The Saga of William Walker

William Walker was the greatest American FilibusterPresident of Lower California, Emperor of Nicaragua, doctor, lawyer, writer—these were some of the titles claimed by William Walker, the greatest American filibuster.

In the mid-nineteenth century, adventurers known as filibusters participated in military actions aimed at obtaining control of Latin American nations with the intent of annexing them to the United States—an expression of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was destined to control the continent. Only 5’2″ and weighing 120 pounds, Walker was a forceful and convincing speaker and a fearless fighter who commanded the respect of his men in battle.

Born in 1824 in Tennessee, Walker graduated from the University of Nashville at the age of 14 and by 19 had earned a medical degree. He practiced medicine in Philadelphia, studied law in New Orleans, and then became co-owner of a newspaper, the Crescent, where the young poet Walt Whitman worked. When the paper was sold, Walker moved on to California, where he worked as a reporter in San Francisco before setting up a law office in Marysville.

When he was 29, his freebooting nature led him to become the leader of a group plotting to detach parts of northern Mexico. Recruiting a small army, he sailed to Baja California and conquered La Paz, declaring himself president of Lower California. He then decided to extend his little empire to include Sonora, and renamed it “The Republic of Sonora.”

Marching on to the Colorado River, Walker found himself faced with harsh conditions and a high desertion rate, forcing him to retreat to California, where he surrendered to U.S. authorities on charges of violating U.S. neutrality laws.

One result of this incursion was that Mexico sold a part of Sonora to the United States—the transaction we call the Gadsden Purchase. Acquitted of criminal charges, Walker next turned his attention to Central America. Throughout this region, chaos reigned, as forces known as Democrats and Legitimists fought each other. The leader of the Democratic faction in Nicaragua invited Walker to bring an army and join the struggle against the Legitimists. In 1855, with his army of 58 Americans, later called by stateside romantics, “The Immortals,” he landed in Nicaragua.

Within a year, leading “The Immortals” and a native rebel force, he routed the Legitimists and captured Granada, their capital. His success roused concern in the other Central American countries, especially Costa Rica, which sent in a well-armed force to invade Nicaragua. Walker’s army repelled the invasion, but a poorly executed counter attack into Costa Rica failed, and a war of attrition continued, in which disease killed more soldiers on both sides than enemy bullets.

Other enemies plagued Walker. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the shipping magnate, seeking control of the San Juan River-Lake Nicaragua route from the Caribbean to the Pacific, armed Walker’s enemies, while the British navy, attempting to thwart American influences in the region, regularly harassed efforts to supply him. In spite of these factors, Walker had himself elected president of Nicaragua. The United States briefly recognized his government but never sent him aid. Soon the other countries of Central America formed an alliance against him, and in mid 1857 he surrendered once again to a U.S. naval officer and returned to the U.S.

Landing first in New Orleans, he was greeted as a hero. He visited President Buchanan, then went on to New York, all the time seeking support for a return to Nicaragua. But support waned as returning soldiers reported military blunders and poor management.

Nevertheless he succeeded in raising another army, and returned to Nicaragua in late 1857. Again thwarted by the British navy, he abandoned his third Latin American invasion.

Still undaunted and seeking support for yet another venture, Walker wrote a book, The War in Nicaragua. Knowing that his best prospects lay in the South, he assumed a strong pro-slavery stance. This strategy proved successful, and in 1860 he once again sailed south. Unable to land in Nicaragua due to the ever-present British, he landed in Honduras, planning to march overland, but the British soon captured him and turned him over to the Hondurans. Six days later, at the age of 36, he was executed by a firing squad. The Walker saga had ended. This enigmatic man had come close to altering the history of the continent. Had he been successful, he might have brought several Central American countries into the United States as pro-southern states, altering the balance in Congress and postponing The Civil War.

Today Walker is far better known in Central America than in the United States. Costa Ricans honor Juan Santamaria, a young drummer boy who became a national hero by torching a fort in which Walker’s army was encamped, and a national park, Santa Rosa, commemorates the battle where Walker’s soldiers were expelled from Costa Rica.

