Costa Rica – Part I – The Beginning: La Selva

In 2003 (13 years ago!) I went to Costa Rica as part of a study abroad program for my college. I was required to keep a journal while I was there and then turn it in after the trip. I have had this journal sitting in my bookshelf for years just collecting dust, and I recently had the bright idea that I should add it to my travel blog. It is, after all, traveling that I did, and I’d love to keep a digital record of my time there. I don’t think anyone has seen this journal besides myself and the professor so it’ll be nice to be able to share it with my family and friends!

This first blog post will be dedicated to my time in La Selva. We spent most of our time there and it was my favorite place on the trip so I wrote quite a bit more about it than the other places we went. This one is going to be a long one! The other two or three posts should be much shorter.

Please excuse the writing. I did clean it up a little, but tried to keep it pretty much the same as it was in the journal so it had the same feeling of being written by the naïve college student I was. I cringed when I was re-reading some of it. I thought I was so clever…  little did I know, I didn’t really know much!  Note that the pictures were developed AFTER I returned to the states. I added some of the descriptions to the journal in 2003, but I also added to this blog some of the pictures that I didn’t include in the journal, so the description of those pics are from 2016… ergo they might not be 100% accurate. Memory is fleeting. And about the pictures… Do you remember 35mm cameras? And not being able to look at your pictures right after you take them? And having to pick and choose when to take a picture and when to save film? Me either. Those were dark times.

On a side note – this trip seems like it was a foreshadowing of my lifetime battle with ants everywhere I go…

May 25, 2003

Well, I made it to Costa Rica alive! That always gets a trip off on the right foot. The flight was pleasant enough, a bit uncomfortable perhaps, but all in all not too bad. Right now I’m in San Jose, which is an *ok* little city. Not terribly exciting, but what I’m really looking forward to is to get my feet in that rain forest and to see the volcanoes!

San Jose

I was assigned two roommates, but I’m not so sure how I feel about them. They haven’t been mean, exactly, but they also haven’t been all that nice. They seem very cliquey – they mostly only talk to each other. When I try to get into the conversation with them it just doesn’t seem to work out for me. Oh well, maybe by some stroke of luck I’ll be switched into another room later in the trip.

The glass ant catcher that Professor L made me for my required final experiment broke in my luggage during the flight. Now I don’t know what I’m going to do when the time comes for me to catch some ants! I don’t want to get bitten by catching them by hand – I’ll either have to find some other way to catch them or do something else altogether for my experiment.

Almost everyone went out clubbing in San Jose tonight, but I opted out. I’m still tired from traveling and I didn’t get any sleep last night because I was so excited for the trip. I also want to be awake and refreshed enough to enjoy tomorrow.

That’s enough for today. Rain forest tomorrow!

May 26, 2003

Today was a nice day, with a few exceptions. One of the study abroad students got sick and ended up having to go to the hospital. He turned out to be OK, but we were all pretty worried.

We got to “see” the volcano today – or rather it was so foggy that in reality we didn’t see much of anything. This is pretty much what we saw:

Volcano - Cloudy

Foggy Volcano

At the Volcano

Volcano map

I do have a good picture, but I cheated! The picture is actually from a postcard I purchased from the shop nearby. This is what the volcano would have looked like in ideal conditions.

Volcano - Clear

Check out this brave squirrel sitting next to the crater!

Squirrel in front of volcano

The volcano tour was a bit rushed because we had to hurry back to make sure that Ben (the student who went to the hospital) was OK. It was too bad, as there was always the chance the clouds may have lifted and we’d have been able to actually see the volcano, but thems the breaks!

One of the tasks we are all going to have to do while in La Selva is to design and conduct our own experiments on plants, ants, birds, or anything else we can think of. This is separate from the experiment we each have to run for our final papers (i.e. my broken ant catcher experiment). The La Selva experiments will be presented in Pale Verde, the next site we visit. I haven’t yet decided on mine, but I hope I can come up with a good one. I’m also thinking that I can do my own psychological observational study along with the scientific experiment. After all, I’m with a group of people that I didn’t know before this trip, and people-watching is fascinating!

