Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January 27th & 28th

January 27:
Today we left Liberia and headed to Las Tortugas Hotel in Playa Grande. It was a leisurely day as we weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere or do anything—except study. Yes, our final exam is TOMORROW.  A 2-hour essay exam at the beach? Is that even legal?

Playa Grande is on the Pacific side of Costa Rica and the beach is excellent! There are surfers and hammocks and tan people and dogs and ballsy monkeys that like to get REAL close to humans everywhere. Is this real life?

and I'm supposed to be studying.....?

After dinner we went to the Playa Grande National Park building in hope of seeing some leatherback turtles lay eggs on the beach. Everyone who comes to see these turtles waits outside of the protected beach area until one of the coast guards spots a turtle (or 2, or 3, or 4….) and gives 15 (or 30, or 60…) tourists the OK to come see the turtles. We were all excited to possibly have the opportunity to see some of these turtles; however, our chances were slim due to the fact that only 32 turtles were sighted in the past year (compared to 1,500 that were sighted in 1997!) Unfortunately, statistics got the best of us and we saw nothing but our study guides.

 If you were a leatherback turtle would you come anywhere near us?? I don’t think so…. But let’s be honest, who really cares if you see a leatherback turtle laying eggs on the beach if you can just google it??

January 28:
We took our exam at 10 AM. Not bad, not bad at all. I am excited to note that we all got A's!! 

After that it was a day at the beach! We swam, sunned, surfed, & shell-hunted. It was fantastic!! 

Later we had dinner at a long table (that fit everyone!) and saluded our professor & our time together. 

The next morning we had a long trip to San Jose to spend the night and then to the airport the next day! I am happy to report that our travels were smooth sailing!  

To wrap up the blog, I asked for a "closing statement" (very open-ended) to sum up the trip for everyone. Here is a list of what I received!

Don't let the bullet ants bite!

So much here simply cannot be caught on camera.

Laugh, learn, consume responsibly, and apply enough sunscreen!

I'm going to miss the gallo pinto!

I'm a coffee drinker now! I feel so fortunate to have gone on this trip!

We all tried new things and made new friends!

Did we all just wake up from a beautiful, 25-day, shared dream? It was filled with mountains, cacao, inspiration, plantains, bliss, craziness, and yes, rice and beans. And I'm forever changed.

I'm moving back to the beach to guard the turtles! I could handle that kind of life. 

Thank god for mild diuretics. I love coffee.

Strange country, strange food, strange company. Sounds like an adventure!

Sometimes you just need a shot in the ass...

When in doubt, say yes to late-night nature walks (and early-morning nature walks!)

El sol brillante,
Costa Rica ¡Que Vida!
Nos Regresamos. 

You can never go wrong with rice and beans.

I'm pretty sure I had the biggest suitcase on the trip. OUr bus dier made fun of me every time he lifted it off the top of our bus. He doesn't know much English, but he does know the word for "woman."

Ask the questions you need to have answered in order to know how to create a better world.

Things I am taking away from this trip:
Wanderlust (n): the strong, innate desire to rove or travel about.
An even deeper appreciation for farmers that like to develop a healthy relationship with the land and with nature.
Pura vida.
Hahahahhahahhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah (laughing yoga)

Numinous experience:
Overwhelming awe, sense of littleness, joy in being so much alive, dumbfounded wonder, mystery of beauty, reverence, self-abasement, exhilaration, bewilderment. 

There's nothing like taking a final exam in your swimsuit. 

Thanks for reading. Pura vida baby, pura vida.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Farewell Monteverde, Hello Liberia

The 25th was a day of travel and heat. We left Monteverde bright and early and headed west, destined for Liberia. The drive was long and hot. We got to Liberia around midday and dropped off our stuff at the hotel. Then we headed right back out onto the bus to go check out Santa Rosa National Park, which was about a half an hour away. The Santa Rosa/Guanacaste national park area protects much of the tropical dry forest on the Pacific coast. We visited the house that is situated on the site of a famous 1856 battle between Costa Rican forces and the army of William Walker, the self proclaimed president of Nicaragua.

Walker was held off and eventually driven out of Costa Rica for good. We toured the historical site under the guidance of Johan, who seemed to know everything about Costa Rican history, conservation issues, and the tropical dry forest. We also got to enjoy the spectacular view from the top of the hill.