Orchids: The Macho Flowers

Glistening orchids cling to the towering trees surrounding us in the swirling mist of the Costa Rican cloud forest. More than 1,200 species of these beautiful blooms can be found in this enticing little country which has made the orchid its national flower.

In Costa Rica, orchids are the national flower.According to legend, orchids were given their name by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who was a student of Aristotle. The rounded paired bulbs of one common Mediterranean orchid looked like male organs to him so he named the plant orchis, the Greek word for testicle. In medieval Europe, aphrodisiacal powers were attributed to the plants and their dried pulverized tubers were used in love potions. Potions made from younger, firmer tubers were believed to result in the conception of sons, while potions made from older, softer tubers resulted in daughters.

Orchids cover a full spectrum of colors and patterns, from delicate pastels to vibrant full-bodied hues, and range in size from tiny plants an inch high with flowers so small that we can barely see them, to 50 foot long vines with blossoms spanning more than a foot—some bloom only for a day while the blossoms of others last for weeks.

But what actually is an orchid and why do people find them so fascinating? We looked into the nature and history of these exotic plants and came up with some fascinating facts.

Orchids are the largest family of flowering plants (almost 30,000 wild species have been classified) and also the most diverse. Although they can be found in a wide range of habitats—one is semiaquatic and only its blossoms poke above the water surface, while another grows and blooms entirely below the ground—the greatest diversity of orchids can be found in tropical cloud forests. Most of these tropical orchids are epiphytes—air plants, which grow on the trunks and limbs of trees. Although they grow on the trees, they are not parasites and only use the tree as a place to anchor where they can receive light high above the forest floor—biologists have recorded almost fifty different orchid species growing on a single tree.

An orchid seed has no food source of its own, but each species has a symbiotic relationship with one particular fungus—without that fungus the seed cannot grow.

Just as the colors and sizes of orchids have so much variety, their scents also cover a wide range—some have no scent at all, others give off musky decaying smells, and one has the delightful scent of vanilla—in fact, it is vanilla. The vanilla plant is the only fruit produced by the orchid family that humans can eat. Centuries ago, the ancient Aztecs used vanilla to flavor their chocolate drinks. When the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez was offered the drink by the Emperor Montezuma, he was so impressed that he brought it back to the King of Spain and it soon became a favorite with the royalty of Europe.

In addition to being designated as the national flower of Costa Rica, the orchid is also the national flower of Thailand, Singapore, Columbia, Panama, Indonesia, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and the Cayman Islands—a very popular flower indeed.

Come Out of Your Shell and Meet the Turtles of Tortuguero

Located near the northeastern corner of Costa Rica, surrounded by rain forest on one side and Caribbean beach on the other, is Tortuguero National Park, whose name means “The Place of Turtles.”

Costa Rica's Tortuguero National Park is the easiest place in the world for viewing sea turtles.
Costa Rica's Tortuguero National Park is the easiest place in the world for viewing sea turtles.

Tortuguero’s 22-mile long beach is the main nesting area for Green Turtles in the Caribbean. It is also the easiest place in the world to view sea turtles.

Green Turtles mate and nest several times during a season. In mating, an amorous male holds onto a female with the sharp hook on his front flippers. If he can’t locate a female, he will improvise and substitute anything that floats, whether it be a piece of driftwood, another male turtle, or a skin diver.

An impregnated female will wait offshore until dark and then head for the beach and a nesting site. During her crawl up the beach, noise or lights will cause her to return to the safety of the sea. Once she has begun digging her nest, however, nothing will distract her. She uses her rear flippers to scoop out a hole about two-feet deep, deposits around one hundred leathery, golf-ball-sized eggs, covers the nest, tamps down the sand, and returns to the sea.

Many of the buried eggs are dug up by coatimundis, dogs, raccoons, and even humans. The remaining eggs hatch in a couple of months. The baby turtles use a temporary egg tooth to tear open their egg shell. It takes the combined power of about 100 cooperating turtles to excavate the two feet of sand which covers them.

