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I first bought a guide book for Costa Rica in 1996, but for various reasons that I cannot remember, though which probably had something to do with my ex-wife's belief that the only good vacation was one in Scotland and with her parents, I didn't get there until February 2010.
The main roads are pretty good, and I drove more recklessly than any of the Costa Ricans. The minor roads are very slow (and badly signposted!) so it is usually much quicker to avoid "short cuts". The food is very good, the weather in February was almost perfect and most of the Ticas (Costa Ricans) I met outside of the Osa peninsula were really good people. The mammals were prolific.
I organised the trip myself, other than in Corcovado where I made the mistake to using one of the local tour operators (Carlos Gonzalez, from Corcovado Expeditions) who was efficient only at extracting money from me and the little information he gave was, it turns out, misleading. Don't use him if you have any special requirements.
Corcovado and the Osa Peninsula
Corcovado is probably the best place for larger mammals in Costa Rica. And Sirena Station is the best bit of Corcovado. To get there you can either fly in by light aircraft (which is probably quite cheap if there is space on a plane already going but I didn't look into this), take a boat from Drake Bay, or take a 16km hike from the nearest road, though if you are walking it in the heat and high humidity of February it would not be pleasant.
I took the boat from Sierpe to Drake Bay the next day, but despite having organised a private boat to Sirena Station, I had to spend the night in Drake Bay so I could catch one of the scheduled boats the next day. Apparently my private boat did not exist. If I go back I would organise it all from Sierpe or Drake Bay when I arrive. It would be much cheaper and easy to do this at the last minute, and stories about the park filling up and reservations needed for campsites are, I suspect, untrue and put about by the likes of Carlos Gonzalez to extract money from the likes of me. Plenty of hotels run daily boat trips to Sirena so you could certainly get a lift on one of those and then camp. Arranging food in advance with the park might be more of a problem so it would be better to bring that with you.
Drake Bay is an annoying place. First, it is full of backpackers. Second, it is full of people whose mission in life is to extract money from backpackers. So business revolves around trying to do things as cheaply as possible, with as many hidden extras as possible. For example, my luggage didn't arrive with me on the boat because of some confusion at Sierpe when they moved my bags but didn't tell me that I had to put them on the boat myself. The bags came on the later boat and someone on the beach tried to charge me $10 for the privilege - even Air France don't resort to such double dealing, though if they read this they may want to introduce this policy.
I had booked a trip to Sirena with Carlos from Corcovado Adventures but he seemed to have subcontracted it to Corcovado Osa Expeditions (I think they were called). I wouldn't use them again either. The guide - Oscar - was pretty good and a nice guy, but I had to share him with other people despite promises to the contrary, plus the 6am departure they promised was 7.30 by the time the manager had woken up. I took a mammal-less guided night walk in Drake Bay along a creek where I heard what was probably a Possum feeding in a tree. The guide said he had seen a 'Grey Water Opossum' in the creek a few weeks earlier but I am not sure if it was a Yapok or a Grey Four-eyed Opossum. I suspect the latter.
The best reason to stay in Drake Bay is probably to go whale watching. If I had had an extra day I would have gone out with Costa Cetacea. Shawn Larkin, the operator, seemed to know his stuff and some of the more interesting species he says he sees regularly include Rough-toothed and Spinner Dolphins, False Killers and Sei Whales.
Corcovado is another hour or so on a boat from Drake Bay. You will be dropped on the beach about a kilometre from Sirena Station. I didn't like the station itself. There were a lot of people staying there, having their big '1 night in the rainforest' adventure, it was stinking hot and impossible to sleep in a tent (there is a covered area where you would be better off sleeping inside a mossie dome though the sleep you might gain from cooler temperatures will probably be lost from the snoring of a dozen tourists) and the mosquitoes were as bad as they get anywhere. I wouldn't mind suffering all of this to be somewhere remote, but to have also to put up with another 40 people was annoying to say the least. So I only stayed one night.
