Sacha Lodge: Amazon Adventure Part 2

Sacha Lodge’s canopy walk, 30 m above the forest floor.

When last we met, gentle reader, I was lost deep within the Amazon jungle, pitifully dehydrated and starved, surrounded by merciless headhunters and savage wild animals, swooning in the steadying embrace of my brave companion, as we faced, unarmed, the rapid onslaught of a particularly bloodthirsty-looking individual.

“Lemonade, madame?” he inquires solicitously, proffering a tray of iced fruity drinks.

This is the conundrum and delight of Sacha Lodge: there is no question that you are in the rainforest, light years away from any town. There are piranhas in the lagoon, caimans directly underneath the boardwalk upon which you stand, tamarin monkeys swinging nonchalantly overhead, and tarantulas within armsreach. Yet your weightiest decision is whether to choose fish or beef for your main course. I’ve always been more than a little timid about the dangers of the Amazon, but—as with so many things—once you’re actually there, it all seems exciting and fun rather than threatening.

That’s not to say there aren’t safety concerns. As we sipped those welcoming drinks, the manager gave us the orientation talk with all its do’s and don’ts. We were assigned two guides and given our own little tour group, probably because, being birders, we were the odd ones out. (Trust me, no sane person wants to be stuck in a group with birders.)

Our four-night stay was quite regimented: up every morning by 5 am when the guide knocks on your door. Breakfast at 5:30, hit the trail—or the canoe—at 6:00. The guides decide your destination. One morning, you climb the canopy walk (30 m of stairs). Another morning, you take a different 30 m of stairs to a platform atop a massive kapok tree. A third day, you might go on a longer canoe ride to more distant birding areas. What gets done when depends on the weather and the interests of the guests.

Back at the lodge by 10:30, you find that you are peckish (after all, breakfast was a loooong time ago), so naturally, there’s a snack waiting for you out in the open-air dining pavilion. Then a bit of leisure time before lunch, followed by more relaxation during the hottest hours of the afternoon. Take a swim in the lagoon, read, catch up on your sleep.

At 4 pm, you’re out again with your guides for more exploration, in our case, via small canoe up the various waterways (see previous post “Birding By Boat”) where the wildlife-spotting opportunities change constantly. Birding is a challenge, as the area boasts nearly 500 species, many from families completely foreign to us: antbirds, manakins, jacamars, woodcreepers, etc.

Hoatzin

The first day, we easily spot one of my targets for the trip: the primitive hoatzin with its funky hairstyle, clambering awkwardly through the trees. The next day, we find the boat-billed heron, huge dark eyes peering through the gloom. On the last day, I spot a massive anaconda on the bank less than a metre from our boat. And monkeys, always monkeys, noisily feeding and moving through the forest: capuchins, red howlers, squirrel monkeys, night monkeys, tamarins.

As darkness arrives, you head back to the lodge for the most formal meal of the day, when guests compare notes on what they’ve done and seen that day and wrestle with the aforementioned challenge of choosing between several tasty menu options.

Finally, you stagger back to your cabin and fall into bed, not minding at all that it’s only 9 pm. You might struggle to stay awake for a few minutes to enjoy the deafening chorus of night sounds, frogs, insects, and lord knows what else, competing to be heard a few inches from where you are laying your head, but you won’t win that battle for long. Before you know it, that 5:00 knock is tapping at your door.

“This is like summer camp for grown-ups,” my husband pointed out. I don’t know if he was referring to the early lights-out, the structured, supervised activities, or the joy of being outdoors all day, every day, but overall, I think he hit the nail on the head. It wasn’t all fun and games—hiking in stifling heat and humidity while giant carnivorous flies attempt to harvest chunks of your flesh right through your clothes is not my idea of a good time—but it was all worth it. Sacha Lodge provides a superb adventure for those of us who dream of the Amazonian jungle but like our comfy beds at night.

