Costa Rica 2022: Reserva Curi-Cancha

When Steve booked a full day with Felix, our guide to the best of Monteverde, we were given a list of different options for activities to do. We knew we wanted to hit Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and we briefly considered doing something non-hiking and non-birding in the afternoon, just to mix it up. But because hikers gotta hike, and birders gotta bird, we dismissed that idea pretty quickly. The most appealing afternoon activity was, predictably, another hike with plenty of bird-spotting, this time in Reserva Curi-Cancha, another of Monteverde’s best spots.

Curi-Cancha had more open spaces than Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, which was mainly wooded trails. There were plenty of wooded trails in Curi-Cancha as well, of course, but mixed in were some beautiful vistas.

Masked tityra! A very cool find.

Even the trails were a bit wider and more open at Curi-Cancha than they had been at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. (That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing – both parks were equally beautiful. Just an observation.)

Leaf-cutter ants! These guys are so adorable and hardworking. They’re my favorite ants by far – definitely better than the ones that come investigate the anklebiters’ trails of snack detritus.

The hummingbirds were a highlight of Curi-Cancha – like at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, they were everywhere. Here we also had the extreme treat of seeing two hummingbirds in their nests! The nests were about the size of a teacup – darling. And beautiful.

Purple throated mountain glen in its nest!

Another treat at Curi-Cancha – spider monkeys! They were hard to miss – very, very noisy and exuberant, just like the white-faced capuchins in Osa. Seeing monkeys in the wild, though, is just really something special.

I didn’t get any really spectacular pictures, because they were all moving so fast, and they were so high up in the trees. But just seeing them was incredibly cool!

What a red-letter day this was! Steve and I were so grateful to Felix for sharing his favorite spots with us. We loved learning from his expertise on the birds of Monteverde, and even more we loved hearing about his personal experiences and life growing up in Costa Rica. Definitely a day that we will remember forever.

Next week: a different kind of Costa Rican forest experience – breakfast in the treetops! – and another of Costa Rica’s legendary birds.

Costa Rica 2022: Hiking and Bird-Watching in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

After a few warm, blissful and adventurous days in Osa, it was time to see a different ecosystem and a different part of Costa Rica – up north to the mountains of Monteverde, and Costa Rica’s famous cloud forests. After a very bumpy ride (literally bumpy, over rough dirt roads studded with rocks – an adventure!) we arrived at our hotel in Monteverde looking forward to a fun adventure the next day.

Steve had booked a private guide to take us through Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and Reserva Curi-Cancha.

Ready to spot some birds!

Our guide, Felix, asked us about our goals for the day. We told him we were avid birders and would be excited to see as many birds as we could, but that we were especially keen – like everyone – to see the resplendent quetzal (not the national bird of Costa Rica, but one of the most famous avian residents of the country).

Hiring a private guide was well worth it – can’t recommend highly enough. Felix knew the cloud forest like the back of his hand, and was able to point out more birds than we could have imagined in our wildest dreams. By way of just a few highlights…

I can’t remember exactly what these two were (have it written down somewhere). I think of them as Yellow and Brown Fluffball and Some Kind of Dove.

This is a black-faced solitaire – this bird was one of Steve’s favorites of the entire trip. It had an absolutely beautiful, haunting song.

Lesson’s mot-mot. This picture does it no justice – the colors were so vibrant.

Costa Rica has dozens of species of hummingbirds. We saw them every day, and it never got old – and never got boring to try to identify the different species. This one is a coppery-headed emerald hummingbird, a species that is endemic to Costa Rica. I couldn’t get over the colors of its feathers – like a little jewel.

We saw the hummingbirds all over the park, but the park also had a hummingbird garden – a little courtyard with multiple hummingbird feeders scattered around. There were at least five different species of hummingbirds (probably more) zooming around. SO cool.

Felix showed us the highlights of the park on a macro – waterfalls! – and micro – cool tree fungus! – scale. And he pointed out coffee beans (far right, above) which was very cool to see, as fans of good coffee.