For example – two of the guys on this trip seem to be heavily competing with each other for the attention of one of the girls. I could tell that these two guys were going to be spending a lot of their time girl chasing from the very beginning – just from overhearing some of their conversations with each other. It seems like when one of the guys shows an interest in one girl, the other guy attempts his luck with that same girl. It varies between who goes for which girl first, but they are constantly challenging each other. Maybe it’s not so much for the sake of getting a girl, but for the sake of being the “dominant” guy.

This poor girl who is currently attracting all their attention doesn’t seem like she is interested in either one of them in any way more than as friends and fellow students, but whenever she attempts to have a conversation with one of them, it is obvious that the other one gets really pissed off and sulks. It’s kind of funny to watch!

We spent a lot of time on the bus driving to La Selva, but I managed to take some pictures from the window.

Costa rica from the bus 2

Costa rica from the bus

Now can you tell me what color the flowers in the picture below are? It’s not as easy as it seems! Go ahead, take a guess!

White flowers in Costa Rica

Did you say pink, purple, fuchsia, or a similar color? Well, you are WRONG! They are actually white. The flowers are the white parts in the middle of the pinkish/purple leaves. Professor L drove us crazy with that question.

We stopped at a few places during our drive to La Selva to break up the boredom of the drive. One stop was a pretty waterfall:

Waterfall in Costa Rica

Waterfall in Costa Rica 2

We even got to go behind the waterfall!

Behind the waterfall

And we got to see some cool looking plants and trees. I’ve always had a fondness for moss. It’s so fluffy!

Costa Rica Plants

These leaves were HUGE. People can use them as umbrellas, and they are appropriately called “Poor Man’s Umbrella”. It’s a shame I didn’t have someone standing next to them for scale.

Poor Man's Umbrella leaves

We saw a sloth in a tree! Yes, he was very slow.

Costa Rica Sloth

The forests in Costa Rica can be beautiful and spooky at the same time.

Costa Rica Trees

We didn’t arrive in La Selva until nightfall, so all we were able to do was take a short walk around in the dark. The rain forest at night is not as cool as I expect it will be in the day, but we saw some interesting things anyway. Leaf cutter ants are probably some of the most fascinating creatures I’ve seen so far. There were so many of them! They were all walking in a row, each carrying bits of leaves or flowers above their heads. It looked especially mesmerizing when our flashlights were pointed at them, particularly when the light hit the white flower bits, which seemed to be glowing as they moved along in the dark. A couple of the guys dropped a giant leaf onto the trail to see if it would stop the ants. The ants did become extremely confused, and some started to walk the other way. An unbroken trail seems to be so important to their work that even an unexpected leaf can mess up their whole day.

We learned a lot about La Selva during our walk. Unfortunately, the area is becoming less and less remote as the time goes by and it becomes more and more populated by people. It’s becoming more of an “island” of forest surrounded by agricultural production, which is extremely damaging to the diversity of the forest. This is causing a lot of concern amongst scientists who are studying La Selva because logging and the agricultural production keeps on expanding and the forest keeps on shrinking. If things aren’t changed soon there could one day be no forest at all.

We also learned how to find our way around the forest ourselves by using the trail markers. When the numbers on the markers go up, you are walking further into the forest. When they go down, you are getting closer to the town (and civilization!). The numbers shown inform people how many meters away you are from the beginning of a trail.

Before we headed back to the cabins for the night we heard a group of howler monkeys; they are LOUD and sound gigantic and scary! Here’s hoping that tomorrow we’ll get to see them in addition to hearing them.

The spider webs that were woven around the bridge leading to the rain forest were pretty amazing too. Speaking of spiders – at the end of the night, we saw a huge wolf spider, bigger than any spiders I have ever seen in NJ. I didn’t see any snakes today, but I did see a few rabbits. I can’t wait to see everything in the light tomorrow!

There was no partying going on tonight – everyone else went to bed early. I guess I am a little disappointed that I didn’t go out last night because it seemed like everyone had a lot of fun. I was so tired that it didn’t seem worth it, but now I wonder if I missed out. My main priority for this trip is to definitely soak in as much of the environment and knowledge as possible, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to have a little fun too!

Tomorrow I’m going to *try* to wake up for 5:30 bird watching. I love birds; I think they are going to be my favorite part of everything we will see, though I suppose my mind could be changed by the end of the trip. The leaf cutter ants were pretty damn amazing.

