COSTA RICA, BELIZE AND TIKAL
For years I read about the natural riches of Central America and the wonderful Mayan sites in Belize and Guatemala. I was fascinated by the stories of Mayan culture and their cities of Tikal and Xunantunich. I was also intrigued by the accounts of birding in the region. With a land mass smaller than West Virginia, Costa Rica alone harbors over 830 species, more than in all of North America north of Mexico. The floral variety is staggering. Costa Rica has around 9,000 species, almost five percent of the entire world plant list, including 1,200 orchids. Tiny Belize contains 4,000 plant species, of which 250 are orchids.
I decided to put a group of kindred spirits together to explore the region. In late January 2002, we flew from a number of gateways in the U.S. to San José, Costa Rica, where we met at the airport. It was not a propitious beginning. After fifteen or twenty minutes of searching, I found a man holding up a sign that did not identify the travel company with whom we were traveling. It displayed only a few mauled names of our group members. We piled on the bus, tired and anxious to go to bed. The sign-wielder, who had spoken few words of English until that point, was eloquent in his plea for a tip, citing his obligation to his wife and children. All tips on this tour were supposedly included in the tour price, but since he didnt appear ready to leave the bus without a tip, I complied and we were off. We arrived at the Hotel Balmoral, ready for bed.
Tomorrow was another day. Our guide led us to the bus, and we set out. My first favorable impression of Victor was reinforced throughout the trip. Our first stop was the village of Sarchi, known for its colorful oxcarts and wooden handicrafts. As if on cue, just before entering the village, a farmer led his ox-drawn hay-filled cart to a halt in front of our parked bus. We had stopped for lunch. He posed obligingly and waved to us as we drove off. We visited a vintage cart workshop, but no one was around since it was Sunday. In the mild climate, the shop had no walls, thus no locked doors, and we wandered through the workrooms. Tools and production materials lay on workbenches. Some of the pieces were nicely carved works of art. A new intricately painted cart sat in the yard. There were no guards or watchmen about.
From Sarchi, we drive through rolling hills with green fields of sugar cane to the vicinity of Arenal Volcano. The literature had promised that we would make an evening excursion to see Arenals perfect conical shape with glowing red lava flowing down its slopeson a clear night, it added. Alas, it was not a clear night. The volcano was shrouded in fog down to its base. Never mind, we visited a spa where one could bathe in the hot springs and had a nice dinner in the airy restaurant of our lodge, the Hotel Valle Escondido. After dinner, we enjoyed the view of the surrounding forest and the birds that flitted about the hotel grounds. Nice hotel and setting. Recommended.
Leaving the hotel the next morning, we drove toward Arenal to find it still blanketed in cloud. Luck of the draw. We drove northward through a green rolling countryside to Monteverde Cloud Forest, one of Costa Ricas greatest natural wonders. Covered in a mantle of moss, ferns and orchids, Monteverde is shaped by a combination of particular winds, temperature, moisture and mountainous topography. This is an enchanted, fairy-tale place, where the tall trees are heavy with orchids, bromeliads, mosses and ferns, where the moisture and mild temperatures and sunlight filtered by the forest canopy encourage the growth of begonias, heliconias, philodendron and many other tropical plants. Leaves are gigantic, and vines hang from the high canopy. The forest is almost visibly growing and changing.
The variety of life in the cloud forest is impressive. More than 2,000 plant species have been catalogued at Monteverde, including more than 500 kinds of trees, 300 orchids, and 200 ferns. Of over 320 bird species, the most notable is the quetzal, with its long tail feathers. Other species present include the three-wattled bellbird, the great green macaw, the bare-necked umbrellabird, the ornate hawk-eagle, assorted trogons and more than 50 varieties of hummingbirds. About 500 kinds of butterflies are found at Monteverde. Among more than 100 mammals are howler, white-faced and spider monkeys, coatis, pumas, ocelots, jaguars, tapirs, kinkajous, and the golden toad. We didnt see all of these wonders, but I have in my bird book the signature of Adrian, our excellent resident cloud forest guide, confirming that we saw a resplendent quetzal pair. They were magnificent.
