An Unforgettable Journey to a Rich Land -- Part I

Trip Report by Ruth Marie Lyons ( March 24-April 7, 2001)

Photographs by Jack Dodge


Click for larger version of orchid at Tortuguero



When I began to plan a trip to Costa Rica, friends asked, “Why go there?”  The following four items,  adapted from the travel book Costa Rica: Adventures in Nature by Ree Sheck, partially answer that question: 

* Costa Rica touches the heart and mind, not through towering cathedrals, wide boulevards or great history but through its incredible natural beauty and a gracious people disposed to peace, kindness and generosity of spirit. 

* Costa Rica is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world; a virtual treasure trove of flora and fauna.  It is easy to become enchanted by this natural wonderland of tropical forests, rushing rivers, exotic animals, high mountains, awesome volcanoes and most of all, multitudes of birds.  It holds great attraction for lovers of nature and natural history.

* Costa Rica has had no army since 1948 and with more than 100 years of democracy in a region with a history of political strife, the country often boasts of “teachers, not soldiers.”  With a high literacy rate and a national health care system, the country attracts immigrants from neighboring Central American countries as well as those interested in seeing this emerging nation in action.

* The people of Costa Rica are inclined toward modesty, simplicity and friendliness and the country is committed to peace.  This creates a climate of trust for travelers.

After much research, both on the internet and in the library, I decided to contact Costa Rica Expeditions.  Started by an American, Michael Kaye, in 1978 and staffed predominantly by Costa Ricans, this is an amazing tour company (with an extensive web site which profiles staff members along with itineraries, hotels and packaged tours.  They definitely live up to their promises and will do everything they can to make your trip to Costa Rica very special.  Since none of their pre-planned itineraries was exactly what we wanted, one of their travel consultants, Marco Madrigal, worked with me to set up a personal itinerary based on natural history with an emphasis on bird watching.  Patiently Marco answered every question I asked, no matter how insane it might have sounded to him, and he did it all in perfect English!  Recently when we had the opportunity to meet at the end of our trip, he told me that 100 e-mail messages had passed between us during the setting up of this itinerary.  A friendship developed as Marco and I worked together.  And would you believe he is already working on another itinerary for us?  Costa Rica pulls you back - once is not enough.

Because birding was our number one objective, we needed a guide.... well, we actually needed a good guide.  What we got was excellence extraordinaire in the person of Carlos “Charlie” Gomez.  

Never has there been anyone with hearing so acute and eyes so sharp!  The ability to call birds into a clearing was demonstrated over and over by Charlie.  He could reproduce many, many bird calls, but if he could not make the sound himself, he had a waist pouch containing a small tape recorder and numerous tapes.  Out came the recorder and the proper tape and soon the birds in the forest were answering back!  Once he used that equipment to demonstrate how birds “mob.”  As he played the call of the predatory Andean pygmy owl, many small birds of different species gathered in the tree above us flitting back and forth with speed and producing their fiercest cries.  They were gathering together to drive off the non-existent owl.  Calling birds was not the only talent Charlie possessed.  As birds flew over, he would name them just from their flight pattern.  Not only did we get the common name, we also were told the genus and species of each and every bird we saw.  Tireless in his aim to give us every opportunity to see every bird possible, Charlie was willing to keep going even when all of us, his flock, were exhausted.  Possessing boundless energy and a great love for his work, he spurred us onward as day after day our lists grew. 

Each evening before dinner we would gather to mark the birds and creatures we had seen that day.  Every day as we ventured forth, he carried a massive spotting scope, high powered binoculars, the waist pack with recorder and tapes, and a large back pack filled with anything we might need --  umbrella, flashlight, laser light, mirror, first aid kit, water, sun block and insect repellent.  For 13 days he was our guide, our teacher, even our “mother hen” as on the day he found a pharmacy to purchase sulfur soap.  We were headed to the Savegre region where chiggers are legendary.  According to Charlie, bathing with sulfur soap before and after hiking in chigger country often saves a person much grief.  Everyone was grateful and the soap actually didn’t smell bad at all...  at the time we were all afraid we’d end up smelling like rotten eggs.

And just one more comment concerning our guide - on top of all his scientific knowledge, his command of English was outstanding. 

Some of our travel was accomplished by taking single engine, five passenger planes to remote areas.  The other part was done by using a very nice air conditioned bus.  I would be  remiss if I did not mention the excellent pilots whose names I did not learn and the super driver who held our lives in his hands each time we boarded the bus. 

