Costa Rica: A Musical Expedition

We spent a total of eight days and traveled over 400 miles along Costa Rica’s west coast with a group of talented highschool choir students. I summarize our trip by describing what we did in each town, what we saw, and the people we met.

“I looked out my window as our behemoth of a bus went over a bridge and realized that we were above a river overpopulated by crocodiles. We traveled along several cliffs allowing us to see many coves that dotted the shoreline. It was easy to imagine a pirate ship anchored in the distant bay.”

My brother, Teddy Bjornson, is a member of the Gilroy High School Choral Ensemble. As soon as he mentioned that his choir director, Johnathan Souza, was planning to take his prestigious group on a musical tour of Costa Rica, Christopher and I were eager to join. As chaperones, along with other parents and guardians, our duty was to help keep the group of 45 participants organized and on schedule.

How we got around: Johnathan painstakingly organized the tour and obtained transportation through a company called ACIS. ACIS is a travel company specifically focused on educational class trips. It was a very well organized trip and ACIS is a great company. The Costa Rica team was also exceptional. From the moment we arrived in Costa Rica to our return to the airport, our guide and bus driver literally went everywhere with us. Our group traveled in a very large and comfortable bus (As seen below with our loyal driver along side). The bus was so large that I am still amazed that we were able to get everywhere we needed to without any trouble.

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Below is the route that we followed during our trip.

Costa Rica Trip

Location 1: San Jose 

San Jose is Costa Rica’s capital. I would definitely arrange to have a tour guide lead you around the city. It is very hectic and you can become quite lost. It is much different than any US city I have been to.

Recommended Hotel: Crowne Plaza Corobici

National Museum

We visited Costa Rica’s National Museum. Located in the middle of San Jose, the National Museum features a butterfly garden and a collection of ancient artifacts.  The Museum itself is housed in and on grounds that were once used as a Spanish Fortress to spot enemies and defend territory. In the photograph below, I am standing near a Toyota used by the museum with a view of San Jose in the distance.

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National Theater

The National Theater is one of the best historical buildings in San Jose. It was built between 1891 and 1897 and was modeled after the Paris Opera House. The theater  was originally built because upper-class Costa Ricans wanted to modernize that capital, originally being a town of only 17,000 people, to become a major stop for opera performances. Costa Ricans contributed to the theater’s construction through a special tax.

Our tour guide showed us around the theater and we had a chance to see one of the theater’s most famous murals, the “Allegory of Coffee and Bananas” painted by Italian artist J. Vila. The painting was once on the back of the no longer circulating five colon bill. Our guide informed us that the large mural was intended to be a snap-shot in time, depicting Costa Rican life in the early 20th century. However, it has some flaws because the artist never actually visited Costa Rica. For example, coffee only grows at high elevations while the painting depicts coffee growing along the sea shore. Another example is the depiction of a man holding a bunch of bananas. In the painting, the bananas are growing in the wrong direction and should be slung over the man’s shoulder.

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Location 2: Cartago

Recital at Santuario Nacional Nuestra Senora de los angeles.

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Location 3: Colon

University for Peace

Members of the choir participated in a team-building workshop to learn about the University for Peace. During that time, chaperones were free to roam and explore the grounds.

Walking along a trail, it looked as though small leaves were marching in a straight line. Upon closer inspection, the spectacle turned out to be a parade of leaf cutter ants. Leaf cutter ants are a common sight in Costa Rica. Below is a photograph of a typical Leaf cutter hill.

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Cicadas are also common in the lowland rain-forests. Below (Left) is a photograph of the remains of molted Cicada exoskeletons. These were on almost every tree. Another unexpected surprise was finding a Rhinoceros Beetle (Right). It is apparent that this is a female beetle because it has no horns.

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Choir director, Johnathan Souza getting a closer look at the Rhinoceros Beetle.

As we continued to explore the grounds, we came upon a small restaurant in the middle of the rain-forest. There, we had a traditional Costa Rican lunch of rice, black beans, fried plantains, and our choice of meat with a salad. While waiting to order, as if following a strict schedule, clouds formed overhead and a downpour of warm rain fell upon us.

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Location 4: Monteverde

Recommended Hotel: El Establo

Each morning, we woke to the distant rumble of howler monkeys calling from tree tops. El Establo was my favorite hotel that we stayed at during our time in Costa Rica. Their amenities include a swimming pool, restaurant, and very nice rooms. The hotel was built on a large property and was a half-mile walk from our building down to the entrance. In order to get down to the restaurant for meals and head out for our daily adventures, we all loaded up in several trams. The below picture was taken from the balcony of our room.

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The group posing before we say farewell to Monteverde

Monteverde:

Monteverde Cloud Forest Botanical Reserve

The Cloud Forest Botanical Reserve is a great place to see monkeys and birds. Four species of monkey live in Costa Rica: the Mantled Howler Monkey (Alouatta palliata), White-Throated Capuchin (Cebus capucinus), Central American Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri oerstedii), and Central American Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi). Below is a photo of a Central American Spider Monkey we saw. Spider monkeys prefer to stay high in the tree-tops, so it was difficult to see any without binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens. For that reason, guides brought along telescopes to make viewing easier.

