Saturday, March 15, 2014

Costa Rica - Pan American Highway to Hacienda Baru

The Pan American Highway.  A road I had read about for years, and imagined and wondered about - the longest motor-able road in the world, making it possible to travel from Alaska to the southernmost tip of South America by car.  It runs right past the San Jose airport, and within moments of leaving the parking garage, we were pulling out onto the Pan American Highway. This particular stretch was a busy 4-lane section, teeming with cars, trucks and buses, and with no lines painted anywhere to designate the lanes.

With nine people to keep together, for two weeks, over fairly long distances, we decided to hire a van and driver for the duration of our stay.  Upon the recommendation of a friend in San Jose, we made arrangements with a Costa Rican driver and guide named Mauricio Quiros Jimenez.  He quickly became not just a very safe and competent driver and guide, but also translator, Spanish tutor, general problem solver, baggage handler, and friend. He had a strong interest in the natural world and in the history of his country and its people, which added immensely to our experience.

So, packed into Mauricio's van,  we headed off.  I found myself instantly fascinated by the scenes passing by the windows.  Costa Rica is much like home in some ways, with supermarkets, office buildings, malls, gas stations, SUVs, 100 varieties of chips, and other familiar things. But looking closer, the details often spoke not only of vibrant Latin culture, but also of the uniqueness of "Ticos" as the Costa Ricans refer to themselves.

Costa Rican countryside heading southwest out of San Jose toward the Pacific. Taken at 60mph through a car window! Never let common sense stop you from taking photos!
Our first stop was to see crocodiles.  This well-known crocodile-viewing spot is on a narrow 2-lane bridge, not far above the shallow, muddy Rio Grande de Tarcoles.  
A denizen of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles taken at 640mm using a 400mm lens on an APS-C DSLR.
A dozen or more crocodiles were spread out in the river and on a sandbar right below the bridge. It was a popular spot, but the bridge was very active, with large trucks rumbling by just a couple feet away.  Using a tripod was absolutely not an option, and my monopod, in a moment of poor planning, was packed somewhere in luggage now lashed to the roof of the van.  But I was able to balance my hefty 400mm on the bridge rail and take a few shots. The stark mid-day lighting was less than ideal, but the vantage point was amazing.

We had intended to spend the first night near the Pacific coast town of Jaco, taking in the sites and looking for a macaw nesting ground nearby. But with our unexpected delay in Newark we were now one day behind schedule, so we had to skip Jaco and move on to our next destination.  However we did locate the macaw nesting ground on our way through.
The macaw nest was in the tall tree on the right.
It was here that I began to come up with methodologies for quickly setting up and photographing the abundant tropical wildlife. But more on that in later entries!

Macaw sitting above the nest hole.  Taken at 890mm with a 400mm lens on an APS-C DSLR, with a 1.4x teleconverter.
The macaws have a neighbor...
A caracara basking in sunset light.
Our destination for the next two nights was Hacienda Baru, an ecological preserve in the jungle along the Pacific Coast.  It was dark when we got there and I really didn't know what to expect.  I was still a little mentally breathless, from having woken up in snowy Newark, and now I would be going to sleep in a steamy tropical jungle.  We turned down the short driveway of Hacienda Baru and I was instantly enchanted by the sight before us.  The eco lodge consists of a number of low buildings, cabins, and covered areas all spread out in a clearing in the forest, surrounded and intermingled with gardens and an inviting swimming pool.  It was already well past dark, and the lights along the winding pathways and in the windows lent a magic to the scene.  After a fantastic meal of Costa Rican chicken and rice at the covered but open-air restaurant, we trundled off to our cabins for the night.  With only screens and shutters in the windows, we drifted off to sleep to the night sounds of the jungle.

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