Costa Rica — Bird Watching for Dummies — January 2019

January 7, 2019:  an early morning flight from Sonoma County airport—close by, easy parking, then a wait in Los Angeles for the flight to San Jose Costa Rica. We were an hour late but our shuttle driver was waiting to drive us to the Hotel Grano de Oro a favorite from our last trip. And we arrived before the kitchen closed so we could fill our stomachs with memories—hearts of palm salad, rabbit, tres leches cake.
Next morning we found an ATM, SIM cards and our rental car, and hit the road. Too many people in San Jose live behind barbed wire, most of them looking like they have nothing to steal, but as someone told us along the way “people will steal things just because it’s easy”.
We drove  to Naranjo for a coffee tour, arriving with enough time for lunch before the tour so we decided to walk to town… and back, canceling any calories. Good coffee, interesting tour, but we bailed early to be sure we found our resort before dark. Driving is slow in Costa Rica, hilly windy roads , one lane bridges, lots of trucks, bad drivers either pokey or reckless.
Espiritu Santo
Tony had stayed at Chachagua 20 years ago, turns out it is listed as 1000 places to see before you die.
We took a morning hike with Diego, an ace at spotting birds and animals.  He demonstrated that termites were good to eat … by eating termites. Ick. Tony also did a night hike with Diego and his 10 year old son who was as sharp-eyed as his father, pointing out 14 kinds of frogs. Another day Diego found us howler monkeys, an iguana and a hummingbird nest. There were five sloths that the guide could recognize by name. Sophia was the most elegant because the guides could catch her and give her a bath. “A rolling stone may gather no moss” but sloths do. They have a whole ecosystem living on their fur. There were toucans and other birds at a feeder by the outdoor restaurant.
We took a day trip to the iguana bridge in Muelle to revisit another memory. Yup still there.
Iguana bridge – Muelle
Checked out and headed to Jaco. Although we were retracing our route to Naranjo, Waze routed us on more picturesque roads up to the cloud forest and through spectacular hilly agricultural land. It must be Costa Rica’s produce belt, very prosperous. The highway to Jaco was much like going to Santa Cruz on a holiday weekend. Where the traffic slowed there were fishermen beside the road holding big fish for sale. Jaco was cheek to jowl with tacky souvenir shops, fast food, hotels, graffiti, prostitutes, weedy vacant lots — hundreds of ways to wreck a nice beach. Okay my good humor was restored by the best.pina-colada. ever. In a fresh pineapple shell with a hibiscus!
Jaco pina-colada with smile
We dropped off our rental car and next morning a van picked us up for the taxi boat to the Nicoya peninsula avoiding a car ferry and hours of dusty road. Surprise! No pier. Fit young men carried our luggage on their shoulders as we waded through the surf. We stopped once to negotiate through a long line fishing line which extended for a mile or more. Then we slowed again to enjoy the dolphins surfing in the wake of the boat!
Ylang Ylang was another repeat, as beautiful as we remembered. A troop of capuchin monkeys entertained us outside our room along with a wedding on the beach.
Capuchin in Montezuma
There is always lots of tropical fruit and salads, but this resort has some lighter alternatives to the typical rice, beans, meat 3x a day. Our tummies are ready for a break.
Ylang Ylang dining room

There is a sea turtle reserve on the beach. Volunteers gather the eggs and place them in an enclosure so they aren’t stepped on. When they hatch, they set them out on the sand for their walk to the sea. Too bad we were never there on the right day.

Our last morning at Ylang Ylang, a howler monkey was calling his tribe together. What fun to watch them assemble and listen to their howls on our way to breakfast. We said our goodbyes to John and Gillian with whom we shared a table for the last three nights. Gillian is in charge of the Global Government to Save the World, tbd. She has our vote.

