Neotropics

Net fishing in Tamarindo, Costa Rica

Tamarindo
to Tapir Valley

Surf, Green Energy, Volcano birds and living a life of sports.

Above, a Costa Rican family catch baitfish. The next step of fishing in the surf, requires no fishing rod. Just a spool of line wrapped around a piece of wood.

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have never been able to sit in front of a television set and watch a sport. Even at a young age, something about watching other males run up and down a court felt like wasted time.

Friends will sometimes claim that I don’t like sports. Others have also told me that if it is not being watched by at least a thousand people, it simply isn’t even a sport.

But I am not sure that my young-age decision to just skip out on watching sports has put me at any kind of disadvantage in life, or even that I’ve missed out on anything. In fact, I have observed that sports fandom sometimes gets in the way of a sporting life.

Have you ever met a college quarterback or soccer champ who had trouble enjoying sports later in life? Who exercised at those miserable indoor gyms or on fitness machines, but felt awkward with a paddle or a tennis racquet in their hand?

Alley in Tamarindo, Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica

A quiet beachside alleyway in the expat town of Tamarindo, Guanacaste Province.

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remember distinctly a pair of fit kayakers in their seventies, about to cross Clayoquot Sound, and a pair of surfers, similarly aged, towing surfboards on ramshackle wagons down a rocky path in coastal Oregon. That is it right there, I thought: to live a life of sport.

I like to think that my family pushed the idea that sport is something you do; part of an active life, and so when it was suggested that I plan our family reunion, I thought first about finding a sport we could all do together. How about surfing in Costa Rica’s Tamarindo?

The beach break in Tamarindo is known as the best beginner’s wave in Costa Rica, and perhaps in all of North America, and Tamarindo, once quiet and undeveloped, has boomed into an international surfing destination. Stocked with foreign expats, there is very little Costa Rica to the town.  So much so, that when my rice-and-beans loving brother asked about the best place for authentic Costa Rican faire, it was suggested we visit another town.

Is it a bad thing when a town is overwhelmed by expatriates, erasing hints of regional culture? “There are people who have been living here for thirty years, and they can’t even speak the language,” explains our rental manager.


Juvenile Male Green Iguana, Costa Rica

A juvenile Green Iguana, hiding in plain sight, rests in a
low-hanging tree in downtown Tamarindo.

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ut Tamarindo isn’t the world’s only expat town, and I can’t help but think of one of my favorite places in all of Oregon — Hood River — whose expat qualities are a part of its charm.

I’ve always thought of surfing as encompassing that one thing that I most desire in sport; that taste of without-a-net free flight, of competing with the rules of physics and gravity for just a moment of breathless adrenaline.

Why should a family of downhill skiers surf? In some ways, both sports are about sliding down a watery surface. The difference is that skiing offers more of it. A skier can reasonably have hours of downhill time on a full day. But a surfer can expect only a handful of short rides, lasting mere seconds.

But I think that all surfers know that the full experience of surfing, from carrying a longboard down a dusty road, to paddling past the break, to sitting on a board waiting for the next ride, is as much a part of surfing as the actual wave. There is just no combination out there like sun and ocean, and that momentary peak of catching a wave is just a fraction of the allure.

But skiing does have its equivalents to surfing, and they are just as elusive and fleeting as catching a good wave: one of them is catching that clean run through big powder. In skiing, the powder run again means untethered free flight; human willing gravity to work with him.

If surfing has it, and skiing has it, where else can you chase the ultimate peak of sports? For many years, I’ve believed that this nameless ephemeral thing in sport is actually out there in dozens of other outdoor pursuits, and you can find it crossing a mossy log across a raging river.


 

Wind Turbines in Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica

Wind turbines on the slopes of Costa Rica volcano country.

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itting on my surfboard in the crowded Tamarindo beach break, I can see a series of mountain peaks in the distance. Perhaps a hundred-fifty miles away, these triangular peaks are shrouded in dark clouds.  

I know exactly what those peaks are, because they’ve been ingrained into my mind from years of looking at Costa Rican bird guides. If you look at Costa Rican bird distribution maps, you’ll see that almost every map has a pattern of color in the form of round circles in a roughly north-south pattern. Those circles indicate either the presence or absence of a particular species.

What that means is that birds are often present or absent in Costa Rica based simply on elevation, and that the volcanoes of northern Costa Rica are islands of biodiversity.

I hired a naturalist guide and a driver to take me there, and at four-twenty the next morning, they are waiting outside the gate of our rental.  We are headed to Bijagua, a rural mountain town sitting between two volcanic peaks.

Cotton Stainer Bug on Pokeweed, Costa Rica

A Cotton Stainer True Bug (Dysdercus genus) on
the hot pink stalks
of wild pokeweed.