The little turtles appear on the beach, usually before dawn, then scramble for the water. On the way many are eaten by hungry crabs and birds. If they do reach the water they stand a high chance of becoming dinner to an eagerly waiting fish. Of the hundreds of thousands who race for the sea, probably fewer than three percent survive. For the next half-century the turtles live nomadic lives, migrating over vast distances of ocean. After fifty years they reach sexual-maturity and return to the beach where they were born, to mate, nest and produce another generation.

In addition to the Green turtles, Tortuguero is also a nesting place for Leatherback, Hawksbill, Olive Ridley and Loggerhead turtles.

For would-be turtle watchers, the best time to see Green turtles is between July and October. At this time you can also see Hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles. The Leatherback turtles return to Tortuguero during the months of February through July. Of course there is no guarantee that you’ll see the turtles at any time, as the weather, the tides, activity on the beach, and other factors can discourage them from landing on any given night.

With or without the turtles, Tortuguero is well worth visiting, as it is a wonderful place to view countless animals and birds. Getting there is half of the fun. There are no roads, just rivers and canals, so we travel by boat. Birds fly overhead, monkeys and sloths hang in the trees, and crocodiles rest along the river banks. Traveling up the jungle waterways one can easily imagine himself as Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn on The African Queen.

Let’s Catch a Quetzal

The quetzal was a sacred symbol to the Aztecs and the MayasLet’s catch a quetzal—on camera that is. We can begin our hunt by hiking through the Monteverde cloud forest, on a California Native Costa Rica Adventure. If we are lucky, we may see this incredible looking bird winging its way through the sky. With its shimmering emerald green body, red belly, and blue back, the bird does not look real. Adding to this effect is his long flowing blue and green tail, twice as long as his 15 inch body. Truly, the Resplendent Quetzal is one of the most beautiful birds in the world.

To the Aztecs and Mayas, the quetzal was their most sacred symbol. Its name was derived from quetzalli, an early Aztec word for the bird’s beautiful tail feathers. The quetzal was a symbol of both freedom and wealth. Freedom, because a quetzal was believed to die in captivity, and wealth, because the Mayas were traders, and quetzal feathers along with jade were their most sought after treasures. They traded the feathers as far north as the central valley of Mexico and as far south as the Empire of the Incas. Only the priests were allowed to wear the feathers of the quetzal. It is said that the feathers were only taken from living birds which were then released to grow new feathers.

A Mayan legend describes how the bird got its crimson breast. When the Mayan chieftain Tecun Uman fell in battle, mortally wounded by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, a gold-and-green quetzal landed on his chest. As the chieftain died, the bird flew off, its breast forever stained with the blood of the Mayan.

During most of the year the quetzals are solitary birds. During breeding season, between March and June, they mate and produce two blue eggs. Both the male and female take turns at incubating the eggs. They feed by darting out of their nests to pluck fruit, insects and occasionally a lizard or frog from the forest canopy.

Originally endangered by local hunters seeking its feathers for religious ceremonies, the quetzal is now threatened by the destruction of its habitat and the demand for its live export.

Wan’na Buy an Oxcart?

Located in the Central Mountain Range, not far from Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jóse, the town of Sarchí is the center of Costa Rica’s painted oxcart industry.

Decorated oxcart in Costa RicaAccording to legend, around 1910 a farmer was suddenly inspired to spruce up the appearance of his oxcart. He painted the wheels with multi-colored designs. Others copied his designs and oxcart painting became a uniquely Costa Rican art form. At one time each district in the country had its own special design, and people could tell by looking at an oxcart what region it came from.

Until about thirty years ago, oxcarts were the principal means of transporting coffee beans and other agricultural products to market. Today some farmers still rely on this traditional method of transporting their goods. The father of former president Oscar Arias Sánchez made his fortune hauling coffee in oxcarts to the port of Puntarenas.

Today, the painted oxcarts are produced mainly for decorative purposes. In addition to the full-size carts, replicas are available for sale ranging from small, inexpensive table top models to larger carts that are designed to be used as planters or living room cocktail carts. Regardless of size and price, all of the oxcarts are beautifully handpainted in bright colors featuring motifs of butterflies, flowers and fruits, as well as traditional design patterns whose origin can be traced to designs brought to Spain from North Africa by the Moors.

