Rancho Naturalista... the name just flows off your tongue... kind of like the drool that flows off my tongue every time I think about this amazing eco-lodge in Turrialba, Costa Rica. Rancho Naturalista is owned by an American family who arrived in Costa Rica for religious purposes and ended up discovering eco-tourism. Last November, I had the pleasure of spending 3 days seeking out as many of the over 400 species of birds that have been seen there that I could find.
Rancho sits at 3000 feet in the pre-mountain rain forest in the Caribbean zone. The property is surrounded by a network of well-maintained trails that climb through the surrounding mountains and pastures. Resident guides (who are only paid in room, board, food, and tips) are available to take you on the trails. These guides are amazing and are here truly because they love birding and want to learn the birds of CR. While I was there, our guide was a Dutchman named Vincent who had experience birding in Europe, Israel and briefly in the US. He was friendly and very knowledgeable even though he'd only been there 2 months.
If you have never birded in the rainforest, it's very different than birding the typically more open woods of the US. Birds tend to feed in small flocks. Tanagers, flycatchers, and manakins quickly move through the tops of trees, so you really have to be on your "A" game to be able to get on the birds and pick out the field marks. It doesn't help that a lot of the time they are backlit, behind a tree, or behind a leaf. It takes some getting used to, but makes for a fun challenge.
The trick to finding the greatest diversity of species on the trails (and birds lower to the ground) is to locate the army ant swarms that move up and down the mountain. No, the birds don't eat the army ants, but they do eat all the insects that are running for their lives from this war machine. Army ant specialists such as the Antbirds, Ant-thrushes, Antwrens, Ant-Tanagers, and Antshrikes are mostly found around these swarms. At times, there can be 20-30 species of birds attending one swarm. So, you will spend a lot of time walking the (sometimes muddy) trails in search of these swarms. You won't always find the army ant swarms, but many birds can still be found away from the swarms.
There are also two special treats within the forest. The first is a group of hummingbird feeders with lovely canopied viewing benches. These attract Violet-Crowned Woodnymphs, White-Necked Jacobin, Green Hermit, Red-Footed Plumeleteer, and... oh yeah... SNOWCAP! This is one of the best places on earth to see the dainty, gorgeous Snowcap.
The other treat is the hummingbird pools. These are a series of small pools where many hummingbirds come to take a dip in the water. Snowcap frequently visits along with Purple-Crowned Fairy and many other birds. It's very cool to see a hummer take a plunge into one of these pools! This is the only place our group saw Purple-Crowned Fairy.
But wait, there's more! My favorite part of Rancho Naturalista is the balcony. With a wonderful scenic backdrop, you have a clear view of fruit feeders and hummingbird feeders. Over 200 species have been seen from this deck alone. Amazingly comfortable chairs, a coffee pot, and a nearby beer fridge make this the place to be. Each morning, I woke up and immediately went to the balcony. It was also the place where I saw last light each night. This is the ultimate backyard birding. The hummers, such as Green-Breasted Mango, Green-Crowned Brilliant, and Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird, allow you to get inches away from them. This makes froms ome great photo opportunities - see below. Collared Aracaris, Montezuma and Chestnut-headed Oropendulas, Gray-headed Chachalacas, Hoffman's and Black-Cheeked Woodpeckers, and a plethora of tanagers visit the fruit feeders. Migrant warblers, flycatchers, and many other birds feed from the surrounding trees and ground as well.
The gardens around the buildings also attract some hummingbirds that don't use the feeders such as Black-crested Coquette, Green Thorntail, and Little Hermit.
At night, Mottled Owl can be heard and in the early morning the other-wordly sounds of Great Tinamou, Little Tinamou, and Rufous Motmot (my favorite call) can be heard. I've only scratched the surface of the birding opportunities on the grounds of the lodge. They also offer day excursions to other nearby areas such as Rio Tuis and CATIE that host species not easily seen at Rancho. These excursions are usually taken in an older jeep or truck, but a little discomfort and a bumpy ride is worth the wonderful birds.