All right, all right. I know what you want to know: did we see the quetzal? Early in our hike around the park, Felix stopped short and called our attention to a sound off to our right – the quetzal’s call! We scurried from path to path (very grateful that Felix knew the park so well, because we would have been hopelessly lost) trying to figure out where the quetzal might be. At one point, after the call seemed to have moved from our right to left, Felix groaned, “That quetzal is playing with us.” Finally, we spotted:

The quetzal was a female. I was bowled over by how beautiful this bird was – the striking black and white tail feathers, the shimmering green wings, the flash of red belly, and the beautiful black eyes, so gorgeous. We gazed at her through Felix’s scope, taking it in turns to look through the viewfinder and jump up and down.

As exciting as it was to see the female quetzal – and we assured Felix that we were happy with her – he assured us that the male was even more spectacular, and we kept looking for him. (At one point we thought this female might be joined by a male we heard calling nearby, but apparently he already had a girlfriend.) We continued dashing around looking for a male quetzal and finally…

A male quetzal! Or at least, a male quetzal’s butt. We set up the scope and patiently waited for him to shift position.

Getting there…

There we go! That’s the glamour shot we were waiting for. Have you ever seen a bird like this?! I was staggered.

We actually saw a second male quetzal later in the day – lucky, lucky indeed! Everything that we found so spectacular about the female quetzal was dialed up to eleven in the male.

What a morning! And this was just the first half of our day – we headed off to grab lunch with Felix (traditional Costa Rican plates at the park cafe, so delicious) and then off to our afternoon destination, walking on air after our encounters with the famous resplendant quetzals.

What’s the coolest bird you’ve ever seen?

Costa Rica 2022: Flores de Osa

When we planned our Costa Rica trip, I selected three different areas of the country to visit, with three completely different ecosystems. As we wound down our time in the tropical-warm Osa Peninsula, Steve and I were excited to experience a new part of Costa Rica, with new flora and fauna to explore, but we would miss the gorgeous and vibrant Osa. Our boat was coming to pick us up at 11:00 a.m. to take us to the airport, where we would pick up a rental car and drive up to Monteverde for the next leg of our trip, but we had time for a goodbye walk before we left. I was determined to capture as many images of the stunning tropical flowers as I could.

All these vibrant colors! Orange, purple, red, pink! I couldn’t get enough. We boarded our boat to the airport already scheming up a return trip to Osa – I mean, wouldn’t you?

Next week, new sights and scenery in Monteverde!

Costa Rica 2022: Whales in Drake Bay!

After our morning at Corcovado National Park was packed so full of highlights and life memories – seeing scarlet macaws and a SLOTH! (very high up in a tree but it still counted), watching a massive American crocodile swim lazily around the bay where we’d had a wet landing just hours earlier, and swimming in a gorgeous waterfall – it seemed hard to believe that the day could get better. But as our boat motored up to the beach to pick us up, Steve, scanning the horizon, said: “I see a spout!” We all darted toward the water and sure enough – way out at see, it appeared – we could just barely see a whale spouting at the surface. There was a mad rush to the boat.

It didn’t take us long to catch up to the whales – and we quickly confirmed that there were actually three of them: a mother, baby, and escort. (Worth noting: we did cut the engine and stay a responsible distance away from them. I have a zoom lens.)

The escort was in a very protective mood, and kept himself positioned firmly between our boat and the mom and baby. Baby, by contrast, was feeling very energetic – we saw a few adorable breaches! (Sadly, I didn’t get a picture of any of them – next time.)

There was waving and pec slapping, too. The cutest.

^My favorite picture from the day!

At one point, the escort decided to come over and have a better look at us. We bobbed like a cork in the water while he swam around the boat, checking us out – he was really curious. I’ve never had a whale get so close before!

So crazy! It’s always an amazing experience when one of these spectacular creatures decides to approach you and engage.

The whales made a sounding dive, which was our cue to be on our way – back to the hotel, and lunch, and an afternoon of enjoying Osa before moving on to our next stop the following day. It was a beautiful send-off.

No matter how many times I see whales in the wild, it’s never anything less than absolutely magical.

What is your favorite animal? Have you ever seen them in the wild?

Costa Rica 2022: Corcovado National Park

The Osa Peninsula, in the southwestern corner of Costa Rica, has been described by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on Earth.” Corcovado National Park is the flagship park in the region and was a must-visit on our itinerary. So after spending two days scuba diving, we set off on a different adventure – a boat ride to Corcovado for a morning of hiking with an expert guide. Our new friends Garry and Donna joined us, along with another couple. The energy was high!