Do’s and Don’ts for Sacha Lodge

  • Do not forget to count your malaria pills before you leave home. (See previous posting “Malarial Muddle.”)
  • Do not forget to stock up on high-powered insect repellent before you leave home. You may not find any in Quito.
  • Do not worry about being clumsy when climbing in and out of the little canoes; I’ve already set a Guinness World Record for awkwardness that is unlikely to be beaten any time soon. Besides, the guides do take good care of you.
  • If you have the time, do take the car trip down from Quito to Coca rather than flying. It’s a beautiful way to see the mountains. You can fly back, so you don’t have to do the drive up.
  • Do bring a swimsuit so that you can enjoy the lagoon pool. Probably the only chance you’ll ever have to swim in the Amazon waters.
  • When the guide offers you a rain slicker, do not be brave or stoic or think you know better. Take the d**n thing or you will regret it. I was already wearing a rain jacket and a rain poncho and thought the one he offered would be extraneous. Wrong. Welcome to Ecuador, where two raincoats are not enough.
  • The lagoon at sunset.

Gadgets: The Cotton Carrier

The Cotton Carrier camera harness for single camera. Photo from cottoncarrier.com.

The problem with photography as a hobby is that the more “into” it you get, the more and heavier the equipment you have to shlepp around. You may start with a modest little point-and-shoot weighing a few ounces, but before you know it, you’re staggering down the trail with multiple camera bodies dangling from your neck, extra lenses the size of oil drums stashed in your pockets, and a tripod crushing one shoulder. Of course, all that weight in the front is balanced out by your 50-lb photo backpack and you can use your monopod as a walking pole to keep you upright.

I am, therefore, always keen to check out gear that promises increased efficiency, accessibility, and/or ergonomics.

A couple of months ago, I began shopping for a camera harness, a rig that is designed to carry a camera (or cameras) close to your body with comfort and security. The idea is to take the weight off your neck and distribute it more evenly around your torso while ensuring that the camera does not swing around awkwardly, damaging you, it, or anything else. Knowing that during an upcoming trip I would be doing a lot of climbing in and out of small, tippy boats, as well as some challenging (by my standards) hiking, I thought the harness might be just the ticket.

After some research, I settled on the Cotton Carrier CCS G3. I was about to order it from a US online photo-specialty supplier, when I realized that the manufacturer is located in my own city. This meant I could avoid paying duty and the exchange rate while supporting a local business. Bonus!

On opening the box, first impressions were good. The materials are sturdy and of high quality. I had the straps fitted to my body in a few moments. Attaching the special mount (hub) to my lens mount took a bit of thought, but wasn’t difficult. As I used the supplied Allen wrench to tighten the screw, I wryly calculated how long it would take me to lose that vital tool.* Small objects tend to go missing easily in the flurry of highly-focused activity around a good bird sighting in the field.

I followed the diagram to slide in and lock the camera/lens in place, snapped on the safety tether (which is your final line of defense in case the camera somehow comes loose from the harness), and clipped the lens strap across my long, 300 mm lens so it wouldn’t jiggle from side to side, and voila, I was ready to hit the trail.

On that test hike, I found wearing the harness and camera took a bit of getting used to: I’m pretty soft and having the straps over my shoulders was tiring. The weight of the heavy lens right on my diaphragm made me uncomfortably conscious of my breathing. As it began to rain, I smugly pulled out the supplied rain cover, only to discover that it isn’t long enough for a camera + 300 mm lens. Gnashing of teeth. I wondered if I would actually use this gadget enough to make it worth the investment.

Happily, I had the opportunity to put the harness to a more definitive test on a month-long photo trip to Ecuador.

I quickly became accustomed to wearing the harness. It was easy off and on with one snap buckle (although you do have to lift it over your head if you only release one buckle). I really liked the twist-and-lock attachment; secure even when I was clambering in those aforementioned small canoes, yet allowing quick access to my camera. I did carry a plastic bag in case of rain (and boy, did it rain!)

Using it when sight-seeing in the city felt a bit pretentious but there was no way anyone could snatch my camera when it was locked in place.

I worried about transferring the camera onto my monopod. You can do this without removing the Cotton Carrier “hub” but I wasn’t sure how secure it would be, as the screw that anchors the whole assembly is quite short. However, I didn’t have any problems with my 300 mm. A larger lens might be an issue.

During this trip, I used my heavy rig so much that I actually developed repetitive stress and numbness in my right thumb, so I was very glad to be able to relieve that strain by carrying the camera on the carrier rather than in my hand. That alone was worth the price.

