So today I was heading to the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre aka Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge, which is the largest wetland in Costa Rica. I had found a small group tour that came highly recommended by my hotel, which took day trips to the reserve. Now the reserve is about two hours from La Fortuna (depending on the traffic) and is located on the northern plains of the province of Alajuela near the border with Nicaragua. It really is off the beaten path, and I was not aware of any other tours that go to the area.
Now unfortunately, the day was not off to a good start. It had rained and I mean really rained all night long and was continuing as I got ready for my 8:15 a.m. pickup. The mini-bus was a little late, likely due to the weather, but once inside, I met my fellow passengers, 17 in all, with the majority from Denmark, a couple from France and a handful from the U.S. Our guide, Rebecca, was a hoot and gave us a quick overview of the reserve as we made our way to the main “highway” that would take us to the turnover for the reserve. And true to the many mini microclimates in Costa Rica, as we made our way out of La Fortuna, the weather changed and the sun came out for the remainder of the day!!
Anyway, a little overview about Caño Negro. The reserve was created in 1984 to protect the Rio Frío and its flood plains from development and consists of almost 25 acres of wetlands. The area is along the main migration route for birds coming from both the north and south so there is a large variety of birds depending on the season. In addition, there are all four species of monkeys in Costa Rica found here (spider, squirrel, white faced and, of course, my favourite, the howler). We were going to be travelling on the Rio Frio in a flat bottomed boat for the better part of 2 ½ hours.
Now about the “highway” we were taking to Caño Negro. It was one lane in each direction, full of potholes, and took us through little villages, past sugar cane and pineapple fields, orange groves and cow pastures. And it was REALLY slow going.
Anyway, by just after 10:30 we took the turnoff to El Caimen restaurant, where our boat was docked, and proceeded down an even more bumpy road past some small wetland areas where we saw a baby caiman sunning itself, some cara cara birds, a huge number of great egret and even a couple rosette spoonbill, which I had seen on the cruise.
When we reached El Caimen restaurant, we were served some fruit before proceeding down the dock to our waiting pontoon boat. I took a seat at the back of the boat as we pulled away from the dock and almost immediately stopped to look at a beautiful orange (male) iguana. Not far away, a very plain looking female iguana rested in the sun.
We made our way under a bridge and pulled up close to a piano bird drying its wings in the sun and nearby, a spectacle caiman was sunning itself. The boat captain took the boat a little further up river to a spot where dozens of cattle egret were hanging out on the banks of the river before turning the boat around and heading downstream.
As we motored along, Rebecca kept an eye out pointing to various birds resting on branches over the river. One bird in particular caught my eye, which I have seen throughout South America: a gorgeous Amazon kingfisher. We then spotted another caiman with its mouth wide open trying to cool off and another orange (male) iguana hanging out on a tree branch over the river.
Now up to this point, we had not spotted any monkeys, but that was about to change. As we motored along the river Rebecca saw monkeys a little deeper in the forest and asked our boat captain to back up the boat. We soon spotted tiny squirrel monkeys on some high branches of trees about two trees deep into the thicket.
However, it was about to get better as one of the guys on the boat spotted a white faced (capuchin) monkey running along a branch in front of us and soon we spotted a number of these monkeys hopping from branch to branch, jumping down onto the ground near the river bank and then leaping back up on the tree branches.
Now these monkeys were really easy to see and very, very entertaining. One monkey would follow another up a tree branch and then both of them would jump in different directions. I focused on one of the monkeys in particular who would run along a branch then hide behind some leaves and then show himself all over again. I am not certain the monkey was doing this on purpose, but it was fun to watch and made for some great pictures.
Now at one point, we spotted a Jesus Christ lizard hanging out near the shore where the monkeys were playing. And in case you don’t know about these lizards, they are aptly named because they literally walk (or run) across the water when they are threatened. I have yet to see it happen, but Rebecca said she has seen it and still laughs at the memory.
We eventually moved on from the white faced monkeys continuing down river. We soon spotted not one, but two small turtles on the riverbank, but as we approached, we scared one of them, which quickly ducked under the water. And of course, we just had to spot another spectacle caiman near the riverbank.
So we had now seen two of the four species of monkeys found in Costa Rica. But we had yet to see the spider monkey and my fave, the howler. And then just like that we heard the distinctive roar of the howlers and soon spotted three high up in a tree. YAY!! Making it even more fun, when the howlers near us let out a roar, we heard other roars in the distance in the direction we were heading.
We sat and watched the howlers in front of us for a number of minutes because they were so easy to see in the trees, which is highly unusual. Most of the time, the howlers pick spots high up in the trees so it is hard to see them. However, these guys were hanging out on branches right in the open. Pretty cool.
We eventually moved further down river near the spot where the howler roars were coming from and then … bingo … a tree full of howlers. And making it even better, the tree adjacent was full of spider monkeys, which was the one monkey I had yet to see on this trip.
And the spider monkeys were highly entertaining using their three fingers and toes as well as their tail to climb and swing from the trees. I watched one of the monkeys swing from the trees climbing up and up with incredible acrobatic precision. It was really amazing as I had never seen a spider monkey in action.
Now as much as I enjoyed the spider monkeys, the howlers were continuing to roar and try as a might, I could not zero in on the male dominant howler who lets out the distinctive roars. But while I searched the tree for the male dominant howler, I spotted a momma with a baby. Unfortunately, just as I zoomed in for a picture, the boat captain reversed the boat’s course and took monkeys out of my picture. Dammit. Nevertheless I managed to snap some really great pictures of the howlers.
By now it was 2:05 and we had been on the river over 2 hours. It was time to head back for some lunch so by 2:30 we were seated in the El Caiman restaurant munching on fabulous chicken wraps and beans. It was a terrific lunch on top of a terrific day.
But before we started our journey back to La Fortuna, we stopped at an adjacent farm to learn about how they process sugar cane and the products made from sugar cane, including molasses and a wicked 60 proof moonshine.
We were given a shot of the moonshine with a sugar cane chaser and man or man was that stuff strong. I think my chest is still burning. Yowza.
There was also a demonstration on how they make coffee the old fashioned way as well as a demonstration about cacao and how they make hot chocolate. Since I don’t drink coffee, I was more interested in the hot chocolate, and damn it was really, really good.
But now, it was after 3:15 and it was time to head back to La Fortuna. Today had been an incredible, super fantastic day. Caño Negro is way off the beaten path, and I don’t think many people take the time to leave La Fortuna to visit the area, but I think that is a massive mistake. The trip had been one of the highlights of my trip!