Before we even set off on our journey proper, our guide (“Tony the leader, Tony with the waterproof boots”) shepherded us around a section of the same river Steve and I had kayaked on our first afternoon in Osa, pointing out a herd of wildlife right near our hotel – yellow-crowned night herons, Amazon kingfishers, pisotes, and several lizards, and more. We heard, but didn’t see, a troop of howler monkeys – LOUD. Finally, with everyone riding a high from bird sightings, we set off into Drake Bay on our way to the park, and immediately encountered a gorgeous double rainbow. Classic Costa Rica at its finest!

After a lovely hour on the water, we arrived at the park and hopped out of the boat via a wet landing in a sheltered bay. Tony pointed out a pond right near our landing spot and we all scanned in unison for crocodiles. (Didn’t see any – then.) We did see a blue morpho butterfly flapping at us across the pond. I hid behind Steve. (New friends: I am terrified of butterflies. Cannot abide them.)

We escaped the scary bug and set off on a hike through the newer rainforest, eyes constantly scanning for jaguars. (We didn’t see any, but we did see jaguar poop. And it was pretty fresh. You’re welcome for the visual!) Along the way, Tony pointed out more birds than even I could keep track of by memory.

He also showed us this tiny lizard, which hung off his ear like an earring. You can’t make this stuff up!

I had a few animals I was really, really hoping to see during our trip, and up near the top of the list was the scarlet macaw. I just love them and their gorgeous bright feathers! Tony told us that they love to eat almonds and our best chance of seeing them – they move pretty quickly, even for a bird – would be in an almond tree. Sure enough, a flash of red near the shoreline! We scrambled out onto the rocks and aimed our cameras up at the branches. Sighting of a lifetime!

Back on the trail, Tony led us up into the old growth forest section of the park, continuing to point out birds, other wildlife, and trees with unusual properties – including one that can walk (!!!) and one that cures hangovers. Fam, if you had your doubts about whether Costa Rica is a magical place, let me put them to rest for you.

The climax of our hike was to two waterfalls – one, Tony said, that was just for looking at (the above, tucked away behind a pile of slippery dangerous rocks and sharp sticks; I could understand why it was just for looking with your eyes) and one for swimming. It was a hot, sticky day and we’d been hiking for miles, so the prospect of a cool, crisp waterfall with – and this is key – no crocodiles and no leeches, was too good to resist.

Luckily I was prepared with quick-dry capris and a midkini top. Bucket list item – swim in a Costa Rican waterfall – check. (That’s Garry’s hand over on the left side of the photo. Don’t worry, he’s fine.)

All smiles!

After a swim and a snack, we made our way back to the visitors’ center to meet our boat. As we were gazing out over the waters where we’d waded ashore just a few short hours before, someone pointed out that what we’d all taken to be a log was… not a log. Oh, hello, American crocodile, how long have you been there? Now this is rather terrifying.

We watched the croc swimming around for about twenty minutes, snapping away with our zoom lenses, before Steve pointed to the horizon and said “I see a spout!” More to come on that next Friday.

Do you think that crocodile was there when we landed on the beach?

Costa Rica 2022: Colorful, Scary, Gigantic

On the day we visited Corcovado National Park, I dashed off a quick post on Instagram with a few snaps I had taken on my phone, and the assurance that I’d had an amazing wildlife day but would have to get the pictures off my camera before I could share them. I hinted at the spoils though, promising pictures of animals colorful, animals very scary, and animals absolutely gigantic.

More to follow next week, but today I’m making good on that promise.

Colorful: scarlet macaws!

Very scary: a huge American crocodile, swimming around in the little bay where we’d arrived via a wet landing just a few hours before, gulp.

And absolutely gigantic: my loved ones, of course! A humpback whale family that played and visited around our boat on our way back to the lodge – absolutely breathtaking.

More to come about these critters, and the other amazing sights at Corcovado National Park, next week!

Costa Rica 2022: Capuchin Monkey Business

On our third afternoon in Osa, we were hanging out in the open air lounge area of the dining pavilion at our hotel, drinking passion fruit daiquiris with our new dive buddies Garry and Donna. Donna wandered off for a cigarette and to look at some lizards, and after spending a few minutes trying to get interested in the computer talk in which the guys were engaged, I got up, grabbed my wildlife camera, and declared that I was taking a walk.

