Tropical Adventure in La Selva

One of the world’s most prominent tropical research centers is located in Costa Rica. A few years back, we had the pleasure and honor of being guests there, settling in with the rainforest creatures.

La Selva Biological Station is located in a lowland rainforest in northeastern Costa Rica. It is owned and operated by a consortium of about 50 universities and research institutions: Organization for Tropical Studies. They are dedicated to the study and preservation of the world’s tropical rainforests.

Although Costa Rica is a small country, it is home to more than 500,000 wildlife species making it “one of the 20 countries with the highest biodiversity in the world.” (Wikipedia) As a Central American country it is a natural land bridge, formed 3-5 million years ago, allowing the very different flora and fauna of the two continents, North and South America, to mix.

Today this biological research station hosts approximately 300 scientists from all over the world. Among the research labs, herbarium, classrooms and dormitories are a few stark rooms for laypeople visitors, where we stayed for four days.

More info: La Selva Wikipedia and Organization for Tropical Studies

Although our accommodation was a concrete cell, La Selva was one of our very favorite places to stay because we were in the center of a pristine rainforest teeming with wildlife. And to be surrounded by enthusiastic scholars of the rainforest, young and old, was a humbling joy.

Every day began when the howler monkeys and screeching parrots announced the dawn. Covered with DEET, long pants and long sleeves, Athena and I headed out into this humid, buggy rainforest each day. Interesting to note: of the 500,000 different wildlife species that Costa Rica hosts, 300,000 of them are insects.

This howler monkey was scarfing up the tree’s orange fruit.

Every day after our cafeteria breakfast, we would visit the tree with the two-toed sloth. S/he was always in the same tree, same limb, and always sleeping. And every day we stood under the tree craning our necks, binoculars and cameras ready, faithfully waiting for the sloth to move.

One lucky day it opened one eye and stretched a little. Of course we were both thrilled.

In La Selva we saw many birds and mammals, reptiles and insects. It is the nature of rainforests to have frequent rain; muddy and moldy ground; an abundance of ants, mosquitoes, gnats; and predators.

Much of the rainforest was dark, due to the thick canopy, but an occasional clearing offered photo opportunities.

We were pretty excited to find this three-toed sloth, a different species than the two-toed above. It was also asleep. They have an extremely slow metabolism, and are so slow they grow algae on their coat. If you look closely at this one below, you can see its furry arm is green-tinged…that’s algae.

There was a suspended pedestrian bridge where we spotted this big male Green Iguana. They are native in Costa Rica.

We also found a Little Tinamou near the bridge. Residents of Central and South America, they are very timid and rarely-seen birds.

We spent all day every day on the La Selva trails. When it got so hot we could no longer stand it, we would buy an ice cream bar at the gift shop and watch toucans and aracaris in the trees above.

Coatis were often around; a raccoon-like mammal seen in Central and South America, Mexico and the southwestern U.S.

Snakes are prevalent in this rainforest. This is the Bothriechis schlegelii, commonly known as the eyelash viper. It is venomous and aggressive, but was quite a distance from us.

There are 894 bird species in Costa Rica, more than all of the United States and Canada combined. Trogons are residents of tropical rainforests, this male was often outside our room.

Oropendolas are large songbirds in Central and South America, in the blackbird family. We saw two different species in La Selva.

Located relatively near to the equator, there were 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of nighttime. By 6 pm every night it was pitch-black.

We walked nearly a mile to the cafeteria, and after dinner the forest was black and very lively. We each wore a headlamp to light our way.

The first night we walked “home” we were intimidated. There were so many mysterious animal sounds, and lots of unidentifiable eye shine on the path beside us. We bravely kept walking.

A few paces later we discovered that what we thought was animal eye shine was actually lightning bugs twinkling in the humid air.

Each night we walked through this dark forest, hearing howler monkeys, watching swooping shadows of nighthawks and bats, serenaded by the tink-tink-tink of the “tink frog.”

By the end of our stay, the after-dinner walk had become a favorite adventure…but we were wise enough not to dally or deviate off the path.

One of my favorite night sounds, heard for miles, was the Great Tinamou’s loud and plaintive song. This is a recording (below) made in La Selva; you can also hear the cacophony of rainforest creatures.

Sound recording of Great Tinamou

On our last day, we had several hours between check-out and when our transport van arrived. Athena had a target species she wanted to photograph: the strawberry poison-dart frog. A student had told us where he’d consistently found them.

