Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 7: Egrets, Iguanas & Crocodiles, Oh My

Destination: Playa del Coco

To my chagrin but not surprise, ear-piercing rooster cackles once again served as an unwelcome and poorly-timed alarm clock. It was 3:30 in the morning, driving rain assaulted the rooftop, and the sun hadn't even considered waking up. "No way," I thought, and went back to bed.

A few hours later, I tentatively poked my head out from under the sheets, hoping that the rains had dried up. We were scheduled for a Palo Verde boat tour along the Tempisque River that day, and if Hurricane Gustav didn't show us some mercy, I had decided to give him a piece of my mind. Luckily for him, the sky was clear.

I was happily lost in a world of eggs, bacon, fruit salad and toast when our guide pulled up to the bed and breakfast a full fifteen minutes before the 9 a.m. scheduled pickup. So used to "Tico time," the Costa Rican habit of doing everything late, I paused mid-bite to contemplate the situation. A moment later, my brain kicked into high gear, and I shoveled the rest of my breakfast into my mouth. Just ten minutes later, Cesar and I were completely packed -- four cameras and multiple memory cards in tow -- for our wildlife extravaganza at Palo Verde National Park.

I jumped, literally, into the back of the mud-splattered 4x4. The SUV had a step designed to aid vertically-challenged riders like myself, and I knew what that meant: a tall vehicle built for lots and lots of muddy potholes, flooded creeks, and rutted streets. Indeed, the smoother beach streets soon dissolved into typical Costa Rican back roads, and we found ourselves bumping along to the beat of stones under the vehicle's wheels.

Filadelfia was our first and last stop before immersing ourselves in the Costa Rican wilderness. A displaced pride coursed through me as we passed the town's entrance arch. Born and raised in a very different Philadelphia, I looked at its twin city with fondness. Unfortunately, the rains had begun again, postponing my plans to pose at the town's welcome sign.

Our nostalgic layover behind us, the need for an SUV quickly became evident. Flooded fields surrounded us, and the road had been severely eroded by rain. We passed sugar cane and melon fields, sugar processing plants, and even an electricity outpost, which used sugar cane waste to create energy. Loving bird couples perched on almost every fence post, and our guide patiently explained each bird's history.

Wide-eyed at the sights all around, I found it nearly impossible to believe that this green, water-logged countryside had seen horrible wildfires in 2007. Today, it is an incredible nature oasis, and our guide stopped to show us several hidden gems: a towering rosewood tree, mother to Costa Rica's most prized wood; a tricolored munia bird which, as a pet once brought from Australia, only lives in this small section of Costa Rica; a bare-throated tiger heron, a solitary bird that has been known to snatch baby crocodiles for its lunch; egrets dotting the fields, perched on the backs of bored and tired cows.

The 95-minute car trip had whetted my appetite for wildlife viewing, and when we finally reached our boat, I was eager to keep my eyes peeled for new sights. Our traveling companions were a young Californian family of four. After brief introductions, we headed out onto the Tempisque River, cameras at the ready, our guides primed for action, and six heads popping out of the boat.

The sprinkling rain barely tickled my skin as I leaned out of the boat, craning my neck to spot camouflaged animals. Just a minute or two after launch, a guide pointed out the day's first sight, a beautiful snowy egret. Soon after, our guide glimpsed a tiny pigmy owl, which to my great frustration took five minutes of wrinkly-browed squinting to identify.

During the next few hours, we motored along the Tempisque waterways, struggling to capture the hidden and elusive animals on film. Herons were the easiest to spot, their snowy whiteness contrasting sharply against the dull green shoreline. We also caught sight of howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, green iguanas, black iguanas (the fastest-running lizard on earth!), black-bellied whistling ducks, black-crowned night heron, bats, and many other animals that were simply too quick for identification.

Before heading back to home base, the boat slowed down to a quiet neutral, and one of our guides grabbed a foam-wrapped stick from the back. Splashing the water, he called out to a creature completely invisible to me. A moment later, realization dawned, Jaws music actually played in my head (not joking), and I physically sat on my hands to keep them safe. Never before had the phrase, "keep all arms and legs inside the vehicle", held more significance: an enormous American crocodile was slowly swimming our way.

I knew that the guide was right in telling us that we were safe, but the sight of a 400-pound, 12-foot crocodile was mildly terrifying. He slithered like a water snake, his long tail trailing behind as an afterthought. The guides, amused by their passengers' wary stares, threw ice into the water, splashing to attract the huge reptile. He drew close enough to the boat for a good look -- both us at him and vice versa -- but he was surprisingly docile. In fact, for all the natural fear I felt for him, he seemed even more nervous about our presence. Photos taken and curiosity satisfied, we left him in peace, and he quietly swam away.

Safely back on land, our small tour group lunched at a local restaurant, where we were treated to a typical lunch, served gourmet-style. White rice, black bean soup, saucy beef, barbecue chicken, salad, fresh corn tortillas still in the cast iron skillet, warm squash salad, fresh plantain chips, and star fruit juice graced the table top. Cesar and I dug in eagerly. It was absolutely delicious and the perfect way to end our action-packed tour.

The late, large lunch filled us up, and when we got back to Coco Beach, a full dinner was an unappealing thought. In the pouring rain, I ran to a small grocery store to pick up a few supplies including ice cream and soda, rainy night necessities. I dined on junk food that evening, read in the porch rocking chair, and finally fell asleep to the steady sound of rain beating against my window.

Day 7: Egrets, Iguanas & Crocodiles, Oh My in Pictures