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Costa Rica: The Nature of Sarapiquí

Sloths are often spotted on guided nature walks at La Selva Biological Station. Credit Costa Rica Tourism Board

by Geri Bain

“Costa Rica is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, and Sarapiquí has one quarter of the biodiversity of Costa Rica,” Johanna Arguello, president of the Sarapiquí Tourism Chamber told me during a recent visit. Being close to the capital (about 1.5 hours’ drive), the region can be visited in a day trip, pairing outdoor activities such as rafting and kayaking on the Sarapiquí  River, and zip lining and hiking in its wildlife sanctuaries with lunch and a tour at one of the region’s traditional farms, growing export products including pineapple and hearts of palm, she suggested. But in my opinion, the region deserves more time. After three days based at the SarapiquiS Rainforest Lodge, I felt I’d only scratched the surface.

La Selva Biological Station is home to jaguars, howler monkeys and a diversity of tropical species. Credit Geri Bain

On a guided nature walk at La Selva Biological Station, I learned that this nearly 4,000 acre preserve, run by the Organization for Tropical Studies, is one of the world’s most important sites for tropical ecosystem research. It forms part of a biological corridor that allows for seasonal migrations, helping support its rich biodiversity. The Station offers daily nature walks and other activities for visitors (reservations suggestions) led by bilingual naturalists. Moments after setting out, our group was enchanted by a peccary family that seemed to pose for our cameras. But the big highlight came moments later, as we stopped at a telescope aimed at a mother sloth and its baby snuggled high in a tree. Each member of our group had a chance to watch their almost imperceptible movements as our guide explained how their lack of motion allows algae to grow on them, helping camouflage them from harpy eagles, jaguars and other predators. We also saw howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, and an impressive variety of birds. In fact, 448 species of birds live in or pass through this Station.

Leaf-cutter ants can carry leaves up to 20 times their weight. Credit Geri Bain

I have new respect for ants after seeing leaf-cutter ants in action, thanks to a living exhibit set up Leo Herra. Herra has been studying ants for more than two decades—ever since they began destroying his roses. Instead of wiping the ants out, he came to cherish them—and so did I!  Many people take his hour-long tour before or after rafting trips at Aquas Bravas adventure tour center, but it is worth stopping just to witness the ants’ advanced farming and social systems. Herra has created eye-level walkways and nesting spots so that visitors can easily see what normally takes place along the forest floor, high in the trees, and underground. I learned that ants can carry 20 times their weight for up to a kilometer and that leaves are not eaten, but carried back to the nest where “farmer” ants use saliva to cultivate a fungus while large soldier ants defend the nest against intruders. Because leaf cutter ants favor leaves from high up (they’re the most nutritious), these ants play an important role in bringing light into the tropical forests. I also learned something useful: Ants are blind; they use pheromones to transmit information, so if you want to get rid of ants in your own garden, try spreading coffee grounds. The smell confuses them.

For more on Sarapiqui, read Savoring Slow Travel at the SarapiquiS Rainforest Lodge and visit www.visitcostarica.com


Geri Bain, a widely published travel writer and editor, has written about more than 60 countries and contributed to publications including inc.com, N.Y. Daily News and Robb Report. While travel editor at Modern Bride magazine, she wrote an acclaimed guide to Honeymoons and Weddings Away. She is a past president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editorial director of Endless Vacation magazine.

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