The harness in use, showing the safety tether. Note how the camera hangs downward when locked into the harness, keeping it close to your body.

Most importantly, I had the gratifying experience of receiving assessing looks and some queries from other photogs at the birding lodges where we stayed. Considering that most of them nonchalantly toted lenses three times the size of mine (yes, size does matter), I desperately needed some edge in the cool gear department.

My single-camera harness retails on the Cotton website for $153 Cdn. For those who want to access a second camera or binoculars, Cotton carries a harness for you, too.

*As it turned out, about six weeks. However, it’s not hard to replace. Maybe carry a spare, just to be safe.

Got gadgets for photography or travel? Share your favourite in a comment.

Ecuador’s Magic Birding Circuit

San Jorge de Tandayapa Lodge

 

Arriving in Ecuador, our first stop, San Jorge Quito, was part of the “Magic Birding Circuit,” a group of lodges under single management. Including Quito, Tandayapa, and Milpe, we spent a total of nine nights on the Circuit, a considerable investment of time and money. Would I recommend it? Yes—but with qualifications.

Things I loved: comfortable rooms (big bonus points for the in-room fireplace at the Quito lodge, a necessity for drying wet shoes and clothes after a wet hike), friendly staff (although most speak/understand little English), lovely locations, reliable transfers, feeders to attract birds, Milpe’s three-level bird-watching “tower,” Tandayapa’s views over a sweeping valley and into the treetops. From what I observed, the guides associated with the Circuit (freelancers, I believe) were knowledgeable and handled their groups well.

Sometimes there were little annoyances, like the person servicing the room carrying off all the towels for washing without giving us any new towels. In one lodge, they provided a single roll of toilet paper in the room and failed to notice when that roll was about to run out (which it did in the middle of the night, of course), so we had to dip into the emergency supply we carried in our luggage.

The first night at Tandayapa, we returned to our bungalow to find that someone had helpfully turned on the light beside our door. Unfortunately, this meant that our door was now covered in hundreds of moths. Although we turned off the light and shooed away as many as we could, it was impossible to open the door and enter without taking a cloud of insects with us. We spent much energy that evening capturing critters and throwing them outside, but I still woke up several times during the night when some large moth blundered into my face.

The food was fine, wholesome and plentiful. However, after several days, we found the Ecuadorian-based menu became a bit monotonous, and by the end of our nine days, I was ready to kill for a pizza or sandwich. It would have been nice to have more variation in the menu.

Tables and chairs in the open-air dining area of San Jorge de Milpe.

Speaking of meals, I’m not one to pay much attention to dining room furniture; as long as it’s functional, I take it pretty much for granted. However, in this case, it was as if someone who never actually used tables and chairs had chosen them. I began my relationship with the chairs at Tandayapa by immediately toppling over and dumping myself onto a very hard floor. Examining the chair after this painful encounter, I discovered that the legs of the chair were set so far in that anyone who did not sit exactly in the middle of the seat would suffer a similar ignominy. At the Milpe lodge, the chairs, constructed of raw, natural tree branches, are so assertively knobbly and uncomfortable that guests dubbed them The Iron Throne. The tables are perfectly constructed to the specifications of some alien race with no anterior limbs, as there is a spindle under each situated in the exact position to torture bipeds: too high to get your feet over it, too low to get your knees under it, so you are forced to sit far back from the table with your legs indecently splayed. In addition, these tables are also cleverly made of free-form tree limbs, creating such an uneven surface that guests’ drinks are constantly falling over.

But these are minor things.

More importantly, because we did not book as part of a tour with a guide, we found that sometimes we lacked useful information about the lodges. We would be shown to our room, told when the next meal would happen, and that was it. For other info, we had to dig around on our own or ask other guests. For example, we didn’t realize that we could request coffee/tea between meals until we saw other guests doing this. At the Tandayapa lodge, which is quite remote, we were unaware that there was a nearby hummingbird reserve that we could visit via some simple arrangements. Luckily, I overheard one of the other guests mentioning it, so we didn’t miss out on this beautiful site, but the experience did leave me wondering what other things we weren’t told. I understand that in a situation where we don’t speak Spanish and the staff speak minimal English, communication can be limited. However, the lodges could easily provide a sheet of basic information available in a variety of languages.

