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Lessons from a Costa Rican Wildlife Guide

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Okay, so Gregor and I are pretty impressed with Costa Rica. After a disappointing month in Nicaragua, we expected to be slightly underwhelmed by the country claimed to be a nature-lover’s paradise. It turns out that Costa Rica is kind of a big deal, especially in the flora and fauna department.

Costa Rica has over 500,000 species of animals, fungi, and plants – that number represents about 4% of the world’s species.

Of those 500,000 species:
– 300,000 are insects (20 species have ended up in the van)
– 12,000 are vascular plants
– 850 are resident and migrant birds
– 400 are reptiles and amphibians
– 250 are mammals

Over 25% of Costa Rica is protected by national parks, wildlife refuges, and biological reserves. The country has 26 national parks yet it is smaller than Nova Scotia (or West Virginia, for comparison). I originally thought that most of the animals liked hanging out in protected areas, but we actually saw a surprising amount of wildlife while driving and camping outside of the parks.

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Monkeys and Insects and Crocs, Oh My!

During our first three weeks in Costa Rica, we drove up and down the country, camping along lake shores, volcanic slopes, pacific beaches, and tropical forests.

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As we travelled through verdant highlands and coastal landscapes, we saw playful monkeys, curious rodents, scary reptiles, beautiful butterflies, wacky insects, and weird sea creatures. We also saw tons of interesting plants.

Finca Cañas Castilla

Finca Cañas Castilla is a farm set in the mountains near La Cruz and the Nicaraguan border. The Swiss owners, Agi and Guido, have 68 hectares along the Sapoá River where they maintain pastures, fruit and vegetable plantations, and nature trails. In addition to having camping spots, they rent cabins, run an onsite restaurant, and can organize outdoor activities and horseback riding tours from the finca.

This was the first place we camped in Costa Rica and it’s one of our favourites in Central America. It was clean and organized, and the farm was a beautiful place to explore.

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Our campsite at the finca

The finca has several kilometres of interesting nature trails
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The finca has several kilometres of interesting nature trails

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Howler monkeys

This young two-toed sloth had fallen out of a tree and was rescued by the finca’s owners.
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This young two-toed sloth had fallen out of a tree and was rescued by the finca’s owners.

Fun Fact:
Two-toed sloths have 2 toes on its front paws and 3 toes on its back paws.

Lake Arenal

Lake Arenal is an artificial lake in the northern highlands of Costa Rica that provides hydroelectricity to the country. We enjoyed the free camping along the lake near Nuevo Arenal.

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Coati, a member of the raccoon family
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Coati, a member of the raccoon family

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Poas Volcano

The main crater of the active Poas Volcano can be easily accessed via a 15-minute paved trail in Poas Volcano National Park. We were fortunate to have a clear morning to see the crater – it’s very common for clouds to obscure the view by mid-morning.

The crater of Volcan Poas
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The crater of Volcan Poas

The park has other interpretive trails through the rainforest, where we saw interesting plants that were completely new to us.

Poor Man’s Umbrella
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Poor Man’s Umbrella

Melastome leaves
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Melastome leaves

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Driving in the clouds

Pacific Coast

Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast is lined with beaches, mangroves, estuaries, and forests that are teeming with wildlife. Our favourite sighting was the scarlet macaw. We couldn’t capture a good shot of a macaw, but we did manage to photograph some crocodiles:

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Looking down from the “crocodile bridge” that spans Rio Tarcoles

Thank goodness for zoom lenses!
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Thank goodness for zoom lenses!

Dominical Beach
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Dominical Beach

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Low tide at Marino Ballena National Park, near Uvita

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Live sand dollar

At Marino Ballena National Park, we saw live sand dollars burying themselves in the sand during low tide. Here’s a video that we filmed in real-time (i.e., no time-lapse):

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The view from the veranda of Vista Serena Hostel, Manuel Antonio

Stick insect or phasmid (italics) at the hostel
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Stick insect (or phasmid) on the hostel veranda

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Driving towards Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula

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Geoffroy’s spider monkey
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Geoffroy’s spider monkey

Finca Cantaros
Finca Cántaros is located in Linda Vista de San Vito, near the Panama border. The property is a private nature reserve in the tropical highlands and is run by two friendly Americans, Gail and Harry. They restored 7 hectares of ranchland into a botanical paradise over the course of 21 years. We could see that a lot of love went into the property and we were happy to work in the refreshingly cool and peaceful mountain retreat for several days.

