I have wanted to travel to Costa Rica since High School. I was prepared to blow money on a plane ticket freshman year of college and explore the country with no real direction or knowledge of how to do anything. My parents stopped my impulsive plane ticket purchase and assured me we would go to Costa Rica as a family the following summer. However, I did not want to go as a family. I was ready to be independent – or at least distantly dependent. Finally, five years after the idea entered my head, I touched down in San Jose without the parents and on my own dime.
I went as part of a two-week class at the Cultural Exchange Institute (CEI). The class was structured around the student’s interests, and I told Daisy Rojas, co-owner of CEI and family friend, that I wanted to learn about poison frogs. She arranged for me to meet with Federico Bolaños, a professor at the University of Costa Rica who works with anurans, and organized our itinerary to include trips to national parks, an indigenous reservation, and the beach. The class was equally about exploring different aspects of Costa Rica and expanding the student’s cultural horizons as well as (in my case) networking with and learning from renowned herpetologists. The only academic requirement expected of me is a class paper, which I still need to write.
This trip doubled as a family trip for the Rojas, so I was able to experience everyday life within a Costa Rican home. We stayed with Geiner’s, co-founder of CEI and Daisy’s husband, parents and visited family friends and relatives. Every time we visited someone, Geiner would buy bread as a housewarming gift. Bakeries abounded in Costa Rica and sold extravagant bread. Bread with fruit and cream baked into the middle and another loaf with meat and vegetables in the center are two that most stick out in my mind. We bought so much bread. At each residence we visited, our host offered us “Café o fresco?”. I didn’t know what fresco was so I kept asking for café (coffee) and became dehydrated. Fresco is cold water with sweet lemon juice and is very refreshing. You can think of it as the soda fresco, which is the fresco restaurants gave you, except it was not carbonated. I really enjoyed this custom of fancy bread and coffee at all hours of the day.
The first major ‘cultural’ difference I noticed was not the bread, however, but the driving. When I learned to drive, my dad told me to drive with the comfort of my passengers in mind. “No need to speed,” he said. “You will get to your destination eventually.” Apparently, in Costa Rica their dads told them to get to their destination at the speed of light and passenger comfort be damned. On our drive to Geiner’s parents’, an ambulance going way over the speed limit without its lights on nearly sideswiped us as we attempted to switch lanes. We had our doubts on whether the ambulance would have stopped to see if we were ok if a collision had happened. Geiner himself refused to revert back to U.S. standards of driving.
“When I drive in the United States, I drive polite. But we are in Costa Rica now, so I drive like I am in Costa Rica,” Geiner told Daisy when she pointed out passenger discomfort. I began to preemptively take ginger tablets to control my motion sickness every time we used the car.
The roads were extremely rough once we got away from major highways and touristy areas. Composed of red dirt and unevenly distributed large stones, it rocked the car and slammed our skulls against doors. We blew two tires in less than two weeks. On each side of the roads were deep ditches. Daisy explained to me the ditches needed to be that deep because the rainy season brought a deluge that could wash away the road. Even in the cities, the ditches were about three feet deep and made of cement with sidewalks and driveways bridging across the gap.
Geiner’s parents, Rosa and Jorge, lived in the mountainous region of Puntarenas province in a town called Villa Hermosa (Beautiful Village). They lived on a farm with their seventeen year old daughter, Kimberly, where they raised cattle. Rosa’s brothers and sister lived and farmed along the same road. Their home didn’t have AC, but, when all four doors were open, a cross breeze cooled us down. Rosa poured water around the house to reduce dust in the dry season, leaving the earth around their home compact, red, and cracked. While cattle, pigs, and horses were confined, chickens and dogs roamed freely; however, they remained near the house where they received regular feedings. One morning, I woke up earlier than Rosa and opened the backdoor to go birding only to be rushed by 30 chickens who expected their breakfast. I quickly closed the door and escaped out the front of the house.
