COSTA RICA HERPING

 

Herp Trips

A summary of what I learned from my trips of April 2002 and July 2003 about herping Costa Rica

 

 

 

 

 

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Herping is reportedly best during the rainy season, which runs from May Ė November, with peak activity about one month after the rains begin.The progression starts with an explosion of invertebrates in the leaf litter during the first steady rains, stimulating a feeding frenzy by lizards.†† At the same time, anurans begin chorusing and breeding like mad.These developments then prompt increased activity of lizard- and frog-eaters, i.e., snakes.

 

During the dry season herp activity drops off, and more so on the Pacific versant.The dry season is not quite as long nor as dry on the Caribbean side of the central mountain ranges, making it likely to be more productive than the Pacific side at that time of year.††

 

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Guides††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Top

 

If your primary interest is to view herps, the best piece of advice I can offer is to arrange for guides.  There is so much cover in the rainforest, and the animals are so cryptic, that it is a big advantage to go with someone who knows where to go, what to look for, and already possess the relevant search image.  In addition, there's lots of bitey, stingy things in the jungle, and it's helpful to have someone along who can ID them and provide the appropriate cautions. 

 

 

Tours from the U.S.

 

One approach is to go on a tour organized from the United States

 

The advantages are having all your logistics organized for you and being led by knowledgeable guides.  The disadvantages are cost, matching your vacation to the tour dates, and having to stick to a structured itinerary with a group of people.  An internet search for "Costa Rica nature tours" will turn up lots of sites, but for those interested specifically in herping expeditions, I know of two companies that regularly organize such trips: Green Tracks and Hiss 'n' Things.In addition, Matabuey.com occasionally organizes trips from the U.S. in conjunction with Osa Aventura (see Guides below).

 

 

Local Guides

 

If youíre prepared to deal with logistics, a less expensive and more flexible approach is to make all your own travel arrangements and hire local guides. 

 

A pair that Iíve used and can recommend are Quetzal Dwyer and Monica Perez, Americans now living in the southern Pacific zone of Costa Rica.They own and operate Parque Reptilandia, a very professional and impressive Serpentarium near Dominical, and also lead customized herp tours. They are very knowledgeable about Costa Rican herps and where to find them, are quite accommodating and willing to customize itineraries, and have excellent field skills in spotting and handling herps.

 

Another local service is Osa Aventura, operated by Mike Boston, a British herpetologist living in Costa Rica.They specialize in expeditions of the Osa peninsula on the southern Pacific coast, one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the country, and can customize tours for herpers.

 

Iíve also heard good things about The Costa Rican Amphibian Research Center run by herpetologist Brian Kubicki.In addition to tours of the Centerís private 100-acre rainforest reserve in the Talamanca foothills near Guayacan, Brian can also provide private guide services to other areas of Costa Rica as well.††  



Eco-Lodges and Field Stations

 

Eco-tourist lodges often include accessible nature trails and resident naturalists who serve as guides.An internet search for "Costa Rica eco-lodges" will turn up many, but here are some that have been popular with herpers: Marenco Beach and Rainforest Lodge, Bosque del Cabo Rainforest Lodge, and El Remanso Rainforest Lodge, all on the Osa Peninsula;Esquinas Lodge near Golfito in the southwest corner of the country; Hotel Villa Lapas near Jaco on the central Pacific coast; and Rara Avis on the eastern side of the country.

 

A similar choice would be a biological field station that caters to tourists.One thatís easily accessible is the world-famous La Selva Biological Station located in Carribean lowland rainforest just a few hours northeast of San Jose. Although primarily a research and education facility, it also caters to natural history visitors.Accommodations in the dormitory style housing are comfortable and dining in the cafeteria is simple but adequate. There is an extensive, well developed trail system and English-speaking naturalists available for guides.The Organization for Tropical Studies, which operates La Selva, also runs the Palo Verde and Las Cruces field stations in different parts of Costa Rica.

