Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Cabinas El Castillo - part 1

With five Costa Rica birding trips spanning a period of 10 years under our belts, spending more time in Costa Rica would be nothing new. But how about an extended ten week stay?
Birding tours try to maximize time by visiting as many different habitats as possible, to find as many different bird species as possible, all within a compact window of time. During an abbreviated visit, one cannot not help but be be exposed to Costa Rica’s culture. But hopscotching from eco lodge to eco lodge, as exhilarating as we have found it to be, left little opportunity to explore any one area for more than a few days. Our goal this time was to park ourselves in one place for several weeks with two objectives: experience what it might be like to live in Costa Rica and use the extended time to study local flora and fauna without feeling like we were in a race against the clock.

as with out RV lifestyle, outdoor seating was always a draw
Planning for this trip began in earnest almost two years out and picked up speed during the past six months (July through December 2014). The idea for such a visit started to take shape in 2013, during conversations with Richard Garrigues, our friend and guide on all our CR bird tours. Richard, himself a transplant from the U.S. some 30 years ago when he arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer, had some insightful suggestions which got us started in the right direction.

an hour from San Jose; 45 minutes from the Pacific Ocean
Months of online research augmented with email exchanges eventually got us on a waiting list for a cabin rental at Cabinas El Castillo de Relajamiento, a small expat community consisting of seven furnished cabins located outside San Ramon in the Western Central Valley, an hour from San José. Cesar Carillo, the general property manager, had answered many of our questions and concerns. Paul and Gloria Yeatman, baby boomers who had retired and had become legal residents of Costa Rica in 2009, had lived at Cabinas El Castillo for nearly four years. Through their blog and web site “Retire for less in Costa Rica”, they too were able to answer several questions and inquiries. (Note: see our article on bird watching in the Yeatman's newsletter)
Bags packed, the RV buttoned up, and with assurances from our neighbors in the Kartchner volunteer village who promised to keep an eye on things, we were driven by fellow volunteer, Mike Doyle, to the Tucson Comfort Suites hotel. After a relaxed night, we caught a shuttle to the airport and spent the better part of the day flying from Tucson, to Phoenix, and on to to San José Costa Rica.

airport pickup for arrivals
Our arrival in San José on Jan 15 was around 8:00 p.m., Costa Rica time. Typically on a bird tour, we would grab a taxi to our hotel. But given that San Ramon was over an hour away, in a location we were not precisely familiar with, Cesar had offered, and we agreed, to transport us to the cabin. Furthermore, Cesar offered to stop in San Ramon for us to pickup a few food staples. At least we wouldn’t starve first thing in the morning! Finally, by 10:00 p.m. that evening, we were settled into our cabin and couldn’t wait for morning to see our surroundings.

lunch with Cesar on on first day in San Ramon
We can’t say enough positive things about Cesar. He met us first thing the next morning to give us a brief orientation to the property (laundry, garbage collection, bus stop location). Then he drove us into San Ramon so we could stock up on groceries, exchange currency (introduced us to the best bank for exchanging money), and explained the public bus system (terminal locations, schedules, and rates). He accompanied us to a local phone store and helped us through the process of buying a prepaid SIM card (he suggested Kolbi) for our iPhone. By the way - a prepaid SIM card with 4G data, voice (a Costa Rica phone number), and text, with country-wide coverage…that lasted us for the whole ten weeks…cost only $4! Good luck with that and major telcoms in the U.S.!
Our 2-bedroom, 1 bath cabin came fully furnished and included a gardener and housekeeper (she cleaned once a week). Broad-band internet and a flat panel TV with satellite reception were also included for the $750/mo fee (less per month with a year lease). We watched precious little TV except to connect an iPad to the TV to stream Netflix. Then again, we weren’t there to watch TV!
Five of the seven cabins had expats with long term leases. The remaining two, it seemed, always had a lengthy waiting list and after being there, we could understand why. After our time was up, our cabin was already rented out to a woman for a year-long lease while her house was being built elsewhere in the area. The other unoccupied cabin had two short term rentals lined up followed by another long-term lease by a couple who were also having a house built.

the private road down to the highway and bus stop
Our only transportation, short of walking, consisted of taking local public buses, or, renting a taxi. Cost of a 4-kilometer bus ride into San Ramon was 40-cents each. A taxi was about $3.50 U.S. each. Our bus stop was located on the highway (Hwy 1) at the bottom of a very steep paved road (about a ten minute walk). Even though the cabins were well away from the highway, we could still hear vehicle traffic. Trucks with “jake brakes” could be noisy at times but by in large, we felt very insulated.
We soon met several of our “neighbors” although we wound up spending most of our social time with just two couples. Rob and Jeni Evans, a younger retired couple, had been living in their cabin for close to a year and had recently become legalized residents. We first met them when Rob rapped on our door and asked if we would like to accompany he and Jeni to town. They wanted us to feel comfortable catching the correct local bus and learn where some of the best local shopping would be found. Danged nice to offer and we leaped at the chance (Rob said he wished that someone had offered to do the same when they first arrived).

