Category Archives: Tourist Attractions

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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After Africa, I found it hard tuning into the life around me in a Central American rainforest. These might be some of the most biodiverse places on earth, but for the first few months here, all I could see was a wall of green. Reporting on tourism and conservation put me in contact with some of the region’s finest researchers, biologists and guides, and with their help I finally managed to reset my focus and really start seeing what was in front of me. Through that process I got a better idea of the intricate chain of dependencies running all the way up the life scale, started thinking of plants as clever, and developed a fascination for insects, their cooperative communities, and their survival mechanisms. The best and most widespread survival mechanisms are camouflage and mimicry (which explains why I saw nothing on my first hikes). This praying mantis gave himself away by flying in and clinging to the inside of the mesh screen of my room where he was conspicuous, (on other occasions I’ve heard their scratchy fake leaf scraping across the floor, and a walking leaf in a bathroom is guaranteed to draw attention). I found a plant outside that seemed a good match, and put him on it.

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Coatimundi Day

This Coatimundi – pizote – spent a month watching me from behind a frond on the forest edge before coming to investigate. He now passes daily on his way to the palm nuts or carambola trees.  Males are solitary and territorial; there’s competition for this patch, and he’s the underdog.

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