The gift shops in Sarchí are also filled with other woodcrafts including furniture, chairs, desks, coffee tables, and polished wood serving dishes, as well as leather items, ceramic crafts, and jewelry.

Exploring the arts and crafts of a country offers travelers another way to learn about its people and culture. Costa Rica has a wide spectrum of art objects ranging from the inexpensive to museum-quality collector’s items. Goods offered for sale include wood crafts, ceramics, reproductions of pre-Colombian figurines and masks, leather accessories, hammocks, woven baskets, jewelry made of woods, silver, gold and jade, embroidered dresses, blouses, table linens, and, of course, replicas of the famous painted oxcarts.

In San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, almost every craft item is available. However, as travelers visit the beautiful and diverse provinces of Costa Rica, they can purchase products reflecting the particular traditions and culture of the surrounding countryside.

One item that most visitors bring home is a bag or more of Costa Rican coffee beans. Sipping the rich flavor, and inhaling the wonderful aroma weeks after returning home helps recapture some of the adventures and sights of a Costa Rican vacation.

So how about it? Wan’na buy an oxcart?

What Has 4-toes in Front, 3 in Back, a Trunk, and Looks Sort of Like a Pig?

Need a clue? It is also related to the horse and rhinoceros. Give up? It’s a tapir.

Tapir in Costa RicaTapirs are rather strange, primitive creatures. They are big animals—measuring about six to eight feet between their short little trunk and their stubby little tail, and weighing up to 700 pounds. Unlike elephants, who pick up food with their trunks, the tapirs move their trunks aside and browse like horses. Tapirs are the only animals native to the Americas which have four toes on their front feet and three toes on their hind feet.

In ancient times, tapirs were found throughout North America and tropical Eurasia. When the weather cooled down the European tapirs became extinct. The North American tapirs migrated south across the isthmus of Panama. Today tapirs are found only in Central and South America, and Southeast Asia.

There are only four species of tapirs—the Malayan tapir in Asia, the Brazilian tapir in the rain forests of South America, the mountain tapir in the high northern Andes, and the Baird’s tapir in Mexico and Central America.

The Baird’s tapir, which we can see on our California Native trips to Costa Rica, is the largest land mammal native to this region.

Tapirs are timid, inoffensive creatures who generally live in swamps or near wet areas, feeding on water plants and browsing on forest foliage. Their splayed feet help them walk in muddy and soft ground. They are good swimmers and can also dive and walk along the river bottom. Traveling on land the tapir does not always follow a beaten trail but instead doggedly pushes his way through the jungle with his head carried low.

People hunt tapirs for their flesh and hides. The thick hides are used to make whips and bridles. The flesh is considered excellent food. In some areas, natives believe they can cure epilepsy by grinding down the tapirs’ toenails and taking them in powdered form. As a result of both hunting and the cutting of forests, tapirs have become rare in many areas.

Aside from humans, the jaguar in Central and South America and the tiger and leopard in Malaya are the tapirs’ only enemies. Despite their bulk, tapirs are fast and, if there is water nearby, can usually escape predators. In addition, tapirs are extremely muscular, with very strong jaws. If cornered, the peaceful tapir can put up quite a fight.

Tapirs tend to feed in the early or late hours of the day, often before the sun comes up and after it sets, although you can occasionally see a tapir at any hour.

Like dogs, tapirs are territorial and mark their territories and daily routes with urine, but unlike dogs, tapirs are solitary and it is unusual to see more than two or three of them together.

A pregnant tapir carries her baby for thirteen months and her single offspring weighs 15-20 pounds at birth. Baby tapirs have striped-and-spotted coats for camouflage. They can look forward to a lifespan of about thirty years of happily chewing their way through the forests and swamps.

Costa Rica’s Curious Critters

From a place like no other in the world, come animals like no others in the world.  A few of the animals that can be spotted on California Native Costa Rica Explorer tours are the Jesus Christ Lizard and the Two- or Three-toed Sloth.