That day I would perform one of my most sacrificial photography-assistant tasks ever.

We found the grassy patch the student had described. It had an underlayer of squishy water, and was covered with fallen banana leaves and rotted logs. Because the frogs are small, smaller than your thumb, they vanish quickly in the debris.

We discovered if I walked out ahead, the vibration startled them to hop, exposing their bright tiny bodies, and then Athena would swoop in with her camera. The only problem was that every time I took a step, a cloud of a hundred mosquitoes poofed up around my ankles.

But we forged on, bent at the waist, scanning the grass and debris, enduring the mosquitoes and waiting for this tiny frog to pop up out of the detritus.

We found a few.

It would look like this at first…

… and then she would zoom in and click.

Their bright coloration advertises to birds and other predators that they are toxic. Are they toxic to humans? Yes, but only if you touch them. While the poison-dart frog wasn’t a problem, those mosquitoes made a hearty meal out of me.

I’m glad I could share with you this magnificent research station and our tropical adventure. The nice thing is, dear reader, you went through all of this rainforest and escaped every single mosquito.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

79 thoughts on “Tropical Adventure in La Selva

    • Yes, it is an amazing place. Those intrepid folks are saving our rainforests at La Selva. It’s a great joy to share with you some of the creatures. Thank you Craig, always a joy to “see” you.

  1. An absolute pleasure, Jet, and one that especially resonates here because we have a booked a tour of CR national parks for later this year, and for which I’m excitedly preparing for, with stuff like a study of Garrigues & Dean “The Birds of Costa Rica.” Overwhelming but incredible. As usual, Athena’s photographs are remarkable. Love the way that her bird pics display the diagnostic elements of her subject, and your narrative reflects the thrill of the journey. B/t/w, the field recording of the Great Tinamou really got me wired! Thanks so very much.

    • Your visit and words were a treat, Walt, and I am so excited for you to be going to Costa Rica later this year. A few weeks ago I was pondering where we would go once we finally could, and CR was very high on my list, and now having done today’s post, it’s gained elevation. The G&D bird field guide is the one we used too, I have it on my desk right now, after doing this post. I can offer that it’s less overwhelming to study the field guide if you know exactly where you’re going and which bird species are there at that venue, so you can eliminate some from your studies. That field guide is great, but some of the color plates are a little different in real life from the drawings. Species that have black markings in the book, for e.g., appear brown in real life. We went to four venues on our CR trip, and it’s possible that where you’re going is where we were, so please don’t hesitate to email me with questions or comments. I’m glad you picked up on the diagnostic elements of the subjects in Athena’s photos, which says to me you have been studying. Glad you listened to the Great Tinamou, now when you hear it in the rainforest, you’ll know who it is. Great fun, thanks so much, Walt.

  2. Oh, I loved coming with you, Jet! What a great experience with all those animals. I had to laugh when I read about the slowness of the three-toed sloth. So slow that algae can grow on its body! “Costa Rica is home to 500,000 different species of wildlife, 300,000 of which are insects.” And 250,000 of the insects are mosquitoes? πŸ˜‰ .
    I hope you weren’t anaemic after your job as an assistant! 😁

    • As I type, Simone, I’m chuckling. Your comment was fun. Yes, I was pretty chewed up after that photo-assistant task, but fortunately it was the last stop on our trip and we could go home and heal up. I get pretty big welts. So far the welts and discomforts have always been worth it. Wonderful to “see” you today, thank you Simone.

    • I’m happy I could share some of the exotic creatures of Costa Rica with you, Barbara. I had never seen a yellow snake before either. They’re as bright as bananas, and in a dark rainforest they stand out like beacons. Thank you for your visit and comment today.

  3. A delightful way to start my day reading about your adventures, Jet. Wonderful photos and facts. You are a devoted photography assistant to sacrifice your ankles so Athena could get the shot. πŸ˜„ Nature is truly amazing and you’ve highlighted a special place. My memories of Costa Rica include the howlers screeching and walking on swinging bridges over the rainforest which was rather terrifying!

    • Yes, screeching howlers and swinging bridges are terrifying, and yet I’m so glad you had those CR experiences, Jane, as I’m sure you are too. Over the years I’ve become pretty good at assisting Athena when she needs it. Although I don’t know much about cameras or photography, I’m an excellent bird spotter, so it works out well. We still chuckle about the strawberry poison-dart frog assistance. Wonderful to chat with you today, my friend, I hope you have some bright moments and great photos this weekend.