Every morning, Rosa milked the cows with one of her siblings. I helped one day when Geiner asked if I had ever milked a cow and I said I had – a mechanical cow at a children’s museum when I was nine, and I was pretty good at it. He rolled his eyes and told me I could help his mom in the corral. I sat on a stool, grabbed a teet, and did the pulling, squeezing technique I vaguely remembered from childhood. A little dribble came out, but when Antonio, Rosa’s brother, did it, it was like a fire hose of milk shooting into the bucket. I milked until my hand cramped (so probably less than ten minutes) and, looking at the centimeter deep puddle of milk in the bucket, told them “Si continuo no hay leche hoy” (If I continue there is no milk today). I can now proudly say I’ve milked a cow, but in all honesty I spent my mornings birding.
The biodiversity in Villa Hermosa was insane. I left the house around six every morning and walked the packed dirt roads. Flocks of white crowned parrots, masked Tityras, great kiskadees, scarlet thighed dacnis, and hummingbirds flew, fed, and chattered in the trees and bushes. The hummingbirds were very fast and, for me, hard to identify. The most common was rufous-tailed hummingbird, but my favorite was the male violet sabrewing I saw on the river at the base of the mountain. Most of my birding checklists have ‘hummingbird species’ written down because I couldn’t get a clear enough look at them for a positive identification.
I’d come back to the house around midmorning when the sun loomed overhead with its heat and the birds quieted. Rosa would set down either breakfast or lunch and I ate with a “gracias” and a “muy rico”. Rice and beans were a big dietary staple. At every meal we had both on our plates. When cooked together with chopped up vegetables, the dish was called “pinto”. Every morning, breakfast was pinto y huevos (eggs) with coffee. Coffee in Costa Rica was really weak. My coffee I make in my apartment is ground with espresso, so I often found myself partaking in the customary afternoon coffee on the edge of a nap.
Most afternoons I would walk down to the river with Kimberly, Daisy and Geiner’s kids, and a couple girls from the neighborhood. The water was clear and a very small waterfall flowed down the rocks into a swimming hole. We walked through a sun-lit bank of rocks to reach the swimming area and hundreds of butterflies flew into the air. Orange, white, and yellow flying around our legs only to settle back down once we were gone. The classic blue morpho butterflies were scattered along the river, flickering brilliant blue with every down beat of their wings. We jumped off rocks into the cold river and searched for mountain shrimp.
On the second night of the trip, I asked Jorge if he would help me look for culebras (snakes) at night along the river. Locals repeatedly told me to stop looking for snakes, because I would die. Jorge agreed to take me, and we changed into long pants, tall rain boots, and long sleeved shirts. He lead me to a little creek near the house, and we walked along the middle of it with flashlights, crawling under barbed wire and throwing sticks at perros bravos (aggressive dogs) that were none too pleased about strangers in their perceived territory. The sticks kept them at bay as we mostly found spiders and frogs. These spiders were gigantic and absolutely everywhere. A spider the size of my hand sat on every rock in that creek. We did find two tarantulas, but, despite their greater thickness compared to the other spiders, their legs weren’t as long, so they didn’t appear as big. The frogs were remarkably nondescript. Brown, creek dwelling frogs that I didn’t get pictures of because I had lost my phone. I later found my phone in my bra, where I, ironically, put it to make sure I didn’t lose it. We returned to the house without a single snake sighting three hours later, though we did witness a frog escape from being eaten by a spider, and Jorge caught a large shrimp to eat later.
