Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Costa Rica Part 4: Sarchi's colorful carretas

A vividly painted carreta is displayed in the center of Eloy Alfaro's oxcart workshop.  Notice the two bow yokes resting on the top of the carreta (ox cart). One of these would be fastened over the shoulders of a pair of oxen so they could pull the cart. Our Caravan Tour stopped at the Taller Eloy Alfaro (Eloy Alfaro's Workshop) for a tour of the little factory. This taller is one of the few that are still creating these beautiful little hand-painted vehicles. Most of the workshops are located in the small town of Sarchi, in Alajuela Province. Sarchi lies about 46 km (29 mi) northwest of Costa Rica's capital of San Jose. To locate Sarchi on a Google map, click here

Sarchi, the oxcart makers' town

Sarchi as it used to be. Notice the steeples of the Iglesia de Sarchi Norte. The church is surrounded by a cluster of small, tile-roofed houses. Cattle and horses graze in lush meadows. The heavily wooded Corderilla looms in the background. This scene portrays Sarchi as it would have appeared during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Sarchi of today is considerably bigger and far busier.

Iglesia de Sarchi Norte is one of the most impressive churches in Costa Rica. The church overlooks the main plaza in Sarchi. Unfortunately, the Caravan bus didn't stop, so we never saw the interior. However, I did manage to get this shot through the window. Notice the street sign in the lower left. The top of it replicates part of a painted carreta wheel. There are two districts in Sarchi, Norte (north) and Sur (south). Together they cover an area of 38.9 sq km (24 sq mi) and have a combined population of 11,571. The town is located on the slopes of the Central Cordillera (mountain range) on the eastern edge of Costa Rica's Central Valley.

Eloy Alfaro's oxcart workshop

Eloy Alfaro stands with his wife in the doorway of his workshop. This is the way the taller looked in the old days. Today, this structure forms one corner of a four-sided courtyard. The other sides now contain a gift shop and a restaurant. The water wheel seen in the right center still drives the taller's machinery. The wheel was upgraded from its original wood construction to metal in 1934, and finally to iron in 1965. Notice the wall to the left of Alfaro and his wife.

Wheels, saw blades, and other machinery hang by the entrance to Taller Eloy Alfaro. The big, brightly-painted circular saw blade carries the name "Alfaro Castro Hermanos, Ltda. (Alfaro Castro Brothers, Limited). Eloy Alfaro launched his workshop in 1920. In 1928, Alfaro bought the taller's machinery from the Hacienda La Eve. Still later, he added hydraulic power to create the electricity that drives the shop.

Three cart wheels show stages in time. The rustic old wheel at the bottom is from the 19th century. In the middle hangs another, somewhat newer, version that has also had considerable use. On top is a brand new version, freshly painted with vivid, intricate designs. In the background, some of our Caravan group are touring the workshop. 

A giant wheel leans against the shop wall. For scale, I asked one of our Caravan party to stand next to it. This wheel is similar to the ones on the giant carreta displayed in the main plaza of Sarchi. Taller Eloy Alfaro constructed that huge cart to help celebrate the naming of La Carreta as the National Labor Symbol in 1988. Later, in 2005, UNESCO designated the painted ox cart as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. I was unable to get any decent shots of the Plaza's huge carreta, since our bus passed it quickly on our way to the taller. However, this photo helps give some idea of the size of the plaza's cart.

Crafting the carretas

Leather belts connect to wheels that turn the machines. Most of the machinery and tools in the shop dates back to the 19th century. 

Device used to construct the wheels. The process somewhat resembles assembling a pizza from its individual, triangular slices. The cart makers use 16 triangular wedges of Spanish cedar, mahogany, or laurel to form a wheel. The screws around the rim are tightened to squeeze the "pizza slices" together tightly after they are glued.

An array of axles stand to one side, waiting for a wheel of the appropriate size. Work in the taller continued even as our tour filed through.

An artisan paints a design on a wood slat, soon to be part of a finished carreta. This requires painstaking work that demands the full attention of the artisan. He never looked up as our group crowded around to admire his creation.

