International Academic Programs, University of Wisconsin Madison
¡Hola! After spending weeks experiencing the wonderful city of San Jose, hiking through dry forests, climbing on mangrove trees, snorkeling, sea turtles, dolphins, whales, capuchin monkeys, killer crocs, phenomenal waterfalls, beaches, romantic sunsets, camping in national parks, boating through rivers and oceans, and learning a TON of information on Costa Rica’s rich diversity, we have finally made it to the biological station in Monteverde! If you only wanted a snapshot of what I’ve done the past two weeks, then refrain from reading on. However, if you’re feeling a little adventurous and want to actually read some pretty cool stories and see some fascinating pictures, then by all means read on (the latter is obviously the better option). For this post I’ll provide brief journal entries of what we did. It might be long, but it’ll be worthwhile. Happy reading!
2/11: Day 1
Today, we set out on our field trip up the Pacific coast. After leaving San Jose, we were en route to a town called Sierpe. We stopped at the Basillica, Costa Rica’s first Catholic church. Outside of the church is a faucet considered to be the holy water of Costa Rica. It is not uncommon to drink from it, because it is the belief that it will cure you of sickness. Being the tourists that we are, we followed suit and had a sip. We boarded the bus and drove higher into the mountains. At 3,300 meters above sea level, we encountered Cerro de la Muerte (Hill of Death). Luckily, no one on our trip died. Throughout my time abroad, we have to learn the taxonomy of plants and animals, so we learned about some on the hill. Had lunch at the station there. Hummingbird feeders were set up, and we got to see some.In Sierpe, we unloaded the bus at the hotel, had dinner, and a lecture on mangroves to prepare for tomorrow.
2/12: Day 2
Left Sierpe at 8 am for a day on the water to learn about mangroves. Imagine cruising down the river in a boat with 81 degrees of heat beating down on you. That was us. In three boats, we cruised down the river learning about mangroves and the fauna that live here. Saw a tree boa, five bats, and a mangrove tree crab. What was really neat was that we were able to climb on top of the mangrove roots. Talk about jungle gym for adults.
For lunch, we stopped at a beach for chicken and fruit. Swimming was a relief from the sun. Took a 1.5 hour boat ride to sea to our final destination: Corcovado National Park, where we’re camping the next five days. This 53,000 Ha park covers the majority of the south peninsula of Costa Rica. Cool fact: its three rivers contain gold! Despite this, mining (hunting too) are illegal and punishable by jail time. Had hermit crab races after our lecture on poisonous snakes- mine lost.
2/13: Day 3
Began the day with a quick run down the beach. I can get used to this. After breakfast, we took a beach hike to learn about plants and animals there. Pelicans dive-bombed into the ocean to catch their food. A short break rested us up for another hike before lunch. We meandered around a trail on the riverbank where we saw a mangrove snapper, a Jesus Christ lizard (it runs on water!), and a giant katydid. A coati eventually made its way past us. Carrying a backpack while traversing the land under the sun is tough! I was wondering if there’d be a chance for us to go to a gym to work out, and then it hit me. Nature is our gym! Whether it be swimming, walking, hiking, or climbing, Mother Nature will keep us fit. No need for automated machines. Took two hikes after lunch. Saw anoles, huge termite nests, spider and howler monkeys and their babies, and a 3-toed sloth and her baby. These hikes were very successful. Ended up swimming at the base of a waterfall after a long days work. Singing and playing guitar on the beach is becoming the norm after studying.
2/14: Day 4
Beach where we camped- low tide.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Never would I have thought I’d want to get up at 5:30 am on a school day, but the reason was justified: to birdwatch! Early morning brings out a whole new variety of animals. Pelicans and green kingfishers dove into the water for fish. The clay-colored robin, Costa Rica’s national bird, flew overhead. A great blue heron waded and waited to stab its breakfast with its sharp beak. Although not birds, we also saw more capuchin monkeys and their babies. I’m fascinated. They were too far away to get a good picture. Today’s activity consisted of doing practice experiments in small groups. Our group determined if a species of climbing plant preferred bigger trees or not. Groups made posters of their findings and presented them after dinner.