 

A more isolated biological station is Cano Palma on the northern Caribbean coast near Tortuguero.There are several miles of trails, as well as canoes for exploring the waterways, and someone from the staff is usually available to serve as a guide.The facilities are very rustic and meals are like home-cooking (nothing fancy but good-tasting and filling).There are no roads in this part of the country, so to get there you need to fly from San Jose to Tortuguero (see Domestic Travel) where someone from the field station meets you for the 20-minute boat ride to Cano Palma.

 

 

 

Methods and Equipment†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Top

 

Some words of warning:

 

First, Costa Rica has some seriously dangerous snakes, especially fer-de-lance (locally called terciopelo) which are extremely common and cryptic.The information I am sharing is in no way meant to encourage your coming in close contact with them.Itís very important to be properly equipped and maintain a safe distance.

 

Second, itís important to have permission for your activity.Herping on private property without approval could be punished as trespassing or illegal hunting, while disturbing wildlife on protected public lands could be penalized as well.And collecting is strictly forbidden without first obtaining (difficult-to-get) permits.Even road cruising may cause you to look suspicious and draw the attention of police.

 

All the more reasons for using a guide.†††††† ††††††

 

 

Methods

 

When I was on foot it was mostly in undeveloped forest where there was very little artificial cover.  Did check in/under logs on occasion, but with so much natural cover around --- mostly leaf litter --- the herps don't seem to concentrate under logs the way they might in more temperate habitats.Consequently, I did virtually no flipping. 

 

During the day I found my best chance of seeing herps was to keep walking, especially keeping an eye on the edges of trails, in hopes of spotting movement when animals spooked or while they foraged.At night I spent most of my time shining the trees and understory plants, but it's also real important to watch where you step (we found multiple terciopelo poised in ambush position right on or next to trails).  Main thing is to look for something light and slightly reflective that looks out of place, whether on a branch, a leaf, a trunk, or on the ground.

 

To see the greatest number of snakes, probably the most productive method is driving at night.Road cruising is basically the same as anywhere, however, there are some special cautions:

 

1.       Potholes.Axle-breaking, car-swallowing potholes.Take it slow.

2.       The thing you MUST watch out for when driving at night, especially near small towns:  People walking in the middle of the road.  You'll be driving along out in the country where it's very dark, and suddenly thereís someone casually standing or walking in your lane, not on the side of the road.  Usually they're wearing something dark, so you have virtually no warning.  Sometimes it's one person, sometimes a whole string of people.  Doesn't matter what time of night (we had to swerve to avoid hitting someone at 3:00 AM).  Just keep your eyes peeled and be expecting it.

3.       Police check-points.This can be an issue on roads leading to, and not far from, the borders with Nicaragua or Panama.Have your passport ready and be prepared to explain what youíre doing, possibly even get searched.

 

 

Equipment

 

Snake Hooks.On my first trip I took tongs as well as snake hooks, but on the second I left the tongs home.  Besides being sort of heavy and awkward to travel with, the greater majority of snakes I encountered were fairly small and easily handled with a hook.  Anything dangerous enough to require tongs, like a terciopelo, I had already determined not to mess with too closely.  I'm experienced and comfortable handling hots, but took a conservative approach to being in a foreign country with dangerous, unfamiliar species in the middle of nowhere.   

 

I also brought a field hook first time around, but since we did very little flipping, it too stayed behind on the second trip.Instead, my tool of choice was a Collapsible Hook by Midwest Tongs.  Lightweight and took up little room for travel, comfortable to carry and easy to place in a pack or attach to a belt. 

 

Lighting.For night hikes I used a headlamp and a hand-held flashlight (both waterproof, a good feature for herping the tropics).  I found that using both sources increased my field of view and improved my chances of seeing something, plus it's important to have redundancy if something happens to one of your lights.However, note that the headlamp does attract bugs to the face and can shine right in other peopleís eyes if you turn to face them.I use the Petzl Duobelt LED 5 with 4 ďCĒ batteries in a belt pack because it's less weight on my head and gives longer battery life, though the cord sometimes gets in the way.For a flashlight I like the compact and bright Princeton Tec 40.