A work table contains finished wheels. A variety of paint pots containing a rainbow of colors share the space with the finished work. Most carts are similar in construction, but all are unique in their painted designs. In the late 19th century, craftsmen began painting elaborate patterns on carretas. The practice rapidly spread to many different pueblos. It reached the point where the origin of a particular cart could be identified by the patterns its creator used.

The painted carts at work

A sugar cane worker chops his way through a stand of cane. In the background, another worker prepares to load the cut stalks into an ox cart. One of the many uses of the painted carretas was to transport cane to the sugar mill for processing. (Photo from a mural at the Doka Coffee Estate)

A carreta loaded with cane stalks pauses for a photograph. A sign under the 1940 photo identifies the boyero (carreta driver) as Teodoro Umaña Brenes. In his left hand he holds a chuzo, or prod, with which he controls the oxen and keeps them moving. The location of the photo is Cemetery Street in the pueblo of San Antonio de Escazú, today a suburb of San José. A typical load required a pair of strong oxen, called a yunta. Oddly, the first carretas were pulled by people rather than animals. As the loads increased, oxen were substituted. Notice the designs painted on the wheels and side of the vehicle.  Dia de los Boyeros (Ox Cart Drivers Day) has been celebrated for more than 30 years.

A worker holds a large bunch of green bananas as a group of women pick coffee beans. Bananas and coffee have been among the top agricultural exports of Costa Rica since the mid-19th century. Sometimes they were grown together, with the banana trees providing needed shade for the coffee plants. This painting is a detail from a large wall mural in the Taller Eloy Alfaro. The mural is a copy of the 1897 original, called Alegoria al Café y Bananas. The 19th century version was painted by Aleardo Villa and hangs in the National Theatre in San José. 

A long caravan hauls sacks of coffee beans to the Caribbean port of Limón. The man standing on the right may be the caravan's leader. Coffee was first shipped from Costa Rica to London in 1843. Soon, long lines of carretas were hauling sacks of beans from highland plantations down rough mountain roads to Puerta Limón. Between 1854-57, a railroad was built to connect San José with Limón. However, even after the advent of railroads, oxcart caravans continued to move sugarcane, coffee and bananas from remote plantations to the railheads. The "golden age" of carretas  lasted from 1850 all the way to 1935.

Workers load sacks of coffee aboard steamships moored at Puerto Limón. This is another panel of the Alegoria al Café y Bananas. A variety of flags fly from the ships' masts, including those of France and the United States. Many of the workers in Puerto Limón were of African descent, similar to the sugar cane worker in a previous painting. Some Africans were brought to Costa Rica as slaves during the colonial period. However, slavery was abolished in 1823, following independence from Spain. Most of the Afro-Costa Ricans depicted above would have been immigrants from Jamaica. They began arriving in 1872 after an employment crisis on their home island. The newly arrived Jamaicans initially worked on the railroad, but later got jobs as stevedores in the port or as banana or sugar cane workers in the interior. 

Yesterday and today

A boyero pauses to chat with a woman at a rancho along his route. Over his shoulder, he carries his chuzo. His cart is empty, so he is probably at the end of his long workday. Notice the painted ox yoke over the lintel of the woman's window. This timeless scene is very realistic, as you will see in the next two photographs.

Our bus paused near a carreta being driven by its boyero through the mountains. We didn't dismount from the bus, but I was able to get this and the next shot through the window. The previous painting and these photos bear a remarkable resemblance. It could almost have been a portrait of this boyero as a young man. Even the black and white spotted oxen look similar.

The boyero relaxes against the yoke connecting his yunta to the cart. Like the man in the painting, he holds a long chuzo. Notice how the yoke has been carved so that it will fit comfortably over the neck of each ox. The beasts stood patiently until we foreigners finished gawking and snapping our photos. The oxen were probably grateful for a break from their long trudge up the mountain.