Luis Morales has been driving visitors to his country for over 20 years.  His sense of humor and his patience are second only to his outstanding driving skills.  Luis never took chances and got us to our destinations safely and always with a smile on his face.

We were fortunate to briefly meet Michael and Yolanda Kaye our first day at Tortuga Lodge. During the time we were on our trip we also met several other guides who work for Costa Rica Expeditions -  Manuel, Jim, Margherita and Rafael.  They were leading groups just as Charlie was leading ours.  Inevitably our paths crossed.

There were eight participants in our group:

Ann and Charles Bradford, Boulder, Colorado. Ann and I work together and have known each other for 12 years.  My husband, Jim, and I get together with her and Charles about four times a year to enjoy a meal and good conversation, usually centering on travel.

 Mary and Jack Dodge, Port St. Lucie, Florida. I met Mary on the Internet before traveling to Peru in ‘98.  She has a wonderful web site  which I found while searching for travel info.  We became friends and when I told Mary we were planning to go to Costa Rica (a place they had already visited once with International Expeditions), she recommended Charlie who had been their guide.  Subsequently, she and Jack decided to join us.  They are extremely well-traveled and both have the knack to be easy going and humorous.

Irene Pask, Scunthorpe, South Humberside, England. Irene has been our friend since 1984 when we met her and her late husband, Bernard, on safari in Kenya.  We traveled with her and Bern again in ‘84 to Egypt, and they came to Colorado in ‘86 and ‘89.  The last time we were together, she, Jim and I did a five week trip on our own in South Africa in late ‘99.

Arnold Wilson, Scunthorpe, South Humberside, England. Arnold is a friend of Irene’s and we met him for the first time on this trip.  New to birdwatching he quickly became a reliable spotter and all around good sport.

Jimmy and Ruth Marie Lyons - that’s my husband and me..... also from Boulder, Colorado.


Saturday, March 24, 2001 - Alta Hotel: 

We actually began our trip on March 23 leaving home at 8 p.m. to get to the airport for our midnight plus 40 flight departure.  Winging our way toward Atlanta, we tried to get some sleep because our arrival time of 5:30 a.m. Eastern Time was really 3:30 a.m. Mountain Time.  A 5-hour layover in the airport was helped by finding some overstuffed easy chairs near a Starbuck’s coffee kiosk.  At 10:30 a.m. we were finally on the way to Costa Rica and moving back one time zone.  Stepping off the plane in the early afternoon we were hit by the warmth and humidity, two things missing in Colorado at this time of year!  A young man with a Costa Rica Expeditions (CRE) board bearing our name stuck a VIP tag on us while telling us that we’d be collected on the other side of Immigration/Customs by another person.  We stood in line for the stamping of passports, picked up the one bag we had checked and were escorted past the customs people by airport personnel (guess there’s something to those VIP name tags) out the door into a huge crowd of drivers and porters all wanting to help us.  We were found by Miguel Alfado who was our transfer guide for CRE.  He loaded us up and we were off to the Hotel Alta for an overnight stay before we began our tour in earnest.  Since the Bradfords were coming from Colorado as well, we traveled together on the flights.  The four of us were the first of our group to arrive.  Along with an information packet, we were given gift bags containing Costa Rican coffee and Lizano sauce which is fondly known as “lizard” sauce and found on every dining table in the country.  Marco also sent me two bottles of Chilean red wine which we put to good use the second night of our trip.

Less than 30 minutes after getting into our room, the phone rang.  It was Charlie Gomez, our guide, calling to welcome us to Costa Rica, to apologize for not being at the airport to greet us since he was just coming off another trip, and to reiterate that we should be ready to roll the next morning at 5:45 a.m.  Miguel had already warned us but Charlie just wanted to make sure we would be ready.  I was really impressed that he called, but it was just one of many times that I was impressed by the actions of the employees of CRE.

On to Tortuguero...


* Check out our list of birds spotted in Costa Rica

* On to Tortuguero ...
* Jump to Monteverde Cloud Forest
* Jump  to Montana Savegre
* Jump to Corcovado Tent Lodge
* Jump to Sarchi and San Jose

* Contact Ruth Marie

* Chasing Birds with Charlie 2003




Guide "Charlie" Gomez in Monteverde Cloud Forest

Our group, left to right, Jimmy Lyons, Irene Pask, Ruth Marie Lyons (seated), driver Luis Morales, Mary Dodge, Arnold Wilson, guide Charlie Gomez, Ann Bradford, Charlie Bradford and Jack Dodge.