 

Batteries. For my digital camera I used rechargeables (the current and plugs are the same as in the U.S., no converters or adaptors needed), but for flashlights I brought a whole lot of alkaline batteries.  The brands available in CR are not the best and they're expensive.  I found that I went through one set per flashlight for each night that we did a night hike, which was usually around 4 hours of hiking.

 

Boots.The most popular choice for hiking the rainforest is high rubber garden boots.Because of the rain or wading in streams, something waterproof is preferred, and leather boots with laces can become heavy and messy as they collect mud.High rubber boots are presumed to offer some degree of protection against smaller snakes, though I doubt they would do much against the strike of a large viper. It is possible to get them in a snakeproof version, however, they tend to be stiffer, sometimes causing rubs or making it a bit harder to maintain balance when flexing is required on inclines/declines.Personally, I prefer a pair of regular waterproof, snakeproof hunting boots (Rocky has several different models).The lacing is a pain and the Cordura nylon doesnít shed mud quite as easily, but I have found them far more comfortable and flexible.For added comfort itís a good idea to insert more padded insoles if the originals can be removed.

 

Clothing.Personally, I tended to keep myself fully covered (long sleeves, long pants) for protection against bitey, stingy, scratchy, itchy things.Lightweight, fast-drying clothes are particularly useful for the rainforest.I found it helpful to wear a hat, not so much against the sun (which you donít encounter much of in the forest), but mainly for the rain and insects, especially at night with a headlamp attracting bugs; the brim helps keep them somewhat away from your face.

 

Herp Books.The most comprehensive book on CR herps is The Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica by Jay Savage.Great to bring along if you have the room, but far too big and heavy to carry around.Same goes for Snakes of Costa Rica by Alejandro Solorzano.For a portable field guide in English, A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica by Twan Leenders provides a general overview, while Amphibians and Reptiles of LA Selva, Costa Rica, and the Caribbean Slope by Craig Guyer and Maureen Donnelly has a more regional focus.

 

Maps and Travel Guides.International Travel Maps offers a Costa Rica road map thatís more detailed than most, with a scale of 1:330,000 (though the lack of an index is bothersome), while topographic maps can be obtained from Omni Resources.†† A Costa Rica travel guide (many kinds available on Amazon, etc.) is also good to have on hand as a general reference (I use Lonely Planet Costa Rica).

 

Miscellaneous:

 

-         Sealable plastic bags come in handy for examining small herps, especially amphibians (and particularly if your hands are covered with insect repellant).Also useful for keeping gear dry inside your pack, bring a bunch of Ďem.For added protection, enclose desiccant packets (those little bags of silica that come packaged with cameras, etc.) in the plastic bags with electronics.

-         Insect repellent is advisable, though, surprisingly, the rain forest was not as buggy as I imagined it would be.Mosquitoes were never that numerous, however, some do carry diseases and parasites, so I did protect myself with 100% DEET, spraying my clothes as well. 

-         Walkie-talkies were useful if we spread ourselves out of sight while hiking, though sometimes the signal was weakened by the dense forest.

-         Basic first aid items, especially for bites and stings (didn't happen much, but was good to have on hand when it did); moleskin for blisters; and perhaps baby powder or antifungal stuff since you'll be hot and moist in all those special places.

 

 

 

General Information†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Top

 

To learn more about general issues such as health, safety, transportation, lodging, and other tips, I suggest getting a travel guide to Costa Rica to review in advance and bring along for reference.I also found it useful to check on-line resources such as infoCostaRica.com, the Consular Information Sheet from the U.S. Department of State, and Travelerís Health Information for Central America from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Beyond that, here are some personal observations:

 

Driving.If you're going to travel by car, I strongly suggest a vehicle with 4-wheel drive (and donít forget to ask for a AAA discount if you have it, the major rental companies will honor it).  Many of the roads are in poor shape with treacherous potholes, and a car with good traction and high clearance is strongly recommended.Road conditions also affect travel time unpredictably.Besides potholes, add in mudslides, bridges going out, trucks getting stuck, etc. and long distance driving during the rainy season can easily double due to delays and detours (it's worse in the southern Pacific zone than in Guanacaste or the Caribbean lowlands because the terrain is steeper, muddier, and crossed by more waterways).CR drivers can also be a challenge.In Costa Rica it's customary (though technically a violation) to ignore double-yellow lines and to pass anywhere, including curves, hills, blind corners, etc.Be careful.Finally, donít leave your belongings in your car.Daylight break-ins, especially in the cities, are not uncommon.