This completes Part 4 of my Costa Rica series. I hope you have enjoyed it. If you'd like to leave a comment or question, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Costa Rica Part 3: Zoo Ave Wildlife Conservation Park

An iguana strikes a pose. I found this extraordinary creature perched atop a wooden box along one of the trails in the Zoo Ave Wildlife Conservation Park. We stopped at the Zoo Ave facility after visiting Volcán Poás (see Part 2 of this series). Iguanas tend to remain very still, even when closely approached, making them easy to photograph. Zoo Ave (Spanish for "Bird Zoo") is owned and operated by the Nature Restoration Foundation (NSF). The NSF is a non-profit organization that also operates two other wildlife projects in Costa Rica. The Zoo Ave facility draws 60,000 visitors per year, 95% of which are Costa Ricans. Carole and I and our Caravan Tours group were part of the 5% who are foreigners. The proportion of Costa Rican visitors demonstrates the country's high level of environmental consciousness. In addition to the three wildlife centers run by the NSF, there are at least 13 other rescue centers, animal sanctuaries, and zoos doing similar work in Costa Rica. Zoo Ave is located in La Garita, Alajuela Province. The hours are 9 AM - 5 PM daily and entrance fees are $15 (USD) for adults, $13 for students, and $4 for children. For a Google map to locate Zoo Ave, click here.

The Park

Thick jungle covers most of the property, replicating the animals' natural habitat. Because many of the animals prefer to hide in the foliage, photography can be difficult. As a result, the animals you see in this posting are a small fraction of the ones we encountered. Since the 1980s, Zoo Ave has been accepting orphaned, injured, or former pet animals. Others were delivered to the facility after they were confiscated because of illegal possession. The sanctuary does not purchase animals and every creature here has been donated by the government or private individuals. Of the animals accepted, 77% are birds, mostly parrot and owl species. Another 20% are reptiles such as iguanas and boa constrictors. Generally, the reptiles are turned over after they are captured in someone's house or barn. About 4% are monkeys, sloths and squirrels. Many of these are babies who survived after their mothers were hit by cars. The goal of Zoo Ave is to release them back into the wild when they are ready. However, some animals are so injured or have become so completely socialized to human beings that they could not survive in the wild. These become Zoo Ave's permanent residents.

The facility also hosts some unusual plant species, such as this Giant Bamboo. The origin of Giant Bamboo is believed to be either Thailand or the southern part of Sri Lanka. How it got to Costa Rica is not clear to me. This is the largest of all bamboo species in the world. For scale, see Carole in the lower right corner of the photo. The Giant Bamboo can reach a height of 30 m (98.5 ft). The buds can grow at the astonishing rate of 53.3 cm (21 in) per day! The bamboo shafts are used to provide bamboo pipes, masts for boats, and paper. They can also be cooked into a creamy porridge.


The brilliant plumage of a Scarlet macaw makes it stand out against the green foliage. This one was leaning over to examine its food bowl. Macaws I have encountered in Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica seem relatively unconcerned by human visitors. There are two subspecies of Scarlet macaws, one with a range in South America (Macao macao), and another in Central America (Macao cyanoptera). In Costa Rica, wild Scarlet Macaws can only be found in two small areas along the Pacific Coast. Because of its stunning appearance, the macaw has long been valued as a pet as well as for its bright feathers. In pre-hispanic times, macaw feathers were traded all the way up to the Anasazi country of the US Southwest. When Carole and I visited the ancient ruin of Cacaxtla, north of Puebla, Mexico, we saw the remains of pens where parrots were kept for breeding. Similar pre-hispanic pens have been found in Paquime, southwest of Juarez, Mexico.

The Australian emu is the world's second tallest bird, after the African ostrich. I was unable to determine how this emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) came to be in Costa Rica. Most likely, it was a pet or was exhibited commercially. In any case, it has found a safe, comfortable home. It probably couldn't be released because it would be unlikely to survive and, lacking any opportunity to mate, couldn't propagate. Emus are quite curious. This one walked over and looked directly into my camera lens as I took a shot. Unfortunately, because of its movement, the photo came out blurred and I couldn't use it.

