Day 2: San Jose to Gandoca: sloths, vultures and desolate shores


It is a 6am breakfast and a 7am departure from the hotel.  The sun is shining and the city looks better already.

Today we are taking a five hour drive to Gandoca which is a stretch of coastline at the very south east corner of the country bordering Panama.  Our guide, Jonathon is a wealth of information and slowly we learn why this very special country is as unspoilt as it is, and why there is so much protected forest.

San Jose is 1,160 feet above sea level and sits in the central valley between the mountain ranges.  As we leave the city we climb steadily past smoking volcanoes, farmlands and distant mountains.  What is remarkable is that only 30 minutes out of the city we are surrounded by extensive primary cloud forest marked initially by the sudden presence of poor man’s umbrella plant; a plant with large, exquisite shaped leaves.  As we climb higher we reach a point that allows views of the Pacific and the Caribbean coasts.  Here the rain that falls is divided by the continental division of water, which either flows west towards the Pacific or east towards the Caribbean.  Strangely I find this rather a romantic notion; an invisible dividing line sat high amidst the volcanoes.

Jonathon explains how climate change has meant than the cloud forest is more often not in the clouds; good for us today as we can see it but not so good for the forest whose entire system feeds off of the cloud’s humidity.

I have always wanted to visit Costa Rica ever since I was an undergraduate student.  I had a tutor who had studied ecotourism here and who had filled my head with the cloud forests of Monteverdi and the volcanoes that ran along its backbone.  It is one of the world’s most renowned ecotourism destinations and that, combined with the Central American music and culture, had always excited me.  I remind myself of how lucky I am to be here in this charming country and smile smugly to myself as I watch the forest whizz past the bus.

We hear how Costa Rica has escaped the political problems of the rest of Central America due, in part, to the fact that the country was largely unappreciated and overlooked by the Spanish Crown and left to develop on its own into an independent and agrarian society.  The Spaniards did not find gold and so they moved on due to sickness from malaria and other diseases as well as a lack of an indigenous labour force in the impenetrable forests that lie in-between two coastlines. As a result, there are no large colonial cities here.  Today Costa Rica has a small population, a rising middle class and a participatory economy. The government has historically encouraged small coffee plantations and today coffee is the third largest export.  Shade grown coffee plants are better for conservation as the trees above attract wildlife, increase soil fertility and provide an alternative habitat for displaced wildlife.  Fair trade Costa Rican coffee cannot compete with other countries in terms of quantity but can in terms of quality and so quality is the selling point.

The country has 6% of the world’s biodiversity and given its size, an incredible 30% of the country is given over to National Parks. 25% of these parks are government owned and 5% are privately owned.  Initially in the 1960s national parks were designed to protect people from living within 2km around the base of the volcanoes.  The number of volcanoes has meant that the exclusion zones have joined up and have been extended.  There are very few paths through the forests and therefore they remain relatively untouched and pristine, or at least that is what I’d like to believe.

The journey from San Jose to Gandoca is long but incredibly enjoyable.  Several species in particular fill me with total delight.  We stop to see a diurnal three-fingered sloth.  This is one of the two species of sloth that live in these forests.  He is wedged in a triangle of branches and sleeps peacefully amongst the seemingly flimsy branches.  He is clearly exposed and visible; an endearing strange looking creature for sure.  I wasn’t expecting to see a sloth by the roadside believing that they would be safely tucked away in the forests.  But apparently their presence here symbolises the rich corridors that have formed along the roadways.

A while later we stop for refreshments and to witness thousands and thousands of turkey vultures, swirling in super kettle formations, on route on their migration to South America.  The sight of these huge birds were to become very familiar, but in this moment, their presence is fascinating due to the sheer numbers of them.  To top this I see my first blue morpho butterfly which elegantly glides past our bus.  The most iridescent blue and the size of a bird, it doesn’t stop to rest but carries on its foraging.  Whilst there will be more blue morphos later in the trip, it this first experience that is the most memorable.



Eventually we arrive at the conservation centre and ecolodge at Gandoca.  This is a small nature reserve on the southeast Caribbean coast of Costa Rica almost within sight of the Panama border.  My room here is a simple wooden hut brightly painted in Caribbean colours: yellows and greens with blue shelves and pink sheets.  There is a cold shower, a toilet and thankfully, a yellow mosquito net.  It is very basic but luxury in comparison to my past ecolodge experiences.

Lunch is a wonderful mix of fish, rice and vegetables following which there is time to mooch about photographing the spiders, frogs, birds and other insects that inhabit the gardens.  The more I look, the more life there is to see. Wildlife sightings come one after the other.  I am going to love Costa Rica.

A short walk down some tracks brings us to a stretch of coastline where five species of turtle come to lay their eggs.  It is not the season for egg laying but the occasional turtle has been spotted in late October.  The beach has a remote and wild atmosphere, grey green water, black volcanic sand, and is strewn with logs brought in by the ocean.  There are lines of colourful shells: tellins and sand dollars.  Coconut palms fringe the beach as far as the eye can see.  It is a remote place relatively free from tourism apart from a small number of ecolodges like ours tucked out of sight in the village.


Whilst the students dive into the grey water, I take myself up the beach to get lost in the sound of the waves against the shore and the buzzing of insects in the vegetation that line the beach.  A solitary sandpiper combs the tideline and vultures soar overhead.  It is now 5pm and the light is already dipping. The sky turns a colourful paint pallet of pinks, purples and greys; it is time to return to our lodge.

It seems really early to be putting this day to bed but already our body clocks are changing and tiredness is creeping in after our long journey.  Before we head to our beds there is time to take a short walk towards the scattered houses of the village.  I love these night-time vigils.  Our torches pick out the nightshift activity: millipedes, centipedes and armies of leaf cutter ants on a mission to furnish their nest with perfectly cut green triangular leaves all walking, like an army, in the same direction.

My torch picks up a small pretty opossum which clings to the power cables above us.  Its bright eyes fearful in the lights.  There are two species of frog and the brightest fireflies I have ever seen dancing high up in the canopies.  We make our way back down the lane, it is 9.30pm and time for bed.  It has been a very full but beautiful day.