One of the wonderful things about having a hobby – bird-watching, in my case – is that it can take you places you would otherwise never go. So there I was, along with my long-suffering, reluctant birding partner, Peter, driving on a bumpy dirt road in the far northern reaches of the San Carlos region in search of the endangered great green macaw. The destination: brand-new Maquenque Ecolodge, nestled in the newly created Maquenque National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses 60,000 hectares of potential breeding area for green macaws.
My first surprise was the landscape. I had expected miles of flat, San Carlos plain, but this scenic road rolls over gentle hills, past lush fields of leafy green cassava trees alternating with sage-green spikes of pineapples. Between the neat fence lines and hibiscus hedges, I caught glimpses of the wide San CarlosRiver, rolling north on its way to Nicaragua.
The second surprise was the lodge. I was expecting a modest agroturismo operation. Instead, a grand entrance arch led into a beautifully landscaped parking lot. The next surprise was that the lodge is actually on the other side of the San CarlosRiver, so we loaded our gear onto the lodge’s boat and ferried across. From there, we walked under an archway of giant bamboo to follow a long meandering path edged with a riot of giant pink, orange and red zinnias. Hummingbirds buzzed, butterflies flitted and collared aracaris munched on fruits growing along the path to the main lodge.
There we were greeted warmly by Virginia Artavia, who with her husband, Pablo Arce, is the on-site manager for this family-run business, which includes five brothers and Artavia’s parents. The lodge is an offshoot of the family’s successful Canoa Aventura wildlife boat tour company, based in La Fortuna.
Three years ago, this 60-hectare property was still a cattle ranch, Arce told us. Artavia’s father, Eduardo Artavia, came here as a child back in 1959.
“Virginia grew up here, chasing cows with her five brothers,” Pablo related. From cattle ranch to eco-lodge required a lot of work, including carving three small lakes out of swampy pasture. The result is impressive: 14 handsome bungalows, each with a private veranda and water view, spread out along three lagoons. Lofty ceilings with screened-in transoms to allow air to circulate, ceiling fans and screened windows keep the cabins cool and bug-free. Spacious bathrooms have elegant ceramic tile, modern fixtures and plenty of solar-heated hot water in the roomy showers. Cabins have either a king-size bed or a queen with a single – all topped with excellent mattresses. The cabins are luxurious by any standards, but they retain a rusticity and simplicity in keeping with an eco-lodge.
For birders and hikers, there’s a very welcome amenity: Beside each cabin’s entry steps is a grated area with a drain and a high-pressure hose to wash mud off your boots.
A good supply of rubber boots in all sizes is also available for visitors who forget to pack them. The only thing missing is a good bedside reading light; bring your own book light if you like to read in bed.
The bungalows are fairly close together, but lush plantings screen the verandas. And the views from these verandas are worth every mile of the bumpy road. As we checked in close to sunset, we put off unpacking so we could sit and gaze at the panoply of waterbirds outside our door: anhingas spreading their wings on snags sticking out of the water; green ibis, great egrets, green herons and northern jacanas foraging along the water’s edge. In the sky, mangrove swallows swooped and dipped, and ringed kingfishers zoomed along the water’s surface. Thanks to the remote location, away from neighboring farms and roads, no sounds of civilization distract you from the sounds of nature here.
Dinner also was a surprise. Expecting simple comida típica, we were delighted with our first course, an elegant soup of white palmito cream on one side of the bowl and rosy tomato cream on the other, garnished with basil leaves. Within the velvety soup, three tasty fish quenelles were hidden. The main course was a perfectly cooked fillet of corvina with a balsamic reduction sauce, atop a mound of spaghetti-thin slivers of sautéed vegetables. Dessert was a peach melba featuring an unusual ice cream, homemade with the lodge’s own plantains.
From whence cometh this sophisticated cookery? I asked Arce. A Colombian chef from La Fortuna comes out to the lodge once a week to give classes on turning local ingredients into gourmet fare, he replied. Cook Anna Ortega from the nearby village of Boca Tapada is a fast learner. Her traditional dishes are every bit as good, too; standouts were an unusual plantain puree, local vegetables cooked al dente and a dense flan de café to die for. Even her white rice is buttery good.
The lodge owners pride themselves on acquiring much of the food they serve from local sources. “About 65 percent of the food we serve is grown in the San Carlos area,” Arce says, including the two-foot, 10-pound squash on the kitchen counter that Anna turned into a cream of ayote, thick with flavor and texture.