A rare Grey-bellied Hawk stared back imperiously as I took its picture. The very first Grey-bellied Hawk (Accipiter poliogaster) ever recorded in Costa Rica was spotted only recently. On June 26, 2008, a Costa Rican guide named Octavio Ruiz found one at La Selva Biological Station. It had apparently migrated from South America, either intentionally or by overshooting its normal range. Previous to that sighting, Grey-bellied Hawks had not been seen north of Colombia. The species is not well-understood and is rare even in South America. In addition to the thick foliage, the chain-link fences at Zoo Ave form another photographic obstacle. Many of my shots were spoiled when my camera automatically focused on the fence in the foreground instead of the animal in back. Ordinarily I can overcome this problem by placing my lens between the links. However, at Zoo Ave, barriers prevent visitors from approaching the fences, probably to keep them from feeding or otherwise disturbing the animals. This photo was one of the few "through the fence" shots that were good enough to use.

A Brown Pelican preens while floating in a small pond. Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) are common along the Pacific Coast from Canada's British Colombia to southern Chile. Although this one was swimming in a freshwater pond, Brown Pelicans are normally found along the seashore or in river estuaries. This pelican most likely ended up here because of an injury. The Brown Pelican was severely impacted by the use of DDT from the 1940s into the 1970s. The chemical thinned the birds' egg shells, causing breakage before normal hatching. Although DDT was banned in the US as of January 1, 1973, it continued to be used around the world until 2011 when it was banned by the Stockholm Treaty. Since then, Brown Pelican populations have begun to recover.

The Emerald Toucancet is the smallest and shortest billed of the Costa Rican toucans. Emerald Toucancets (Aulacorhynchus prasinus) normally dwell in the tops of cloud forests. Unlike some species, where the male wears the bright plumage and the female is drab, both toucancet genders are clothed in beautiful green feathers. A male's larger beak distinguishes it from a female toucancet. Since I only saw this one bird, I couldn't tell its gender. The birds' range includes Costa Rica and Panamá. They are popular pets because they are affectionate and love to play and interact with their owners. The toucancets' diet is primarily forest fruit, but they also eat insects, lizards and small birds.


A monkey relaxes in its enclosure. The creature sat quietly while I took its photo. Like the iguana, this monkey almost seemed to pose. I am a bit baffled about its species. Costa Rica's monkey population contains four species: the howler, the spider, the squirrel, and the capuchin. The primate above does not resemble any of those. In searching through Google Images, the closest I could find is the Vervet Monkey, an African species most common in Ethiopia and Somalia. It is possible that someone illegally imported a Vervet and it was confiscated. If anyone can come up with a definite species for this animal, please let me know in the Comments section.

A baby marmoset peeks around the side of its mother. Common marmosets (Callithrix jaccus) are  a species of monkey native to the northeastern coast of Brazil. This may be another case of illegal importation. Marmosets are quite small, with an average height of 188 mm (7.4 in). They are characterized by bright ear tufts, a white blaze on the forehead, and a long, banded tail. Unlike most primates, whose claws have evolved into nails, marmosets still have claws on all their digits except for the big toe. Marmosets in the wild live in family groups of about 15 individuals. The entire group helps with raising the young.

A puma snoozes on a platform built high in a tree. I had to use my maximum zoom to get this shot. The Central American puma (Puma concolor costaricensis) is a subspecies of puma whose range extends from the center of Nicaragua through Costa Rica and into Panamá. Its range was originally much larger but it was wiped out in most of its previous habitat. The big cat is very adaptable and can be found in cloud forests, humid forests and gallery forests but it prefers mountains, rocky ravines and dense forests. The puma is solitary, silent and territorial and can travel long distances in search of food. Their diet consists mainly of mammals such as deer, opossum, monkey, porcupine, agouti, iguana and other forest creatures. Occasionally they take a human, especially children. The puma population in Costa Rica is considered to be "threatened".

