Costa Rica Part 1: A Return and a Quest


“Crap,” I thought, after my English inquiry was met with a shrug, “I’m going to have to resurrect my Spanish.”

Six years ago, I went to Costa Rica with a poorly organized program to learn Spanish.  It was the first time I had traveled abroad on my own.  It didn’t go very well.  While I certainly learned an incredible amount, I didn’t enjoy myself, finding it hard to infiltrate the cliques of sorority girls there for the cheap party, feeling intimidated by my host family who laughed at my feeble attempts at their language.  I became quite ill about six weeks in, and had the (now humorous) experience of having a spinal tap performed in an idiom I was too sick to grasp.  And then I went home, and avoided Spanish at all costs.

Fast forward to the present, where we decided (while in India) that a trip to Costa Rica to spend some time with Kev’s sister and niece would be just the travel experience we needed.  And it was.  Compared to parts of Asia that we have been in, Costa Rica is a comfortable, wealthy country with great infrastructure.

We leapt around in the Pacific waves of Dominical and when we had enough to the humidity, took a bus to Cerro del Muerte.  There we happily froze under thin wool blankets while waking up at the crack of dawn to search the forest for quetzals.  Costa Rica was far more comfortable this time with having Kevin at my side and six years of other challenging travels under my belt.  I found myself opening up to the country and its people, and spoke a little more Spanish each day.

A Leafcutter Ant makes its way through San Jose.

A little lizard man eyes me from his perch.

An iguana finds a comfortable place for his siesta. We saw an enormous plethora of lizards, ranging from the size of my pinky finger to big guys like this. A nearby river was home to a crocodile who had been eating the neighborhood dogs, but luckily we didn’t cross paths with him.

The post-rain sunshine makes its way through the jungle.

On our last evening in Dominical, we took the scenic route to dinner.

Kevin captures the waterfall during our hike around Cerro del Muerte.

Morning light as we rise very early to try and spot a Quetzal.

In Costa Rica, moss grows on literally everything.  And then moss grows on that moss.  And so on.

A Clay-Colored Robin, Costa Rica’s visually underwhelming national bird. What it lacks in looks, it makes up for with its voice.

Waiting for our bus to take us back to San Jose. Shortly after this photograph was taken, an incredibly genial man who spoke exclusively Spanish convinced us to get into his truck. We dropped his daughters off at school, and then he brought us to a real bus station. We never have encounters like this in places where we have no grasp of the language, so it really reversed my negative connotations with Spanish.


We exchanged nervous glances with each other as another tarnished yellow, concrete block flew by stating that we had just passed Kilometer 80 on the Pan-American Highway through central Costa Rica. Our instructions were as follows: board the bus to San Jose from San Isidro de General, tell the driver in broken Spanish that you need to get off of the (direct) bus at a random kilometer marker in the middle of nowhere, then follow a dirt road until you happen upon a farm called Finca Eddie Serrano. After several hours of waiting at an ant infested bus stop in Dominical for a bus that never came, taking a lift from a sketchy van labeled “Tourismo” and arriving in San Isidro to be told that the bus station was another 1,000 Colones more than our pre-agreed upon price, we we’re wary about a successful outcome to the next stage of our journey. Five minutes after I was sure we had gone too far, the bus driver shouted some non-descript Spanish phrase and the bus careened to a halt on the side of mountain pass 9,000 feet above sea level. Ear-to-ear smiles graced our faces as the bus pulled away, and we realized that once again another journey abroad, that had went anything but as planned, had somehow been successful.

We had come to this place, Mirador de Quetzales, to view the wilderness lodge’s namesake, the Resplendent Quetzal. This bird, a fantastic member of the Trogan family with metallic green and red feathers, is the only bird on Earth unable to live in captivity. The Mayans and the Aztecs worshipped them, and they stand as a symbol of the vitality and free spirit of the Central American peoples.

The lodge itself was on the grounds of a working farm, in the middle of Los Quetzales National Park, the nesting grounds of this renowned and very rare bird. The lodge consisted of a central dining hall, and 12 standalone cabinas. In the midst of a cloud forest (essentially a high altitude version of a rain forest) and at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, the weather was quite different from the tropical beach we had been at the night before. We woke before dawn the day after our arrival, frozen and soggy, and stumbled bleary-eyed into the dining hall to assemble for our first foray into the forest. Our group of 10-12, led by a guide, walked for several hours before spotting a single female, high in the trees. We followed her silhouette for a few brief moments before she took flight, and headed off into the distance. We had been lucky enough to catch a glimpse at this beautiful animal, but inside it just wasn’t quite satisfying.

Later in the day, Elizabeth and I were walking by ourselves to a pond near to the lodge. I had noticed some swallows hanging out by the water and was hoping to get some photos, so I dragged Elizabeth out into the rain with me. As we approached the pond, we suddenly heard a very distinct ‘kyoo’ coming from the trees above us. The sound is somewhat akin to a whimpering dog, soft and mournful. We peered up, and our eyes took a moment to adjust to focus on the branches in front of the overcast, washed-out sky. First we spotted a female Quetzal, then another, then another, and another. Before we knew it, we had spotted eight birds, including two males with spectacular 30-inch tail feathers. We watched the birds in awe for a few moments, before they flew over us off to their next destination.

As we watched the silhouettes of their magnificent tail feathers dance across the cloudy sky, a sense of privilege and satisfaction that can only be produced by travel washed across us. In another place, in the foreign and sometimes uncomfortable environment of travel, we are intermittently rewarded with such brilliant moments that we put up with the long plane rides, the squat toilets, the stifling bus trips and the frustrations of language barriers. Occasionally the unending search that is travel comes to a brief moment of fruition, and it is these moments that fulfill the addiction, and keep us forever on the road.

Brown Pelicans searching for fish in the waves at dawn.

This Giant Grasshopper, which certainly lived up to its name, we affectionately dubbed ‘Taco Meat.”

Afternoon rain clouds crawl out of the rain forest and over the beach at Dominical as they make their way to the Pacific.

A male Cherrie’s Tanager poses on a power line.

A female of the same species as above comes in for a closer look at the camera.

A weird bird frolicking on Playa Dominical during a magnificent sunset.

The view from our cabina atop Cerro de la Muerte.

We came to this cloud forest on top of a mountain to have a chance to spot a Resplendent Quetzal. These tail feathers from a male, nearly 30-inches long, had been collected near where we were staying the week prior to our arrival.

We were luckily enough to spot plenty of Quetzales during our time atop Cerro de la Muerte, although getting good photographs of these rare and magnificent birds was another matter. This photo of a male was the best that we ended up with.

A waterfall flows through the cloud forest at Mirador de Quetzales.


One thought on “Costa Rica Part 1: A Return and a Quest

  1. that looks like an absolutely magical trip!! and some of the photos you got are just breath-taking, as usual. 🙂 i know i’ve mentioned this before, but i love reading about your trips – it always makes me feel like i’m right there with you! 🙂

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