Costa Rica: Miravalles Volcano

Keel-billed Toucan

Birding wasn’t the only activity we did while we were in Costa Rica. For his excursion Doran chose a full-day outing to Miravalles Volcano, which included an 11-line zip-line down the volcano’s slope, a horse-back ride, a walk across a hanging bridge to visit Llanos de Cortez waterfall in the rainforest, and a visit to an active crater for a mud bath and a dip in the hot springs. Our meeting time was 7:30, which gave us a chance to sleep in after the previous day’s 12-hour birding extravaganza. We met Larry just outside the resort gate along with five other guests, a family of three and a couple on their honeymoon. We bundled into the van – the same type we had driven around in with Ollie – for the hour’s drive to Miravalles Volcano near Bagaces.

Once we reached the zip-lining place we were equipped with a harness, helmet, and gloves, and given a quick lesson on how to ride down the line, as well as how to brake (simply pull down on the wire – no squeezing required). This photo shows the bottom of the zip-lining track – we broke out of the forest and traveled over the wide, grassy field on the right to the last platform just out of view.

Zip-lining Base of Operations

The zip-lining area had a nice flower garden which attracted all sorts of neat butterflies. I couldn’t take my camera with me (it’s too large to fit in a pocket), so while I waited for the others be outfitted in their own equipment, I used Doran’s camera to photograph a couple of the more unique butterflies that I saw.

This butterfly belongs to a sub-family of the skippers called the Pyrginae, more commonly known as Flats or Spreadwings. This species can be found in a wide variety of semi-open habitats such as pastures, roadsides, forest clearings, and farmland. It can be found at elevations up to at least 1800 metres.

Orcus Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus orcus)

The Plain Longtail is also a member of the Pyrginae subfamily. It, too, is associated with the edges and openings in lowland tropical forests.

Plain Longtail (Urbanus simplicius)

Once the group was properly equipped, we started hiking up the path adjacent to the grassy field. A chorus of cicada calls accompanied us, a deafening sound of what sounded like a hundred chainsaws revving up and then suddenly stopping, over and over again. We ascended up the slope to the first platform, where the guides gave us a cup of water to help us deal with the heat and suffocating humidity. Then it was onward and upward to the next platform. I didn’t see any birds in the forest, though jokes were made about the vultures soaring in the open sky above the canopy. We saw some sort of stick bug and and a couple of lines of leaf-cutter ants crossing the trail and that was about it for insects.

The zip-lining itself was fun. Even with my fear of heights I was able to tolerate the steel mesh platform through which you could see the ground, and the minimal wire railings – each time we arrived at a new platform, the guides attached our harness to a wire attached to the tree, giving me a sense of safety. One guide went first, then signaled the second guide to send us on our way. Some lines were “fast” and required moderate braking about halfway down the line, and others were “slow” – there was no need to slow down at all on these ones as we came into the platform landing. I kept worrying that I was going to fly into the tree in the middle of the next platform, and twice I braked too early on the “fast” lines and had to pull myself into the landing – including the long one at the bottom! I liked the slow ones much better, even though both Doran and I kept twisting in circles before we arrived at the platform, and ended up coming in backward. Thank goodness for the guide who caught us!

We took all 11 lines down with no mishaps. A family of Howler Monkeys moving through the trees nearby were amusing – we could hear them and see them, but the lines didn’t take us anywhere near them. The only other wildlife incident came when one of the guides spotted a small lizard on one of the lines – he had to shake it off before we could go.

After we were done the zip-lining tour it was time for lunch. We had a lovely lunch at a nice restaurant, and unlike the restaurant at Curubanda I wasn’t tempted by any birds outside begging to have their pictures taken – this is probably a good thing, as it would probably have been seen as rude by the other guests! I did see an unidentified hawk and a Yellow-billed Toucan flying over as we drove down the mountain. We ended up with a longer break than anticipated when the traffic police stopped us and the driver couldn’t find his vehicle registration – the van was owned by the tour company, and he had to call the company’s owner in order to resolve the situation. While this was going on I was distracted by a pair of Eastern Meadowlarks on the wires outside.

