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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birding lodges

Key Accommodation for Birding Costa Rica-Cerro Lodge

Costa Rica might be small in size but it’s big on biodiversity. Like jam-packed with life, actually. Leave the perimeter of the airport in the Central Valley and it doesn’t take more than an hour’s drive to reach cloud forest, or rainforest, or dry forest, or a combination of habitats with literally hundreds of bird species therein. The best junction of life-zones in this birdy country is directly south of San Jose, on the other side of the mountains, and offers everything from Great Tinamou to Roseate Spoonbill, five species of trogons, and more. Situated where rainforest meets dry forests that are divided by a river and adjacent seasonal wetlands, Carara National Park and vicinity is a goldmine for birds. Honestly one of the best sites for birding in Central America, this hotspot is a must for any birding or natural history visit to Costa Rica, a first time visitor will be in for some seriously mind-blowing birding (unless you don’t really care for a hundred of more lifers in a day), and there is no better place to base oneself than Cerro Lodge.

Scarlet Macaws frequently perch in trees at Cerro Lodge.

Located just west of the Tarcoles River and around seven kilometers from the national park entrance, Cerro is close enough to the park for quick access yet far enough to also offer a different suite of birds. Whereas much of the national park protects humid rainforest that provides a home for such key species as Black-hooded Antshrike, Baird’s Trogon, Red-capped Manakin, Riverside Wren, Scarlet Macaws, and much more, the lands around Cerro Lodge are a mix of tropical dry forest, pastures, second growth, and seasonal wetlands. Combine these two sites and the bird list grows to more than 400 species.

The view along the entrance road of the Tarcoles River and the rainforests of Carara National Park in the background. This is a good spot to see Scarlet Macaws and parrots in flight.

To give an idea of the major sort of birding involved around Cerro Lodge and Carara, during a typical day of guiding that starts at Cerro, follows with a a visit to the national park, and takes in a few other nearby sites, we often finish with 140 to 150 species. Sometimes more, and that includes a leisurely stop for lunch where we scan for a few seabirds!

Starting the birding at Cerro is a good way to enjoy breakfast while enjoying flybys of various parrots, parakeets, and Scarlet Macaws, occasional raptors that may include Crane Hawk and Gray-headed Kite, distant (sometimes closer) looks at the mega Yellow-billed Cotinga, Striped Cuckoo, Gartered and Black-headed Trogons, and many other birds. Bird your way up the entrance road and a good variety of edge and dry forest species make it onto the list. Once you reach the national park, dozens of humid forest species are in store for the rest of the morning, and the more you bird the patches of forest, second growth, mangroves, and wetlands around Tarcoles and nearby, the more birds make it into your field of view. Although there are too many to mention, some of the choice species can include Olivaceous Piculet, mangrove birds, King Vulture, White Hawk, Yellow-naped Parrot, Fiery-billed Aracari, and Charming Hummingbird. It’s one of those areas where the more you bird, the more you really see because such a large number of species are possible.

Gartered Trogon

Even better, with reforestation efforts, the birding is also good enough right at Cerro Lodge to see a very good variety of species on the grounds and on the road in front of the lodge. Spend a day there and don’t be surprised to see Collared Forest-Falcon, White-necked Puffbird, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and Blue-throated Goldentail just outside your room.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

White-throated Magpie-Jay at the feeder. Feeder action varies throughout the year but sometimes sees visits by this species and Fiery-billed Aracari.

In addition to fine birding and photo opportunities at the lodge, other benefits of staying at this excellent birding lodge include:

  • Great service– Staff listens to guests and strives to meet their needs. Need breakfast early? Want to know when the owls are showing? ASk the staff.
  • Great meals– More than plenty of good food.
  • Air-conditioned rooms– Needed as Cerro Lodge is situated in one of the hotter parts of Costa Rica. 
  • Tour arrangements– The desk can arrange boat tours and other activities.
  • Pool– Nice to have when visiting with non-birding family or partners. This also shows the birding view from the restaurant.
  • Owls on site– Sometimes, Black-and-white Owls forage around the restaurant and near the cabins. They typically come out after eight p.m. Pacific Screech-Owl is also resident and Spectacled, Mottled, and Striped Owls also live nearby.