  4. Thanks for sparing me the mosquitoes, Jet. I enjoyed the wild adventure in Costa Rica. I am in awe of all of the colorful birds in the tropics. The toucans are really impressive, but it was the trogon that really caught my eye. It sounds fascinating to visit a place where the focus was on research, even if the accommodations were pretty spartan. I think I would prefer that kind of photo expedition more than some of the photo tours that have a lot more hand-holding and luxury.

    • I enjoyed your comment, Mike, thank you. I can easily see you enjoying a few days in La Selva, after reading about your daily visits to the Ocoquan NWR in all kinds of weather. There’s so much to photograph there in La Selva. And I agree with you, being in a research facility really did make it great. We were completely on our own and sometimes even stood on the outskirts of an instructive talk. And they don’t spray for bugs, which is great for the environment and brings in more wildlife. Your attraction to the trogon caught my attn, because they are one of the most lovely birds we have on this planet. They’re sizeable, sort of between a robin and a raven, and with some of the most gorgeous colors and markings. They live in warm forests and are very quiet birds. I often read about their calls, but of all the trogons I have seen in the Neotropics, I have rarely heard them. They’re quiet and still, so you have to be really astute to spot them. In southern AZ they have a trogon species or two, but mostly they’re in Central and South America. Always a joy to hear from you, Mike.

      • Thanks so much, Jet, for the back story with more info on the facility and the creatures there. Although I post almost every day, I usually manage only 2 to 3 trips weekly to OBNWR–I am trying to limit my outings because of the pandemic and the occasionally bad weather–my little KIA Soul does not like the snow and ice we sometimes get. πŸ™‚

    • Toucans are truly incredible to watch, Jo, with that giant bill. The one you liked was popping little brown berries into its mouth so deftly, hard to imagine how one operates with such a huge bill…but it does, and successfully. A joy to have you stop by, thank you.

  5. The photos and your comments along the way almost make me feel like I was there with you. Every animal in this post is so different from anything we see here in Canada, and that makes the whole post look exotic to me. Really beautiful. As for your walk in the dark, you’re much braver than I am. I had to chuckle over the eyes in the dark being lightning bugs. Even so, I don’t think you could get me to go out there in the dark. Not with snakes and poisonous frogs. And you didn’t even mention the spiders. I’m sure they’re huge there.

    • Oh how I enjoyed your input, Anneli. It is indeed a very exotic place to be. In one park in CR (not La Selva), we were in a small group with a vacationing family of four from Canada. Two teenage boys and their parents. We learned so much from those Canadian teenagers! They knew their reptiles like nobody’s business. I’m sure we would not have found the strawberry poison-dart frogs if we hadn’t been with them a week earlier lifting up logs looking for lizards and frogs. And yes, you’re right, plenty of spiders. lol. Thanks so very much.

    • I’m so honored to win first prize, Eliza, thank you. πŸ˜€ We went to CR for 12 days and visited four venues, all in different habitats, so we saw a lot. La Selva was our final venue of the four, so by the time we got there we were in good CR shape, not too bothered by the rainforest discomforts, and fairly familiar with many of creatures. But we were also quite bit up by then, so it was good to be going home after La Selva. Always so pleasant to have you stop by, Eliza, thank you.

  6. The after dinner walk sounds stressful and scary and exciting. So many cool bird sightings — not so much with that yellow snake — looks like a yellow black mamba:)
    Shouldn’t those dart frogs be eating those mosquitos

    • You and your black mambas, Bill, you got me laughing pretty hard. The after-dinner walks were stressful and scary, but each night they became less so, and every single night was exciting. Yes, the poison-dart frogs were eating the mosquitoes, that’s why they were hidden in there. But either they weren’t eating fast enough, or there were a million trillion gazillion mosquitoes. lol. Thanks so very much.

  7. I was creeped out just listening to the recordings of the frogs and birds. I am grateful for your willingness to trudge on and report back! And what a faithful and intrepid assistant you are, dear Jet!

    • I’m glad you had a chance to listen to the recording, Nan, because it is indicative of the sounds in the La Selva rainforest. And how lucky we were to trudge through that marvelous place in the world and share it with you. Always a joy to have you visit, Nan, every single week.

