Here we go, a proper trip report! Our first stop in Costa Rica was the Ecolodge San Luis in Monteverde, operated by the University of Georgia, TX. It’s a real-deal jungle research station where a few lucky students end their studies with a 6 month volunteer program. They have a few basic accommodations for tourists interested in what happens in such a place first hand. The nightly rate included the room, all meals, and activities like night jungle treks, bird watching, insect gathering and many, many others.
Looking west toward the Pacific and Gulf of Nicoya. Steep grades and narrow winding roads make it a long trek up the hills to Monteverde
Just tell them what you’d like to see, and chances are that they will organize it for you, even if your wish is to get up at 2:30am to join someone working on the moth counting project. To say that we had the time of our life would be an understatement… We lived and breathed that jungle, our minds continuously blown. We woke up at the break of dawn and collapsed many hours after sunset, seeing weird insects, monkeys, coatis, agoutis, and huge scores of birds. You don’t have to go out of your way to see things, you just open your door… And I didn’t even mind the saucer-sized spider in our bathroom (well…).
The dining hall – the heart and gathering place of the campus
Our first of several night jungle walks turned into a 2 1/2 hour trek up the side of the mountain, in pursuit of kinkajous. These guys resemble a monkey mixed with a racoon, or maybe something you’d see in a Disney film, and we eventually saw them high in the canopy. My kinkajou pictures are terrible, so check out the link in the earlier sentence (I later read that Paris Hilton owns one as a pet, good grief…)
The thing that surprised me most is that even though the insect population is huge, the definitely don’t just come out to crawl on you, fly in your face, and burrow under your collar… In most cases. You usually have to look pretty hard to find them, but they’re there, like this wicked praying mantis below.
The tarantulas were plentiful, and one student told one he found one in his room the previous night, and that he’s hoping just to let it be and not to make it too mad. For some reason he wasn’t going to remove it from the room. I should say that tarantulas are completely harmless, and don’t attack people, the worst thing that can happen is that they will shoot some of their irritating hairs in your direction…pleasant stuff.
This specimen was found on one of the facility buildings, and wasn’t a species that was seen before, so they dubbed it “the mystery tarantula”.
Monteverde is a high elevation cloud forest, so it’s cool and very wet 365 days of the year. I’m glad we listened and brought appropriate clothing, because it got down to 12c (53F) at night – not something you might expect on a tropical vacation. As you can tell by now, the students led all of the activities and were more than helpful in identifying plants, animals, and letting us on funny facts, like that they get to name their newly discovered species. That means there’s a whole lot of Costa Rican moths with Lord of the Rings names (we really pitched Star Wars for the next project). I thought every living thing is already classified somewhere in a dusty book, but it’s not so at all. The amount of undiscovered species of insects and plants is enormous, and sadly, many will be extinct by the time we catalog them. I felt a bit humbled by how little thought I previously gave this. It set a mood of discovery for the rest of the trip.
Monteverde – magical place
That said, it wasn’t like Disneyland over there. We were crossing a creek and Greg stepped on a snake, an event which reminded us that “hey, idiots, you’re in Central America!” It stood up like a cobra, hissed, and thankfully left without biting. We tried to ID it with the students later and failed, my description of “a skinny green one with fangs” probably had something to do with that. Nonetheless, it was very nice to have a full reference library at our disposal.
That wasn’t the end. A couple of days before that, a leafcutter ant crawled up my pants and bit me on the calf, which was very interesting, but apparently not as much as might’ve come from the pretty hummingbird-like insects that whizzed by all the time. I wanted to get a still shot of these cool creatures, until I found out what they were. I’m referring to the tarantula hawk wasps (below), and it was suggested that I should probably not chase them with my camera, otherwise “it’s hospital”. I didn’t argue.
The tarantula hawk wasp, thankfully a dead one
The tarantula hawk wasp (yes, it hunts tarantulas) ranks #2 on the Schmidt Sting Pain index, just behind the bullet ants that also live in the jungle. Schmidt supposedly described the sting of the tarantula hawk as “blinding, fierce and shockingly electric.” I’m not sure what’s worse, that, or the fact this guy volunteered to do get stung by every horrible thing imaginable. This was a huge joke among the resident entomologists.
