21-23 May 2014
Ever in pursuit of the rarest of Costa Rica’s birds, we were still looking for the best Caribbean slope sites to bird. With Rara Avis sort of closed (apparently only open to large groups/students) and a bit expensive, but still wanting to bird the area, we did a bit of research and found some great looking eBird records and heard a few tempting tales. Going off these little bits of information regarding a mythical “El Plastico” we basically plugged some coordinates into the GPS and started driving. We knew the road would be bad but a local source told us we could drive to El Plastico, so off we went.
El Plastico is named for an old penal colony where the prisoners had plastic roofs. Today the area is a private reserve called Selva Tica which has a small research station on site called El Plastico. Selva Tica and the El Plastico Station are located on the road that leads up from Horquetas to Rara Avis, and share a lot of trails with Rara Avis through fantastic mid elevation primary rainforest (500-700 meters).
Our adventure began when we crossed a suspension bridge that had about 4 hand painted signs attached to it that said things like “CAUTION BRIDGE IN POOR REPAIR,” “ONE CAR AT A TIME,” and “MAXIMUM TWO TONS.” Our truck weighs, oh, about 2 tons, and you can see the issues with the bridge readily – several of the support cables that hang the bridge from the main spanning cables are missing on one side. We asked some locals and got a classic Latin America response “Si, claro, el puente aguanta” – basically “oh, yeah, the bridge will hold.” I asked if trucks cross the bridge still and they said every day. Sounded good to me, but Kathi got out and walked, figuring I could die on my own. I drove the truck across and we were on our way again.
A good dirt road leads several miles through cut-over forest, cattle ranches and the like, eventually turning into a mediocre dirt road where a bit of clearance is helpful that heads through patches of promising looking second growth forest. This mediocre dirt road crosses something of a swamp, with about 50 meters of mud-bogging. I sped up a bit, completely splattered the truck in mud, and hoped that it didn’t rain too much while we were up there, because if it got much wetter, getting out would be, oh, not much fun at all. After the mudbogging, the road goes completely to shit and it becomes a matter of 4WD low gear and careful driving. After perhaps a mile or so of this we came to a gated entrance to a private reserve on the left. The signs advertised “Reserva Ecologica YATAMA” and said things about lodging, food, biological station, etc. We didn’t know this place was going to be up here, and there was a caretaker working around the gate just as we rolled up. He looked fairly (very) surprised to see a couple gringos with goofy grins just drive up the road like that. I asked him how much further this (to us still mythical) El Plastico was and was told it was about 2k further. I then asked him how the road was and he said “You might be able to drive 500m further but there is no way you can get to El Plastico.” Hrm. A bit of conversation ensued and it looked like this was basically the end of the road for us. He also said that there are problems with poaching in the area and some cars have been broken into so he offered to let us park our car next to or even inside YATAMA such that they could look after it, rather than get a window smashed by a naer-do-well. Given that it was clear we couldn’t drive much further anyways, we asked if we could just camp there and pay them a bit for the use of the restrooms. We walked up into the reserve with him, met the owner, had a really nice conversation, and ended up camping in the parking lot for 3 nights for about $6/night. The facilities are basic but nice and we had very refreshing showers, a place to try to dry our drenched clothing (more on that later), and awesome dinner conversation with the caretaker, Juan, and his son, Juan, both of whom are very interested in and knowledgeable about the local birds.
It was still just mid-afternoon so we decided to do a recon walk up the road to get to El Plastico and try to figure out where the trails start and the like. This “road” has since been described to us as an 8’ deep rut (with which I would agree) and as a dry river (I would suggest it’s not so much a dry river as just plain being a river). Access to Rara Avis and El Plastico is exclusively by horse or tractor, and the tractor has dug massive ruts, 2’+ deep, on either side of the “road”. As well there are huge muddy stretches, water several feet deep in places, boulders everywhere in the road, and basically no way in hell anything without 5’ tall tires is making it up there. Just walking up this “road” is pretty unenjoyable. It’s never impassable or dangerous, but you basically have to look at your footing the entire way, and rubber boots are mandatory. We walked an hour and a half up the road and saw no sign of El Plastico, so we turned around to get back before dark. We did, however, hear several Slaty-breasted Tinamous on the walk and saw two Semiplumbeous Hawks as well as hearing a third! Great Green Macaws are fairly common in the area, we saw several groups each day and heard many more, and there is an abundance of Mealy, Red-lored and White-crowned Parrots about. On our return we talked to Juan about where we had gotten to and he said we’d made it most of the way. (It turns out El Plastico is about 4km from YATAMA, not 2km). We made dinner, ran out of gas halfway through cooking, begged the use of Juan’s stove, and as a result had the first of several great conversations about birds with Juan. What cool people.