  8. What an incredible experience for the two of you. We have had the pleasure of being to Costa Rica and I do believe about 100,000 out of the 300,000 insects took a liking to me. Dave came home without a single bite I might add. The sound recording of Great Tinamou sounded almost like a far off orchestra to me. I’m not sure I would be so brave on the long walk to dinner, likely yelping with every sound I heard. Now back to the couch where I shall do my best to grow some algae on my arm. πŸ™‚

    • You got me laughing, Sue, with your last comment about heading back to the couch to grow algae on your arm. Isn’t that sloth arm a funny sight? The sloth was about 200 feet (61m) up in the trees, so we didn’t see the algae until we got home and looked at the photo. I smiled at yours and Dave’s differences in getting mosquito bites. I’m the pin cushion, too, and Athena gets only a few. And how wonderful that you two have had the pleasure of visiting CR. Hopefully this year we’ll be on the road again…. Thanks for your visits today, Sue, always appreciated.

  9. Marvelous, Jet. Some years ago, our older daughter surprised me with the Christmas gift of a trip to Costa Rica. I thought it was a joke, but after a cancelled flight set-back on our first try, we had five marvelous days there near Manuel Antonio National Park. What a wonderful time we had! When we went through the rain forest, we went with a guide which was perfect, as he could spot things we would have missed and had a spotter lens as well. Easy to get a photo of a sloth, though, as you don’t need the quick shutter speed. I’d love to go back some day, but until then, this was a lovely short trip.


    • Hi Janet, I just looked up Manuel Antonio NP, on the Pacific Coast. It looks like an absolutely wonderful place to go and what a delightful gift! And going through the rainforest with a guide sounds like the perfect thing to do, they are always knowledgeable and can point things out so adeptly. I’m happy the virtual tour here today sparked pleasant memories. Thank you, as always, for your lovely visit.

  10. Wow, Jet and Athena!
    This is a spectacular post, both in the writing and photography.
    What a gorgeous place, as you say “magnificent”.
    Loving the sloths and that little red frog. Love it all!

    • What a joy to “see” you today, Resa, and I’m so very glad you enjoyed the visit to La Selva. It was great fun to compose this post, and those sloths and the little red frog were special little creatures to share. Many thanks and warm wishes to you….

  11. It’s a pleasure to read your post, my friend. I was planning to visit Costa Rica this coming February but unfortunately I had to cancel all plans. My wife has two relatives in NJ affected by Coby-19! .
    Take care…by the way the mosquitos were delighted with your visit! πŸ™‚

    • ha ha HJ, yes, those mosquitos were indeed delighted to have a feast on me. I’m sorry to hear your Feb. trip to CR had to be cancelled, HJ, how disappointing. There will be a time when travelling is okay again, but for now, the photos and stories are a safer bet. Be well, my friend.

  12. Wow, I love all your photos, and the information, it’s definitely an amazing place where one can admire a tropical forest and the wildlife. Luckily for us we’ve had a wonderful tour without a biteπŸ™‚
    take care, xx

    • We were spurred by the fact that we only had three hours left in this rainforest, and if we wanted a photo of the strawberry poison-dart frog, it was now or never. Great fun! Thanks for stopping by, Jan, it is always a pleasure to see you.

  13. What an adventure! I enjoyed dallying here, on a mosquito-free tour to a tropical rainforest. Another colourful and descriptive post, and the pains you both take to see these wonders large and small, that’s dedication to learning!
    I’ve learned to love the rain part of rainforest here in our temperate forest, and I’d love to visit a tropical rainforest, but those mosquitoes…
    Thanks, Jet!

    • Truly a joy to share the La Selva fun with you, pc, and I am s o glad that you could do it without the mosquitoes. You are far braver than me when it comes to enduring the cold Canadian winters, my friend. Sending big smiles your way, and to Mrs. Pc too.

  14. What a delight to see outstanding captures of such beautiful birds, well done, Athena! The Violaceous Trogon composition is stunning. I was thinking, just how cool it was to sit and eat ice cream while watching toucans and aracaris in the trees. Amazing! The red icing on your cake was the strawberry poison-dart frog, fabulous find and kudos on your relentless search. BTW, I want to sincerely thank you both for taking all the mosquito bites for us, Jet! πŸ˜‰

    • I’m smiling, Donna, after reading your lovely comment. It was so very wonderful to take a rest and have toucans and aracaris to watch. As a birder, you know how that is. You’re hot and tired and weighted down with heavy optics. Ahhh, to take the equipment off and put it on the table is the first joy, then having something cold to eat is another, then watching those glorious birds and their huge bills deftly popping berries into their mouths. It’s the perfect rest time, and then you put it all back on and frolic out for more because it is all SO FUN. So glad I could share that moment with you, my friend. Many thanks.