After the tour, all of us walked around the place, examining all the various tidbits of historical information. Before we left, us guys took goofy pictures on the massive stump in the front yard. We then enjoyed a nice buffet style dinner when we got back. After dinner, there was plenty of time for people who needed to catch up on a little journaling (like me), take a look at the questions on the final, or just simply relax and unwind.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

January 24th, 2012

The 24th was our last full day at Monteverde. Most people spent the day finishing up research projects and writing up our findings. The group traveling down to Santa Elana to study coffee disease and the group studying elfin forest spent the morning collecting data while the group studying invertebrates in leaf litter and the group who collected coffee consumer surveys spent the morning analyzing their data and writing their reports. In the evening we celebrated our last day by going out to watch the sunset. We hiked out to the continental divide and watched the sun fall behind the clouds over the Pacific Ocean. It was a taste of things to come as we returned back to the reserve to pack for our long drive to the dry forest the next day.

A very special event also took place on the 24th. Our classmate, John Dempsher turned 22! We started the day with a Happy Birthday chorus and met at 3 to enjoy a piña colada cake covered in so many candles it looked like a fire hazard.

Happy Birthday John!

Off to the dry forest! Then back home before we know it.

İPura Vida!

Anna H.

Friday, January 27, 2012

January 23, 2012

Rise and shine, it’s paper time! On this day our lovely library research papers were due, and many of us needed to finish them up. Our topics ranged from forest policy to jaguars to coffee plantations, but all of them concerned conservation or sustainable land use in Costa Rica. We were supposed to evoke the style of a National Geographic or Discover magazine article and incorporate our own experiences from this trip…I’m sure Kathy will love every single one and give us all A’s ;) .
Besides working on our papers, we also needed to conduct field work for our research projects. I think we were all a bit more excited about our projects in Monteverde than ours at La Selva, since we had more input in the topics of our research this time around. Also, the weather was soooo beautiful (not hot, humid, sticky, and moist), and because we were in the mountains, we could enjoy stunning views while collecting data on the trails.

My research group studied bugs in the forest leaf litter to see if elevation and light gaps have an effect on the numbers of critters present. Originally our plan was to go through the leaf litter and identify each invertebrate down to its order, but we didn’t realize how difficult this would be! They were all so tiny and fast and there were wayyy too many leaves to examine in our 0.5 square meter plots. We ended up counting the number of critters on 50 leaves in each square we roped off, which was so much more manageable. We had a lot of fun venturing off the trail to find ideal sampling locations in shaded areas, gaps where fallen trees were letting in light, and at different elevations. My favorite invertebrate we found was an itty bitty snail (only about 3mm or so big!) that was booking it (at least for a snail) across its leaf.

The other groups’ projects were also pretty cool. One group measured the effects of wind speed on epiphyte (a type of plant that grows on another plant) load and growth of a family of trees in the elfin forest, so they had fun trekking off the trail to measure the height and diameter of trees. Another group traveled to a local coffee farm, examining coffee plants that were infected with a specific kind of fungus. Taking an entirely different route, one group created a survey and interviewed tourists, assessing their consumption of coffee, awareness of various certifications of coffee, and how this awareness impacts purchasing decisions.

Another highlight of the day was making multiple trips to the Hummingbird Café! They had several hummingbird feeders set up around their porch, and hummingbirds zoomed all over. I think the most popular item our group purchased from the café was the brownie – we must have all been going through major brownie withdrawal! Their coffee was also really tasty, and they made pretty designs in the foam on their cappuccinos. Going back to drinking coffee from the caf back at Olaf is going to be hard!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Arts, Crafts, and Some Super Fun Facts

On this sunny Sunday (the weather was warm and gorgeous!), our class journeyed down the mountain from Monteverde to a colorful building housing CASEM (la Cooperativa de Artesanas de Santa Elena y Monteverde).

We walked up the stairs inside to a workshop room with bright artwork adorning the walls and met our speaker, Patricia Jimenez. Patricia is a woman with an amazing story, and a great talent for storytelling to go along with it! When she and her husband arrived in Monteverde several decades ago, it was an extremely rural area with just a few families practicing agriculture on the slopes and a small herd of research biologists roaming the forests. Patricia’s husband began working for the Reserve, and Patricia operated her own small business selling crafts out of her kitchen.

However, this was not a totally idyllic pastoral paradise. Women struggled against problems from domestic abuse to illiteracy; they were considered the property of their farms and their husbands, not full people who could manage their own money or participate in decision-making. They would periodically come to Patricia seeking advice and wondering why her life was so different from theirs. In response, Patricia started a project that eventually evolved into the co-op.

After some challenges in its early years, the co-op has grown into a group of over 100 women (and a couple men) who make beautiful souvenirs for visitors to help them remember their time at Monteverde. More importantly, the co-op has caused some really impressive changes. A binder in the back of the store contained the stories of the co-op’s members, who talked about how their work had given them skills, confidence, independence, and a chance to buy things from washing machines to schooling for their children. It was really powerful to hear about what a huge difference one person’s initiative made for so many others.

