Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Costa Rica: How to see turtles at Ostional Wildlife Refuge

We actually went all the way to Nosara to see turtles at nearby Ostional, but we learned the hard way that it's not as easy as you'd hope. I wanted to share what we learned so others won't make the same mistakes that we did.

People come from all over the world to Costa Rica to see turtles coming onshore in droves to lay eggs (called the arribada) or to see babies hatching and making their way to the ocean. One of the best places to see Oliver Ridley turtles is Ostional National Wildlife Refuge.

What we didn't get to see. :( Credit: The Sasu Post.

How to get there (from Playa Guiones or Playa Pelada):

My recommendation: rent a car, or stay at Ostional Turtle Lodge, which is steps away from the nesting beach.

Alternative routes: 1) You can take an ATV there. However, during the rainy season, the Nosara River may be flooded, which means you'd have to hop off, wade through, and walk the rest of the way. Not pleasant, I imagine, especially when you have to return in the dark. 2) You could also take a taxi, but they're not easy to come across, and you won't find a line of them waiting at Ostional to take you back. You'd have to arrange a pickup in advance, which isn't easy, since you can't predict when the arribada will happen (anywhere from sunset to 6am). Maybe less of a problem if you have phone service.

What you do once you're there:

Once you get close to the beach, there's a ranger booth with the sign that says "Asociacion de Guias Locales de Ostional." The guides there will take you on tour for $10 per person. I believe you can't go there on your own.

When we went, the booth was completely empty – no one was there because there was no turtle activity. Which leads me to my next point...

When to go:

The time to see an arribada is the few nights before a new moon. You can't predict exactly when it's going to happen, so it's best if you have a few days in Nosara to hang out. Definitely can't do what we did, which was assume that we would see turtles in our two nights there.

I recommend following the local guides' Facebook page for information on when there's turtle activity.

What we didn't realize was that the timing is pretty strict. We went two days after the new moon, and there were no turtles. The night before, there was a family that hung out at the beach all night, waiting to see a turtle, and only saw one around 2am. The arribada had happened ~5 days before the new moon if I remember correctly, so we had missed it by SEVEN days. 

Oh well, at least there was a nice sky.

And we got to see some baby turtle eggs.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Costa Rica Day 6-7: Nosara and Playa Pelada

I'm combining a couple days, because one was fully dedicated to transportation, i.e. sitting in an SUV as we made the drive from Monteverde to Nosara. I think one big learning for me was that while the freeways are fast (well, as fast as you can go in Costa Rica), you don't really get to enjoy the journey.

There were still beautiful views from the windows, don't get me wrong, but there weren't many stops we could make along the way. Lots of green, though, and teak tree plantations.

We did make a rest stop at a three-way junction. There's a restaurant next to a grove of mango trees, where macaws and howler monkeys hang out.

In Nosara, we stayed in Playa Pelada, which is a small, pretty, surprisingly quiet beach next to the busier Playa Guiones. I had imagined something like Hawaii, where there are clear asphalt roads and an open view of the beach from any point in town, but I was completely wrong.

What we found was thick jungle that abruptly stops at the ocean. In "town," the dirts are thin dirt trails, and virtually everyone travels by ATV (we spotted no taxis while we were there!). There's very little visibility (and signage) to help you get from one point to the other. If it weren't for an old worn out map that a former traveler had left behind in our Airbnb, we would've gotten lost many, many times.

And that's why we found ourselves running late and sprinting to Nosara Yoga Institute in the morning. Nosara is known for yoga and is where a lot of yogis train. I don't really do yoga, and I'm as flexible as concrete, but I did it anyway.

After yoga, we walked around the town (it was swelteringly hot), had smoothies and lots of water, and sat around on the beach.

For dinner, we went to La Luna, a beachside restaurant in Playa Pelada, and watched the sun set. And that was the sunset and end of our trip.

Goodbye Costa Rica.