Jeni and Rob - and Carol survived her first bus trip into town!
Our first bus ride on the “Rio Jesus” connection had standing room only. But a young man immediately stood and offered his seat to Carol. As we were to discover, “elderly” people are treated with a great deal of respect. However, I got to stand all the way to town for our first bus ride into town - I’m not sure how that should be interpreted.

to market, to market...
With Rob and Jeni’s help, we quickly picked up on some the best places to shop for food. Nothing like fresh fruit and vegetables. Lots of fresh fish. Local bakeries. Local cafes to sample local dishes. Did you know that eggs are sold by the pound and not refrigerated? Our experience also reminded us how much more Spanish we needed to brush up on before being able to converse freely. And, we learned that after a day of shopping, the best way back to the cabin was to hail a taxi and avoid having to lug lots of heavy groceries up the hill to our cabin. Taxi drivers know to drop us right at our cabin door. Another trick we learned was if a taxi was immediately hailed at end of grocery shopping spree, one could buy ice cream and transport it without fear of it being completely melted by the time one arrived home.

Norman and Frankie - chatting on "laundry day"
The second couple we got to know quite well was Frankie and Norman Siegel, a retired couple who like Rob and Jeni, had become legal residents. Frankie and Norman were over 65 so they qualified for “pensionado” resident status. Pensionados receive an ID card that enables them to ride all public transportation for free ( which includes being offered first boarding options on any express buses). Flashing the card also gets them to the head of the line at hospitals and clinics. We learned a great deal from Norman and Frankie about the CAJA, Costa Rica’s government health care system. They paid about $140/month total and raved about the coverage and treatment.
We quickly slipped into a daily routine of a very slow-paced life style. It didn’t take long to become familiar with the property and many of the residents that didn’t rely on their opposing thumb and forefingers. We had purchased a couple of hummingbird feeders and once we established some feeding stations, the birds became accustomed to us and we to them. Although we were well versed in ID-ing Costa Rica birds, being able to observe and photograph their comings and going gave us much more insight into detailed behavior as well as picking up nuances in their vocalizations.

Blue-crowned Motmot
In the U.S. we were used to putting out grape jelly to attract Orioles. In Costa Rica it’s common to put out scraps of fresh mango, banana, watermelon, and papaya. Of course it wasn’t just for the birds as we enjoyed the fruits as well - but the relative low cost of the fruits made it easy to share. Nothing fancy - just lay the fruit out on top of some stumps in the yard. Build it and they will come. Blue-crowned Motmot, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Keel-billed Toucan, Brown Jay, Montezuma Oropendula,, Blue-gray Tanager, and Buff-throated Saltator were daily regulars. And for those scraps that hit the ground, agouti, a rodent species related to guinea pigs, scavenged anything the birds discarded. They were specially attracted to pineapple rinds.

Vegetation in the yard attracted several more bird species, many on a daily basis. Linneated Woodpecker, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Dusky-capped and Boat-billed Flycatchers, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, and Stripe-throated Hermit. All in all we recorded seeing and hearing 77 species of birds including Long-tailed Manakin, a particularly striking member of the Pipridae family.

blue-gray tanager
brown jay
clay-colored robin (CR national bird)
cocoa woodcreeper
emerald toucanet
golden-olive woodpecker
gray-necked woodrail
rufous-tailed hummingbird
steely-vented hummingbird
stripe-throated hermit
keel-billed toucan
white-eared ground-sparrow
yellow-faced grassquit
linneated woodpecker
red-billed pigeon
rufous-capped warbler
buff-throated saltator
blue-crowned motmot
long-tailed manakin (1st year male sans blue back and long tail)

1 comment:

  1. Well done you two!! I loved following your FB pictures and videos while you were there. Learning about your experience, both in person and from these posts, gives me something to shoot for in the coming years as I look to abandon the rat race here for a life in CR.