A few other suggestions for improvement:

  • I feel that if you book nine nights with the same company, they could provide free transfers between their properties. Currently, there is a significant charge for this service.
  • Similarly, I think they could offer a small discount for booking so many nights.
  • For Gawd’s sake, put extra rolls of TP in the rooms. I promise I won’t steal them.
  • Bread. No one wants to eat eggs for breakfast every morning, nor should they. (Can you say high cholesterol, boys and girls?) Guests were joking that they couldn’t wait to eat toast again. I was craving bread like you wouldn’t believe. Give me a fresh-baked roll and I’m a happy camper.

In summary:

Although it was interesting to stay in the old hacienda at San Jorge de Quito, we didn’t find it particularly “birdy.” We used it as a rest stop to acclimatize to the altitude and recover from jet lag, but you could find cheaper places to do that in Quito. I know that the tour groups did day trips from the lodge, so perhaps that made the location a better option, but for us, with no car and no guide, three nights was definitely too long. I wouldn’t recommend this lodge for avid birders.

If traveling without a guide, two nights at Tandayapa and two at Milpe would be enough. Perhaps if you’re far fitter than I and relish the prospect of hikes along dark, rough, muddy, slippery, hilly trails, you might enjoy an extra day in Milpe. Being a Lazy Birder, that really isn’t my cup of tea. Since the weather was bad, we spent a lot of time there sitting in the (covered) tower space waiting for the birds to come to the surrounding trees. Pleasant enough, but an expensive way to idle away your time.

We liked Tandayapa the best, although, to be fair, we had better weather there than in Quito or Milpe, so I’m sure that makes me biased.

Overall, the three lodges of the Magic Birding Circuit that we visited provide an enjoyable introduction to birding Ecuador. However, I’m not sure they are any better than similar lodges that may charge less. While it is tempting to embrace the “easy package” approach offered by the San Jorge lodges (and I fell for that myself), I would suggest you do further research and don’t rule out alternatives.

Toucan barbet photographed from the viewing lounge/dining area at Tandayapa.

Ecuador for Lazy Birders

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. We hope to see this funky dude on our trip–as long as it doesn’t take too much effort. Image source: neotropicalecuador.com

So, the Great Big Map of Ecuador is up on my kitchen wall, coloured dots marking destinations. After months of planning, the itinerary is finally in place. The central focus of this trip will be seeing and photographing as many birds as possible—within the constraints of a fairly leisurely and comfortable journey. Ecuador boasts over 1600 species of birds, so even without lengthy or steep hikes, extensive domestic travel, or rough locations, I figure we should tally a good number. Yes, even without visiting the Galapagos, which we decided had to wait for a future trip. Although the itinerary is built around birding, I hope to include dashes of local culture and points of interest.

After much research and dithering, I settled on flights from Vancouver to Quito via San Francisco and Panama City. The price was significantly better than one-stop flights (partly because I used points for the YVR to SFO leg), the departure and arrival times more convenient, and the total flight time not bad, considering the two stops. This plan also allowed me to build in a couple of nights in San Francisco to take in the sights and it falls within my winter travel imperative to avoid east-coast routes with their attendant risk of snowstorms and nightmare layovers.

My immediate goal upon arriving in Quito is to rest up and acclimatize to the altitude, so I’ve kept the first few days simple and quiet: three nights in the San Jorge Eco-lodge and Botanical Reserve just outside the city. We’ll spend those days checking out the bird feeders and walking their private trails and probably not much else.

The San Jorge group of lodges form what their promo likes to call “The Magic Birding & Photography Circuit.” It’s a smart idea: offer travellers a variety of lodges located in different bioclimatic zones (read: more species) with comfortable accommodations that cater specifically to birders and other nature nuts. I admit, I fell for it and ended up booking three of their properties, starting in Quito.

Just before the weekend, we’ll head off for one of Ecuador’s must-do’s, the Saturday artisan market at Otavalo, staying two nights at the Hostal Doña Esther. If time permits, we’ll try for the Parque Condor bird of prey centre housing rescued raptors.

Next, back to the “Magic Birding Circuit” for three nights at the San Jorge de Tandayapa Eco-lodge and three at San Jorge de Milpe. Both lodges promise comfy rooms, good food, and features such as feeders, birding trails, ponds, and waterfalls. All of the San Jorge lodges offer packages with guides included, but I opted for bed and board only, preferring to explore independently.