  15. Such a colourful place and such colourful creatures, and not just literally, colourful in character too I think. We’re the mosquitoes wry tortuous? At least you for a photo of the frog. You have also managed to make me interested in sloths 😊 Not an animal I was particularly bothered about (over others that is) but you have got me intrigued by their slowness – or maybe it’s the fact they have moss growing on them. I love that. Thanks for the journey πŸ˜ŠπŸ™

    • Oh so wonderful to hear from you, Alastair. And I’m happy I got you thinking about sloths. They are one of the most curious creatures on this earth, and we had numerous opportunities to observe them in Costa Rica, which was a big thrill. I get a little irked when I see clips on TV with animated sloths, or photos of people with them, because they are such sleepy characters and to portray them any other way is just false. I love how sleepy they are, and I think we should celebrate just that. I’m glad you liked the algae factor, I do too. My friend, so lovely to “see” you today, thank you.

    • I’m happy the sultry tropics could thaw your bones, Janet, even if they were just photos. I find posts of the summer and flowers and bright colors do the same for me, and I’m not even in nearly as cold of conditions as you are. I send you my warmest wishes, Janet, for warm days and thoughts, and sweet moments.

  16. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your night time walks in the jungle. I collect frog things. Love them. What a treasure trove of images from a wonderful trip. Reminds me of our trip to Panama.

    • I’m happy I could share some of the highlights of La Selva and Costa Rica with you, Sherry. And how marvelous that you’ve had the pleasure of visiting Panama. That’s a neotropic country I have intended to visit, and still hope to. I’ve heard and read that many of the birds and mammals in CR are the same or similar to Panama. Many thanks for your lovely visit.

  17. Costa Rica is a paradise and thank you for sharing your adventure in both words and photos. Athena’s photos are beautiful! i had a colleague who worked remotely from Costa Rica because her husband was stationed there. they came back to the States after the 2-year contract and went back a year later for good. they are very happy there and now i see why they did that. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

  18. I feel so lucky to have seen all this Costa Rican beauty without having to endure heat and mosquito bites! The birds are so unique and colorful, even the Little Tinamou with its big beautiful eye. How exciting to have the sloth open an eye and stretch a little for you. Thank you for sharing your amazing experience of this tropical wonderland.

    • Always a delight to receive your lovely comments and visits, Barbara, thank you. And I am so very glad that you enjoyed the Costa Rican adventure with the extra perk of no mosquitoes. I, too, found the Little Tinamou’s eye so beautiful. We were so lucky that night to see this bird, they’re usually deeply hidden. Many thanks for coming along with us here.

  19. Haha… bright rumpled! What a hilarious name! (Wonder if the other birds make fun of it?)

    I think the snakes and bugs tend to keep my adventures somewhat limited. Just the image alone gives me the willies. At least that startling yellow color might make it easier to avoid. But yikes! You two are so utterly intrepid! 😲

    • Your comment gave me a chuckle, Gunta — wondering if other birds made fun of the bright-rumped Atilla’s name. I’m still chuckling. I’m glad I could take you on a nice long visit into the Costa Rican rainforest without you having to worry about snakes and bugs, Gunta. Always a great joy to “see” you, thank you.

  20. Oh, thank you Jet, this post brings back so many happy memories. We made a couple of trips to Costa Rica more than decade ago, and loved it. Wonderful country, one in which eco-tourism appears to be taken seriously.
    Our guide introduced the Strawberry Poison-dart Frog to us as the the Blue Jeans Frog, which seemed very appropriate. Loved the trogons, the aracari and the toucans, and the sloths of course. On the down side, my wife was seriously spooked when a red-kneed tarantula the size of a saucer nearly walked across her boot, and as for the time when I found a scorpion in our cabin…but that’s another story. Ah, the joys of tropical travel!
    Thank you for your brilliant post, which reminded me vividly of two wonderful wildlife journeys, and also thank you to Athena for the great photos.

    • How wonderful that you and your wife have had the joy of visiting Costa Rica, Platypus Man. The wildlife adventures there are so very memorable, and I’m happy this post revived some for you. And you’re right, tropical venues do have their frights, as well as great scenes…it’s all part of the adventure. Thanks so much for your visit and wonderful comment.

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