Category Archives: Corcovado

Hummingbird in a Cone

First thing in the morning as I stand yawning in the doorway of the house in the woods, a hummingbird comes buzzing over and hovers urgently, vertical like a seahorse, a short distance from the end of my nose. After six seconds, she fixes me with a stare, turns and whirs off into the forest. Initially I considered whether she might be saying ‘Come quickly! All the big birds are attacking us little birds, and we need your help’, but when I spotted her nest, I realised she was saying ‘You’ve seen nothing. Tell no-one, and keep away or you’ll get a jab where it hurts. Right?’

She is a long-billed hermit hummingbird, and she’s been building a conical nest suspended from a low palm frond a few feet from my door. She puts about four hours in a day, disappearing into the forest and returning a couple of minutes later with stuff trailing from her beak, leaf matter and straw-fine twigs, soft petals, and strands from spiders’ webs. She uses the strong strands to bind the nest to the leaf, flying in a tight spiral to wind each one around the nest and leaf bundle, and pressing them into place with her chest. Then she attends to the interior, sitting in it like a scoop in a cone and shuffling about to tamp down the surfaces. She has the afternoons off.

I once found an egg-cup style hummingbird’s nest lined with a finely-woven layer of gold. I’d cut George’s hair in the garden, and the bird had gathered it. It was  the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. This conical nest isn’t pretty, but it’s an ingenious design in a top location. Palm fronds are tough, corrugated and end in a point, and the harder it rains, the more they bow down to the ground, giving a steeper surface for the rain to run off. The hummingbird’s nest, tucked underneath in the arch of the leaf, always well-protected – and hidden, is almost completely enclosed in a deluge.

I saw her in the forest a couple of days ago, but generally now she is in the nest with only a white-tipped tail visible. She has probably laid a couple of eggs which should hatch in two or three weeks. It was a real privilege watching her build the nest, but now, in order to minimise the risk of her abandoning them, I’m going to stay well away.


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What Passes for Holiday Reading

osanightlifebooksMost of the people who come to the hotel look intelligent. I find that encouraging because it suggests they will lie in hammocks reading interesting, controversial, provocative books and then deposit them in the hotel’s leave-your-old-book library on the way out. Every so often I head up there and scan the bookshelves for new stock, and without fail I am amazed. Which of the raucous group that were dive-bombing the pool read I, Claudius? Was it the elderly law professor who lay in bed reading A Secret Affair? And which one of them arrived in a tropical paradise with Only The Paranoid Survive? Well, I can only imagine.

I’m not sure what a left book collection says about a hotel or its guests, if anything – after all if you love a book, you are less likely to leave it behind, but I’ve trawled through enough hotel book collections to know there are patterns and trends, that books at remote wilderness lodges and tropical beach resorts break down into 60% rubbish books*, 20% retro classics, 10% heavy or what, 10% new gems. Anyway, it was raining and I was bored, and so here’s a snapshot of what visitors to the Osa brought for holiday reading this season.

  • David Manuel, A Matter of Roses
  • Cathy Kelly, Past Secrets
  • Michael Connelly, Wonderland Avenue
  • Andrew Vachess, Mask Market
  • Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full
  • James Lee Burns, Jesus Out to Sea
  • Nigel Farndale, The Blasphemer
  • Katherine Paleson, The Same Stuff as Stars
  • Valerie Georgeson, Whispering Roses
  • Ann Tyler, Noah’s Compass
  • Jeffry Deaver, The Cold Moon
  • Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles
  • Martina Cole, The Graft
  • Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
  • Michael Crichton, The Lost World
  • Mark Haddon, Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-time
  • Scott McGough, Magic: the Gathering
  • William Asman, De Cassandra Paradox
  • David Baldacci, Onder Druk
  • Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question
  • Ridley Pearson, The Pied Piper
  • Harry Markopolis, No-One Would Listen
  • Ruth Rendell, Rottweiler
  • John le Carre, A Perfect Spy
  • Dan Brown, Meteor
  • BJ Daniels, The Crime Scene at Cardwell Ranch
  • Joanne Harris, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure
  • Mary Balogh, A Secret Affair
  • Gordon Korman, Son of the Mob
  • John D MacDonald, The Neon Jungle
  • Tess Gerritson, De Mephisto Club
  • Jeanette Winterson, The Passion
  • John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick
  • Andrew S Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive
  • John Fowles, Daniel Martin
  • P.B. Kerr, Children of the Lamp
  • Joanne Dobson, The Raven & The Nightingale
  • Kai Bird & Michael J Sherwin, Oppenheimer
  • Mary Lynn Baxter, One Summer Evening
  • Jean M Auel, The Shelters of Stone
  • Michael Ridpath, Der Spekulant Roman
  • Great Sporting Mistakes
  • Raymond Chandler, Mord im Regen
  • Nicholas Sparks, Safe Haven
  • Sherry Sontag & Christopher Drew, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage.