We gathered at the beach for the water taxi. Unlike our arrival they put our suitcases into plastic bags. Ah ha, we are taking two small boats instead of the large one. Now that we are experienced travelers and since our names were first on the list, we cleverly grabbed two seats in the back on the shady side under the fly. Off we go with two 200hp Suzuki outboards. Ahh, we chose the wettest seats! I used Tony for a windshield, but he was soaked with salt spray. One woman lost her hat that the captain recovered with a quick u turn. Then he stowed all our backpacks and bags in a dry compartment for us. With our cameras safely stowed, we paused to watch a pod of pilot whales frolic, hump, and feed.

We picked up another rental car a complementary upgrade to a RAV4, less rattling than the Ford eco sport. Unfortunately, we didn’t question whether it was 4WD. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. After an exceptional tuna poke lunch, we were back on the route to the wilds of the Osa peninsula. Plantations producing palm oil make us worry about its future.

Truckload delivery for palm oil

We were watching the clock wanting to arrive before dark. GPS announced “you have arrived at your destination “ out in the middle of nowhere. Checking with boys along the road, they gestured to keep going. Sure enough we had to cross a couple more narrow one lane bridges with no guardrails and drops into an abyss and ford the two streams that were mentioned in our emails. Did I say we didn’t have 4WD? Nevertheless, we were safely arrived at Lapa Rios before dark.

We entered the eco-resort through a big open air dining room/bar/reception with a central spiral staircase up to a viewing tower.


From there, down a long steep trail with lots and lots of stairs to our room which was rustic/modern, spacious, with a mosquito netted king bed, indoor/outdoor showers, ocean view deck with lounges and a hammock. The wall and wing walls closest to the trail were solid stucco for privacy. The other walls had low bamboo wainscoting with screens to ceiling height. Although it is described as a thatched roof, the material is actually synthetic. Natural materials deteriorate fast in the rain forest. Even the newer walkways are Trex for practicality. The mosquito netted bed seems more decorative than necessary as there have been very few insects.


Dinner was good but quite ordinary.

5:01am: We woke up laughing at the jungle sounds with lots of howler monkeys, then bird calls. Up and out, ignoring our thermos of morning coffee which was already delivered, we climbed the stairs toward reception, stopped at a seating area, and OMG! scarlet macaws! That is our reason for being at Lapa Rios which literally translates as a river of scarlet macaws. We were determined to find them in the wild and this lodge was a big splurge to insure that it happened. One pair was feeding in a tree, another did a fly-by for us, several more pairs flew by. We ate breakfast on the terrace watching macaws and green parrots. Heading back towards our room after breakfast, we heard a squawk, and stopped under an almond tree where at least three macaws were feeding and dropping shells on us. Up close. Bird watching is easy when they are large, brightly colored and noisy!


I washed out our lightweight salt encrusted clothes and their dampness hadn’t changed overnight. Is it possible to dry clothes in the rain forest? Yes, one hour of sunshine and all was dry. Temperature around 90 degrees today with a gentle breeze; night temp 75 with a breeze plus ceiling fans (no a/c). Our drinking glasses condense a surprising amount of water. Every meal of the trip has been open air. We are so close to the equator that there is no provision for enclosed shelters.

Tony went on the night hike — frogs, toads, insects, a sleeping tanager, a sleeping iguana … ho hum.


5:24am day two: we are overlooking the Golfo Dulce which is actually a tropical fjord backed by an amphitheater of jungle. The monkey chorus starts at dawn so we can enjoy the sunrise as the birds wake up. We saw a spider monkey as well as the howlers, a squirrel monkey, and capuchins so we have now seen all four species in the country.

Later, at the beach, we watched the brown pelicans feeding, surfing the waves, and practicing their touch-and-goes. They are capable of graceful water landings unless they grab a fish and land arse over teakettle.