With an alarm set for 3AM and no idea what we’d find at El Plastico, we turned in. The next morning saw us finally getting to El Plastico and seeing the trail signs that head into the forest around 6AM. We spent a bit of time trying to turn someone up at the station without success. It looked like the place was well maintained and there were chickens in a coop and laundry hanging, but in two days we didn’t cross paths with the caretaker. We walked the road up towards Rara Avis a bit, connecting with the trail that more or less parallels the road and would take you up to Rara Avis as well. We birded this for most of the morning, and the forest and the birding are amazing. The big excitement for us came when we heard a large mixed flock and upon drawing near, twice heard the distinctive soft song of a Gray-headed Piprites. This bird is pretty much our holy grail in Costa Rica, one of the very hardest Central American endemics and a bird that we had been seeking for a solid month by now! Unfortunately, two soft songs was all we could find of the bird, not spotting anything that resembled this little unassuming guy. However, we did turn up a number of other good birds, including more Slaty-breasted Tinamous, Gray-rumped Swift, Nightingale Wren, Uniform Crake, Great Curassow, Northern-barred Woodcreeper, Checker-throated Antwren, Ocellated Antbird, Coppery-headed Emerald, Thicket Antpitta, Fasciated Antshrike, Russet Antshrike, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner and White-vented Euphonia. It also started to rain, as it usually does, around mid-day. We were probably 6km from the car when it started to rain. We pondered, for about 5 minutes, whether we should keep birding or head back. If it was going to really rain, there was nothing to do but get soaked, so we birded a few more minutes and, sure enough, it was soon pissing rain. The hike back took about 2 hours, basically like walking down a stream bed, as the road was largely invisible under the muddy torrent of water flowing down it. We were soaked within a few minutes, and had to stop every 10 minutes or so to pour a pint of water out of each boot. Fun fun! Luckily it stopped raining just as we got back to the truck (awesome timing). Figuring that our clothes could not get any wetter in the shower, but could certainly get less muddy, in they went with us. A bit chilled by the cold shower, and looking pruney from head to foot, we were at least kind of dry and into dry clothes which was fantastic. We wrung our clothes and hung them out to not dry for two days, then had another fantastic dinner sitting around and talking with Juan and his son. Perhaps it was fortuitous that we had run out of gas after all!
An even earlier start saw us wallowing back up the road in the dark, this time arriving a bit earlier, letting us get into the primary forest just at first light. Hoping for another chance at the Piprites or an encounter with an Olive-backed or Violaceous Quail-Dove, we proceeded up the Tigre trail into absolutely gorgeous primary foothill forest, some of the most gorgeous forest we’ve seen on the entire trip. This trail eventually climbs about ½ way to Rara Avis and comes to a trail junction, a left puts you on the Levi trail which takes you back to the road down, a right would take you up to the lodge. We spent the entire morning and into early afternoon on this trail. Not too far into the forest we finally found a Lattice-tailed Trogon, a bird that we had long been seeking and that we had managed to miss in two days at Braulio Carillo and a day at El Tapir, which are normally by far the best sites for this species. This gorgeous Trogon is endemic to the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica, barely making it into Panamá in the foothills above Bocas del Toro. It is also quite a looker and we soaked up the great looks for at least 20 minutes, this was a bird we were starting to worry we might miss! Though we didn’t hear or have any other signs of a Piprites, we did flush a Quail-Dove or two that will remain mystery birds (phooey). We also found another huge mix of awesome forest species, many the same as the day prior, but also including Rufous Mourner, Song Wren, Black-faced Antthrush, White-ruffed Manakin, Streaked Woodhaunter, Tawny-faced Gnatwren and Spotted Antbird. We also got another first class soaking on the hike back to the truck, which afforded us the opportunity to double the amount of soaking wet clothes that were hung up to not dry.
We were way too tired and worn out for a third hike up to El Plastico, and we had thought about birding YATAMA on our third morning (a nice trail does a ~1km loop through secondary and primary forest, and it looks good), but we were just plain exhausted so we slept in and made a huge breakfast and broke camp slowly. We said our goodbyes to our new friends and headed back down the road.
The past two days of heavy rain had kept the muddy section of the road firmly in my mind, and when we arrived to the swampy bit, I was pretty worried. The mud pit had grown quite a bit in length and the standing water and mud had worsened considerably. I made a first attempt at trying to get across with wheels up on the ridges between the ruts. This quickly saw me slide into the ruts. Our tires started slipping so I stopped and carefully backed out while I still could! The next plan was to try to drive the grassy flooded area to the right of the road. We made it further this time, but it became clear that there was no way we could get all the way through, so a slightly more worrisome backing up session ensued. At this point we had only been able to drive about 30% of the way across the mud and I was pondering how much food we had if we needed to spend a few nights waiting for the road to improve. The only problem was, it wasn’t going to dry out until December, and it was probably only going to get worse from here. Hrmm. On went the rubber boots for a good walk through the mud to see if there was a path. A bit of careful walking around, sinking in a few times, nearly losing a boot here or there did, however, reveal a good path through. Driving with two wheels basically in the thicket like shrubs on the shoulder and the other two on one of the ridges between ruts did give us enough traction to not slip into the ruts again. A tricky spot where the left shoulder turned into a ditch/culvert was the crux, then we were able to bounce back into the main ruts which had rocks and wood buried under the mud that gave us sufficient traction to make it out of the worst bit. This proved to be a good enough strategy and soon we were through the mud, much to our relief, and on our way back to civilization. The dilapidated bridge even held up for our second crossing, and Kathi was either confidant enough or tired enough to go along for the ride this time, though I’m not sure which!
I doubt El Plastico will be on the list of likely destinations for most birders coming to Costa Rica. However, the forest up there is simply amazing and it hosts many of the rarest species in the country. Logistics of getting to Rara Avis (if they are open or not and then the tractor ride up that is widely described as “not worth it”), or El Plastico (we have no idea if you can stay there as birders) are not easy. YATAMA is certainly a great option for lodging. In the dry season, if you have a solid 4WD with good clearance and the will to walk the road 90-120 minutes each way to get to the trail system at El Plastico, staying at Yatama is a good option. Yatama has quaint cabins, serves food, and has a system of trails that look worth exploring as well. More information about Yatama can be found here. It’s a long hike from Yatama to El Plastico, but we did it twice and it was worth it for us, although we love adventure and suffering! Honestly I think the best option is probably trying to stay at Rara Avis or El Plastico, but I would recommend trying to get there on horseback rather than in the tractor.