In the afternoon, we started working on our second round of field research projects, but I’ll leave that stuff to Hannah (who’s blogging tomorrow). Instead, I’ll let you in on a fun fact that I’ve learned about each of the members of our ragtag traveling circus over the last 3 weeks:

Aly has a real passion for sustainable agriculture that always shines through on our farm tours.
Anna gained an admirable expertise in all things plant-related from her work in the St. Olaf greenhouse.
Christina has been completely faithful to her vegetarianism for years – an inspiration for an amateur vegetarian like me!
Dan will probably be the world champion at the game Bejeweled any day now.
Esme is fun to be around even when fighting a several-day-long illness (but even more fun after her recovery!).
Hannah ran way farther and faster than the rest of us when we went for a group jog at CATIE. Apparently she’s immune to heat and humidity!
John has an ambush-style sense of humor; he lies in wait until the perfect moment, then sneak-attacks us all with a fatally funny line.
Knute loves bugs of all shapes and sizes, and is planning to go to graduate school for entomology as a result. As a totally unrelated sidenote, he is extremely ticklish.
Margret has an affection for amphibians – nobody was more excited than her about all of our frog sightings at La Selva.
Paige somehow made counting hundreds of leafcutter ants late at night fun and exciting – she’s a great field research partner!
Rachel K. has a great eye for photography and can often be seen snapping pictures of things that the rest of the group hasn’t even noticed.
Rachel N. can strike up a conversation with anyone, from locals in town to our wonderful bus drivers.
Rachel W. put us all to shame on the dance floor Saturday night with some moves she learned while studying abroad here last semester.
Rick will finish anything that is left on the table at the end of the meal, kind of like a hybrid between a garbage disposal and the family dog.
Ryan can brighten anyone’s day with his positivity (and his spontaneous beatboxing).
Stephen has an appreciation for many kinds of food, but heads straight for the cookie aisle anytime we enter a store.
Susan finds bananas absolutely revolting, but valiantly ate one when it was offered to her at the Bri Bri village.
Our guide Vanessa can’t stand cold weather (we’re not sure how she survived four years of college in Michigan!) and was frequently seen wearing a scarf around her head babuschka-style in Monteverde.
Our professor Kathy had a good enough finishing time in the Twin Cities Marathon to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon a few years ago.

What a crew! Our last few days are sure to be just as eventful as the others.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The 21 hour day

Saturday had to be one of my favorite days so far in Monteverde, even though it was a very long day for most of us. A bunch of us decided that it would be a great idea to hike up to la ventana (the lookout spot that sits on the continental divide on one of Monteverde’s mountain peaks, just over 1,600 m (5,250 ft)) to watch the sunrise. So the 9 of us that were crazy enough to get up at 4:15 in the morning bundled up and set out in the darkness, hiking up the steep trails to the top. Our timing was perfect; as we arrived at the lookout point, a tiny glimmer of color was beginning to show above the mountains to the east. The sliver of moon glowing brightly made for quite a picturesque scene:

It was an awesome experience, in the true sense of the word. We endured the cool winds blowing fiercely in our faces in order to watch the clouds form literally just a few feet below us and then fly over our heads. We were worried the clouds would take away from the seeing the sunrise, but the opposite was true of these thin and quickly moving clouds; each time a cloud cleared and the colors on the horizon grew brighter, I was overtaken once again with that warm-fuzzy feeling of awe and inspiration. Here’s a sample of what the clouds looked like among the mountains, one of the last good pictures I got before my fingers went numb…

The crazy group that got up even before the crack of dawn, standing in the clouds before hiking back down for breakfast:

Even though nothing could compare to witnessing that sunrise, the rest of the day was pretty great too. We spent the majority of the day at the Calandria Bellbird Conservatory, doing activities and listening to lectures from Deb Hamilton. She told us about her project for Bellbird conservation, a project that started out by first studying a population of bellbirds that moves through Monteverde. They learned about the brids’ population dynamics and migration patterns from the pacific coast of Costa Rica to the Atlantic coast of southeastern Nicaragua. Looking at a map of forested area of Central America, and especially protected forests, there is a clearly an imbalance of essential habitat for the Bellbirds – and it is significantly lacking on the Pacific side.
            And so began their reforestation project. Deb told us all about the challenges of restoration efforts in the tropics. Very little information is actually known about survival and growth rates of many species, and they are attempting to reforest within many different life zones (many different growing climates). Due to the lack of information, there is a lot of research being done on the basics of reforestation – if anyone interested in conservation was looking for graduate research projects, there are definitely numerous possibilities for work in tropical ecosystems! In spite of the fact that their research is just beginning, the project has had a lot of success. Their nursery has produced over 140,000 trees, of 79 different species, which they have given out to farmers to plant on the farmland. They are attempting to increase the size and number of forest patches, and encourage the use of live fences, all of which will help promote connectivity of habitats that the Bellbirds (as well as other birds) can use. Learning about the whole process of the project was really interesting, Deb was really great, and we even got to enjoy a little bit of downtime lounging in the sun enjoying a great view of the mountains running down to a view of the Nicoya Peninsula:

Our day continued as we spent some time in town in the afternoon working on our papers, and then enjoyed a night off of class discussion by instead going out downtown as a class. It was a wonderful 21 hours! 