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Dutchman’s Pipe, the largest flower in Costa Rica
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Dutchman’s Pipe, the largest flower in Costa Rica

Not actually sure what this flower is...
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Not actually sure what this flower is…

…or this one
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…or this one. But it’s pretty.

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View of San Vito from the finca

Birdwatching by the property’s lake
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Birdwatching by the property’s lake

We are fascinated by the different types of birds we see and hear each morning from our van. Shimmering hummingbirds, rainbow-coloured parrots, cute little songbirds, and massive birds of prey. By the way, we have learned first-hand that birds are very difficult to photograph, so we have a new-found respect for the camera-toting ornithologists out there!

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The Great Debate

In three weeks, we had seen lots of interesting animals, but we really didn’t know much about them. We ended up being just like those ignorant tourists at Banff National Park, stopping on the highway to take pictures of anything that moved in the bushes, not knowing if we were endangering the animals or ourselves.

One rainy afternoon, Gregor and I sat in the van debating the merits of hiring a professional nature guide to learn more about the country’s flora and fauna. I wanted to hire a guide at one of the national parks but Gregor didn’t. He wasn’t convinced that a guide would add much value.

“Hiring a guide increases your chances of spotting wildlife,” I told Gregor, trying to sound very authoritative and knowledgeable. I had no idea what I was talking about – I just read that somewhere in an outdated travel guide that I picked up at a hostel book exchange.

“I don’t want to pay someone just to look at birds,” Gregor replied. My husband has a special gift when it comes to expressing his preferences. It makes negotiation a little bit challenging. That said, he had legitimate reasons for not wanting to spend the extra money on a guide.

You see, Costa Rica is not exactly a cheap place to visit. Groceries, restaurants, accommodation and services cost the same as or more than what you would pay in Canada or the US, and each natural attraction costs minimum $20 CAD ($15 USD) per person to visit. With the Canadian dollar doing so badly right now, each sightseeing endeavour in Costa Rica dealt a noticeable blow to our travel budget ($100 CAD/day or $75 USD/day).

I didn’t want to break the budget any more than Gregor, but my innate FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) was really getting the best of me. I needed a way to convince Gregor that hiring a guide would be worth the money.

And then one day, the stars aligned and I got my wish…

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Message from a Friend

Gregor and I were at Vista Serena Hostel preparing for a hike in Manuel Antonio National Park the next morning.

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Manuel Antonio National Park is the smallest of 26 national parks in Costa Rica, yet it is regarded as one of the most beautiful because it provides access to several protected, scenic beaches along the Pacific Coast.

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The plan was to walk through the main trail towards the beaches and hope that we would spot some interesting wildlife on our own.

That night, I received an email from our overlanding friends, Colin and Carrie (Wake the Dead Diaries). In the email, Carrie shared some of their travel experiences in Panama and also included this side note:

I think you mentioned heading towards Manual Antonio…Colin had a wonderful experience with this tour guide: Andres Martin Chavez Rojas. With him, Colin saw TONS of wildlife that I didn’t get to see since I went alone. Highly recommend this guy. Andres speaks great English and loves wildlife 🙂 You can email him at: aclaves@gmail.com

This was the little nugget I needed! I showed the email to Gregor. “See!” I said in a told-you-so kind of way, “Colin saw tons of wildlife with the guide and Carrie didn’t because she went alone. AND the guide speaks great English!” I crossed my arms and looked at my husband like ‘whatcha gonna say to that?’.

Gregor re-read the email and pursed his lips. Then he gave a big reluctant sigh. “Okay,” he said, “See if he’ll guide us tomorrow morning.”

I was super happy but also concerned because it was 7:00 pm at night – there was a chance that we wouldn’t connect with Andres in time for a tour the next morning. But Andres replied within the hour and we were set to go!

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Touring Manuel Antonio National Park with Andres

When first saw Andres, we knew we had hired the real deal. He wasn’t wearing the typical Central American tour guide attire (jeans, t-shirt, and runners). No, he looked like a full-fledged research biologist straight out of the Discovery Channel. He was wearing a beige sunhat, beige long-sleeve collared shirt with velcro pockets, beige hiking pants, and well-worn brown leather hiking boots.

Andres shook our hands vigorously and gave us a big smile. He was full of energy and he seemed genuinely excited and grateful to have the opportunity to guide us through the park. His English was exceptional and his friendly nature put me and Gregor at ease right away.