In addition to the better part of two days in the cloud forest, we visited Monteverde Butterfly Garden. Featuring local butterfly species, the gardens goal is preservation and education. Interesting and definitely worth a visit. Our hotel, the Heliconia, was comfortable and quiet, rustic with a nice local ambiance. We had many good bird sightings in the hotels trees. Recommended.
From Monteverde, we descended to the beautiful Playa Grande on the Pacific Coast. This is one of the worlds most important beaches for leatherback turtle nesting. On the Rio Matapalo estuary between Conchal and Tamarindo, the Parque Nacional Marino las Baulas was created as a reserve to protect the nesting grounds of leatherbacks. The huge turtles come ashore at night by the thousands to lay their eggs.
Our visit came at the end of the nesting season, but we were hopeful. At midnight we drove to an estuary where we were ferried to the most productive beach. It was a balmy night, and the moonlight softly illuminated the beach. We sat, talked, walked, lay down, talked, while our two park guides walked the beach looking for turtles. Nothing. After a few hours, we gave up and returned to our hotel. Luck of the draw.
The Hotel Tamarindo Daria was superb. Highly recommended. Rooms overlooked the palm-shaded lawn which fronted on the beach. The sunset from the outdoor dining area was magnificent. Have dinner here rather than in the town. We did not and were disappointed.
Next morning, we drove along the coast to the Carara Biological Reserve, home of the brilliant scarlet macaw of the parrot family. Other exotic bird species in the Reserve include the black-hooded antshrike, dot-winged antwren, and animal species, including the three-toed sloth and American crocodiles. We watched a pair of macaws at close range in their nest in a snag. We also saw a number of Harlequin poison-dart frogs, charcoal black with fluorescent-green markings.
Continuing southward along the coast, we stopped at a bridge over a river and counted twenty-four American crocodiles lying on the banks. Further along, we visited Manuel Antonio Park. The park encompasses a curving bay with sandy beaches, some shaded by green bordering forests, and backed by dramatic cliffs. A network of trails winds through the forest fringe. Rocky islands are scattered about the bay. Manuel Antonio is one of the few places in Costa Rica where primary forest grows right down to the high-tide mark. We walked through the forest with a local guide, then strolled on the beach where Carol, my wife, was bitten on the leg by some critter that caused ugly red welts and blisters. The park and beach were interesting and relaxing, but not a must-see. If you must make choices in your itinerary, Manuel Antonio can be skipped.
The real discovery in the region was our hotel. Hotel California is a jewel. Sited on a hillside above the forest, town and beach, the view is fantastic. The pool was most refreshing after the hot walk in Manuel Antonio. Drinks at poolside tables and watching the sunset over the Pacific were memorable. Meals were served at the same umbrella-shaded tables. Highly recommended.
Leaving the coast, we motored back to San José in time for an escorted walking tour which included visits to the interesting Gold Museum and the historic Teatro Nacional. Carol and I and daughter Merrilee had to cut our sightseeing short since Victor had arranged for me to see a dermatologist. This kind woman, Dr. Joyce Sheehy Alvarado, opened her clinicit was Saturdayjust to see me. While we waited for her outside the clinic, Carol became interested in some flag-waving political activists at the street corner who were haranguing passersby and handing out leaflets. She decided to investigate. I tried to dissuade her, but she was off. She came back with one of their flags.
Dr. Sheehy and her young daughter and son soon appeared and showed us up to the clinic. She looked at a spot on my arm that had given me come concern since it had changed color in the last couple of days. She assured me that it was not serious, but that I should have a doctor look at it upon reaching home. Her daughter also informed us that the flag that Carol carried was not the party they favored. We promised not to vote for them. We exchanged email addresses and took our leave. Night again at the Balmoral Hotel.
The next morning, we traveled by bus from San José through the highlands of Braulio Carrillo National park, a huge region of dripping and chilly virgin rain forest. Later, we visited a working banana plantation where Victor explained the process of growing and harvesting the stalks. We also walked through sheds where workers processed the bananas for shipping: cutting bunches from the stalk, washing, sorting, drying, and applying the Del Monte sticker. At one point, following an announcement on the speaker system, the workers noticeably slowed their movements. Victor was smiling, and I asked him why. He said that the announcement had told workers to be more careful since they were now processing bananas for the Italian market, which was the most demanding. Americans, it seems, are among the least demanding.
