I adore most tropical fruits. Passion fruit is a favorite. Such an elusive fruit. I’ve yet to find it anywhere in the US. So, imagine my delight when we stumbled into a passion fruit orchard while in Costa Rica. The sweet smell of ripe fruit would occasionally waft through my senses, causing me to pause, close my eyes, and breath as deeply as I could.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Step back in time, if you will, to April 20th. Join me on one of my favorite (possibly the favorite) hike that we went on during our time in Costa Rica.
After an evening in the hot springs the husband was moving a little slow that Thursday morning. Rather than pester him, I took my camera and went on a flower walk around the grounds of Lomas del Volcan. It’s a very pretty property with bungalows scattered around lush grounds. Flowering plants and shrubs line the road that snakes through the property and it feels like each bungalow has it’s own flower garden.
We approached our hike at Mirador el Silencio with anticipation. Fresh off our nature walk with Santos the day before we were quite confident we would spot blue jean frogs and many, many colorful birds. Our hearts were light, our eyes keen. We stuffed snacks, water, camera, binoculars and other odds-n-ends into our packs and headed out.
I had found Mirador el Silencio on Trip Advisor. It sounded like our kind of place: 14kms of trails, views of Mt. Arenal, an opportunity to hike a bit on an old lava flow and to (hopefully) see animals? Sold!
After a 20 minute drive, we pulled into their gravel lot. We had our choice of parking as ours was the only vehicle there. Now we’re talking! First to the trailhead!!! We paid our $6 entrance fee, I eyed the grape Fanta in the soda machine (“After,” I promised myself, “when you’re all hot and sweaty…”) and set off.
The gentleman at the entrance informed us that most people on a self-guided hike spent about 2-2 1/2 hours in the reserve. Ha! They’ve not met us. Actually, “us” might be a little strong as I’m the one holding the camera. Lucky for me, the husband doesn’t mind a mosey.
Almost immediately we spotted our first bird. The Costa Rican turkey. I have a photo, but it didn’t turn out good at all, so take a look here. We saw this type of bird more than once during our time in CR and, well, they’re annoying. They do not chirp. They do not twitter. I am unable to describe what they sound like, but it’s loud and unpleasant and I swear this particular turkey, or one of his turkey compadres, followed us for the first half mile of our hike.
We were off to a rough start.
Actually, we weren’t. We were delighted by the jungle. We spotted an agouti next, trotting away from us, again foiling an opportunity for a photo (but I got a really good one in Monteverde, so keep watch for that. I’ll link it when I get that story told). For now, look here.
We wound our way down the trail, watching for birds. Not seeing birds. Hearing birds. Lots and lots of bird calls. But, if you remember what I told you in my last entry: the jungle is thick. Thick and lush and gorgeous, which makes it almost impossible for the untrained eye to pick out a bird.
And the Blue Jean frog? With it’s very distinctive call that made us absolutely certain we’d be able to find them ourselves? Turns out there’s a lot of red leaves on the floor of Costa Rican jungles. Guess what red leaves look like? Yup. Blue Jean frog. We heard those frogs on every single hike we went on, but do you think that we managed to see one? Nope. Sigh.
But, lets not dwell on that. No reason to. We were in the jungle! And do you know one of the coolest features of a Costa Rican jungle? Leaf-cutter ants! You’ve seen A Bug’s Life, right? It was like Disney came to life (you think I jest? I love that movie!).
Leaf-cutter ants are amazing creatures. The farmers of the insect world, leaf-cutter ants grow their own food in underground fungus farms. Pieces of leaf are carried hundreds of feet in impressive processions, with each ant carrying a piece up to 50 times its own body weight. The leaves are taken to their huge underground nests where they are chewed up and stashed away. Those leaves are used to cultivate fungal growth and it’s the fungus, not the leaves, that the leaf-cutter ants eat.
We spent a lot of time dodging lines of ants marching down the middle of trails. Actually, we saw those ants marching about everywhere: down trails, over logs, through grassy areas (where you could clearly see their trails as there would be a narrow, completely blazed path where they marched back and forth, back and forth), up trees. They use pheromones to communicate so no one gets lost (well, some do, but there’s always those ones who can’t follow the leader). I’m telling you, leaf-cutter ants are cool.
Following a sign labelled “mirador” (lookout) we eventually broke out of the canopy onto a grassy ridge line. And the name of the reserve, The Silent Lookout, suddenly made perfect sense. Before us was a sight to behold. In distance to the right we could see part of Lake Arenal. In front of us stood Mt. Arenal. And before us, expanding to the left and right, was a gorgeously pastoral field, gently rolling down the hill. All was quiet except for the call of birds in the tangle of jungle behind us, and in the canopy that started again some distance in front and below us.
