It was a bittersweet departure from Palo Verde National Park. There was an incredible diversity and abundance of wildlife species, including large mammals known only from tropical regions, huge congregations of waterbirds in the vast marsh adjacent to our lodging, and it was our only home in Costa Rica up to that point. However, it was hot, it was dry, and sometimes it felt as though the dirt that often covered my body was being baked into my skin.
So, it was with excitement that we boarded our bus early in the morning to catch a ferry that would take across a small inlet of the Pacific Ocean to reach the Nicoya Peninsula, and eventually the San Miguel Biological Preserve in Cabo Blanco. Established in 1963, this conservation area is unusual in that it is afforded a degree of protection that is particularly rare; it is considered an absolute reserve, which means it is not open to the public (such as National Parks are, for example), collecting anything is strictly prohibited, and only a very few number of groups or individuals are allowed to enter the area in a given year. We were fortunate to be among the students allowed in.
The bus could only get so close to the reserve, so we mentally prepared ourselves for the hike as we got off the bus and into the sun. The heat wasn’t too much of a shock to the system, as the air conditioning in the bus had broken an hour earlier, leaving us sweating in silence. But, it was no comparison to the conditions we experienced as we hiked the several kilometers (a couple miles) to San Miguel, quickly becoming engulfed in forest; it was not long until my shirt was completely drenched in sweat, I could not have been wetter if I had just stepped out of the shower.
The surrounding forest was dense and excellent wildlife habitat; we passed directly under a lounging howler monkey who lazily hooted at our intrusion.
As we came closer to the preserve, we could hear the Pacific Ocean lapping against the shores and we looked forward to the promised opportunity to go snorkeling, a luxury many of us had looked forward to after field work in Palo Verde. As we crossed a small freshwater stream leading into the ocean, we noticed a small troop of capuchin monkeys drinking from the flowing water, watching us curiously as they sated their thirst.
After finally reaching the preserve, we were served fruit juice and oriented to the site, highlights of which included a plea that we hand over any snacks we may have hidden with our luggage. Their stated intent was to dissuade ravenous coatis and raccoons from raiding our living quarters, though our suspicion that we were covertly booked at a weight reeducation facility was only reinforced as we sweated through the next day’s scheduled hikes. We were also informed that the small staff does its best to live in harmony with the resident wildlife, to the point that they try to avoid making noises or showing their teeth to nearby monkeys, who might take these actions as threat displays. This caused us much distress as we attempted to conform to their policy while brushing our teeth each morning.
Upon exploring the maze of vines and forest around our cabin, I was distracted by the sound of rustling within the dry leaves on the ground. After fruitlessly searching for several minutes for the culprit, assumed to be a small lizard or bird, I realized I was hearing pieces of bark falling from the sky. Upon looking upwards, I immediately noticed a tamandua (black and yellow anteater) foraging for food, not disturbed in the least by my presence.
It was an animal (I presume the same animal) that was seen the next day in the same area.
The short path from the cabin to the ocean was densely forested and opened suddenly onto the beach. Upon turning around, there was no sign of the nearby cabin and little indication there was even a path.
The sand was alive with hermit crabs, dozens if not hundreds of them within view at any given time. They carpeted the ground with their pea-sized bodies, making the entire beach appear as if it was moving.
Watching them was like playing a game of red light green light. When I was stationary, the crabs would carry on their business, crawling back and forth following marching orders only they knew. When I made even slight movements however, all the crabs surrounding me would simultaneously freeze, motionless except for perhaps the occasional and brief rocking of their shells as a crab quickly retreated within. Only a few moments would pass though, before they resumed their travels.
We spent only three nights at Cabo Blanco and they went quickly. Given limited assignments aside from workshops designed to introduce us to the local plant diversity and facilitate identification of marine gastropods (snails, barnacles, conchs, etc), we were free to spend our time snorkeling in an adjacent lagoon (which produced sightings of Hawksbill Sea Turtles, eels, and a diverse assortment of fish) or resting within hammocks.
Rain drizzling down upon us in the pre-dawn darkness was an unwelcome development as we hiked out of Cabo Blanco, especially considering the thirteen hours of traveling that was ahead of me before I reached our next site. But, it’d be somewhat dishonest of me if I tried too vigorously to make you feel sorry for me because of my stay on the Pacific coast of the Nicoya Peninsula.
The temperatures drop so low that you quickly forget you’re in the tropics when the fog rolls in over the high elevation mountains in southwestern Costa Rica, our next stop on our voyage through the country. The quick onset of the cold nights was dangerous enough to easily kill early settlers, leading to the region’s ominous moniker, Cerro de les Muerte (Hills of Death).
Kelly, Benoit says hello.