Thursday, May 31, 2012


Thursday, May 31

Woke up early and made coffee to enjoy in my room.

Drank more coffee with breakfast (tipico again)

Morning's lecture was We covered the history of coffee cultivation in Costa Rica over the past two centuries. I love history and so drank it up. Naturally, a lot of Costa Rican social and economic history was stirred in. In an effort after independence (1821) to quickly ramp up production of the lucrative cash crop, landless peasants were given title to forest lands they cleared and grew coffee on. This created a broad middle class--quite unlike the situation in the rest of Central America. We also learned about the railroad from San Jose to Limon in the 1890s and how that changed the cultural mix of Costa Rica by bringing in a Caribbean influence. In the 19th century, coffee farmer coops spread as a form on non-governmental participatory democracy. These eventually (late 20th century) proved unable to continue providing a middle-income livelihood for coffee farmers. Many sold their farms; a few went into direct internet sales and a few developed agrotourism ventures in Monteverde. We went to visit the most successful of these, Don Juan's Coffee Tour.

I got into the spirit of the enterprise by jumping into the back of an ornately painted ox cart like those used before the railway to haul coffee to the Pacific port of Puntarenas: DSCN0526
The oxen were very good about the whole thing: DSCN0527
We were there of course to learn about coffee: DSCN0530
Starting with how it is grown:
How the harvested fruits are de-pulped with machines old and new: DSCN0533
Dried to 12% moisture: DSCN0536
and then roasted. Eventually, we got to taste coffee (and chocolate!) under the eye of Don Juan himself, born in the local area in 1937. He is the gentleman on the right in a hat: DSCN0537
Our wonderfully funny tour guide, Junior, also showed us how sugar cane used to be pressed manually: DSCN0538
All in all, it served as a great example of agrotourism: how farmers are diversifying to generate additional income by educating and entertaining tourists about an agrarian way of life past and present.

After this, we drove into town for lunch (casado con pescado for me) at the Blue Morpho, a restaurant in Santa Elena catering primarily to tourists.

The group split up at this point. Half went to a coffee cooperative to learn more about the economics of coffee under globalization, while three of us went to tour the University of Georgia's Costa Rica campus in the town of San Luis, in the western foothills of the Monteverde cloud forest. DSCN0549

This fine facility can be thought of as "educational tourism" in that it hosts hundreds of US university students annually who learn about the local environment through experiences similar to those of tourists: hikes in the forest, horse rides, home stays, farm visits, etc. Interesting.

When we got back to the Hotel, DSCN0557
I walked into the town of Santa Elena DSCN0559
to see the development of commerce catering to tourists. I used an ATM machine to get colones, but did not stay to shop. It was raining and getting dark so I walked back to the hotel.

At dinner, we again talked about a variety of subjects, such as favorite musical artists. The longest discussion was on teaching methods to engage students. We are all from different disciplines and institutions but encounter similar challenges. It was a very productive talk, and I am sure we will all try new teaching methods in response to our reflections on the chat.

Tomorrow is our last full day together so it was also a little bittersweet.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Wednesday, May 30

Woke up feeling refreshed and excited, if a little tired and sore from the hiking yesterday. Ordered the tipico breakfast. The cheese (local?) was especially good.

Packed up the cameras and binoculars used yesterday but left out the field guides to save weight on my back. We drove in the usualy van to the Selvatura canopy tour business outside town a few miles. Here we are getting out in front of the main building: DSCN0483
A few participants signed up for zip-lining while the rest of us walked through the forest. It was nice secondary forest on lands that were cattle pasture a generation ago, before the tourism industry changed the local economy.

We came to the first canopy bridge and I was excited to get out above the forest: DSCN0485

Actually, I think we all were: DSCN0497
The bridges are suspension bridges. Concrete footings at either end hold up tall steel structures from which cables run across the various stream canyons. A steel grate walkway hangs from the cables. The purpose is to get you out in the forest. Here we see a fig fruit plucked from the branches of the tree just above us--and high above the ground. The bridges also serve as platforms for spotting canopy-dwelling birds.