After spending a couple days with Rosa and Jorge, Daisy, Geiner, their kids, and I departed for Gulfo Dulce, stopping to visit Geiner’s sister on the way, to meet Federico Bolaños and enjoy the beach before we returned to Villa Hermosa. Shirley, Geiner’s sister, lived an hour away from the coast with her husband, Jairo, and their kids. Shirley worked in education and was involved with CEI, while Jairo was an agricultural engineer and a contractor for the government. They grew coffee beans, bananas, tomatoes, and other produce on the steep hill that constituted their back yard. It contrasted drastically to Rosa and Jorge’s garden which consisted of randomly placed edibles growing among wild plants scattered around their home. I only recognized it as a garden when Daisy told me it was one. While Rosa and Jorge planted where it was convenient, Shirley and Jairo organized their property to optimize the growth of their produce. However, unlike a majority of sizable Costa Rican gardens, all of the food – even the coffee – was grown for their family and not for a coalition that would sell their produce to the general public.
Jairo spoke a little English and gave me a botany tour of their property. We quickly discovered a lot of plant terminology was the same in English as it was in Spanish just with an accent. He showed me a flower and told me the spanish name, which I’ve forgotten, then the English name “hot lips” and said it was a very inappropriate name. I laughed and told him in English it wasn’t inappropriate, only funny. We hiked a bit in the wooded part of their property, and Jairo pointed out which plants had been cultivated versus wild grown and which plants bore fruit. There were a surprising amount of species related to bananas, some mango trees, and a cacao tree. Leaves the size of my torso hung from branches, and the banana tree leaves stretched as tall and wide as I am.
Then, since Trump’s inauguration would happen in just a few short days, Jairo turned to me and asked how Trump happened. I had to attempt to explain in a different language in the middle of the jungle how Donald Trump was elected. Halfway through my botched attempt to describe our party system and the election process, Jairo interrupted me and said in English, “But he does not believe in climate change.” He proceeded to receive the shock of his life when I told him about thirty percent of the U.S. population doesn’t believe in climate change. Then I directed our conversation back to plants, because I did not want to acknowledge Trump.
The next day, we left Shirley and Jairo to meet with the esteemed Federico Bolaños, driving the three hours down to Gulfo Dulce. We initially got lost, but, with the help of beer drinking teenagers riding horses, we found the satellite campus for University of Costa Rica (UCR). It was a small, blue building without any AC or wifi, full of students working on presentations. We were extremely lucky to have come when a week long herpetology class taught by Gerardo “Cachi” Chavez, a biology professor at UCR who specializes in herpetology, was coming to an end with the students presenting their projects that night.
Federico, or “Fedo”, sat at a plastic table on – what we later deemed – his plastic throne. The only times we witnessed him standing was during the presentations and when he left the building to smoke. Students came to him with their computers, talked to him, then left. The whole time Fedo sat in his mighty plastic throne. He also never wore a shirt in the two days I was there. Daisy hypothesized the summer field classes were his time to relax in a way he couldn’t at the University, but I still think it’s hilarious that in the only picture I have with him he isn’t wearing a shirt. He spoke English very well, and I could talk to him about species in the United States, my research, the chytrid fungus, and his current projects. It was very exciting to speak with him about amphibian ecology in the Americas.
Eventually, Daisy and I decided to explore the surrounding area. We walked the river, discovering bizarre larvae cocooned in yellow spongy webbing attached to rock surfaces, a tree with spikes the size of a thumb covering the bottom half of the trunk, tiny toads that no one was able to identify, basilisk lizards, and a nesting pair of chestnut mandibled toucans. We then retired to the library at the Neotropical Foundation across from the campus where we would be staying that night. I picked up a few books about agriculture and considered writing my paper about topographical and cultural influences on agriculture in Costa Rica. Amazing how I traveled to study one thing and end up fascinated by another.
The presentations started at nine that night with one student presenting for each group. There were three presentations in total, and I must admit I didn’t understand a single word. I sat at the front with my notebook and pen and felt completely lost. Not to mention I almost fell asleep. Exhaustion weighed down my eyelids to the point I thought a mini lecture at my body about how rude it would be to fall asleep there and may have glared at the presenters in my determination to stay awake. After the presentations, I went to the restroom and slapped my face a couple times to wake myself up. I planned to stay awake a few hours more, herping the river at night and finding some snakes at last.
