It was our last morning in Arenal – we would shortly be heading northeast, towards the Nicaraguan border, to stay in a remote ecolodge in the depths of the jungle. Martin went out early, as usual, to photograph the soft sunrise light. I got up early-ish, as usual, to make coffee and sit in the rocking chairs, enjoying the bird songs and the volcano-and-lake view. Dakota got up late, as usual, staggering out with bleary eyes and his shock of hair standing on-end, reaching blindly for the coffee.
On one of their more memorable camping trips to the desert, Dakota needed afternoon coffee, but was uninterested in going to the trouble of actually brewing it. So he famously spooned the dry coffee directly into his mouth, chewed it up with focus and determination, and swallowed the bitter granules down. Dry.
Gritty? Yes. Unpleasant? Yes. Worth it? Apparently, yes!
The man needs his coffee. Do not stand between Dakota and his coffee!
So the morning found Dakota and me sitting companionably in the rocking chairs on the front porch, binoculars in one hand, coffee in the other, Dakota slowly coming back to life – when suddenly he cried, “Toucan!”
And there it was, the elusive Keel-billed Toucan, sitting majestically in a tree right across the street, with its crazily-colored curved bill and bright yellow bib. Stunning!
Thrilled as I was to see it, I was instantly thrown into anxiety because Martin wasn’t there. I didn’t want Dakota to get this life-lister bird, and not Martin! We would be leaving the Toucans’ habitat – this was Martin’s chance, right now, to add it to his life-list! I kept glancing anxiously down the road, desperately willing Martin to come home, come home, come home.
The Toucan preened and posed for us, and then flew off. Dakota was gleefully dancing around, chortling. He got the bird! Martin didn’t! Big, big score for Dakota!
My heart sank. Martin had to see this bird! Maybe, somehow, he had seen it? Maybe it flew to wherever Martin was, and he got a great shot of it?
Perhaps he was hurrying back right now to stun us with an amazing self-portrait of a Toucan sitting on his shoulder!
Martin returned. We watched him carefully, gauging his mood. Was he all aquiver, bursting to gloat about his close-up Toucan sighting?
No. He described the pretty morning, with pretty birds and pretty light. We listened politely, nodding our heads: “Yes, sounds lovely. Good for you. Oh wow, very nice photo of that leaf.”
Suddenly he broke off, suspicious. “Hey, you guys,” he said slowly, eyeing us back and forth. “What’s going on?”
So we confessed to seeing the Toucan. Martin’s jaw dropped, and he turned to look accusingly at the empty tree. Dakota got a fantastic life-lister sighting. Martin didn’t.
That might teach Martin to sleep in a little longer with his wife.
No it won’t.
We packed up our clothes. I kept scanning the Toucan’s tree. It had been there once, maybe it would return? No Toucan.
We cleaned out the refrigerator, making sandwiches with that awful unidentifiable pressed meat and rubbery cheese that we’d eaten as breakfast burritos. I kept checking the tree. Come back, Toucan, come back!
We loaded the car. I desperately searched the branches. Please, please, where are you?
I opened the car door and got in – we were leaving, it was hopeless, Martin would miss the amazing Toucan sighting, one of our must-see birds – and took one last despairing backward glance – and incredibly, there it was, up in the tree! I gave a happy shout, Martin grabbed his binoculars, and he got a good long look at our elusive bird.
Dakota, to his credit, was glad Martin saw it, too. See? He’s not such a bad guy.
We drove into La Fortuna and spent the morning wandering through junk souvenir shops. Hot and hungry, we sat on the grass in a park in the center of town, by the huge Catholic cathedral, and pulled out our unappetizing sandwiches. They had been sitting in the hot car for several hours. Unidentifiable pressed meat. Rubbery cheese. Squashed bread. Chipotle-flavored mayonnaise! Good God, who bought this stuff? One bite, and I knew it wouldn’t go down.
I offered the sandwich to Dakota, who wolfs down everything in sight. He eyes other people’s plates as they’re still actively eating, asking hopefully, “You gonna finish that?” But somehow, magically, unexpectedly, he was “full.”
In all the years of our friendship, I have never heard him utter those words. I have fed him mountains of food, and he has never once been “full.”
Yeah, right, buddy, you’re “full.” I get it. I can’t eat it, either.