My favorite was the collared trogon: Collared Trogon looks at camera CROP
This Spangle-cheeked tanager was also pretty cool: Spangle-cheeked tanager CROP
The general view of the forest canopy is very impressive: DSC_0193

I used my tablet to shoot some raw video. I uploaded it back at the hotel in unedited form. I may take this down later, edit it and put it back up with a different name. In the meantime, here it is:
As you might imagine, there were great opportunities for plant watching, especially of epiphytes: DSC_0168

At the end, we walked back through secondary forest. I took some more plant photos, such of this handsome little Chamaedorea palm: DSC_0174
I got a glimpse of a mantled howler monkey but no photo (nor of the family we saw yesterday). I also glimpsed a quetzal bird but it was moving too fast for me to take photo.

We loaded back in the van and drove to a women's collective for lunch. DSCN0516

It was served buffet style: DSCN0517
After lunch we took a break and then went to the CIEE center by van: DSCN0522
And went inside the class building: DSCN0521
Where we had a lecture: DSCN0523
along with coffee. The lecture covered ecotourism from the tourist perspective, which often differs from the view of local people. I also learned that many tourists come to Monteverde solely to go zip-lining and never actually hike in the forest, look for birds and talk to local residents. It is not clear what these visitors contribute to the local economy and what they learn about the local area. We had another lively discussion afterward.

Dinner was in the dining room again. We continued learning about each other and sharing the perspectives of our various disciplines on the seminar content.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cloud Forest

Tuesday, May 29

An exciting day: this is my older son's 21st birthday! I miss him and wish he was here with me in Costa Rica.

We assemble for breakfast at Monteverde Lodge. Hearty, for a day of hiking ahead. We load into the van and drive the short distance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. We get out of the van and move towards the trailhead: DSCN0445 (Yes, I know I used this photo already, but this is actually where and when it was taken.)

I'm going to insert a series of snapshots taken as we hiked up to the Continental Divide: DSCN0446

We climbed higher and higher into the clouds. They obscured our view to the forest far below: DSCN0461
Along the way, I plucked Impatiens: DSCN0462
Impatiens are an invasive species here, escaped from ornamental cultivation.
But there are many pretty native plants: DSCN0463
Eventually we reached our destination, the continental divide and were happy for that: DSCN0467
(Note the Gunnera on the far right.)
It was too cloudy (remember, it is called the cloud forest) to see far either East or West but it was still dramatic to be there. All that theory about adiabatic processes etc. all come together when you are feeling it.

This is probably the clearest view we had, in this case to the East: DSCN0468
And of course, this being a seminar, we had a lecture: DSCN0469
We hiked back down: DSCN0473
and looked for birds as we went: DSCN0475
We heard a Quetzal but did not see one. We did see an Emerald Toucanet up close, but it was too dark for my limited photographic skills.
We went into a classroom for a lecture on management of the reserve. The highlight for me was the collection of video clips from their Cuddeback game cameras of mammals such as Puma, ocelot, peccary and brocket deer. Very, very impressive.
There has been all manner of research at this site stretching back decades: DSCN0476

We returned to the van, tired but very excited.
Lunch is at a fine local restaurant: DSCN0478
We also had long-reaching discussions about educational travel, science, climate change, water resource management and village politics. Fascinating.
The garden out front was also interesting. I had never seen big-leaf Hydrangea in the tropics! DSCN0479
We visited a greenhouse that produces native plants as alternatives: DSCN0481
but we were all getting tired by this point. We listened to a lecture on philanthropy in the enormous Eternal Children's Forest and how donations from around the world support a conservation project in which ecotourism places a comparatively small part. The discussion afterward ranged into ranger programs to control illegal logging and wildlife poaching, watershed management, hydroelectric development on both large and small scales and climate change. If anyone did not already know, "sustainability" covers a broad range of topics. Everyone had something to contribute--and much to learn.
Dinner back at the lodge. Raining heavily. Another big day tomorrow so early to bed for all.

Up to Monteverde

Monday, May 28

Alarms woke me again in my room in Hotel 1915. I was still sleepy. I showered and started packing until 7 am, when I went to the lobby for breakfast. Coffee and the tipico (eggs, rice, beans, fried plantain, fruit) again. We were a larger group as more of my fellow seminarians had arrived: we were now 7, plus the three seminar staff. The ten of us ate together and enjoyed more time to get to know each other.

