The high season for tourism in Costa Rica is approaching as fast and steady as the flight of a White-collared Swift. Many hotels have already adjusted their rates and on the Pacific slope, better weather is on the way. After cloudy days and many rain-filled afternoons, the sun was shining in Santa Barbara de Heredia today. It still rained in some other parts of the Central Valley and the cloud banks hovering at the continental divide showed that the wetter season on the Caribbean slope is just kicking into gear. Nevertheless, drier days are on the way in much of the country and so are the tourists. If you are coming to Costa Rica for a good dose of wonderful neotropical birding, surfing, or adventure activities, here are a few tips from the perspective of someone who lives in the land of gallo pinto and Resplendent Quetzals:
Go see a R. Quetzal: Since I mentioned them I might as well emphasize that you should include this spectacular bird in your itinerary. If you are a birder, you probably already have but even so, it’s still worth reminding you to go and see some. Notice that I said, “some” and not “one”. This was deliberate because it reflects how accessible these amazing looking birds are in Costa Rica. They also occur in southern Mexico, are still revered in Guatemala, and frequent the cloud forests of other Central American countries but Costa Rica is arguably the easiest place to see them. Hire a guide at Monteverde, San Gerardo de Dota, Paraiso de Quetzales, or stay at El Toucanet and you are just about guaranteed to fill your binocular with the view of quetzals.
Don’t change money at the airport: I used to think this was a good place to change money. I was wrong. When you change money at the airport, they give a much lower rate than banks. Even with 3$ fee, you get a better rate when simply taking money out of ATMs. You can also do it at the bank but I don’t advise it unless you enjoy waiting in lines.
Hang out at some hummingbird feeders: Obviously on your itinerary if birding Costa Rica. If you aren’t so inclined to watch our feathered friends, spending some time at hummingbird feeders might convert you to our clan, obsession, hobby, or whatever else you would like to call watching birds at all possible moments. But seriously, check out the hummingbird gallery at Monteverde, the Hummingbird Garden along the San Ramon-La Tigra road, and the feeders at La Georgina. There’s also others here and there in the country and some charge a fair fee to experience them but keep in mind that you can usually see the same species for free at other feeders.
Sunscreen and a small umbrella: Come in the dry season and you are going to experience the sizzling rays of a much more direct and focused sun than northern climes. Don’t mess around with that bad boy; always slather on the high power sunscreen! Also, if you are traveling anywhere other than the dry northwest, expect some rain. Although a poncho works out at high elevations, I prefer a small umbrella in warmer climes.
Don’t expect to see many large mammals: Like many areas in the neotropics, megafauna doesn’t make up a big component of Costa Rican wildlife. While it is true that you could always get lucky and see a Jaguar, Puma, or Tapir, don’t count on it. However, you can expect to see monkeys, sloths, dinosaurish iguanas, Scarlet Macaws, trogons, Chestnut-backed Antbird, and lots of other cool birds!
Watch where you step and don’t leave the trail: While getting bit by a snake is highly unlikely, there’s no point in taking any chances. The Fer-de Lance is a big, common viper whose venom will digest your flesh. They are camouflaged sit and wait predators. This means that they are both hard to see and easy to step on if you can’t see the ground and always lose at poker. As unlikely as an encounter is with them and other snakes, don’t chance it. Never walk where you can’t see your feet and always watch where you step. Also, don’t grab any branches or other vegetation in humid areas because there are other camouflaged vipers that sit and wait there too. I guess you shouldn’t swing on vines in the forest and fall to the ground either. Some poor guy did that in Carara this past year and fell straight onto a large Fer-de-Lance. He was bit and died that same day (although he may have had heart problems that contributed to his demise).
Drive defensively: If driving, you will quickly discover that a lot of people don’t operate their vehicles in a very safe manner, that the conditions of some roads require a fair amount of swerving to avoid pot holes, motorcycles do whatever they want at any time, and that slow-going boxy trucks are a royal pain in the “?$%. Just be extra careful and know that just because a turn signal is on doesn’t mean that the person is going to turn and vice-versa. To be fair, there are also a lot of good drivers who make their intentions known and are courteous about letting other cars turn or join their lane of constant traffic. They do this by flashing their lights.
Don’t speed: Be careful and follow speed limits even when other drivers don’t. The police love to use radar guns at speed traps and this is usually where the limit goes from 80kph down to 60kph. There may or may not be a sign but it will be painted on the road itself.
Never, ever park the car in an unguarded situation: Do this and someone is sure to break in and steal something. Luckily, there are lots of guarded parking lots. Personally, I like to park the car where I can always see it.
Be patient with the birds: Birding in areas of high biodiversity comes at a price. There might be lots of bird species but many require specialized habitats, most have large territories, and quite a few are naturally shy. You can walk into excellent forest one day and see 30 species, then see 40 more species the following day in the same area. Be patient, check every little movement and sound, and the cool denizens of the rainforest will show up.
Hire a guide: If you want to see more when birding Costa Rica, hire a guide who knows how to identify birds by sight and sound, and where to find them. Although the complexities of neotropical birding make it an endeavor that brims with surprises on a daily basis and is subject to a fair degree of probability, going with a guide will up the odds of seeing more birds when watching them in Costa Rica.