Puntarenas, Costa Rica

We are now heading north towards home. Today, we visit Costa Rica. Naturally, we wanted to see the jungle and wildlife of the area. We signed up for an “8-in-1 Tour” with Gio Tours. The highlights of the tour would be visiting a capuchin monkey farm and taking a jungle wildlife cruise. Lunch was included as well.

Our tour guide was waiting for us right outside the ship and escorted us to the air conditioned bus. It was going to be a very hot and humid day so it was nice to be able to wait for the tour to begin in comfort! We were a little disappointed to find that we were on a large group tour; our preference is for smaller groups. But, it worked out fine. As we drove to our first stop (the monkey farm) we passed through the town of Puntarenas. Our guide, Jesus, explained that the Spanish came in the 1500’s and that the country was divided into 7 provinces; Puntarenas being one of them. He pointed out the island of San Lucas which used to be a prison island. There were no guards there; the sharks that surrounded the island were the guards! When the shark population diminished, they were forced to close the prison. There are plans to reopen it using human guards this time around.

There were sculptures along the coastal road on the way out of town. Iguanas were spotted along the side of the road. Due to the tides in the area, the cemetery we passed was an above ground cemetery. Because of global warming, the last 3 rainy seasons were the worst on record; the only road got flooded. Another side effect of global warming is that crops are ripening two months later than they used to. There are lots of active volcanoes in the area as well. We passed by a black sand beach which was formed due to volcanic activity. One of the reasons that wildlife is so prolific here is that absolutely no hunting of any animal is allowed. The #1 export and base of the economy is coffee. Watermelon, cashews and other melons are common crops here as well.

Jesus pointed out the wood fences along the road were made from the gumbo-limbo tree. This is also known as the “naked Indian” tree due to its red wood. These grow so fast that a branch can be planted and 3 months later, leaves will sprout. The tree is used for other purposes as well. The leaves are used as an antiseptic; the bark is boiled to make tea. Jesus told us that it is also used to create syphilis and cancer treatments.

Gasoline and cars are very expensive here. Seventy percent of the cost of a new car is taxes, so most people buy secondhand cars. Most of the energy here (99%) is non-fossil fuel based. Hydroelectric, windmills, thermal (from volcanoes) and solar are the most common fuels.

Our first stop was at a monkey farm. Jesus gave us lots of warnings about interacting with the monkeys. He suggested we remove hats and any shiny objects that they might like to steal from us. He gave quite a bit of information about the monkeys; unfortunately, without a mike and with a large group, I couldn’t hear much of it. So, I just enjoyed the time taking pictures of the little devils.

We made a brief stop at a fruit stand. We were encouraged to buy a smoothie for $4. And, they were quite delicious!

Next up was the jungle cruise. We drove a short distance to the Tarcoles River. Along the way, Jesus told us about the tiger heron which eats baby crocodiles. He said that a crocodile typically will lay 90 eggs, but only 10% of them make it to adulthood. Besides birds eating them, crocodiles are cannibals and the males will eat their young. We passed by a brush fire. If a piece of glass is left out (such as a bottle), the concentration of the sun’s rays can start these. Jesus spotted a couple of macaws flying overhead (he said this was quite rare) so he stopped the bus and we got out to take pictures. Seeing macaws in the wild was pretty cool so I took way too many pictures of them!

There was a nice seating area by the river so while we waited for our boat to arrive, Jesus showed us how teak leaves are used to create dye. The leaves are wet and crumpled; the liquid squeezed from them is blood red in color. Magical!

The ramp down to the boat was not designed for the mobility challenged. It was quite steep and only a few people at a time were allowed on it.


We had an hour and a half float down the river to spot wildlife. Many of the animals that live along the river are nocturnal so we would not get a chance to see them. Our first crocodile that was spotted was named “Osama Bin Laden”; apparently because he is hard to find and deadly. Male crocodiles are very territorial and tend to hang out in the same areas. Females wander more. A crocodile can go for 9 months without eating. When they do feed, they do not chew you up; they swallow you whole. Fortunately, they normally just eat fish. We saw lots of lizards. Jesus called them “Jesus Christ” lizards; I don’t know if that is their actual name or a nickname! Someone spotted a baby iguana swimming. I had no idea that iguanas swam.

The main attraction of the day was (at least for Jesus) all of the birds we spotted. Jesus got quite excited at spotting a few of them; I guess they are not regularly found along the banks of the river. We saw northern jacanas. None were flying but apparently they have yellow underwings. We saw tiger heron (the ones that eat baby crocodiles). There were anhingas (the national bird) and osprey. Jesus was very excited to spot a little blue heron. It was actually white but will turn blue as it grow up. There was a beautiful pink bird, a roseate spoonbill up in a tree.

There were trees and trees filled with pelicans. A few were floating in the water but most were perched in the trees along the bank. At one point, flocks of them took off at the same time, circled, and then returned to their trees.

Something we didn’t see as much of as expected were crocodiles. Most of the ones we did see (except for Bin Laden) were pretty small.

We got off the boat and loaded up the bus for a drive up to a scenic viewpoint. The most interesting part about the stop was how such a large bus was able to turn around on such a small, winding road. One the way up Jesus stopped to point out a cashew tree. He picked up a couple of pods he found on the ground and brought them on the bus to show us. Each pod only grows one nut. Crazy! The fruit is used in cooking so doesn’t go to waste.

Lunch was next. We were served rice, beans, fried plantains, salad, chicken or fish and dessert. The food was quite delicious.

By now we were up to stop #6, the requisite shopping stop. We were given 20 minutes to shop for souvenirs. Clayton and I walked through the store and noticed that the prices were really high (not that we were going to buy anything anyhow). When our tour-mates had finished their shopping, we headed out for stop #7, a grocery store. I had somehow thought that the store would be interesting. Sometimes, it is fascinating to see what products are available in other countries. This grocery store was owned by Walmart. The only thing I noticed about it was that it was incredibly hot inside; no air conditioning. It was quite run-down looking and not interesting at all, so we went back to the air conditioned bus to wait for everyone else to finish.

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The last part of our tour was a quick drive through the town. By now, school children were getting out of school. Like every other country we visited in Central America, school uniforms are required, even at the college level. There is an interesting system for needy students here. Teachers are in charge of determining what their students need. In other words, if a family cannot afford a uniform, supplies, or transportation to school, the teacher makes sure they get what they need. The money is provided by the government. The family is not given the money directly; it is dispensed by the teacher. There are many scholarships available for higher education. Our guide, Jesus, was sent to university to master the English language on a scholarship. Learning English in school now starts in kindergarten; French is added in 7th grade. The goal is to have a trilingual country. Public schools here are all Catholic. Private schools are run by other denominations. In other words, all schools here are religious schools.

There has been no army since 1948. Medical is provided to all. Since there is no military, the government has more funds to pay for education and medical.

The most popular sports are soccer, beach volleyball and surfing. Trains have not been used since the 70’s due to the earthquakes that happen regularly. And yes, there are significant drug issues here.

We had now reached the port. It was a bit of a walk back to the ship (long pier) so a little train was provided. Unfortunately, it was not running at the time we were dropped off so we walked to the ship. The distance was fine; the heat was not. The heat and humidity was really tough to handle so we were so happy to be back on board. On to Nicaragua tomorrow!