At home with the Sloths: Travelling through Costa Rica

Today, we digress a bit from our usual stories to bring you some pages from a travel diary with pictures to try to describe what it is we saw during a recent trip in Central America, a region that marks the opposite side of the world for us. Costa Rica is the home of the unique and unusual Sloths. I fear there may be too many pictures for some of you, but I was able to ‘curb my enthusiasm’! So if the images don’t interest you, I apologise. About children in Costa Rica, we did not encounter too much family life to get a fair sense of the local people, the natural surroundings were dominant in the mindspace.

Noted for their slowness and inverted lifestyle, Sloths are one of the most endearing-looking animals in the world. Their cuddly cuteness invokes the urge to hold them, but in fact, Sloths are quite the opposite. Deeply fearful of strange creatures and life on the ground, they live predominantly solitary lives hanging from the highest branched of Cecropia trees with extraordinary ease. They only touch the ground tentatively, every week to deposit waste and on the rare occasion, in search of a mate. This solitary existence has added much to their enigma as well as their uniqueness in the animal kingdom. You can imagine our excitement when a conference invite provided an opportunity to visit the home of the Sloth, Costa Rica.

The country

Costa Rica is a small Central American nation with a population equivalent to half the numbers residing in the Municipal limits of Mumbai city. It is believed that the country was named by none other than Columbus as “Rich Coast” on his final voyage to the Eastern coast of Costa Rica, in search of the elusive “Indians”. It isn’t surprising, then, that one of the most memorable comments I received at the conference was the pleasure some locals had experienced in meeting a “real Indian, the kind that Columbus was looking for”!

The capital city

San Jose welcomes us

San Jose is the largest city and the capital. Clearly overpopulated and stretched to the limits, one can see signs of being overburdened and under-equipped everywhere. It is hard to negotiate traffic during peak hours and getting around is not easy. Having arrived at the airport, crowded and chaotic, there is an urgent desire to leave for the countryside, which is exactly what we did. With the help of Giovanni, our trusted driver to the Arenal Volcano National Park.

The journey

On the way with Giovanni

The hills of Juan Castro Bianco National Park: Through the windscreen

We were a bit concerned about the journey between the capital city and National Park, but comfortable SUV and efficient driving of Giovanni put us at complete ease. Crossing the beautiful rolling hills that we could see through the raindrops, we drove through Alajuela and San Miguel, with a single stop over for some amazing coffee at a wayside restaurant, overcome by the sensation of being in a place so remote from where we lived. By the end of the journey, Giovanni, who looked more like an active wrestler than a driver, had become a friend and guide to the place and the people. He assured us that the destination we had chosen off the internet was among the most picturesque and indeed the closest to the active volcano, Arenal!

Our first view of the Volcano

When we arrived at our destination, quite exhausted from the overnight journey, the sky was completely overcast, and although the thrill of being in the vicinity of an active volcano was palpable, all we could see was a thick blanket of clouds and the heaviest shades of green we had ever seen. We walked to our respective rooms overcome with the excitement of the surroundings, eager to get on with our adventure.

The volcanic springs of Arenal
Drying out after

Hot Springs

The first evening, we ventured out in the pouring rain towards the hot springs of La Fortuna. Equipped with an entry into the local springs with a dinner buffet, we spent our first evening recovering from the journey, soaking in mineral waters of the volcano. The sequential rise in the temperature of the water as you go up the springs was incredible to experience, as was the sudden shock of a cold waterfall in the middle of it all. We thought the crows were a bit odd there as they kept cawing into the night, but on questioning the locals, we were told that the cacophany was coming from the abundant population of frongs, many of which were poisonous. Confronted also with moths and spiders of various sizes, we decided that it was enough for the first day and we returned to rest in the lurking knowledge of the rumbling, was this the volcano? We had heard that it sometimes makes sounds. A bit excited and also a bit frightened, we fell into an exhausted sleep.