We pulled our packs from our sweaty backs, careful not to drop them on a leaf-cutter ant trail, and paused, drinking it all in. About that time we realized that we could see birds swooping in and out of the canopy. A flash of bright yellow caught our eye and the husband lifted the binoculars to take a look. Holy crap! It was a Montezuma Oropendola! Are you impressed with my bird knowledge? We looked it up on the Birds of Costa Rica card that we had with us. Here’s what it looks like it flight (not my photo. Wish it as my photo):
We stood on that ridge line for quite some time watching those and other birds fly in and out of the canopy. Turns out that’s really the only way the untrained eye can see birds in the jungle without a guide: get yourself to a place where they’re flying into the open air.
We eventually began winding our way down the now-grassy trail. It was about that time that we realized that the expanse of field was actually an orchard. A passion fruit orchard. This was exceptionally delightful to those accustomed to more standard fruit orchards: apple, pear, peach. The trees were not laden with fruit, but there was some both on trees and the ground. At first I was really excited…I was going to glut myself on some passion fruit. Unfortunately, each piece of fruit I opened was already home to maggots, so I simply had to satisfy myself with some photos and deep inhalations of that sweet passion fruit smell.
We began gradually climbing out the other side of the orchard, still catching site of Montezuma Oropendola. At one point the husband was trying to track one in a tree when he whispered, “Nae…I see a toucan.” Huh-wuh!!??
Sure enough! Sitting high in a tree, pretty as could be, sat a Black Mandibled Toucan. Could this day get any better? Again, I did not have a lens with a long enough reach, but here’s a photo pulled off ye olde internet:
Yes. Yes, we did see that toucan! I’m all aflutter just seeing the photo and thinking about it, again. It was truly magical being in that orchard. A definite highlight of the trip.
But, wait, we weren’t done!
At that point we had already surpassed the two hour mark that the average person spent at the reserve, and we hadn’t even gotten to the lava flow, yet. And then there were monkeys. I’m again getting ahead of myself. Just dropping a nugget for those of you who are feeling this is getting a bit long. And I haven’t even gotten to the night walk we took on this same day! Lots of photos from that. Don’t worry, I’ll do a separate entry. For now, let’s step back into the wonder of Mirador el Silencio.
We climbed out of the orchard and followed a fence line (for cattle) through an open area (still pastoral, but no passion fruit trees) towards the lava field. This particular one was from the flow of 1992. Not so ancient those flows surrounding Arenal Volcano. We huffed it up a trail winding itself through lava rock, sweating quite profusely as the sun radiated off the aforementioned lava rock. We hit the end of the trail and again, blammo, there was that volcano.
We took a breather, gulping down both our ever-decreasing supply of water and the view. Stomachs were beginning to rumble, and we knew we still had some ways to go, so we climbed off the lava field, pulled out some snacks and munched our way down the trail.
As we had stood up on the lava field we had watched a truck come in and drop cattle and a guy off into one of the fields below us. By the time we got back down to the field we had lost site of both. We traveled through the remainder of the field and began to drop back into the canopy. Suddenly, above us on the trail, we heard a male voice call out, “Moooooooonkeys! Moooooooonkeys!” We looked up and there stood the guy that had gotten let off with the cattle. He waved an arm, pointing back up the trail, turned and disappeared. We gaped at each other and scrambled back up to the dirt road above us, looked around…and saw no one. We could not have both imagined him. We caught site of him down the road, waving and pointing into the trees, “Monkeys!” Moving quietly, we came quickly to his side, looked into the trees and….holy crap! Monkeys! A whole troop of them. Not sure how many, but enough to give us an absolute thrill. The guy looked at us, grinned and turned away, followed by our calls of, “Gracias! Gracias!”
Do you know one of the coolest things about watching monkeys in the wild? They play. They swing from trees by their arms, their tails. They make wild leaps and scamper around. They talk to each other. They are just an absolute delight to watch.
Once the monkeys moved out of view we returned back to the jungle trail. We found our feet moving a bit faster. We had now been in the refuge for…something like 5+ hours. We were hot, we were hungry, we were out of water. In relative short order we made our way back to the car, marveling at what we had seen and talking about the next important thing: lunch.
And that grape Fanta? It was about the best grape Fanta I’ve ever tasted.