But the mammal watching was excellent. My main reason to visit was to see Baird's Tapir and White-lipped Peccaries. Baird's Tapirs are easy to find. The guides know where to look for them in the day, and Oscar found one in small mud hole just off the trail on the first afternoon. I saw another during a short solo night hike at 4am (night walks are not allowed officially anymore because of the risk from snakes) and then another the next morning. They were very habituated and I was within 4m of the first animal.
The White-lipped Peccaries were a bit harder to find but Oscar found a group of 60 or so animals on my second morning. It was an impressive sight, sound and smell to be in the middle of the sounder, with much teeth clicking. Happy with the Peccaries I decided I would leave Corcovado for somewhere where I might be able to sleep.
During two mornings and one afternoon walks there I also saw Collared Peccaries (harder to see than White-lipped), a White-tailed Deer (apparently rarely seen), Central American Spider Monkeys, Red-backed Squirrel Monkeys (in the forest along the airstrip), Mantled Howler Monkeys, 2 groups of White-nosed Coatis, some Long-nosed Bats, a Two-toed Sloth (which are rarer than the three-toed flavour in the park) and a couple of Tome's Spiny Rats in the toilets at night (they appeared to be eating the used toilet paper.... yummmmm).
If I had stayed a bit longer I would probably have seen a Tayra, a Tamandua and Three-toed Sloth (I guess all of these animals are seen most days by some people there). Sightings of cats seems to be less frequent than they once were.
So an impressive list for such a short time. Rainforest mammal watching does not get any better than in Corcovado. Not only are the mammals abundant, but they are easy to approach.
Manuel Antonio & Quepos
Several tour operators run mangrove trips, all in the same area, and I phoned a couple and was lucky enough to contact Avenatura on my second call. This husband and wife team were a great couple who were both passionate and knowledgeable about the wildlife and also working to conserve it. Milenlly took me into the mangroves in the morning (she said the anteaters are easier to spot in the daylight) and found me a couple without too much effort (she had seen 5 the day before). They are just brilliant little critters and so far as I know Manuel Antonio is the only place you can see them easily (indeed it was Avenatura who showed Fiona Reid, author of the excellent Field Guide to the Mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico, her first Silky Anteater).
We also lucked out with a sleeping Mexican Tamandua, that one of the other boats had spotted, curled up in the top of a hollow tree. Milenlly reckons she sees Tamanduas on about one trip in 5 so this was a bonus because although its a widespread species in Costa Rica, it isn't as easy to find as many of the mammals I was looking for.
White-faced Capuchins are common in the mangroves, and tent making bats are seen quite often under the palm leaves. We couldn't find any, but did see these Lesser White-lined Bats.
When Milenlly saw how interested I was in the bats, she suggested her husband - Maurilio Cordero - took me to a bat cave at Damas near Quepos. The cave is on a farm in the middle of a palm plantation and it would be best to contact Maurelio to get access. Getting into the cave was easy and we spent 90 minutes inside photographing animals.
There were several species of bats, some of which I am still struggling to identify, though as the cave has been surveyed I assume someone knows somewhere (and if that person is you please write to me!).
At the entrance were some Greater White-lined Bats and what were either Lesser or Greater Doglike Bats (Peropteryx sp.) which are impossible to differentiate unless they are in the hand.
One or more species of Carollia (though I wouldn't hazard a guess at the moment as to which species) were abundant inside.
Several larger bats hanging from the roof were identified by Richard La Val, who is one of Costa Rica's - indeed the world's - foremost bat experts, as Pale Spear Nosed Bats (Phyllostomus discolor).
There were also a colony of 20 or so Common Vampire Bats
and finally a Mexican Funnel Eared Bat was hanging on its own. This species has been split and the animal here was probably Natalus lanatus, and this was an unusual record according to Richard La Val.
Maurelio often sees Squirrel Monkeys in the forest around the cave.