Paradise of bird!

We were greeted with an orchestra of bird-sounds and I quickly reached for my camera, a but dusty from years of neglect, but still managed to capture an amazing range of avians around us. The abundance of hummingbirds was the highlight of our search. Our guide for the next day Jamaine Gizman identified the following species that we had seen with him, besides which I came across a turkey vulture on a walk to the city of La Fortuna one morning. The hissing sound of its breath and its complete unwillingness to budge as I was closing in for better pictures threw me off getting any closer. Take a look at its intimidating look a little bit further down into the album. In contrast to the inert Vulture, the Hummingbirds were hard to catch. Their furtive restlessness made them hard to capture, and although the shots are all of the most common variety, we did manage a glimpse of the splendid Purple crowned Fairy on the guided tour! Here is a lost of the species we saw, and not all are featured here because they were acutely hard to capture without a telephoto lens (another regret, I didn’t carry my tele-lens). Some of the shots are through the highly advanced tele-viewer our guides were using. Further, I haven’t yet put all the names of the birds in the following pictures. As soon as I have matched the images with names, I will add them.

Gray-headed Chachalaca
Common Ground-Dove
Common Pauraque
Purple-crowned Fairy
Yellow-throated Toucan
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker
Orange-chinned Parakeet
Red-lored Parrot
Gray-capped Flycatcher
Masked Tityra
Clay-colored Thrush, the national bird of Costa Rica
Orange-billed Sparrow
Scarlet-rumped Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Green Honeycreeper
Bananaquit
Grayish Saltator

Through the telescope: The Orange-Cheeked Parakeet
Chance encounter with a Turkey Vulture
Angry bird!
Spot the Hummingbird on a Kachnaar (?) tree
This Hummingbirds favourite shrub. Both bird and plant survive on each other
Beak and blossom, in perfect harmony. One survives only because the other is!
The national bird of Costa Rica: Clay Coloured Thrush
The grand Toucan on a treetop
We got a good sighting, but a poor picture of the elusive Night Jar that kept calling out to us, but would fly away with a flash of white each time we tried to locate it. The viewing was fantastic as in flight, the Night Jar wings display their white streak.
A beautiful Monarch on a Lantana bush
The male Tanager
A Woodpecker and it’s meal
A female Tanager
Among the birds
Looks like a Tanager domestic spat
Grayish Saltater

The abundant Flora….and a frog!

In Costa Rica, if you fear getting wet, you can abandon any idea of walking outdoors. We only saw the sun on occasion, mostly, there was a thick, low and dark cloud cover during this season, the one of two seasons in the area. The plants in the region were lush green and colourful. It appears as if the shades of green in the region are just not found anywhere else, I hope the shots have been able to capture even a fraction of the scenes. Many were in bloom, despite the near complete absence of the sun. The dense foliage is punctuated by shades of reds and oranges. Orchids and other epiphytes were everywhere…..trees had shrubs growing on them and coexistence is intensely visible. It seemed that there is no such thing as a solitary existence. I apologise that I haven’t been able to record all the different species, I will make attempts to do that by and by.

One of the most dramatic sounds (apart from the rumble of the volcano) was the early morning orchestra of the cicadas. Play the video to hear how intense the sound was……and with the complete absence of other humans, the experience of this music was mind-blowing.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nrdmt5t5jB8&feature=youtu.be

Remember the song? Ants marching :)?

(Leaf-cutter) Ants marching

And then there were the legendary leaf-cutter ants, ubiquitous in their frenzy. Having heard about them and seen with fascination videos of their capacity to destroy entire regions, watching them pass by in the city of La Fortuna was an amazing experience. On the Sloth tour we were able to capture videos of these ants at work. I hope you can play the video from this youtube link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xf3Cay8grCI&feature=youtu.be

The abundant tree fern: Cyathea delgadii
The blue jeans poison frog! Sorry for the poor image, but was quite tiny, not much larger than sugar cube, and I didn’t have my digital camera as it was pouring.
A banana flower
Epiphytes on trees

And now, the highlight: The slowness of Sloths!

