Costa Rica 1: A Two Toucan Day

Hacienda Guachipelin – Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Pura Vida!

Planning for a month-long journey to Costa Rica took nearly a month, and once we got rolling everything fell nicely into place. Beginning with an afternoon departure, we overnighted in LAX where we connected with the rest of our family who’d arrived earlier that afternoon from Bend. Most of our recent travel has been to points east, and unless one prefers a red eye flight, Medford departures to eastern destinations customarily depart in the early morning to compensate for time zone fluctuations. Very dark early. Ugh.

The following morning, we hopped onto our non-stop flight to Liberia, and comfortably assimilated the Pura Vida lifestyle that is the embodiment of the Costa Rican people. After picking up our rental, Alicia deftly navigated the roughly 45-minute drive to our first accommodation, Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin.

Our accommodations at the Hacienda.

Hacienda Guachipelin sits on a 3,400-acre ranch in the dry tropical forest in the Guanacaste lowlands. The ranch has been in existence since 1880 and has been privately owned and operated as a destination resort since 1975. Its extraordinary location next to the Rincon de la Vieja National Park, swimmable rivers and waterfalls, massive oak forests and unforgettable Guanacaste trees, and easily accessible volcanic hot springs offered us a rich experience that was genuinely Pura Vida. So much so that our introduction was a light supper by the pool that set the pace for our 4-day visit.

The following morning began with a coffee on our veranda, and directly in front of our suite (yep, the matrimonial suite with all the lovely amenities) was a huge Elephant Ear Tree that became the national tree of Costa Rica in 1959. I read that the tree was chosen in part because of its greenery and beauty, but also because the shade that it provides is symbolic of the protection that the people of Costa Rica receive from their government. Beneath its shelter we accessed our morning buffet breakfast in an outdoor setting resplendent with cute Rufous-backed Wrens flitting from the nearby vegetation into the rafters of the restaurant.

Traveling with teens presented us with the wonderful challenge of balancing our preoccupation with birding with activities slightly more energetic. By virtue of its size, there were miles of hiking and cycling trails throughout the property, and day one found us hiking a couple kilometers to some beautiful waterfalls and turquoise pools beneath. Sooney and I had taken our time getting there (generally stopping at every peep and chirp emanating from both sides of the trail) and arrived to see the kids leaping into the river from smooth platforms above the waterfalls. There were a couple more pools down river, and at the second we spotted a very difficult bird to see: the elusive sunbittern. Alas, it flew downstream as we arrived and, not discouraged, I promptly set off for the final pool a short distance away and there was my bird. My photograph didn’t capture the colorful display of its wings in flight, but to simply catch up with him was satisfying. It had paired up with a companion and was searching the rocky shoreline for munchies, evidently undisturbed by my camera’s shutter, and we shared the beautiful environment in each our own way.

Click for an enlarged look at this bubble!

Upstream from Rio Negro Hot Springs—one of the many amenities of the Hacienda—is the entrance to Rincon de la Vieja National Park, a Yellowstone-like geothermal site. Due to our late arrival to the park, we opted for the easier 2km loop trail that begins immediately in dense rainforest complete with waterfalls and steaming thermal pools. We chose to walk the trail in a clockwise direction, and after a leisurely hour or so, enjoyed the warm sunlight of Las Pailas (The Cauldrons) that characterizes the western approach to Rincón de la Vieja and is named for the boiling mud pots, steam vents and mini-geysers that frequent the area. From there it’s a short distance back to the ranger station, and along the way we spotted an Agouti, the coarse-haired forest rodent that was perfectly comfortable with us watching it grovel about in the forest muck. The road to the national park passes through the Hacienda and, after a brief visit to the property’s Oropendola falls, we returned to happy hour at our base camp—the cafe by the pool. En-route, you can’t help but notice the stainless steel steam delivery pipes that snake their way from wells driven into the earth to the turbines in the generating stations.

Keel-billed Toucan in flight. Click for more images from this leg of the journey.

Traveling as a family is healthy exercise in Pura Vida; we quickly gave up trying to coordinate meeting up at breakfast and enjoyed our mornings birding the neighborhood. On our final day we started out at sunrise with the intention of returning to a particularly birdy spot we’d discovered the previous evening at dusk. Silhouettes are difficult to ID, and we opted for early morning sunlight to brighten our options. There’s nothing quite like morning birding, and the low light transformed a posing Turkey Vulture into a thing of wonderment. Not far beyond was a sighting of a Keel-billed Toucan preening itself mid-way up a nearby tree. There’s not much we don’t stop for when we can, and photographing that bird (and another Roadside Hawk across the street) was a fitting end to our lowland adventure to Costa Rica. After collecting the family and bidding goodbye to the wonderful staff at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin, we drove the perilous road to Arenal Observatory and arrived a bit early for checking in. What a coincidence there was a free hour-long guided walk through sections of the Observatory, and while checking out the noisy Oropendolas we happened onto a Yellow-fronted Toucan (also commonly known as a Chestnut-mandible Toucan). Hence the title of this piece; we finished one adventure with one Toucan, and began our next with yet another species. A 2-Toucan day, with more excitement to follow.

I’ve compiled a gallery of photos from this leg of the journey that you may enjoy. Click HERE to open the gallery, click on an image to enter full screen, and use your computer’s arrow keys (or scroll through on a phone) to enjoy the show.

Birds see on this leg of the trip are… (names with asterisks are “life” birds to us).