I wandered vaguely in the direction of the hanging bridge, with the dual goals of (1) getting my steps in, and (2) seeing an animal, any animal would do. I’d made it just to the hanging bridge when there was a commotion above me and a knot of excited German tourists pointed out a monkey in the trees. New mission: get a picture of the monkey.

Harder than it seemed. The little booger was moving fast.


I was delighted with my picture and decided to head right back to the dining hall and brag to the guys about my photo conquest. As I walked back in the direction of the lodge, I realized – the monkeys were going the same way.

Yes, I said monkeys – plural. What I originally thought was one monkey turned out to be an entire troop. And they were all thundering across the tin roofs of our hotel’s outbuildings. It was a long line of noisy, exuberant mischief.

Except for this one, who stopped to grab a snack.

Yum, coconuts, delicious. I like young coconuts too, monkey! (He – or she – wasn’t interested in sharing.)

Meanwhile, the rest of the monkeys had made their way to the dining pavilion – where Steve and Garry were still hanging out – and were raiding a huge stash of bananas in the open air kitchen, because of course they were. The entire hotel guest population was streaming out from their languid afternoon hideaways to watch. So much for my monkey picture impressing the guys!

But I couldn’t be mad, because they were so stinking CUTE! I mean – look at that. And as you can see, some of them were MOTHER MONKEYS with BABY MONKEYS RIDING ON THEIR BACKS. Please excuse the all-caps, which really is warranted.


We probably watched for about half an hour as they stampeded around the dining hall roof, leapt from the roof into the trees and back again, stole food from the kitchen and chattered incessantly at one another. Y’all, I’ve seen a lot of cute stuff but this was up there with the very cutest.

Eventually what we took to be a never-ending parade of capuchin monkeys did, in fact, end. And we returned to our passion fruit daiquiris, this time while clustered around my camera exclaiming over the shots I’d gotten of the monkeys and their monkey business. We came to Costa Rica hoping to have adventures and see wildlife, and man, oh man, was Costa Rica delivering.

Next week: more animals! Including some very colorful, some very scary, and some absolutely gigantic.

Costa Rica 2022: Scuba Day 2

After eight pool dives and two open water dives on our first full day in Osa, we staggered down to the dining pavilion after another ridiculously early wakeup for the third and fourth ocean dives and – hopefully – our certification as fully-qualified PADI open water divers.

Full disclosure: the dives are such a blur in my memory, and the photos so mingled, that I am not 100% sure these are all from the second day of diving. Just go with it – and if it feels a little mixed up, well, that was the experience. I was really just trying to not die, okay? But I do know that the above selfie was from the second day of diving, taken while I clung to the anchor line and waited for Steve to fix a mask issue and descend to meet me. Also full disclosure: I did not mean to take this selfie; it was an accident.

I think it was the second day that I figured out I could hook my camera’s wrist strap to my BCD buckle. Game. Changed.

Dive buddy!

So much fun exploring below the waves with this guy. I can’t wait for our next dive adventure – more about that soon.

Also can’t say enough about what a wonderful divemaster and guide Quique was. I know I already waxed lyrical about his bubble-blowing and wildlife-spotting skills, and how safe we felt in the water with him. The only downside is that he set such a high bar that we’ll be measuring every future divemaster against him.

(That’s Quique’s fin in the upper left corner. See what I meant about his perfect buoyancy? No one else could get that close to the coral and never touch it. Amazing.)

While we were diving, all I could hear was the sound of my own breath – a long breath in, followed by a very bubbly exhale. But when we surfaced between the two dives of the day, Garry asked: “Did you hear all that noise?” Donna and I shook our heads and looked confused, but Steve said he had heard it – something like a shrill squeaking call? Quique and the boat captain told us that there were false killer whales in the area (!!!!!) and we’d been hearing them – sometimes faint, sometimes much louder/closer. Except that Donna and I hadn’t heard them at all. We got echolocated, and we didn’t even know it.

To be fair, I was a little distracted by something else that happened on the second day.

