Thursday, February 25, 2010

La Paz Waterfall Gardens of Costa Rica

One of the highlights of our Costa Rican adventure was on our final full day -- a visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which has re-opened following the January, 2009 earthquake (6.2 magnitude) that damaged the area. We drove the road that had been demolished (and is sand and still being rebuilt) in this very hilly section of Costa Rica, saw the town that had been devastated, the homes that were missing or badly damaged, and discovered two waterfalls and parts of the Gardens were closed off due to the part of the trail and some platforms having been destroyed. But they are open for business and well worth your visit.

There are five waterfalls in the park and guests are afforded views from platforms above, below and in front of the falls for great photo opportunities.

As magnificent as the falls and landscaped gardens were, I really loved the animal exhibits. Costa Rica's great diversity of tropical habitats allows 90% of Central America's butterflies to thrive there, and they also possess 66% of neo-tropical butterflies and 18% of all the world's butterfly species. You can see them pictured here.

One species I had never heard of enthralled me: The Blue Morpho seen below...

Even the Blue Morpho's closed wings are beautiful...

The marmosets entertained us...

...and so did the cute white-faced monkeys...

The colorful birds included toucans...

...and macaws...

...and this pair of three-toed sloths were cuddled together and not moving, though we were close enough to see their chests moving as they slowly breathed...

Finally, the hummingbird area had dozens of the busy workers bustling about...

The big cats were out but sleepy...

...and the frog area had interesting species, too, and Ellen's post marvelously covers that aspect of the Gardens.

Here's a a video of our visit, including the falls, the gardens, and footage of the cougars, ocelots, Toucans, macaws, butterflies (including the Blue Morpho), snakes, monkeys, frogs, and more...

So if you ever visit San Jose, Costa Rica, make the short drive out to La Paz and enjoy the sights!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Cross Florida Greenway Trail

Today we biked 15 miles on the Cross Florida Greenway Trail which runs 110 miles across the state. Crossing central Florida from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Johns River is this premier greenway, occupying much of the land formerly known as the Cross Florida Barge Canal. It was officially renamed the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway in honor of the individual who led the fight to stop the Cross Florida Barge Canal project. The corridor traverses a wide variety of natural habitats and offers a variety of trails and recreation areas where visitors can experience the wonders of Florida in their own recreational style, be it on foot, mountain bike, or horse.

This section has a limerock road for service vehicles as well as hikers, bikers, and equestrians, but the Ocala Mountain Bike Association also built and maintains parallel trails, of both beginner and intermediate difficulty. The 1300 mile long Florida National Scenic Trail for hikers and an equestrian trail also run through this segment of the greenway.  We prefer the single track options seen in the photos below this one.

These sectional are far more lovely and challenging than the gravel service road.

This Cross Florida Greenway Trail is named for conservationist Marjorie Harris Carr, Florida's first female wildlife technician, whose efforts led to creation of Paynes Prairie Preserve and whose lengthy battle stopped the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, a mammoth multi-billion dollar project to traverse central Florida that threatened the area's ecosystem.

This "land bridge" over I-75 allows safe passage for humans and critters...

Here are a couple close-up views of the land bridge...

Other underpasses also provide safe passage for wildlife and humans beneath heavily-traveled roadways.

I reported on this trail earlier in this post.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Wilderness Park Off-Road Mountain Biking Venue

The Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve (just northeast of Tampa) is the largest regional park in Hillsborough County, and within this preserve are the Wilderness Off Road Trails, including the 7 mile paved loop out of the Flatwoods area, the 15 mile mountain bike loop reviewed below, and numerous other mountain bike side trails branching off this long loop.

Six separate area parks make up the Hillsborough County owned Wilderness Park conglomerate: Morris Bridge, Flatwoods, Sargeant, Dead River, Trout Creek and Veterans Memorial Park. The area is composed mainly of pine flatwoods, hardwood flood plain forest, upland hardwood hammocks, saw palmetto, oak scrub, and cypress swamps.

Trailheads are at Morris Bridge at 106 acres, Trout Creek at 42 acres, and Flatwoods at 5,400 acres, and all three comprise one large biking venue. The northern-most park, Flatwoods, is best known for its seven-mile paved loop for bikers, walkers, and roller-bladers. They even provide cold water in coolers in several locations around the loop. The access trails from Flatwoods and Downs Blvd. are also paved and can be biked to add five more miles to your ride. Here's my post on Flatwoods.

Today we biked the 15 mile loop mountain bike trail. It runs through lovely forest as seen below, with palmetto the predominant underbrush. The trail is in very good condition with just a few sandy areas on the east side of the Morris Bridge highway.

