On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a sloth in a sea-almond tree.


To celebrate my parents’ golden wedding anniversary, the entire family (my parents, my sister, our spouses and children) all went to Costa Rica for a few days between Christmas and New Year.   It was my first trip to that beautiful country, and I was totally blown away by…well, everything:  the friendly people, the great food, the beautiful scenery, the tropical flora, and the amazing wildlife.

We stayed at Arenas del Mar, a small resort in the lowland rain forest between Manuel Antonio National Park and the Pacific coast town of Quepos.  Several people told me that the dry season came early this year, so I didn’t see many orchids in bloom (sad face).  However, the wildlife exceeded all my expectations.  I expected sloths and frogs, but not crocodiles…

American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) on the banks of the Tárcoles River

After flying into San José, we rode down to Manuel Antonio (about 170 kilometers) in a van provided by Arenas del Mar.  Just before we reached the Pacific coast, our driver stopped beside a bridge over the Tárcoles River so that we could stretch our legs and ogle the monsters on the banks of the river below.  Somehow they seemed much more menacing than American alligators, and I was glad that we were viewing them from the bridge.



Arriving at the resort after dark, we got our first real look at the area the next morning, when we took a guided tour of Villa Vanilla, a spice plantation located a few kilometers inland from Quepos.  At Villa Vanilla, they grow vanilla (of course), cacao, true cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), black pepper, allspice, and turmeric.  The tour was fascinating and delicious–we tasted the spices in their raw forms and incorporated into various treats–and the location of the plantation in the foothills is unutterably beautiful.

Vanilla planifolia vines
Vanilla seed capsules drying in the sun
Flowers of a Theobroma cacao tree
The flowers and fruit of Theobroma cacao can sprout anywhere on the tree, including the trunk.
Cacao pods ready for processing.

The Vanilla orchid is a heavy epiphytic vine which requires support.  Although some of the plants were growing on rough posts, many were trained onto shrubby trees whose flowers added to the beauty of the plantation.

Flowers of an Erythrina species that was used as a support for the Vanilla vines.  This species was used a lot, perhaps because Erythrina grows rapidly and has a fairly open form, allowing lots of light to reach the vanilla.

The paths were also lined with Heliconia plants, ornamental gingers, and wooden frames supporting native epiphytes.

Heliconia sp.
Etlingera elatior (torch ginger)
Zingiber species, perhaps Z. zerumbet
Epidendrum stamfordianum, a native orchid species

While wandering the grounds of Villa Vanilla, we saw our first toucan…

Chestnut-mandibled toucan (Ramphastos ambiguus swainsonii)

…and a troop of squirrel monkeys

Grey-crowned Central American squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstedii citrinellus).  This endangered subspecies is restricted to the Pacific coast of central Costa Rica, around Manuel Antonio National Park

We also saw squirrel monkeys on the grounds of the resort and at Manuel Antonio National Park, which we visited the next day.  If you plan to visit Manuel Antonio, you will probably see recommendations to hire a guide.  I concur.  If we had wandered around by ourselves, we certainly would have seen monkeys and perhaps a few sloths, but we would have missed many of the smaller animals.  Our guide (from Manuel’s Tours) was enthusiastic and knowledgeable–he was happy to discuss taxonomy of sloths or cannibalistic behavior of basilisks–and he carried a large spotting scope with excellent depth of field which served equally well to enlarge a howler monkey fifty feet up a tree or a tiny bat tucked into a Heliconia just off the path.

In addition to squirrel and howler monkeys, Manuel Antonio is home to white-faced capuchin monkeys (Cebus imitator) who hang out at the beach and are always ready to steal your lunch.

After a day or two, we got better at spotting animals, and it became clear that many of the species in the national park also lived on the grounds of our resort.  Here’s a small sampling of what I saw and photographed:

Troops of white-faced and squirrel monkeys visited us every day.


The trees around our room were home to at least half a dozen brown-throated three-toed sloths (Bradypus variegatus)
The Hoffman’s two-toed sloths (Choloepus hoffmanni) seemed to prefer the sea almond trees (Terminalia catappa) beside the beach.
Great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) in the branches of a gumbo limbo tree (Bursera simaruba)
A green iguana (Iguana iguana) that I spotted before breakfast on our first morning
Common basilisk (Basiliscus basilicus).  At a mangrove lagoon adjacent to Playa Espadilla we watched juvenile basilisks running on water, just like they do in nature documentaries.
Black spinytail iguanas (Ctenosaura similis) seemed to love the beach.

Perhaps the most unexpected and exciting wildlife sighting occurred while we were eating lunch at the beach on our third day.  A clutch of olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) emerged from the sand and began to make their way down to the sea.  It was something I never expected to see outside of books and television programs.


After four days in paradise, we piled back into the van for the drive back to San José, but Costa Rica had one more treat in store.  When we stopped again near the Tárcoles River, I finally got a photograph of a wild scarlet macaw.


Up next: Costa Rican nightlife.

6 thoughts on “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a sloth in a sea-almond tree.

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