Day tripping in Guanacaste, Costa Rica: Part 1

Juan had barely pushed the pontoon boat away from the shoreline when large crocodiles began moving along the banks and sliding stealthily into the Tempisque River. The same color as the cloudy water, they appeared more docile than dangerous to my camera-toting fellow travelers. Moments later, a Jesus Christ lizard appeared, as if on cue, and walked quickly across the top of the water, causing everyone in the boat to either gasp or laugh out loud.

I was in Palo Verde National Park on the Pacific slope of Guanacaste, Costa Rica, not far from the Nicaraguan border. The objective of my visit was communing with Costa Rican nature, but without giving up the luxuries that the region’s tourism industry offers. The trip was arranged at my hotel through Swiss Travel, one of several area agencies that offer interesting day-long excursions. (With no military, Costa Rica is the Switzerland of South America, hence the tour company’s unusual name.)

Though it is possible to rent a bike and cycle through portions of the 72-square mile park, I preferred the boat tour. Like most Swiss Travel tour guides, Juan holds a degree in ecotravel and speaks excellent English. His jungle-trained eyes were quick to spot impish white-faced monkeys and lazy Howler monkeys, which eat all morning and relax in the trees all afternoon. He pointed out a group of almost camouflaged bats attached to a tree limb, which hung over the river. The bats formed a single line with their bodies, and Juan explained that they were trying to make themselves look like a snake so nothing would harass them as they rested.

Small bats form a line on the side of a tree in an attempt to look like a snake.

Benefits for Birders

Birds are a big attraction at Palo Verde. In the “green season” (i.e. rainy season from May through November), the Tempisque floods and creates extensive marshes that attract migrant birds from North and South America. Two of my fellow travelers, birders from Canada, were eager to see the kingfishers, tiger herons, black hawks, ospreys and roseate spoonbills that our boat motored past.

We didn’t glimpse a scarlet macaw or the rare giant jabirus, one of the world’s largest storks, which still live and breed in the park. We also saw no snakes, though pythons are common among the palm trees, we were told. We did spy several green iguanas, which actually change colors. During our visit, the males were morphing to bright orange, indicating their desire to attract a mate.

A Costa Rican croc
A Costa Rican croc

Back at the boat launch, the group enjoyed a lunch that was prepared in an open kitchen and served at picnic tables on a large covered patio. It was a simple but tasty meal: chicken wings, cabbage slaw, corn relish, black beans and rice. We washed it down with a fruity drink that, along with native-grown coffee, seems to be a Costa Rican meal staple. Then we boarded our van for the return drive down a two-lane highway without shoulders. By Pat Pape

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