Costa Rica: Relaxed Rancho (Safety Tours)

This is a relaxed birding tour. This tour has been designed, specifically, to be as safe as possible in this Post-Covid-19 era, by staying at only two, small hotels/lodges, using large vehicles, and only eating in very limited places throughout, with contact with others minimised throughout in doing so. There are also no domestic flights involved. If you are looking for a more traditional birding tour, where the goal is to see as many species as possible, then you may want to consider our Costa Rica: The Introtour.


This is designed as a Safety Tour, (for the post-Covid era) which means:

HOTEL and FOOD:

ONLY 2, SMALL HOTELS ARE USED. THE MEALS WILL ALL BE PROVIDED BY THESE TWO HOTELS ONLY, WITH NO EXTERNAL RESTAURANTS USED.

• The lodging selected on this tour is relatively small. The hotel near San Jose airport, at the start and end of the tour, is a small, family run hotel, with an outdoor restaurant. Rancho Naturlalisa Lodge is revered as one of the best birding lodges in Costa Rica, and therefore, thr World. It is remotely located, and is small enough, to ensure no large groups of people are going to be encountered at either of the hotels/lodges used on this tour.

• Both accommodations used also have on site restaurants; to ensure all of our meals will come out of the kitchens of just two places throughout.

• We have also opted to have boxed lunches, provided by the lodge, when needed, to avoid eating at external restaurants, and again minimize contact with other people.

• Only TWO hotels are used throughout, again to keep our contacts to as few people as we can. This also means that you only need to unpack twice.

GROUP VEHICLE: We have chosen a large bus for the group. There will be a constant supply of hand sanitiser on board, and the bus will be cleaned very regularly.

• There are no domestic flights on this tour, so no further air travel is required.

AIRPORT TRANSFERS: On day 1 at the start and day 8 at the end. These will be “private” vans provided by the hotel, and will not be shared with any other hotel guests (i.e. not a regular hotel shuttle). They may need to be shared between people within this group, but we will set a maximum number, so we are never crowded in the vehicle.

In summary, the use of only two, small hotels, with a large bus for the group, and only eating out of two restaurants (and using packed lunches from these, when not possible), will ensure as little contact with people outside of the Tropical Birding group as possible. This offers one of the safest Costa Rica tours possible under current conditions.

Banks of verbenas in Rancho are frequented by the gorgeous Snowcap
Banks of verbenas in Rancho are frequented by the gorgeous Snowcap (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

When people return to traveling and birding, following the Covid-crisis, Costa Rica is a natural, first choice for overseas destinations. The country suffered with only low numbers of cases, and is well connected with many countries, meaning only one, direct flight may be needed. Costa Rica is rightly world famous for being one of the premier tropical birding destinations in the World. The country has a bounty of birding sites to choose from, and so we have opted for one of the best, Rancho Naturalista, a lodge and reserve in the foothills of the Central Cordillera. This lodge offers a beautiful setting in which to be based, very comfortable rooms, and a legendary cuisine and host to make this a natural choice for this kind of tour, where staying in as few places as possible is a major objective. The lodge sits within a rich birding area, offering not only great birding on the grounds, where feeders attract oropendolas and tanagers, and banks of flowers host hummingbirds aplenty, and forest trails lay close by, but also interesting excursions will be made to the wider birding area to compliment the birding within Rancho’s remote, private reserve.

Rancho, photographed from one of their trails
Rancho, photographed from one of their trails (Sam Woods)

NOTE: The exact order in which the sites will be visited may be changed based on local weather conditions at the time.

Day 1: Arrival in San Jose. After you arrival in Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose you will be met at the airport and taken in a van by private transfer to our nearby hotel, a 15-minute drive from the airport. The van will be private for a limited number of our guests only, and not shared with other hotel guests. There is no birding on this day, so please take time to relax, and the group will meet with the guide for dinner at 6:30pm, for the first meal of the tour. This will be a welcome dinner in the outdoor section of the hotel restaurant.

White-necked Jacobin, a widespread and common Costa Rican bird
White-necked Jacobin, a widespread and common Costa Rican bird (Sam Woods)

Day 2: San Jose to Rancho Naturalista. Our tour will begin with some light birding around the hotel, looking for regulars, like Spot-breasted Oriole, Great Kiskadee, Rufous-naped Wren, and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. After about 30 minutes birding, we will take breakfast and pack up the vehicle, for the drive to Rancho Naturlista, up to 4 hours from our hotel. We will arrive in time for lunch at Rancho, and spend the rest of the afternoon birding their attractive grounds. Rancho is a remote location, a stand-alone property found at the end of a private road, making it ideal for a tour when we wish to minimize contact with others.

The grounds of the lodge are wonderful, with scenic views of the forest surrounds, feeders in the main yard, and banks of flowers in a garden just down the road. These lilac blooms of flowers may well take up our attention that afternoon, as we seek the lodge’s most famous bird, the deep purple Snowcap. Five nights will be spent at Rancho Naturalista.