2/15: Day 5
I awake to roaring waves. After breakfast, it was time, time for the 5 mile hike to Playa Llorona. Adrenaline pulsates through my body at the thought of this new experience. Over the river and through the woods we go, navigating the flora and trying to avoid hidden tree roots among the forest debris. Each bend of the trail brings us even deeper into the understory. Finally, we reach a beach, but the hike is far from over. This is just a leg in the journey. And then, a trio of scarlet macaws reveal themselves. They amaze us with a dazzling display of aeronautical acrobatics before coming to rest on a tree.
Continuing on into the forest presented us with another marvelous sight. Spider monkeys frolicked among the foliage of the canopy paying no attention to the awe-struck admirers below them. Piercing calls of howler monkeys resonated in the distance, but they remained hidden. I find myself having to see with my ears. It’s rare to see the source of a sound in the forest, but when you do, it makes you appreciate the rainforest even more.
Fast forward 3 hours. The trail narrows and rewards us with a magnificent beach. We’ve made it. We’ve made it to Playa Llorona. A sense of accomplishment sets in. Dripping with sweat, everyone darts to the ocean. Giant waves are perfect for bodysurfing. The mighty ocean sucks you in then spits you back out with tremendous force. A nearby waterfall provides great drinking water. It doesn’t get any fresher than that. Water drops fell and pelted skin like bullets.
The best part of all this: we get to experience everything on the way back to camp. Coldplay was right. This could be paradise. This is paradise.
2/16: Day 6
9 am Madison: Most students either in class or on the way. 9 am here: we’re on a boat in the middle of the ocean, chasing dolphins on our way to Isla del Caño 10 miles off shore. If that’s not cool enough, we also saw 4 sea turtles. Now, I’ve seen wild dolphins and turtles before, but never wild whales. 3 humpback whales and a calf put on a wonderful show for us!
Seeing those whales is my favorite part of the trip so far. When we got to the island, we took a brief hike to learn about island diversity, had an island biogeography lecture on the beach (I’m loving these outdoor lectures!) and finally snorkeled on our way back to the mainland. The ocean swallowed my shirt- pretty bummed about that. Dinner concluded with another gorgeous sunset for our final day at Corcovado. I’m now about to go on a night hike. Who knows what we’ll see…
2/17: Day 7
Had breakfast one last time at Corcovado before hopping on a boat back to Sierpe to get on the bus. I’m truly going to miss Corcovado with its luscious greenery and abundant diversity. On the bus, we stopped twice to learn about bananas and coconut oil palm trees. Lunch was at a quaint surf shop in Dominical. We drove a few hours longer to a hotel for the night. I ended up studying species reports after our lecture on how humans disrupt ecosystems. I finally took an actual shower for the first time in 6 days. What a relief. Funny story: I whistled at an old lady who I thought was the parrot at the hotel. She too thought she was whistling at the parrot, but we were only whistling at each other. Whoops. I guess I should learn to see what I’m whistling at before I whistle.
2/18: Day 8
I read a Spanish newspaper at breakfast. I’m impressed that I was able to understand most of what I read. Definitely going to keep that up. Leaving the hotel, the bus continued its way up the Pacific coast. Near the middle of the coast, we took a short hike in the moist forests of Carara National Park. Saw a giant millipede, huge leaf cutter anthills, and long nose bats sleeping. The bus took us to Río Tárcoles, known for its large crocodiles. By large, I’m talking 12+ feet.
Our final stop today was at ECMAR, a biological field station where we’re spending the night. Since we won’t be on the coast for the next few days, we went to the beach with our professors and TA’s for a few beers and another glimpse of a wonderful sunset. Studying species reports is a daunting task, but learning a few each day will be better in the long run.
2/19: Day 9
Woke up at 5:30 again to observe wading birds in the mudflats. It’s still funny realizing I’d never want to get up this early back in the States. It’s already hard enough getting up at 9 for a 9:55 lecture. Birds seen this morning: great blue herons, snowy egrets, white ibis, and a rufous-necked wood rail, endemic to this part of Costa Rica.
The bus took us to the town of Liberia, where we got food, and luckily, internet. Our final stop today was Santa Rosa National Park, where we’re camping for the next 5 days.