Eastern Meadowlark

At last we were allowed to leave, and drove over to the parking area for the waterfall tour. As soon as we got out of the van we saw a group of people leading horses to us, and I was first in line to get hoisted up onto a horse. I thought I might have trouble swinging my leg over the horse due ongoing issues with my hips, but I was able to settle onto the horse without any problem. Her name was Palomo, and at first I thought she was quite placid. Once we all started heading up the slope together, she kept wanting to run, and I had to keep reining her in.

I brought my camera with me, and managed to take a couple of pictures with one hand while I held onto the reins with the other. I didn’t see any birds here at all either, though Larry said he saw a Tityra. I only hoped it was the Masked Tityra I had already seen, and not the Black-crowned Tityra that I hadn’t!

Riding up the trail (click to enlarge)

The horseback ride was much shorter than I had expected, but even so my thighs felt bruised after only 30 minutes or so. It was difficult to take pictures with only one hand, so I didn’t take as many as I wanted. I liked being up high on the horse, as being petite, the view was much better!

Eventually we arrived at the hanging bridge that crossed the gorge at the bottom of the waterfall. We dismounted, and took turns crossing the bridge in groups of four. Heights aren’t my favourite thing, but I took some time to take a few pictures from the creaking, swaying bridge.

Looking down from the bridge (click to enlarge)

Unfortunately the waterfall had been partially destroyed by a landslide in November 2016 after Hurricane Otto passed through Costa Rica – the red rocks exposed along the slope and the boulders strewn along the ground are the visible scars left behind in the lush jungle after much of the slope was washed away. The water gushed over a new, rocky path, much less scenic than it had been before the hurricane.

Llanos de Cortez waterfall at Miravalles

Hurricane Otto, a record late hurricane to make landfall anywhere in the Atlantic Basin, actually crossed over Central America along the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and is the only known hurricane to cut across Costa Rica, where 10 people were killed from the resulting flash floods and landslides.

Llanos de Cortez waterfall at Miravalles

Before the landslide, the Llanos de Cortez waterfall was considered to be one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful waterfalls. A quick hike down a short, steep trail brought visitors to the base of the formerly 12m-high, 15m-wide waterfall, which has been described as “wide and wispy, with thin streams of water tumbling along the mossy rocks”. A tranquil pond rested at the bottom of the falls, surrounded by a white sandy beach perfect for swimming or sunbathing. Visitors could also walk behind the waterfall and sit on the rocks behind curtain of water, or shower beneath the lukewarm waters. Although all that remained of this once-spectacular waterfall appeared to be a small river running over a gash in the rocks, we were still impressed as it was our first (and only) waterfall of the trip. We hiked up the side of the gorge through the rainforest with only a thick rope strung between posts to keep us from tumbling over the edge, took a few pictures, then made our way back down. We didn’t see any birds in the rainforest, which surprised me a little; I had been hoping to see at least a few new species on this trip.

Llanos de Cortez waterfall at Miravalles

Driving back down the slope, however, Larry pointed out a Blue Morpho butterfly drifting above the dirt road. It landed, so when the van stopped I opened the window and took a few photos. This was the only Blue Morpho I was able to photograph, and it appeared to be quite worn.

Blue Morpho Butterfly

After that it was off to our last stop, the Las Hornillas Volcanic Activity Center. This family project consists of an active crater of approximately 5000 square metres and a live geologic spa of bubbling water pools, bubbling mud pools, fumaroles and natural mud of different colors. A group of puppies and two birds caught my attention as soon as we arrived: a peacock, captive, wandering along the area, and a Keel-billed Toucan perching in a tree. I had seen one at the Curubanda Lodge but never got a photo; while this one was wild, it was habituated, which means it is free to come and go but has adapted to life close to people. So although I was finally able to get a photo of this species, it was not truly “wild”. It was even used to being fed by the people who work at the hot springs, and at one point Larry shooed it away. My fiance Doran put his hand out toward the toucan, and it actually bit him, drawing blood.

