Cruising through Costa Rica’s National Parks

We are not cruise people. But we have been on some cruises when absolutely necessary to experience particular destinations. For example:

  • Yangtze River in China, which we took while the Three Gorges Dam was still being built and we saw first hand China’s relocation of what would end up being 1.3 million people during the 17 years it took to complete the dam;
  • Rhine River and its tributaries (Moselle, Saar, Main and Neckar), where we were one of the two native English speaking couples on the boat (it was a French boat);
  • The Alaskan Inside Channel;
  • Galápagos Islands, where we saw amazing wildlife that we couldn’t have seen otherwise;
  • Our upcoming trip to Antarctica in the next year; and
  • Potentially one to the Greek Isles.

Even when we take cruises, we typically limit them to small boats with educational and active itineraries.

Recently we decided to bite the bullet and take another cruise to something that is difficult to experience by land–the Panama Canal. We chose a smaller boat hosted by Lindblad National Geographic, a company we highly recommend (and we used for the Galapagos trip). Our tour began in San Jose Costa Rica, with a overland transfer to the Pacific Coast and a cruise down the Costa Rican Coast, through the Gulf of Panama, and finally into the canal. The next several blogs will talk about some of our stops as we made our way towards the Panama Canal.

San Jose Costa Rico to the Pacific Coast’s Nicoya Peninsula

Give the Costa Rican origin of the cruise, we would normally preface the cruise with a couple days in San Jose and a self-directed land tour of the country. However, we have travelled extensively in Costa Rica (including to Manuel Antonio National Park, one of the cruise’s first stops). As for San Jose, we had been there once, and decided that given what we considered its lack of historical character, once was enough.

So, rather than go into the city, we waited at the airport to be picked up and driven across the country to Herradura where we boarded our 60-passenger ship, the National Geographic Sea Lion. On the way, we passed through the central area of the country, which holds 60 percent of its population, through two 10,000-12,000-foot mountain ranges: the one to the east (formed from the collision of tech tonic plates); and the one to the west (formed from volcanoes). The mountains, combined with the northeast trade winds, also provide very different climates: cooler and wetter on the east and warmer and less wet (although certainly not dry) on the west–and a combination of tropical rain forest (more than 80 percent humidity, 80 inches of rain and bad hair days for Joyce) and tropical dry forest.

Manuel Antonio National Park

This is one of Costa Rica’s smallest, most beautiful and most popular national parks with sandy beaches, a “moist” (between rain and dry) forest and much wildlife. The park, part of which used to be an island, is now connected to the mainland by a spit of sand.

After debarking the ship, we took two trails to try to get as much exercise and exploration as possible:

  • The more rigorous, more scenic, Punta Catedral and
  • The more level, more wildlife-frequented Sloth Valley Trails.

Punta Catedral, as our guide promised, did not produce much wildlife. The most welcome exception was a beautiful, huge (probably about five inches across) Blue Morpheous butterfly. Our guide used the opportunity to provide an overview of the history–and the current plight–of the indigenous people (who now account for only three percent of the population), of whom he is one. He also discussed some of the more interesting species of trees (such as the 300 foot-tall quapino) and insects (such as tiny bees that don’t sting, but depend themselves by winding themselves into a mammal’s hair and biting it). And then of course, there were the ubiquitous, highly industrious leaf-cutter ants who chew off pieces of leaf and carry them back to their nests–nests that can contain ten million workers.


slothracoonLeaf cutter antsfamily of monkeys













The Sloth Valley Trail delivered on its promise of providing sightings of three sloths (two three-toed and one two-toed) resting high up in the trees. While we all strained to find the barely mobile creatures, we had no trouble finding the white-faced capuchin monkeys. Individual monkeys leapt from branch to branch while families of mothers with their children huddled in trees, gently grooming each other. We also saw, barely, a family of raccoons and an agouti (which resembles a raccoon but has a long snout). And there–that streak across the sky–that, according to our guide, as a firebill toucan. And since we were in no position to dispute him, we decided to take his word for it.

We the returned to the ship for lunch and had the great fortune of being joined at our table by two of the park’s managers. We learned about challenges faced, such as from a lack of government funding (the park receives less than 20 percent of the revenue it generates from admissions) and the encroachment of civilization (homes but especially the palm plantations that are cutting off natural routes to the park and the attempt to recreate migration corridors. The biggest challenge, however, comes from visitors and the impact their are having on animal behavior: especially by attracting monkeys and raccoons from the interior to the shore in search of human food. This, they claim, has altered the balance of wildlife. When we visited the park 15 years ago, for example, my most vivid memory (in addition to the sweeping beach) was the number of iguanas we saw by the shore. They are now virtually gone, due to threats from monkeys, and especially raccoons.

There are, however, a number of positive changes. Barely maintained trails, for example, have been replaced by eco-friendly sidewalks and barely scalable inclines are now served by stairs–making the park much more accessible to more people (albeit at the risk of further disruption to the ecosystem). The next enhancements will be more active management of the marine environment around the park and especially, the building of an interpretive center to help visitors better understand what they are seeing.

Then, after lunch, we returned to the park for a shorter, self-guided afternoon walk and then to the idyllic sandy beach for a short, refreshing swim in the delightfully warm water.


A Costa Rican Primer

After reboarding the ship we were off again, for our next morning’s visit to the Osa Peninsula. On the way, between glasses of wine, we learned about the history of Costa Rica. Founded in 1502 by Columbus, Spain focused little attention on it relative to neighbors such as Panama and Nicaragua which provided easier access from the Caribbean to the Pacific. This allowed it to develop as a peaceful farming economy. Coffee first began emerging as a major pillar of the economy (when it was first exported to England), then the banana industry emerged. In 1948, they abolished the army, and then creation a democracy, a labor code and a social security system.