Having seen what Cerro has become since it opened, as with many a successful tourism venture, I can honestly say that the owner has taken the time to listen to the wants and needs of guests and has made substantial investments in changes accordingly. So far, the result has been a win for both the comfort of guests and the health of the ecosystem at the lodge.

Want to go birding at Cerro Lodge? Have any questions about target species and photo opportunities? Send me an email at information@birdingcraft.com, or leave a comment. I can answer your questions and set up your trip.

 

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Costa Rica bird finding guide Pacific slope

Advice for Birding the Cerro Lodge Entrance Road

Cerro Lodge is the place to stay when bathing in the mega-birding in and around Carara National Park. Other options include the oft-used Villa Lapas, the sometimes crowded Punta Leona, the new Macaw Lodge back in the hills on the other side of the park, and at least one hotel right in the middle of tiny Tarcoles. However, none of them share the blend of proximity, and diverse array of birds not found in the park possible around Cerro Lodge.

One of those birds is White-throated Magpie-Jay- we had these and others near Cerro.

Part of Cerro’s appeal comes from the birdy entrance road. This unassuming dirt road passes through open areas with scattered trees, second growth, and part of a river floodplain that results in a host of good birds. Whether staying at Cerro or not, this road is worth some serious binocular time. A couple of hours on that road that week reminded me of its worth as a site unto itself, here’s some advice on birding it :

  • Make time for this site: If you have plans to enter the national park, check out the road from 6 until 7 (opening time for the park during the dry season), or until 8 (opening hour at other times of the year). Or, if you have an extra day of birding, spend a full day on this road. Like every high diversity site, the more you bird it, the more you find, especially since the habitats also seem to act as a corridor between mangroves, other forest, and the park itself.

It’s also good for lots of common and edge species like this Lineated Woodpecker,

and Rose-throated (not) Becard.

  • Quality birds: If someone ever tells you that all birds are “quality” or that every bird is the same, they are either masquerading as a birder, or don’t know the difference between “common” and “rare”. Quality birds are the ones we don’t see that often, can’t really be seen elsewhere, or happen to be major targets because they look so cool. In other words, endangered and rare species, endemics, and stuff like Double-striped Thick-Knee. In the case of the Cerro Lodge road, it hosts a bunch of those quality species including the cool and crazy thick-knee.

Its cool, its crazy, its got thick knees and hypnotic golden eyes.

  • Double-striped Thick-knee: This target seems to be more frequent on the entrance road than in the past. Check for it in one of the first open pastures, and in the pastures in the floodplain. We saw 6 last week.
  • Crane Hawk: The road is one of the better places in Costa Rica to see this odd raptor. Watch for it flopping its way through the trees in the canopy or near the ground anywhere along the road. It also soars on occasion. We had rather distant looks at two different Crane Hawks.
  • Other raptors: Hang out on this road long enough and you have a chance at a pretty good variety of raptors. The long sight lines and birdy habitats offer chances at such other species as Gray-headed, Hook-billed, and Plumbeous Kites, occasional Harris’s Hawk and Pearl Kite (in the floodplain), Short-tailed, Broad-winged, Gray, Roadside, Zone-tailed, and Common Black Hawks, Laughing Falcon, Collared Forest-Falcon, and both caracaras. Even Tiny Hawk has nested on the road in the past!

Short-tailed Hawk is one of the most frequently seen raptor species in Costa Rica.

  • Owls: Cerro is known as a site for Black and white Owl and this species can also show on the road along with Mottled, Striped, Barn, and Pacific Screech Owls. Not to mention, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is common during the day.
  • Swifts: Spot-fronted and Black Swifts are sometimes seen from the road in the morning along with more common White-collared and Chestnut-collared Swifts.
  • Psittacids: This can be a great area for parrots, parakeets, and their kin as they visit fruiting trees and move to and from roosting and foraging sites. The numbers and species vary throughout the year but lucky birders might see every possible species in one morning, mostly as flyovers. If not, it’s still pretty normal to see Scarlet Macaw, Red-lored, Yellow-naped, and White-fronted Parrots, and Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets.
  • Good variety of dry forest species: Expect several dry forest species, including Black-headed  Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Nutting’s and Brown-crested Flycatchers, occasional Stub-tailed Spadebill, Banded and Plain Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Stripe-headed and Olive Sparrows, Painted Bunting, and so on.