-Rachel W.

Monday, January 23, 2012

January 20th, 2012

Our second day in Monteverde was, of course, a busy one. After an early breakfast we boarded the bus and made our way down the bumpy and winding roads into the rural San Luis Valley. It was a beautiful day and we were able to

see all the way to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. Along the way down we stopped at an overlook and met up with Juan. After a quick climb up to an even higher viewpoint, Guillermo explained the history of San Luis Valley. Primarily an agricultural community, San Luis has been working over the last few decades to improve the quality of life of their residents. After finishing his quick explanation (and many of us being distracted by the view), we made our way to the bottom of the valley to our destination: Finca La Bella.

Finca La Bella, as we learned, is quite the interesting project. Residents of San Luis who would like to farm are given a small parcel of land, usually between three and four acres, in the Finca La Bella Community area in order to work and live on the land. They are allowed to sell whatever they need and live right off of their parcel. Here, we visited a few of the residents’ farms and heard some of their stories. The first resident was primarily a coffee farmer and was actually in the middle of harvesting and processing. While he told us some details about his operation, in the background a few American college students were volunteering and processing the freshly picked fruits. This was a unique operation because of its size. Because the plantation was so small, micro as the owner called it, he decided it would make the most sense to do the entire process of coffee creation on his farm from picking to drying. Interestingly enough, one of the volunteers working there actually went to Stephanie’s high school. Weird.

After a short walk we visited Hugo’s farm, which he used mostly to feed his family. Like most of the other members, Hugo tries to grow all his crops without using herbicides. The members here all try to follow the principle of producing healthy food. One of the most fun parts of the tour was processing some sugar cane in the trapiche to make one of the sweetest drinks I’ve personally ever had; it was almost overwhelmingly sweet. After about 45 minutes of relaxing in the sun, we headed to the meetinghouse of the farm for a simple lunch of rice and chicken. On the bus ride back we stopped by the University of Georgia campus.

We stopped by an Internet café in town to research for our papers (since the Cloud Forest Reserve has the most frustrating internet ever…) and explore the town for a bit. After returning, we had a good talk about long term-planning efforts in Monteverde and learned about the Monteverde Institute, a local NGO established in 1986 with the goal of providing opportunities for abroad programs. One of the biggest things I took away from this talk was the impact of tourism. Monteverde is almost exclusively reliant on tourism for income now. Because of the shift from agriculture to tourism, the forests have been restored and become much healthier, as this is what tourists come to see. However, with this massive increase in visitors comes a price: tourists bring much more trash. Without a good recycling program in place, a lot of recyclables also end up in the trash. Water is also quite expensive in Monteverde; believe it or not, tourists use excessive amounts of water. Considering the peak of tourism is in the dry season, providing for visitors like us can be quite taxing. All in all, this talk really put things into perspective for us and provided a solid view of where Monteverde is headed into the future. Another long and fulfilling day for the Bio 286 class had concluded, it is early to bed to prepare for another one tomorrow.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Monteverde, Entrance into the Mist.

January 19th,

People shivering in the morning, reminiscent of a Minnesota fall day. No one was prepared for the cold brisk winds whipping across the sky. Looking up, seeing clouds moving unrealistically fast, like flipping through an album of time lapsed photos.

The morning consisted of an orientation walk throughout the Monteverde Cloud Reserve, after a brief presentation concerning how the Reserve is managed and sustained. Our group was broken into two. I myself was in the group guided by Giovanni, a character to say the least, full of phrases that didn’t quite seem to make sense, like his insistence that we use our “four wheeled vision” along the walk. Giovanni as well gave all the girls new names. Hannah turned into strangler tree, Stephanie transformed hemiepiphyte, Susan morphed into climbing vine, Rae converted into epiphyte, and Rachel who became parasite. All of the boys were left out: no nicknames for us.
On the walk, we winded throughout the Cloud Forest, climbing to higher altitudes with each subsequent step, going towards a common goal: the Continental Divide. The climb to 1550 meters brought an intense burst of sunlight, and a shedding of numerous layers from the warmth. The view was amazing, as we straddled the Divide, separating the watersheds of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The wind even more amazing, reaching 100 mph, facing the Caribbean was like going into a boxing rink and taking punches from a heavy weight champion. Turning to the west, the Pacific and its majestic beauty could be seen over the clouds and through the pristine air.