The country, according to the presenter, is being managed on the basis of tour fundamental principals (education, democracy, conservation and equal distribution of income) and its economy is based on three primary economic engines (farming, technology and services–especially tourism). It measures its success on the bases of statistics including:

  • A life expectancy of 79 years;
  • Infant mortality (to one year of age) of only 9.5 per thousand;
  • A 93 percent literacy rate;
  • Progress in generating 85 percent of electricity from renewable sources (especially hydropower); and
  • An 85 percent self-reported citizen “happiness” rating.

Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula

Our night cruise took us to Drake’s Bay on the windward side of the Osa Penninsula. Our day began with a short pre-breakfast cruise up the mouth of the shallow Agujitas River, a river that is only navigable (and for only a short distance) at high tide. Starting out brackish, the river gradually turned crystal clear. All along it were birds of every type and color. Among the highlights were band tiger heron, many colorful kingfishers, a black vulture and the piece de resistance; a pair beautiful, large, scarlet macaws flying low overhead.


After breakfast on board, we were off to the Caletas Reserve for a horseback ride through parts of a forest and then along some beautiful, desolate bleachers where the horses were happy to stretch their legs by going into a gallop. Other people took a trail which, contrary to its reputation of offering virtually no wildlife, was populated by howler monkeys, hummingbirds, butterflies and the prize of the day, a six foot-long boa constrictor which, when in the sun, shown iridescent blues and greens. Although our breach ride was lovely, how could we have missed that boa?

We spent the afternoon about ten miles away in the Corcovado National Park’s San Pedrillo rainforest, with steep shorelines and a steep, uneven, muddy, root-covered 2-mile trail where, after fording a shallow river, we reached a roughly 30-foot waterfall. Along the way, we passed and restrained ourselves from swinging on thousands of vines and aerial roots plunging from the canopy–some so dense that they formed long, translucent curtains.

Among the most interesting of these aerial roots were those of the strangler fig. This plant begins as a harmless epiphyte (using the tree only to give it access to the sunlight atop the tree, but without naming it. It then throws down aerial roots that when they begin taking nutrients, feed the plant and begins to wrap around its host’s trunk. It does not, however, actually strangle its host. Instead, its roots increasingly deprive its host’s roots of nutrients and the fig’s leaves deprive the host’s leafs of light. It kills it as certainly as with strangulation, but less directly.

As for animal life, we saw many birds and a few so-called Jesus Christ lizards whose feet are webbed in a way that creates air pockets that not only help hold them above the water for short periods but, when diminishing, help to propel them on their next step.

Best of all were a small family of rarely seen spider monkeys who put on their own aerial displays, hanging onto trees, and bearing all their weight (and sometimes that of their babies) exclusively with their tails. They leapt from from branch to branch and tree to tree and once, even leapt over the river.  Even mothers, who nurse and care for her babies for a full six months, make these leaps with her baby hanging on for dear life.

Then, to reward ourselves for our efforts, we plunged into and took a refreshing shower under one of the smaller waterfalls along the river.

Our return to the ship was greeted by one of the most perfect rainbows, and one of the few double rainbows we had ever seen.

double rainbow 01double rainbow 03








We awoke on our third day on the leeward side of the Osa Penninsula, a deep gulf called Golfo Dolce. Our morning activities focused on exploration of the Rio Esquinas river’s mangrove estuary. This exploration could be either by hike, kayak or motor launch. We choose the kayak. After some rather ho-hum paddling along the coast, we entered the river. As it divided into increasingly narrow channels, we were rewarded with some of the prettiest and most intimate mangrove views we had ever had. Just as importantly, it was totally pristine. Not a single plastic bag or piece of trash in sight.


Wildlife, at least above the surface was limited: black terns and ibis, a pair of large pelicans, a few jumping fish, and according to the kayakers just ahead of us, a large green turtle.

Although Costa Rica’s 38,000 hectares of mangrove forests are in relatively good shape relative to the rest of the world (and it is less susceptible to destructive coastal storms), the government is directly attempting, and encouraging local residents to preserve these forests which create nutrient-rich land. It. For example, it limits and has closed some seafood farming operations and has implemented community programs to clean and even replant such forests. One program, for example, provides and teaches coastal residents to plant and grow mangrove seedlings and then build rock levees and plant the seedlings in areas of need. It encourages such activities by working with tour companies to create and offer tours of mangrove farms.

The afternoon found us at Casa Orquideas, a botanical garden owned by an American couple, where we casually walked the gardens filled with tropical flowers, orchids, birds and insects. We saw and learned about different types of epiphytes (especially some of the thousands of species of orchids), bromeliads (most, but not all of which are epiphytes), cacti and interesting (like the calabas, or gourd) trees. Many of the trees (such as the frangipani and tulip), epiphytes (especially orchids) and plants (like birds of paradise and heliconia, the latter of whose flowers look like giant birds of paradise) were beautiful and some (like the annoto, whose fruit’s red seeds are used to give foods–such a margarine–their yellow color) are incorporated into foods. And we saw chocolate trees and the fungus that infects those grown in this country that has made commercial production impractical.

Then there were all the butterflies and birds that are attracted to these flowers. Among the most lovely–none of which we could get good pictures–were multi-colored scarlet macaws, black mandiville toucans (with their huge, bright yellow beaks) and a few species of parrot. So beautiful. Too bad we were so unprepared and unwilling to brave a sustained downpour that we had to cut our visit short.









Our next blog will explore Panama.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.