I didn’t expect to see so many ants. They’re everywhere… some juice got spilled on the floor and like a million of them instantly flooded the dining hall – like a river. And don’t even think of putting candy in your pocket…
One of leafcutter ant colonies was just outside our door. Here’s one of them:
Leafcutter soldier ant
Needless to say, we learned very fast that we shouldn’t just touch/eat/lick anything, and we’d be utterly lost without someone to show us the way. So with some help, we found and chewed wild coffee beans, understood the micro climates and terminology of the area, but most importantly, we smelled some ants. The ones I’m talking about (unfortunately I forgot their name) have a symbiotic relationship with the cecropia tree. They live in the tree’s hollow stem and drive out any pests that might want to damage the bark and the leaves. In return, the tree secretes a sweet kind of nectar to feed them. The ants smelled like honey and flowers, which was very weird indeed. The expert entomologist did the picking up part, in case you were wondering.
The cecropia tree. Sloths like to hang out in them, too.
Another pleasant smell came from the guava trees, which grew all over the place, and I initially mistook them for the arbutus because of the peeling bark. The guava fruits taste like something between pear and strawberry, and we could smell the fruit when coming down from the hiking trails. They made a very tasty juice from the guava pulp at the station, which we made sure to fill up on every day. I’m heartbroken that I can’t buy decent guavas in Canada. Every living creature seems to like them, as did these bats… They couldn’t possibly eat an entire fruit, so the ground is littered with pecked guavas, which are then eaten by other animals.
Night hikes – spend hours tromping around the rainforest with a flashlight… Funnest thing, ever.
I was a bit worried about our human food before we showed up, seeing that we didn’t have much other options but to eat at the station for the duration of the stay. I shouldn’t have worried – the food was fantastic, extremely healthy, and very generous. Simple, cooked from scratch, with big emphasis on vegetables, a little meat, rice, beans and freshly pressed fruit juices. There was a buffet set out every night in the communal dining hall, which provided an opportunity to interact with the resident student naturalists and other guests.
Speaking of guests – what a great bunch of like-minded people. We had a surreal moment during dinner, when a befriended traveller told us that she’s an environmental lawyer from the West Coast. “I work for an oilsands engineering firm in Alberta.” I guess it’s a ‘you should’ve been there’ thing, but in a moment of such irony, in such an incredible place, all you can do is burst out laughing… which we all did…heartily. Then we talked about stick insects.
This dish is what we ate on the first night at the station, the Christmas Dinner. We were accompanied by paper cut-outs of Christmas trees on the table and the best guava juice I had in my life. The picture won’t be winning any Foodgawker prizes, but let’s forget Foodgawker for a moment…
The original dish was made with arracache, a perennial herb originating in South America where it’s grown for it’s starchy root with a flavor between celery and carrot. It’s not commonly grown for export, so in other words, good luck trying to buy it in North America. The good news is, the arracache texture had an uncanny resemblance to creamy risotto, in fact, I thought it was rice all along until I researched the recipe. So substitute away! I pieced this from “taste memory”, and from here, and it came to a pretty accurate copy of the original. The rich orange golden color comes from the annatto seed – something I had in the pantry for oh… 2 years now, and it took this trip to learn how to use.
- 1 tbs olive oil
- 1 tbs annatto seeds (I got mine at an Asian food store)
- 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 sweet red bell pepper, finely chopped
- 1 cup brown rice, cooked
- small handful cilantro, chopped
- salt and pepper
- Heat the olive oil with the annatto seeds until they start to sizzle. Using a slotted spoon, remove and discard the seeds. The oil should now be brilliantly colored. Add the onion, garlic and red bell pepper, and saute until softened, but not browned. Turn off the heat and add rice, cilantro, salt and pepper, gently folding in with a spatula.
- Serve with steamed vegetables and beans.