Come to Costa Rica — explore biological field stations!

View of Arenal Volcano from the San Gerardo Field Station
View of Arenal Volcano from the San Gerardo Field Station

by Rowan Eisner

“That day was the most beautiful and enjoyable I have had in a long time.”
— Visitor to San Gerardo

The best way to explore deep within the Children’s Eternal Rainforest is to stay at one of the two biological field stations. San Gerardo station is an hour and a half’s walk from the Santa Elena Reserve entrance. The Pocosol station, on the Caribbean side of the CER, is accessible by car.

Bare Necked Umbrella Bird

The bare-necked umbrellabird could have died out if not for the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. It is found only in a narrow sliver of habitat from the Caribbean up the Tilaran range where it migrates between high and low altitude following the ripening fruit. It can be seen regularly at San Gerardo, perhaps the best place to see these rarest of birds. Between April and June they can be found along the Tabacon Trail thanks to the lekking behaviour of the males. Four males congregate during daylight hours, defending the same three branches each, all at different heights, for their competitive mating displays, sparring, raucous roaring and inflating their red throat sacs, which the females, apparently, find irresistible.

At 17″ they are the largest of the passerines, or perching birds, in Costa Rica, but there are estimated to be less than 10,000 left and in decline due to clearing of their lower habitat for pinapple and banana plantations and for cattle ranches. The larger seeds of the fruit they eat are regurgitated and dispersed helping to regenerate their habitat. They also eat bugs and small lizards and frogs, smacking them against branches before swallowing them.

By special reservation, travelers can hike to Pocosol. It is a nature-immersion experience, a rigorous twelve-hour hike over two days through pristine ecosystems which gradually change as you descend towards Pocosol. The species of birds, plants and animals are increasingly adapted to the warmer, wetter climate as you descend. The trail crosses rivers, goes deep within primary forests and skirts secondary forests re-forested by the Monteverde Conservation League (MCL), enabling you to see first-hand what has been protected and how it is possible to regenerate even cleared forest.

The San Gerardo station at 3,990 elevation is famous for its spectacular views from its hammock-lined deck to Arenal, Costa Rica’s most active volcano.

San Gerardo accommodates up to 32 individuals. There are over 250 species of birds including: rufous-tailed jacamar, black hawk eagle, golden-browned clorophonia, scarlet-thighed dacnis, oropendola, three-wattled bell bird, slaty-backed nightingale thrush, spinetail, black guan and numerous hummingbirds. It is also known for being the best place to observe the mating display of the bare-necked umbrella bird (seen at right), inflating its scarlet throat sac.

Relatively unvisited compared to the tourist mecca of the Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve, San Gerardo station is a peaceful natural haven, with the chance to swim in clear mountain waterfalls, breathe the pure mountain air and enjoy the delicious culinary creations whipped up in the kitchen by housekeeper, Ivania.

While there are over 10 km of forest trails around San Gerardo on which to discover such elusive animals as monkeys, coatimundi, pumas, sloths and peccaries, a longer but fairly accessible option is to take a 4-6 hour guided walk all the way to the edge of Lake Arenal and the volcano. You hike with local expert guides who are able to materialise brightly colored frogs, birds and insects seemingly from thin air – a highlight for many visitors.

Pocosol station at 2,200 elevation is renowned as one of the top bird-watching sites in Costa Rica. There are more than 300 species of birds including crested guan, least grebe, black-crested coquette, grey-necked wood rail, oropendola, scarlet-rumped tanager, wood thrush, white-collared manakin, white hawk, sun bittern and great curassow.

Pocosol sits near an 8-acre natural lake and waterfall and is known for its boiling mud pots. The new facilities are more like a hotel than a field station, and the warmer climate makes a dip in the lake enticing. One can spot river otter, several species of amphibians and reptiles, ocelot and tapir.

Many groups hold field trips to the stations. Most come from universities, but schools, families and birding groups also visit. One such organization, the Universities Organization for Tropical Studies (UOTS), has been visiting for many years to study habitats not available at their own field stations. Such visits are an important source of income for MCL. The UOTS publishes many research papers each year, and the Children’s Eternal Rainforest still has many secrets awaiting researchers. For instance, little is known about the numbers and range of the green-eyed frog, thought extinct until recently rediscovered in the reserve.

Developments are afoot to enable the field stations to meet the energy needs of all visitors, but that’s a story for another issue.

Rainforest Frog

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