The buzz of entering my first year at university studying Biosciences. New people, new city and new experiences. But that joy soon mellowed as it seemed everyone around me already had experience. So I had to bring myself up to speed. That's when I discovered the opportunity of a lifetime. An expedition to Costa Rica that would not only change my life forever but would also put me in the running for a future to remember and set myself apart from the 200 students in my course. Here's the story of my journey to Costa Rica.
Experience? What experience?
Coming from a background of perhaps lesser wealth, I did not have access to the same opportunities as others, but now university levelled the field. Getting into Exeter was the first step but now, I had to find a way to catch up - fast. As if by chance, I found a note I’d made about an expedition opportunity, mentioned only once to us in a lecture by a group of students. On applying for this expedition, I realised I was only days away from missing the deadline.
As luck would have it, I was chosen for an interview and later was picked to join an eight-person team - all of which were strangers. Lucy was the leader and me, Rosa, Ellie, Sophie and Tamaryn, were the 'scientists'. Then we had Jack and Rhys, our filmmakers and photographers, to document the whole expedition. Applying for the role was terrifying as it was to be a self-run and self-raised/funded expedition for six weeks in the Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. Nothing of which I had ever experienced. Bar our contributions for our flights, the accommodation, food, insurance, training, kit, visas and in-country travel costs for those six weeks had to be raised by us.
We had little under a year to raise this money, plan and prepare for this trip, and it was shaky, to say the least. On many occasions, we had team members drop out and we had to interview others. I almost left on the accounts of funding and shear stress. We all had our assigned roles and mine was Health and Safety Officer. This essentially involved me putting together risk assessments, crisis documents, booking insurance and health and safety training. One of the coolest experiences planning this expedition was our interview with RGS (Royal Geographical Society) in London for a research grant.
The year leading up to the trip was chock-full of team meetings, planning our research, bake sales, grant applications and various other tasks like liaising with the reserve owners and researchers. Many bumps and lumps were overcome, like lack of funding, visas and group morale. But at the end of it all, we managed to raise what we needed and all the plans were set.
Trip, trip, tripping-up!
All was going to plan. We were all at the airport ready to board our flights when we met the first of many hiccups. Upon checking in to our stopover flight from London to Toronto, our half Canadian team member Jack presented a picture of his citizenship card to only be refused on the fact that he didn't have it physically on his person. One member down we boarded our flight. Whilst he figured out how to get to Costa Rica, we all went to stay overnight with his father on our stopover in Toronto. This was odd, to say the least, his father having seven strangers staying at his house and us staying without Jack. Although this had been unexpected, we got a nice tour around Toronto and some fabulous local pizza.
Finally back on route to Costa Rica. Jack took an entirely different route which couldn't account for his veganism, so when meeting him in Costa Rica, he had been starved. First few days there we stayed in San Jose, a bustling city with a rich culture and an astonishing affinity toward the environment. That was one thing I adored about Costa Rica, their approach to an eco-friendly way of living. We wandered the markets and found ourselves at an annual reggae festival in town. We stayed in a hostel which had fresh fruit for breakfast every day and there we met people from all over the world.
On our journey up to the mountains, we hopped between towns on long bus rides in the sweltering heat. During this time, I took to torturing myself by reading about various poisonous snakes and spiders. Luckily for me, where we were headed, this was not an issue. Due to the altitude of Cloud Bridge Nature Reserve (our research base), the micro-climate of the area was more akin to European temperatures but with a lot more humidity.
After a partial hike up the mountain from a nearby village we met with Frank. Frank was the project leader and ran most of the activities around Cloud Bridge. We met his awesome dog and rode up the mountain in his car. The car only got us so far and the rest we climbed with our 18kg backpacks. The common area for the reserve was beautiful, with hammocks along the walkway around the main room, from which you could observe various birds, including hummingbirds.
Living at Cloudbridge
We moved into our eight-bed dorm and went and met all of the other researchers. Most were there for their master's or PhD projects and came from all over the world. There was Augie from the USA who was studying male tree frog mating calls and would go out on night walks to find and ID any calling male frogs; Camilla from Colombia who was working with camera traps, capturing some of the more elusive animals like Tyra and Amy who was an incredible rock climber from Canada studying birds. We often joined them on their walks to collect data when we were not collecting our own.
Living in a sort of a group communal situation was an interesting experience. We all took part in cleaning, being rota'd in for various tasks. We also often cooked together and there was even a weekly ‘Pot-Luck’ which I had never done but loved because everyone would bring one dish and we would all share in a buffet like setting. This gave a real sense of community and allowed us to experience unique foods as most of us were from entirely different countries. Most of the residents were vegetarian or vegan, which made cooking even more challenging - which I found so much fun, once someone even made coconut ice cream - In the rainforest!
We also had game nights, playing this card game called ‘Golf’ which was one of the most competitive things I've ever seen. We also used to go down to the river and swim in its freezing cold waters. Occasionally we’d go down to the local village and play ultimate frisbee, which we once did with more than twenty people in the pouring rain - best day ever.
It’s not all fun and games
In regards to our project, we had settled on studying Epiphytes and Moths. Epiphytes are plants that live in the grooves of trees and take water from the moisture in the air. A commonly known example of them is Orchids. They are an excellent indicator of ecosystem health, and this particular reserve had been part of a reforestation project by the landowners. They were a couple that bought the land in hopes of returning it to its former ecological splendour and protecting it for generations to come. The abundance, diversity and health of these Epiphytes would help determine the success of their efforts.