On the way back to our bungalow from dinner, I counted the stair steps: 219. We saw spiders, frogs, and a vine snake. (Don’t use the handrails without looking for snakes, spiders, insects, monkey poo, etc .) When we arrived at our room, we discovered that housekeeping had locked us out. No phone service here. Tony hiked back to reception and on his return, he met a guide who alerted him to a coiled fer-de-lance poisonous snake. Tony came back for his camera and hiked the trail again for a photo. (55 floors climbed working off his beans and rice.) Actually dinner was a bbq on the terrace with ceviche and salads, grilled mahi-mahi, chicken, or beef.

219 steps to breakfast lunch and dinner

Day three: a windy morning and a glorious sunrise. We were up and out for the early bird tour: macaws, toucans, parrots, parakeets, vultures, fregate birds, herons, snowy egrets, ibis, tanagers, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and a blue morpho butterfly, all before breakfast. This is one of the last primary forests left in Costa Rica. The guide told us that when he was a child, he would capture parakeets for his pets from their nests inside termite mounds. That is now forbidden although his children are intrigued by the possibilities. Our guide also gave us a demonstration of the tattoo fern. Along with the spores underneath is a waxy substance, if you place the fern on a dark surface and give it a slap, a silvery image of the fern is left.

We asked a workman if he knew the name of the skinny snake we had seen. No, but he knew the boa constrictor that had just been spotted — about 3 meters long and the diameter of a football. Tony rushed off to find it; I opted for hammock time. What a sloth! When Tony found the guide he was starting a medicinal plant tour, so Tony joined it. Hmmm, he left to find a boa constrictor and didn’t return. What, me worry?

At dinner, reception approached us to verify that we were leaving in the morning. “The only problem is that we noticed you have a flat tire. Shall we change it for you?” Yes please.

Off to the cloud forest, we wound and climbed and reached 10000 feet. What a diverse country. Then we turned off toward our hotel, missing it the first time, not believing the narrow dirt track was our road. Tony is a good driver, but I was quite terrified by the drop offs especially when we would cross patches of road that had broken away. It was nine long kilometers to San Gerardo de Dota where there was quite a large group of resorts along a babbling trout stream once we arrived at Hotel Savegre. All meals were buffets, a bit disappointing. We hiked for awhile along a 4wd track that was uninspiring. We had drinks in the bar that looked like a ski resort with fireplace and bundled up guests, then dinner and back to our room to build a fire of our own, poking our heads outdoors to see the lunar eclipse. Early the next morning we failed to see the areas main attraction, the elusive Resplendent Quetzal.

We drove back to the Grano de Oro Hotel in the capital city of San Jose, dropped off the car, and went in search of a chocolate shop. The neighborhoods were all a bit dodgy and when we arrived at our destination, there was no chocolate shop to be found. Costa Rica is an enigma, professing to be green and ecologically minded, and then we pass a stream strewn with garbage and debris and stinking of sewage. Sometimes it is paradise; sometimes not.

Spain 2016

It was a birthday celebration for Leila and her mother, so they rented a castle in Spain, as one would, and invited some friends. Yes, we accepted.

The drive through the Pyrenees was spectacular.


GPS presented some challenges for each new arrival. The road to the Castell de Llaes is evidently regarded as unpaved. It’s on a hill, of course, and here is our first view.

Castell de Llaes

It’s a rather steep approach. Ingrid is already uphill from the parking space and up the first switchback. Don and Mary have the last switchback ahead.

Ingrid approach

Fortunately, we didn’t have to carry our bags thanks to Leila who was running the gondola.


We spent lots of time cooking, eating, and drinking. Here is part of the crew having aperitifs on the terrace. Mary, Jane, Leila, Richard, Ingrid, Brian, Tony, Roger, Glenys . . .

aperosand Don


Tony:Jane:shrimpJane's tartes

Tony and Jane preparing shrimp.

And then Jane made tarts.