The national park is closed at night and I didn't want to walk in there without permission (though it would have probably been ok) so instead I took a guided walk in the small Si Como No wildlife sanctuary a few km north of the park. I didn't see any mammals though we heard a Kinkajou. Striped Hog-nosed Skunks are seen from time to time, and smelled more often, and one of the Mouse Opossum species had been feeding inside the butterfly house and causing damage recently.
Poas Volcano National Park is about 90 minutes north of San Jose. I visited twice. The first time I spent the night at the lovely and incredibly friendly little Lagunillas Lodge. Apart from seeing the volcano crater, I hoped to see the Montane or Poas Squirrels here, which are apparently the dominant squirrel in the park. I couldn't find any near the lodge, though they ought to be around, and the next day the weather was abysmal. I returned for a couple of hours on my way back to San Jose and did see the crater for a minute or two when the clouds parted, as well as several very tame Red-tailed Squirrels (around the Lagunas viewing area) but none of the much smaller Montane Squirrels. Early morning on a decent day ought to bring sightings though - several people were sure that the smaller squirrels were common.
Spotlighting along the drive of the lagunillas lodge and to the entrance of the national park did throw up a couple of Dice's Cottontails, but nothing else. The owners of the lodge said Raccoons were common as were Coyotes.
I set 10 elliott traps around the lodge but caught nothing, much to the owners' surprise.
It should have taken me an hour to drive there from Poas Volcano. But half way along the road to La Virgen a sign said there was a severe risk of landslides and nothing but heavy machinery was allowed past (the area had been hit by a big earthquake a couple of years earlier). I ignored the sign, given that the heavy machinery didn't seem to concerned about me driving on by, but there was also torrential rain, and the road was more like a river. If there was going to be a landslide, it was going to be now so for once I turned around and took a 3 hour detour to get to Tirimbina.
I joined the students netting bats that evening and we caught 5 species in a couple of hours: Tent-making Bat, Hairy Big-eyed Bat, Sowell's Short-tailed Bat (a recent split from the Silky Short-tailed Bat Carollia brevicauda), the pretty little Macconnell's Fruit Bat, and a Long-tongued Bat sp.
The next morning Eugenia, Manuel and Gato (Christian) took me on a 3 hour walk through the rainforest looking for roosting bats. The three of them knew a number of roosts, and were also excellent at finding tents of bats. Many of the Costa Rican bats fashion tents for themselves out of leaves... they chew 'dotted lines' in the leaves then fold along them by pulling the leaves into a shape like two walls with a roof... quite distinctive when you know what to look for. Another tent was more like a wigwam. Other bats roost inside rolled Heliconia leaves, but though we found some rolled up leaves there was no one home.
We had an excellent morning, finding at least another 6 species (again all of them new for me). Some Allen's Short-tailed Bats (Carollia castanea) were roosting under the exposed roots of a tree, as were a colony of Hairy Large-eared Bats (Micronycteris hirsuta) which flew before I could photograph them. They were followed by some very flighty Big Yellow-eared Bats (Vampyressa nymphaea) which had to be approached very carefully because they fly at the slightest disturbance. Some Thomas's Fruit-eating Bats (Artibeus watsoni), also in a tent, were easier to approach.
Next were some Lesser White-lined Bats on a tree, followed by Wagner's Sac-winged Bats (Cormura brevirostris) under a fallen tree and perhaps another species too.
I was within inches of treading on a Fer de Lance while looking at these guys - such good camouflage!
FInally, Manuel spotted a Thomas's Bat (Centronycteris centralis) hanging on a leaf quite high up.
So a great morning's batting, but we still hadn't seen the major quarry of the day, the Honduran White Bats (Ectophylla alba). But they were around and after lunch we went to another bit of the park and found a camp within 20 minutes. Beautiful things.
I also saw my first Variegated Squirrel in a tree near the entrance to the lodge at lunchtime.
