The Damas Island mangroves near Manuel Antonio provide great opportunities to spot unique wildlife such as white faced monkeys, iguanas, herons and crabs. Photo by Mirko Freund

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Lying in a hammock in a Costa Rican cloud forest, I listen to a chorus of exotic birds singing unfamiliar songs. One squawks like a peacock. Another sounds like it’s frantically telling a story. Then a high-pitched whistle pierces the gusty air.

The sounds fill me with curiosity, even though I’m not a bird enthusiast. But my 73-year-old father is obsessed with birds, which is why I traveled with him to Costa Rica from Canada for eight days, along with my boyfriend and mother.

The clear, warm water along Playa Espadilla is a popular destination for people visiting Manuel Antonio. Photo by Pamela Roth
The clear, warm water along Playa Espadilla is a popular destination for people visiting Manuel Antonio. Photo by Pamela Roth

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Costa Rica Is Full of Spectacular Wildlife

Being a passionate wildlife photographer, Costa Rica is a destination that’s been on my father’s wish list for several years due to the variety of bird species found in the Central American country. But then came COVID-19, grinding travel to a halt for more than two years and robbing precious time from seniors with a bucket list.

Now here we were, staying in a family cabin in the lush cloud forests of Monteverde – one of Costa Rica’s premier birding destinations. It feels surreal to finally be here. My father can’t stop smiling.

“There’s so many birds I haven’t seen before,” says my father after wandering around the hotel grounds with his fancy camera and long lens. His eyes sparkle with excitement. “I just love it here.”

Rising 1,500 metres above sea level on a mountain range that divides the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean in the Costa Rican Highlands, the Monteverde region is often blanketed in clouds thick with moisture.

The constant mist creates a complex ecosystem of around 3,000 species of plants, 400 types of birds, and more than 100 mammal species and thousands of insect species. For nature lovers, it’s paradise.

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The Damas Island mangroves near Manuel Antonio provide great opportunities to spot unique wildlife such as white faced monkeys, iguanas, herons and crabs.  Photo by Pamela Roth
The Damas Island mangroves near Manuel Antonio provide great opportunities to spot unique wildlife such as white faced monkeys, iguanas, herons and crabs. Photo by Pamela Roth

Private Nature Reserves

There are several private nature reserves in the region, with the 10,500 acre Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve the most popular. I decide to head to the less busy Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve as my father goes searching for the famous, but rare resplendent quetzal – a stunning tropical bird known for their long tails and canvas of bright colours.

Draped in a lush garden of mosses, ferns, flowers and epiphytes growing on trees, walking into the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve feels like stepping into another world. The air is thick with moisture. The songs of exotic birds and insects wafts through the forests that houses some monstrous trees.

“How old do you think this tree is?” says Walter Bello, a naturalist guide at the reserve.

Walking through the lush forest in Carara National Park, which is a favourite among bird watchers due to the diversity of birds, including the scarlet macaw. Photo by Pamela Roth
Walking through the lush forest in Carara National Park, which is a favourite among bird watchers due to the diversity of birds, including the scarlet macaw. Photo by Pamela Roth

“Maybe 700 or 800 years old?” I reply, noting the enormous size of the tree.

“It’s maybe 100 years old. The trees here grow so fast they don’t have rings,” says Bello, who points out a plant with spines emerging from the trunk like the shield of a warrior.

Nearby, another plant grows from a tree top down to the ground around another tree, slowly intertwining its roots to kill its host by strangulation. Later, we spot an orange and black tarantula blending perfectly into the dead leaves scattered on the ground.

Opening in March 1992, the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve protects 765 acres of land and is permanently leased by the Santa Elena Community High School, which originally intended on using the land for agricultural research and education.

However, the farming proved to be unsuccessful, so the land was eventually converted into a cloud forest reserve, then later established for ecotourism. An estimated 80% of all visitors come to Costa Rica for ecotourism-related activities, providing a boost to local communities.

The famous, but rare resplendent quetzal – a stunning tropical bird known for their long tails and canvas of bright colours, spotted in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. Photo by Brian Roth
The famous, but rare resplendent quetzal – a stunning tropical bird known for their long tails and canvas of bright colours, spotted in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. Photo by Brian Roth
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Ecotourism

“Thanks to ecotourism, many people have an opportunity to economically grow and have access to better services for their families without a heavy impact on the natural resources,” says Bello, noting about 54% of Costa Rica’s land is covered by forest under a protection category. “It also opens the mind of local communities to grow out of the box, learn new language, cultures and useful skills.”

After two and a half days exploring the cloud forests of Monteverde, we head for the intense tropical heat of Manuel Antonio along Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast. The star attraction here is Manuel Antonio National Park, which is the smallest national park in the country at 4,900 acres.

Sloths are a popular sight in Manuel Antonio National Park, which is the smallest national park in the country at 4,900 acres. Photo by Brian Roth
Sloths are a popular sight in Manuel Antonio National Park, which is the smallest national park in the country at 4,900 acres. Photo by Brian Roth

Beads of sweat drip from my forehead as my father and I gaze at smiling sloths sleeping high up in the trees. Near the park’s spectacular white-sand beach, white-faced monkeys swing effortlessly through the trees, entertaining tourists armed with cell phones. It’s another display of nature at its finest.

Seeing my father wandering around with a huge smile glued to his face is heartwarming. Getting older seems to be sparking a desire to travel to more exotic locations before it’s too late. I hope I can be there with him to create more memories.

“So what’s next? Panama?” he says with a laugh. “The old guy is back in travel mode.”

If You Go:

The thick vegetation in Costa Rica’s forests make it difficult to spot wildlife that blends in perfectly to the surroundings. Hiring a guide with a spotting scope is highly recommended if you want to learn about the exotic plants, insects and see creatures hiding in the trees. Entrance tickets for Manuel Antonio National Park can only be purchased online at https://serviciosenlinea.sinac.go.cr/

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Author Bio: A journalist since 2003, Pamela spent the bulk of her career covering court and crime for various newspapers in Western Canada including the Regina Leader-Post and the Edmonton Sun. Now based in Victoria, Canada, she specializes in freelance photography and travel writing, with stories appearing in several newspapers and magazines including Outpost Magazine, the Globe and Mail, BC Outdoors, the Vancouver Sun and Sidetracked Magazine. She is also the author of the true crime book, Deadmonton.
To view her published travel features, visit: https://pamelaroth81.blogspot.com/
To view her adventures Youtube channel, visit: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheThor1981/videos

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