OK, I better get to sleep now if I want to wake up with the birds, more to come tomorrow.

May 27

Today we had a tour of the rain forest by a local certified guide, where we learned about the native plants, animals, and insects of the forest. This was the first of many long hikes we’ll be taking while in Costa Rica. I finally had the chance to see the forest in the day, and I was not disappointed!

Rainforest in Costa Rica

It’s a bit hard to see in the below picture, but there is actually a large Golden Orb spider on it’s web there:

Costa Rica Golden Orb Spider

Here is one red leaf growing out of a fern, which is a common sight in the Costa Rica forests. Eventually this leaf will turn green like it’s brothers. I’ll talk more about this (the “red leaf hypothesis”) in one of the later days.

Costa Rica Red Leaf

We again saw leaf cutter ants, though they don’t work as well in direct sunlight so the lines that were not shaded by trees were sparser. We saw bullet ants, which were huge ants with a nasty bite – they are at least an inch long. We also saw a colony of army ants that started attacking people who stood too close to their line.

We learned that the leaf cutter ants use a chemical trail of pheromones to help them find their way to and from food sources. If one of them accidentally leaves or loses the trail, they may die unless they can find it again. These worker ants live for only about a week or two, but the queen ant is alive for as long as the ant colony is alive – when she dies, so does the colony. Within the colony, there are workers who carry the leaves or flowers to the nest, soldiers who attack anything (or anyone) that harasses the workers, riders which are little ants that ride on the back of the workers to get rid of mites and other parasites, and of course the queen who lays millions of eggs so the colony can continue. The queen is born with wings, and when she is ready she flies up into the sky and mates with other winged male ants to get all the sperm that she will need for her whole lifetime. She then comes back down, bites off her wings, and starts laying eggs.

The ants that collect the leaves don’t eat the plants, because the leaves are toxic. Instead, they eat the fungus on it. The fungus can’t exist without the ants, and the ants can’t exist without the fungus. This is another example of how important plants and ants are to each other.

Here is a random bug that our professor picked up to show us. I can’t remember what kind of bug it was… but it looks cool!

Costa Rica Bug

Here are a few more interesting tidbits we learned from the guide:

1) After bananas grow agriculturally in a field for 25 years, the soil becomes useless and nothing will grow in it.

2) Hardly any light will reach the bottom of the forest in an old growth area (old growth in a forest is an area where all the greenery has been growing for many years – new growth is when an area of the forest has been removed either from logging or a fallen tree, and all the growth is relatively new.) Because there is so little light reaching the bottom of the floor, very tiny plants can actually be pretty old.

Costa Rica Sun

3) In La Selva, February is the driest month (though it is never really all that dry), and July and August are the wettest months. Pale Verde (the location we will be visiting next) tends to be driest from December to March, with a bit of rain in June and July. That forest gets very dry. The difference in moisture between the two forests is because of something known as the “rain shadow” effect – La Selva is in the Northern part of the country; wind blows through the mountain peaks creating the effect. Pale Verde is in the southern part on a high plateau, which doesn’t create the same effect.

4) Some trees in La Selva can be brought down not by loggers but by a plant called an epiphyte. They grow on trees, not parasitically, but they can reach 7-8 tons a hectacre (a hectare is 2.471 acres), and during the wet season can bring down a tree simply because of the water weight.

Mossy Costa Rica Tree

5) Poison dart frogs lay eggs in pools of water, and then the parent frog lays sterile eggs for a short while to feed the tadpoles.

6) The dominant mammal in the forest are bats – and Costa Rica does have vampire bats!

7) The reason it usually rains in the late afternoon is because of a process called transpiration – the moisture from the previous rain rises during the day until the clouds can’t hold anymore, and it all comes down, only to start again the next day.

8) Apparently howler monkeys eat a type of toxic leaf as their main diet, which is why they usually are lazy – they spend a lot of time trying to digest their food.

The below isn’t a great picture, but it’s mushrooms growing up a tree. It looked awesome, like little fairy steps.

