As our launch glided sedately downstream, the word “teeming” came to mind at every twist in the river. After years of exploring Costa Rica, I had rarely had to make so little effort to see so much.
The boat ride was on the Río Frio that traverses the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, close to Costa Rica’s northern border with Nicaragua. The combination of fish-rich waters and seasonally flooded wetlands in this little-visited protected reserve provides ideal habitat for thousands of resident and migratory birds, amphibians and reptiles, as well as fishing fanatics.
Designated a Ramsar Site in 1991, Caño Negro is a buzz destination for the catch and-release fishing fraternity. The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, called the Ramsar Convention, has listed Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge third in global importance. While this might seem conflictive, sport and conservation interests seem to rub shoulders harmoniously enough here, though our guide, Carlos Sequeira of Kingfisher Lodge and Tours, criticized inexperienced fishermen for snagging turtles by mistake and causing injury or death with clumsy attempts to remove the hooks.
We slid past several fishing boats tied up to the bank, with anglers casting for tarpon or snook, and continued to marvel at those teeming groups of tiger herons, black river turtles, anhingas, cormorants, five kingfisher species, boat-billed and blue herons, iguanas and whole rafts of caimans. As Sequeira pointed out a towering chilamate tree packed with cormorant nests and fledglings, a youngster plummeted into the water with a loud plop and shriek of surprise.
“It’s a goner,” the guide mused. “Unless it can climb out, it’ll drown, and then it’ll probably be taken by the caimans.” Even a wilderness paradise brings risks.
Returning upstream, our boat negotiated the dry-season shallows to enter Laguna Mónico, and we crossed into a wonderland of huge skies, luminescent space and quiet, broken only by the squawks and cries of waterfowl feeding in outspread mixed flocks. With a single scan of the binoculars, this largely armchair birder relaxed in our aquatic blind and took in a visual feast of black-necked stilts, roseate spoonbills, limpkins, great and little blue herons, black-bellied whistling-ducks, ospreys, wood storks, ibis, egrets, gray-necked wood-rails, gallinules and jacanas – with no effort from me and no disturbance for them.
Caño Negro is a series of lagoons, which in the dry season are mostly impassable by boat but which form a huge wetland complex of some 9,968 hectares when rainy-season downpours raise water levels almost three meters. Both seasons offer their own special attractions, so there is no best time to visit.
The sleepy village of Caño Negro, where I stayed, adjoins the reserve and is the sort of place where doors stay open, vehicles aren’t locked and the soda shuts at dark if things are quiet – a lush, no-fence outpost where gardens merge into the forest and the nearest gas station is in Los Chiles, 25 kilometers away.
At the end of the village, Kingfisher Lodge has five simple cabins of the hammer- and-nails variety, three with air-conditioning, all spotlessly clean with hot-water showers and TV. Sequeira and his father, Antonio, expressly do not offer any meals to help share business with the town’s two sodas (mom-and-pop eateries) and bar, but will prepare breakfasts for groups on request. There’s a feel that Caño Negro is “being discovered” as a tourist destination, and this down-market bonhomie may change as competition gets keener. Two upscale nature hotels are already established and provide service and comfort without spoiling the overall feeling of backwoods tranquility and lack of commercial sophistication.
After the morning’s river and lagoon boat trip, Sequeira was keen to show us other Kingfisher Tour outings. He introduced us to Carmen Jiménez, head of the women’s cooperative that runs a mariposario (butterfly farm) and craft shop here. She talked us expertly through the butterfly enclosure before showing off local artwork and jewelry made from the scales of the gaspar, a local fish.
Then it was over to uncle Oscar Gutiérrez, a cattle farmer who has created a two-kilometer woodland trail through his farm, where he pointed out the medicinal and
lumber uses of the many tree species on his land. His wife, Alba, steered us toward the “museum,” a shed with artifacts from early settlers in the region. “Quirky” joined “teeming” in my mind as we gazed upon chipped plates, cooking pots, an old radio and unidentifiable farm implements. Only lack of time prevented us from attempting the horseback or bicycle rides along the banks of the Río Frio.
The whole visit summed up rural community tourism at its enjoyable, funky best: simple tours offering the chance to meet with inhabitants of a tiny, organized and friendly community only just becoming aware of the natural treasures at its doorstep.
At dusk we ambled back to the town’s nearest lagoon, separated from the Río Frio by a raised embankment, and watched as wood storks and spoonbills, ducks and ibis homed in from another fruitful day on the water, vying for prime roosting space and glowing under one of those radiant sunsets Costa Rica does so well.
My advice? Visit soon, before the innocence is lost.
Getting There, Rates, Info
Caño Negro is a three- to four-hour drive north of San José toward Los Chiles. Take the route to San Carlos, continue through Muelle and keep going to the El Jobo intersection, 6 km before Los Chiles. Turn left at the Caño Negro sign onto a dirt road and continue 19 km to the village.
Rates at Kingfisher Lodge and Tours (2471-1116, 8856-4856, www.kingfisherlodgecr.com) are $30 to $45 double occupancy. The two-hour river/ lagoon trip costs $60 (minimum three people); horseback riding with guide costs $20 for two hours; bicycles cost $15 for three hours; the butterfly tour is $5; and don Oscar’s woodland trail costs $2.
Fishing costs $30 per hour including drinks, sandwich and fishing poles ($25 if you have your own gear). Boats take two people; special rates are offered if one person doesn’t fish. All-day rates are available.
A ¢1,500 ($2.80) fishing permit is obligatory and requires three photos and cédula or passport.