The cicadas sing incessantly all around. In a nearby tree, a toucan pecks at the eggs of another bird. An Ornate Hawk-eagle*, perched on a leafless branch, scans the terrain for snakes. 50 feet below the narrow bridge I’m crossing, a river gurgles happily. This is Tirimbina.
In the Sarapiqui Valley of Costa Rica, I excitedly follow my guide across bridges and dirt paths, tiptoeing around mud puddles and ants at work – particularly the ants. Leaf-Cutter Ants, despite their size, have surprisingly sharp jaws, and I nervously shake a sneaky number of them off my sneakers. But it’s not them I’m particularly wary of…it’s the alarmingly large Bullet Ants. I estimate the ones I observe to average about half the length of my pinky; a sting from these venomous wasp-like ants will result in excruciating pain.
For size reference, look at the brightest green leaves…the ants are bigger!
If something as tiny as an ant can harm a giant (i.e. me) in comparison, how much more dangerous are the larger woodland creatures? Large seems to be a theme here: everything is larger – the ants, the trees, the leaves, the wildcats, and practically everything in this untamed place. Thankfully, I seem to have avoided giant mosquitoes thus far, despite being a bona fide mosquito magnet. Gratitude, fruit bats, for gathering those pesky mosquitoes into your wings and feasting on them so they don’t feast on me.
Crossing another, lower wooden bridge –without guard rails– a pungent smell accosts my nose. Peccaries. I briefly glimpse a little wild pig trotting away as its unseen parental unit snorts with a boom that makes me imagine an air cannon being fired. One should know that where one finds peccaries, one also often finds pumas or cougars. (Suppertime!) As much as I’d like to see a cat in its natural habitat, I also fear being next on the menu. This is not a zoo, and there is no glass divider out here!
Eric, my guide, mentions that the wild pigs eat leaves which are toxic to humans (that’s where the smell comes from). So, which is the safer route? Away from the peccaries, where a puma might be sniffing the trail close by? Or toward the them, where I might accidentally brush by toxic leaves?
Something whizzes by my left ear. Steve, who is walking ahead of me, jumps with a scream. (That was most definitely a scream, Steve. And not an all a masculine one.) I feel a dull prick on my leg. Thank goodness for leggings. “Eric!” I call to my guide, pointing to the beetle-like creature on my right shin. I sound calm, but there goes my bravado. Because of a small insect. But an insect in the rainforest! Get if off, get it off, get it off, I silently chant.
“Don’t step to the right,” Eric abruptly says. He points out a little red frog. With blue legs. Oh, how cute! Cute, and poisonous. Excellent.
We march forward. Walking deeper into the forest and slightly off the path, I feel the air thicken. Is it just me? It’s so thick, I imagine cutting it like cake and serving a slice on a plate. It’s stifling. My sweat drips faster. Countless geckos scamper away. Steve jumps and screams a second time. (I really hope somebody is recording this.) I feel an itch coming on. And another. I remove my hat despite the light drizzle. Eric suddenly points out the scent of a big cat, perhaps sleeping in a tree. I can’t tell if I’m drenched in sweat, heart moderately racing, because of the wildlife or because I’ve been hiking up and down the slippery slopes. Well, I did want to experience the rainforest, didn’t I?
Photo time! Getting there is part of the fun.
Hungry? After lunch at a nearby soda (local mom-and-pop eatery), we can go through the history of (and eat!) chocolate in its various stages of production.
If you’ve quite had your fill of chocolate, we can take off a little early and stop by a small coffee plantation on the way home. With an ecologist in the car, we can animal spot too!
*Impressed by my identification of an endangered species? I wish I could take the credit, but my guide pointed it out…. A guide is required if you want to explore the rainforest, both for your safety and for an expanded learning/animal-sighting experience.
There are a few different ways to get here, but I’d suggest Urban Adventures. It feels like a road trip out of San José with good friends.