Costa Rica Mushrooms Growing on Tree

On the tour, we were able to see where some tarantulas nest, but didn’t see any tarantulas. They tend to stay hidden, especially during the day, so we’ll have to go out at night to try to spot them. I’m all for that, because I also want to see the glow in the dark moss that I’ve been hearing about!

Tarantula nest in Costa Rica

We also saw agoutis (which are rat-like creatures) and some parrots.

When we got back to the camp we were treated with seeing a Collared Peccary (which kind of looks like a pig):

Costa Rica Collared Peccaryand a family of Coatimundi!

Costa Rica Coatimundi Family

I have this picture from the 27th too, but I have no idea what it is. It looks like a green leech, but my guess is that it was a frog of some sort? Or maybe a lizard?

Costa Rica Frog or Lizard? Who knows

Tomorrow I plan to go out early morning by myself to check out what I can see when it is a little quieter.

May 28th

We got another early start this morning, and right as we got into the forest we saw a group of howler monkeys. No snakes or anything else to mention for this short walk, but we’re going out again in half an hour for an 8-mile hike. I’m sure we’ll get to see lots of interesting critters then.

I have to say that I’ve never appreciated meals as much as I have these past couple of days that I’ve been in La Selva. I like it here, but it’s definitely a lot more exercise than I’m used to. Not that I can’t do it, because I can, I’m just not used to sweating this much. I’m sure I’ll go back to the States very healthy!

I am a bit worried about the next site we’re scheduled to visit (Pale Verde) because Professor L. says that where we are staying now is like a luxury resort compared to it… and believe me – this is not a luxury resort!

OK, going to go for now, I’ve got to get ready for my long hike! More later.


I’m back! I’m extremely tired from our hike, so I’m not going to write much more today. The walk was fantastic! We saw spider monkeys, and one of them decided to throw fruit at us for some reason. At least I hope it was fruit… The howler monkeys made another appearance, and we saw a few more parrots and a toucan. We also saw some wild bananas!

Costa Rica Bananas

I also got a picture of the leaf cutter ants. They have been traveling the same path for so long that they have carved out a trail for themselves in the wall!

Costa Rica Leaf Cutter Ants

During one section of our hike we had to go across the river one at a time in a pulley-type device. We would pull ourselves over two at a time while our legs dangled free above the river.

Costa Rica Crossing The River with Pulleys

The other side of the river was beautiful – there was a lake or a giant river with rapids, and some interesting looking ferns.

Costa Rica River

Costa Rica Rain Forest

Costa Rica Plants

I know this picture is double exposed, but I thought it still looked neat enough to share. Check out those vines!

Costa Rica Blurry Trees

Some of the trees had grown in such a way that you could actually walk inside them, and through them.

Costa Rica Climbing Inside a Tree

Here is a tiny poison dart frog. They get their names because the natives used to rub their arrows on the toxic secretions on the back of the frog to create a more potent weapon.

Costa Rica Red poison dart frog

We learned a lot more about the forest today. For one: there is a thing called a “tree fall gap” – which is what happens when a large tree falls. Because the tree is so large and has a large canopy of leaves, it creates a gap in the forest ceiling. This can cause a temperature change in that area of the forest, and it allows more light to get in, which allows all kinds of new types of growth in that area.

Costa Rica Tree Gap

Costa Rica Tree

Trees fall very easily in the rain forest because all of the root systems grow near the top of the ground and not deep down like the forests I’m used to. This is to allow them grab the nutrients from fallen leaves and dead animals as soon as it is possible. The nutrients that rain forest plants and trees use can not just be obtained from the soil because so much rain just washes it all away. Instead, nutrients are in the plants themselves. If a leaf or other organic matter falls to the ground, it rapidly decomposes because of wet, warm air and fungi. The roots of the plants and trees immediately bring in those nutrients for themselves.

Leaf Litter Costa Rica

At night after dinner, I sat for a while looking at the stars and watching a lightning storm. I can’t even explain to you what that was like. You turn towards one direction and all you see are millions of stars, and when you turn the other way there are clouds lighting up every couple of seconds with lightning. It was beautiful.

Ok, I gotta sleep now. I’ll be waking up extra early again!