This is a good site for Nutting’s Flycatcher-  it looks almost exactly like the local variety of the Brown-crested but check out the small bill.

  • Keep an eye out for the cotinga: Last but not least, Yellow-billed Cotinga moves through this area, maybe even once or twice a day. The size of this population is very small (and, sadly, will likely disappear from the Carara area within ten years) but the few remaining birds are seen now and then near Cerro Lodge and in trees near the floodplain.
  • Bring a scope: It comes in handy when checking out distant crowns of trees and open areas.
  • Check the small marsh at the edge of the floodplain: It’s been so dry, this small wetland might not even be around when you visit. But, if so, check it for Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and other expected wetland species, possible American Pygmy-Kingfisher, and rarities like Masked Duck and maybe even a rail or two.

How to get there: From the turn off to Jaco on the Caldera highway, drive five minutes and watch for the turn off to Guacalillo on the right. Go a bit further and watch for the Cabinas Vasija on the left. The road will start going down a hill and shortly after comes to the entrance road to Cerro Lodge (the next road on the right). Be careful, it’s easy to miss!

For more information about how and where to see birds in Costa Rica, buy “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, the most comprehensive bird-finding guide for the country.

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope lowlands middle elevations Pacific slope weather

Highlights from guiding while birding Costa Rica this past weekend

One of the most exciting aspects of birding Costa Rica is the variety of different habitats that are easily accessible from the Central Valley. For example, if you get tired of sweating it out in the lowlands while watching flyovers of Scarlet Macaws, you can head up into the mountains for cool, cloud forest birding (both cool as in anti-perspiration and cool as in Arthur Fonzarelli).

This past weekend, I was very fortunate to guide birders in two very different habitats;  the Pacific Slope lowlands and the middle elevation forests of the Caribbean slope. Saturday on the Pacific Slope, we birded Cerro Lodge and the Carara area. This bastion of Costa Rican biodiversity is actually an ecotone between the dry forests of northern Central America and the wet forests of southern Costa Rica so I think there’s actually two bioregions involved.

On Monday, I guided some other folks in foothill forests of the Caribbean Slope between San Ramon and La Fortuna. The higher elevations and rainfall than Carara made for a very different set of birds (as did the fact that we were on the other side of the continental divide).

Despite this being the rainy season, the birding was great and might even have been better than the dry season because the overcast skies kept birds active for most of the day at both sites. The sky blanket of clouds also made photography tough, however, so I’m afraid to say that there won’t be many images in this post.

Saturday Costa Rica birding on the Pacific Slope.

Just after a friend of mine picked me up at dawn, the rain started and didn’t really stop until we reached the Pacific Coast. We had to take the old, curvy road down through Atenas and Orotina because the new road is closed for three months (I was not surprised having seen the obvious possibilities for landslides earlier in the year). Because it was raining, we saw few birds during the drive and were pretty happy when it stopped just as we arrived at Cerro Lodge although even if the rain had continued, we still would have seen a lot from the shelter of their outdoor restaurant.

Janet Peterson and I met up with the Slatcher family and got off to a good start with a Striped Cuckoo seen through the scope, flybys of Orange-chinned Parakeets, and a pair of Violaceous Trogons that perched close to the restaurant.

birding Costa Rica Striped Cuckoo

Striped Cuckoos are common in edge habitats of Costa Rica.

We left shortly thereafter for the rainforests of Carara National Park, birding along the way in the scrubby dry forest near Cerro Lodge. A gorgeous male Blue Grosbeak greeted us as by calling from its barbed wire perch as soon as we exited the car. Before I could call up a resident Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, there it was, perched in plain sight in the top of a nearby tree. The owl was promptly scoped while we searched for other birds. Stripe-headed Sparrows were chipping from the top of a roadside tree and a Turquoise-browed Motmot showed its beautiful colors as it poised on a branch but Olive Sparrow and Black-headed Trogons remained hidden as they called from dense vegetation.

At Carara, overcast skies made for comfortable, warm weather. Scarlet Macaws were seen in flight as they screeched over the forested hills, Rose-throated Becard “whined” from the forest edge in the parking lot, and a pair of Yellow-throated Euphonias gave us great looks. Inside the forest, we actually didn’t see too many birds but were entertained by fantastic encounters with several Spider Monkeys and White-faced Capuchins that appeared to be feeding high in the canopy of fruiting figs along the handicap accessible trail.