Two nights in Quito will provide a short break from the birding lodges, although a planned tour to nearby Antisanilla Reserve should yield some sightings, including Andean Condor nesting sites (fingers crossed). We’ll try to squeeze in some time at the Museo Etnohistorico de Artesanias del Ecuador Mindalae (Whew! That’s a mouthful.), which happens to be located just around the corner from our snooze site, Hostal de la Rabida.

Heading east through the Andes, we’ll spend three nights at the Wildsumaco Lodge poised between the mountains and the lowlands. On the first morning, I’ve booked a half-day of guiding for an introduction to the area and its creatures.

Sacha Lodge. Image source: sachalodge.com

Then it’s down to the town of Coca to connect with our small boat up the Napa River to Sacha Lodge, deep in the Amazonian rainforest. Visiting the Amazon jungle is on my bucket list, so I’m trying to keep my sky-high expectations under control. I hope we get the chance to visit the clay lick where hundreds of parrots gather to supplement their diets with healthful minerals.

We’ll fly back to Quito just in time for the week-long fiesta leading up to the holiday that celebrates the founding of the city. Music, street parties, and sightseeing in the Old Town should fill up our days and we’ll spend our nights at the Casa el Eden, recommended by a friend of a friend. Somewhere along the line, I’m sure we’ll find time to check out the chocolate, coffee, and helado (ice cream) shops.

Does this itinerary sound like fun or folly? Let me know what you think in a comment.

Quito mural. Image source: muralcomunitario.com

Monteverde Hummingbird Gallery

One of the beauties at the Monteverde Hummingbird Gallery. Photo by Marian Buechert.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t enchanted by hummingbirds. With their tiny size, iridescent colours, and seemingly supersonic speed, they delight everyone from toddlers to hoary ancient birdwatchers.

Where I live, we get two—occasionally three—species. At the gallery and hummingbird garden located across from the entrance to the Monteverde National Park in Costa Rica, visitors can indulge in a dozen species that regularly feed there.

This is a place to revel in the sheer quantity and easy accessibility of hummers on view. They zip by, flashing shining hues of green, gold, blue, bronze, red, purple, and turquoise, so intent on their meal that they pay little mind to the hulking humans gawking at them. If you stand in their usual flight path, they will impatiently whiz by within an inch of your ear. If you position yourself beside a feeder and hold your hands over the perches, the birds will land on your fingers and proceed with their meal.

Violet sabrewing. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The largest hummingbird in Costa Rica (and the largest found outside South America), the violet sabrewing, is a common sight. At 15 cm (5.9 in) long, it dwarfs many of the other species such as the coppery-headed emerald, which is a diminutive 7.6 cm (3 in) in size. Yet size is no indicator of temperament, and the sabrewing is less combative than some of its relatives. The mountain violetear (formerly called the green violet-ear), for example, aggressively warns off others by flaring its purple ear feathers, something impossible to see without a camera to capture the action.

Mountain violetear showing his fancy ear-muffs. Photo by Marian Buechert.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog how I’m a wimpy birder, and it doesn’t get much easier than this: sitting in the shade on a comfy bench surrounded by multiple feeders that attract scores of bright and active birds, with the bonus of a café steps away where you can buy a cold drink or ice cream whenever the sweat beads on your upper lip. Oh yeah, this is the life. Pura vida, indeed.

When we visited four years ago, the garden was free, with donations gratefully accepted and an unspoken obligation to buy something from the café or gift shop. After poking around on the Web a bit, I see that they seem to be charging $5 admission fee now. Regardless, it is worth the money. We spent several hours watching the various feeders and trying to count the number of species present. And taking photos, of course. Lots and lots of photos.

Are you a hummingbird lover? Let me know in a comment?

Male purple-throated mountain gem. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Female purple-throated mountain gem. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The hummers at Monteverde are acclimatized to the close presence of humans.

Female green-crowned brilliant. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Mountain violetear. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Male green-crowned brilliant. Photo by Marian Buechert.

