By: Jannet Vu, OTS PhD student from Stony Brook University

We all just loaded up on some gallo pinto for breakfast and are off to explore Caletas-Arío National Wildlife Refuge, which is adjacent to CIRENAS. The sun is shining overhead and the weather appears perfect for our trek. Despite, I have my rain jacket tucked away in my trusted backpack and am sporting timeless rubber rain boots. Cause if I’ve learned anything yet, it is that, in Costa Rica, the weather can switch from calm and tranquil to violent and stormy in an instant.

We make it down CIRENAS’ steep dirt driveway, which is lined with patches of reeds that house the singing frogs we heard last night, and shade trees that have anoles ducking in between the branches as they hear us approaching. We make a right onto a wider dirt road and soon after cut left through some indistinct posts made of chest high tree branches. On the other side, we find the park ranger’s house and the entrance to the park. The house is a wooden cabin with hammocks slung across the deck. Two dogs play underneath it, frolicking between the beams that support the whole structure.

We are told that before CIRENAS was built, students were housed here and that sometimes student groups and researchers still stay there. One can tell how new CIRENAS is by how clean and unworn their classroom and bedrooms appear. The place looks more like a hotel than a research station, yet to be touched by time – we’re not complaining though!

After several “UPE!” calls, the park ranger emerges. In Costa Rica, knocking on someone’s door is much too intrusive and can get dangerous when people have guard dogs. Thus, it is customary to call out “UPE!” when one is visiting a neighbor. The ranger is in his 50s and clad in casual wear—shorts, sandals, and a half buttoned short sleeve shirt. While CIRENAS helps with conservation efforts, he is the only on-site guard for the entire park, which extends 313 hectares on land and 19,846 hectares into the sea. If we are only considering the land portion, that’s one man guarding an area the size of 300 football fields by himself! This pattern of understaffed on-site management is reiterated throughout Costa Rica’s park system.

Just in our brief exchange with the ranger, we find a whiptail lizard thrashing about the leaf litter. Some people try to pick it up, but it is too fast and drives into a thicket of broken branches. As we venture forward into the dense jungle, the sunlight fades into light specks and the canopy grows thicker and taller overhead. The dirt gravel turns into soft-wet mud, painting our rain boots brown. The wildlife is endless, from the frogs and toads that cross our paths to the, flocks of birds flying through the trees. The birders don’t take long to fall behind, enthralled in the plethora of diversity here: herons, vultures, and hummingbirds to name a few. The plant people follow suit, observing striated leaves, half-inch thick spikes running up entire tree trunks, and nodules larger than their fists sitting at the tree bases.

The rest of us continue and happen upon a wood turtle, right in the middle of the path! Some of us passed right over it, including myself. But it was not the easiest spot because it was half concealed in a hole and blended in with the fallen log in front of the hole. We take turns transferring the mud from its shell onto our hands, as we hold it for pictures. Its legs are powerful, pressed up on our stomach and hands; we bring it closer to our bodies and secure our grip to ensure it does not pop out of our hands.

Progressively, the light specks turn into patches as the trees shorten and thin. We are entering the transition between forest and mangrove. Small holes are interspersed about the ground and in our peripheries we see forest crabs with orange tops and white bottoms scuttling across the floor. The holes shrink, but grow in number as odd-looking nickel-sized crabs with one claw larger than the other replace the forest crabs. These are fiddler crabs! The hundreds of crabs can sense us approaching from 50 meters away. We can see them collectively diving into their holes and part to the sides of the path, attempting to avoid us. While it would be lovely to examine each of them, the blood-thirsty mosquitoes grow in abundance as we journey deeper into the mangroves. They swarm us from all sides and we must resist our urges as biologist to stop and observe, in order to not be eaten alive.

That is not the only danger that lurks in these parts; there are also crocodiles, which is one of the main reasons why swimming in the ocean is not advised here. We can see the river to our right and someone alerts the group of a crocodile sighting in the distance. Despite the mosquitoes chasing us, we dart towards the river and stop, for this is too grand of an opportunity to pass up. We lurk for about 10 minutes, swatting our arms as much as possible, and keeping one eye on the bank in case a crocodile spontaneously leaps up and the other scanning for the sighting. Disappointingly, all we gained were more bites.

Unable to handle the swarm much longer we trail-blaze forward, nearly running away from the mosquitoes. Then, in an instant, the canopy completely opens and we emerge in a field of brush with the serene sound of crashing waves. The mosquitoes remain in the forest and the mud turns to soft sand. Within minutes the brush also disappears and we reach our own piece of seemingly untouched paradise. The sun still shines above, the birds soar overhead, and the refreshing salt water hits our ankles as we walk along the shoreline. About 400 meters to the left we can see where the river meets the ocean. The brown river water drains into the ocean, creating an ombre of brownish-pink and blue waves that whirl together. This place is truly a slice of heaven and I hope that this rare ecosystem, where the forest, river, and ocean still meet, will remain unspoiled for generations to come.

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