May 29th

Today H and I decided to go for an early morning rain forest stroll, and were walking towards the forest when a passerby told us the whereabouts of a bushmaster snake. This was an unexpected (and delightful!) development. We were excited to go check it out. After getting lost once, we finally found it curled up under a log. It was only about 10 feet away from us, seemingly asleep. Bushmasters can grow to 20 feet long or even longer, and their fangs can be up to an inch. Because these snakes and their fangs are so large, they can inject a lot of poison into their victims, making them very dangerous and deadly (in fact, they are the largest of the venomous snakes in the world). The one that we saw could probably kill a human (if bit on the foot) in about 8 hours, and the person bit would become sick almost immediately. They eat small to medium sized animals, injecting the poison in and letting them die before eating them whole. H went closer to take a picture for me, and at first I thought he was nuts until he explained that they were non-aggressive unless threatened and generally lethargic during the day. (Ignore the time stamp, not sure why it is the wrong day, maybe something to do with the time change? I was up very early!)

Costa Rica Bushmaster Snake

Costa Rica Bushmaster Snake

After we saw the bushmaster and were heading back to home base, we were treated to seeing more spider monkeys. They were on the bridge leading to (and from) the rain forest, where they just stared at us and swung upside down from the railings of the bridge. One of them climbed down on the cable and was only two feet away from us.

Costa Rica Howler Monkey on Bridge

Costa Rica Howler Monkey on Bridge 2

Costa Rica Howler Monkey on Bridge 3

Costa Rica Howler Monkey on Bridge 4

Costa Rica Howler Monkey on Bridge 5

Later on in the day I went out on a walk by myself because I had to finally do my experiment. It was great wandering around by myself – you see so much more when you are by yourself or with a very small group of people.

For my experiment, I wanted to see how ants would react to me messing with their trails in different ways and whether or not they would find their way back.

My results:

finger sweat – ant #1 – completely lost, #2 – confused, then found trail. #3 – completely lost.

Rubbing trail with sneaker – ants became confused for a while, soldier ants seemed to be helping them through.

Rubbing trail with leaf – stopped them cold – like a wall. Some eventually found the way, some turned around.

Ink from pen– stopped them for a second, then they kept going.

Rubbing from back of pen – nothing.

Line of dirt taken from different part of trail – not much, an extra second to get over the dirt.

Line of dirt not from their trail – completely lost, turned around.

Moved ant from one trail to another – ant completely confused, running all over.

Moved ant about 10 feet back – seemed disorientated at first, started going the wrong way, then turned around and went the right way.

After my experiment and lunch, I went out and showed the bushmaster to a few more people, and we saw another snake. Initially we thought it was the deadly coral snake, but it turned out to be a harmless black Halloween snake.

Costa Rica Black Halloween Snake

Costa Rica Black Halloween Snake

Also, apparently we were wrong about the monkeys on the bridge being spider monkeys; they were howler monkeys. We didn’t realize because they weren’t making the typical noise howler monkeys make. They look so much smaller up close than you expect with all the noise they make!

And now for fun, here are two Costa Rican lizards. I’m not sure who’s hands those are.

Costa Rica Tiny Lizard

Costa Rica Bigger Lizard

After the second lizard was released… or perhaps before it was caught?

Costa Rican Lizard

After a full day of hiking (and going back and forth to where the bushmaster was to show different people) we all relaxed with a couple of glasses of wine, then Nicole, myself, and H went in the room and did some yoga.

May 30th     

This is our last day in La Selva, and I’m very sad about it. I’m going to miss it here. I will have to come back one day.

First things first: I’m not sure why I waited until the last day to take this picture, but here is what the bridge that lead into and out of the rain forest looked like:

Bridge to La Selva

This was my favorite day so far. It was a very active day – I did and saw so much. I went out into the rain forest three separate times today. The first time was before breakfast by myself to do some bird watching. I saw a strange looking woodpecker,

Costa Rica Woodpecker

a couple of toucans, and a bird similar to a toucan that I couldn’t identify. I also saw a large bird that at first I had no idea what it was. Its body was a rusty brown color, its neck was black, and its head was crested black with white spots. Its tail was black and white spotted, and underneath its belly was lighter than rest of body. Its beak had an orange/yellow tip, with the rest being black. It walked like a turkey, and had red eyes. It was taking a dust bath when I first saw it, and when I described the bird to Professor L. he told me it sounded like a great curassow. I looked up the bird later and it that was definitely what it was!