A long canopy bridge crosses the river near the lodge. Its a great spot for spotlighting apparently (I didn't have time) with several animals using it to cross the river. A Mexican Porcupine is usually shuffling along it just after dark, and Kinkajous are frequent visitors. A Woolly Opossum had been denning in one of the metal support rods until recently.
So what a great place! At least 15 species in 24 hours, 14 of them lifers for me, great guides, nice accommodation and cheap too. One of the best mammal watching places I have ever been. If only there were more lodges like Tirimbina.
Monteverde, about 3 hours north of San Jose, is a nice area of cloud forest that sees many tourists. There are a lot of people running night walks and other wildlife activities so its quite easy to see several nice mammals here.
I spent several evenings here and longer than I had planned because the bloody Olingos I wanted to see would not be found. But more about this later.
I arrived late on the my first night, but found a couple of Kinkajous at about midnight near the creek at the Cloud Forest Lodge.
And a Variegated Squirrel at dawn on the same trail.
I didn't see much during the day but did visit the Bat Jungle in Monteverde Village, run by Richard La Val. Its a nice exhibition centre, with a great colony of captive bats, flying around a large enclosure. Well worth a visit.
Richard was doing some trapping that evening with a group of US college students and he was happy for me to come along too as another " expert" ... I wish. We were netting in some secondary forest out near the reserva Santa Elena. It was a full moon, and windy too, but in a couple of hours we caught a Riparian Myotis and 5 different species of Artibeus: namely Jamaican Fruit-eating Bat (Artibeus jamaicensis), Thomas's Fruit-eating Bat (Artibeus watsoni), San Jose Fruit-eating Bat (sometimes referred to as Artibeus intermedius but which I treat - following the IUCN as a subsepcies of A. lituratus) (, Big Fruit-eating Bat (Artibeus lituratus), and a Toltec Fruit-eating Bat (Artibeus toltecus) .
Mexican Porcupines and Three-toed Sloths are seen frequently sleeping in trees in the Monteverde National Park (ask the guides if they have seen any) and Tayras are seen occasionally. Alfaro's Pygmy Squirrels are apparently common (despite what some people said) but I didn't see any.
My two target animals here were Mexican Porcupines and Olingos.
The former should be easy to find. If you don't see one in the national park then phone a few of the private nature reserves and ask. The Sendero Valle Escondido (Hidden Valley Trail) seemed quite good. They told me they had seen an Olingo every night walk recently (they were leaving some ripe bananas out for it near the office) and always saw a Mexican Porcupine that denned in a big hollow fig tree about 100 metres down the trail (at the first t-junction). I couldn't see the Porcupine at midday but at 5pm it was lower down the tree. A nice animal. I also saw a Red-tailed Squirrel.
But the Olingo did not show that night, nor had it shown the night before (and nor the night after). I suspect the full moon didn't help.
Another reliable spot for Olingos is at the feeders outside the hummingbird gallery next to the park entrance. They are often seen here in the day time, and nearly always at night. The guys in the gallery said they had only seen it a couple of times in January and February 2010 in the daytime, and that was when the weather was bad. But most of the park night walks saw it at about 7pm. I visited three evenings. The first two evenings I was there at about 9pm when the hummingbird feeders had been emptied (presumably by Long-nosed Bats and perhaps an Olingo). One was obliging enough to hang from a hummingbird feeder hook and is apparently an Underwood's Long-tongued Bat (Hylonycteris underwoodi). On the last evening I sat outside from 5.30 to 7.30. No Olingo. Lots of bats... but no Olingo. This was the biggest disappointment of the trip.
Richard La Val told me that they have 26 hummingbird feeders at the Selvanatura centre that they leave out at night. The place is apparently swarming with bats though I didn't visit. It could be another spot for Olingos I guess.