Rancho is the
Rancho is the "Home of the Snowcap" (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 3: Rancho Naturalista. For our first, full day, we get to know the lodge and its surrounds properly. With over 500 bird species listed in the area, we will have plenty to try and find! The day typically starts out next to the lodge, where a hive of early morning activity can include specialty birds like Tawny-chested Flycatcher, along with other birds attracted to moths that have come in overnight, which might also include woodcreepers, tanagers, and other flycatchers too. Hummingbirds are a major attraction on site, and several flower-laden gardens, plus feeders, draw in a dozen regular species, such as Stripe-throated and Green Hermits, White-necked Jacobin, Green-breasted Mango, Green Thorntail, Brown Violetear, Violet Sabrewing, Crowned Woodnymph, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, and of course, the striking Snowcap. There are also fruit feeders in the garden, visible from the outdoor section of the restaurant or the balcony, where oropendolas, thrushes, tanagers, and chachalacas come in to gorge on the bananas and papayas.

The forest trails within their private reserve provide more challenging bird, but open up the bird list to more possibilities, like Bicolored and Roadside Hawks, Gartered, Collared and Black-throated Trogons, three species of motmot, Keel-billed Toucan, Collared Aracari, White-crowned and Brown-hooded Parrots, Slaty Antwren, Dull-mantled Antbird, Streak-headed and Cocoa Woodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, White-ruffed and White-collared Manakins, Black-throated and White-breasted Wood-Wrens, Olive-backed and White-vented Euphonias, boreal migrants like Black-and-white, Chestnut-sided and Tennesssee Warblers, and Golden-hooded, Silver-throated, and Bay-headed Tanagers. This is just a handful of what is on offer around the reserve, and some of the nearby sites.

The landscapes during our day trip to Irazu is likely to be a highlight alone
The landscapes during our day trip to Irazu is likely to be a highlight alone (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Irazu Volcano day trip. This will be the longest outing of the tour, but arguably could provide the highlight of the stay. A 2.5 hour drive will be undertaken, with a boxed breakfast taken in the field on arrival in the mountains. Irazu is a fantastic, scenic site, where easy road birding will give us access to a suite of highland species not possible on any other day. Among the specialties we will be seeking, include gorgeous birds like Fiery-throated, Scintillant and Volcano Hummingbirds, Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Yellow-winged Vireo, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, and the spectacular Flame-throated Warbler. The views of the volcano itself are also sure to provide a major highlight too. We will take a boxed lunch in the field, and head back to Rancho by mid-afternoon, arriving in the late afternoon/early evening.

Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, a highland species we shall seek at Irazu
Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, a highland species we shall seek at Irazu (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Rancho and La Mina. This day we will be staying local again, following our long day. This will involve a combination of more lodge time, plus visiting one or two other nearby sites, like La Mina, where Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Torrent Tyrannulet, Amazon and Green Kingfishers, and Black Phoebe can all accompany the forested, riverside setting. By staying local, we can break the day up with lunch at the lodge itself, a major highlight of visiting this particular lodge is the food on offer, which is legendary.

Speckled Tanager occurs at El Copal
Speckled Tanager occurs at El Copal (Sam Woods)

Day 6: El Copal day trip. After yesterday’s relaxed schedule, and relatively relaxed schedule we will again take a full day trip from the lodge to the wonderful El Copal reserve, about an hour’s drive away. This reserve is located in the Caribbean foothills, but a little higher than Rancho. There is a small building on a hillside, where banks of verbena flowers can attract hummingbirds like Violet-headed Hummingbird, Snowcap, Brown Violetear, and Crowned Woodnymph. Much of the morning will be spent walking their magnificent trails inside the forest, where fascinating feeding flocks roam the forest, with both common species and many specialties that are easier to see than many other places. Among the species we will be keeping an eye out for include a heady bounty of multicolored tanagers, like Black-and-yellow, Speckled, Emerald, Bay-headed, Silver-throated, Tawny-crested, White-shouldered, Crimson-collared, and Golden-hooded Tanagers and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Warblers are represented by Golden-crowned and Buff-rumped Warblers and Tropical Parula. Other foothill specialties we will be seeking include Tawny-capped Euphonia, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, Stripe-breasted Wren, White-crowned Manakin, and Spotted Woodcreeper. It is also a good site for antswarms, and their attendant antbirds, and we will hope to encounter birds like Zeledon’s, Bicolored, and Spotted Antbirds if we locate some army ants. The rare Ocellated Antbird can sometimes also be found with them. After a morning trail walk, we will return to the reserve’s building where we will take a break watching the flowers below us for hummingbirds. After lunch, a shorter local walk will be made in the shade of the forest, before setting off back for Rancho in the mid-afternoon, arriving by evening.

Rancho is located in the foothills, where tanagers like this are on the cards!
Rancho is located in the foothills, where tanagers like this are on the cards! (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Rancho and the Tuis Valley; to San Jose. For our final morning in Rancho, we will visit the nearby Tuis Valley, before returning to the lodge to take lunch, pack up and head back to San Jose afterwards. We will plan to arrive back in San Jose by late afternoon. Another night will be spent in the same small hotel, near the airport. However, if people with to take night flights out, this will also work if they leave later than 9pm.