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Our guide said that we could call him “Andres” or by his nickname “Socio”, the Spanish word for “member” or “partner”. As we walked towards the park entrance, it was obvious why he earned that name. Every time he saw a fellow tour guide, a street vendor, or park worker, he was quick to give a big smile with a shoulder-slap, handshake, or fist-bump and he shared friendly banter that always ended with the expression “Pura vida!”.

The phrase “Pura vida” (literally “pure life”) is used in Costa Rica as greeting, a farewell, and as a way to express gratitude or satisfaction. The saying represents a way of life in Costa Rica, which is to simply enjoy life and be happy.

In his email introduction, Andres mentioned that he would bring “the latest and newest HD Swarovski scope for animal observation”. Having never seen such a scope, we thought he was just going to bring some fancy binoculars. The Swarovski scope was actually a massive monocular on a heavy-duty tripod with serious swiveling action and incredible lens quality.

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You can actually hold your camera lens against the monocular and take photos at the maximum zoom levels of the scope and the camera. So this is what animals looked like through the scope:

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Juvenile spiny-tailed black iguana

Baby Basiliscus Lizard. It’s also called ’Jesus Christ Lizard’ because it can run across water upright on its hind legs.
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Baby Basiliscus Lizard. It’s also called ’Jesus Christ Lizard’ because it can run across water upright on its hind legs.

Andres guided me, Gregor, and three clients from Spain down the park’s main trail, called Sendero El Perezoso, or “sloth trail”. Although the trail is only 1.3 km, we spent 3 hours gazing at wildlife and learning about the park’s ecosystem. Andres stopped frequently to tell us about the birds, plants, and flowers along the way (in both Spanish and English).

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Andres pointing out a very good reason not to step off the trail.

Andres introducing the Heliconia flower
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Andres introducing the Heliconia flower

Fun Fact:
The Heliconia flower is often mistaken for a Bird of Paradise flower, but they are from different plant families. The Bird of Paradise or Strelitzia is native to South Africa.

We were all impressed by Andres’s knowledge and his incredible ability to locate insects and animals in the forest. Often, he’d be in the middle of a wildlife lecture when suddenly he would stop mid-sentence, leap to his Swarovski, and madly set up the tripod to view something that he heard or saw in the distance. All the while, the rest of us would dart our eyes and heads in the general direction of the scope, wondering “What the heck is he looking at?”

Once he focused the scope, he would say excitedly: “Come and take a look, amiguitos!” (“amiguito” is a Spanish term of endearment that translates to “my little friend” or “my dear friend”). Then we’d all line up to the monocular and take turns peaking through the lens.

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Mating grasshoppers
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Mating grasshoppers

Tree bats
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Tree bats

Arrow-shaped spider
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Arrow-shaped spider

Three-toed sloth
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Three-toed sloth

As we all “oohed” and “aahed”, Andres explained the animals’ feeding and mating habits, as well as their protection mechanisms.

Fun Fact:
Sloths move so slowly because they have extremely slow metabolism. Their herbivorous diet and relatively small amount of muscle tissue means that they must conserve energy by avoiding fast movements.

Thanks to our guide, we were able to see the famous red-eyed tree frog. The tree frog is actually a nocturnal amphibian. During the day, it needs to hide its distinguishing red eyes and toes for protection against predators. So it sits under leaves with its eyes partly closed and feet curled under its torso, like this:

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Gregor loves frogs, so even though we didn’t get to see the red eyes and toes, the tree frog sighting was a real treat.

Before dismantling the giant scope, Andres always double-checked to see if we had any questions or any problems viewing the animal. When he was satisfied that we were satisfied, he slung the gear over his shoulder and said cheerfully: “Pura vida! Let’s go amigos!”

As we walked, Andres showed us every one of the four species of Heliconia flowers in the park. He said that if you stand around Heliconia flowers for about two minutes, you are bound to see a hummingbird. His theory was true! Here’s a blurry photo to prove it:

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Each time we saw a hummingbird, Andres whipped out a dog-eared, marked-up birding book from his North Face shoulder bag and showed us an illustration of the species we were looking at. He pointed out distinguishing characteristics, described the differences between males and females, and provided little factoids about each species.

Fun Fact:
Some hummingbirds can beat their wings up to 80 times per second!

Andres has been studying and recording Costa Rican wildlife for 19 years and his enthusiasm for observing wildlife was infectious. Soon, our whole group was able to quickly identify hummingbirds and locate otherwise hidden animals in the forest.

One of the gals in our group pointed out a lizard to Andres. “What is this?” she asked.