Quique had us swimming around a couple of tall, coral-encrusted rock formations and through a narrow-ish “swim-through” formation, when suddenly we were surrounded by a school of hundreds – maybe thousands – of fish.

Being surrounded by fish was exactly what I was worried about – that was what had made me panic when snorkeling. But my neoprene theory held true, and I surprised myself, again, by being totally at peace. I just floated in place, looked at the fish – and even took pictures.

Most of the fish didn’t get close to us. As Donna said, they were thinking “Let’s just get away from these sea lions – or dolphins – or whatever these large mammals are that look like they might eat us.” But knowing that they were not interested in getting up in my grill doesn’t mean believing it in the moment – so I was really pleased and proud of myself that being surrounded by fish didn’t bother me. (Thank you, neoprene!)

Steve and I demonstrated a few more skills for Quique (while Garry and Donna followed his direction to “swim around that rock and then come back”) and before I was ready to say goodbye to the underwater world, we were ascending, making our safety stop, and breaking the surface of the dive site. Back at the dock, Quique told us that we were naturals and had passed our skills with flying colors, and that we were now certified to dive as deep as eighteen meters – the deepest we’d gone in the two days. We sat with Garry and Donna late into the night (even knowing we all had an extra-early wake-up call the next morning) going over every moment of the four dives. The false killer whales that had echolocated us without Donna or me noticing a thing. The stingray’s threat display from the first day. The school of fish that surrounded us. The narrow swim-through. The reef sharks that we saw both days (I got video!) and all the sea turtles. Donna marveled that we had seen every animal I said I wanted to see, and made me promise to bring my magic wildlife summoning powers to Corcovado National Park the next day.

I was the one who wanted to get scuba certified, but I surprised myself by loving it as much as I did. Steve and I agreed – we couldn’t wait for our next dive adventure, although we didn’t know when or where that would be. (We had the added complication of needing to arrange childcare in order to go diving – something Garry and Donna gleefully were not contending with themselves.) We know where our next dives are coming from now, so keep watching this space for more salty content in the next few months – but first, we may have been saying goodbye to the underwater world but there was a lot more of Costa Rica to explore!

Next week: a short hike to a beautiful beach.

A Very Virginia Christmas

We’ve trimmed our holiday traditions down considerably in recent years – a nod to COVID-induced realities, sadly, but also a reflection of the current (overwhelmed) state of life. But there are a few traditions in the run-up to Christmas that are just non-negotiable; I’m not willing to give them up, and I will move heaven and earth to make them happen. A visit to Aladdin, the Mount Vernon Christmas camel, is one of them (although Aladdin is around until Twelfth Night, and it’s acceptable to visit him after Christmas, if necessary) and a walk through Old Town, our former neighborhood, to admire the decorations. This year, we combined the two into one thoroughly Alexandrian day.

Starting with Mount Vernon. It was a grey day – not too cold, but damp – and a walk felt good. By the way, if you’re thinking the coloration of the Mansion looks different, it is. The property has gone back to the traditional buff color, removing the historically-inaccurate crisp white exterior. This sandy hue is what it actually looked like in Washington’s day.

There he is! It’s tradition for Mount Vernon to host a camel for Christmas, because Washington used to procure one as a holiday treat for his stepchildren and grandchildren. Aladdin has been a regular visitor for the last fourteen Christmases now and we’ve visited him almost every year, including his first year as the Christmas Camel – when he was just a baby.

He’s so stinking cute. I cannot.

Obviously, Aladdin isn’t the only animal on property. After paying our respects to him, we wandered off in search of other friends. I have never seen so many sheep here before. There must have been twenty of them! Seriously. Where did they all come from?

We walked around the rest of the outdoor attractions, too. Peanut loved stopping by each of the outbuildings to read the explanatory placard – there was much lecturing when Nugget and I failed to keep pace; I had sock problems, and to be honest, we were more interested in the garden.

It might be the fact that I had spent several days reading Nigel Slater’s poetic ode to winter, The Christmas Chronicles, but I was enchanted by the bare architecture of the kitchen garden in winter.

And I’m always inspired by the espaliered fruit trees. I have delusions of gardening grandeur (when we buy the forever house!) involving lots of fruit trees. Sometimes my dreams involve a glorious tangle of gnarled apple trees and a blackberry bramble, but other times I picture espaliered fruit. I guess it’ll have to wait for the as-yet-fuzzy forever house and garden to take shape, before I’ll really know.

