Day 10 – La Finca Lodge (Arenal)

Tuesday 28 February 2023 – Early morning number 2. Such a joy, being on holiday travelling….

Not, I suppose, a ridiculously early morning by many people’s standards, but the alarm went off at 6am so that we could present ourselves in some semblance of good order for a day of relentless tourism starting at 0730.  We were actually just finishing our breakfast, which had a decent aspect on to the property

when a chap came over to say hello.  It turned out that he was Danny, our guide for the day, and he was both a very nice guy and very knowledgeable (although we stumped him with the katydid. Hah! Score one for the tourists!).

Our first objective was the Observatory Lodge in the Arenal Volcano national park (where, you remember, we feared to trust the car tyre tread yesterday). It turned out that there was a route available with a much less hostile road surface, so we followed that, and discovered that the Costa Rican attitude to wildlife and tourists means that it is entirely possible just to stop, get out of the car and look at (and, of course, in my case try to photograph) things. Danny, who was clearly one of the good guides, was adept at spotting things, and so we stopped near a river where he had seen some monkeys in the trees.  It is a mystery to me, particularly given my failing eyesight, how these guys can spot things, but I suppose a child of five can do it with 20 years’ practice. So we just stopped and got out of the car, leaving just enough room for a fucking great truck which came along later to squeeze through. And he pointed out the monkeys.

You can clearly see them in these photos, but it took me several minutes to be able to spot what Danny had seen from a moving vehicle – and I had to wait until they moved before I could make them out. I did get a couple of other shots eventually.)

We also saw something which was characteristic of holiday travelling here.  Rather like that game we might have played as kids (I never did this, officer, honest) where you stand somewhere and point up at, well, nothing at all, and see how many passers-by you can get to stop and take a look – well, if there’s a stopped car with people standing outside it staring into the forest, others will also stop and join in.  So we ended up with about five cars’ worth of punters, virtually blocking the road, all trying to spot what Danny had seen – at which point we quietly drove away…..  This is Danny, by the way, fully armed with binoculars and a great knowledge about local wildlife.

We headed into the Arenal Park and, erm, parked in the, erm, car park of the Observatory Lodge, which is a nice building, with a terrace outside which (a) provided us with a coffee, (b) provided decent views over the volcano (which is there behind the clouds, really it is)

and (c) gave a good look out over a feeding station where many birds were, well, feeding. There were large numbers of the ubiquitous Montezuma’s Oropendola, and a Brown Jay was holding its own against these bully birds.  There were also some smaller birds trying to get in on the action, either on the feeders or on the ground.

There were others and I could show you many photos of vegetation where a bird was until milliseconds ago.

Let me give you an insight into how pushy the Monty birds are.  Here’s a video which shows the feeding station being replenished – watch what happens when fresh fruit is available all of a sudden.

The Observatory Lodge was originally set up so scientists could stay and study the vast eruption of the Arenal Volcano in 1968 and, now that things have calmed down a bit, offers various trails through the surrounding rainforest. We took one which promised a waterfall at the far end because that sounded good.  It took us through the Observatory gardens (which have several non-indigenous species on display)

and past some interesting sights, such as a rainbow eucalyptus,

some monkeys (yes, it took me ages to spot them)

and an entire family of coati snuffling around for food and entirely oblivious of humans.

We also passed some flower beds where humming birds could be seen and, if lucky, photographed.

Jane did a good job to capture the Rufus-tailed hummingbird as it went about its business.

(From a geek’s point of view, it’s interesting to note the clash between the 30 frames a second of the video and the considerably higher frequency of wing beats of the bird.)

Then we headed off on the Waterfall trail which led to….

…in my case an opportunity to offer to take a photo of a couple there who thought that having them pictured in front of the waterfall represented an improvement on the marvels of Mother Nature. They were a mixed-race couple. He was English and she, Scottish.  That’s not really an excuse, though, is it?

The way down

was occasionally obstructed by groups of Very Serious Birders

who thought that getting a photo like this

constituted a satisfactory result. Good luck to them, I say. I quite often find that wildlife spotting is enormously frustrating, because of my increasingly poor eyesight. Firstly, I can’t see the bleeders; secondly, even if I can, I can’t appreciate them unless I can get a photo so I can see what’s going on in detail. Many people will coo with wonder as they see some kind of exotic creature scuttling off to a point where they can no longer see it.  All I’ve seen (and this is if I’ve been lucky) is a flash of movement of something or other, which is hardly something to celebrate.  I need the photo so I can see what it is I’ve seen at leisure.  If it’s a good photo that others might like, then for me that’s job done.

Danny pointed out an interesting facet of tree growth in the jungle.  I’ve already shown you one tree survival strategy, which is buttress roots – the wide, blade-like roots which provide the tree with nutrition and stability from a distributed footprint.  Danny also showed us stilt roots,

A Walking Palm

an approach whereby the tree sends roots down separately from a central trunk, to lodge outside the footprint of the tree and provide extra stability.  The tree can also judge which side the light is coming from and send more roots down that side, to give it more strength. In that sense, the tree above can sort of move, hence it being called a Walking Palm. Either that, or it’s doing a handstand, of course.