*Re rubbish books  – usually summarised as ‘Tough loner LAPD cop is on the trail of a serial killer when his pedigree shih tzu, Snuffy, unearths a particularly fresh-looking bone  . . .’ – obviously I read them, and I love them, but they are still rubbish books. I’ve never been sufficiently ill or bored or lonely to finish a Dan Brown.

I forgot to take a picture, so this – for any eagle-eyed spine readers – is actually a snapshot taken in Fitz’s library at the beach, where, inevitably, we find a similar mix of the good, the bad, and inspiring discarded books.

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I ended up in Costa Rica first time round because to ship the pick-up truck from Panama to Colombia and continue the New York to Tierra del Fuego jaunt involved dry heat, delays, expense, innumerable bribes or chorizos, and a high risk of petty crime. After six months on the road, and having had most possessions already stolen by 15 year-old crackheads in Belize while interviewing the Minister of Tourism for a travel feature), I didn’t fancy it, and staying put seemed a better option than going on. Most foreigners land here as tourists, a smattering still as hoteliers and retirees, but the first wave of visitors to Costa Rica came in search of gold.

It must have been frustrating for Spanish conquistadores, who saw plenty of gold dangling from the various body parts of indigenous indians, but struggled to find the source despite wooing and / or killing many of the tribal leaders. Still, they saw enough to keep trying, and wrote boastfully and optimistically about the wealth of gold here in order to secure the money they needed for further expeditions to find it.

(Having said that, there’s a description in the 16th century ‘Tree-Dwelling Indians of the Lowlands of Panama’ that makes it all sound really easy. Court correspondent, De Bry, describes how two courageous noblemen sent by Columbus on a reconnaissance trip into the interior had come across seven rivers: “In the sands of these rivers gold was found, which the Indians, who acted as their escort, proceeded in their presence to collect in the following manner: they dug a hole in the sand about the depth of an arm, merely scooping the sand out of this trough with the right and left hands. They extracted the grains of gold, which they afterwards presented to the Spaniards. Some declared they saw grains as big as peas. I have seen with my own eyes a shapeless ingot similar to a round river stone, which was . . . afterwards brought to Spain; it weighed nine ounces.”)

Costa Rica is named for the rich coast that Christopher Columbus described during his voyage down the Atlantic coast of Central America (1502-1504), although in fact gold hunters would have been better off on the Pacific coast, and specifically here in the Osa where pre-Colombian figures buried by the Diquis Indians have been dug up from time to time, and where the discovery of high quality gold around what is now Sirena Ranger Station sparked a gold rush in the early 1930s.

From time to time the Americans got involved, setting up a massive dredging operation off the coast of Carate in the 1940s, and later dragging heavy machinery into the jungle to work the rivers, but most of the mining and sifting was done – and is done – in laboriously low-tech fashion by oreros holed up in rough – rough – riverbank camps in the mountainous jungle. When United Fruit pulled out leaving huge unemployment locally, the number of miners on the Osa swelled to at least 3000. A few struck lucky, but most were subsistence goldminers, spending their days in icy rivers, their nights on mud under plastic sheeting, and, every few weeks, blowing whatever they’d found on guaro, rice, beans and prostitutes in Puerto Jimenez and Sierpe and the other hubs of Osa civilisation. Don Jorge’s Las Vegas bar in Sierpe took gold dust for beer until fairly recently, and there are places that still do.

From time to time they were joined by foreign adventurers like the French, Greek, Moroccan, Albanian Cizia Zykë, a foul yet charismatic – or maybe that’s psychopathic – chancer who wrote a repellant and riveting page-turner ‘Oro’ about his gold-mining fiasco here in the 70s.

Zyke, a former Foreign Legionnaire, gathered a motley crew of losers and fugitives, and spent a couple of years blasting, rock shifting and panning in rivers, snorting coke, drinking guaro and dragging under-age girls into the undergrowth. Throughout his life he carved himself a number of careers, running a night club in Buenos Aires, working as an interior decorator in Ecuador, racketeering in Toronto, setting up a floating casino in French Guyana and doing something in the Sahara – and there are plenty in Costa Rica with a similar CV, but gold miner team management wasn’t his forte and eventually his men hated him sufficiently to turn him into the authorities on drug trafficking, counterfeiting and intimidation charges. He escaped to Panama while awaiting trial and became a bestselling author before dying in France, aged 62, a couple of years ago.