And so we left La Fortuna and continued towards our ecolodge, through Pital where the pavement abruptly ended and Dakota catapulted us onto the boulder-strewn, teeth-jarring, bone-rattling, rutted road. He roared happily along, sliding around corners, clouds of dust boiling up behind us.
We would have 40 km of this. That’s roughly 25 miles.
Did I mention that Martin booked every lodging down long stretches of these rutted roads?
Yes, this road would cost us another flat tire. How do you say “flat tire” in Spanish, again? I had never properly learned it, because I’d hoped to never have to say it again.
In case you ever travel with Martin and Dakota, you’ll need to know. It’s llanta desinflada.
Despite my empty stomach, the dust and heat, and all the jouncing, I was in a happy mood. I scanned the trees for more Toucans. I didn’t mean to be greedy, but … another Toucan sighting wouldn’t hurt anyone, right? So when I saw a large gray bird in a tree to our right, I knew it wasn’t a Toucan – probably just a boring Gray Hawk (sorry, Gray Hawk) – but I still pointed it out, and Martin suggested we climb out of the car for a better look. We could stretch our legs, too.
So Martin and I piled out of the car, looking up to our right, while Dakota piled out, mistakenly looking up to his left – and there, high in a tree just feet away from us, sat a phenomenal Chestnut-mandibled Toucan!
So there were gasps, exclamations, fevered scramblings for cameras and binoculars, hissed curses while tripods were set up with desperate glances into the tree (Don’t fly away! Don’t fly away!), and lots of tip-toeing, elbowing, and jockeying for the perfect position.
But the Toucan was very accommodating, sitting patiently in the tree through long photograph- and video-sessions. It sat there until we had all had our fill and were simply gazing at it reverently. Then it gave a few loud and thrilling calls for our listening pleasure, and flew off.
Wow! Just …. Wow! Two Toucans in one day! Extremo! Maximo! Super!
And so onward, through Boca Tapada, a somewhat miserable little town with rundown shanty houses and a bar, all looking dilapidated. But a few kilometers further, we turned onto our ecolodge’s gorgeously manicured grounds, with neatly trimmed grass and shrubs blazing with colorful flowers.
Our clean one-room cabin, which the three of us would share, had gleaming wood floors, gauzy mosquito-netting over the two beds, cheerful peach curtains which glowed warmly in the afternoon sun, and a sign in the bathroom stating, “Absolutely all toilet paper to be placed in the bathroom trash bin! No exceptions!”
Oh God. My heart sank.
As predicted earlier in this trip, I had started my period that very morning, when the three of us would be sharing this small cabin. Me, fresh on my period, sharing a single room with Dakota in which “all toilet paper” would be placed in the trash bin.
Totally love the guy, but … it was just a little too intimate.
Out on the balcony, I casually mentioned starting my period to prepare him for whatever disastrous mess he would encounter in the trash bin – and suddenly he was suggesting that maybe, if possible, he just might try to get, hopefully, his own cabin, if one were available. If we didn’t mind, no offense intended.
God bless him!
“Sure,” we said as offhandedly as possible. “Whatever you want.” (Thank you, thank you.)
Marco, our host, would ultimately dismiss the entire second cabin’s rental with a breezy wave of his hand, although he did make a small fortune by charging us for every meal, every drink, and every bottle of water.
There were no nearby grocery stores or restaurants, so we were dependent on him for all our food. He cheerfully served us two exquisite, artfully-plated and lovingly-prepared meals per day (breakfast and dinner), which were always delicious but somewhat small in portion size. I’m a hungry girl, gimme food!
And … what about lunch? I’m sure he would have made us some sort of lunch, but we never asked, instead nibbling the few remaining nuts and granola bars in our possession.
So I arrived at the ecolodge hungry, having skipped lunch in La Fortuna, and pretty much stayed hungry. For days.
We had dinner that night in the beautiful open-air dining room, overlooking trees alive with outlandish tropical birds – Tanagers! Honeycreepers! Red-Lored Parrots! Oropendolas! Aracaris! White-Collared Manakins! Tityras! That last bird is pronounced ti-TIE-ra, affectionately known as the Tiara bird to me. All those birds, with the wide smooth San Carlos River beyond, flowing inexorably towards Nicaragua.
Good food, great company, gorgeous setting.
Oh yeah, baby. Hunger notwithstanding, we are livin’ the dream.