 

Calidris Reads: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

A Guide to the Birds
of East Africa

Nicholas Drayson

Read for: A longed-for return visit to Africa

First sentence: “’Ah yes,’ said Rose Mbikwa, looking up at the large dark bird with elegant tail soaring high above the car park of the Nairobi Museum, ‘a black kite. Which is, of course, not black but brown.’”

The comparison to Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is inevitable, so let’s tackle that straight off. This book is very similar in length and in style to Smith’s hugely successful franchise. A Guide is equally character-driven and provides the same fascinating glimpses into the idiosyncrasies of African life. So if you are a fan of Mma Ramotswe and her world, you will very likely enjoy Mr. Malik and his.

There are some differences, however. I welcomed the fresh perspective of a “person of colour” (that is, in African terms, someone who is neither black nor white; in this case, Indian in origin). And, being a birder, I enjoyed the link to the often-wacky world of “twitching,” although I would have been even more impressed if the characteristics of the many bird species mentioned somehow contributed to the plot rather than simply being catalogued.

I found fewer laughs in A Guide, either because there was less humour intended or because I didn’t find the writing particularly funny. The book is quirky and amusing but has less out-loud chortle moments. The picture painted of Kenya—and Nairobi in particular—is darker than Smith’s bucolic Botswana. I suspect that Botswana tourism tripled in the wake of the No 1 Ladies’ TV show, as busloads of fans who had never previously heard of Botswana eagerly sought out the dusty roads, sleepy towns, and friendly people drinking bush tea who feature so prominently in Smith’s books. A Guide, however, is more likely to make visitors shy away from Kenya. (Unless they are birders, of course. But birders are crazy, and have no survival instinct, as we all know.)

I really liked the way Drayson slowly unfolds the character of Mr. Malik throughout the novel and I’m looking forward to more adventures arising from his various strengths and weaknesses.

4 knots Recommended (non-birders) 5 knots Highly recommended (birders)

Kakadu National Park, Australia

Cattle egrets fly over a billabong in Kakadu.

“You’re going to the North? What for? There’s nothing there but crocs and stinking heat.”

This was the encouraging conversation I had with someone from Queensland, Australia, when I mentioned that our next destination was the Northern Territory. Given that Queensland itself has no shortage of either crocs or heat, his opinion of the north was worth noting.

The answer to his question was simple, however: Kakadu. The park had been on my bucket list since we watched Kakadu: Australia’s Ancient Wilderness, part of the PBS series “The Living Edens.”

Recognized as a World Heritage Site for both its natural environment and its cultural significance (thanks to over 20,000 years of Aboriginal occupation), it’s one of those places that you don’t get to by accident. You’re not toodling along a pleasant country lane when you notice a sign “This way to Kakadu” and you decide on the spur of the moment—because you have nothing to do between lunch and teatime—to pop in for a bit of a look-see.

From the west coast of North America, we flew 17-plus hours to Cairns (in Queensland) and then a further 2.5 hours to Darwin, the closest town. We then drove 3 hours to get to the centre of the park, the little village of Jabiru, where we rented a tiny cabin for four days.

Yes, it was stinking hot. And yes, we saw lots of crocs. But we also saw thousands of birds, remote and unforgiving landscapes, peaceful billabongs, and awe-inspiring rock paintings.

Kakadu isn’t always this dry and dusty; we visited in August, probably the driest part of the year.

The magpie geese are plentiful and happy after a season of good eating.

 

Little corella in Jabiru town.

Sunrise on the Yellow River cruise.

Nanking heron hiding along the Yellow River.

White-bellied sea eagle enjoying her breakfast along the Yellow River.

Gum tree.

Great egret spear-fishing.

Big croc on the Yellow River.

Rainbow bee eater.

Billabong. Yes, as in: “Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong….”

Forest kingfisher.

Aboriginal rock art.

Rock painting of Tasmanian wolf.

Red-collared lorikeet

Loved this Wicked Campers Beatles tribute spotted in a Kakadu parking lot.

Vingerklip Lodge

The road to Vingerklip.

During my years of travel, I’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels, motels, lodges, inns, and b&bs, from an elephant stable in South Africa to a monastery in Trinidad. Most were completely forgettable; comfortable to a greater or lesser degree, but nondescript. Some I remember because of the bloodstains on the wall, the dead rat in the hallway, the bullet holes in the door, or the bed that collapsed under me as I slept. Ah, the “adventurous” side of travel!