A Three-toed sloth engaged in its favorite activity: hanging out in a tree. When photographing a sloth, it is difficult to determine what you are viewing. Because of its coloring, the animal is very hard to see from a distance. When finally spotted, you often only see an undifferentiated mass of rather unkempt fur. Which end is which? After carefully reviewing a number of sloth photos, both my own and on Google, I realized that the head of this Three-toed sloth (Bradypus tridactylus) is in the upper left of the photo. The short snout can be seen between the animal's forelegs. In the lower right of the photo, you can see a foot with three toes clinging onto the branch. Sloths move at an extremely leisurely pace of 0.24 km/h (0.15 mph). This is probably due to their leafy diet which is not terribly nutritious and results in a very slow metabolism. They live most of their lives snoozing in a tree fork or hanging upside down from a branch. About once a week, they descend to the forest floor to urinate and defecate. Why sloths don't accomplish this from high above mystifies scientists. While on the ground, their slow pace makes them extremely vulnerable to predators.


Green Iguanas are considered a "threatened" species in Costa Rica. This Green iguana ((Iguana iguana) sat very quietly in the weeds as I moved around looking for the best angle to shoot. Despite its name, this species comes in a variety of colors, including red and bright orange. Green Iguanas are arboreal, herbivorous, and can be found in Central and South America and the Caribbean. The Green Iguana grows to 1.5 m (4.9 ft) from nose to tail and can weigh as much as 9.1 kg (20 lbs). Many people keep them as pets because of their calm disposition. However, their care can be very demanding because of their size and their special requirements for light and heat. The Green Iguana is a threatened species in Costa Rica because of a long tradition of hunting them. Locally, they are called "chicken of the trees".

Iguanas like to perch above the ground. Most of the iguanas we saw while touring Costa Rica were in trees, often on limbs extending out over the water. This position is one of the creature's best defenses since larger animals often can't get out on the limb. If a predator does, the iguana can just dive into the water and swim away. While swimming, the iguana folds its legs close to its body and uses its long, powerful tail to drive it through the water. Although is has a fearsome appearance, the animal is not aggressive except among males during mating season. However, if cornered, the iguana can lash out with its tail and will sometimes use its sharp teeth.

Black River Turtles line up as if at a bus stop. Black River Turtles (Rhinoclemmys funerea) are sometimes called Black Wood Turtles or Black Terrapin. They inhabit freshwater marshes, swamps, ponds and streams. In this case, these reptiles shared the pond with the Brown Pelican seen previously. In addition to Costa Rica, they can be found in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Panamá.

Red-eared slider turtles laze in the sun along a stream. As reptiles, they cannot regulate their own body temperature. That is why they are so often seen basking in the sun near the water. Their name comes from their habit of sliding off of rocks and logs into the water when they feel threatened. The semi-aquatic red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) is native to the US and Mexico. They are extremely popular as pets. However, their lifespan of 20-30 years (some can live to 40) may explain why they have invaded so many non-native habitats. Many pet owners are not inclined to take such long-term responsibility and release them into the wild in non-native places like Costa Rica. In fact, these colorful little guys are on the list of the world's 100 most invasive species.

This Golden Silk Orbweaver is not an official resident of Zoo Ave, it just lives here. The spider, whose official name is Nephila clavipes, has a huge brain in relation to its body size. The brain fills most of its body cavity and may extend part way down its legs. I found this spider busily wrapping up a victim caught in its web, creating a tasty snack for later.

This completes Part 3 of my Costa Rica series. If you have enjoyed it, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. However, it you do leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Costa Rica Part 2: Ancient artifacts and active volcanoes

Ceramic feline from the Middle Polychrome Period (800 AD - 1200 AD). The figure comes from the Gran Nicoya area of Costa Rica's northwest coast. Jaguars and other large predators were viewed with awe by pre-hispanic people. The jaguar, which hunts at night, was believed to move freely between the world of the living and that of the dead. When we visited the Poás Volcano's Visitor Center, we found a small museum containing pre-hispanic artifacts, as well as exhibits about the volcano. In this posting, I'll highlight the wonderful craftsmanship of those ancient people and provide a brief outline of their history. In addition, we'll look at the Volcán Poás, one of Costa Rica's most active volcanoes.