The walk back from the high peak brought back the colder weather, but was well received in our state of exhaustion and hunger. Giovanni would periodically stop us on the way to point out Hummingbird nests, with the females inside. The hummingbirds, so small, were amazing to see through Giovanni’s scope with their intricate plumage and sloped beaks. How he ever would have spotted those is beyond me, as they were at times 20-30 meters away and the size of a baseball hidden in the dense foliage of the forest. Needless to say, no Quetzal spotting’s, maybe tomorrow.Giovanni would periodically stop us on the way to point out Hummingbird nests, with the females inside. The hummingbirds, so small, were amazing to see through Giovanni’s scope with their intricate plumage and sloped beaks. How he ever would have spotted those is beyond me, as they were at times 20-30 meters away and the size of a baseball hidden in the dense foliage of the forest. Needless to say, no Quetzal spotting’s, maybe tomorrow.

Following lunch, we met with Dr. Alan Pounds a biologist from the United States with two dogs, Sugarbear and Shaman, who is frequently seen walking around and whose dogs love any and all attention. I think some on the trip might make some attempts to bring Sugarbear home with us. The talk focused on climate change and the case of the Golden Toad an endemic species that was last seen at Monteverde in 1989. The talk was extremely interesting, and was by far my favorite thus far based on his persona and the material that he talked about. He spends his days recording climatic conditions at Monteverde, and has come up with some trends: Monteverde is getting hotter and colder and wetter and dry, completely logical I know. But it’s getting hotter at night, colder during the day, wetter during the wet season, and drier during the dry season, and yet some say climate change isn’t occurring at all. At Monteverde the change is happening in every possible facet.

Today wraps up another day, our first at Monteverde, but thankfully not our last. Monteverde is by far my most favorite destination thus far, from its history of Quaker settlers (I went to a Quaker school my whole life), to the refreshing temperature and air. So much is still to be discovered and enjoyed, and I think I can say for us all, that we all await the experiences.


Friday, January 20, 2012


Travel. Bumpy roads. Six hours later we officially crossed from hot and sticky La Selva and into the cold and misty Monteverde cloud forest. I was very glad for the temperature drop as were a few others, though much of the group disagrees with us.

Along the way, we were granted a frustratingly cloudy view of Volcan Arenal. Never quite got to see the peak though the clouds were lifting with maddening slowness. To make things better, we drove around the mountain and the lake by it meaning the volcano was periodically visible for quite some time. The lake at Arenal’s base, Lake Arenal, was formed behind the dam that is currently Costa Rica largest source of hydroelectric power. Their extensive use of hydroelectric power is one of the reasons that Costa Rica has the potential to eventually becoming completely carbon neutral. Something to rub in the US’s face. Unfortunately, they had to move a town (also named Arenal) to build this particular dam. We drove through the town where they moved all the people named Nuevo Arenal.

Along the road we also got some unexpected guests. They made rather interesting noises when a couple tourists got out of their car to feed them…

Lunch was provided to us at least twice so we were very full already when we got to our introductory lecture for Monteverde where we were given fresh coffee and empanadas stuffed with either cheese of beans. Dinner came from an Italian restaurant where they did not serve us rice and beans(!), something I expect several of us will be glad to escape for a while.

So now, after that long day, we have arrived at beautiful Monteverde, our home for the next seven days.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Research, Maps, and Two Bribri Stories

Today we continued to work on our research projects at La Selva. Like Ryan, I'm on Team Termite. I can't speak for all of us, but my scientific chops are growing. I'm getting more practice on data analysis and working with other people. I hope to use these skills after I graduate from St. Olaf.

La Selva's location record system is remarkable. There are tubes in the ground separated by 50 m roughy east-west, and tubes separated by 100 m perpendicular to the east-west tubes. The tubes mark plots over the whole area of La Selva on a GIS system. Scientists with GIS can record the plots they experiment in, and people can record what they saw in what plot on what day, etc. It would be fun to come back here with GIS equipment and knowledge. With just the printed maps I've seen, I think it's neat that, anywhere in La Selva, I can know the kind of habitat, rough elevation, soil type, and trail distance from the station. A map in the classroom that shows habitat type, trails with distance from station, and waterways has been particularly helpful and fascinating.

Kathy led a field quiz to test our knowledge of some of the common rainforest species we've seen over the last few days.

I'll share two Bri-bri stories about rainforest species. The first story is about cacao (Theobroma cacao).