Then there are the ones that leap to mind as soon as I reminisce about the highlights of past journeys—like the Vingerklip Lodge in the Ugab Valley of northwest Namibia, where we paused on our way from Etosha National Park to the coastal town of Swakopmund. We had spent a week in the park on safari, and while we hadn’t exactly been roughing it there, we were looking for a few plush and easy days of rest.

The lodge is named for the nearby Vingerklip rock “finger” that towers above the surrounding flatlands. You can hike to the bottom (if you want to brave the blistering heat), but other than that, there’s not a lot to do in the immediate area; no impressive herds of wildlife, no manmade entertainment. It’s really in the middle of nowhere. No, my enjoyment had nothing to do with outside activities and everything to do with the lodge itself.

One of the pools set into the hillside.

Set in a stunning location surrounded by rock plateaus and formations, the lodge features lovely arid gardens with many inviting nooks and crannies where you can sit and relax. Swing seats, loungers, chairs, umbrellas, tables, and benches are scattered around the grounds. There is a hot tub and two pools, cleverly located one on each side of the hill, so that no matter the time of day, one pool always has shade. Birds, butterflies, and small lizards find their own corners to feed, rest, or sun themselves.

The lounge, bar, and restaurant are top-notch. As per the usual African lodge custom, meals are presented buffet-style, but the quality and variety staggers the mind, while the number of food attendants assures that you get exactly the cut of meat you prefer or a custom-prepared dish.

For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, book a meal at their Eagle’s Nest restaurant, perched on top of a nearby plateau—you hike a long path and clamber up a staircase to get to it. The climb and the view is spectacular, but not for people who are afraid of heights or can’t manage a lot of stairs! You can also just climb up for the view and not have dinner; it’s free. If you want dinner, be sure to book as early as possible; the restaurant is small, and popular among guests.

Our room was okay but could have used some refurbishing. The latch for the sliding door to the bathroom had the hook mounted on the wrong side of the door, while the toilet seat had two puncture marks that looked like something had sunk its fangs into it. (What bites toilet seats??? Quite a worrisome idea when you think about it….) On the up side, the room boasted a nice porch looking over the isolated landscape and a small, lightly used, waterhole.

Ruppell’s parrot (above) and rosy-faced lovebirds (below) visiting the drippy pipes outside our window.

In any case, as birders, we were prepared to overlook any minor flaws in the room in favour of its unique feature, one that I doubt ever showed up in a promo brochure. From the side of the porch, we looked onto a large water cistern. The tank itself was covered, but the pipes and faucets leaked and dripped. In a place surrounded by bone-dry desert, any source of water becomes a magnet for birds. We had an unbeatable view of the birds that arrived in flocks to drink, including the local specialty, Ruppell’s parrot, and the charming rosy-faced lovebirds.

At night, stargazing in the desert-clear air and comfortable temperatures was all the entertainment we needed.

Day visitors are also welcomed at Vingerklip Lodge; check out their website for more info.

Is there a special lodge, hotel, inn, or b&b you discovered while traveling that lingers in your memory? Let’s hear about it in a comment.

Vingerklip room with rock escarpment behind.

 

Calidris Compares: National Birds

Quetzal.

The recent debate in Canada about designating a national bird got me thinking about a couple of other “national birds” I’ve encountered.

Country: Guatemala

National bird: Resplendent quetzal

Without doubt, one of the most spectacular birds on Earth. With a metre-long tail cascading behind him, the male sports iridescent plumage on his head, back, and wings that shimmers from green to blue to gold, depending on the light, while his breast and belly are scarlet red.

The quetzal’s tail feathers were prized by the Aztecs and Maya, who viewed the bird as the god of the air and as an embodiment of goodness and light. Because it was long believed that the quetzal could not live in captivity, it was also seen as a symbol of liberty.

The quetzal is a celebrity who values its privacy; I once spent an entire day with a specialist guide in the mountains of Costa Rica, seeking the elusive bird. When we finally heard and then saw one magnificent male high in a tree, it was truly breathtaking. We enjoyed its company for a couple of minutes, then off it flew, trailing those fantastic tail feathers.

