August 18, 2005


Mornings were gorgeous, afternoons were overcast with occasional rain, and evenings were rainy – steady and hard with intermittent thunder. There’s a certain mad logic in going to the tropics in the rainy season – after all, if you’re going to a rain forest, shouldn’t you experience the rain?

We took the inevitable motorboat to Corcovado National Park and hiked in wearing river sandals, the preferred footwear for all circumstances in this part of the world. The trails were hilly and the ground was red clay mud, and when a drenching lunchtime shower fell, it was a relief because it meant we were wading in streams rather than slurping through mud, and our feet and shoes got clean.

Pink crabs and hermit crabs on the beach. Toucans in the trees, curassows – a kind of black and white peacock – on the ground. Brown spider monkeys racketing through the high branches with matchlessly long swings. American crocodiles and caiman crocodiles invisibly in the upland streams and estuaries. Coconut palms with bunches of big green or orange-yellow coconuts; banana trees with bunches of green or yellow or brown fruit; almond trees, cashew trees; guava papaya, loquat, star fruit, pineapple. The distinctive forest scent is of pleasantly rotting coconut. I begin to wonder why all the monkeys and acoutis and coatis aren’t permanently soused from eating all the fermented fruit. Intoxication is older than humanity.

There’s another distinctive smell too, which you come upon at the foot of giant ficus trees that have incredibly long, thick, shallow roots: the roots of these focuses are as thick as big logs, as this wood desk I’m writing at, and taper off into red tips. The scent is musky but light, and you come upon it at trees with lots of half-eaten fruit on the ground: it’s the scent of howler monkeys. We search upwards yearningly whenever we smell that musk, but we don’t see the monkeys. Nor do we see squirrel monkeys, the shyest primates in the forest .

Some of Corcovado is secondary growth and some is primary: the trees in the primary forest are taller and straighter, though not necessarily thicker, than in the secondary. The very thickest trees are many hundreds of years old, though. We see a balsa tree, tall and straight, remarkably thick and strong-looking for a source of such light wood; a calomine tree, its trunk spotted with dried white sap; baco, or milk tree, whose sap treats indigestion.

Our guide, Roy, a Costa Rican grad student in biology, stamps around the perimeter of an anthill in order to scare up some soldier ants, catches one, and shows us how the Indians used to apply soldier ants to their skin to stitch wounds, the ants’ pincers making excellent sutures and the ants’ bodies secreting an antibiotic. (Roy demonstrates on clothing, not skin.)

My favorite forest creature, though, is the leaf-cutter ant. These steadfast gardeners travel in a line, thousands of them, starting from the top of a coconut tree, meandering across the wide lawn of the park ranger’s station, and from there into the forest. Each of them carries aloft a torn-off scrap of leaf: the line looks like an endless flotilla of tiny green-sailed boats. Each ant secretes a trail-marking chemical, and so many of them have passed by that they’ve burned a six-inch-wide trail into the lawn. I’ve heard that 15% of the forest’s foliage is processed by leaf-cutter ants. I think it would be a proud thing to be one of them.

A blue morpho butterfly as big as my hand floats by – there are lots of them here, though not nearly as many as there used to be. Roy points out a poison dart frog, specked black and red, crouching in a hole: the Indians used to manufacture poison for their darts from it. Now and then a little basilisk skitters by: it’s called the Jesus Christ lizard because it runs on the surface of the water.

Tiger heron. Brown pelican. Magnificent frigatebird (“magnificent” is its name, not my adjective). White ibis. Black-throated trogon. Long-tailed manakin. Keel-billed toucan. Chestnut-mandibled toucan.

Another group at our lodge saw a sloth. There are rumors of people seeing tapirs. And then there’s that fer-de-lance. Coiled up smack in the middle of the hiking trail. I would have liked to see it, but just as well we didn’t – it was the other group. A fer-de-lance in the trail is no joke. It’s one of the most deadly vipers on earth. You could get bitten by one on forty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue, if there happened to be fer-de-lances at that intersection (and in fact there are, though only metaphorically), and stand an excellent chance of dying before you could reach medical care. Roy steered the group up the hill and around and down, but that course wasn’t without its drawbacks: a boy fell from a tree onto his mother’s face, giving her a black eye; and his sister slipped in the mud and began to slide down toward the snake, stopped only by a root protruding from the ground.

One of our guides at a subsequent lodge told us he had twice been bitten by fer-de-lances. I don’t know what to make of his claim. He knows his snakes, but maybe he mistook their identities those times. Or maybe he’s immune, or the bites were glancing ones. Who knows? In any case, a very lucky guy.

Sign at the park entrance: “El Guardaparque Es Su Amigo; Atienda Sus Recomendaciones.” The park ranger is your friend; heed his recommendations. Good advice.