Continuing, we passed through a region known for its production of coffee and cocoa. At Porto Hambourg we boarded our riverboat. During the ensuing afternoon, we moved through interconnecting streams and canals to reach the Caribbean coast at Tortuguero Park. Tortuguero is a complex interconnecting system of rivers, lagoons and estuaries, and man-made waterways that runs almost to the Nicaraguan border.
I had tried to talk the company that handled our arrangements out of Hotel Ilan Ilan. Happily, I failed to convince them. The hotel is located on a waterway, right in the middle of the forest. Some of our best sightings were literally on our doorstep. A little green snake appeared on the chair outside one of the rooms and stayed through our entire visit. Walking to the airy dining room at lunchtime one day, I saw in the bare limbs of a tree that towered over the building about twenty colorful toucans. The birders inside came tumbling out at my announcement.
By foot and by boat, we explored the waterways, forests and beaches of Tortuguero. We saw macaws, trogons, crocodiles at close range, sloths, monkeys, red arrow frogs, and other birds and critters. The waterways, bordered with mangroves and water hyacinths, were good opportunities for close up photography. Especially interesting were the monkeys in the overhanging canopy and crocodiles alongside the boat feeding on small fish. After a day in the warm, humid rainforest, the small hotel pool was most refreshing, but one had to dry off and apply insect repellent quickly before the mosquitoes discovered exposed flesh. Orchids and other tropical flowers on the grounds were gorgeous.
We had been forewarned that Ilan Ilan, while providing most of the comforts required by travelers, would not be serving alcohol during our stay. It was forbidden during the national elections. We came prepared with wine, vodka and rum purchased in San José and bought fruit juice in the kitchen. Screwdrivers and good conversation on the veranda with kindred spirits at the end of a satisfying day in the rainforest just cannot be topped. On the other hand, I was told later by one of the group that before I arrived at the gathering that evening they had pondered voting me off the island until someone pointed out that I had the wine.
On one day we walked on Tortuguero Beach, the only major nesting site of the endangered green turtle. We were there at the wrong season for this spectacle. We also visited the rustic village of Tortuguero, accessible only by boat. We strolled the single lane bordered by houses, small shops and school and visited the museum and headquarters of the Sea Turtle Survival League, a program of the non-profit Caribbean Conservation Corporation. I adopted turtles for each member of my family. The adoptive parent will be notified if and when the turtle returns to Tortuguero to lay eggs. The adoption fee of $25 helps fund the Leagues work.
Carol and I also visited the clinic where we were told that the doctor called every Thursdaywell, usually every Thursday. Carols bites from Manuel Antonio had progressed to large red circles topped by huge pus-filled blisters. The doctor was not in and was not expected, nor was the nurse around. The clinics doors were locked. Our boat driver questioned a local who said that the woman who ran the clinic was coming shortly to a meeting nearby. We were surprised at his good English. He was Canadian, married to a local girl. He offered to ask his mother-in-law, who practiced native medicine, to see Carol. He said that she likely would lance the blisters with a spike from a lemon tree. We thanked him and declined. Later we would decide that we probably should have accepted.
The woman who ran the clinic soon appeared and invited us inside. She had no medical training, but based on her observations in the clinic, she lanced the blisters and drained them. Carol and I wondered silently whether the needle was as clean as a lemon tree spike. Too late to worry now. She gave Carol some medicine to apply to the wound. We thanked her, but she would accept no payment. For the remainder of our trip, Carol faithfully applied the medicine, and the wound widened and turned interesting colors. When we arrived home, our dermatologist changed the medication, and the wound cleared within a few days. He also said that it was a mistake to lance blisters since the skin provides a natural protection for the effected area.
From Tortuguero, we traveled by boat back to our original boarding point, thence by bus to San José. We drove directly to the airport for our flight to Guatemala City. My main regret about our night in Guatemala City was that it was only that, a place to have dinner and spend the night. While larger than I prefer, the Pan Americana is a fine hotel, with a nice ambiance and dining room. Recommended. We left early the next morning for our flight to Flores where our bus collected us and drove directly to Tikal National Park.