Other Costa Rica posts:

Friday, October 2, 2015

Costa Rica Day 5: Curi-cancha Wildlife Refuge

We squeezed in one more full day of hiking before leaving Santa Elena. We had asked several locals on where to go, and overwhelming the answer was Curi-cancha Reserve.

The reserve is partly lowland forest, but if you climb up, it technically transitions to a cloud forest. It was nothing like Santa Elena reserve – it was much drier. Animal-lovers come here because the lack of enveloping mist and fog makes the animals much easier to see.

Strangler fig wrapping itself around a host tree

Giant Rhino beetle

It's a "birdwatcher's paradise," and one of the few places you can go to see the resplendent quetzal, now sadly endangered. It's known as one of the world's most beautiful birds.  Our guide told us to keep our expectations low, that he knew of travelers who had come to Costa Rica multiple times for a glimpse of it, and had never gotten lucky.

You may have heard of the quetzal. Maybe it sounds familiar as the "quetzalcoatl" from your history books. It means "feathered serpent," and was named for how the males look as they fly across the sky with their long emerald tailfeathers rippling behind.

Their tail feathers used to be exchanged as currency, and interestingly enough, the Guatemalan dollar is called the "Quetzal" (and has one flying in the corner). Montezuma's headdress was also made with the long feathers of the quetzal.

We actually managed to see one through our guide's impressive telescope! I'm guessing it was a juvenile male, because its tailfeathers were kind of short.

iPhone + telescope picture. Not the best quality, BUT HEY we saw a quetzal!

We also saw other animals too – coati, agouti (which look like giant chinchillas), a blue-crowned motmot, a keel-billed toucan, and...hummingbirds. There were a bunch of hummingbird feeders in an area of the reserve. Our guide commented that it wasn't the right thing to do, but as it's private property, it was not his decision to make. Apparently hummingbirds are only in the Americas, which I didn't know – and explained the swaths of people taking pictures and recording videos like crazy.

"Don King" caterpillar

A view of the cloud forest at higher elevation.

Inside a strangler fig. The host tree has long died and decomposed to nothing.

Capuchin monkey!

Glasswing butterfly, pretending to be dead

If you like animals (especially birds) and not tourists, I recommend coming to this place.

Other Costa Rica posts:

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Costa Rica Day 4: Selvatura Hanging Bridges

After Santa Elena Reserve, we took the short ten minute hike to Selvatura Hanging Bridges. It was a completely different experience to go from hiking within the forests to hiking above the canopy.

Was it touristy? Hell yes. It's an eco-adventure park, with zip lines as its main draw. We did the less popular option, which was just hiking over eight sets of bridges. Every now and then, we'd hear the screaming and the mechanical whirr of someone ziplining by.

Oh well.

It was still beautiful. It's about a two mile trail and only took about an hour and a half.

While I'm terrified of heights, there were only a couple bridges that scared the bejeebus out of me. It's less scary when the treetops are brushing the bottom of the bridge – it's only when they're much farther down that you realize exactly how high you are.

Other Costa Rica posts:

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Costa Rica Day 4: Santa Elena Reserve

My biggest fear of the trip was going to the cloud forest, and not seeing clouds. When we arrived in Santa Elena, skies were completely blue and it was scorching hot, so it looked like my fear was going to become a reality.

Our host told us not to worry, because the weather in the town didn't reflect weather in the forest, which are in a special microclimate. (However, we did find out that it had been a sunny day in Monteverde, the first one in months. Very glad we ended up going the next day.)

Cloud forests happen when clouds from the Caribbean are blown over to the mountains of the Continental divide, and rest on top. It's perpetually foggy, and everything is covered with layers of mosses, bromeliads, and ferns.

While we came for Monteverde, we decided to go to Santa Elena Reserve. Our host recommended it as the less touristy and "more jungly" option. I will always go for the more jungly option.

Glasswing butterfly

Santa Elena reserve was opened in the 1990s to the public, in response to the crowds at Monteverde. (Our guide jokingly referred to it as "Monteverde Crowd Forest.") It was one of the first community-opened reserves in Costa Rica. 