The five kinds of cacao were represented by five young, unmarried women. The five women were sisters, and they lived in different houses. One day the god Cibu came to the village the women lived in. He disguised himself as a wrinkly old man. Cibu went to each woman's house and asked each woman if she would give him food to eat and a place to sleep for the night. The four older sisters all turned Cibu away. Only the youngest sister gave him lodging for the night. After witnessing the young sister's kindness, Cibu transformed himself into a lusty young hunter. In his new form Cibu's divinity was apparent. Cibu and the young sister got married. The older sisters were curious about why their sister had married an old man. The older sisters went to the young sister's house and saw that the old man was actually the god Cibu in the form of a handsome hunter. As punishment for shunning him, Cibu transformed the four older sisters into the four varieties of cacao that are useless to humans. As repayment for showing him hospitality, Cibu transformed the young sister into the variety of cacao that humans grow and cherish. This story is a reminder to respect our elders.

The second story is about the motmot (any member of the bird family Momotidae). The motmot lives in a hole in the ground and has just two distinctly shaped tail feathers. Motmots are not rare in La Selva, but they are uncommon.

One day the god Cibu decided to create the world. He asked all the animals to help him. All of the animals obliged except the motmot, who hid in a hole in the ground. As punishment for shirking his work, Cibu plucked some of the motmot's tail feathers out, so he only had two. When the world was complete, the motmot bragged to the other animals about how hard he had worked in the effort. The other animals knew he was lying because he only had two tail feathers. Cibu punished the motmot for lying and bragging by forcing him to live in a hole in the ground instead of in the trees like other birds. This story is a reminder to not avoid work or lie.


La Selva: Research Day 1

Today at La Selva the entire class commenced with the field projects we were all assigned with. Since today was our first day working on the projects, all of the groups were out in the forests all day collecting data on each of their animals/insects. For example, the group working on termites, or more commonly known as “Team Termite”, hiked through different areas of the forests recording where they saw termite nests. Are they more prominent in secondary forests? Old-growth forests? How about in proximity to rivers and swamps? These are just some of the questions we are keeping in mind while out hiking through the forest.

Three of the groups could collect data conveniently during the daytime hours, but not in the case of the group working on leaf-cutter ants. These types of ants they are studying are only active at night, which means all of the data can only be collected with the use of flashlights and headlamps. But that’s not there only obstacle. Guess what time of day most the rainfall has been occurring? At night. Rain means no leaf-cutter ant activity, so the waiting continues. I am currently writing this blog past midnight, the ant group still isn’t back yet, and it’s still raining…sorry guys! 

Despite some of our frustrations with these projects really are a rewarding experience for us because they allow us to further the research done on these subjects, as well as allow us to see more of what lingers out there in the forests. I just talked to a student today from another school staying here and she showed me a picture of a snake they found on a trail digesting a small rodent–looking animal. It was pretty awesome. However, it may not have been as awesome as the monkey some of us saw up in a tree today nonchalantly expelling its feces at us from 100+ feet above us. Bombs away! We narrowly avoided the attack and continued on with our day. Needless to say we are seeing some really cool things and some “crappy” things as well and can’t wait to see what else we can find in this place in the next couple of days!


Monday, January 16, 2012

La Selva Biological Station

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Today marks the first of four full days spent at La Selva Biological Station. Home to many researchers, as well as traveling college students like ourselves and some tourists, La Selva is one of the most studied areas in all of the tropics- an average of 240 scientific papers are published per year on research conducted at La Selva!

Purchased in 1954 originally for experiments to improve natural resource management, it was then sold to the Organization for Tropical Studies in 1968. Sitting on about 1,500 hectares, it is an important biological corridor between sea level and the volcano Barva, which ensures elevational diversity. (in the tropics, much of the species diversity is due to changes in elevation) La Selva sits at about 35m above sea level and receives ~ 4m of rain per year, which defines it as a ‘tropical wet forest’. There are over 50 km of trails, and Saturday morning we got to explore at least a few kilometers of them with two very knowledgeable guides.

Breaking into two groups after breakfast, we headed out into the rainforest, with our field notebooks, binoculars, and clompy boots in tow. Well, mine were at least quite clompy. Our guides had amazing skill in picking out animals that a moment ago you would swear weren’t there. A two-toed sloth and her baby, iguanas, poison dart frogs, centipedes, termite nests, bullet ants, hummingbirds, toucans, flycatchers, trogons, manekins, (those last two are bird species), two different bat species, the list goes on and on!

Here are some numbers to illustrate just how species-rich La Selva is:

-over 2,000 plant species

-over 500 ant species

-over 400 bird species

-over 350 tree species

After breaking for lunch we headed out again in two groups to continue on different trails. I am continually amazed by the sheer size of plants here, leaves as long as I am tall, huge hulking lianas (woody vines) that drape themselves over trees, bromeliads growing on trees that are at least 3 feet tall! I found myself having a hard time watching the ground, I was so absorbed in staring up at the amazing view above me. Even when it started to rain, we could barely tell, the canopy is so dense above us it functions like a very green living umbrella. When stopping to take a quick break overlooking the river, my group saw a caiman below! Thanks to the ever-present binoculars, we got a good look.