The premier Mayan site in Central America, Tikal contains about 3,000 buildings in a lush green jungle setting. Dating from the 2nd century BC, the citys glory extended from 250 AD to 900 AD, housing a population of 100,000 at its peak. We spent all of this day and the next morning exploring this magnificent site. We also saw a considerable variety of birds in the park. Clarence, our guide, was not a happy man. He was impatient, grumpy and bored, but he knew the site and answered our questions. When you visit Tikal, dont ask for Clarence.
We were dazzled by the magnificence of Tikal. Aside from the heart-throbbing stimulation of viewing the wonderful remains of this ancient civilization, my most anxious moment came when one of our number decided to come down the ladder-like stairs from the top of a pyramid, not backwards like a small child on carpeted stairs, the typical practice, but forward, tripping and bouncing down the tall stone steps like a light-footed elf. I had to turn away. His wife, who I thought would be horrified, said something like look at that boy.
Our hotel here was a gem, the Camino Real, nice architecture and pretty gardens. Highly recommended. Located on a hillside above Petén Itzá Lake, the views were impressive. The pool, and margaritas around the pool, were most welcome after a demanding day at Tikal. Sunset over the lake was spectacular. One of our group observed that its hard, this life were enduring, but somebody has to do it, he said, and ordered another round of margaritas.
We motored from our hotel to Flores, an interesting little town of cobblestone streets and pastel-colored buildings located on a small island in Petén Itzá Lake. A causeway connects the island to the mainland. Originally a Mayan ceremonial complex, the town is now a quiet, laid-back market center. Some of our group shopped, and some found a nice little restaurant overlooking the lake. I wasted time in a steamy internet cafe, reading and writing email that could have waited until another day.
From Flores, we filled a small plane for the flight to Belize City. I was a bit unnerved when I saw that the co-pilot was Richard, my brother, who has never flown without a paid ticket. Only one passenger was not in our group. Her husband was left on the tarmac in Flores. I hope they found each other again. We boarded our bus at the Belize City airport, minus our husbandless friend, to drive directly to Lamanai Outpost Lodge. The road we traveled soon narrowed, the pavement gave way to dirt, and darkness fell. Even with my limited Spanish, I could understand from the exchange between Victor and the driver that neither of them knew the road.
We came to a T-junction and stopped. Which way to turn? Then we saw lights approaching from the right, then another set of lights coming from the left. Victor and the driver got out and flagged the trucks down. Victor talked with one driver and our driver the other. They returned, and we turned right. The driver of the truck had confirmed that we were on the correct road. The driver, our bus driver told us, was his cousin whom he had not seen for five years. We checked in at Lamanai in the dark, had a quick, but satisfying dinner, and made our way back to our rooms on the dimly-lit paths. The place appeared to be most interesting, and we were anxious to see it in daylight.
We were not disappointed. The lodge is a collection of rustic buildings surrounded by lush forest, with four self-contained rooms to each building. Each has a deck with a hammock, and most have a view of the lake. Paths lead to the dock and to the open-sided frame dining building. Meals often were interrupted by bird sightings. The building also contains a small shop and internet access for outgoing messages only. Highly recommended.
After breakfast on our first day, we were transported by boat to the remote ruins of Lamanai, submerged crocodile in Mayan. The 3,000-year-old ceremonial center, one of the largest Mayan sites in Belize, includes ball courts, pyramids and temples. Some of the structures are entirely unexcavated. I was surprised throughout Guatemala and Belize to learn that only a small fraction of the buildings at Mayan sites had been uncovered. Considerably more known structures are yet to be excavated than have been uncovered. The rain forest is yielding its cultural treasure slowly. Birding at Lamanai was productive. We soon boarded our boat and returned to the lodge for lunch.