Andres almost jumped out of his beige pants when he realized what she had spotted. “It’s a copper headed skink!” he said, totally stoked. He frantically set up his tripod and focused the scope like his life depended on it.

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Copper headed skink

Andres announced that this was only the fourth time he had seen a skink in his lifetime. He called out to the other tour guides on the path and invited them to look through his lens. Next thing we knew the guides were patting Andres on the back and giving him fist-bumps like he had just won the lottery. It was such a geeky moment that Gregor and I were rather touched.

In addition to being passionate about wildlife education, Andres is very committed to wildlife conservation. At one point on our hike, Andres turned towards the sound of rustling bushes and saw a couple walking off-trail through the forest. He whipped out an emergency whistle and blew into it so loudly that I almost lost an eardrum. Andres then ordered the couple to get back on the trail so that they wouldn’t stomp on the land crabs and the delicate plants in front of them.

The couple was thoroughly incensed, saying that they can walk anywhere they please because they are Costa Rican. A heated argument ensued (in Spanish), but Andres firmly stood his ground. Ultimately, the couple complied and Andres reported the incident to the park authorities. Now that’s our kind of guide!

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Andres charged us a discounted rate of $15 USD per person for 3 hours of his guiding services. To us, his time was worth way more than what he was asking. While other guides rushed their clients through the park in an hour or two, Andres took the time to share his knowledge about the wacky ways of nature. Because of that, he provided us with a much richer wildlife experience.

After parting with Andres at Manuel Antonio beach, Gregor and I continued hiking on the Punta Catedral trail, a coastal loop that offers lovely views of the Pacific Ocean.

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Gregor watching hermit crabs
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Gregor watching hermit crabs

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We stood at one of the viewpoints, just gazing at the vast blue ocean for a few minutes while other hikers came and went. After about five minutes, we were astonished to see migrating humpback whales slapping their gigantic tails in the water.

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We were even able to capture it on video:

Apparently, Andres’ wildlife-watching philosophy is universal:

Move too fast and you may miss out.
Take your time and you can see so much more.

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If you want to hire a great certified nature guide in Costa Rica, contact:

Andres Martin Chavez Rojas
Birdwatcher / Naturalist / Guide Birding / Photography Expeditions / Nature Tours and Lectures / Endemics Specialist
(506) 88 70 76 59
aclaves@gmail.com

Andres is currently working on a website where he will post his personal wildlife photographs and videos.

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12 thoughts on “Lessons from a Costa Rican Wildlife Guide

    1. Janice Post author

      Thanks, Travis 🙂 Hey, you guys make a special appearance in our latest blogpost about Playa Samara. Hope you like it!

  1. Neil A. Beardsley

    What a fabulous entry, and very awesome that you had a great time in Costa Rica. We were there for the month of February and are very much looking forward to returning again soon.

    1. Janice Post author

      Thanks, Neil. It’s tough not to like Costa Rica – so many beautiful places to explore. We’ll be in here for another month before crossing into Panama. Currently, we’re camped at Playa Samara on the Nicoya Peninsula, learning to surf. Great spot – we don’t want to leave!

  2. Carrie st. Clair

    We were cracking up about Andres and the whistle…gotta love that guy! You two have really seen a lot of Costa Rica. How are the surf lessons going? We saw a picture of Gregor surfing (I mean mid-wipe out) but not Janice????

    1. Janice Post author

      Yeah, Andres was a hoot! Thanks again for the recommendation – he really made the park visit special. As for surfing – it’s pretty tough! Sore all over, ears full of sea water, sand in my swimsuit. But sooo much fun! No photos of me wiping out on the waves because I’m in control of the social media lol.

  3. Janice S.

    I’ve always wanted to go to Costa Rica and now my feelings are confirmed!!!! Thanks for sharing your experiences and photos! I’m so glad that it worked out for you to hire a nature guide. 🙂

    1. Janice Post author

      Costa Rica has been great to visit so far. Lots to do with the family, and very easy to get around by car. Great bucket list destination!

  4. Laurie

    Hey guys – awesome update. Love the videos!
    Definitely makes me want to go to Costa Rica even more.
    We are missing you guys! Take Care.

    Laurie

    1. Janice Post author

      The animals here are very photogenic but you gotta come and see it for yourself. Hope all is well with you guys!

  5. Evelin

    Great post! Thanks so much for sharing. Good thing Rob and I are not the jealous type. ? Miss you, and so happy for you!