Before the Spaniards

Ancient inhabitants at work and play in a forest glade. A woman makes pots while a man prepares a fire and several children frolic. The mild climate required few clothes. Evidence of human occupation in Costa Rica dates back 12,000 years. These early people hunted sloths, mastadons, and giant armadillos. The end of the Ice Age led to environmental change and people had to adapt as their original prey animals disappeared. Joining together into highly mobile groups, they began to hunt smaller game and exploit the area's plant resources. Agriculture appeared around 5,000 years ago, mainly of roots and tubers. The need to tend crops led people to settle in small villages. With the introduction of corn, food surpluses enabled a completely settled life. Around 1000 BC, pottery appeared. The widespread use of easily breakable ceramic goods is only possible in a sedentary society.

Incense burner with an alligator motif, Middle Polychrome Period (800 AD - 1200 AD). As you will see, the craftsmanship displayed by these ancient people is impressive. Imaginative animal images are utilized in almost every artifact. Crocodilian figures are often portrayed on ancient Costa Rican artifacts. The ancient people believed that these dangerous creatures possessed supernatural powers. Incense burners, called censers, were used in religious ceremonies. When the ancients burned copal resin inside the pot, the smoke escaped from the holes you can see around censer's top and on on the alligator's body. Copal produces a thick, but pleasant-smelling, smoke that was believed to represent the brains of the gods.

Ocarina shaped like a blowfish, Central Caribbean Region (undated). An ocarina is a musical instrument, kind of like a flute. These instruments have existed around the world for more than 12,000 years. In Mesoamerica, they were especially popular among the Maya and Aztecs. The use of ocarinas probably spread through the trade networks. The instrument is played by blowing into the tube extending to the right (see above). The air resonates within the hollow chamber and different tones can be produced by pressing on one or another of the 4 holes in the top. The blowfish design testifies to the native people's close relationship with the sea and its animals.

An ocarina and a censer, both with animal motifs. The ocarina (top) bears the face of a coatimundi, a forest creature that is a relative of the raccoon. The censer (bottom) is decorated with the image of a bird. Both of these artifacts were found in the northwest coastal region of Guanacaste and date from between 300 BC and 300 AD. Pre-hispanic people used musical instruments for religious rituals, political ceremonies, and sometimes just for fun. Costa Rica occupies what historians call the Intermediate Area, where influence of the cultures of Central Mexico overlapped that of the Andean cultures centered in the area of Peru. Over the millennia, successive waves of settlers arrived in the area from both the north and the south. This created an interesting mix of people, cultural traditions, technologies, and art. In addition to the influence of migration, trade networks extended through Costa Rica, linking the empires of Peru with those of Central Mexico.While ocarinas, censers, or other physical and cultural artifacts may have arrived from elsewhere, the ancient people of Costa Rica soon developed their own unique designs and styles.

Bowl, supported by three toucans (100 BC - 0 AD). This is a particularly beautiful example of the ceramic style called Red Ware. The toucans are very realistically portrayed. Their large, curved beaks form the handles of the bowl, which may have been used for ceremonial purposes. As towns and small cities developed, pre-hispanic societies in Costa Rica became stratified, specialized, and hierarchical. By 500 AD, chieftaincies had become hereditary and an astronomically-oriented priesthood had developed. Along with these, specialized classes of artisans, warriors, and farmers appeared.

Five-legged bowl from the Middle Polychrome Period (800 AD - 1200 AD). The bowl is shaped to resemble a writhing serpent, with a snake head on one end. The style of this unusual piece is called Orange Pottery. Until fairly recently, archaeologists thought that only villages and small towns had developed in Costa Rica's pre-hispanic period. Several recent discoveries have begun to change this consensus.

Stone platforms at El Guayabo National Park. At a site called El Guayabo, outside San José,  ruins of a small city were recently discovered. El Guayabo was built around 1000 BC and flourished until the Spanish arrival in the early 1500s. Twenty-five hundred years is an astonishingly long period of continuous occupation. Archaeologists believe that as many as 10,000 people once lived here. Numerous stone structures have been unearthed, including circular platforms, staircases, roads, and an extensive network of aqueducts. The circular platforms were once topped by towering conical structures. However, these were made of perishable materials such as wood. Only their circular stone bases have survived. The aqueducts were part of a complex plumbing system using sand and stones to filter the water. Another site, named Rivas, was discovered in southern Costa Rica near a town of the same name. People of the Chiriqui culture occupied Rivas between 900 AD and 1300 AD. Similar to El Guayabo, Rivas contains circular platforms and cobbled roads. Rivas is unusual in the number of tombs containing grave goods that have been discovered. Archaeologists have identified a road system at least 150 km (93 mi) in length which appears to connect El Guayabo, Rivas and other ancient sites in Costa Rica. This may indicate a much more complex society than previously thought. Unfortunately, the Caravan tour itinerary did not include El Guayabo, Rivas, or any other archaeological sites. I didn't find out about them until I began my research on Costa Rica's pre-hispanic history. By contrast, during our Caravan tours of Mexico, Guatemala, and Panamá, we had numerous opportunities to visit ancient ruins. (Photo from Wiki images)

