I had no particular plans to go to Costa Rica, and there were plenty of places that were higher on my list (you know the list I mean, the one everyone has for when we win the lottery, or get an unprecedentedly large raise, or something…). But when my parents-in-law invited us to join them on their tailor-made birding trip, it was an offer we just couldn’t refuse. Flights were booked, walking boots were purchased, and I realised (with not a small amount of embarrassment) that I knew next to nothing about Costa Rica. I just about knew where it was (Central America, that’s all I came up with), and that I thought they spoke Spanish there, and that was the extent of my knowledge. So, I bought a bird book, a mammal book and an amphibian and reptile book and set to (what, you thought I’d start with culture or geography instead of animals?).
The more I read about the wildlife, the more excited I got about the trip. Costa Rica has over 800 species of bird, hundreds of unusual mammals (such as the three-toed sloth and the tamandua) and a whole host of frogs, snakes and lizards, including the instantly recognisable red-eyed leaf frog and the bordering-on-miraculous ‘Jesus lizard’ or basilisk. Departure time came around and I was raring to go.
After the mildly unpleasant ordeal which is any long-haul international flight (well, it is if you’re me, anyway. I’m not scared of flying, I just get really uncomfortable and bored being stuck in one space. I’m prepared to accept my husband’s judgement that I am just being difficult and I should stop whining, especially as it’s the only way to get to all the cool places I want to go) we were efficiently disgorged from the airport and met by our guide, Esteban. We would later find out that he was extremely knowledgeable and passionate not just about birds and birding, but on every aspect of Costa Rica and its wildlife. On that drive to the hotel we were just happy to find that he was great company. We reached our first hotel in a part of San José, and it was a stunner. The gardens were exquisite, well-planted and well-maintained, and they gave me my first glimpse of the tropical paradise that so many people rave about.
The following day the trip kicked off in earnest, and so began a carousel of early starts, lots of walking, stopping to look at birds on the side of the road, and generally stuffing as much wildlife as we could into one two-week holiday. But before this whirlwind adventure started, before even breakfast, we all got up early to walk around the gardens with Esteban (all except my husband, that is, who stayed in bed – he’s not nicknamed ‘sloth’ for nothing!). Based on previous experience of gardens in South Africa, I was hopeful for a few birds on our walk – at least for a few more than the obligatory rock pigeon/jackdaw/blackbird combo that is all you are likely to get in the average British garden. I was not prepared for the profusion of birds which greeted us. Hawks, woodpeckers, wrens (they have more than twenty species compared to the UK’s one!), parakeets, we were lucky enough to see all these and more, but what really blew my mind was the hummingbirds.
I had never seen a hummingbird outside of a nature documentary before this trip, and if you haven’t seen a real live hummingbird, then there is nothing that really prepares you for them. The sheer mechanical brilliance of them is one thing, seemingly defying physics, biology and common sense, hanging in one spot with statue-still body and wings invisible with speed. Add to that the delicate, minuscule scale of the things, and the quite frankly outrageous colour-matches of their plumage, and you have a family of birds scarcely believable in their beauty. Their colours changed in an instant whenever the sun caught the iridescence of their tiny feathers, and as one flew around my head, I not only heard the hum, but felt the down-draught of its wings. I was almost stupefied with delight, and I think if there hadn’t been more birds to see, and my parents-in-law keen to see them (they had experienced the magic of hummingbirds before in Trinidad), then I might well have just stayed with those first hummers and never left.
We saw plenty more spectacular, rare and endemic birds (and mammals, and reptiles, and amphibians, and even plants…), and had an utterly memorable holiday, but I don’t think there could have been a better first impression than the hummingbirds in those wonderful hotel gardens in San José.
Hotel Bougainvillea, where we stayed in San Jose – http://www.hb.co.cr/en/
Naturetrek, the amazing company who organised our trip – http://naturetrek.co.uk/