The quetzal must be the only bird on Earth to have a currency named after it: the Guatemalan quetzal (currently worth about 18 Canadian cents).

Reason for being named national bird: If being the flashiest feathered fellow in the forest wasn’t enough, there’s that historic association with freedom, always a popular theme in nationalism.

Clay-coloured robin.

Country: Costa Rica

National bird: Clay-coloured robin

The name gives you everything you need to know about the appearance of this bird: it looks very like our American robin, but with feathers the colour of dried mud. The Latin name is no better: Turdus grayi. Where the quetzal is resplendent, this robin is clay-coloured, with no markings. And where the Guatemalan symbol is scarce and hard to find, the Costa Rican bird—known as yigüirro to localsis ubiquitous, hopping around human habitation everywhere from city lawns and gardens to rural fields.

On a nature tour near the Arenal Volcano, I asked the guide why, with so many gorgeous birds to choose from, Costa Rica settled on the humble robin. I must admit, I half expected him to say, well, the quetzal was already taken. But his response, while slightly defensive in tone, as though he was weary of having to champion the drab and commonplace bird, was enlightening.

Firstly, the yigüirro has a lovely song (actually quite similar to the American robin’s, to my ear), which Ticos value more than brilliant plumage. That song is most typically heard at the start of the green season, which has led farmers to associate hearing it with the arrival of much-needed rains.

In addition, the clay-coloured robin is found everywhere in Costa Rica, is seen often by everyone, and is thus a better representative of the country as a whole than a bird with a limited range. Because it lives in close association with humans, the yigüirro has become a feature in Tico culture, appearing in folk songs, poems, and stories.

Two countries, two very different national birds. The quetzal is the Cher of the bird world, undeniably exotic, inimitable, and eye-catching, an obvious candidate for glorification. The clay-coloured robin is more like the guy at the hardware store who helps you find the right size of screw: affable, down to earth, getting the job done. Although I initially questioned the Costa Rican choice, I now feel that the clay-coloured robin is an apt symbol for the Ticos I observed: not flamboyant, but going about the business of day-to-day living with an unpretentious determination and a song in the heart.

What national birds do you know? Do you think they are good representatives of their countries? Let me know in a comment.

Resplendent Cher.

Clay-coloured hardware guy.

Calidris Reads: Costa Rica

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Costa Rica:
A traveler’s literary companion

Edited by Barbara Ras

First sentence from one of the stories: “Pressed against the run-down schoolhouse, the chumico tree bears a miraculous fruit for the poor child who can’t afford marbles.”

I really wanted to like these stories, but I found I just couldn’t get into them. Perhaps because much of the work is translated. Maybe I’m just a shallow and unsophisticated reader and this represents serious modern literary fiction. I would finish one piece with relief and think “Maybe the next one will be more appealing” but it wasn’t. I didn’t find that the stories gave me the sense of place that I’m looking for when I choose a book to travel with.

2 knots (Not recommended)

 

The Jewel Hunter

Chris Gooddie

Opening: “Blood pounded in my ears. My heart rate was up in the stratosphere. I crouched on a disused hunting trail in a remote forest in southwest Sumatra.”

We all read it. We all loved it. But we’re birders. It’s a quirky, humorous true tale of how the author gave up a lucrative job to spend a year criss-crossing the globe in a quest to see every species of pitta. Pittas are reclusive, sometimes rare, birds that lurk deep in forests, so his success was by no means assured. Along the way, he comments on food, people, places, and adventures he encounters, as well as sharing the lists he creates. Birders tend to be list-makers, and Gooddie is no exception, for example, the following mantra:

  1. Animals are the best things in the world.
  2. Birds are the best animals.
  3. Pittas are the best birds.
  4. Gurney’s Pitta is the best pitta.

If this strikes you as even remotely funny, this book might be for you. (We found it hilarious.)

Note: Although we read this book during our Costa Rica trip, there are, in point of fact, no pittas in CR (nor in North/Central/South America as a whole; they are mainly Asian and Australasian birds, with a couple of species in Africa). However, we were very caught up in birding on that trip, so this fanatical birder’s story seemed appropo to our state of mind.

If you’re a birder, I’d rate it 5 knots (Must-read); if not, I’d say maybe 3 (Recommended).