I spoke with a student, Maria, after I returned from my healthy face slapping, whose English was also very good. We talked about a couple things but one thing she said really stood out. I complemented her English and told her she sounded like she came from the U.S. “Thank you for saying the United States,” she told me, “and not America. Because we are all Americans.” Everyone from any country in the Americas is considered an American, but in the U.S. we use that word to exclusively refer to ourselves. This is seen as very rude abroad. After I returned, I tried to brainstorm a word besides American. If you are from Canada, you are Canadian; if you are from Mexico, you are Mexican; if you are from the United States, you are….? American. We don’t have another word. We need another word.
I said goodnight to Maria and turned to Fedo to ask if there was anyone who would take me herping. He announced to the room at large who I was and asked if anyone wanted to go herping with me. Two volunteers stepped forward. Fedo told me the two young women who would accompany me spoke zero English, and I looked forward to practicing my Spanish more. While I waited for them to change into pants and boots, I showed Fedo my most prized possession, the book Serpientes de Costa Rica. It is written in both English and Spanish and is the most complete guide to snakes in the country that I have ever found. It is out of print and currently goes for over $300 dollars. I bought mine for $50 and guard it with my life.
“Oh, I know this author,” Fedo said, pulling out his phone. “I will text him and see if you can meet.”
I was a bit stunned. The next morning the author, Alejandro Solorzano, replied, saying he would be at Parque Reptilandia on Monday, and I was welcome to go and meet him then. Daisy promised me we would be there on Monday. Daisy is a gift from God.
Finally, the two girls stood next to me in their boots with an extra flashlight and we departed to the river. Since my Spanish was rather terrible and their English nonexistent, we didn’t talk too much unless it was to point out a species or trouble over an identification. However, they seemed to think since I knew little Spanish that meant I knew none. They talked between themselves about the likelihood of dying if bitten by a snake out in the river. “It’s three hours to the hospital,” Sofia said to the other girl I never got the name of, “but you’d have to get back to the school first. In reality, you’d probably die.” I was a little horrified, but I asked for this.
We found a plethora of frogs none of which were dart frogs. Fedo told me poison dart frogs are diurnal and really only out during the rainy season. What amazed me about this hike was how the girls turned the frogs this way and that in their hands, scrutinizing the webbing and toes and the shape of their heads. The identification between anuran species was so subtle. It reminded me of the type of identification work I did with salamanders in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most biodiverse place in the world for salamanders. We were out for hours and the only reptile we found was an adult female basilisk. I caught her, but, when I adjusted my grip, she turned around and bit my thumb. Apparently, enthusiastic cursing can pass through any language barrier. My thumb was bleeding all over the place, and I twisted my shirt around it, clenching my jaw through the pain. The hunt for snakes would continue, by God, but alas it was in vain. The girls remarked how bizarre it was we didn’t find any snakes. They usually found three in an hour.
I returned around one in the morning according to Daisy and collapsed into bed only to wake before seven. Let it be known: herpers are not morning people – but birders are. I took my binoculars and walked the road. I saw my first scarlet macaws that morning fly overhead and disappear behind the tree line. Two macaws with long, dragging tails and scarlet breasts. They really couldn’t be mistaken as anything else. An ornithology graduate student was also awake, and, bless his heart, listened to all my recordings of bird vocalizations and identified the species for me.
After breakfast, we departed for Manuel Antonio Parque Nacional, a very popular tourist destination, where we would be staying in a Best Western. Everyone was very excited for hot water. The showers in Costa Rica are exclusively cold, and when Shirley assured me she had hot water it turned out to be luke warm. Geiner called us spoiled. But even at the Best Western, the water temperature was not up to snuff. You could choose between boiling hot or freezing cold. There was no in-between. I didn’t even touch the faucet, and it fluctuated between the two. By the end of this two week trip, I could wash my whole body at once under cold water and not stick one limb under at a time as I had been doing. It is a point of pride.
