How a Costa Rican night hike turned me into a botanist

We arrived at the cloud forest as the last light of day was disappearing beyond the trees. Our guide greeted us, passing out flashlights. After exchanging names, we began our nighttime trek into the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

Only a few steps into the forest, with a last bit of gray still in the sky, our guide stopped us and had told us to look upward. Dizzy, we gazed up at the ethereal picture of light and shadows dancing above us between the dense leaves.

It was the first of many times our guide would stop us to look at the trees.

As we walked, the four of us in our small tour group began searching for animals. We shined our flashlights at the first sign of movement, only to find it was the wind yet again. We looked into every tree, hoping to find two eyes shining back.

We asked our guide what was the largest animal he had seen in the forest. We asked him what animal in the forest is the most dangerous. We asked him if we would see any big animals.

He suddenly stopped at a tree and bent down. We began scanning the ground for a snake, or maybe a lizard. Instead, he pointed to a tiny speck on the tree trunk.

40FA4E20-E7F3-4039-929A-145C282918B8Cordyceps. Or actually, ants infected by cordyceps. Thriving off of trees, the parasitic fungi cannot climb, so it finds a host to do the climbing. The fungus attaches itself to an ant and begins to alter the ant’s behavior — taking over its brain and causing it to climb a tree and attach to it before dying. This ensures the cordyceps have a nice home from which to sprout (yes, from the ant’s body) and eventually attach itself to the tree.

“It turns ants into zombies,” our guide explained.

Zombie bugs? I was fascinated.

I began to realized I might have had it wrong. While looking for something large and exciting, perhaps the most fascinating things in the forest were some of the smallest.

By this time, the sliver of light above had completely disappeared. Our guide had us turn off all of the flashlights. We were instantly enveloped in cavernous darkness — the kind that makes you wave your hand in front of your face, wide-eyed and searching for something to see.

It was the power my little flashlight held; the guidance of the narrow, muddy path beneath my feet; the foreboding darkness of the trees all around me that made me question again if I was looking for the right thing.

Our guide seemed to be most passionate for the things in the forest that didn’t have eyes. Perhaps he was right. There would be no cloud forest if it weren’t for the trees, the damp air, and the mountaintop. Perhaps the forest is the most awe-inducing thing here, not the creatures that shyly inhabit it.

330231C5-D56B-4046-8BC6-B39A61AE8358He pointed out the epiphytes growing all around us. Epiphytes grow in the air, without need for roots or soil. Holding on harmlessly to trees, they gain their nutrients from the moisture-rich air around them.

He pointed out the Strangler Fig, which isn’t so harmless. The vines grow around a tree, slowly but surely strangling the tree of nutrients and life. Eventually, surrounded by the strangler’s vines, the tree inside will begin to die and decay, until all that is left is the Strangler Fig — resembling a hollowed-out tree.

Our guide’s passion for everything in the forest from the tiniest fungus to the largest trees was palpable and contagious. And though he helped us search for the more “exciting” creatures, we began to catch his spirit.

I had arrived without any interest in fungus or trees, yet now I felt captivated by them. We stopped looking only for eyes to shine and began focusing on the very life in the roots of the forest.

Nearing the end of our tour, we joined another tour group in the hunt for bioluminescent mushrooms. These glow-in-the-dark fungi are a mystery. Our guides didn’t know why they glow; and they don’t even need sunlight to glow — it comes from within. Everyone turned off their flashlights to see them, and once again we were shrouded in darkness, with the only light coming from these small mushrooms.

_DSC4165 copy night

We had one last stop to make, and I was ready to give up seeing any “exciting” animals as we headed to the hummingbird center.

Though the hummingbirds are only out during the day, we saw the hummingbirds of the night — bats. Fruit bats whooshed in and out of the patio, snatching up quick sips of the sugary water with each swoop. They flew right past our faces, and we could feel the rush of their air as they moved within inches our heads. I’ve seen bats frequently before, but never had I been so close to them.

Once we had each been thoroughly frightened by a bat’s wings, our guides turned us around to head back to the visitor’s center to end the tour. That’s when we spotted it — our first “real” animal.

The Olingo. Bushy-tailed and related to the raccoon, the tree-dwelling olingo moved like a cross between a cat and a monkey, slyly moving through the treetops. Finally, we had found an exciting animal worth telling about.

And then it was gone.

And that was rarely the part I ended up telling.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Night Hike

I’ve told people about the vines. The zombie bugs. The trees. The darkness. The mushrooms. The very things I thought I wasn’t interested in.

Because that’s what Costa Rica did to me. It turned me into a botanist. A dendrologist. Entomologist, mycologist, ornithologist. It captured me and opened my eyes to an appreciation for every form of life around me.

Weeks later, I came home and began asking what types of trees were right outside of my house — trees I had looked at for years without noticing. I let the passion of my night hike guide become a passion for the world around me. Though I lack his knowledge, I am learning. I want to show the same passion for my own ecology.

I let Costa Rica change me.


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