If I were to walk the trail, I would simply think it was a nice piece of exercise, because I simply can’t spot stuff going on around me.  But some stuff is so arcane it takes an expert to find it. For example, there are some palm leaves that I would simply walk past without really noticing anything. An expert like Danny, though, can spot the subtle signs of damage to a palm leaf that tells him that a species of bat has made its home underneath the leaf.

So you have to know what to look for and then can have a go at photographing it

otherwise you’d walk by, unaware of the ingenious life strategy going on under your nose.  (This is a theme I will come back to in a couple of days, so stay tuned if you’re interested.)

We also saw a couple of Crested Guan.

which is to say that Danny spotted them and I took a photo of one of them.  It’s a good photo, I think, but I need others to help me see these things to get the photos.

And that was about it for our walk through the Observatory Lodge trails.  On a clear day, you can see the volcano.  Today?

Not so much. Never mind, the morning was absorbing and educational, and it was good to talk to Danny about life and politics in Costa Rica (hint – it’s no better or worse than UK or US politics, and just as frustrating).

For the afternoon, we had elected to go to one of the well-known attractions of the La Fortuna area – the Hanging Bridges.  There are two parks which offer a walk through the forest canopy, the Skywalk and Mistico Park.  On Esteban’s recommendation, we went for the latter,

mainly because the bridges offered a view of the volcano, and – who knows? – maybe we’d be able actually to see it later on in the day. There is a restaurant there, at which we lunched on a hearty and tasty local dish, casado, and which gives a view of the volcano.  It looked a little as if the clouds were lifting. Only a little, mind.

After lunch, we made as if to set off on the two-and-three-quarter-mile trail.  Danny stopped us before we even started, and pointed out something that – as ever – we’d have missed if we didn’t know what to look for.  In this case it was a snake,

and not just any old snake, but an Eyelash Palm Pitviper – one which was not fast asleep like the one we saw in Bijagua, but was coiled and ready to spring.  Apparently, they’re so quick that they can catch a hummingbird mid-flight. They are the sixth most poisonous snake in Costa Rica, and after a bite you have about three hours to get yourself to hospital, so finding one so close to the car park was a relief. It would have been a bugger if we’d been deep into the woods and got bitten.

This, although dangerous, is a small snake, and we asked Danny how he’d spotted it.  He let us into one of the local secrets – when something like this is found near where people go in the park, a tape barrier is erected to keep people away.  We found another example on the trail

but as far as we could tell its dangerous denizen had left the scene.

So, what did we see on the trail?

Apart from six suspension bridges across various canyons,

frankly, not a huge amount.  Danny was full of interesting information about how nature takes its course in a rain forest environment like this, but we scored relatively few photos of note. The bridge above gives the possibility of a decent view of the volcano if it’s visible.

One of the most important creatures for the environment is also one of the smallest – a tiny stingless bee called Mariola Amarilla. It’s no larger than a medium-sized mosquito

but has a critical role as a forest pollinator. The picture above was taken at a kind of bug hotel which is one of the various places these creatures have made a home, which you can tell by the entry point to their hive.

What other wildlife did we see?

and – Jane’s favourite of the whole day – a huge cockroach with a blue bum.

So ended a splendid day of exploration of the Arenal area.  It really brought home the extra value that a switched-on guide brings in this country; if we’d walked the paths by ourselves, we’d have missed virtually all of the sights that we actually saw.  Danny did a great job and was a pleasure to spend the day with.

After we got back to La Finca, we didn’t feel the need for a large dinner (apart from anything else we knew that we had to be away early the next morning), but we did feel the need for a beer.  So we quenched our thirst and, at the same time, had a great chat with Esteban.  There were some essential bits of information he provided – when we needed to get away in order to be at our next stop in a timely fashion, whether any of the roads were closed or crappy and how much our room bill at La Finca was (not much, actually – good value, good food, good service, thoroughly recommended).  We also chatted about how he got where he was – a very charismatic but slightly roguish figure providing a great service to guests in a comfortable establishment. In turn, Jane convinced him of the value of Duolingo as a language learning aid, and I put an expensive item on his to-do list – a balloon flight over Stockholm.  He is a qualified balloon pilot and actually offers balloon flights from la Finca.  Had we been staying longer, we’d have been tempted.

Alas, our time there was at an end.  The next day we had to get ourselves near enough to the east coast to be picked up for a boat ride to our next destination.  Pura Aventura were very switched on and had alerted us to a change in where to meet the boat.  So we had a somewhat longer drive, to Caño Blanco, for an earlier rendezvous with the boat. So, guess what?  Another early start….


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