Red, green, and purple. Christmas!

After wandering almost the whole Mount Vernon property (we missed the upper flower garden, but Peanut was done with Nugget and me and our Monty Don delusions) we headed to our old stomping ground – Old Town Alexandria.

The residents of Old Town go all in on Christmas decorations, but because it’s such a historic neighborhood, by tacit agreement they do it in a very traditional, understated way. Lots of swags of fresh greenery, tartan ribbons, and fresh and dried fruit – no inflatables or loud colored lights. (Which have their place, but would look alarming on these pre-Revolutionary streets, let’s be honest.)

No baby yet. Check back in a few weeks. (Pssst – this creche is in front of St. Mary’s Basilica, which we just learned was the very first Catholic church in Virginia. Yay, history!)

Wreaths of Old Town, 2021, here we come. I think this door – one of the first we walked past – might have been my favorite.

But I loved this one, too – simple, but gorgeously effective.

Another favorite – a wreath made entirely of oyster shells is a stunning nod to coastal Virginia. Also, I love a wooden door! Over the years, I’ve gotten fonder of the natural wood look. This made me think of the entrance to the Nantucket pub that features in the first few chapters of Moby Dick, where Ishmael and Queequeg meet.

Another favorite – understated, but perfect with the exposed brick and gold stars.

No visit to Old Town is complete without walking by the Spite House. This tiny row house is barely more than six feet in width.

More dried fruit! I love these traditional decorations.

Partway through our walk, we met up with friends – my law school BFF, her husband, and their two kids. In an instant, my kids switched from complaining about the forced march past very grownup door decor, to wild exhilaration at seeing their friends. Running, jumping, screeching and cackling ensued.

We all got a laugh when my friend’s husband leaned down to his son and urgently demanded, “Where are your parents?

We walked, talked, snapped pictures and berated wild children for almost two hours – until the sun was gone, the lights were twinkling, and carolers were singing their way down King Street. As other traditions have dropped off one by one (there was no Christmas in Little Washington this year, no waterskiing Santa on the Potomac, no Scottish Walk, and no holiday trains at the National Botanic Gardens in D.C.) I’ve hung onto this one, which is simple, and free, but brings outsized holiday cheer.

What is your favorite holiday tradition?

Fall Colors at Green Spring Gardens

Last weekend, Peanut had a Brownie meeting at Green Spring Gardens – a beautiful park not far from our old haunts in Alexandria. We’d been there once before – for a children’s beekeeping event organized by the park – and always meant to go back. Funny we should find ourselves driving down there after moving away from Alexandria, but it turned out it wasn’t that far away. I brought my new mirrorless camera, fully tricked out with a lens that isn’t even released to traditional retail yet (I got it direct from Nikon) and planned to drop Peanut off with her troop and then take a photography walk around the gardens.

That wasn’t to be. Peanut was having a mommymommymommy kind of day and I couldn’t leave. But it turned out the other moms were pretty much all sticking around too; we stood together in a clump discussing the kids’ COVID-19 vaccines, upcoming holiday plans, sports schedules and the like.

While Peanut worked on her letterboxing “log book,” I did sneak off to photograph the Children’s Garden, at least. We had wind in the forecast and I suspected – and was confirmed by the park employee who was leading the Brownie event – that this was probably the last weekend of fall colors before all of the leaves would be on the ground for the duration.

As the temperature started dropping, I rushed off to the car to pick up Peanut’s heavy coat. On the way back, without breaking a stride, I managed to get a few more snaps of the gardens in their fall glory.

When I got back to the Brownies, they were nearly done with their projects, and almost ready to go on a walk to search for the Green Spring Gardens’ letterbox and stamp their new logbooks. All the moms (and one dad) came too.

The girls found the Green Spring letterbox by a beautiful pond, and lined up to stamp their logbooks. What a fun event! I think we’ll definitely be seeking out other letterboxes in our area so Peanut can get more stamps in her “passport.”

As for me – I got my fall color pictures after all! Still getting to know my new camera, but I think they came out well, and I can’t wait to experiment more on other photography walks.

How is the foliage where you live? Still going strong, or is the season pretty much over?