Costa Rica’s parks offer diversions beyond wildlife

By Margaux Henquinet 

SANTA ROSA, Costa Rica — With their many, many plant and animal species and their impressive histories of leadership in conservation, the parks of Costa Rica are any nature lover’s dream.

But the parks’ offerings go beyond natural history. If you’re tired of trying to remember the difference between a trogon and a turkey, take a break for a history lesson at Santa Rosa National Park or a “treasure hunt” at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

La Casona of Santa Rosa National Park

Up a small hill in Santa Rosa National Park, a house sits in front of a large cattle ring. It’s nothing glamorous — just a few sturdy rooms on three levels, surrounding an open courtyard.

Costa Ricans, however, recognize the house as La Casona, the site of one of the most significant battles in the country’s history. The building has been turned into a museum, where a series of signs tell its story.

Since 1663, the land surrounding the Casona was a cattle ranch. Located on the road between Nicaragua and Liberia, Costa Rica, the house became a popular place for travelers to stop, said Johan Martínez, a guide who works at the park.

In 1855, William Walker, a journalist and lawyer from Nashville, Tenn., was looking to set up colonies in Central America and to spread slavery. He and his mercenaries found their place in Nicaragua, which had been fighting a civil war.

Eventually, Walker set his sights on Costa Rica. He wanted to establish a government and make the country part of the United States.

In response to Walker’s actions, Costa Rican President Juan Rafael “Juanito” Mora Porras declared war on the Nicaraguan government in February 1856.

Costa Rican troops were sent to Nicaragua from the country’s capital, San José. They waited in Liberia, which ended up being “like a party,” Martínez said.

“Everyone thought this was something that we had to do together,” he said.

Walker’s mercenaries — he himself was not present — made their way toward Liberia, intending to take Guanacaste province before moving on through the country, Martínez said. On their way there, in March 1856, they stopped at the Casona.

Costa Rican troops saw from a nearby hill that Walker’s men were at the house, and they planned to surround the home, then attack.

In the 14-minute battle that followed, 26 of Walker’s men and 20 Costa Ricans were killed, Martinez said.

The battle was considered an important victory for Costa Rica, and the house, which also was the site of two later battles, is still a symbol of national pride.

After almost 80 percent of the Casona was destroyed by arson in 20o1, Costa Ricans donated 130 million colones of the 167 million  required to rebuild it.

A monument atop the hill behind the home commemorates the men who died during that battle and others, and plaque out front carries a boast made by Francisco J. Orlich, president of Costa Rica from 1962 to 1966:

“El que con aviesa intencion invade Costa Rica, de Santa Rosa no pasa.”

“He who invades Costa Rica with bad intentions does not pass Santa Rosa.”

The quetzals of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Chris Vargas, owner of the Pensión Manakín hotel in Monteverde, said 80 percent of his visitors who come to visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve are there exclusively to see one bird: the Resplendant Quetzal.

The visitors come from faraway Europe or nearby Guatemala, where the quetzal is the national bird, Vargas said.

Unfortunately for them, spotting the bird is no easy feat. Vargas said he has been out looking for quetzals more than 50 times, and he has only seen one about 15 times.

The reserve has hundreds of bird species, many that aren’t as hard to find. So what’s the big deal with this one?

The quetzal is especially popular for three reasons, said Marcos Mendez, a freelance guide who gives tours in the reserve.

First, it is a beautiful bird.

The elusive quetzal can be hard to get a good view of, even when working with a good scope. Photo by Marcos Mendez

The elusive quetzal can be hard to view clearly, even when working with a good scope. This female was spotted during a tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve on Jan. 4. Photo by Marcos Mendez

Still, finding a quetzal is worth the effort. The bird is beautiful and rare. Photo via flickr/qmnonic

Still, finding a quetzal is worth the effort. The bird is beautiful and rare. Photo via flickr/qmnonic

The quetzal’s back and wings are covered in small scales, making the feathers there iridescent. Depending on the light, they can be turquoise or green, bright or pale. Quetzals’ bright bellies can include red, orange or white, depending on the bird’s gender.

Male quetzals also have long, blue-green feathers that hang down like tails.

Second, the quetzal is rare. It is only seen at a certain elevation in cloud forests between southern Mexico and Panama, Mendez said.

“Finding a quetzal today is like finding gold,” he said after one was spotted on a Jan. 4 tour.

The third reason, Mendez said, is that some people associate the quetzal with a god.

Because it looks like a snake when it flies, people connect it to Quetzalcoatl, one of the main gods in pre-Columbian cultures, Mendez said.

Quetzalcoatl was also known as the Feathered Serpent, according to the online Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

The bird is also associated with fertility, strength and beauty, Mendez said.

Vargas said that he finds the quetzal beautiful because it is hard to find.

“It’s like a treasure,” he said.

If you’re looking to join the hunt for the elusive quetzal, Vargas recommended going out early in the morning, between 5:30 and 9 a.m., when the bird wakes up and looks for breakfast.

Both Vargas and Mendez noted that quetzals eat a kind of wild avocado. Keep an eye out for some of those and you might be able to spot Costa Rica’s feathered treasure.

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