Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 6: Palo Verde Wildlife & Guaitil Pottery

Destination: Tamarindo

a blue heron high above the boatThe alarm sounded at 5:45 a.m., and I launched out of bed like a child on Christmas morning. I was giddy with excitement. Today we planned to visit Palo Verde National Park and Guaitil, an indigenous village known for its pottery.

Though it was still pitch black outside, Barry had risen early to prepare us a quick breakfast and snack packs to go. I was touched by such thoughtfulness -- this is one reason why I love bed and breakfasts -- and thanked Barry for his kindness.

Jacamar Naturalist Tours picked us up at 6:30 sharp. Our van was full, carrying about 20 people, and we began the 45-minute journey in high spirits. Palo Verde National Park has 15 distinct habitats including mangrove swamps, evergreen forest, marshes, and savannahs. Its diverse ecology attracts birds and wildlife, and the park is considered a waterfowl refuge for migratory and resident bird species. As a budding birder, I had brought along my field guide and eagle eyes -- I couldn't wait to spot herons, egrets, and other graceful species.

green iguanaWe drove past cantaloupe farms, sugar cane fields, and banana plantations before stopping at Hacienda El Viejo. A beautiful,18th century home stood guard over the surrounding sugar cane -- the house and land had once belonged to Anastasio Somoza, former president of Nicaragua. Here, we relaxed in the shade, sipping a blackberry elixir and sampling juicy watermelon and bananas.

A 10-minute drive delivered us to the outskirts of Palo Verde, where we boarded a boat and began our canal tour. At first, silence surrounded us and we wondered if we'd drifted into a bird-free zone. Suddenly, I spotted a large bird high in the trees above -- a blue heron! This sighting proved to be the first of many, and the guide pointed out boat-billed herons, kingfishers, sandpipers, green herons, fly catchers, white egrets, and an osprey eagle.

this crocodile kept his distanceThe birds were joined by green iguanas, ctenosaurs (the closest dinosaur relative living in Costa Rica), bats, and even a nest of Africanized bees. Several crocodiles moseyed past the boat and I fought to keep my cool. Though the prehistoric creatures generally shy away from humans, I nurse a healthy fear -- and hear horror music playing in my head at each sighting.

Howler monkeys lined the trees along the shore, and our guide, an expert at their howl, elicited quite a reaction. They screamed at us, causing such a raucous that neighboring troops joined in. Soon, the forest was alive with howling primates, and I couldn't fight back a fit of the giggles.

a stoic alpha male observed us carefullyWe pulled up alongside a large troop of white-faced monkeys. They were hunting for food, including bird's eggs and iguana juveniles, but were having no luck. As the boat idled, the alpha male marched in our direction, eyeing each one of us. He was no more than eight feet from me, and though he did not seem aggressive, I made sure to give him space.

After the 90-minute boat ride, we revisited Hacienda El Viejo for a delicious, traditional lunch. Our stomachs full, we said goodbye to Palo Verde and before we knew it, we had arrived in Guatil.

The dusty streets were lined with traditional homes, most with small storefronts. We walked into one, where a man was expertly handling clay. He and his sister were both Guaitil artisans, proudly following in the footsteps of their Chorotega ancestors. Even today, the residents stick to old traditions, using only natural ingredients to create stunning works of art.

guaitil pottery is durable and beautifulThe colorful pieces on display had each taken more than 30 days to create. To begin, the sculptors make clay from sand, dirt, and water, mixing it with their feet until reaching the desired consistency. Each piece is created on a manual pottery wheel, shaped by a corncob and gourd shell. Natural paints are created from white, black and red rocks -- everything harvested from the earth. The works are dried in the sun and a wood-fired oven, baking into pieces sturdy enough for everyday use.

After a pottery demonstration, we were free to explore the family's shop. I ran around, flitting from one piece to another, unsure of what to buy. Finally, Fabian and I decided on a lovely vase decorated with indigenous symbols and stamped with the family's name. It was a one-of-a-kind piece, and I couldn't wait to display it at home.

Day 6: Palo Verde Wildlife & Guaitil Pottery in Pictures