We loaded into two large diesel Toyota tourist vans at 8 am, one for us and one for our luggage. Drove out of town and onto the very modern turnpike heading north. Beatiful scenery of hills where cattle grazed. Descended down to sea level by the Gulf of Nicoya and observed large container ships at anchor in the sea. We eventually left the turnpike for the famous Pan-American highway to the small town of Sardinal. From there we ascended up into the mountains on switch-back roads. Part of the road was unpaved but well-graded gravel. Nice. However, it occurred to me as we reached the mountain town of Santa Elena that THAT was the "bad road" the tourist guide books had all warned of. Note to tour guide book writers: do NOT go to Belize, ever. That road would be one of the best in Belize. The ornithologist along had just flown down from Nicaragua and concurred: a "bad road" in Costa Rica would be an excellent road north of the border.

We wound through the curving streets of Santa Elena to our hotel for the week, the Monteverde Lodge. Unloading from vans, happy to have arrived: DSCN0445

And the front of the hotel: DSCN0444

And my room: DSCN0440 (OK, I admit. This is NOT what it looked like when I checked in. I am inserting photos from later in the week here to tell a story.)

View out the room's window: DSCN0441

We then loaded back into a van and drove into town for lunch. I ordered the casado con pescado and enjoyed fried fish with rice, beans and salad. Filling! Coffee to drink, of course. (Note a pattern?)

After lunch we went to the classroom building where we watched a fascinating video documentary, "Cracking the Golden Egg" produced in 2009 by the folks at CREST, Center for Responsible Tourism ( Apparently they have distanced themselves from it; I cannot find it on YouTube. (If you find it online, please comment with a link). The video was pretty hard-hitting on environmental and social issues. I'll try to go to the area of the Guanacaste district on the Pacific coast discussed in the video next week to see for myself, on the ground, the issues raised by the video.

We continued our discussion of the responsibilities (if any) of tourists to the communities they visit. Very interesting conversation ensued; some strong but respectful opinions were expressed by the CIEE IFDS Sustainability seminar participants and the Costa Ricans present. It is going to be a good week.

We return to Monteverde Lodge for dinner. It is just us seven seminarians we continue getting to know each other over a fine meal. We are all from medium-sized Universities, but from across the U.S. Three are from the East coast, myself and another from Oklahoma, and three from Oregon.

Alajuela Day

Sunday, May 27

Woke up to my alarms in a comfortable bed at the Hotel 1915 in Alajuela, Costa Rica. I had been unable to get a WiFi connection last night when I checked in but it was working now so I let Rhea, and my FB friends, know that I had arrived safely.

I was very sleepy. This was to continue all day, but I didn't know that. I pulled on some clothes without showering first and ventured out into the lobby in search of coffee. I found three strangers sitting in the sun-filled lobby. I sat down and learned their names and drank coffee, strong and back and tasty. Then another cup and some water before ordering breakfast tipico (eggs, rice, beans, cheese, fruit).

After breakfast, I showered and set out with my new friends to explore Alajuela. Street view of the Hotel 1915. I had arrived at night and so not really seen it: DSCN0439

We walked a block to the Central Plaza. Filled with tall trees (Mango?) and many people: DSCN0436

There was even a club of Harley enthusiasts: DSCN0423

We walked to the Cathedral and peered in at mass, in progress. We posed for a touristy photo out front: DSCN0422 (No, we are not that fat. Somehow the blog is stretching the image.)

We left the cathedral and continued our stroll through town, admiring the scene: DSCN0424

The main event in Alajuela was a big football match with Uruguay. Local fans were out in force: DSCN0427

They were pouring into the local stadium: DSCN0428

We instead found a local amateur league football game: DSCN0435

which we watched instead: DSCN0432

We found a nice restaurant for lunch: Erik orders lunch at Cafe Delicioso

and of course ordered coffee: DSCN0438

Despite this, I was tired. I left the three amigos and walked back to the Hotel. I took a nap until 4 pm, when our first lecture began. We did introductions in the lobby while drinking coffee and nibbling pastries. Our first lecture was on the history of Monteverde: preservation and ecotourism development.

Dinner was a lovely buffet at 7 pm. We chatted after, then went to bed. No internet. Slept well.