Friday, February 27, 2009

Feb 21-27, 2009 - Costa Rican Southern Skies

Feb 27, 2009 – San Jose, Costa Rica

We have returned to San Jose after staying at La Ensenada "Star" Lodge on the Nicoya Peninsula. This is a dark site that is exclusively booked by TravelQuest for their Southern Skies tour participants for five nights. The Lodge is turned into an astronomical observing site:

  • All the white lights are extinguished - some are replaced by red lights
  • Sky and Telescope's columnist Gary Seronik is our astronomical guide
  • The site offers a wonderful 360 degree view from a wide open field right in front of our cabins
  • We are here during the dry season, so clear skies are the norm
  • The tour is conducted during new Moon, with a couple of thin crescents visible during the last couple of days
  • We can stay up all night if we have the stamina to do this for five nights in a row!
  • The night temperature is about 27 degrees, so observing in shirt sleeves is in order

There were some clouds the first night, so we had to wait until 3am or so for the skies to clear. Otherwise we had clear skies every night following, and the "seeing" started out as good and progressed to excellent by the last night. Everyone went home happy, and we made some new friends along the way. There were not as many participants as last year, but it was a good sized group at 31 people. Everyone was either from Canada or the USA, so we were all appreciating the warm temperatures. Most of the group also enjoyed the daytime activities (see below for details).

I will be leaving San Jose tomorrow to fly on Nature Air to Tamarindo, where I will be staying at Las Tortugas – a small hotel nearby. This is a resort community located in the northwest corner of Costa Rica, right on the Pacific coast. I will meet some friends there, and we will have a week of yet more leisure time: poolside laying about; possibly we might see some turtles; and there is a good chance we can do more astronomical observing and photography from this location, since it is a dark site because of the nearby turtle preserve.

Since there is no Internet at La Ensenada, please find below my travelogue for the first two days of the week just past. I understand there is an Internet connection where I will be staying for the coming week, so hopefully I will post to this blog more frequently, and catch up to the current day.

Feb 22, 2009 – San Jose to La Ensenada Lodge

After a sumptuous breakfast at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel, we board the bus and leave for our journey to the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Unlike last year, the upgrading to this section of the Pan American Highway appears to be finished, so we make good time to our lunch stop at Restaurante Caballo Blanco (the white horse restaurant). As we experienced last year, the meal at this restaurant introduces everyone to the wholesome food the Costa Ricans typically prepare for their guests at every meal. Lots of fresh fruit juice, a choice of chicken, beef or fish, vegetables, rice and beans, and a nice dessert to finish. The only downside to this part of the trip is when we find out that our new bus is hermetically sealed, so the engine must be kept running the whole time we are in the restaurant in order to keep the cabin from overheating. Some of our group find this a bit environmentally irresponsible.

Our guide Jorge tells us a bit about Costa Rica and its people, and what to expect for the next few days as we drive toward La Ensenada Lodge. La Ensenada is as I remember it from last year. It is a working ranch and farm, raising both cattle and a variety of crops. It is about 40 degrees Celsius in the hot afternoon as we arrive, and the owners and staff are on hand to greet us and to give us some cold drinks to sip as we are assigned to our cabins. After I have a quick dip in the pool and a shower, it is time for dinner. The meal routine for the next few days is: breakfast at 8am, lunch at noon, and dinner at 5pm. We are eating dinner earlier that normal in Costa Rica so we have time to setup equipment and get out on the observing field before it gets too dark. As anyone knows who had travelled to the tropics, the sun sets promptly around 6pm, and it gets dark rapidly.

As noted in my introduction above, there were some clouds covering about 50% of the sky this first night. A fellow Canadian from Calgary brought down one of the biggest telescopes ever brought to this event in Costa Rica, so I stuck around to try out his new 15" Obsession Dobsonian telescope. The views of M42 Orion Nebula were nothing short of astounding – the blue colour was visible in the reflection nebulae, and it was very bright. For those who either stayed up or woke up around 3am, the clouds mostly disappeared by then, giving us some observing opportunities the first night (or morning).

Feb 23, 2009 - La Ensenada Lodge

I shot a time lapse video of the southern sky from 3:30am to sunrise using my digital SLR.

Crux Region - Southern Skies over Costa Rica from JoeTourist InfoSystems on Vimeo

Today is "at leisure" as they say in the travel industry. Jorge is leading a nature walk this morning at 6am, so I join in since I'm already up from the night before. We only walk about a hundred metres along the Lodge's driveway and spot so many birds it takes over an hour! I think the new people on the tour are pretty impressed that Costa Rica is such a rich wildlife area. After having breakfast, I go back to my cabin and process the individual frames from my southern sky sequence into a video. It turns out quite well – I'll post it online after I return home. I'm pretty tired, so I catch up on some sleep – first in the hammock on the front porch, and then in bed with the ceiling fan on low. After lunch, I go for a swim in the pool, and then go back to bed for an afternoon siesta.

Gary Seronik conducts a tour of the night sky this evening at 7pm. Everyone reclines in the lounge chairs by the pool while Gary reviews the sights in the early evening sky.

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