We lounged on the beach where the majority of people spoke English and hailed from the U.S. and vendors walked by with carts and called out their products. I saw a bartender cart which I think is absolutely incredible and beaches without should take note. A couple from the U.S. beside us remarked on how annoying the vendors were and tried to pay them in U.S. currency. I thought the stereotype that Americans (for lack of a better word) are entitled and snobbish was an unjustified generalization, but after being on that beach for a couple days I can say it is a stereotype well earned. Trying to communicate in the local language and bothering to exchange your currency will open so many doors – like you can actually buy things.
That night, I wandered the streets looking for an exciting bar to get the full Costa Rican experience. The only packed place I found was filled with retired, white people singing Jimmy Buffet. Eventually, I settled on a bar that had a soccer game on and ordered a beer and nachos. I could not understand the broadcasting choices of TV channels in Costa Rica. One minute the game was on, then it was a telenovela, then it went back to the game then to thirty minutes of infomercials. All of this on the same channel. Who won the game? Logan, Daisy’s eldest son, who was also wandering the streets, soon joined me and we split my nachos and explored convenience stores. Later, he, Geiner, and I lost some money playing BlackJack at the Best Western casino.This paragraph is proof I can do things besides frolic in nature.
The next day, I took a tour of Manuel Antonio. Geiner asked me if I needed sunblock before I left. The whole trip I did without it and obtained a beautiful golden glow. Geiner’s family was very impressed with me and called me “tica” which means Costa Rican. So I confidently said “I don’t need it.” Geiner looked at me with an, “oookay, tica.” That day, I got horribly sunburned, and my tica status was revoked.
Vendors filled the dirt road leading to the park gates, shouting in English. One vendor walked in front of me using hand motions to detail his “Cold, sweet coconut water! Very refreshing!” until I told him, in Spanish, I was fine, thank you. I paid for a park guide, because it came heavily recommended. Almost everyone who entered the park was part of a guide’s group. While it is true they can show you where all of the animals are, after doing the tour myself, I feel you don’t really need to pay for one. There are enough guides in the park that you can see where the animals are from where they are pointing, but also just look around. I found my own sloth, howler monkeys, and purple crowned fairies.
Security guards at the gates conducted a bag check before letting me through and, once our group of tourists from the U.S., Canada, and France assembled, our tour guide began to walk backwards up the wide, gravel path. He stopped us almost immediately to point out a fruit bat sleeping just above head level under a leaf. We continued onwards and came across a feeding group of squirrel monkeys. After staying there a while, our guide put a birding scope on a very well camouflaged helmeted agama on a tree trunk around hip height off in the forest. The tour ended at the beach where a family of capuchin monkeys were stealing cookies from tourists. Our guide thanked us for joining him and then departed to pick up his next group. I had planned to walk the beach and climb the rocks into the public cove where Daisy and Geiner were, but, after my long hike to the rocks, a tiny sign at the base said “Peligroso! No entrar!”. A park ranger sat a little ways away and would have a clear view of me breaking park rules, so I turned around to hike back on the beach and through the park.
I stopped to watch the monkey mafia, a term given to thieving monkey clans and printed on a number of souvenirs. The capuchins rough housed with each other and motioned towards spectating tourists holding water bottles until the bottles were uncapped and tilted so the monkeys could drink. Feeding the wildlife in the park was illegal, by the way. One monkey decided not to compete for water bottles and climbed up to a tree hollow. It stuck its arm in, waited a few moments, then pulled it out dripping with water. Sucking the moisture from its arm fur, it drank. That seemed more natural.