Peruvian friends arrived and cooked an amazing Peruvian lunch

Peruvian lunch

Eventually, we ventured out to see the sights

the devil

wine shop and replenish supplies at our favorite wine shop. An exceptional Rioja at 1.60 euros per liter. Bring your own container. We do wish they had a branch in Sebastopol!

marketfruits and vegetables


some fish

after market

Lunch, shopping, sight-seeing and we are heading back to the castle

in time for dinner.

Our host joined us


Richard Henrik

Richard appeared pleased when his girlfriend arrived.

But apparently Henrik didn’t like their matching shirts. He was usually more cheerful.

Evenings found us watching the weather with Richard taking fabulous sky photos.


I hope the birthday girls had as good a time as we did.


Glenys:TonyThanks Leila. I wish we could add the soundtrack of Caroline singing in the chapel and the tinkle of the sheep bells.

France 2016

We took the overnight ferry from Plymouth England to Roscoff France then a taxi from the port to the train station. Surprise! The train station was locked. It was a small station and only opened when a train was expected. So we walked around and waited and read the notices on the doors including the one that said in effect: Due to the train strike, the only service today will be an afternoon train. Ouch! We would miss our connection to Paris. I had already chatted with a British couple from the ferry who were taking a walk around Roscoff. They were returning to their car and I asked “Would you be going to Morlaix?” Response: “Could do.” They squeezed us and our big bags into the car and delivered us to Morlaix where we caught our connection. Relying on the generosity of strangers often works.

It was a rainy week without good photographs. This one looks bright:

Parisian chickens

We stayed at La Villa des Artistes in Montparnasse, eating at Wadja across the street, wandering into a Celtic street festival, strolling through the Luxembourg gardens and the Jardin des Plantes, the Tuileries, the Pantheon to see Foucault’s pendulum and the tombs of the great thinkers, the Bois de Boulogne and Frank Gehry’s new building . . .

Gehry's Vuitton

The train took us to Cahors and a rental car, then to stay with our friend Ann.


Puy l’Eveque was looking charming in spite of gray weather.

Puy l'Eveque


A pleasant week in the Lot then on to Biarritz during a roaring 20’s festival, and Bayonne, Hendaye, Espelette



Next stop will be Spain.

England 2016

6 May 2016

Elizabeth Ross

The poster was actually in Oslo, but we will use it as a transition to the UK.

We flew from Copenhagen to Gatwick England — long queue through the foreign passport check, a long walk to the rental agency, then a very slow drive around London, and finally on our way for pleasant visits with Craig and Carolyn in Solihull, then Kate and Nigel in Uphampton who we would see again in France.

Cornwall gardens were the focus of the British part of our trip and we had found a B&B run by descendants of the founder of Glendurgan, a garden dating from the era of the plant hunters in the early 1800’s.  It was lovely to wake up to views of the garden and to walk through it whenever we wished.  Negotiating the narrow roads with high hedgerows quickly became tedious and we limited our excursions to nearby sites: Trebah, Penjerrick, Bonython, Bosvigo…

Trebah tulip tree

Massive Tulip tree, with the old woodsman for scale.

Trebah maze

Maze, well maintained but pruned short, according to EU regulation, so no one would become lost—no wonder the Brits voted to leave the EU.

We drove to St. Ives to the Barbara Hepworth museum. Her sculptures and Tony’s were strikingly similar.  Tony was awake that night mentally sculpting unfinished pieces.  At the museum we requested a recommendation for a coffee shop.  The locals at the “Art Cafe”  included an artist and poet who gave us a guided tour of the St. Ives Arts Club, and Martin Turner of the old music group Wishbone Ash.  It was a pretty, serendipitous day.


Barbara Hepworth

We dined at a pub in Falmouth, a city with a rich sea heritage, and chatted with two local men:  “Do you have a boat?  Most Americans who come to Falmouth come by boat.”  They might have confused us with the owners of the yacht, Paraffin.  “No, we arrived in a rented Vauxhall.”