Ceremonial metate from Gran Nicoya (500 AD - 800 AD). Made of volcanic rock and carved with a head in the form of a macaw, this grinding platform was used for ritual purposes. Metates are one of the oldest known tools for grinding plant-based foods. The earliest examples are paleolithic, i.e. they pre-date agriculture. During the Old Stone Age, these grinding platforms were used to crush seeds and other plant foods gathered from the natural environment. As old as this technology is, metates very similar to this can be purchased in many Mexican hardware stores. They are used to grind corn to make tortillas. Modern metates tend to be very utilitarian, however, and usually lack the wonderful animal motifs favored by the ancients. Because of their association with the all-important maiz (corn), metates held deep symbolic meanings for ancient people. They have often been found among the grave goods in ancient Costa Rican tombs.

Winged jade pendant from the Central Caribbean Coast (date unknown). The two wings are shark heads, separated by a bat. Sharks are fearsome ocean predators, equivalent to jaguars on land. As such, they became powerful symbols. A shark's tooth was sometimes used in blood-letting rituals. Bats were associated with darkness and the world of the dead because they live in caves. Winged pendants carved from jade were popular during the 1000 year period between 300 BC and 700 AD. Carved jade objects like the pendant were symbols of power and status. They appeared at a time when agricultural surpluses were enabling societal specialization and the development of hierarchies. Reverence for jade, and for objects carved from it, seems to have filtered south from Mesoamerica. Exactly how this cultural transfer occurred is not presently known but it may have involved the trade networks. Interestingly, archaeologists have not yet identified any ancient jade mining sites in Costa Rica. The jade objects found to date are mineralogically similar to those from ancient mines along the Motagua River in southern Guatemala. This reinforces theories about the influence of trade.

Fish-shaped gold ornament with alligator motif, Southern Pacific Coast (700 AD - 1550 AD). The structures extending from the fish's mouth are associated with alligators. It was not uncommon for pre-hispanic people to create art that was a mix of several different animals. Such art is called zoomorphic. Mining, smelting, and working with metal ingots had begun in the northwestern part of South America as early as 2100 BC. It is likely that metallurgy arrived in Costa Rica from the southern trade routes, just as jade had filtered down from the north. Somewhere around 500 AD, gold began to supplant jade as the favored material for the jewelry and ritual objects which symbolized social status and power. Ancient jade workshops along Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast soon began to switch over to the manufacture of gold objects. Artisans learned the "lost wax" method for casting and used it extensively. The widespread use of gold at the time of the Spanish Conquest can be seen in the very name of the country: Costa Rica means "Rich Coast". The originator of the name may have been either Christopher Columbus in 1502, or Conquistador Gil González Dávila in 1522. The coast they visited swarmed with gold-bedecked natives. Unfortunately, gold had a magnetic attraction for the Spaniards. If the native people had not possessed it, the Spanish might have bypassed them for a very long time.

Poas Volcano

A plume of gas rises from the crater of the Poas Volcano on an unusually clear day. In the center is the intercrater lagoon whose turquoise color is caused by the acid content of the water. The pH is near zero, making it the world's second most acidic natural lake. That is not its only distinction. The lagoon is one of the world's deepest, reaching 304 m (1000 ft). At 1.6 km (1 mi) across, Poás has the largest active crater in the world. The smoke is produced by fumeroles that regularly release noxious gases. The gray wall rising behind the lagoon is composed of layers of ash. Behind the ash wall, in the distance, is a green ridge which forms the caldera lip of an extinct crater. The bulging reddish area on the lower right of the lagoon rim is the main volcanic dome inside the active crater. I should confess here that I did not take the original photo. What you see above is my photo of an original hanging in the museum. You will see in the next photo why this was necessary.