Once I returned to the umbrella and chairs we paid for, I sought out the snow cone vendor. In Costa Rica, snow cones were called granizados and made a bit differently. Shaved ice fills the cup halfway, then two scoops of powdered milk, more ice, a flavoring of your choice colors the ice, and finally a thick cream is poured over your granizado. I was not aware of how much lactose was in it until I ordered it. I’d like to apologize once again to my stomach. The vendor was surprised to find I spoke Spanish and immediately started telling small stories about the beach. When a couple of Costa Ricans approached, he muttered to me, “Bet they order red granizados. Ticos always order red.” Indeed, when the ticos ordered, they asked for roja (red) which was strawberry flavoring. The vendor snuck an amused look at me.
The next day we left for Marina Ballena Parque Nacional, still a tourist destination but less populated. I was quite relieved to leave Manuel Antonio, because, while it was fun, Miami felt more foreign. Old people singing Jimmy Buffet in a bar, everyone speaking English on the beach – that’s not Costa Rica, that’s Florida. I much prefer being immersed in a language I’m crap at, climbing mountains, and swimming in isolated rivers.
Marina Ballena (Marine Whale) was so named for the whale tail shape the beach forms. This happened due to the naturally present breakwater that influences waves to deposit sand between it and the beach, resembling a whale’s tail. I walked out to the breakwater, enjoying watching the strange pacific coast muscles in the surf zone and observing terns and pelicans resting on the rocks of the whale’s ‘flippers’. Beach hiking is almost on par with mountain hiking in my mind, demoted only because people on the beach can be annoying.
We checked into our rooms at Canton de Ballena (Whale Song) then departed for a local waterfall hike. This waterfall formed a deep pool at its base and tourists jumped the three stories off a cliff into it. My legs shook a bit too much standing there at the top, so instead of jumping I laid down at the top and let it push me over. The rock surface of the waterfall was so smooth it felt like a water slide. I hiked up and slid down a couple more times before we left.
In the morning we traveled to Parque Reptilandia to meet the author of Serpientes de Costa Rica, Alejandro Solorzano, who surprisingly didn’t speak much English given half his book is written in the language. The park was set up like an outdoor reptile house at a zoo, except the enclosures were much bigger and cleaner than you’d see at a usual reptile house. We spoke with a Belgian man at the front, whose English and Spanish were poor, and asked for Alejandro. Alejandro came from the back and immediately opened with a smile and a handshake when we mentioned we knew Fedo. After introducing ourselves, I held out my book and said I was a big fan. Daisy told him how I hesitated to bring it on the trip incase it was damaged in any way. “Do you know how much my book is now?” He asked while signing the inside cover, “A friend showed me the price on Amazon. It’s crazy! It’s not worth that much!” I felt even better for getting it for only $50. He also said the second edition of his book can be preordered on Amazon and will be published soon!
After the book signing and me freaking out like a big dork, a family behind us impatiently asked if they could pay for their tickets, and we moved into the park. Alejandro gave us the grand tour and pointed out which species were in which part of Costa Rica. The family who entered after us wanted to ask Alejandro questions about the animals, but he completely ignored them and continued to show us around. Daisy said it was because the other family didn’t know Fedo. All too soon we had to say our goodbyes and travel back to Villa Hermosa.
The pace of the trip slowed down significantly without any concrete itinerary for the rest of our time in Costa Rica except an excursion to the Buruka indigenous reservation. To occupy my time I hiked and swam in waterfalls with Kimberly, watched horror movies in Spanish with the kids, and looked for snakes with Jorge. The waterfalls in Villa Hermosa didn’t have deep pools, so we couldn’t jump into them, but we did sit beneath them and experience a wonderful back massage. Coming back from the falls the first time, Kimberly took myself and the two youngest kids back through someone’s cattle field. “The person who lives here doesn’t like when people walk on their property. So be quiet, and, if we get caught, let me do the talking,” Kimberly said to me. I repeated it back in English to the children who proceeded to ask questions loudly the entire time we climbed up the mountain and past the owner’s house. As soon as we crawled under the barb wire onto the dusty, red road, I exasperatedly told them their careers as spies were over.
After a couple days lounging around birding, swimming in the waterfalls, and a particularly fun night at a karaoke bar, the time for our excursion into the interior of Costa Rica arrived. Buruka, an indigenous nation and reservation, was a long, rough car trip away. We drove through a river twice and eventually asked for directions which were only slightly helpful. “Turn left at the green pulperia,” a motorcyclist told us. The problem was all the pulperias were green, and it was hard to tell if a road was going left due to the topography. My head ached from slamming against the door repeatedly, and my stomach churned with motion sickness. We cheered when we drove into Buruka.
The Buruka were the wealthiest indigenous group in Costa Rica thanks to their popular masks. These masks, now crafted for tourists, are made for the Baila del Diablo or Dance of the Devil, a cultural dance meant to honor their religion. Each mask is an animal spirit or a bad spirit. In the dance, the animal spirits chase the bad spirits away. The Buruka believe everything has an animal spirit. A rock has an animal spirit and so does a tree. The way I understood this explanation was we are all stewards of the earth and if you mistreat it, an animal spirit may become angry with you and cause you illness. If you fall ill, and a normal doctor can’t cure you, you need to appease whichever animal you’ve angered.
Most of the masks made today are not used in the dance. The dance masks actually function as masks and remain unpainted for the actual dance. They are not as aesthetically appealing, so I bought a slim ‘tourist mask’ that was half demon and half forest with a motmot poking its head out. Beautifully carved and painted. It now hangs in my apartment.
We walked around the small town of Buruka to discover other vendors. One elderly woman sold masks on her porch, and I approached her speaking spanish. She pointed to the small masks on the table and told me “cinco mil” which is ten dollars. Then Daisy walked onto the porch, and the price magically increased to sixteen dollars. The entire trip I did not believe Daisy when she said they hiked the prices if you looked foreign. At tolls and street vendors, she would hide her blonde hair under a hat and put on glasses to obscure her blue eyes. It was more difficult for people to determine if I was a foreigner or not because of my brown hair and tan. I certainly wasn’t mistaken for a native, but there are white Costa Ricans. Truly, it was only my green eyes and thick accent that gave me away. Luckily, Daisy was able to buy her masks at regular price, and we departed.
On our last night in Costa Rica, I asked Jorge to take me looking for snakes one last time. This was my last chance to see a snake in the country. I tried to find them with Jorge and Logan during the day on top of the mountain, but nary a scale was in sight. However, there was a drastic difference in bird species. Suddenly, I saw new hummingbirds and antbirds. It irks me how easy birding is in comparison to herping. Jorge agreed to take me looking for deadly snakes for the third time. By this point, Costa Ricans I talked to were disbelieving and amazed I had yet to find a snake. I began to debate advertising myself as snake repellent.
That night, we hiked to the Rio Aguila, the same river with the wonderful water massages, but instead of hiking down to the falls we hiked up. Gigantic spiders and tailless whip scorpions abounded on the rocks I hopped on and crawled over. I blew on a few to encourage them to move and make a hand hold accessible. We hiked for a while, scanning the rocks with our flashlights and rustling the leaf litter. I also checked the vines and branches.
Suddenly, Jorge called out for me to come over. Believing it to be a snake, I rushed to his side. What he pointed out, however, was a large skinny beetle on the trunk of a tree. It resembled an click beetle, family Elateridae. Jorge told me to turn off my lights. The star light didn’t reach beneath the tree canopy and we were cast into darkness the likes of which can only be compared to a cave. Suddenly, two pinpricks of yellow light illuminated. The ‘eyes’ on the beetle’s back glowed as it crawled over Jorge’s hand and passed onto mine. It was a fire beetle, Pyrophorus noctilucus, a species of click beetle and the brightest insect in the world, emitting light at 45 millilamberts. We marveled for a moment and placed the fire beetled back on the tree.
My next insect encounter that night involved wasps. I tripped on a vine which jerked the young tree it wrapped around, disturbing a wasp nest on the underside of a leaf. Black and yellow wasps swarmed the flashlight in my hands, and, as I ran back onto the river rocks, hoping I wouldn’t run through any gigantic spider webs, I felt lucky I didn’t turned my headlamp back on after the fire beetle. If dozens of wasps suddenly attacked my face, I would not have taken it nearly as well. Jorge made his way back to me after hearing my loud exclamation of surprise. The language barrier was very present as I tried to describe my attackers and mostly ended up pretending to be a wasp complete with buzzing sounds. He kept repeating “avispas” which I now know to mean “wasps”, so I feel pretty confident in my ability to dominate in charades.
Not too long after the avispas, we found our first snake – a fer-de-lance, Bothrops asper, the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica and commonly regarded as one of the most deadly snakes in the world. It slithered from under some dead leaves on a large rock at the edge of the river. I tried to get at a good angle to take a picture, but that brought me a little too close to the snake for comfort. Jorge yelled warnings in my ear, “Brava! Brava!” (It’s aggressive!).
Then Jorge poked it with a stick. The snake jerked back, which put it closer to us, gathering its body around itself. He had tried to trap the head in the Y at the end of the stick, but the Y was too big and the snake escaped. So when I say he “poked it” I mean he strategically thrust the stick to immobilize the snake. But he failed, and one of the world’s most deadliest snakes was two feet away from my boot.
“Should I kill it?” Jorge gestured to the snake with his machete.
“No! I only want a photo,” I told him.
“But it’s dangerous.”
“It has a job in the forest,” I said in my broken Spanish. “It has to live to work.”
After a brief scare when it headed toward my boots but instead escaped into a crack in the rock next to me, we moved on.
I made an effort to check all the overhanging vines and branches for arboreal snakes before they were next to my face, but that proved mildly difficult to do while climbing up a mountain. Hauling myself onto a boulder, I stood at the top and held my flashlight high, inspecting the vines in a clockwise manner until I turned to my right. The terminal leaf brushed my cheek as my light settled on the branch beside me. A green and brown body of a small, heavily keeled snake wrapped around the thin branch. I stepped back, shouting “Culebra!” to Jorge and moving around to see the snake better. Behind the leaf that had skimmed my cheek was the head of a gorgeous eyelash viper, Bothriechis schlegelii. The viper’s head had not been more than four inches away from my face. My legs still shook from the fer-de-lance, and it was at this point I began to wonder how many people survive herping Costa Rica.
Jorge soon joined me as I took photos with my phone. He laid the stick across the leaves and pull downward so the snake became vertical instead of horizontal and we could see it better. It was absolutely stunning. I found myself caught up in its beauty until it opened its mouth in warning and made me question its striking distance. Two really venomous snakes one after the other in a dark jungle I was unfamiliar with had my heart pounding. But, by god, that was what I asked for and I would continue my search until Jorge lead us out of there.
It didn’t take much longer to find the trail leading from Aguila to someone’s cattle pasture on the side of a mountain. We hiked the edge of the pasture, the stars and occasional house lights in the distance giving us something more to look at besides what our flashlights illuminated in front of us.
When we arrived back at the house, Rosa put together a dinner plate for me as I excitedly tried to convey what we had seen. “Dos culebras venenosas!”, “Un bicho con luz en la espalda!” They gave me their phone numbers and we promised one another to keep in contact.
My trip to Costa Rica would not have been as welcoming, educational, or fun without Daisy, Geiner, and their family. My time abroad changed how I perceived the world and other cultures. There are many things about this trip I will remember: the intelligent face of a capuchin looking to me before taking my fries, carrying a day old calf from the back of a van to the shade of a tree, and the horrible things tap water did to my stomach. But I will treasure the lessons of humility, open-mindedness, and patience being thrown into another culture and language taught me. Ten out of ten would do again.