project review

Fun times in the Forest

Review submitted by Lucy Pilcher
Review date 9 Dec 2010


I was first struck by the idea of going to Costa Rica when I picked up a Frontier brochure. I had always wanted to visit central America, and the project I read about couldn't have been more perfect for me. It fulfilled my longing to visit the rainforest and also gave me an incredibly worthwhile purpose to do so. As the 4th October approached I just got more excited about starting my adventure.

From the airport it took a taxi, a night in a hostel in San Jose, another taxi, a 9 hour bus ride to the Osa Peninsula, a night in Puerto Jimenez, the nearest town, and a 2 hour journey on the Collectivo before I found myself in Piro, the area of rainforest I would call home, along with 4 other volunteers. We stayed just above the ocean; we could listen to the waves crashing against the rocks day and night. Monkeys often scampered through the trees surrounding our site, we could watch whiptail lizards bask in the sun on piles of dead wood and once I was lucky enough to watch an anteater passing through from the comfort of my tent. I was also fascinated with the leaf cutter ants that had several set routes through camp. It amazed me how determined they were, and how much effort they put into carrying those perfectly shaped leaf pieces to their nest.

Camp was made up of 4 shelters: 2 for hammocks, one for tents and one that served as a kitchen-diner-store room-chill out area. It was filled with a long table, 4 benches and several makeshift shelving units to store everything necessary for survival in the jungle, including a library! Here we spent most of our free time especially in the evenings. I have lots of very fond memories sitting around that table playing cards, chatting, singing along to someone iPod, playing Pictionary or just sitting reading, soaking up the sounds of the rainforest.

Food was quite basic; we were mainly living off rice, spaghetti and beans. We each took turns to cook, flavouring dishes with whatever we could get our hands on, including lemon grass which grew locally. We had lots of had curries and dishes involving tomato sauces, and one night even managed sausage and mash with a sort of gravy! We stocked up weekly in town, and along with the essentials we made sure we had a good supply of Oreos too!

Our main areas of research during the period of time I was there were primates, birds, vegetation transects and river walks.

Primate surveys were a personal favourite of mine - it was constantly a fantastic surprise when you happened upon a troupe of monkeys and I could happily spend time just watching them swing from tree to tree looking for the best piece of fruit or leaf to eat. The best moments were when we'd spot a baby clinging onto its mother. I managed to see all the species found in the area: Squirrel, Howler, Spider and White-faced Capuchin. I admit I had a soft spot for the Squirrel Monkeys - they were the perfect mix of cute and mischievous.

Monkeys were not by any means the only wildlife we saw whilst doing primate surveys. We saw agouti tracks, squirrels, the stunning Blue Morpho butterfly that is such a symbol of Costa Rica and countless birds, insects and lizards. We came across the infamous fer-de-lance on one occasion, a snake renowned for its potentially lethal bite; needless to say it was given a wide berth by all. Another time we spotted army ants which were fascinating to see. They decimate anything in their path that they see as a potential meal, the effect of this being spiders and insects are flushed out of their homes while birds follow the ants hoping to pick up a free meal. It was just one example of how incredible the interactions between the different species are. My most memorable sighting was of a tamadua which is one of the three types of anteater Costa Rica is home to. I count myself very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time as these are rarely seen.

During bird surveys I definitely learnt a thing or two, being completely new to the world of bird watching. The birds of Costa Rica are truly beautiful; I could never have imagined the vibrant colours that I saw displayed on wings, tails and beaks.

Another personal favourite of mine was the river walks. This involved walking down a section of Piro river when it was shallow enough. The main objective of these walks was to look for signs of Neotropical River Otters, either their tracks in the soft ground by the banks or their bright red scats, often left on low branches overhanging the river. The view of the rainforest from the river itself was unique and stunning; I felt totally surrounded by the nature and beauty of it all. It was amazing how the river would bend, and around the next corner I would be greeted by a new breathtaking view. In the humid environment it was also refreshing to be cooled by the gently flowing river as we walked.

The night turtle patrols were one of the highlights of my trip. Unfortunately I didn't have much luck with turtles, in all my time in Costa Rica I only managed to see one sea turtle. She was digging a nest which was magical to watch. It was also unfortunate that she decided not to lay but on a positive note she was Green Sea Turtle which are the rarer of the two species found along the beaches of the Osa Peninsula.

Again whilst doing the turtle patrols I saw a variety of wildlife. During the day we would see iguana basking in the sun where the rainforest met the beach. During the night we saw tent making bats snuggled up under their leaf shelters, a sleeping hummingbird that returned to the same branch every night, and lizards and snakes that had settled down on branches alongside and above the trails.

In my free time I got the opportunity to explore the local area. On one of my first days off we visited a nearby waterfall that was stunning. It took a 4 kilometre walk along the beach spotting coatis playing in the sand along the way, then another short walk into the rainforest. It always amazed me how such beauty could be tucked away from sight, and how you could easily walk right past if you didn't know it was there.

The same was true of a swamp that lay a short walk along the road. At night it was the perfect place for spotting red eyed tree frogs, smokey jungle frogs, hourglass frogs and spectacled caymen to name but a few.

Towards the end of my time in Costa Rica, we decided to visit another area of rainforest called La Tarde. It was absolutely stunning with such a tranquil atmosphere. The boundaries of this land bordered Corcovado National Park; it had previously been farmland but once cattle had been preyed upon by big cats the family turned to ecotourism instead. We spent 3 days there which were another highlight of my trip. One of the days we hiked into Corcovado itself, and our guide took us to a waterfall. The trail included a sheer drop to the bottom of a valley but once we had clambered down I realised how worth it the climb had been; I felt like we were in a completely different world. Another time we visited the cave that gave the area its name La Tarde meaning the evening, as it always appears to be dusk; and we also got the opportunity to go panning for gold - only finding pieces the size of a speck of glitter but it was exciting nonetheless.

The 6 weeks provided me with so many challenges, experiences and wonderful memories. When it was time to return home I was so sorry to be leaving. I thought more about how much I would miss Costa Rica and rainforest life than any excitement about living in comfort again. If I had the opportunity I would return in a heartbeat and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone.

Find out more about the Costa Rica Big Cats, Primates and Turtle Conservation project