This trail is pretty well marked with sequentially numbered white posts marked "Main Trail" and often with arrows denoting when the trail makes a turn.

The tricky area is when you get to the highway. If you are biking clockwise, turn right onto Morris Bridge Road, and riding the paved bike lane shoulder, cross the Hillsborough River on the highway bridge, and then turn into the first driveway on your left (across the road) and the trail continues straight ahead when that access driveway turns to the left. You'll see signs and find yourself on what looks like a gravel road. If you are biking counter-clockwise, turn right onto the highway, bike over the bridge, and a few hundred yards beyond is a white sign on a tree pointing to the trail (on your left, so carefully cross the road.)

Next time we'll venture off onto some of the side trails and explore!

This was a wonderful biking experience -- second only to the Santos Trailhead trails out of Ocala. The SWAMP Mountain Bike Club is to be commended on their fine work! How I wish we had mountain biking venues like this in the Chicago area!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Snorkeling Key Largo's Coral Reefs: An Exploritas/Elderhostel Program

"Florida's Fragile Coastal Treasure: Snorkel the Coral Reefs" is the title of this program based in Key Largo at mile marker 100 on the Overseas Highway (Route 1) to Key West. "Orchids and Egrets" is the program provider, and our coordinator was Alberto and our extremely knowledgeable naturalist/guide was Roger, both seen below...

Experts from Marine Lab spoke to us on two mornings, teaching us how to identify the reef fish we'd be seeing and providing information on coral reef ecology. Our first day was kayaking in Pennekamp State Coral Reef Park where we learned about the vital role played by mangroves and enjoyed being on the water...

The next three afternoons were snorkeling on Molasses Reef, White Banks Reef, and Grecian Rocks Reef. Florida had been having a colder than average winter and the trend persisted during our week. Since the water was only in the mid-sixties, we all rented wet suits which helped keep us comfortable for our hour or more in the water each day. Seas were a bit rough the middle day, but we still snorkeled though our stay was shorter. Below are three photos I took and at the end of this post is a link to 50 more snorkeling pictures I took.

These Key Largo reefs represent the continental United States' only living coral reef and they are a fine example of reefs and provide a habitat for many species of fish. I've also snorkeled off Cozumel and Costa Rica but I enjoyed these reefs far better.

We also took nature hikes in Pennekamp State Park and Everglades National Park, and along the trails, Roger ( a Florida Master Naturalist) enlightened and enthralled us with information about the plants and animals we encountered. He fielded all questions flawlessly with his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Florida's flora, fauna, history, and geology, and always seemed to have background information and humorous stories to relate as asides. Below is a green heron, one of the dozens and dozens we observed on our hikes. A link to several dozen other animal photos I took are available at the end of this post.

I've participated in 24 Elderhostel programs and can make the blanket statement that I have always encountered wonderful people -- and this program was no exception. Our small group size on this program (10) contributed to allowing us to interact with one another more than on a larger program and thus got to know the others better. Here's the entire group.

( l to r) Lynne, Al, Steve, Mary, Chuck C., Ellen, Bill, Jane, Jim, and Chuck M.

(above, l to r) Lynne, Al, Steve, Mary, Chuck C., Ellen, Bill, Jane, Jim, and Chuck M.

One morning we visited the non-profit Florida Keys Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in neighboring Tavernier and thoroughly enjoyed the animals they work with. We stayed at Key Largo Suites (run by Key West Inn) and all rooms are two story, with bedroom and full bath upstairs and a living room, full kitchen, and second bathroom downstairs. The screened balcony overlooked the canal. Our suppers for this program were at local restaurants, providing us with a variety of tasty meals at Key Largo eateries. All in all, this program was exceptionally well done and is a program I heartily recommend!

Here's a video encompassing all our activities for the week:

Here's a video composed of underwater still photos and movie footage.

More snorkeling photos here.

More wildlife photos here.

All of my Exploritas/Elderhostel trips can be found here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Key Largo Snorkeling

We snorkeled three days off Key Largo, Florida's Pennekamp State Coral Reef State Park as part of an Elderhostel/Exploritas program, snorkeling Molasses Reef, White Banks Reef, and Grecian Rocks Reef. Florida had been having a colder than average winter and the trend persisted during our week. Since the water was only in the mid-sixties, we all rented wet suits which helped keep us comfortable for our hour or more in the water each day. Seas were a bit rough the middle day we still went in though our stay was shorter.

Here's a video composed of my underwater still photos and movie footage.

