Chorotega Artisans of Guaitil
I am decidedly not a knickknack person, so when I travel my souvenirs must do triple duty: recall fond memories, be decorative, and serve a purpose. With this in mind, my husband and I were six days into our Costa Rica honeymoon, and we had yet to find something to document such an important milestone. But I had faith, for today we were headed to Guaitil, home to the country's top clay artisans. En route to this Guanacaste village of famed indigenous artists, we had scheduled a safari float through Palo Verde National Park.
You could call me a budding birder, but only in the most comical sense. I am woefully pathetic at spotting camouflaged birds or identifying all but the most unique warbles. But I do appreciate beautiful plumage and melodic song, and I love scribbling another species down on my ever-growing "Seen in the Wild. By me!" list.
Enter Palo Verde National Park, home to more than 300 bird species. As we drove past cantaloupe farms and banana plantations, I hummed with excitement. Then, amid visions of spotting endangered avian species, I heard the word crocodile. And iguana. And then, ctenosaur – the closest living relative to ancient dinosaurs. Yeah, my honeymoon was so awesome that we were basically going to see mini-dinosaurs. And that's when my husband got excited.
The best way to see Palo Verde is on a boat tour. The covered motorboats are humble and unassuming, and their quiet engines and tiny wakes are perfect for navigating rivers and canals without disturbing the wildlife. Case in point: our first sighting was of a blue heron, perched in a tree by the riverbank. It first ignored, then quietly regarded our boat, watchful but not poised for flight.
As we motored down the river, our guide pointed out boat-billed herons, green herons, kingfishers, white egrets, flycatchers, and -- the icing on a the cake -- a majestic osprey eagle, with wings extended to dry its plumage. As promised, the park was also home to other wildlife, including sizable crocs, iguanas and ctenosaurs. With a few hoots, our guide excited two troops of howler monkeys. Thankfully, our motor was fast enough to evade the inevitable poop slinging involved in howler turf wars!
Without a doubt, the mammalian highlight of our 90-minute tour was a shore-side interaction with a group of capuchin monkeys. They were searching for food just a few feet off the ground, but having little luck. When the troop's alpha male saw us, he scrambled over to the boat, chest out and eyes defiant, clearly staking claim to his grounds and females. He was no more than eight feet from the boat, and while he remained quiet and unaggressive, we didn't press our luck.
One delicious lunch later and we were back in the van, bumping over dirt roads on the way to Guaitil, where Chorotega residents and simple homes greeted us. We stretched our legs and listened to an indigenous man explain the traditions of his ancestors, detailing the complicated process of finding, harvesting and molding natural clay into the colorful artwork on display.
Each piece of Guaitil pottery takes about 30 days to create, from mixing the clay (with feet!), to drying the creations under the sun. With just a glance between us, my husband and I agreed that our honeymoon souvenir was somewhere here, hiding in this artisan shop. We finally settled on a beautiful vase, formed with dried corncobs and painted in pre-Columbian symbols. This piece of art, created from centuries-old traditions, would be the perfect piece to celebrate our new union.