Carara National Park is one of the premier birding locations in Costa Rica. In addition to the easily accessible rainforests of the park, the area also boasts tropical dry forest, mangroves, and estuarine habitats and other wetlands. It’s a must on every birding trip to Costa Rica but ironically, there are few places to stay near the park. The top option for me has been Cerro Lodge (contact me for reservations) since the place opened 6 or so years ago. Situated in forests that transition between wet and dry, this small eco-lodge also strives to be sustainable, has an open air restaurant with views of flyby parrots, parakeets, and Scarlet Macaws, and frequented by Black and White Owls at night. It’s fairly close to Carara (maybe 6 kilometers) and the price is also lower than other options but you trade air conditioning for a ceiling fan (albeit a fast one!).
The View from the Cerro Lodge restaurant.
Just past the park to the south is another of the main options for lodging when birding at Carara National Park. Villa Lapas (means Macaw Villas) is a bit more upscale than Cerro Lodge, the rooms have air conditioning, and the price is higher. Birding is good but you see the same species in the national park. One cheaper option I know of is the Hotel Carara in Tarcoles. A moderately priced place situated right in the middle of Tarcoles, it’s also close to the park and mangroves that are the home of Panama Flycatchers, the rare Mangrove Hummingbird, Mangrove Vireo, and other choice birds. Although it’s just off the beach, that doesn’t count much for swimming because the water on that particular strand is the most polluted in the country (hosts effluent straight from the over-populated Central Valley).
Heading further south, we come to some nice roadside restaurants (try the Marisqueria Ranchoticos!) and eventually reach the next major option for lodging near Carara: Punta Leona. I stayed there while guiding this past weekend and here’s my two colones about the place as an option for accommodation while birding Costa Rica near Carara:
- Comfort: I didn’t see all of the rooms but the one we stayed in was certainly comfortable enough. Two queen-sized (I think) beds, cable TV, hot water in the bathroom, clean, mini fridge, and a master blaster of an air conditioning unit! That last factor was pretty important because that general area is a natural greenhouse with the heat turned on.
- Birding around the lodging: There was fair habitat right around our lodging and this was demonstrated by a good number of common species as well as Slaty-tailed, Gartered, and Baird’s Trogons (!), Scarlet Macaws, and Gray-headed Tanagers. One afternoon, we even had an antswarm near the restaurant and got great looks at the aforementioned tanagers and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers.
Habitat near the rooms.
Rufous-breasted Wren- common but can be tough to see and much more difficult to photograph!
- Forest Reserve: On the way in, you drive through some beautiful, old growth rainforest. The trees are massive, the birds are calling, and there are a couple of good trails that access it. “Good birds” that seemed to be fairly common were Great Tinamou, Baird’s Trogon, Black-hooded Antshrike, White-whiskered Puffbird, Rufous Piha, Dot-winged Antwren, Riverside, Rufous and white, Rufous-breasted, and Scaly-breasted Wrens, and some other nice birds.
The forest reserve is beautiful.
Rufous Pihas were pretty common.
- Good for the family: If you are traveling with a non-birding spouse or offspring, Punta Leona is a nice option. Although they should obviously be experiencing the endemic biodiversity of rainforests at Punta Leona, there are also swimming pools on hand, a zipline tour they can take, other activities, and two beautiful beaches.
- Breakfast with monkeys: Eat breakfast at the Carabelas restaurant and you get to see White-faced Capuchins and Coatis up close! This can also be a downside though is they steal the food off your plate. Although that didn’t happen to us, the animals at breakfast seemed bold enough to be capable of doing it.
I had to chase this White-faced Capuchin off so she wouldn’t jump up on our table!
- Security: The controlled access to the place makes it quite secure (or at least that’s the way it appeared). Honestly, though, I think it’s a pretty darn safe place.
An now for the downsides…
- Access: Getting into the place in strictly controlled so you can’t just drive on in. You have to make your reservations in advance and they check at the front gate. Will they let you in to bird if not staying there? I kind of doubt it but maybe they will if you eat at the restaurant? Before we left, we even had to get an exit pass from the reception! It was quite Hotel Californiesque and that doesn’t sit so well with me.
- The plastic pink bracelet: You have to wear this plastic pink bracelet during your stay that marks you as a verifiable tourist in and outside of the place. If it attracted hummingbirds, that would be one thing but the hermits wizened up to those bracelets some time ago.
- Price: A visit to Punta Leona doesn’t come cheap and the restaurants are ridiculously priced. By that statement, I mean $20 for lunch and similar prices.
- Food: If the food didn’t cost so much, I probably wouldn’t throw Punta Leona vittles in with the other downsides. Lunch and dinner might be much better but if they are like breakfast, they aren’t worth $20 a person. Now, at first glance, I admit that I was impressed by the breakfast buffet. After all, there was a a table that offered sliced fruit, copious amounts of pinto (rice and beans), sweet plantain, pancakes, cereals, ham slices, rolls, a few pastries, and an omelette station. Nevertheless, my wife was non-plussed and reminded me that everything was actually pretty darn basic. After a second, closer glance, I realized she was right! The pinto had little flavor, some of the fruit was bland, her omelette wasn’t very good, and several of the pancakes were little traps that revealed, raw, liquid interiors upon cutting into them. The ham slices were cheap cold cuts but most of all, I couldn’t get my own coffee! You have to wait for a server to bring it to you and although they try, it might not arrive straight away (a huge disadvantage in the morning hours!). I should also mention that my wife, daughter, and I all had some stomach problems and we suspect that it came from the food at Punta Leona. I can’t prove it but that would be the most logical explanation.
- Habitat destruction: This is the biggest reason why I won’t be going back to Punta Leona. While I laud them for their forest reserve, quite a few areas were cleared for housing and more hotel buildings, and other forested areas appeared to be slated for development (read destruction). This was noted in places where the undergrowth has been cleared. Someone told me that they do this to then support their claim that such areas aren’t actually forested and can thus be developed. I haven’t researched that possibility or anything but it seems plausible. At the same time, they say that they have made efforts to be sustainable but I just feel like the habitat destruction negates that.
An example of the construction going on at Punta Leona.
- People: Punta Leona is quite popular as a weekend destination for tourists from San Jose. While it wasn’t all that noisy, if you are looking for a place to watch birds and see few vehicles or other people, this isn’t one of them. I should stress that it didn’t feel crowded and this isn’t necessarily a downside, it also didn’t feel as if I was heading into some wild, remote place. I didn’t expect it to be that but I just mention it so birders know what to expect.
To sum things up, Punta Leona is fair site for birding, it’s a short drive to Carara, and is family friendly. However, it’s definitely not an eco-lodge (nor is it advertised as such), is fairly expensive, and has traded a bunch of habitat for buildings. As for myself, I will stick to staying at Cerro Lodge for birding near Carara.