Monthly Archives: January 2019

Costa Rica’s Birds

Debbie Hurlbert lives in Ohio.  Ruth and I met her in Costa Rica’s national museum.  She had just taken a birding eco tour and was still in shock.  She expected to see 100 birds and had already recorded more than 300 sightings,  including the Resplendent Quetzal, the bird that some consider the most beautiful in the world.  She had been able to photograph many bird species but not the quetzal and saw a Timberline Wren, a species that only lives on a Costa Rican volcano. She called her tour the trip of a lifetime and offered to send us some of her photos. They arrived earlier this week, so all of the photos below are Debbie’s.  The male Resplendent Quetzal with the white tail is from Wikipedia.  Below are Debbie’s Honeycreeper, Violet Sabrewing, and Flame-colored Tanager (there are 42 species of tanagers in Costa Rica).

Ruth and I have been to several birding spots like Nome, Alaska, but we’re not active bird watchers and didn’t have the time and patience needed to focus on them in Costa Rica.   Therefore, we appreciated meeting Debbie and all the information about birds in Lonely Planet.  This popular publication claims that there are 30 species of hummingbirds that it calls “cloud-forest creatures” and says that many of them can usually be seen in the Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde, which it calls a “birdwatching paradise” with more than 400 recorded species, including the Resplendent Quetzal.  It’s spotted most often during its March and April nesting season but some are around throughout the year.  There are more than 50 species of hummingbirds overall in Costa Rica.

Despite its incredible biodiversity that includes more than 500,000 species of plants, there is trouble in this Central American Eden.  Despite its efforts to protect its environment, deforestation, the clearing of land for vast plantations, more than 2 million tourists arriving each year, and other issues are having a negative impact.  The Scarlet Macaw that was once seen almost everywhere in Costa Rica just 60 years ago is now thriving in just 2 isolated areas, the Peninsula de Osa and the Parque Nacional Carara.

Lonely Planet is very forthright.  It says, “…conservationists in Costa Rica occasionally face harassment or worse from local poachers.”  Ruth and I saw evidence of this while there.  It will be interesting to see if this small country with big diversity can protect what remains.





Global Vanilla Crisis

There are pearl and vanilla farms, lots of shops, and exclusive, hidden resorts all over French Polynesia; but I only saw one factory.  Tahiti and the other islands in this part of the world just simply aren’t productive in that way.  These islands’ economies are about tourism and playfulness, not about creating commercial goods in bustling factories.  People come here to get away from that. The only real factory I saw was off the road and kind of hidden away on the prosperous island of Mo’orea near the entrance to the Baie de Cook.  The main guide to this idyllic island calls it the fruit juice factory at Pihaena, but it’s far more than that.

Its official name is the Distillerie et Usine de Jus de Fruits de Moorea and it has loading docks, delivery trucks, and signs of disciplined productivity in the factory area; but most of the visitors are patronizing the gift shop instead of taking a tour.  And what a gift shop!  The steaming factory behind the retail building was producing many delicious juices and liqueurs, including what Lonely Planet calls “a devilish ‘Tahitian punch’ ”.  Juice and alcoholic beverages in small quantities were being dispensed behind a bar in the gift shop.  Tasting what the factory was producing was both free and fun.  This is, for sure, a 5 Compass, highly recommended stop!

The gift shop was the kind of place where almost everyone came out with a purchase–a tee-shirt, a new key chain, a postcard showing a paradisiacal scene.   Ruth and I bought 2 reasonably priced bottles of Tahitian vanilla there.  At home, our main source of vanilla is Madagascar, which produces 80% of the world’s supply of this common flavorer.  The price of Madagascar vanilla is in the gold range, about 8 times higher than it was just a few years ago.   Crop failure, a major cyclone, and theft of surviving vanilla pods are the main causes of the crisis that might eventually result in massive price increases.

There are several vanilla farms scattered around The Society Islands.  I went to one on Taha’a, the island that locals all told us had vanilla farms and the best prices.  Taha’a is often called the vanilla island since 80% of Tahitian vanilla is produced here.   One source even said that the scent of vanilla was in the air.  I did not find this to be the case and didn’t like the smell of the vanilla that was being produced at the Taha’a facility.  I didn’t buy.  Ruth and I found that, in many places, vanilla beans were for sale but not the liquified version we were used to and wanted.



Bora Bora

According to legend Bora Bora was the first Polynesian island to rise from the sea.  It was considered sacred and is, in my opinion, the most beautiful island in French Polynesia.  It’s like the perfect movie set even though none of the Mutiny on the Bounty films were made here.   The Sofitel, however, was built when the movie Hurricane was filmed here.  Bora Bora attracts movie stars instead of movie sets.  Its 1st name was Pora, but Pora became Pora Pora which segued into Bora Bora over time.