Halfway through our afternoon hike, people started to feel not so good. By late afternoon half of our group was nauseous, including our fearless leader, Kathy, and our wonderful guide from CATIE, Vanessa. Thanks to a bus ride to the local clinic by our bus driver Carlos who went above and beyond his call of duty, those that were sick received the appropriate medication, and by the next morning the Tropical Ecology students are once again ready for adventure, plus or minus some bud and bugs.


Sunday, January 15, 2012


Our first full day in Cahuita began with a short talk by a park manager at Cahuita National Park. We learned of the unique relationship existing between the government and the locals at the park. After locals abandoned the park when a $10 entrance fee was enforced, the government decided against the fee and instilled a voluntary donation instead. Cahuita National Park is also Costa Rica's only national park in which locals are free to fish within national park waters.

After the brief talk most of us decided to stick around and spend some time at the beach. We lathered up with sunscreen, using the half hour drying time to read or journal, or, I won't name names, skip the sunscreen drying time and dash for the water! Needless to say, we were all very excited to bob around with the waves and feel  a little salt on our skin.

While waiting for the bus to pick us up for lunch we heard a human-like laugh coming from the tree above us. We discovered a green parrot mimicking our laughter. Turns out the parrot was a pet of one of the locals standing outside the park. We resembled a bunch of little kids as we laughed back and forth with the parrot until our bus arrived.

After lunch it was time for snorkeling! About half of us had never been snorkeling before, but it seemed simple enough, right? Two guides helped us pick out our flippers and snorkels and then loaded us all onto a boat. Our guides were really funny guys, but a little too assuming that we all knew what we were doing. It took me awhile to breathe correctly so as to not inhale salt water; a couple of us couldn't get the hang of it and returned to the boat. Once we all spread out a bit so that we weren't running into each other's flippers the coral reefs became much more visible. I felt like a mermaid as I flipped around following fish that caught my eye. Our group saw a nurse shark resting between some rocks, a couple lion fish, and an eel to name a few. We also saw the two grasses common to the area, turtle grass and manatee grass. We snorkeled at two different spots and then snacked on bananas and pineapples as the guides took us into shore.

We went out to dinner in Cahuita at an Italian restaurant (go figure!) It was nice to eat something besides our staple diet of rice and beans. We enjoyed familiarizing ourselves with Latino top-40 music videos playing on the  big screen in the restaurant. One of our favorites was called "Kites in the Sky". After dinner we returned to our hotel to rest up or take advantage of the outdoor pool.

We awoke early to begin driving to La Selva biological station where we will carry out our first of two research projects. With traffic it was about a 6 hour drive NW from Cahuita to La Selva. The restaurant where we stopped for lunch had a butterfly area that we all checked out after ordering our food. There had to be over 50 species in a 20 m. diameter!

We finally arrived at La Selva and were assigned to Cabina Tortuga (tortoise cabin) which some of us-well, one of us-Hannah- was very happy about. Kenneth, one of La Selva's guides gave us an introductory talk and provided us with maps of La Selva's 60 km of trails. The biological station's base feels similar to a camp as there are many students from different colleges researching here as well. It felt great to be in such a research rich environment and to finally stay in one place for more than two days! At our evening group meeting we discussed research topics and formed groups based on interest in peccaries, termites, or leaf cutter ants. Tomorrow marks the beginning of our research so hopefully the weather will behave!


Friday, January 13, 2012

The Bribri-Cabécar

January 10-11

Today we went to visit an indigenous community called the Yorkin that is part of a tribe called the Bribri-Cabécar. The journey began with us driving four hours or so southeast from CATIE. Once we all unloaded from the bus, we hiked for five-ten minutes to get to the Yorkin River.

From there on, we took an hour-long boat ride up river to get to our final destination, the Bri Bri village. The boat ride was beautiful. The color of the water was a greenish blue with rock slate and a massive wall of dense vegetation lining the banks. I felt as if we were in a maze! One side note was that the southern side of the river was Panama! When we arrived at the Bri Bri village, we had to hike for about ten minutes to get to the equivalent of a dining hall. On our hike, though, we walked by their elementary school, which consisted of nothing more than two to three huts. Everyone is on break right now, so we were unable to see people actually in school.

Lunch was excellent. We had fried plantains, rice, beans, and chicken. All their food is organic, which is nice to hear due to the fact that they’re an indigenous tribe. It would be kind of a let down, in my opinion, if they served us processed food shipped from another area of Costa Rica.
After lunch, we were shown to our housing quarters. After that, we were taken down to the river to go swimming. I don’t think the group could have been happier to jump in the river to cool down from the sweltering heat. Once we had spent about an hour or so swimming in the river, we were able to go to our first presentation by the Bri Bri tribe. Here, they taught us how to shoot a bow and arrow with the equipment that they used before they ”modernized”.