The next morning we were up before dawn to begin an official bird count, organized by the Costa Rican Bird Route (see box on Page W1). After a cup of perfect espresso – the lodge has an Italian coffee machine – we set off with Arce as our guide to roam the property, starting with the open fields near the river, then delving into the forest along three trails, emerging into secondary forest and, lastly, the open areas around the lagoons. After eight hours of birding and hiking, we had counted 107 species and a grand total of 820 individual birds, including 11 of the sought-after great green macaws. Along the way, we just missed stepping on a coiled up, sleeping jumping pit viper. Engrossed in taking photos, I also had a close encounter with a sunbathing spectacled caiman, one of a half-dozen lurking in the lagoons.
If birding and hiking are not your cup of tea, you can ride horses, go fishing, canoe, kayak or raft on the river, or take a boat tour all the way to the Río San Juan to tour the ruins of Nicaragua’s El Castillo. Or you can relax by the peaceful swimming pool and hang out on your veranda.
Back at the main lodge that night, we joined a group of Canadian tourists from Quebec to watch a fascinating film about green macaws and the almond trees that provide both food and specific nesting sites for these engaging birds. We had a chance to talk with Ulises Alemán, a researcher with the TropicalScienceCenter, which administers the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor, of which Maquenque is a part. That afternoon, he had just discovered a new macaw nest with eggs about 10 kilometers away – an important find, as fewer than 30 active nests were recorded last year in the combined Nicaragua-Costa Rica protected breeding area.
The best part of the great green macaw show came after dinner. We walked into the garden toward a blazing fire heating up a cauldron of water, in which almendro nuts were set to boil. While we waited for a chance to taste this favored food of the green macaws, family patriarch Eduardo Artavia serenaded us with his guitar, singing a duet with his daughter and soloing on his very own ode to the lapa verde.
As for the almendro nut, well, no surprise there. Suffice it to say I’m glad I’m not a great green macaw. It is definitely an acquired taste.
Location, Rates, Info
Maquenque Ecolodge is 3.5 km north of Boca Tapada, which is 28 km north of Pital, in northcentral Costa Rica. Double room rates are $105 in high season and $95 in green season, and include breakfast and an early-morning guided walk, but not tax. Lunch and dinner are à la carte; count on about $15 to $18 per person for a three-course dinner.
For information, call 2479-7785 or visit www.maquenqueecolodge.com.
Costa Rican Bird Route
On a New Year’s list of the 31 places to visit in 2010, The New York Times’ travel section put Costa Rica in the No. 15 spot, citing the newCosta Rican Bird Route
in the Northern Zone as one of the country’s prime attractions.
The man responsible for theBird Route
(Ruta de las Aves) is Andrew Rothman, founder of the Rainforest Biodiversity Group based in the U.S. state of Wisconsin. Rothman hit on the idea of stimulating habitat conservation by promoting ecotourism in the remoter areas of Sarapiquí-San Carlos and marketing the entire region as a treasure trove of wildlife and rain forest experiences. Six established lodges – La Selva Biological Station, Selva Verde, Laguna Lagarto, El Gavilán, TirimbinaRainforestCenter and Mi Pedacito de Cielo – joined forces with six newly created private reserves in remoter locations: Albergue El Socorro, Quebrada Grande Reserve, Finca Pangola, Bosque Tropical del Toro & Finca Paniagua, Lomas de Sardinal and Maquenque Eco-Lodge. Together, they offer a mix of comfortable and rustic lodging with access to previously hard-toreach, wildlife-rich areas.
An excellent website, www.costaricanbirdroute.com, describes all the tours and attractions of theBird Route
, along with contact information for each lodge. An even more tangible marketing tool is the Costa Rican Bird Route Map and Guide (shown above), which includes a large map of the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor, GPS locations of each birding site, a list of local guides and, most valuable, a bird checklist, as well as information on lodges and nature reserves along the route. The map, which is waterproof and tear-resistant, retails for a suggested contribution of $10. It was produced in partnership with a dozen local and international conservation and wildlife organizations, and Rothman hopes to eventually cover the whole country with a map for every wildlife-habitat region.
You can buy the San Juan-La Selva map at the TropicalScienceCenter in the eastern San José suburb of San Pedro,7th Street
Books in downtown San José, and in the gift shops of both Poás and Irazú national parks. For more information on theCosta Rican Bird Route
and great green macaws, visit the above website, www.greatgreenmacaw.org or www. sarapiquicostarica.com.