After tasty casado lunches at the Guacimo Soda, we made a brief stop along the Guacimo Road to pick up Rufous-capped Warbler, Yellow-green Vireo, and Tropical Pewee before heading back to Cerro Lodge. As always the birding was pleasant from the shelter of the restaurant with views of Rufous-naped Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jays, Black-crowned Tityra, a tree full of Fiery-billed Aracaris, and other species.

birding Costa Rica White-throated Magpie Jay

White-throated Magpie Jays are signature birds of dry forest in Costa Rica.

Our best species was the most distant. Similar to other occasions at Cerro Lodge, a male Yellow-billed Cotinga showed as a bright, white dot way off in the mangroves that are visible from the restaurant. I think this was Janet’s 500th Costa Rican bird. It may have actually been the sparrow but she should certainly name the cotinga as her Costa Rican milestone! This milestone also came just in time as Janet will be leaving the country soon for a new embassy post in Zambia (!). As happy (and envious) as I and other bird club members are for her, we will miss her. Hopefully she will send me some images of Zambian birds to drool over!

Our other best bird during our afternoon at Cerro Lodge was Yellow-naped Parrot. We had 6 or so of these rare parrots as they flew by and perched in nearby trees. The overcast skies made for perfect light on these beautiful parrots and I don’t think I have ever seen the yellow patches on their napes stand out as well as they did on Saturday.

After saying our goodbyes to the Slatcher family and wishing them good Costa Rica birding luck, Janet and I drove back up into the rainy highlands of Costa Rica. Fortunately, we still had time to stop for Black and White Owl in the Orotina plaza. I was glad that Janet finally got to see this “famous” owl. I think it was #503 on her Costa Rican list- a fitting end to a great day of Costa Rica birding!

Monday Costa Rica birding near San Ramon.

Some people call the middle elevation forests near San Ramon the “San Ramon cloud forests”. There are cloud forests in the area, but it’s not really a fitting name for the area we birded because it’s actually just below the cloud forest zone. I suspect that the area lacks an official birding name because so few people bird there. After the excellent birding we had along the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve this past weekend, though, I can tell you that it definitely merits an official birding name and it should be an auspicious one too! Maybe something like “the San Ramon hotspot” or to be more geographically precise, the “Dos Lagos Forest”. Either way, EVERY birder headed to La Fortuna should make time to bird here.

Over the course of a day trip from San Jose, we got over 100 species and most of these were forest birds! I would have taken Stan and Karen Mansfield to Quebrada Gonzalez but since the highway to that excellent site has had frequent landslides this past month, I figured it was safer to show them the birds of the San Ramon hotspot. Although the road to Quebrada remained open on Monday, the birds near San Ramon made the longer trip worthwhile.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by common edge species such as Tropical Pewee, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Variable Seedeater, and Passerini’s Tanager while an uncommon summer Osprey watched over the lake and a Northern Jacana foraged in the marshy grass.

birding Costa Rica Northern Jacana

Northern Jacanas are seen on most birding trips to Costa Rica.

We barely moved up the road when a mixed flock combined with a fruiting tree brought us to a halt. There was so much bird activity that we must have stayed put for an hour or so to watch White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Emerald Tanager, loads of Black and Yellow Tanagers, Olive Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Slate-colored Grosbeak, Russet Antshrike and other species as they feasted on fruit and rustled the vegetation with their foraging.

After it appeared that this first mixed flock had moved on, we stopped a hundred meters up the road to pick up Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant and a Black-throated Wren that was uncharacteristically singing from fairly high up in a vine tangle. The morning continued on like this with new birds at virtually every stop we made! Other highlights were excellent looks at a beautiful Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Rufous-winged, Smoky-brown, and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Rufous Motmot heard, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Stripe-breasted Wren, and Spotted Woodcreeper.

At noon, we lunched at the tasty Arboleda Restaurant (a ten minute drive from the San Ramon hotspot) and picked up 6 species of hummingbirds at their feeders (best were Green Thorntail and Coppery-headed Emerald).