An additional 50 photos are available for viewing and downloading from my gallery.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park

Corcovado National Park (Parque Nacional Corcovado) is on the Osa Peninsula in the southwest Costa Rica. It was established in 1975, spans 263 square miles, and is widely considered the crown jewel in Costa Rica's extensive system of national parks and biological reserves spread across the country. The park conserves the largest primary forest on the American Pacific coastline and one of the few remaining sizeable areas of lowland tropical rain forests in the world. No roads travel to the park, so boat is your only option.

Here are two of the birds we saw just to whet your appetite. Below these next two photos is the video containing the boat ride down the Sierpe River and then along the Pacific Coast to the park, and our hike in the jungle forest and seashore.

Here's a video of our boat ride to the park and our jungle hike in the park, including numerous flora and fauna sightings and with explanations by our naturalist guide, Daniel.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Kayaking Key Largo

The first underwater park in the United States, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park encompasses approximately 70 nautical square miles. While the mangrove swamps and tropical hammocks in the park’s upland areas offer visitors a unique experience, it is the coral reefs and their associated marine life that bring most visitors to the park. Many enjoy the view of the reef from a glass-bottom boat tour, but visitors can get a closer look by scuba diving or snorkeling. The next three days we'll be snorkeling some of the reefs, but today was a day of relaxed kayaking. First we paddled across the boating channel to access the area forbidden to power craft...

...and the remainder of our two hours was through mangrove stands such as these. Mangroves are trees and shrubs that grow in saline coastal habitats in the tropics and sub-tropics. The dense root system of mangroves provides habitat for developing fish, protecting them from predators that are too big to negotiate the tight quarters of the roots. Mangroves also slow down water surges from hurricanes and the like as well as tide water, trapping and depositing sediment as the tide comes in, leaving all except fine particles when the tide ebbs. In this way, mangroves build their own environment and expand. Here we paddle through a mangrove channel...

Another interesting item is the loggerhead sponge seen below. They look like tires and provide a valuable service -- they clean the water, making it easy to study the bottoms of these channels as you pass over...

The next three days we'll be snorkeling, so come back and see pictures of that.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Costa Rica on Horseback

We rode twice in Costa Rica. The first was out of Santa Elena in the Monteverde Cloud Forest with Frank as our guide. The two hours passed quickly and we enjoyed the dense forest trails we meandered.

Frank provided naturalist information regarding plants and animals as we rode, and we stopped several times so he could take our photos at the most picturesque locations like this immense tree...

We also broke out of the forest for a bit and enjoyed the panoramic views of the mountains in the background, and several times we got glimpses of the Gulf of Nicoya and the Pacific Ocean off in the distance.

Our second ride was out of Quepos which is on the Pacific coast near the town of Manuel Antonio. This guide had little interaction with us other than to inform us of the rules and what was expected of us, and our ride was not on forest trails but a gravel road (thankfully not heavily traveled) which though scenic, was not as interesting and flora/fauna laden as the forest trail.

Our "hour" ride was about half that length because the guide paced the horses at a trot on the hard road surface, giving us a jarring ride. We then hiked 10 minutes on a lush and lovely mountain trail up to this charming waterfall, and after enjoying the shade of the trees and cool of the water for a bit, we hiked back and then fast-rode the horses back to the van.

This excursion ended with a delicious Costa Rican meal at pavilion on a ranch. All in all, it was a nice ride through lovely countryside, but too rushed and certainly not as enjoyable as the forest ride a few days earlier.

Here's a movie of these two rides...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Everglades Bike Trail

The Shark Valley Loop Trail begins in the northern section of Everglades National park and is an ecological highlight of Everglades. This 15 mile trail loops through a grand saw grass prairie, offering close-up views of flora and fauna. The loop trail can be hiked or biked, or a 2-hour narrated tram ride offers visitors an opportunity to sit back, relax and listen to a park interpreter explain the natural history of the Shark Valley area. Biking is recommended for those wanting to complete the entire loop in a timely fashion and bikes can be rented at the Shark Valley concession area. To the right of the paved trail is a waterway in which we saw well over 50 alligators as well as hundreds of waterfowl.

These two baby gators are piggyback...

A 65 foot tall observation tower is located at the 7 mile mark, along with bike racks and washroom facilities.

...and these 5 gators were at the base of the tower...

Here are some more wildlife shots from the trail -- purple gallinules...

A female anhinga...

One of a multitude of gators...

Tri-colored heron...

The east side of the loop is wide open and gently zig-zags through the saw grass prairie. Wildlife is generally less visible on this side of the loop yet this area seems a bit more wild than the west side. We did still see a number of alligators as well as multiple species of wading birds.