Like many miners, he was camping in what is now the Corcovado National Park, and the government felt that mining and the stuff that goes with it in these parts – the river pollution, the tunnelling, the hunting and trapping, the gun-toting and the anaesthetising drugs and alcohol use, didn’t belong in an ‘ecotouristic’ experience. Since the founding of the park in 1978 there has been a (mainly steady) tussle between miners and park authorities. Initially there was a big effort to relocate them, and even some help to get ex-miners into tourism, with funding for tourist accommodation at Dos Brazos for example, but it all feels a bit fake and forced, and there are still many indigent miners in the park sifting for grains of gold in a low-key, old-style way. There’s a sporadic attempt to track them down (my neighbour, Carmen, still quivers when she remembers how armed rangers with flashlights surrounded the house thinking she was harbouring one), but it takes a lot of energy, cash and manpower and the penalties are feeble – for example, four miners caught a couple of months ago got imprisoned for three months each and are bound to go back.

This forest swallows up a lot of non-pristine activity. People live here, and not everyone wants to be a waiter; they hunt and farm, and fish and mine, just as they always have – and a lot of them like doing it because they get to live on a remote mountain surrounded by la naturaleza. Environmental conservation and the expectations of your average foreign ecotourist are tricky concepts for an uneducated miner living in a remote shack to grasp. They don’t care. Given there is little gold left, leaving them to it and investing the policing money into a more achievable goal might be the best course of action. What do I know.

Weirdly though, these illegal, untraceable goldminers are becoming one of the park’s tourist attractions, with an increasing number of guides and tour operators offering visitors, tired of monkeys and macaws, a chance to pay $50 for a hike uphill for a few hours and look at one. Oh, look! Poor people. That really is odd on many different levels.

Incidentally, there’s a great (old) post on Mark Meadow’s blog on ecotourists, goldminers, illegal activities, a night at a goldminer’s camp (not part of an organised tour), and he also mentions the next classic-by-a-foreigner-prospecting-for-gold-in-the-depths-of-the-Osa on my reading list: Goldwalker by Patrick Jay O’Connell (sadly not currently stocked in Fitz’s library).


Osa Cookery Book: Sandia

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Keen followers of the Osa Cookery Book will be aware that the unique philosophy behind this growing collection of recipes is less is more. Not less food, of course, but less effort. In keeping with this, I present ‘sandia’. Take one sandia (watermelon) and one knife.  Lay your fruit on the grass and slash it in half. Voila! Eat with a spoon and after the requisite 5  minute pause, jump into the sea to wash off the juice.

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Small Hairy Thing Causes Panic

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I was loitering around the hotel in search of ice cream when I spotted Diego hopping from foot to foot and holding a large box. I couldn’t work out why he appeared so energised until I saw a tarantula summiting the side and heaving himself onto the lid with a soft thud. Not everyone likes tarantulas, and this was a tricky situation.  It wouldn’t be good if the spider jumped down and make its way to the bar, and yet it wouldn’t be good if it jumped onto Diego’s face either, something he was adamant was within the realms of possibility. I thought we could trap it using the traditional scouty glass-and-book method, but when Alonso and Edward came over, saw the spider, swore and got all skittish,  I lost some of my enthusiasm. “You say they jump?” I asked dubiously, circling Diego and the box. “Yes, yes” they chorused, “they jump. They can jump really high.” “And they don’t bite or anything, do they?” I checked as I leaned in. “Yes, yes” they said, “They bite. They can kill you!” Actually, there was some debate over that as I hung around with a wine glass. No-one knew of a case in which anyone had actually died, but Marino, the gardener, had gone into spasms and then into hospital, after being bitten, and his arm had been numb for days.

Understandably, now there was a tarantula on the ground trapped and irate under a glass, no-one was volunteering to release him, so I got Tyson, who is, after all, the manager.  He assessed the situation, disappeared and returned with an umbrella.  He ingeniously, looped the cord at the end of the handle around the stem of the glass, and, having got as far away as he could, used it to lift and shake the glass from a safe distance.  We watched the small, hairy thing consider its next move. Eventually it decided to go back to where Diego had first found it, by the battery bank.

Few tarantulas are venomous, but these, the zebra, or stripeknee tarantulas, known in Costa Rica as pica caballos, or horse biters, can bite and do inject venom. They also flick urticating hairs as a defence mechanism, and these can irritate the skin, but they don’t kill people. Usually. Interestingly, they can live many years – the oldest in captivity lived to 49, so I suspect this isn’t the last we’ve seen of this particular arachnid.


Forest Monster

danta tracks“Besides the lions and tigers and other animals which we already know, or which have been described by illustrious writers,” scratched Peter Martyr with his inky quill , “the native forests of these countries”, (referring to the dark space that became Central America), “harbour many monsters.”