Golden-olive Woodpecker occurs close to the lodge
Golden-olive Woodpecker occurs close to the lodge (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Departure from San Jose. There is no birding on this day, so flight departures at any time are possible (or even late in the night before if preferable). Breakfast is the last meal of the tour on this day, if you do not leave before the hotel serves that. The airport transfer will be provided in a van by the hotel, and will only be shared with a limited number of other participants, if at all.

A male Green Thorntail takes a rare rest from action
A male Green Thorntail takes a rare rest from action (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Easy. Early starts are required on most days with breakfast around 5:30am, followed by a 6:00am departure. On three of the six birding days, there will be time to take a break in the middle of the day. On these days too, the afternoon activity is optional, so more time can be taken off if you feel you need to, enjoy the lodge garden, feeders etc. Most of the drives are on good, mostly-paved, roads. The drives on day 2 and day 7 to and from Rancho to San Jose are around 4hours. On day 4 there are drives of 2.5 hours to and from Irazu also. So there are longer drives on 3 days, but on the others they will be only up to an hour or so. There will be two boxed lunches taken in the field (as El Copal and Irazu), and one field breakfast (at Irazu). All others meals will be taken at the hotel/lodge.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks. However, there will also be some trail walking at Rancho itself and El Copal, on slightly inclined trails. These are will maintained, wide trails that most people of a reasonable fitness should be able to do. For the Rancho ones, there is the option to stay at the lodge instead (these will be undertaken on 2 occasions), and at El Copal, there is a central building and garden to rest at if you wish not to do the trail. In terms of elevation, the San Jose (actually in Alajuela nearer the airport) hotel is located at 3800ft (1100m), for 2 nights of the tour, and Rancho is lower, at 2790ft (850m). On the day trip to Irazu Volcano we will reach 11,150ft (3400m) at the highest point.

CLIMATE: Rancho Naturalista provides a comfortable climate year round, with its location in the Caribbean foothills avoiding the extreme high temperatures and humidity of the lowlands, but still low enough not to be cold like the higher mountain areas. It is a very pleasant climate to be based at. At this time of year, high temperatures average around 71 Fahrenheit (22 Celsius), making it one of the cooler months to visit. This part of the country (i.e. Caribbean slope) experiences regular rainfall through the year, but this is usually a good thing for bird activity. This makes is a year round destination for birding. The driest times can be the quieter times for bird activity. Some rain is to be expected, although this is usually concentrated in heavy, but short bursts. Rain gear is needed for the tour. For the day trip to Irazu Volcano, cold weather gear and rain gear will be essential, as we will be reaching 11,150ft (3400m), where temperatures average 41-52 Fahrenheit (5-11 Celsius) at this time of year. It is can be warm and pleasant after the early morning chill on dry sunny days.

ACCOMMODATION and FOOD:We will be using two locations for the entire trip, a single small, family run hotel, near San Jose airport on the first and last nights, and then 5 nights in between at Rancho Naturalista, often regarded as one of the nest birding lodges in Costa Rica. This minimizes contact with other people, and also has the bonus that you only need to unpack twice on the tour. Our meals will be provided by only these two places, the hotel in San Jose and the lodge. These will be either sit down meals (for all dinners, all but one breakfast, and all but two lunches, which will be boxed lunches).
Both places are of a good to excellent standard, have full time electricity, full time hot water, wifi Internet, en-suite bathrooms and an on-site restaurant from where all the meals will be taken. The accommodation in San Jose is a 20-minute drive from the airport, and the Rancho is around 4 hours drive from there.

VEHICLE: A large Toyota Coaster-style (or similar) bus will be used for this group of 8 participants, plus 1 Tropical Birding guide, and 1 driver.

AIRPORT TRANSFERS WILL BE PRIVATE (i.e. not public shuttles), and only shared with a limited number of other participants, if required.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, and trying to ensure as many people see each bird as possible will be the primary objective. However, cameras are welcome on this tour, and there are feeders at Rancho where photos are often productive. However, most of this photography is on the fly, but this can also be good in Costa Rica generally.

WHEN TO GO: Costa Rica offers good year-round birding, and therefore birders frequently visit in all months of the year. December to April represent the driest months of the year for the country in general. However, Rancho Naturalista is located on the Caribbean slope, one of the best areas for birds in the country, and this region experiences a high level of rain year round, in and outside of that “general” dry season. Thus, any visit here will likely experience rain, this is not driest time, but it not the wettest either! Visiting at this time avoids the high season of January to March, when places can be much more busier with other people.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all Western European countries. Visas are currently only required of nationalities mainly in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 7; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 8 (if you do not leave earlier than it is ready); spare drinking water in the vehicle when required (the tap water is safe to drink in Costa Rica, and so bringing your own bottle(s) to refill is the best advice, and to avoid contact with as few other bottles as possible); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 7; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a bus from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 7; 1 airport transfer on day 1 for each person and on day 8 (these transfers will not be by shuttle, but will be private, and only shared with limited others in this group, if needed); tips to driver (1), and lodge/restaurant staff; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for any porters used (we advise against this if you want to limit contact with others); international flights; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.