We went early in the morning (made it to the 7:30am guided hike).

It was a breathtakingly beautiful, spectacular place. It was the first day of the trip that I finally felt like I was in a different world. I don't have the words to describe it. It felt ancient, like a temple, a lost world. Everything was covered in green, and you could almost hear the mist moving through the forest slowly.

We spotted dozens of butterflies, a tarantula, capuchin monkeys (who tried to break branches on top of us), and a tropical king snake.

I highly recommend this reserve. We spent perhaps six hours here, though we could have easily spent an entire day instead.

Roads aren't paved (outside of one of the main short trail), so that's something to keep in mind if you're deciding between Santa Elena Reserve and Monteverde.

Other Costa Rica posts:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Costa Rica Day 3: Santa Elena Night Walk

On Day 3, we were picked up at 8:30am to be transported to our next destination, Monteverde. 

We took a jeep-boat-jeep (also known as taxi-water-taxi), which in my head I had imagined to be a Ducks Boat situation. Yes, I actually thought there'd be a jeep that would drive us to the lake, swallow its wheels to float across, and then re-extend the wheels and then drive us the rest of the way. (Does this even exist?)

No, it was just a shuttle that dropped us off at a ferry. And another shuttle that drove us to Santa Elena.

It was actually a really great transportation option. We'd heard it takes hours longer to drive around the lake because of the road conditions, and the ferry ride was perhaps only an hour long – short, calm and sweet.

Moments after getting on the ferry at Lake Arenal 
The view from the boat, with Arenal Volcano in the distance

All in all, the trip took about 3.5 hours.

We arrived at our Airbnb (my favorite of the trip!). Our superhost welcomed us with zucchini bread, homemade passionfruit juice (from the vines in her garden), and proceeded to help us plan all of our activities in the area.

We decided to relax that afternoon, and do the Santamaria Night Walk, which was through a transitional forest close to the town center of Santa Elena. Night hikes are popular because most creatures (particularly insects, spiders, snakes) are nocturnal and come alive only after the sun sets.

Leaf-mimicking katydid 
Leaf mimicking katydid – this one is an older, brown leaf!

You really need to go with a guide. They are able to spot things that you'd never see. The have powerful focused flashlights that help them detect the glimmer of mammal eyes, and skills to distinguish walking sticks from sticks and leaf-mimicking katydids from actual leaves (which is no small feat).

We saw fireflies, many insects and spiders, a juvenile hedgehog, and a sloth (which move much faster than I thought!).

Walking stick

Other Costa Rica posts:

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Costa Rica Day 2: Tabacon Hot Springs

After our hike at La Fortuna Waterfall, we headed straight to Tabacon Hot Springs.

Arenal is known for hot springs – and they're a must-do. There are several to chose from, but there were only two to decide between based on what locals recommended to us: Tabacon and Baldi.

We decided not to go to Baldi because we heard it was "Vegas-like." Tabacon was way more expensive – it was $70 for a day pass, including a meal – but based on photos and reviews it looked much more natural. As in, the grounds were made to look as though you were actually situated in the rainforest.

The pool. (The only non-hot springs part of Tabacon.)

There are twelve pools throughout the property. Each is surrounded by lush greenery, and feels relatively private and enclosed. The hot springs are heated by rivers flowing from Arenal Volcano, and flow down purely by the force of gravity. The pools higher up in the property are actually hotter as the water cools as it flows.

Pro tip: If you come here, do NOT forget your sunscreen. We sadly forgot our sunscreen and a tube of NO-AD sunscreen cost us THIRTY DOLLARS. I'm still a little bitter.

(Note, there are also free hot springs across from Tabacon that the locals go to. I heard that they bring candles and go at night, and that's it's a magical experience. We didn't go because we opted for Tabacon and had no extra time.)

Other Costa Rica posts: