Costa Rica EarthWatch Expedition - May 2006

May 13-14

Heather picked me up at 11:00 pm and took me to the airport. Took off for Seattle at 2:10, then on to Atlanta and then to Costa Rica. All flights were full and by the time I got to Atlanta my head was killing me.

First thing I noticed when I got off the plane in San Jose was the smell of wet. It wasn’t too hot yet, but it was 10:00 at night. I made it through immigrations & customs with no problem.

The taxi was interesting: you pay at a desk in the airport and they assign a driver to lead you through a mob of unofficial taxi drivers, all of whom are trying to get you to ride in their cab. The ride to the hotel was like Mission Impossible or something. I don’t know the conversion factor, but the speedometer on the dashboard said 120 kph.

La Amistad Hotel is a nice place and the people are very friendly.

...I’m off to bed!

La Amistad La Amistad Kapok tree

May 15

Parakeets in the tree outside my window woke me up this morning about 4:00 am. I ate breakfast, and then took off on a tour of the city. The tour was nice: just me and two others, neither of whom spoke any English so I have no idea who they were. We drove all over town and saw lots of fancy buildings. We stopped at a church briefly. We went inside the National Theatre, built in 1897 and extremely ornate with lots of gold leaf, marble, and still displaying the original furniture. We went to the Gold Museum where we learned about Pre-Columbian history and whatnot. Our last stop of the day was at an Emerald Jeweler where I got Mother a frog for her collection.

Observation: all the houses here in Costa Rica have bars at their windows & doors. All of them have it, even the businesses. They even have razor wire at their roofs! The whole place looks like a prison.

Met the group finally for Dinner at a tiny little café tucked behind a cute little courtyard. Dr. Dyer hasn’t shown up yet, nor has one of the volunteers, so it was just the 6 of us: Tara the student helper from New Orleans, Diego the botanist and also a native, Martin from the UK, Alicia from Mexico, and Lisa from New York. We ate and then had drinks at the bar afterwards.

San Jose San Jose San Jose

May 16

2-hour bus ride took us to the La Selva (it means: The Forest) Biological Research Station. It was a 5-minute hike to our cabin, were I’ll be bunking with Tara. I got lost on the way back to the cafeteria for lunch, but ran into a nice old man on the trails who helped me out. Turns out he’s from Colorado and is working with Dr. Dyer studying the piper plants.

We met up with Geraldo after lunch for a 3-hour nature walk. He knew all the plants, birds, and animals: we saw a nice big iguana, lots of smaller lizards, a toucan, and several other tropical birds (one of which was white and quite rare), peccaries, a large rodent with no tail, and a troupe of white-faced capuchins. We heard the howler monkeys, but didn’t see them. I also got to see a Kapok tree = very cool. We even managed to find our first caterpillar. But I overheated big time: bad headache to the point of phonophobia, which is not a good thing when you’re in the rainforest because the insects here never shut up. They are LOUD!

We finally got to meet Leonardo, the missing volunteer from Brazil. He’d missed his flight and got in to San Jose late, so had to take a bus to the research station and got there just in time for dinner. Most of the group took off to a pub for drinks afterwards, but I opted to stay in camp since I wasn’t feeling so good.

Observation: it gets really dark at night. Around 6:00 it’s dusk; by 6:30 it’s pitch black. Don’t go anywhere without your flashlight handy…

La Selva La Selva La Selva

May 17

Today went a lot better than yesterday for me. Either it wasn’t as hot or I’m dealing with it better.

Finally got to meet Dr. Lee Dyer – he ate breakfast and then gave the speech that he had been scheduled to give the night before. He explained his research and what he hopes to accomplish with it. We split off into two groups and headed off into the field afterwards.

My group was: Me, Lisa, Martin, Diego, and Tara. We went caterpillar hunting while the other group (consisting of Lee, Alicia, and Leo) tended to the zoo. After lunch, we switched jobs so that we’d all get a chance at each task. Caterpillar hunting wasn’t so good: there’s just not many to be found this time of year. Tending to the zoo was interesting: at least we got to see what other people had found. We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, either: a coati at breakfast, and lots of insects (even a nice big centipede). We did see a lot of poison dart frogs, though. I also discovered we have bats in our cabin: lots of tiny little ones.

Dinner was good, as always. I met Leo outside the cabin and walked to the cafeteria with him. A man from Norway joined us at our table for dinner: he’s visiting La Selva for 2 days and Costa Rica for 2 weeks. The rest of the group sat at a different table. Leo got one of the fruits they make our juice out of for me to try: very tart but oh, so good! It’s some form of passion fruit.

Observation: everything is wet. My clothes are wet. My bed is wet. My book is wet. It just doesn’t dry out here!

Caterpillar hunting Caterpillar hunting flower

May 18

Woke up to the sound of rain, which meant the nausea returned. I could barely eat… smells bother me, too.

Headed off with Martin and Lee to the successional plots this morning. 5 plots of land where they are studying plant growth: they cut one area completely down to the ground, then cut a different area down the following year, and so on till all five plots have a continual 5-year growth patterns to study. We collected a lot of caterpillars there, and thankfully the rain stopped so I felt better.

Ate lunch back at the lab and then took off with Tara and Diego to do plots: find a primary species of plant (they have 13 to choose from) and create a circle 10 meters in diameter around it, then count each type of plant (what type and how many), then get a sample of leaves to determine overall size. The rains came back, though, and so did my nausea. Saw 2 green Macaws fly overhead!

Observation: it’s so odd to be out in a rainstorm and yet feel hardly any raindrops! They all get taken by the canopy overhead before ever reaching the ground.

Walt Kelly (the man who “rescued” me when I got lost my first day at the station) gave a talk in the afternoon about medicinal plants and the need to save plants from extinction. He was quite interesting. He mentioned a good book I’d like to find: Green Medicine.

I watched the group play a game of football (equivalent to American Soccer). It looked like they were having fun, except I noticed most of them sporting bandages and/or ice bags on various parts of their body at dinner time. The food was again excellent: either they have a very good cook on staff, or being outside all day makes anything taste good. It’s probably a mixture of both. Leo, Martin, Diego, and I went into town afterwards. They went to get supplies (read: beer) – I went just to go for a ride. When we got back, I saw a huge frog and a Jesus lizard out on the lawn, and Diego found an opossum in the cafeteria that we had to chase out. I ran in to Lisa and Alicia back at the cabin and found out that they had seen a coral snake in the lab.

Caterpillar hunting the Hilton spider

May 19

This morning was the day for seeing wildlife for sure! A group of at least 5 howler monkeys (including an infant) were in the trees right at the bridge, as well as a coati (who was also in the trees) and several toucans. On the other side of the pathway I found a sloth! It must have been a baby as it was a lot smaller than I thought a sloth would be.

I took a day off from the heat and stayed in the lab to help Diego with his plants. He had sample leaves of 31 key species and we calculated the total area. We used a spiffy machine to do this: you put the leaves in one side on a conveyor belt and they get spat out the other side, all the while the machine keeps a running tally of the square centimeters.

Once everybody else came back from the field, Lee gave another talk – this time about caterpillars. You could tell he was in a good mood: he kept making jokes throughout the talk. It was really fun and interesting.

Since today is our last day here, we all did a load or two of laundry and stood around chatting while it got done. The cafeteria was really crowded at dinner: there was hardly anywhere to sit. There are 11 tables, each sitting 6 people (8 if you really like each other), plus a few more tables outside.

Martin helped me get onto the internet back at the lab so I could send an email off to Mother to let her know I was still alive. Then I sat in the rocking chair and chatted with him a while till Lee and Tara showed up wanting to go to the bar.

Observation: my poor book is getting soggier and soggier as the days go by! It started out being about 3” thick = it’s now about 5” thick.

poison dart frog La Salva bats

May 20

Met up with Alicia after breakfast and headed out to the caterpillar lab to work the “zoo”. This means taking care of all the caterpillars gathered so far by cleaning out their bags, giving them new food, and monitoring their progress. On the way back to the cabin to pack up, we came across a whole bunch of caterpillars right by the main trail. I hauled my bags over to Lee’s office and got a collection bag for them. Lee was impressed with the find.

The bus ride to Tirimbina was nice: windy, with a cool breeze. My head was hurting pretty bad, so I had opted not to take the 5-mile hike up the mountain to camp with the rest of the group. Tirimbina is a very isolated and beautiful research station. We all have a room to ourselves this time, all with killer views.

caterpillar care caterpillars hairy caterpillar

May 21

I had thought I would sleep in this morning, both because I had taken medication last night and because it’s our free day today (and tomorrow) but I ended up awake at 5:30. I hopped in the shower and discovered that while a cold shower might feel really good after a long hot sweaty day in the field, it isn’t so nice first thing in the morning. Brr = no hot water!

I ambled down to the main building to find Lee awake and cooking breakfast. Eventually everybody else woke up and made their way to the kitchen. Lisa and Martin headed off to the volcano: they’ll come back tomorrow. Leonardo decided to stay here and rest, while Alicia and I headed off for the Chocolate Tour!

The walk down the mountain was gorgeous! The rainforest here is different from La Selva, but still amazing. We even saw a tiny coral snake! We had to cross two canopy bridges - one is the longest in all of Costa Rica at 260 meters (or about 900 feet) and is 20 meters high (about 90 feet). It was awesome: like Indiana Jones or something.

Before starting us on our tour, the tour guide pointed out a large sloth making its way up in the canopy! He said it was a pregnant female and that she hangs out near the gift shop all the time. She was very cool!

On the way to where they have their presentation set up we saw a Laughing Falcon. Our guide was very excited about it, but I’d never heard of one before: I understand they are quite rare.

The Chocolate tour was very interesting: we learned all about the history of Chocolate, how it’s grown, and how it’s turned in to something edible. I will never look at chocolate the same way, and I appreciate it that much more.

Back at the gift shop we washed the mud off our boots while waiting for Lee to pick us up. We stopped for some ice on the drive back, and arrived in camp just in time for lunch. Afterwards, Alicia and Leo headed off to the river to swim and I headed off to the hammock for a nap.

chocolate Tirimbina Tirimbina

May 22

Slept in today till around 7:30. Tara had to meet up with Geraldo down at the Tirimbina Office, so Lee & Diego walked down with her (they wanted to talk to him as well) leaving me to do some computer work for the project. Leo and Alicia each slept in till well after 10:30, so I thought they’d missed their chance to go rafting, but Lee came back in time to hook them up with a taxi – so they set off down the trail around noon. After lunch I went up to my room for a short nap – and ended up sleeping several hours!

Observation: it can really rain here in a rain forest! (duh) it’s quite impressive.

By the time I woke up Lisa & Martin had returned from their jaunt, and Alicia & Leo followed soon afterwards. Leo was our cook that night, and Diego again serenaded us with his guitar afterwards. Found out that Tara had gotten some kind of strange worm growing under the skin on her leg! You could see them wiggling around in there. Medication will clear it right up, but still = ew!

Observation: it really is a bit cooler up here. I’m not nearly as sweaty or uncomfortable. We’ll see how tomorrow goes…

Tirimbina Tirimbina trails Tirimbina trails

May 23

Lisa and I took off at 7:30 with Lee to look for caterpillars exclusively on piper plants while the rest went off to do plots. I don’t care for doing plots, personally: I find them boring. Unfortunately we weren’t finding any caterpillars on the piper plants, so we came back in to camp to do some more computer work: manipulating images for his website ( The rest of the crew came in for lunch around noon.

Diego got stung by a bullet ant! Bullet ants are cool: they’re huge, at almost an inch long, and are a shiny black. They have a bite that supposedly feels exactly like you’ve just been shot – hence their name. They’re all over the place, so you have to watch where you put your hands – or in Diego’s case, your underarm!

Most everybody went back out to the field after lunch for one more plot, and then planned to go to the swimming hole before calling it quits for the day. Then Diego, Lee, and Tara went in to town for supplies (Tara to get meds for her worms) so that left me relaxing on the porch till they all returned.

Apparently Lee is having dinner elsewhere, so it’s just us kids tonight. During our meal the heavens opened up and I got to see what real rain is. Very impressive! With thunder and lightning, even! The humidity is such that my stomach is upset again, though. We all sat out on the porch, under the protection of the overhang, and watch the waters pour down. Every bug, bird, bat, frog, and lizard in the forest was under there with us even. All this rain made my cabin smell = apparently the septic tank is just behind my room.

Observation: Lee has to walk 5 miles uphill in this pouring down rain, in complete and total darkness tonight!

Bullet Ant group jungle

May 24

Last night’s rain storm meant that every bug in town wanted inside – which also meant that I couldn’t sleep at all. All night long I had hundreds of bugs crawling all over me. I finally just gave up about 5:00 and went outside to sit in the rocking chair and watch the sun come up. I saw 4 ibis! They flew overhead and then landed in a nearby tree for a while before continuing on their way.

Alicia, Lisa, Lee and I stayed to take care of the caterpillars collected so far, while the rest of the group head out to see what they could find. I took pictures and Lisa did computer work while Alicia and Lee both did “zoo” work. Once all that was done, Alicia and Lee took off into the forest to catch up with everybody else while Lisa and I stayed behind and did more computer work.

Lee called a halt to the collecting around 1:30 today so that he would have time to tabulate the results of the expedition and give us the final tally in his concluding speech at 3:30. We didn’t do too bad: 180 caterpillars collected over 12 days, comprised of 16 species – 10 of which were new! I don’t know yet if they are new to science or just new to this project. Still, that’s pretty exciting.

mist Tirimbina vines

May 25

Apparently last night was the night that termites mate: we got swarmed! When I woke up this morning there were thousands of termite wings everywhere – the females lose their wings after mating; the males all die. They were in my bed, all over the floors, in the sink in the bathroom, in my shoes - everywhere!

We all got our bags together and tidied up the place before leaving. Martin and I decided to walk out, while everybody else opted to take the bus. It was unbelievably hot out there, but much cooler in the forest. We actually ended up beating the bus down, so got a chance to cool off in the shade a while before they arrived to pick us up.

The drive back to San Jose was nice. I sat in the front seat so got to see a lot more of the country side this time. At La Amistad we all got settled in to our rooms; I showered and took a nap, then headed down to the commons to join everybody in our last meal. Lee took us to a very fancy Italian place where we had fun recounting all our escapades over the last few weeks. The rest of the group decided to stop off at a pub on the way back, but since I didn’t want to Lee walked me back to the hotel and then went back to join them. There’s no way I could have found my way back on my own – that city is like a maze, and it was dark as well.

computer lab Caterpillar ant path