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ut Bijagua is several hours away, and we’re on the highway in the middle of the flat, dry plains of Guanacaste province. Naturalist guide Laurens asks our driver to pull over on the side of the highway. He had seen a raptor in a nearby tree, and aims his scope at it, while hundreds of parrots and parakeets fly above us.

Laurens spends time with the bird, a Gray Hawk, talking about the ways in which its size, coloration and feathers make it different from similar species. I realize that he is quizzing me, building up my knowledge of Central American species and making sure I’m in the mindset of field details.

That quality in a naturalist guide, the quality of patiently pursuing your education, is rare. It’s one thing to race through a region, ticking off birds, it’s another altogether to work through the problems of observing unfamiliar species.

As we near Bijagua, we cross the continental divide. Now we’re on the wet, mist-shrouded Caribbean slope, enveloped in those gray clouds you can see from Tamarindo’s surf break.

Rufous-winged Tanager, Tenorio National Park, Costa Rica

Rufous-winged Tanager in Tenorio National Park, Alajuela Province, Costa Rica.

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t the end of the day, sixteen hours later, we’ll have seen ninety-four species of birds, including the Black-crested Coquette, a hummingbird with a wispy headdress, King Vultures, whose faces are colored like painted Polynesian tiki statues, and Montezuma Oropendulas, whose song is like an echo through a submarine labyrinth.

When people talk about people who spend a sixteen hour day looking at birds, they’ll use the phrase ‘hardcore’, which connotes a certain esoteric seriousness, and also a singular, frenetic passion. But birding to me is also a blank slate for other things.

Looking for birds, in this case, means seeing the private gardens of the brightly-colored houses in a small mountain town, with their fiery pink and orange blossoms, their mango and papaya trees, and their tangled blooming vines. Birding gets you to places you can’t otherwise go, or never thought to see. It gives you access to new foods and flavors. For example, birding gives you unparalleled access to taste rare fruits and other micro-local foods.

Leafhopper at Tapir Valley, Tenorio National Park, Costa Rica

A leafhopper with stunning turquoise coloration in Tapir Valley,
near Tenorio National Park.

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irding sometimes requires, or perhaps justifies, a series of outdoor pursuits. It sometimes means rock scrambling, forest hiking, off-roading, paddling, biking or backpacking. And sometimes, that ephemeral magic people might see as being reserved for sports like surfing actually exist in the pursuit of a rare bird.

For that reason, I’ve always believed that sport should be embedded into travel, and even life itself. You don’t need to always go out and ‘play a sport’; rather, sports are like a quiver you should be able to access in the pursuit of other things.

Continental Divide in Costa Rica

Dry plains meet green, wet forest at Costa Rica's continental divide.

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s we leave Bijagua and continue up the slopes of Tenorio National Park, I see a line of wind turbines, like vertebrae bones, along a green ridge.

Over the past thirty years, Costa Rica has experimented with, and keeps pushing the boundaries of, the next generation of environmentalism. While back home, the argument of whether a Green New Deal is even possible, Costa Rica has already successfully implemented nearly one-hundred percent renewable energy. Much of Costa Rica’s renewable energy comes from projects here in Guanacaste. The volcanoes mean geothermal power plants, the high wind and vast sun of the Guanacaste plains means wind turbines and solar panels, and the numerous rivers and rain mean hydroelectric dams.

While other countries debate it, a handful of countries have already figured it out. Seeing the hints of that along this road are another reminder that civilization-saving upgrades to our infrastructure are within grasp.

Red-legged Honeycreeper at Casitas Tenorio Bed and Breakfast

Male Red-legged Honeycreeper, with a few remaining feathers from its non-breeding plumage. Casitas Tenorio Bed and Breakfast.

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e continue the drive to Tapir Valley, a protected mountain valley property owned by local landowners who use the valley only for forest tours and nightwalks.

The valley is enclosed by steep mountain on three sides, giving it the feeling of isolated, primordial jungle. Laurens and I walk through the reserve and meet Donald, the landowner who has spent the last several years restoring the land and building a trail system for guests.

Donald takes us a short distance, where he had been seeing Snowcaps earlier in the day.

Male Snowcap hummingbirds have uniquely striking purple and bronze coloration, and they are undoubtedly among the most striking birds on earth.

As we watch the Snowcaps above, I realize how vivid the entire valley is, not just the birds, but the wildflowers and insects.

A few years ago, we visited the Osa Peninsula in Southwestern Costa Rica, which is by far the most protected land in the country, and in my notes I talked about how protected lands needed to be large to be effective.

Costa Rica’s original land conservation projects have been criticized as being simply too small to adequately conserve biodiversity.

But there is a story to be told in small patches of protected land.  Costa Rica is now twenty-five percent protected. And there is not only one way to protect land. Small patches, like this privately owned valley buffering up against the park, counts too.

Every nation will have to find its own path to protecting its lands and converting to renewable energy. Costa Rica’s experiments show us the different ways both can be achieved.