Costa Rica great curassow

After breakfast, I went out with a small group for a couple hours. We talked amongst ourselves about the red leaf hypothesis (which is the theory of why younger leaves in some plants start off red before they turn green). General thoughts are:

  1. Protection from U.V. Light – the younger leaves are not exposed to UV light because the red leaves protect it. UV light can be damaging to young plants
  2. Dead leaf (protection) – the leaves have the appearance of dead leaves to protect the fragile new leaves from predators – red color is like brown – also the leaves grow hanging down rather than out, for the appearance of being dead
  3. Red color caused by anti-fungal chemicals – if the young parts of plants have anti-fungus chemicals, it would be less attractive to the ants such as leaf cutters who grow fungus off leaves as their food source

We didn’t see any new birds on this walk but we did see a river turtle, which was about 6 inches long. I picked him up to check him out more closely. He had very sharp claws and started moving his tiny legs pretty fast when he was off the ground. I put him back down and he rushed away.

Costa Rica River Turtle

After lunch, I went out again with another one of the guy for a very long hike. This was the best trail that I had gone on so far! It was full of dirt, mud, grass paths, and log bridges; it was terrific! We saw another turtle that was about four times the size of the one I saw earlier. We also saw a tamandua (collared anteater) hanging out in one of the trees. I found out later that this type of anteater is actually quite rare to see so it was a treat that we found it!

Costa Rica tamandua collared anteater 2

Costa Rica tamandua collared anteater

We managed to see some more howler monkeys as well:


Costa Rica Howler Monkey in the tree 3

Costa Rica Howler Monkey in the tree 2

After doing this trail I decided that my previous thoughts on this guy were incorrect and probably too harsh. He was one of the guys I talked about earlier who was competing over the poor girl with another guy. First impressions are not always right, and he was a lot more fun when he wasn’t around the other guys to show off or compete.

At one point during our hike we had an interesting scare. We were walking along and heard a loud buzzing. We got closer to the sound and it got louder and louder… eventually we saw what was making the noise. It was a giant flying insect! It was yellow and black striped with patterned yellow tipped wings and an orange/brown bottom quarter. It was about an inch and a half or two inches large. It was just hovering in one place, slowly moving up and down. We got a little closer to it and suddenly it started flying very quickly towards us! We had no idea what it was so we BOOKED it. We ran for quite a while until we couldn’t hear it chasing us anymore. We never did figure out what it was.

We also saw a spider with strange markings on it’s back that was chilling in a hole on the ground. He didn’t move when we tried to get him to come out of his hole, so I think he was sick or dead. Unfortunately, no snakes were to be seen on this 3 ½ hour hike, but the anteater and the fun we had climbing over felled trees and hiking through the mud made it extremely worthwhile. Here’s another poison dart frog!

Costa Rica Poison Dart Frog

And a better picture of mushrooms growing up a tree (fairy steps):

Costa Rica Mushrooms on tree

I feel so proud of myself that I was able to do that long hike. It was a difficult trail for sure. The slippery mud made it even more so. The end of the hike was perfect – just as we got out of the forest, we had a downpour. It felt so good.

At our class that evening we learned more about what we would be seeing in Pale Verde –

1) Pale Verde is a dry forest site, with lots of deciduous trees. The animals are more easily seen/found in this forest.

2) There is an area in Pale Verde that is “evergreen”, (not conifer, just not deciduous).

3) Pale Verde is home to the “Gibaru” – a rare bird that lives near the marsh.

4) 98% of all tropical dry forests have been destroyed; Pale Verde has some of the only dry forest left in the world.

5) Pale Verde is on the estuary of the Rio Tempisque – when the tide is out, it is fresh water, when tide is in, it is salt water

6) Pale Verde has limestone cliffs, which have eroded in such a way that they are very sharp. You wouldn’t want to fall on one of them!

Right now I’m doing laundry, and I’m mad crazy tired and really just want to go to bed, but I have to at least wait until I can put my clothes in the dryer. Then I have to get to sleep cause we wake up at 6 tomorrow for our early start out. I sure am going to miss La Selva!

To read part II, click here!