 

Flying.Local flights have limited schedules and connect through San Jose.Travel light:  these are tiny little planes (they will weigh both you and your luggage before boarding to make sure the flight is not overloaded) and there's not a whole lot of room for excess baggage.You can purchase tickets in advance on-line from Sansa, the domestic airline of Costa Rica.

 

Insurance.I did make a point of buying travel insurance, not so much for trip cancellation or interruption (although that was certainly a potential benefit), but mainly for medical expenses (including emergency evacuation) since my regular health insurance wouldn't be accepted overseas.Travel insurance is relatively cheap and very worthwhile, in my opinion.  You can compare policies and prices at Insure.com.

 

Telephone.Another thing we decided to do for safety and convenience was to rent a cell phone (available through most auto rental agencies) since ours did not work overseas.  Besides being able to call back home or reach people we had to meet in Costa Rica, it also gave us some security being able to call for help in an emergency. There are also local calling cards that can be purchased in CR or perhaps international calling cards that can be used from CR, but we never really checked into those.  You can probably get more info either from a travel guide book or from your hotel desk clerk.

 

Lodging.Our first and last nights were spent at the Hotel Aeropuerto in Alajuela (a San Jose suburb where the airport is located).  The hotel is just five minutes from the airport, comfortable and clean, the clerks are friendly and English-speaking, they have a restaurant with decent food, and we felt perfectly safe there. Their rates were better than other nearby hotels, and included in the price of a room is a nice breakfast buffet plus free transportation to/from the airport.  Getting from the airport we just called the hotel upon our arrival and they sent out a driver, and getting back to the airport we made arrangements through the desk clerk (even a 5:00 AM departure was no problem, the driver was there waiting for us).If you anticipate getting in late, as we did, be sure to let them know in advance.  They had no problem with our arriving after midnight, but the entrance to the hotel is locked late at night and you might not be admitted after hours unless theyíre expecting you.

 

Money.I found that it was more convenient and economical to exchange money at the hotel, which usually offered better conversion rates than the banks or airport kiosks.  However, in general, I put everything I could on credit cards.If you do the same, be sure to call your credit card company first to let them know you'll be in CR; they may block usage if they see unexpected charges from overseas.In larger cities credit cards are readily accepted for most expenses (auto rental, gas stations, hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, etc.).However, in small towns and rural areas credit card acceptance is more uncertain, so be prepared to pay cash.And if you happen to be somewhere that doesn't accept credit cards and you're short of colons, most places will take dollars (and give you change in colons) at varying conversion rates, depending on where you are.

 

Kid-friendly Places.†† Not having traveled to Costa Rica with children, I canít speak from personal experience, but my brother Ron says:ďOur experience with the kids at Manuel Antonio (on the southern Pacific coast) was very good. There are a number of decent hotels in the town (some with pools), a kid-friendly beach (boogie boards, etc), & squirrel monkeys in the trees. The national park is next door (you walk across the beach and wade across a tidal cut). It should be ok for herping - lots of trails in the park and a fair bit of habitat diversity. We saw one snake (chironius?) in the forest, a leptophis near the beach, many amievas, leptodactylus, smiliscus, basilisks and a sloth on one hike. And tons ctenosaurs and mooching capuchins on the beach, of course. There are private guides with spotting scopes for hire who hang out at the entrance to the park.Ē

 

Our friends Quetzal and Monica, herp guides who operate Parque Reptilandia near Dominical in the southern Pacific zone, make these suggestions: ďAs far as kid-friendly places in our area, we recommend Hacienda Baru (great hiking trails, bird watching, zipline tours, short walk to a nice beach, restaurant) and Hotel Rio Mar (fabulous swimming pool, restaurant & bar, tourist center featuring loads of local activities). ďFinally, parents travelling with children might want to check out Travel for Kids: Costa Rica.

 

 

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