The moths were an entirely different project as it was barely touched upon in terms of research. We were tasked with figuring out the best way to capture and survey moth species in the Cloud Forest terrain and climate. After testing various handmade traps we settled on light traps with a white sheet. They had to be surveyed at night but it seemed from our experience that the lunar cycle has a huge effect on moth activity. This meant that our light source didn’t compare to the moon on nights on which it was in full view. We also worked on starting a moth species list for the reserve to expand on in future years.
Because of the steep mountainous terrain, we were constantly slipping and tripping and once, I sprained my ankle quite badly and was out of commission for about a week.
All our research was largely insightful in terms of techniques, planning and scientific process, and it will likely be an asset to others pursuing similar fields at the reserve.
Chaos in the Jungle!
Whilst the trip was a success so many things happened which were sometimes traumatising but equally hilarious in hindsight. On one of our first nights at the reserve, we all settled in for bed and Rosa had an encounter with her first chunky black spider. Scarpering from her top bunk she called out, ‘There’s a spider in my blanket!’ She had seen it chilling out as she unfolded her bedding. On searching and looking through all of her bedding, it seemed all clear, but not too long after getting into bed with the lights out…it returned. She had leapt out of the bed once again as she had gotten in her bed, comfortable and looking under the sheets, right next to her, the spider sat. Eventually, we caught the spider and put it out but Rosa likely never slept the same.
Another situation involving the dorm was the one about the deadly cramp. I had never experienced the humidity, dehydration and pressure that came from being in a Cloud Forest. So I never expected to wake up in crippling pain like that night. I awoke from a deep sleep to a sharp jolting pain in my calf, and it was so unexpected that I screamed uncontrollably. When I realised what was actually happening, I heard everyone in a panic, asking me ‘What’s wrong?!’, ‘Are you okay?’, ‘What happened?’. All I did was reply in shame, ‘It was just a cramp.’ And the hilarious exasperation I heard from everyone made me realise that I’d scared the living crap out of them. Cramp - it’s scary stuff.
We had some strange and cool sightings of various animals. Once we found an Opossum in one of our compost bins, and when we attempted to help it we were met with the most annoyed-looking and sounding animal I have ever seen.
We also saw a Tyra when in a conservatory for a team meeting. Looking up above us, in a tree I saw this slick black cat-like creature with a massive coconut-like fruit in its mouth. It looked at me, startled and I immediately told everyone to look. Just as they looked, it quickly descended and disappeared into the forest.
When studying the moths we found some amazing and interesting types. One of them was a Giant silk moth which was bigger than my head and others had bright colours and had the most amazing details and antennae.
When down at the riverside, I saw a massive line of bullet ants. I stayed far away as I knew they have a very painful bite.
I got to hold a large Centipede which secretes cyanide as a defence mechanism and smells like amaretto.
I saw a lot of different birds and Hummingbirds around our lodgings, where you could lie in a hammock and watch them feed and fly by.
Dominical Birthday Celebrations
For my Birthday we went down to a beach town called Dominical. It was stunning and I danced on the beach during a storm. We later went out, and I and Tamaryn decided it was a good idea to drink straight rum to try and catch up with everyone - in hindsight, a bad idea.
We then went to this awesome rum bar which had a pool table, ping pong and darts. I proceeded to get very drunk and I vaguely remember playing darts and talking patch Spanish to the locals. Around 11 pm, I decided to walk back to the hostel and, on the way, ended up having a skewer off this street vendor and then talking to various lizards I saw on the rest of my walk. I got back and proceeded to throw up in the bathroom bin (the rum coming back to haunt me) and flop into bed.
One of the funniest things I remember is waking up and seeing Tamaryn in the bed across absolutely conked out with her head partially in a bag hanging off the bed. The next morning we had to be up horrifyingly early and Rosa, Jack and Sophie were still drunk but had made me vegan birthday pancakes which I proceeded to cry over. Overall fantastic but weird weekend.
Manuel Antonio Animal Park
Another trip we had was to Manuel Antonio to go and see the sloths. We arrived in the most intense rain and we had to walk in to get to our hostel. We met Nickey, who had been volunteering at the reserve and had been travelling.
The next day, when we adventured to this animal park, it was unbearably humid and hot. But, It was amazing to see so many types of monkeys like Howler and Spider monkeys. I saw a few sloths but one little baby sloth I saw was just hitting itself in the head with its out of proportion claws, in the attempt to scratch an itch.
Later, we adventured to this amazing beach and swam. I had a strange but magical encounter with a racoon with a collar on which I was just wandering around. I put my hand out to it, knowing full well it could bite me, but it didn't and, instead, it just touched its nose on my hand. I felt so graced that it didn’t maul me, but in all fairness, it was wearing a collar so was likely somewhat domesticated.
After this amazing day, I fell ill with this awful bug that everyone else at the reserve had already got. And all I can say is, "thank goodness there were two toilets at the reserve".
What I take from my journey to Costa Rica
This trip was life-changing for me and essentially helped make me the person I am today. I would love to revisit Costa Rica as it is such an incredible country with so much to offer. Its kindness towards life and the environment is astonishing and is what made me fall in love with the country.
Our research contributed to future work and revealed a lot about work that still needs to be done and about the health of the forest. After the trip, the team met up for a Pot-Luck every month for a year or so, keeping the tradition alive. They are all some of the best people I've had the pleasure to meet.