In Costa Rica, a two-toed sloth hangs lazily in a tree.Hanging upside-down from the branches of trees in Costa Rica’s lush rain forests, sleep the two and three-toed sloths. The Spanish word for sloth is perezoso, meaning “lazy”, and  sloths, who sleep around eighteen hours a day, live up to their reputation.

Because of their “lazy” or slow-moving nature, sloths live high in the forest canopy, which camouflages them from predators. They spend most of their time in the trees. By adulthood sloths are about as big as a medium sized dog. Their permanent smiling expression gives them almost human-like characteristics. These fascinating creatures can live up to thirty years. They begin reproducing at about age three and bear one baby a year.

Costa Rica is a wonderful place to observe and photograph sloths, because of the abundance of cecropia trees, which are the sloth’s favorite food. The leaves of these trees are spread out enough to make “sloth-watching” easy.

Basilisks are the other curious creature can be found on many Costa Rican rivers.  Here, you’ll see strange-looking lizards go charging from the banks, standing on their hind legs, running across the river—literally “walking on water.”

Costa Rica's 'Jesus Christ' lizards can walk on water.Basilisks, aka “Jesus Christ lizards” refer to the legendary monsters whose breath and glances were fatal to those unfortunate enough to encounter them. Basilisks are quite large, as lizards go, up to three feet long, and the males have large crests on their heads, backs, and tails. This, and the fact that they run on two legs, makes them look like little dinosaurs.

The name Jesus Christ lizard refers, of course, to their ability to walk on water. They do this by running very quickly over the water’s surface on their large hind feet, which have flaps of skin along each toe. This ability is best developed in young lizards, who can run twenty yards or more over the water without sinking. The ability to “walk on water” helps the basilisks catch food and escape from predators.

Basilisks eat almost everything, including insects, shrimp, scorpions, other lizards, snakes, fish, small mammals, birds, flowers and fruit.

Their only natural enemies are raptors, opossums and snakes, who view the basilisks as potential dinners. To protect themselves while they sleep, the basilisks bed down in vegetation overhanging water, and, when the vegetation is disturbed, dive to safety.

Come with us to Costa Rica and meet the Jesus Christ lizards as well as the many other exotic birds and animals that dwell in the forests and rivers of this magical little country at the center of the Americas.

Fruit: Fresh and Fancy in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has always been known as an excellent destination for the outdoor adventurer or bird watcher. Another attraction to this peaceful, central American country is the fact that Costa Rica is a fruit-lover’s paradise. Having a warm tropical climate year round makes Costa Rica a perfect place for growing a wide variety of fruits. Fresh pineapples, tree-ripe bananas, and delicious coconuts are just a few of the delicacies to be enjoyed there. Add buttery papayas and juicy mangoes to the list and you’ve got a true Costa Rican fruit cocktail. Many of these fruits you can readily find in supermarkets across the U. S. (and there is a good chance that many of them come from Costa Rica) but some of the more exotic fruits require a passport to taste.

Included among these exotic fruits are Mamones, Tamarindo, and Pejibayes. Curious names for equally curious tastes, these gems highlight the diversity of fruit-filled Costa Rica.

Mamones Chinos (mem-MO-nays), or Chinese Suckers, are pit fruits whose skins are covered with soft red spines. You may have heard them called by the name lychee. Lychees or Mamones Chinos are slightly sweet, not very acidic, and have a chewy texture similar to that of a peeled grape. Their subtle flavor is addictive. The spiny skins are fun to peel into and resemble the seed pod of a Gum tree. Sold in big bags by street vendors, Mamones have unique taste that is not soon forgotten.

Another Costa Rican delicacy comes from the seed pod of the Tamarind tree. Tamarindo looks like a pea pod that you might find in a salad or a stir fry, except they are fuzzy on the outside like a Kiwi or a the skin of a fuzzy peach. Inside the pod, the seeds are sticky and pasty and too bitter to eat. However, if you soak the seeds in hot water you can extract the flavor.  Even then, the mixture may have too strong a flavor, but if a simple syrup is added to sweeten the mixture and then the beverage is poured over ice, the fresh tamarindo drink becomes a refreshing treat similar in flavor and texture to apple juice.