After photos of the hummingbirds and updating the list, it was back to the San Ramon hotspot. The afternoon rains had started by this time so birding wasn’t as active as the morning, but it slacked off enough to pick up several new birds where the road reaches a large cultivated area. We scoped out Keel-billed Toucans, Brown Jays, both oropendolas, Hepatic, Crimson-collared, and Silver-throated Tanagers, Black-striped Sparrows, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and Crimson-fronted Parakeets. Many of these were actually perched in the same dead tree!

birding Costa Rica Keel-billed Toucan
"Don't even think of asking me about Fruit Loops"!

Keel-billed Toucans are a fairly common sight when birding Costa Rica.

By four pm, we began our journey back to the central valley with stops on the way for Common Bush Tanager, Grayish Saltator, Social Flycatcher, and Yellow-bellied Elaenia. Shortly after our last birds, the rains poured down out of the sky for our drive back to San Jose to end a long yet very birdy day in Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges endangered birds lowlands mangroves Pacific slope

Birding at Cerro Lodge, Costa Rica- a good site for Yellow-billed Cotinga

The Yellow-billed Cotinga is an endangered species that only occurs on the Pacific slope of  Costa Rica and western Panama. Although range maps in field guides show it occurring from the Rio Tarcoles (at and near Carara National Park) south to Panama, don’t expect to run into this cotinga at most sites along the coast because the actual distribution of this frugivore is much more spotty than is indicated. It’s localized distribution is due to it being restricted to areas where mangrove forest occurs near rain forest

Although records indicate that they wander in search of fruit, you are far more likely to encounter this species in the canopy of or close to mangroves. This is in contrast to its Caribbean slope cousin, the uncommon (but far from rare) Snowy Cotinga. Ranging from Honduras south to western Panama, the Snowy Cotinga isn’t too difficult to see in areas of lowland forest, forest edge, and riparian corridors. Although it has certainly declined because of deforestation, if one considers the paucity of Yellow-billed Cotinga sightings compared to encounters with Snowy Cotingas,  the Snowy appears to be weathering destruction of rainforests  much better than the Yellow-billed.

There appear to be very few sites where Yellow-billed Cotingas occur on a regular basis. Even in some areas with mangroves and rain forest (such as at Baru) they are either absent or extremely rare. Due to our near complete lack of information about the natural history of Carpodectes antoniae, no one really knows what this bird needs although its absence at sites such as Baru could possibly be explained by mangroves there not being old enough or the mangrove forests simply not being extensive enough to support a population of Yellow-billed Cotingas.

It should come as no surprise then, that their stronghold is in the extensive, old growth mangroves of the Sierpe River and Golfo Dulce areas of the Osa Peninsula. The mangrove forests in these areas are beautiful, old growth forests that echo with the songs of “Mangrove” Yellow Warblers, the screeches and squawks of parrots and macaws, and the piping calls of Common Black Hawks. The area around Rincon is where I saw my first Yellow-billed Cotingas in 1999. Foraging with Turquoise Cotingas in fruiting figs, their white plumage stood out against the evergreen rain forest on the nearby hills. On a side note, the birding at Rincon was fantastic with Great Curassows and Marbled Wood-Quails calling from the hillside, White-crested Coquettes foraging in flowering Inga sp., and well over 100 species recorded in a day.

Until recently I saw them on very few occasions elsewhere; a bird or two working its way up rivers in the Osa Peninsula, or very infrequent sightings in Carara National Park. Lately though, I have been seeing Yellow-billed Cotinga on just about every visit to Cerro Lodge (contact me for reservations). The birds are from a population that nests in the mangroves near the Tarcol River. Although this population hasn’t been surveyed (admittedly a difficult task to undertake because they love the canopy and don’t sing), it’s probably very small and might only be composed of ten birds. This is pure speculation on my part but there are very few sightings of Yellow-billed Cotinga from Carara and vicinity (and most are of individual birds) despite there being a high number of birders and guides that work in the area.

At Cerro Lodge, I and others, have seen one male perched in a distant snag at the edge of the mangroves. It (or a different male) also sometimes comes closer to the lodge. The bird is usually so far away that it is difficult to see without a scope but is easy to pick out because of its brilliant white plumage.

The view from the restaurant where the male Yellow-billed Cotinga has been regularly seen. If you visit Cerro Lodge, you might see it by scanning all of the treetops from here.