2/20: Day 10
Who needs an alarm clock when white-throated magpie-jays and howler monkeys are around you?
I spent all morning hiking around camp to learn about the life found in this area. Large iguanas are a common sight at our campsite. We caught a snake and saw an agouti, baby rattlesnake, and a scorpion. We took another hike after lunch to La Carrera de Santa Rosa. It’s like the Alamo of Costa Rica. A battle was fought here, and Costa Rica won. We climbed to the top of the monument to observe an aerial view of the dry forest. These views are simply breathtaking. I look forward to each new vantage point that showcases Costa Rica in its full beauty.
2/21: Day 11
Remember when I said the best way to learn about nature is to immerse yourself in it? It’s so rewarding having the forest (or any tree for that matter) as your bathroom. It can’t get any more primitive than that. Speaking of, I’ve found Costa Rica’s sanitation system to be a major difference of that in the US. Their sewers aren’t as developed as ours. Consequently, when “nature” calls, most places will have a trash can to dispose of toilet paper, not the toilet itself. Very different, but easy to adapt to.
Aside from this potty-talk, today we split up in groups again to do mini-experiments. Only this time, they’re graded and we must write a paper on our findings. My group looked at a type of symbiosis (obligate mutualism) between a species of and the plant it calls home. Just like before, we presented our findings on a poster after dinner.
2/22: Day 12
My philosophy that you don’t need a gym to work out in Costa Rica continues to be validated. Today was no exception. Beneath blazing sunrays and through a rising temperature of 85 degrees, we set off on a 7.5 mile hike (one way!) to Playa Naranjo. The trail started off flat on a very rocky road before progressively becoming more downhill until it reached the beach. I made it in good time (about 2 hours) considering there was little tree cover from the sun most of the way there. The beach was known for its riptides, but we weren’t deterred from enjoying the water, just more precautious. Some of the waves were huge and we were able to bodysurf all the way to shore. Went for a run on the beach before learning about a few plant species. The hike back was painful and torturous- it was mostly uphill and the sun didn’t set for another 4 hours. A troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys lounged on some nearby trees and I was finally able to get some pictures of them!
Too exhausted to hike another trail to see the sunset, my friend Bailey and I walked back to camp to eat and relax. And now, in my tent with blistered feet, I’m going to sleep. It’s 7:30. That’s a first.
2/23: Day 13
Seeing wild monkeys is a great sight for an out-of-towner such as myself, but having them basically eat eating breakfast with you is even better. Another troop of capuchins descended from the treetops to drink water from the trough near us. While we stuffed our mouths with cereal, rice, and muffins, the monkeys indulged in a various assortment of fruits from the trees.
A 2 hour lecture on mammal diversity followed breakfast. Our field work for the day: catching bats! Our hike to the bat cave (unfortunately Batman was MIA) was thankfully short. Walking with blisters sucks. We caught 3 bat species, 1 being a vampire bat. I was surprised to learn that bats make up the majority of all mammals, at 40% with 1,200 species.
Took a bus to another beach after lunch to watch yet another gorgeous sunset. I can’t wait to get to Monteverde tomorrow and reclaim my computer. It’s been too long. I’m going through withdrawal!
2/24: Day 14
Sadly, today was the last day of our field trip, but it was still action packed. We left Santa Rosa after taking down camp. Our first stop: yet another beautiful waterfall! This one was a lot bigger than the other ones. My friends Genevieve and Jillian and I climbed around and behind the waterfall while everyone else swam. We stayed here for a few hours before leaving to see a cat zoo. Costa Rica has 6 native species of cat: the ocelot, margay, oncilla, jagaurundi, mountain lion, and jaguar.
The zoo also had monkeys and tropical birds. From the zoo, we set out in the bus one last time for the biology station in Monteverde.
So there you have it. A fun and intense 2 week field trip in 1 post. In 14 days, I’ve probably seen what it takes other people months (and many vacations) to see. I’m anxious to see what the future has in store for us in the upcoming weeks. Tomorrow, we begin class, which will be another new experience. If you made it this far, congratulations! Until next time.