The Pejibaye is probably one of the strangest fruits to be tasted in Costa Rica. Pronounced pay hee bah jay, this palm fruit tastes like a cross between potato and coconut. The Pejibaye is similar in size to a pecan and contains a hard pit that needs to be removed before eating. Like the tamarindo, the pejibaye is prepared by boiling the fruit in water.  Locals often serve the fruit with a dollop of mayonnaise and a cup of hot coffee. This exotic flavor is hearty.

Join us on a vacation in Costa Rica: adventure, fun, good food, and last but not least, fruit as fine as any in the world.

The Hills Are Alive in Costa Rica!

There is nothing like standing at a safe distance while watching glowing-hot boulders being pitched into the night sky.

California Native tour group poses by Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano
California Native tour group poses by Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano

The Arenal Volcano, situated near the town of La Fortuna, rises nearly 4,200 feet above the surrounding landscape, making it visible from almost anywhere. Arenal is the youngest and most active of all of Costa Rica’s volcanoes. Major eruptions occured in 1968 and 2000, but smaller eruptions happen more frequently–and on some days as frequent as every 15 to 20 minutes. Belting out its thunderous boom, the Arenal is a highlight for visitors touring the country.Costa Rica, located at the center of the America’s along the Pacific Ring of Fire, has five active volcanoes.

The Poas Volcano, located near the crafts-town of Sarchi, rises 8,884 feet above sea-level and is home to an impressive array of flora and fauna. The main crater is 950 feet deep and quite active with steaming geysers and frequent lava eruptions. At Poas, the last significant eruptions occured during the time between 1952 to 1954.

The California Native offers tours of Costa Rica which visit both of these living reminders of the raging powers beneath our feet.

So, You Wanna Buy a Hammock?

California Native's Ellen Klein relaxes in a hammock at a jungle resort.Some say the it was the ancient Greeks, some argue that it was indigenous Americans like the Mayans of the Yucatan or the Urarina of the Peruvian Amazon, and while there is some debate over the origins of the hammock and which civilization can claim the rights of ownership, no one can deny the functionality of design. Some of the earliest hammocks developed have been found in the Bahamas. These were made from bark stripped off the hamack tree–the likely origin for the name. Over the years, the bark used in construction was replaced by sisal fibers and today hammocks can be crafted from many materials such as canvas or nylon.

Sisal fiber was instrumental in the fabrication of hammocks giving weavers in the Yucatan an important role. From the mid 19th century all the way to World War I, sisal fiber was considered the major cash crop for this area. In fact, the town of Sisal is located just 53 miles north of the Yucatan’s capital city of Mérida and still contains an abundance of the plants from which the fiber is produced.

The popularity of hammocks spread due to their function in the Royal Navy. Here, hammocks benefited sleeping sailors because they rocked in synchronicity with the pitch and roll of the ship. These sleeping arrangements were preferred because hammocks take up less room than traditional bunk beds and protected sailors from falling out while asleep on rough seas.

The widespread use of the hammock may have come from their utility on the ocean, but their safety benefits evolved from necessities on land. The elevated support of the hammock allowed the ancient Mayans a better alternative to lying on the wet jungle floor filled with biting insects and other vermin.

Hammock: just saying the word causes you to imagine swaying in a breeze on the beach or relaxing in the backyard on your day off. Known for their cocoon-like comfort, there is no disputing the practical design of a hammock. And over the years, artisans have honed their craft and now hammocks are made in a variety of colors and styles. In the capital city of Merida and its surrounding villages, the hammock has become a symbol of the Yucatan. Travelers to this part of Mexico can readily find hammock vendors in the central plazas of towns they visit. Adding to their unique design is the fact that Mayan Hammocks are lightweight and easy to pack, making them great souvenirs from your next trip to the Yucatan peninsula, the Peruvian Amazon, or Costa Rica with The California Native.