Tourists shiver in a pelting rain as a cold fog envelopes them at the caldera rim.  Poás lies to the northwest of San José, a couple of hours up some long and winding roads. The soggy folks at the rail are standing at 2700 m (8900 ft). Beyond the railing, the great caldera was a swirling, white void. Visibility was no more than 30 m (100 ft). As I mentioned in my previous post, the weather in Costa Rica's Central Valley is changeable. At the peak of Poás, it is positively mercurial. Your chances of a clear day are about 30%. Laura, our Caravan Tour Director, had warned us to bring rain gear and warm clothes, so our party was reasonably comfortable. Also present at the peak were a number of European back-packer types. They were wearing shorts and t-shirts and had obviously not been given a "heads up". Their grim expressions and blue lips required no words. Poás is one of 14 volcanoes stretched like a necklace along the crest of the mountains that form the spine of the country. The mountain range and its volcanoes grew out of tectonic activity along the Pacific subduction zone. Nine of the fourteen volcanoes are active and, of these, the most active are Irazú, Arenal, and Poás.

Huge leaves of the "Poor Man's Umbrella" are called that for a reason. The plant is formally known as Gunnera insignis and it is native to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panamá. Since time immemorial, local people have used the broad leaves as a quick way to shelter from a downpour.

While native people knew the volcano well, Europeans were late arrivals.  The first European to visit the crater was Don Miguel Alfaro, who arrived in 1828. Almost 20 years passed before the second European visitor arrived. He was Danish botanist Andrew Oersted and he prepared a scientific report on the volcanic activity at Poás. Between 1910 and 1920, an annual hike began that brought many people to view the crater All this activity inspired Magdaleno Ugolde and Trino Araya to build a hotel in 1913, only a few kilometers from the crater. The hotel operated until 1930. Up until that time, visitors had to walk or ride a horse up the rough trails. In 1930, the first motor vehicle reached Poás. As a prize for that feat, the Chevrolet Agency presented the drivers with a spare tire. No doubt they were badly in need of a new spare by then. Finally, in 1971, Costa Rica created Parque Nacional Volcán Poás to protect 5,600 hectares (13,838 acres) of mountain and forest.The park was the brainchild of a Costa Rican student named Mario Boza. He visited Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1960s and was inspired to campaign for a park to protect Poás.

This scale model of the Poás Volcano is located in the Visitor Center museum. You can see the crater in the gray area of the upper center of the photo. The ash field continues off to the left center, allowing you to see the direction of the last eruptions. The small markers dotted around the top of the volcano indicate places of interest or lookout points. In 1910, Poás experienced the greatest eruption of its recorded history. Mud, gases, rock, and ashes spewed out in huge quantities. The column of smoke and ash reached 8000 m (26,246 ft) above the crater level.

Cut-away of the volcano interior. You can see how the volcano was built up in layers of ash from successive eruptions. Another crater on the side of the mountain, now filled by a lake, was created 7,500 years ago when a flow of lava branched off from the main tube. Another series of eruptions occurred between 1953-55. The plume from the volcano's mouth reach 1000 m (3281 ft) and several Costa Rican cities reported acid rain.

Flower of the Poor Man's Umbrella. Beginning in 1991, a series of "aquifer eruptions" occurred. These happen when steam is produced from the contact of ascending lava with water on the wet rocks. Fumeroles and acid rain are typical products of aquifer eruptions. Things quieted down for a time after 1994, but then another set of aquifer eruptions occurred in 2006 and 2009. The most recent significant eruption was in 2013. Scientists think the volcano is slowly building up to another major eruption. Stay tuned.

This completes Part 2 of my Costa Rica series. I hope you have enjoyed my photos and text. If you'd like to leave a comment or question, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. 

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Hasta luego, Jim