I have also seen a female perched in a tree near the parking lot for Cerro Lodge, and a male was recently seen just down the road as it descends to the flood plain of the river. As Cerro Lodge is located somewhat near the Tarcol River, and based on other observations of this species, I suspect that the birds are foraging in the riparian growth along the river, or are using the river as a corridor to forage in the forests of Carara.

Luckily, the female was very cooperative and let me take a bunch of pictures.

For the past few years, the folks at Bosque del Rio Tigre have been doing surveys for Yellow-billed Cotingas and are also involved with other studies of this highly endangered species. To help with its conservation, what is needed now are more studies that can help elucidate its natural history, as well as better protection of mangrove forests and rain forests in southern Costa Rica and western Panama. To help with conservation of Yellow-billed Cotinga, follow the link to Bosque del Rio Tigre and contact them. Also, if you see this species, please email me your notes on where you saw it, the time of year, the habitat it was using, and its behavior (especially foraging). Who knows-maybe there are certain fruiting trees that can be planted that would help this species.

Although Yellow-billed Cotingas has been regular at Cerro Lodge, these may be sightings of just 1-3 individuals. I suspect that there are so few of this species in the Carara area because there is so little habitat between the mangroves and the national park. In contrast to when rainforest adjacent to the mangroves likely provided food and cover for a number of Yellow-billed Cotingas (as at Rincon de Osa where several have been seen together), once that forest was converted into stark pasture, the few fruiting trees left near the mangroves supported far fewer (if any) cotingas, and birds were required to move around more in search of food (with a subsequent higher degree of nest failure and mortality as a result).

Although land owners in the area can’t be expected to reforest their pastures, hopefully, they will be willing to accept the planting of various fruiting trees used by this rare species.

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Introduction lowlands Pacific slope

Where to stay when birding Carara, Costa Rica; Cerro Lodge

I made a short trip to the Carara area this past Friday to scout the vicinity of Cerro Lodge, a new option for accommodation near the national park. From visiting their website, communicating with the owner, noting its proximity to Carara, and taking into account the habitats near Cerro Lodge, I had a hunch that these cabinas could finally be just the sort of place I have been waiting for as a good, moderately priced option for birders visiting Carara. Even with a short visit during non-birding hours (9-12), I could tell that my hunch was right. A problem with birding Carara has always been the limited number of options for accommodation near this top birding site. Don’t get me wrong, there are places to stay but they are pricey, horrible, or just not geared towards birders or ecotourists. The two main ecolodges that are geared towards birders, Villa Lapas and the Tarcol Lodge are, at well over $100 per person per night for lodging and meals, just absurdly pricey for Costa Rica.

At Villa Lapas (expensive number 1) the grounds and rooms are nice, the food and service good, and there is good birding on the grounds (including their canopy bridges), but you will see the same bird species on visits to the National Park. As for the Tarcol Lodge (expensive number 2) I have heard both positive and negative comments about their rooms, the food is good, and it is situated in a mangrove estuary with good birding although many of the aquatic and mangrove species that occur at the lodge can be seen on the mangrove boat trip or on your own. If you would rather not pay over $100 per person per night (in all fairness Villa Lapas sometimes has discounts during the wet season), I always felt that birders could see just as much and eat just as well by staying at a moderately priced hotel with comfortable, clean rooms and either taking meals there or dining at nearby sodas. The problem with this, however, was that the only moderately priced hotel near Carara was the basic “Hotel Carara” in Tarcoles village. Resembling a North American motel, although the rooms are ok and are sometimes offered at discounted prices, for not being located in particularly birdy habitat, the $70 rooms just never seemed worth it. I don’t think dining at their restaurant is worth it either. The small fish pond, pleasant decor, “relaxing” new age elevatorish music, and seaside location will never be enough to overcome the shortcomings of their small menu with overpriced, mediochre food that sours the dining experience like a lemon flavored slap in the face.