On Kate’s recommendation, our next stop was in Padstow, an old fishing village when Tony had visited over the past 40 years.  Now it’s been gentrified and is ironically also known as “Padstein” because the chef Rick Stein has transformed numerous buildings into hotels and seafood restaurants.  Good food and lodging by the sea on a busy holiday weekend.

Next stop, Two Bridges, a country hotel in the moors of Dartmoor that Tony first visited in 1971.  The ancient miniature oaks of Wistman’s Woods, (home of the Stannary Court since 1305) had always been surrounded by primroses, but in four visits, never seen in the bloom.  Because the primroses were in prime throughout Cornwall,  we thought we’d see a big show.  Surprisingly, there wasn’t a primrose to be found; they have been replaced by encroaching grasses–climate change perhaps….

Whisman's Woods

Then to Plymouth for a day and the overnight ferry to Roscoff, France.

(Sidenote:  our credit cards had been blocked while we were making reservations.  According to the bank, one of the sites we were using was “trending for fraud”.  I am guessing that would be Brittany Ferries with all the refugees looking for a means to cross the channel.  Hard times.)

Oslo 2016

On the day of departure we received an email that the hotel workers were on strike in Oslo and our hotel was relocating its guests. Norwegians on strike! Our new hotel was in a residential neighborhood where the compensation was discovering the Kampden Bistro which was so good we ate there three times. Here is Tony playing super hero after a beer, or two.


Lots of building was evident – a very fancy area of apartments with docks on the waterfront and lots of Teslas. We were also surprised the increase in ethnic diversity since prior visits and by the contrast between the apparent wealth and beggars on the streets.

IMG_2288 IMG_2289

We walked tranquilly past the royal palace and later saw a fortress of fencing and security and an American flag — it was our U.S. embassy with a guard shouting at me that photos were not allowed! What a contrast to the royal palace!

The highlight of the city was Vigeland Park with its statues of people in real life.


From Oslo we took the overnight ferry to Copenhagen – lovely trip leaving the fjord at sunset, and at breakfast we caught sight of Elsinore then docked in Copenhagen.


Copenhagen is ecologically green. We stayed at Hotel Axel Guldsmeden who reminded us all the ways we were saving the planet. Bicycles were everywhere.


Restaurants asked about allergies, assured us their food was organic, no GMO’s, gluten-free, etc. Perversely, the streets were littered with cigarette butts. When we asked our waiter about the inconsistency of eating organic and smoking, he told us cigarettes are cheap and there is no anti-smoking campaign. Odd.

We walked to city hall and the opera house, the national museum, the botanical garden, lakes and parks full of people enjoying blue skies after a long winter.

Gefion fountain
Gefion fountain

Our favorite excursion was a trip to Louisiana art gallery (named after the collector’s three wives, all named Louise.) Each sculpture and mobile was perfectly placed in the landscape and there was a special exhibition called Eye Attack that pulled together an incredible collection of op-art.




Landscape, architecture, collection were all to our taste.

New Zealand

San Francisco to Auckland was a 12 hour flight. We landed on the North Island where the botanical gardens were of primary interest and the the main ones in Auckland and Wellington were both beautiful and informative.  Then there was the natural beauty, oh my.  Think of the most beautiful place you know and then add ferns — little ones, BIG ones, tree ferns, silver ferns, black ferns . . .

Metrosideros pohutukawa NZ Christmas tree
Black fern
Cyathea medullaris/Mamaku (Black Fern)

Too much greenery?  Add New Zealand Christmas trees with red flowers on top, and enormous rhododendrons.

rhododendronsRotoruaDrape the hillsides in jasmine, nasturtiums, lupines, and cineraria gone wild.  There were subtropical plants in the same photo as snow capped mountains.  Some trees couldn’t be identified because there were so many other species growing in their limbs.  And in the background, fantastic bird calls.  The trees were full of birdsong and some birds even came to their call on the iPad.  Cheap thrills!!

