My Month in a Costa Rican Rainforest: Monkeys, Spiders, and Two Bottles of DEET
My experience in the rainforest is one I'll always remember. If you have the means to do so, spend some time in one.
I enrolled in a month-long primate behavior class through the Maderas Rainforest Conservancy in Costa Rica during the summer of 2014. I learned how to find and follow a troop of White-faced Capuchins with no more than a compass and a map. Instead of radios or walkie talkies, we communicated through a call of our own - a "woop woop" that we would belt into the rainforest. The first half of the course was taught, followed by a short break where most students visited another area of Costa Rica. Instead of going, myself and the few others who stayed behind watched Star Trek:The Next Generation, read books in hammocks, and hiked the trails. The ten days that followed were intense. I chose to study White-faced Capuchin hand-use differences between age and sex classes. This meant waking at 4am to be in the rainforest at 5am. What followed were hours of hiking the trails following the troop that swung between branches way above our heads and stopping to collect data when the troops fed in a mosquito-infested Momone patch. Sometimes, we lost the troop, and our group of students had to separate to find them again. After the ten days were completed, we analysed our data, wrote a report, and presented our findings to the class. We then all boarded a bus, strapped our luggage to the roof, and drove the two hours to the capitol.
The sounds that filled the humid air have stuck in my mind the strongest. It isn't quiet there. The cicadas sing constantly. When it rains, you hear the roar of the raindrops on distant leaves about ten seconds before the rain moves on to you. This gives you just enough time to hop under a giant leaf for some shelter from the rain. The rain pounds forcefully against the metal roof of the bunk room, waking you in the night to witness a rain storm.
In the distance, you may hear the deep roar of a Mantled Howler monkey or the lost call of a White-faced Capuchin. If you're lucky, you may hear the rare and surprisingly loud call of a Great Green Macaw.
You will see insects, including Leafcutter Ants, Bullet Ants, Golden Orb Weaver spiders, Blue Morpho Butterflies, and many more. Sloths move slowly between the trees and be careful where you step! Tiny Blue Jeans and Green and Black poison dart frogs hop quickly in front of you on the trail. You may even see a Coral Snake.
You will always be damp. We washed our clothes by hand and hung them outside to dry. It turns out clothes don't dry too well in the humidity of the rainforest. We then hung our clothes inside to dry, creating a clothes line that ran from one corner of the room to the other. Showers were outside, and only one shower had hot water. I cut my hair prior to this rainforest adventure, and this allowed me to take quick showers in the cold water. You may think that cold water would be great for the rainforest, but it was surprisingly unpleasant.
The toilets were also located outside and had no roof. This meant cicadas would bump into you in the night. A Cane Toad graciously took up residence in our toilet, eating the mosquitoes and cicadas that spent time there.
Mud along the trails was deep, and rain boots became essential. I tucked my pants into my socks to help keep my legs mud-free. We kept our boots upside down outside when we were not wearing them to reduce the chance of a spider making the boot its new home. It was still a good idea to check inside with a headlamp before slipping your foot into one. Be sure to wiggle your foot side to side when stepping in deep mud to ensure your boot doesn't get left behind when you take your next step.
Sliding down steep muddy hills is more fun than it sounds, as is shining your flashlight across the grass at night to see all the tiny pairs of Wolf Spider eyes staring back at you. Giant cockroaches are beautiful, except for when they disappear under your bed. Mosquito nets and high strength DEET are required, as is plenty of anti-itch cream. Spiders here create intricate webs that glisten after the rain falls. The largest ones may enter your bunk room and disappear behind a dresser, never to be seen again.
The rainforest is a magical place. Yes, you may be bitten by a mysterious insect, making your hand swell up to the point where you can't make a fist. Yes, you will be constantly damp and may eat some poorly washed food. You won't have cell phone access and your internet may be severely limited. Your electronics will not thank you for bringing them into such a moist place, but silica gel packets will help. You'll avoid eating beans and rice for months after your return, and instead turn to milkshakes. You'll return home with mysterious bruises, a watch stained forever with DEET, and a backpack that must be thrown away because the smell of monkey urine will not fade. But you'll also return home with the best souvenir of all: memories of an amazing experience with awesome people in a place rich with wonder.