Ok, so it's clear there is great birding here. But what are the facilities like? The lodge is made of several buildings. Some are divided into 2 separate rooms, each with 2 beds, 2 dressers, and a bathroom. Others are small cottages with 1 queen-sized bed, a dresser, a couch, and a bathroom. All buildings have a hammock and 2 lounge chairs on their deck. I stayed in one of the 2-bedroom buildings.
The rooms are not air conditioned or heated, but they do have ceiling fans. It gets moderately cool at night, so this is usually not a problem either way. The floors are not carpeted due to the high humidity. The bed was comfortable. The rooms were very clean, although the very high ceilings attracted some spider webs (with residents!) and moths.
The one strange thing about staying at Rancho is the bathroom situation. You are not allowed to flush toilet paper - period. Each room has a small wastebasket next to the toilet for used toilet paper. It takes a little getting used to, but it's not really that bad. Just make sure you wrap it up real good and it won't smell. The wastebasket is emptied every day.
The showers are roomy and have good water pressure and temperature. The sink is fine and gives you a great place to fill a water bottle (yes, water there is safe to drink, regularly tested, and quite tasty).
Each room has a laundry basket too. If you fill the basket, your laundry will be washed and folded at a cost of $10 a load.
Special note: They recently built a new cottage that is gorgeous. It's made of beautiful lacquered logs. It has a close view of the rainforest and its own set of hummingbird feeders.
Your stay includes 3 meals a day. Meals are eaten family-style in the main building and all guests eat together. The breakfasts usually feature eggs, some type of meat, gallo pinto (rice & beans), fresh fruit, and fresh fruit juice (papaya, guava, and other local fruits - amazing!). Costa Rican coffee is always available. Lunches include some type of local or Americanized entree, soup or salad, more fresh fruit, and wonderful cookies and breads for dessert. Dinner is similar to lunch, but usually has a more special dessert like flan or tres leches. Being a bit of a foodie, I was amazingly surprised with the quality of the food. It was delicious and truly home-cooked. If you're a very picky eater, you shouldn't have too much trouble finding something since there are usually multiple items on the table.
The wait staff is very friendly, although many do not speak English. There is usually a bilingual staff member around to translate for you. You can always use it as an opportunity to practice your Spanish with the amazingly friendly Ticos.
We did not have a repeated lunch or dinner meal while there. In fact, our guide told us that he'd been there 2 months and hadn't had the same dessert twice! This was truly a welcome treat because I didn't know what type of food to expect. When you hear the food bell ringing at Rancho, you will definitely be running for the food.
Beer, soda, and bottled water are available in a fridge near the balcony. There's a list where you log your beer purchases and square up at the end of your stay.
Other than the toilet paper thing, there aren't a whole lot of negatives. One complaint I have is that it is very difficult to call to the US from here (and maybe CR in general). They have a regular phone that I could not get to work with my phone card. The only other option is a phone that you swipe a credit card in. I talked to my girlfriend in NJ for about 10 minutes and it set me back around $50!!! Be wary.
At Rancho, I was able to satiate my interest in all things natural. Many species of butterflies and moths can be found there. We spotted several Blue Morphos in the forest, among the many unidentified butterflies. At night, I found great fun walking around with my flashlight seeking strange insects and moths under the eaves of buildings. I found huge crickets (the one below is about 6 inches long), katydids, interesting spiders, millipedes, and other unique insects. Snakes, including the deadly Fer de Lance and Eyelash Viper, can be found in the forest if you're (un)lucky.
If you're used to the Hilton and the Marriott, this may not be the place for you. But, if you're ready for a true taste of tropical birding with wonderful staff, amazing food, and some of the most comfortable birding around, this is an amazing place to stay. I understand that getting reservations during the dry season (Dec. - Mar.) can be difficult. Tour groups like Field Guides or VENT may be your best option for visiting here. So, lace up your boots and enjoy the trip.