Despite the lack of an Olingo, and the abundance of noisy Brits and Americans, the Hidden Valley night walk was pretty good. A mob of White-nosed Coatis and a couple of Central American Agoutis were running around at dusk, and we also saw the Porcupine again, plus a couple of Two-toed Sloths (which are quite rare in Monteverde it seems), one of which came down to the ground for its weekly toilet stop. They can actually climb fairly quickly. A pair of Pumas had been here two weeks before me.
I picked up a guide called Hugo at the entrance station who offered to show me some bat roosts. On the way into the park we visited a hollow tree, about 5 minutes off the trail, which housed a colony of Common Vampire Bats. Photographing them was decidedly unpleasant - when I crawled into the tree, various brown substances started raining down on me, then I was attacked by ants.
There is a museum at the park HQ that is home to several species roosting in the rooms upstairs. These included a few Greater White-lined Bats, a colony of Grey Sac-winged Bats (Balantiopteryx plicata) most of which were banded, a couple of Seba's Short-tailed Bats (Carollia perspicillata) and another Carollia bat that was strikingly yellow underneath (but may well have been anothe C. perspicillata).
About 200m along the Indio Desnudos trail, which starts at the museum, is a natural bridge. The caves underneath were home to a few bats, most of which wouldn't sit still except for this one still awaiting identification.
Jean Michel Bompar saw Pternotus parnelli and Common Vampire Bats here a few years ago.
Finally, under a culvert along the road into the park we saw this species, which Richard La Val identified as Pallas's Long-tongued Bat (Glossophaga soricina).
I also saw some Spider Monkeys and heard Howlers while I was there. Hugo says Skunks are common at night (presumably Hooded Skunks) and he has seen Pumas and Tayras too, but not often.
On the way back to San Jose I saw one of the black and white race of Variable Squirrels near to Liberia (actually in a palm tree along the drag through Playa del Cocos), and another in Puntarenas where I spent my last night. This last night had one final adventure with a first Costa Rican sighting for me of Homo sapiens pettythiefiscus: I woke up at 5am to see an arm reaching through the bars of my hotel window, and trying to grab my laptop lead off of the bed. I leapt off the bed with a shout and grabbed at the arm. Missed the arm, and smashed another pane of glass. More space to reach through the window for the next night. Puntarenas is a strange place and not recommended.
I should thank several people who helped me with advice before my trip, including Jean Michel Bompar and Jeroen Verhoeff. A special thanks to Richard La Val and Bernal Rodriguez-H for their warm welcome and expert advice while I was there (and also since I got back) - bat people are the best!
1. Northern Tamandua Tamandua mexicana
* I don't include A. intermedius on my life list because it the IUCN treats it as a subspecies of A. litruatus.
Stuff I missed
Other People's trip reports
Costa Rica, 2012: Tomer Ben-Yehuda, 10 days & 22 species including Olingo, Puma and Spotted Dolphins.
Central America, 2011 &12: Dominique Brugiere, combined notes on two trips through the Yucatan, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. Lots of mammals.
Osa Peninsula 2011: Alan Dahl, 9 days & 15 species including a Wooly Opposum.
Costa Rica, 2011: Stefanie Lahaye, 1 month & 40 species. A great report including many of the usual Costa Rican suspects as well as an Olingo and some nice bats and rodents.
Costa Rica 2008: Sjef Ollers, 3 weeks & 22 species including an Ocelot and a Long-tailed Weasel.Bosque del Cabo (the Osa Peninsula): Alan Dahl, 8 days & some nice species and great photos including both Sloths and a Northern Tamandua.
Corcavado Nartional Park: Curtis Hart, some notes on 3 visits, the mammals of which included Baird's Tapir and White-lipped Peccary.
Costa Rica, 2007: Jeroen Verhoeff, 3 weeks & 20 mammals plus bats including a Tayra and a Silky Anteater (on 13 December). Great photos.
Costa Rica, 2007: Don Roberson, 2 weeks & 13 mammals.