Posted by: Adam Kay | January 15, 2016

Eight meters of rain

The lodge at Rara Avis

The lodge at Rara Avis

Rara Avis, 357 hectare private reserve connected to Braulio Carrillo National Park, was one of Costa Rica’s first ecotourism lodges. It was established in 1983 to demonstrate that ecotourism could help conserve tropical rainforests by generating more revenue for local residents than other land uses (such as logging and cattle ranching).

Rara Avis has been a model for ecotourism in Costa Rica. It started a butterfly chrysalis production project that served as a model for family operations throughout the area. It had one of the first “canopy access devices” that allowed researchers and visitors to see all of the activity that occurs high up in the trees. In the 1990s, Rara Avis was featured in many publications including the New York Times Magazine and the Chicago Tribune. It is also a biodiversity hotspot: it has over 500 tree species, over 350 species of birds, and high diversity of amphibians and reptiles, and many endemic species including the stained-glass window palm (Geonoma epetiolata).

everything grows on everything at Rara Avis

Everything grows on everything at Rara Avis

One of the reasons we picked Rara Avis for our first destination for our course (BIOL 211: Introduction to Field Ecology) is because of its remoteness and simplicity. When Rara Avis was first established, it took ~6 hours by road to get from San Jose to Las Horquetas, the town nearest to Rara Avis. From Las Horquetas, you had to travel 15km by horse or on foot, and the last 6 km was too rough for horses. Now, travel from San Jose to Las Horquetas is fairly easy – our class traveled by bus in a little over an hour – though access from Las Horquetas is still pretty tough. We traveled by tractor over extremely rough road for ~5km, and then we walked (mostly uphill, through dense rainforest) for several hours to make it the rest of the way. At lower elevations, the road went through pastures lined with barbed-wire fence. Further along, we walked mostly through intact forest. One stop along the way was in a clearing called El Plastico, a former prison colony deep in the forest. Our guides told us that prisoners were brought to the site blindfolded and had to hunt for their own food. Now, the site is managed by a conservation-minded, non-profit organization called Selvatica. The most striking aspect of the El Plastico building was the abundance of golden orb spiders (Nephila clavipes), which had webs that covered much of the area under the rafters. It’s an interesting experience to be surrounded by spiders that are the size of your palm.

The feeling of remoteness at Rara Avis is enhanced by the rain. The site receives over 27 feet (8.2 m) a year. Luckily for us, January is the beginning of the “dry” season (although even in January, the monthly average rainfall is 26 inches (~67cm)). Everywhere you look, you can see the effects of all that rainfall. The forest is filled with moss and ferns. Most trees are completely covered in bromeliads, philodendrons, and other epiphytes (plants that grow on trees). The forest is dense and dark, trails are slippery, and all of the wooden planks and steps are in varying states of rot.

The simplicity of Rara Avis is also evident everywhere. We have electricity in only a couple of buildings, and only for about 5 hours a day. Most of the buildings are open air (no windows and doors). The suspension bridge to cross the river at the edge of the station is pretty rickety and can only support 3 people at a time. Our free time is spent playing cards, going on night hikes, or swimming below the double waterfall.

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Chip Small in our classroom

We were interested in what the students thought about spending a week in this place, so we asked them for some reflections at the end of our stay. Here they are:

mckenna blog pictMcKenna Reid: “Jenny Walz and I had been hiking all over Rara Avis trying to find Geonoma plants with bats in them, and it’s so amazing to me that we already knew exactly what we’re looking for. We were searching one of the trails for our plants when we came across a beautiful stream that cut right through the forest. We decided to take in the beautiful morning sun by laying out on some rocks that were peeking out of the flowing water. As we were laying there, drifting off into our own thoughts, I kept trying to wrap my head around the fact that I was in the middle of nowhere, in a rainforest, in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. My “real life” was thousands of miles away, but all I cared about in that moment was the beauty that surrounded me. It was one of those eye-opening experiences that you have when you realize just how small you are in this world, and that you will never be able to see or fully understand all of earth’s tiny, beautiful secrets. Lounging in that river, realizing my appreciation for the world around me, is one of those moments that will be with me for the rest of my life.“

madison blog pictMadison Gonsior: “When we first began the journey from San Jose to Rara Avis, I thought it entailed just a 1.5 hour bus ride and a 1.5 hour tractor ride. There was only one part from that statement that was missing: a 3 hour hike through the pouring rain in the middle of the jungle. Six hours of travel was beyond worth the amazing scenery, projects and memories we got to make during our time spent at Rara Avis. Rara Avis is truly a hidden gem that allowed for us to come closer together as a group and mentally grow as individuals. Time spent at the waterfall, on the trails and seeing poisonous snakes, howler monkeys and coatis are just some of the few memories we were able to share during our short stay, but life-changing and memory making stay at Rara Avis.”

Ethan Ridgewell: “My first impression of Rara Avis is close to the exact opposite of my final impression. When we first arrived and I looked upon the buildings, I thought that this place was a falling apart. There were spider webs everywhere, we had no running water and everything just seemed old. It turns out the spider webs were not cleaned up because the staff at Rara Avis did not want to disturb the wild life. By day two, one of the staff members had fixed the water situation and we now had running water. While everything does still seem old, there is a lot of history and serenity in this place. There have been three times in my life that I have been at a loss of words. The first time I saw this waterfall was the one of those time. I have visited that waterfall every day to enjoy the beauty and, of course, to go swimming.  In any one of the buildings, there is the constant sound of the nearby waterfall reminding me of the beauty and tempting me to drop everything I am doing and just go for a swim. My final impression is one of beauty, peace, serenity and relaxation. If I could, I would visit Rara Avis every year, just to get away from everything and relax.”

12570959_10207003248231047_1473634835_nZach George: “Rara Avis is an isolated oasis in the mountain rainforests of Costa Rica. Very few people travel to this part of the country, and the resulting isolation is refreshing. Taking a week away from the hustle and bustle of population and getting away from social media and technology allows one to take a step back and reflect on the environment in a way which would not be possible elsewhere. Seeing one’s own footprint as the only mark of human interaction with the jungle, days after you last went down a trail and a stunning waterfall to swim in makes you feel as if the rainforest is your own personal playground and classroom to focus on the environment.”

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