Martyr, an Italian writing in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, was the greatest of all correspondents. He never travelled to the new world, but he is responsible for De Orbo Novo, the best and most exciting book about discovering it. His role, at the behest of the Duke of Milan, the Pope, Queen Isabella of Spain and various other highly-placed political players of the day, was to debrief explorers on their return to Cadiz, and to send detailed accounts. His long letters caused a considerable stir at the time; not only were they highly entertaining and evocative tales of derring-do, but they also contained  intelligence that was key to political domination. De Orbo Novo covers three decades of correspondence.

Martyr was an astute and well-connected player, (he helped build interest and support for Colombus’ early expeditions), but also the archetypal Renaissance man, thirsty for knowledge, fascinated by interesting facts, gossip and drama. He provides vignettes of indigenous Indian society, the latest on the power struggles between rival leaders – or caciques, physical descriptions, information about medicinal plants and the custom in some parts of burying a favourite widow alive with her late husband. He keeps up with pirate activities and, of course, the endless wild goose chase for gold, as well as the fortunes (misfortunes) of the early settlers. He makes a special note of anything with potential scientific value and takes great care with his descriptions of flora and fauna. His is the first published description of both the potato and the pineapple. He liked the potato, however, he notes regretfully, he never actually got to try a pineapple himself, the only one that hadn’t rotted on the voyage back to Spain having been eaten in its entirety by King Ferdinand, but he has it on good authority from sailors that they are delicious.

He interprets the information he gets to make a good fist of describing the new world mammals. Of course there aren’t lions or tigers, so he got that wrong, but it’s fair enough to say there are ‘monsters’.

“One animal in particular” he continues in this particular bulletin to Pope Leo X, “has Nature created in prodigious form. It is as large as a bull, and has a trunk like an elephant; and yet it is not an elephant. Its hide is like a bull’s, and yet it is not a bull. Its hoofs resemble those of a horse, but it is not a horse. It has ears like an elephant’s, though smaller and drooping, yet they are larger than those of any other animal.”

I could add “it is there yet it is not there, it is endangered yet it is common”. This is the tapir, or danta. The population of tapir, specifically the Baird’s tapir, native to Central America, is in decline, but the population in the Osa seems to be healthy and rising. Every morning their prints are all over the beach. Everyone from the park rangers to the guides at the hotel has seen at least one – and often. And I know there is a tapir that totters north-south past the house on the beach  every night between 6.30pm and 7pm, because I hear it, but never see it, and one night it ate all my bananas. But this elusive (yet not elusive) animal joins the puma on my ‘seen by all but me’ list.

I made a concerted effort to find one a few days ago, leaving at first light and following fresh tracks in the sand and through the plantains and then the forest into Corcovado National Park. Ending up in a swampy, muddy, dark place, I found something amounting to a tunnel through the foliage. At the end it widened out into an area of flattened leaves, and a muddy chute led to a small stream. There was a horsey smell (tapir) but also something else. I was quite happy thinking this was a tapir’s lair, and then I got to thinking how similar it looked to a puma’s lair, and how pumas had also been spotted along here, and decided to back out, at which point the skies opened and it got dark again and poured with rain, and I had to run back through the sea because the tide had come in.

But I have seen a tapir in Costa Rica. It was in a shallow concrete bunker, completely exposed behind railings, a shy and pathetic animal trying to make itself invisible while people threw Coke cans at it. This was Simon Bolivar Zoo, back in 1995. I loathe zoos. I’ve heard the self-serving good for education, breeding and research spiel numerous times.I find it extraordinary people still use it or believe it given that you can learn an infinitesimal amount more about an animal from a well-crafted wildlife film, and breeding programs are being carried in-situ all over the world using frozen sperm, dart guns and chicken basters.

It is possible that San Jose’s zoo might have improved over the years, but I found the experience so repellant I never went back. Like many people, I was amazed to discover there was a zoo in that congested, polluted corner of San Jose. Given the country’s much-touted wildlife protection record, the bunch of cages and their miserable occupants have been a bit of a dirty secret, an anachronism. However, good news: the Simon Bolivar Zoo along with the Santa Ana Conservation Center (‘home’ to around 400 animals, 60 species) is finally going to be closed down, and the date set for early 2014. “We are getting rid of the cages and reinforcing the idea of interacting with biodiversity in botanical parks in a natural way,” environment minister, René Castro, is reported as saying. The zoo still holds a tapir. It is possible, but unlikely, it’s the same one.

Anyway, having seen a pathetic tapir that couldn’t hide, I very much like Peter Martyr’s wild monster description (he’s rather overdone the trunk part). And I’m thankful that these Osa tapirs aren’t exposed but, 500 years after being described in De Orbo Novo, remain mysterious and harboured in the native forests, even if this means they’ll always give me the slip.

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