More Wildlife?  Indeed.

bark, barkWe saw orca whales, fur seals, dolphins, eels, wild parrots, glowworms . . .   We did not see a kiwi.  It turns out they are rare and endangered, a flightless bird threatened by almost every mammal that has been introduced to New Zealand: dogs (“Shot on Sight”), cats, rats, possums, weasels . . . and there is a huge effort underway to eliminate the predators and reintroduce declining bird-life.  On a zip-line tour of a forest canopy we were introduced to efforts to prevent extinction of native birds by rodents.  We were shown a very effective CO2 powered trap that Tony now lusts . . .

Seagulls were protected . . . although cafes provided self-defense.

Red-billed gull Anti-seagull


The architecture suited and expanded our contemporary taste.



We stayed in some beautiful, architecturally significant B&B’s at the price of a Holiday Inn, with hosts that felt like friends.  They enthusiastically shared their local knowledge by emails even before we arrived.  Gail cooked a lamb dinner, Paik made us green-lipped mussels, Angie spoiled us with fabulous breakfasts. Woody took us out on his boat to empty his rock lobster traps and Rose cooked the lobsters for our dinner.

Impromptu dinnerAny place that sold food sold excellent coffee latte and always topped with art — even in a cardboard cup with a lid on it on the ferry crossing Cook Strait.

root vegetables

The population looked fit (we only saw one person with a cigarette), quick with a smile, and generally gave eye-contact and a ‘G-day’ to us. The food was more varied than California (seafood, shellfish, venison, lamb and pork belly too).  Springtime fresh fruits and veggies more diverse than typical of California restaurants, and also colorfully and generously garnished, picture-worthy.

More diversity?  Maori culture.

Maori canoeThe Maoris are active in tourism opening historical villages and glowworm caves, for example, cooking traditional feasts, selling carvings and weavings.  They seem to have been treated correctly from the beginning with land disputes settled by treaty and payment.  Attempts to integrate them into schooling are sometimes veering back toward separate schools and language, with either choice being acceptable.


We declared the Bay of Islands the ideal place to live and New Zealand the cleanest country we ever visited, and the most civilized.  One of the most curious aspects of our adventure was pondering the differences between people in New Zealand and people in California.  We decided over many coffee lattes and a few beers/wines that New Zealand people seem to treat each other and their surroundings with more respect than we observe at home.  What that says about people in the US, we are still debating.

A major observation in comparison to California is the preponderance of “Public Spaces“.  Town budgets allocate plentiful spaces enjoyed by all generations that are well maintained and considerate of needs. These include elaborate playgrounds and skateboard ramps, hi-tech sealed stainless steel BBQs, bowling greens, racetracks, walking trails, and obvious public toilets (with extra toilet paper) exactly where they should be when they were needed, e.g., in every town and park; next to a few parking spaces on a remote road leading to the largest kauri tree; and on a hiking trail, halfway up a mountain.  Civilized.

Wee Toilet
Wee Toilet
Camper with Attitude
Camper with Attitude

Beautiful beaches, snow-capped mountains, fern laden hillsides, waterfalls… oh yes, volcanoes and thermal springs — bubbling steaming, nasty smelling mud pools but also crystalline blue bathing pools.  We stayed in Rotorua where the motel pool was subterranean-heated to 95 degrees, naturally.  We went to volcanic Hanmer Springs with its assortment of pools of varying degrees of warmth and by the way, a waterslide.  We 70 year-olds elbowed our way up the platform among the  kids,  and whizzed down and up and around and dropped into the pool at the bottom. Then we picked the shortest line and did it again. That tunnel was DARK inside and way faster, out of control, and scary!  It dunked us, splashed water up our noses, and ejected us at the end coughing and spluttering and laughing.

Bungee jumping?  No…

We ran out of time and did not get to the glaciers or the rain forest or Milford Sound or Queenstown or Dunedin or …
maybe we will go again someday.