The afternoon was free for catching up and was most welcome. For some, that meant reading or sleeping in hammocks, washing clothes, or strolling the paths and trails in and around the lodge complex. After dinner, we boarded our boat again at dusk and cruised the waterways and lagoons of nearby Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. This is a resting place for migrating birds, most notably the endangered Jabiru Stork, the largest bird in the western hemisphere. In the deepening darkness, our guide used a spotlight to illuminate crocodiles at waterline and birds sitting on tree branches over the water. We were able to approach within a few feet. Occasionally the guide would cut the engine, turn off the light, and we would drift, enjoying the quiet and the heavens.
We checked out after breakfast and drove thirty minutes to Orange Walk, the center of Belizes sugar cane industry and the only town of any size in the north. This is a good base for exploring nearby Mayan sites, but there are no tourist attractions in the town itself. For that reason, it is interesting as an example of a typical Belizean small town. We walked around the busy square and surrounding streets. Passersby smiled and waved. One man even asked Carol if she would like to take a picture of him. She did.
Continuing on our way, we came upon the most bizarre spectacle that we had seen yet. Victor spotted something beside a waterway and told the driver to stop. With binoculars, we saw a crocodile holding a large boa constrictor in its mouth. The croc thrashed its head side to side, then threw the boa up, apparently trying to position the snake for swallowing. Then the croc would rest with the snake securely in its mouth, then begin thrashing and tossing again. Most of us were content to watch from the bus, but Carol, Victor and a couple of others, plodded through tall wet grass to get a closer look. Carol, between snapping pictures, asked Victor if they could outdistance the croc if he gave chase. Victor suggested that they board the bus. Just before reaching the bus, Victor began slapping Carols legs, which must have confused her a bit until she saw the red ants all over her feet. He told her to take off her socks and leave them. She protested since that would reduce her to only three pair, but under the circumstances she did.
We arrived at the Mayan site of Altun Ha in a soft, persistent rain. We donned rain gear and walked around. Dating from about 250 A.D., this was an important trading center. Of hundreds of temples, pyramids, and tombs that have been identified at the site, only a few of the most important have been uncovered and fewer restored. It boggles the mind to imagine what treasures at Altun Ha, and indeed at all Mayan sites, are still buried in the rain forest. The largest known Mayan jade carving, a representation of the head of Kinich Ahau, the Mayan sun god, was found here. But you wont see it here. It is in a bank vault in Belmopan.
Back on the road toward western Belize, we stopped at the Belize Zoo. Animal enclosures utilize natural habitat, and the zoo appears to be well managed. We saw beautiful jaguars, both spotted and black, and other Belizean cats, tapirs, including April the tapir whose picture appears all over the country, monkeys, an interesting collection of birds, including macaws, toucans, parrots, wading birds, Jabiru Storks, and countless free birds who like the open natural enclosures enough to come and go as they please. They call this The Best Little Zoo in the World. It just might be.
We stopped for lunch at a little roadside diner with outside tables. Lunch was quick, tasty, and the orchids on display were exquisite. I loved the large drawing on the wall of Lala on holiday, full beer mug in hand and a smile on her (its?) face.
It was late afternoon when we arrived in the foothill town of San Ignacio. The town is the market center for this region of cattle ranches, forests and Mayan ruins. We checked into the San Ignacio Resort Hotel and gathered on the terrace for drinks. It had been a long, satisfying day. The hotel is built on a slope and looks out over a wooded canyon. We watched colorful birds flying in and out of a nearby tree. Someone identified the birds for me, but my retention capacity had been filled for that full day, so they will have to remain simply colorful birds. Service in the dining room was exceedingly slow. After dinner, we made a small contribution to the local economy at the casino next door.
The next morning, we drove westward from San Ignacio and crossed the Mopan River on a small hand-cranked car ferry to reach Xunantanich, a ceremonial center of the classic period. Contemporary with Altun Ha, about A.D. 600 to 900, Xunantanich was abandoned after being hit by a massive earthquake in A.D. 900. Like most other Mayan architecture, the structures here are layered, with new buildings erected on top of old ones. The view of the forest floor, stretching to the Guatemalan border, from the top of El Castillo, the highest structure at 127 feet, is most impressive. The frieze on a side of El Castillo, with its abstract designs, human faces, and jaguar heads, is particularly striking. Three beautifully preserved stelae representing Mayan rulers are displayed.