Keel-billed Toucan

I put the camera away, and we changed into our swimsuits. First up was a 15-minute rest in the sauna. As soon as I entered the sweat sprang to the surface my skin and started running off of me in a river. The air was heavy, and it felt as though a hot blanket was pressing down on me. None of us lasted the full 15 minutes.

Next we proceeded to the mud pools, which bubbled with gases escaping the earth below. I stood in the pool, but it was far too hot for me to tolerate, so I sat that part out. The mud pools contain clay and sulfurated thermal waters with temperatures reaching up to 200°C. This mud is odorless, and comes in three different colours: brown, which indicates the pool is two metres deep; gray, indicating the pool is one metre deep; and yellow, which indicates the mud comes from the top surface and is full of sulfur.

The others were able to tolerate the heat long enough to lather themselves up with the clay. Once they were done, they showered the mud away, and from there we proceeded to the hot springs. There were three circular stone pools, each with a fountain in the center. The first was quite warm, but bearable. It felt good on my perpetually tight back and neck muscles, and I did not want to leave it! The second was lukewarm, and the third was cold. I stepped into the third one but couldn’t bring myself to sit down.

Las Hornillas Volcano Hot Springs and Crater

After that, feeling reinvigorated and relaxed, I spent some time taking photos of the crater. We weren’t able to walk around the edges because it was deemed too dangerous. The clouds were rolling in, too, and I was worried we might finally get caught in a rain shower, but once again the weather cooperated.

Las Hornillas Volcano Hot Springs and Crater (click to enlarge)

Las Hornillas Volcano Hot Springs and Crater

It’s too bad we couldn’t go in, because some of the trails looked fun.

Las Hornillas Volcano Hot Springs and Crater

The drive home was fairly quick, and in Liberia Larry took us to the grocery store to buy “real” Costa Rican coffee, the kind that the locals drink rather than the over-priced tourist coffee offered in resorts. Doran and I grabbed a few packages for a few friends back home (one of whom confirms it was very, very good).

Doran and I had a blast on the trip, and few complaints. Once again it was great to get out into the country and see some of the sights and people. I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy zip-lining, but I did, and all the other activities were very memorable. Although we were initially hesitant to book the tour with Larry, we were both glad we did – despite our concierge at the resort attempting to dissuade us from booking outside of their affiliated agency. The trip to Miravalles Volcano was a lot closer, and cheaper, than the tour to Arenal offered by the resort, and I don’t think it included as many activities.

We were back in time for me to take a few photos before dark. Once I heard the chattering of the parakeets flying in to roost at the resort for the night, I headed out with my camera to see if I could get some better photos of the Orange-chinned Parakeets. I found them in the trees right behind our building and managed to take a few photos despite the rapidly diminishing daylight. You can actually see the tiny orange chin on this individual:

Orange-chinned Parakeet

This individual has no orange on the chin, though the brownish-orange patch on the wing and overall greenish colour helps to confirm its identity.

Orange-chinned Parakeet

The parakeet was chirping along with all the others, so I decided to shoot some video. This is the chatter I’ve been hearing in the mornings and evenings all week.

A female Hoffmann’s Woodpecker perching in a tree near the pool caught my attention; I’ve been trying to get a nice clear shot of one all week. Again, the low light made photography difficult.

Hoffmann’s Woodpecker

From there I wandered up to the red-flowering trees to see what the sunset over the Pacific looked like. This was the first time all week I’d been able to do this, as it had been rainy during our first couple of nights, and on Wednesday we didn’t get back until dusk after our birding outing with Ollie. The sky was gorgeous.

Sunset on the Pacific

Sunset on the Pacific

This was probably the best day of our vacation, as it was definitely the most fun. It will be a long time before I forget our outing to the slopes of Miravalles Volcano!


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