Shooting the arrows was really fun—we played a game that said if someone missed the target, they wouldn’t get dinner that night (even though we really did). Needless to say, shooting the target was quite difficult! After that, we were taught how to make the palm leaf roof that was found on every hut in the village. We found out later that night that these demonstrations were provided because the Bri Bri are trying to regain their old culture. This occurred because of a big push from the Indigenous Women’s Society, which had three goals: 1. Enhance the quality of living for families in the tribe; 2. Bring back the Bri Bri culture; 3. Protect the rainforest. This organization was founded 19 years ago by a small group of proactive women who wanted to go back to their roots.
Their story is really quite amazing. They used to only have an elementary school and only farmed cacao. They had a lot of problems with cacao diseases, so they had to work on a banana plantation to make extra money for the tribe. The chemicals used in the banana plantations, however, had negative effects on the workers. People started dying at 50 years old because of the chemicals! One of the rules at the banana plantation was that if you got sick, you were basically sent home to die… And women weren’t allowed to do anything but stay at home. This is why this group of women wanted to change the way things were. They wanted to preserve their culture instead of assimilating into the world of the plantation owners and processed food.

The next day, the Bri Bri’s gave us a tour of one of their cacao plantations. We found out that they faced a lot of problems with diseases that infest cacao pods. One particular disease was monilia, which can destroy up to 50% of the harvest. Two ways that they try and combat the disease is by cutting pods off when they are infected, and by planting a polyculture, which helps prevent the spread of disease. We also learned more about the reproduction biology for cacao trees. They are pollinated mostly by a midge and they produce fruits between October and February. During the prime harvesting time, each cacao plantation owner can pick up to 3000 kg of cacao seeds per week. Although the Bribri have high yields, they are not able to compete with large plantations due to lower total yields.

Cacao is an important part of their culture. We learned how they process cacao once it is harvested. First, the seeds are taken out of the cacao pods. Second, the seeds are set out to dry for about six days after which the mucilage is taken off the seeds. Next, the seeds are roasted. Once the seeds are roasted, they are ground up with a big stone and de-shelled. Once the cacao is de-shelled, they are put through a grinder, which makes the final product, a 100% chocolate paste. One of the preferred ways to eat the bitter paste is by adding condensed milk and bananas to it or by adding hot water to it to make hot chocolate. Those two recipes were definitely a hit with our group! The Bribri also use the cacao for ceremonial purposes such as funerals and for babies that have just been born.

After treating our taste buds to this delicious snack, it was time to say goodbye to the Bribri. From my perspective, I can honestly say that it was one of the coolest experiences of my life. Living with an indigenous tribe for a day was really eye opening. I think the most amazing part to me was that the Bribri were able to keep their cultural identity even though there are so many opportunities in the outside world for them. I hope that one day I will be able to visit the Yorkin community again.


Monday, January 9, 2012

Guayabo National Monument, and La Florita Dairy Farm

This morning we visited Guayabo, which is the only archeologically protected site in Costa Rica. Guayabo was a community of ancient people who inhabited the area from about 1000 BC to 1400 AC, and was considered a religious and political center. There are a lot of mysteries about the people who lived there, and no one knows why they left. Guayabo is to Costa Rica as Machu Pichu is to Peru, although not many people tour Guayabo compared to other national parks in Costa Rica.

We saw the foundation of the large dome like buildings they created, as well as aqueducts that are still working today! There is a 7 meter wide road that extends to the next cultural center (about 6 kilometers away). However, the road narrows so it is only wide enough for one person to pass through as they enter past the guards (which our guide compared to our group going through customs, because we all arrived together but then individually got our passports stamped). Another fun fact, the road lined up with the principal mound and Turrialba volcano!

This is the principal mound, where the most important religious and political leaders lived. There are steps leading up to the mound on two sides, an entrance (the east side, where the sun rises) and an exit (the west side, where the sun sets).

After that we took a bus ride on a narrow gravel road, with lots of curves and hills and stopped at a waterfall on the side of the road.

Then we arrived at La Florita Dairy Farm. They served us lunch outside on tables, and then the daughter, Carla, gave us a tour of the farm! We learned about the food that the cows eat, got to milk a cow, and make cheese. We also saw the biodigester, where manure is put, and the gas is used to run the stove, and the solid remains are made into liquid fertilizer. This way, no waste flows down the hill into the river. Through this, the family is able to keep a sustainable farm and not create waste that they would have to dispose of otherwise.

Here’s a picture of the milking contest!

Rachel K.