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Monteverde:

Trapiche Coffee, Sugar Cane, and Cacao Plantation Tour

(I realized that I had forgotten my camera’s battery back at the hotel, so I have no pictures of our tour to show)

Here, you will get a chance to see cacao, sugar cane, and Arabica coffee growing deep within cloud-shrouded mountains and learn how each is cultivated and produced. I highly recommend this tour; especially for anyone that enjoys eating chocolate, sugar or drinking a cup of coffee.

We learned that there are four main species of coffee currently in circulation:  Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa. El Trapiche exclusively grows Arabica coffee, known for it’s gourmet qualities. A typical plant doesn’t fully mature until after about seven years and will eventually produce berries that turn deep red when ripe. These ripe berries are called “cherry” and usually have two coffee beans inside.

Our final stop was a mill used to make brown sugar. We watched fresh sugar cane get crushed and heated to a thick molasses and then had a chance to manipulate it by hand as it cooled to make the final product; it was the best brown sugar I have ever eaten.

We completed the tour by sampling Gallo de arracache served with a cup of delicious, freshly brewed coffee. Gallo de arracache is a traditional Costa Rican dish made with Arracacha, a root vegetable, as the main ingredient.

 Monteverde:

Santa Elena

Santa Elena is a small town nestled in the hills of Monteverde. It is very tourist friendly and has many gift shops and restaurants. At noon, besides having a constant trickle of tourists, many of the shops were empty of local shoppers and store owners took time to have lunch. We had a very relaxed afternoon.

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Later that same day, members of the choir practiced for their concert for mass that evening.

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As mass commenced, the clouds gathered and a heavy rain poured over the sleepy town. During the mass, stray dogs would casually  enter the church and wander about looking for hand outs. I enjoyed the casual nature of it all. It added up to be an evening that brought us closer and helped us get to know the locals.

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Monteverde:

Santamaria’s Night Walk

If you ever find yourself in Monteverde, I highly recommend taking a night walk tour with Santamaria’s. It will give you the chance to meet Costa Rica’s nocturnal residents.

Below is a photograph of a Common Bluntheaded Snake (Imantodes gemnistratus). These snakes are rear fanged and are only mildly venomous. Their prey consists primarily of lizards and frogs. These snakes are easily handle-able because they rarely strike defensively.

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Costa Rica is home to two species of sloth. While on the night tour, our guide discovered a Hoffman’s Two-Toed Sloth (photo below), which are more common at higher elevations. The other species, the Brown-throated Three-Toed Sloth, is easier to find in lowland forests.

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Location 5: Jaco

Recommended Hotel: Best Western Jaco Beach

Rain-forest Adventures Zip-Line and Canopy Tour

The zip-line and canopy tour was only a few miles from our hotel in Jaco. To get there, our bus had to leave the pavement and follow an empty dirt road that lead directly into the jungle.

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The image below makes it seem as though the jungle swollowed the aerial trams whole. Our group was extremely adventurous and everyone was game to enter the belly of the forest.

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Six species of Toucan occur in Costa Rica. We had a rare opportunity to get up-close to a group of Black-mandibled Toucans (AKA: Yellow-throated toucan).

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Jaco:

Manuel de Antonio Parque Nacional 

The Journey from our hotel in Jaco to Manuel de Antonio National Park was reminiscent of Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean. At one point, I looked out my window as our behemoth of a bus went over a bridge and realized that we were above a river overpopulated by crocodiles. We also traveled along several cliffs allowing us to see many coves that dotted the shoreline. It was easy to imagine a pirate ship anchored in the distant bay.

Manuel de Antonio National Park is a wonderful place to get close to local wildlife as well as enjoy a swim at a white sand beach. The photo below was taken at the entrance. From there, it is about a twenty minute walk to the beach. Along the way, you will have a chance to meet white-faced capuchins, sloths, squirrel monkeys, basilisk lizards, iguanas, frogs, and an occasional snake.

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Below is a photo of a Brown-throated Three-Toed Sloth (Bradypus variegatus). In this photo, the sloth is in a cecropia tree. A common myth is that these sloths feed exclusively on cecropia leaves. This is untrue and it has been reported that a pet sloth, fed exclusively on cecropia leaves, died within a few days.

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Brown-throated Three-Toed Sloth

Because Manuel Antonio is in Costa Rica’s lowlands, it can become very warm and humid. Staying hydrated is important and we made sure to pack plenty of water.

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Teddy trying to stay cool and hydrated.

Capuchin monkeys are very common at Manuel de Antonio. While we swam, our guide kept watch to keep the monkeys from rummaging through our backpacks and stealing our belongings.

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Beach at Manuel de Antonio

Sources:

Most of the information in this article was given by guides we met along the way, but specific information was obtained from the following sources:

Wainwright, Mark. The Mammals of Costa Rica. Zona Tropical, 2007.

Munoz, Federico, and Richard Dennis Johnston. Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica. Zona Tropical, 2013.

Purchase the books here:

The Mammals of Costa Rica: A Natural History and Field Guide (Zona Tropical Publications)

Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica: A Pocket Guide (Zona Tropical Publications)

Website links:

Hotels:

Crowne Plaza Corobici

El Establo

Best Western Jaco Beach

Attractions:

UPeace

El Trapiche Tour

Night Walk Santamaria’s

Rainforest Adventure Zipline and Canopy Tour

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