There have always been cheaper digs available at quiet, ramshackle cabinas along the beach just north of Tarcoles, but unless you are filiming a horror movie, on a scorpion hunt, or don’t mind sharing the place with cockroaches, then you probably shouldn’t stay there. Don’t be fooled by the $30 rooms offered at the Crocodile restaurant either (the one at the bridge on the highway). Those are the worse I have stayed at in Costa Rica mostly because upon opening the bathroom door, I was greeted by a small bat who was squinting and squeeking at me from the grimy floor. He was probably pleading for help out of that dirty place and after evicting (or maybe saving) him, I became honestly concerned about his bloodsucking cousins attacking me in the night after seeing the large hole in the bathroom ceiling combined with the fact that there were horses and cattle in back of the place that were probably fed upon by vampire bats on a regular basis. At least I didn’t have to worry about spending any time in the bathroom since nary a drip came out of the naked pipe that protruded from the wall. Although the room was so dirty that not showering seemed to be part of the theme, unless you are an adamant follower of Pigpen, I wouldn’t call that a plus. The bed was also uncomfortable, the fan didn’t really work, nor was the birding good at the Cabinas Crocodilos so do yourself a favor and don’t ever stay there even if the restaurant is ok.

Fortunately, two moderately priced options have become available near Carara! Although they are too far to walk to the park entrance, no present or future hotel will ever be close enough to the entrance for most folks to get there by foot because the HQ it is several kilometers from the limits of the park on a busy highway. The cheaper but noisier and less birdy option is the Cabinas Vasija (or something like that). Found along the main highway about 15 minutes from Carara on the east side of the road, they charge around $20 for basic, dingy rooms and also have a cheap restaurant on site. Being located along the highway though ensures that earplugs will be necessary for a good night’s sleep. The birding in the vicinity (especially along the road towards the river), however, is OK for dry forest and open country species.

Although more expensive, ($50 single, $70 double room), in my opinion, Cerro Lodge is the place I and other birders have been waiting for. This price includes all taxes and breakfast served from 5:30 A.M. at a restaurant that looks into the canopy of trees that host, among dozens of other bird species, Scarlet Macaws. Although these spectacular parrots move around in search of seeding and fruiting trees and thus might not visit the trees at the Cerro Lodge restaurant at all times of the year, they certainly do in October. It was especially interesting to note that the macaws fed upon the seeds of Teak (an introduced species) in addition to foraging at the more typical “Almendra” trees.

The view from the restaurant.

The rooms are in six, clean, pleasant cabinas equipped with ceiling fans and a bathroom that is partly outdoors (in a good way).

Plenty of heliconias, Verbenia, and other flowering plants were attracting hundreds of butterflies during our visit and should also attract hummingbirds. Although we saw few of these glittering, hyperactive sprites, we were told that they sometimes visit the flowers that graced the tables of the restaurant. More exciting was  hearing about the pair of owls that make nightly visits to the light in their parking area. Although I wasn’t there at night, I am betting that they are Black and White or Striped Owls.

There is a trail on the Cerro Lodge property (a small, working farm) that passes through pasture, dry, scrubby habitat, and streams with moister, taller riparian growth. Birding in similar habitats is also possible along the quiet, 3 kilometer entrance road, and along the 4 kilometers of this same road that continues past Cerro Lodge and accesses dry forest, small wetlands, provides distant views of the Tarcol River. There is no traffic of note along these roads which helps make Cerro Lodge a very quiet, tranquil place.

Being there at the wrong time of day for birding, we didn’t see very much but still managed around 30 of the 150 species recorded at Cerro Lodge. Our best birds being Scarlet Macaws, Lineated Woodpecker, Black-crowned Tityra, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Lesser Ground Cuckoo (h), Violaceous Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, and Red-legged Honeycreeper. In that some of these birds are signature dry forest species, combining the drier habitats around Cerro Lodge with the rain forests of Carara should result in a quite a large list of species.

This Lineated Woodpecker loved its dead, palm trunk!

Gray-crowned Yellowthroats are a common, open country species in Costa Rica.

The Pacific Slope subspecies of the Variable Seedeater.

This is why these used to be known as Black-bellied Tree-Ducks.

Another nice thing about Cerro Lodge is that birders who feel like eating outside of the hotel can do so at a good soda just across the highway from the entrance road. The entrance to Carara National Park is ten minutes further along the highway from this point.

To get to Cerro Lodge, just follow the main road to Carara and Jaco and watch for the large Cerro Lodge sign at the entrance road about 10-15 minutes after Orotina.  From there it is 3 kilometers up a well graded dirt road to the best option for birders and aficionados of tropical tranquility who have Carara National Park on their itineraries. I can’t wait to go back and seriously bird the place at dawn, during the evening, and at night.