Geographically, Bora Bora is a small central island surrounded by a lagoon with many a motu on its outer edge.  The absolutely essential activity while here is to sail upon this lagoon.  While doing that, it’s hard to take your eyes from the jagged basaltic peaks that define it. There are many ways to spend that circling day–outrigger, kayak, jet-ski, tour boat excursion.  Most people snorkel even though a lot of the blue/green water is too shallow for this activity, dive, and enjoy beach time, or just hang out in wide-eyed wonder while there.   I talked to one young lady on the tender who was so upset by the number of stray dogs and cats in functional Vaitape that she was going to a store to buy food and planned to spend her day feeding them.  Vaitape is across from the only viable water opening in the reef to the central island.  

Bora Bora, only 5 1/2 miles long, is the perfect place to ride a bicycle.  You can circle the entire island in 3 to 4 hours. You can shop for a pareo, hire a local to show you around. hike, etc.  A pareo is a one piece garment that beautifully clings and is secured in several ways.  This is a purely Tahitian invention. 

 Bora Bora played an important role in World War II.  As early as 1943 a virtual armada of military ships arrived and stayed when there were only 1,500 Bora Borans.  The island is still home to much abandoned military hardware. More about that later.   Because there was not enough drinking water for an army, over time Bora Bora became one of those places that desalinated all of its drinkable water.

Save time for stunning sunsets and sunrises even though Bora Bora encourages sleeping in.


Costa Rica’s Prison/Museum

Costa Rica’s National Museum is in a very interesting building, the Cuartel Bellavista, which is part of this country’s history. This was a fortress and prison until Costa Rica’s Civil War in 1948.  Now it sits atop a hill in yellow splendor.  Just a short walk from city center and many other attractions, like the also historically important Teatro Nacional, a tour of Bellavista unexpectedly begins with a plant and butterfly filled garden, a zigzag walk, and a tour that clearly shows what life was like for prisoners of the army before the war.

The Bellavista Fortress was this country’s army headquarters, and it saw fierce fighting in the 1948 civil war.  It was here that President José Figueres Ferrer announced in 1949 that he was abolishing Costa Rica’s army.  It remains disbanded, making this one of the few countries in the world without a standing army to defend itself.  The prison contains original graffiti, the prisoners’ latrine, a guard tower with peepholes where army personnel could keep an eye on the citizen’s of San José, etc.  It’s rather fascinating to tour it before exploring yet another garden and the entire history of this unique nation.

Rómulo Valerio, this museum’s first director, asked the new  government for the building in 1948 and the request was granted in this year’s final month.  That’s why this facility still looks like a real prison.  It took a coup d’etat to make the transfer from prison to museum happen.  The new government, hoping to create an atmosphere of confidence and stability after a civil war, was willing to abolish the army and turn its headquarters into a museum. That army had used this prison to punish political enemies.  Evidence of prisoner ill-treatment remains.  The new government had the support of the United States to accomplish this change.

The national museum in a separate building begins with Pre-Columbian history and moves seamlessly to the impact of the arrival of the Spanish on Costa Rica’s development.  Visitors like me appreciate its warts-and-all approach to the subject of this country’s history.   For example, I learned that the Spanish retook its Kingdom of Granada from Muslim invaders in the same year  Columbus set sail to find a new route to Asia with the support of the Spanish crown.  One artifact from this era shows a Spaniard on a horse stomping on the head of a Muslim.


ps  That’s an owl eye butterfly.

Tale of the Tiare

The tiare, a small white gardenia, is the national flower of French Polynesia.  Creamy white and mildly fragrant, unlike other gardenias, the tiare is one of the few cultivated plants native to Polynesia.  They are used to make leis, heis, and adorn the bodies of both men and women.  Mostly they are worn behind the ear, and the tiare’s placement indicates sexual availability.

Making leis containing many tiares is an art, takes a long time, and may be a dying activity because it’s so labor intensive.  Moreover, the tiare flowers in a Polynesian lei are fresh for only a short time.  Usually, they begin to brown at the edges and their whiteness fades within 24 hours of lei creation, even when refrigerated.  However, they are recyclable.  The flower’s liquid essence can be extracted to make perfumes, lotions, medicines, etc.  Ruth and I were lucky enough to meet a woman in Pape’ete who is an expert lei maker. We didn’t get to watch her at her craft, but we wore her leis on a couple of occasions.  A hei is often the term for a flower crown.

The Tiare Tahiti was used to craft the neck and head adornments that Tahitians bountifully offered to newcomers from first contact on. They are also used to honor people during special occasions like birthdays and weddings.  They often even show up at simple, festive parties or on hotel reception desks.  Massage oils, suntan lotions, and treatments for minor ailments often contain essence of tiare.  Tiare bushes grow especially well on Mo’orea, slowly become the size of a small tree, and bloom year round.

There are many folk beliefs and customs involving the tiare flower.  If a pregnant woman dreams of an open tiare, it means she will probably give birth to a girl.  It’s believed that tiares warn travelers of danger.  If a man, or tane, wears a tiare behind his right ear, it means he is both available and looking for romance.  If he wears one behind his left ear too, it means that he is married but still available.