardo, where Resplendent Quetzels are traditionally found.
I hiked around San Jose, including a one day bus trip to Braulio Carrillo, the first couple of days, then caught an express bus to Quepos to see Manuel Antonio National Park. I would recommend staying at one of the lodges at Manual Antonio rather than Quepos. After a day and morning of birding there, I caught a local bus to Tarcoles, the closest community to Carara. While on the bus, I had my binoculars out and A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica ( a must for every birder going to Costa Rica) open. Seeing the bust and head of a Crested Caracara, only 20 feet from the road shoulder was exhilarating, but it was equally frustrating to see a dark colored ibis (Glossy) 100 yards out in a field with some egrets, and unable to stop and verify.
So the key is to locate what you consider to be the top birding spots of interest to you, get there and settle in for a few days. Top birding spots that I personally visited and from which you can bird using public buses in combination with taxis include Carara Biology Reserve and La Selva Protection Zone. Other places that would work better without renting a car include the Osa Peninsula ( a multi day hike from hut to hut on trails is possible here), Monteverde, and Tortuguero National Park. These places combined with a few days in San Jose and you have a great two to three week vacation. There are other areas that deserve your birding attention, but may not lend them self to birding from public buses. They include the Cerro de la Muerte area, Braullio Carrilo and Tapanti National Parks/Refuges and the Guanacaste region.
After arriving in Tarcoles, I found a cabina with swimming pool for $20/night and immediately hitched a ride to the Carara Biology Reserve 3 or 4 miles away. The trail designated the No Authorization Trail (or "Vigilancia Trail ") in A Birder's Guide to Costa Rica, the other guide which is a recommended, is now the trail of choice, complete with guard posted most of the time. After hiking this trail for a couple hours, I wanted to catch the evening flights of the Scarlet Macaws on their way to their evening roosts. At the Tarcoles River Bridge, I met another solo birder from Virginia who had rented a car. We struck up a conversation, I offered a beer for a ride back to my cabina and we ending up spending the next week birding together. This allowed me to make a direct comparison of car rental versus riding buses. We would start the day at 5:30 am catching the first flights at dawn, and bird back roads where buses didn't go. Nearing the end of our second visit to the "Vigilancia Trail " (one could easily hike this 3 mile trail 2 days in a row and maintain a sense of anticipation and exhilaration), we heard 2 shots and the squeal of tires. Joking it sounded more like Nicaragua than Costa Rica, we soon discovered our car had been broken into, and our radio and birding hats stolen. The shots were those of the park guard returning from lunch; the same thing had happened the day before to some other visiting birders. From Carara, we went to Cerro de la Muerte to do some highlands birding for an afternoon and a morning , and then to La Selva to bird a Caribbean slope rain forest. I then caught 3 buses (including waits of 4 hours, 2 hours and 1 hour) to Cahuita on the Caribbean for a couple days of total relaxation and snorkeling.
What were my birding highlights? I probably saw or heard over 200 birds, most in a 6-day period. I identified 159 of those, including 50 -100 Scarlet Macaws, 3 Resplendent Quetzals, many Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, Collared and Fiery-billed Aracari, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Collared and Vilaceous Trogans, Long-tailed and Orange-collared Manakin, Montezuma Oropendolas, a Golden-browed Chlorophonia, a Bay-headed Tanager (among 11 tanagers), Parrots (Red-lored, White-crowned, Brown-hooded) and Olive-throated Parakeets. If you are interested in a complete list, give me a call. Better yet, think seriously about creating your own Costa Rican list. Its an inexpensive birding paradise with a wonderful climate and endless adventure opportunities.
What are my other observations from this short 2 week trip?
1. Birding by bus in Costa Rica is possible, and preferred, if you are selective in where you go and settle into those areas for 2 or 3 days.
2. You can generally get by for $30/day including meals if you stay in inexpensive cabinas and/or hotels. This translates into roughly $450 for two weeks plus what ever additional luxuries you want to incur. I spent $750 over two weeks staying in places ranging from $7.50 to $86/night.
3. If getting large numbers of birds in the shortest amount of time is your goal, and money is not a constraint, a guided trip is the way to go. A two week guided trip may cost $4400 including air fare and may provide 400 species for an average cost of $11 per species. By comparison, a non-guided, two week trip could cost $1200 and provide 200 species, for $6 per species.
4. One book is essential: Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles, Skutch and Gardner, and A Birders Guide to Costa Rica by Keith Taylor, Revised 1993 or later, is highly recommended.
5. For certain areas of Costa Rica, renting a car is preferable. What you may want to do is go to those areas where cars are not useful (San Jose, Tortuguero and Osa Peninsula) and then rent a car to visit the other areas, if there is still time available, or if it is your second trip. If you are planning to rent a car, I highly recommend you put an extra effort into finding birding travel companions before you leave the States. This allows you convenient transportation, companionship and improved birding results.
6. As it turned out, the snorkeling is not what one might hope. The people I talked to felt their experiences were at best marginal. At Cahuita on the Caribbean Coast, a combination of the '91 earthquake, and pollution (chemical and soil erosion), are attributed to damaging the coral reefs. This was suppose to be the premier snorkeling location in Costa Rica. When it came to windsurfing vs birding, birding won out. From what I heard, it was cloudy and windless at Lake Arenal at the time I would have been there. So even though I only met 1 of my 3 original goals, that experience was so rewarding, I went back in late 1996 and early 1998.
7. I would recommend having some basic skills in Spanish if you are going to go unguided. Just to be able to ask the basic questions and understand the basic answers is important in buying bus tickets, buying food, asking directions. I think a couple months of conversation Spanish from a local community college would be sufficient if you have never had Spanish, or its been awhile. You can also check out tapes from the library.
8. I took travelers checks and cash ($500 of each) plus I had my credit card for big purchases. Next time I don't think I will take the travelers checks. You have to pay a commission (3 to 5%) to get them exchanged, plus your exchange rate may be a few colones per dollar less, and all this reflects the cost imposed by these checks.
9. I had typhoid, tetanus, and gamma globulin vaccinations and others agreed that they were all useful. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta recommends (through the Salem Hospital Travel Center) that you have malaria tablets if you are going to remote parts of Costa Rica. From everyone I talked to, the remote area where this might apply is near the Nicaraguan border. I met no one taking tablets for malaria and I discontinued taking mine after my reaction to the first dose. My reaction was characterized by disorientation, something akin to some of the 60's drug trips (described to me by others). Nothing can make one feel more paranoid than being disoriented from drugs in a non-English speaking developing country. A friend of mine who was in India about the same time experienced the same thing and cut his 5 week trip to 3 weeks.
10. A word of warning. The admission price for the national parks has gone up from a $1 or so, to $15. They have discount tickets available (4 entries for $30, good for the entire system) and you don't have much choice, given you have come this distance and the best birding is now moving towards the parks and reserves. It was a shock because my 1993 guide book still listed the price at the $1 level.
If you have additional questions on places to go, how to do it, etc, please feel free to give me a call, 509.365.2404, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy birding in Costa Rica!!