This two-toed Sloth was green with its algae cover, an organism that survives exclusively alongside the sloth, closely bounds in its life-world.

Only recently, I had stumbled upon a podcast about Sloths and learned the most fascinating aspects about Sloths. Here is the link to the episode if you wish: https://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/how-sloths-work.htm. Costa Rica is home to two of the three surviving species of Sloths, and we were able to see both in the wild, albeit through the tele-lens. These rare and unusual animals are a result of a phenomenon known as convergent evolution, the independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineages. Sloths display such unique elements of evolution that they have generated tremendous interest world-wide. During our tour, there was a family from Mexico with us who had brought their six year old daughter for her birthday to see the Sloths! In the video below (link below), one gets to see a rare sight, a moving sloth as he/she scratched itself with its talons. We all held our breaths as the rain poured down on us. Unmoved by the rain, we stood transfixed by this gentle animal, completely oblivious about what a stir it was causing down below. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxIO6K3kj7E&feature=youtu.be

On its favourite tree

The mighty Arenal

Early morning view

Given the cloud cover over the first two days of our trip, we were quite sure we wouldn’t have darshan of the mighty Arenal. But on Sunday, as early as 5 am, I stepped onto our backyard and looked out. I was breathless at the proximity and size of the mighty volcano. Some time later, we were able to see some steam from its active mouth, that provided evidence of the fire inside. The geoprominence of the mountain is simply breathtaking. And, a but later, we were able to witness the lenticular cloud formation over its peak, perhaps a result of the precipitation on account of the temperature difference. The volcano didn’t disappoint us, we were able to witness it in its full glory.

Lenticular formation
Steam from the mouth of the volcano

Some pictures from other adventures

As we returned to the city, again with our man Giovanni, we had a bit of an episode with the car. Just after exiting San Miguel, the car started to give trouble. It seemed like a good time to grab some lunch and wait for a diagnosis. We soon heard that Giovanni’s brother would be driving us back in his car, another pleasant encounter. Giovanni’s brother was a twin, and going by the incessant conversations in Spanish along the way, the two got along very well. We were safely back in the city after the brief delay.

In the following days, while I attended the conference at the University of Costa Rica, the family went around to other adventures……..zip lining, white water rafting among them. Here are some shots of their escapades.

Whoosh!

Back in the hotel too we were able to see several birds and one of us even managed to catch a picture of one near the breakfast area. The hotel (Boutique Jade) was comfortable. On the evening before we were to leave, the guy behind the desk, a friendly local, approached me to ask what I was speaking about at the conference, I gave him a brief idea. As I spoke he pulled up his sleeve to show me his tattoo. Etched along both his arms were shlokas from the Rig Veda. Turns out, that this young man had a dream a while ago, that drew him to look East for what the apparitions were conveying. Soon, he encountered the Vedas and began to study the ancient text. He is now a teacher of the Vedas in San Jose where he says, his classes are always full! He hopes to travel to India some day, and he has a standing invitation.

San Jose too is blessed with exotic birds. At our hotel Jade Boutique
Mariano, Tom, Heidi and I at the entrance to the Social Sciences building. Picture credits: Francisco Bianchini
At the talk. Picture credits: Francisco Bianchini

And finally, an Indian restaurant

What if I tell you this cow was called Adam? Nah!

I guess no trip is complete without locating an Indian restaurant. So far away from home, it was interesting to see pictures that some of us took on the tour of the city. Equipped with the essentials, a cow and a three wheeler, the place seemed like a popular eatery. No, we didn’t have the urge to eat Indian food, the local cuisine was very nice, the rice and beans….and of course the luscious, fresh salads! Good bye for now Costa Rica, we hope to return some day!

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