Leaving Xunantanich, we drove to Clarissas for lunch. This open air restaurant was a delight, serving good food family style in a pleasant country setting. Highly recommended.
In the afternoon, we visited the Panti Mayan Medicine Trail. The Maya were masters in the use of the jungles resources for their practical and medicinal needs. We walked the trail that winds through the jungle along the banks of the Macal River. Our guide identified medicinal plants and described their properties and uses. A small gift shop sells herbal products and teas, as well as the customary T-shirts, local crafts and books on the use of plants for health.
Back in San Ignacio, we had refreshing pińa coladas and a nice dinner at an interesting small restaurant. I found an ice cream vendor outside, and that completed the evening for me.
We had moved at a rather brisk pace the past few days and were happy to throttle down a bit. We took our time checking out the next morning, then drove leisurely from San Ignacio down to the coast south of Belize City. We pulled up at the Pelican Beach Hotel outside Dangriga, and I knew immediately that this was the perfect place to end a great trip.
The rustic hotel looks out on a beautiful palm-covered beach. We took lunch at outside tables, then walked out on the hotel pier. A sign warns against diving into the water. Two feet deep, it says. Swimmers had to walk out a considerable distance in the shallow water. But the prospect was pleasant, the breeze cooling and the hammocks under the palapa on the pier inviting. I spent a good part of the afternoon sitting on the veranda of our second floor room, reading and enjoying the view of palms, beach and ocean. Later we gathered in the bar for drinks, followed by an excellent dinner in the hotel dining room.
The next day we spent on the reef, the second largest in the world after Australias Great Barrier Reef. The sky was overcast, and the air quite cool, but this was our day for the reef, and so we set out. We took a launch to an island where we stopped at a Pelican Beach Hotel facility for snorkel gear. A guide commented on snorkeling techniques and safety. We swam and snorkeled off the beach for a couple of hours. A good variety of fish, but not great numbers.
We returned to the island hotel facility, wrapped in towels, and ate our picnic lunches provided by the hotel. After lunch, we walked around the perimeter of the island. There were a few private dwellings, a rustic bar, and a low-key resort that didnt appear to be doing so well.
We returned to our launch for snorkeling over the reef. We swam off the boat for an hour or two and found a greater variety of fish at depths of ten to twenty feet. In spite of the chilly air, the water was pleasant and invigorating. When all were satisfied, we boarded and returned to the island, turned in our snorkeling gear and motored back to the hotel.
Carol graciously permitted me to shower first while she did some cleaning up in the sink--her shampoo had leaked in the plastic bag in which it was storedthen left the bathroom to do some packing. A few minutes later, I stepped from the shower into a flooded bathroom. Carol was mopping up the water with towels. She had left the water in the sink running, and the plastic bag had formed a plug. The phone rang. It was the hotel desk. It seems that water was running down the wall of the bar just below our room, and could they send someone up to mop up. Just then there was a knock at the door. Water was seeping down the wall on the porch below. The phone rang again with a request to send someone up. Everything is under control, Carol told them. All indeed was well, as it turned out. There was still enough hot water for her shower.
After breakfast the next morning, we drove three or four hours to the Belize City airport for our flights home. All except one couple who had made arrangements to fly from Dangriga to the Belize City airport. It cost an extra $30 each, but they decided that it was worth the expense to avoid this last anti-climactic bus journey.
This was a great trip. Adventures Abroad did an excellent job with itinerary, accommodations, and other arrangements. Highly recommended. I liked them so much, I am working on two more tours with them. They just might have the best stable of guides in the travel business. In over fifteen years of organizing and escorting tours, Victor Romagnoli is the best guide I have ever had. He is efficient and fluent in Spanish, as well as half a dozen other languages. He could discuss the history, politics, culture, wildlife and flora of the countries that we visited, and he was genuinely concerned about the tour members, not a universal quality among tour guides.
For information on the Sea Turtle Survival League and the turtle adoption program, see their web site. The Belize Zoo's web site is as neat and well organized as the zoo itself. Most of the hotels mentioned above can be located by doing a search in google.com.
The author will be happy to respond to questions.