In Costa Rica with GreenTracks
September 2001

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The author with friend
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Bring on the Frogs and Lizards!

I have nothing against birds. Birds are fine. Some are beautiful beyond words, others majestic, others endlessly entertaining. However, they are vastly overemphasized in the nature travel business. To many people, travellers and travel guides alike, "wildlife watching" and "birding" are synonyms. On various trips I've taken, local guides would go out of their way to locate and precisely identify every drab little bird in the forest, yet could not tell a skink from a gecko. And often they would hope to completely avoid seeing any snakes at all. Most of the travelers would feel the same way. That hasn't stopped me from enjoying these trips, but I have often wondered what it would be like to look for my favorite scaly and slimy critters with other like-minded folks.

A couple of years ago, my friend David Sloo stumbled across the web site for GreenTracks, a nature travel company specializing in herpetological adventures. I recognized the name of William Lamar from books he had written (perhaps most famously, he is the co-author of the classic "Venomous Reptiles of Latin America"). I sent away for the free CD stuffed with gorgeous photos of frogs and snakes and lizards and more. I yearned for such a trip.

For a complicated series of reasons involving a company going out of business, a cat, and a planned but cancelled surgery, the perfect opportunity arose. On September 23, 2001, leaving our dogs and cats in California and my wife in Miami, I flew to San José, Costa Rica to join Bill Lamar and fellow travellers in a land of frogs and fer-de-lances.

Maria, Vicki, and me
GreenTracks always keeps its travelling groups small, but due to last-minute cancellations we were definitely a smaller group than usual. I had but two stalwart companions: Maria from Pasadena, California, and Vicki from Tacoma, Washington. Bill Lamar was the trip leader. Bill also enlisted the services of his long-time buddy Alejandro Solorzano, owner of the National Serpentarium in San José and author of a book on the snakes of Costa Rica.

The first day was spent driving from San José to our destination, the Golfito region in southwestern Costa Rica. We piled our bags and ourselves into a rented white shock-absorber-free van and bounced off across the beautiful lush green countryside. Midafternoon we arrived at Esquinas Rainforest Lodge, our home for the next five days.

Esquinas Rainforest Lodge
Esquinas Lodge has five cabins, each walled into two rooms. The center of social activity is an open-air dining room/bar where guests, staff, and some locals can have a drink and shoot the breeze. There's also a swimming pool fed with stream water from the rainforest. The grounds back up into a rainforest networked with trails; this forest blends at some point into the newly-formed Piedras Blancas National Park.

As soon as we arrived we discovered one of the charming denizens of the lodge: Lorenzo the Caiman inhabited a pond just outside the dining room. Lorenzo was a very contented, very fat caiman. He was free to go, but why should he? His pond was filled with tilapia, but he seemed to ignore them in favor of the chicken parts and other goodies that were tossed his way regularly. One afternoon Alejandro measured a road-killed snake that he had picked up earlier, then flung it to Lorenzo who obligingly downed it with a few gulps. Vicki was very fond of Lorenzo and was disappointed that she never got to give him the big hug his smiling face seemed to be asking for.

Lorenzo the Caiman Caiman Pond
The Herping Lifestyle

Our time at Esquinas Lodge quickly fell into the natural pattern for maximizing the number of snakes, frogs, and lizards that we could find in several days. Each night we'd have a delicious dinner in the dining room at about 7:00 PM. Afterwards, when it was good and dark, we'd either go for a nocturnal hike or for a road cruise in the van. We generally returned to Esquinas somewhere around midnight, whereupon some of the hardier folks would relax at the bar, but all of us wimpy paying customers would drag our exhausted bodies straight to bed.

In the morning it was breakfast at 7:00 AM, followed by a morning hike or occasionally drive. The hikes were in the hot and steep and muddy and humid rainforest, so we'd come back drenched in sweat and barely able to take another step, just in time to take a dunk in the pool and a shower before lunch. Then, after lunch, siesta time beckoned, and we did not fail to heed its call. Somewhere in the middle of the afternoon we'd drag ourselves from the comfort of blessed sleep and gather in the dining room (yes, the dining room) to take photos of any critters we had captured the previous night or that morning. Sometimes there was time enough for another nap before pre-dinner hanging-out in the bar area.

So GreenTracks had the agenda simplified to its essence: eating, sleeping, and herping. Who could ask for more?

Heliconia flower
Next: Creatures of the Night

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