But where are the sloths?! Is that a sloth?”
I could hear the desperation in the woman’s voice. She was shielding her eyes from the sun and scanning the tree tops for sloth shapes.
We were on a guided tour of Mistico Hanging Bridges and hadn’t seen an awful lot of wildlife. The only mammal, an agouti, was spotted by yours truly and beyond that we had mostly seen birds and a small viper.
“No, that’s a dead leaf” our guide Bernado patiently explained to her for the fifth time. “If you want to see more interesting animals, you need to come here at night.”
I shuddered. Traipsing through the jungle in the middle of the night, surrounded by all sorts of creepy crawlies, was not my idea of fun.
Naturally I booked the next available tour as soon as I got back to the hotel.
A taxi picked me up that evening after dark and drove me over to Ecogarden Arenal.
“¡Hola, amiga! ¿Cómo estás?” A young man came out of entrance and sorted out the taxi for me. “Me llamo José, I will be your guide tonight”.
We walked over to the eating/kitchen area where he handed me a flashlight.
“So, good news,” he said, “you get a very special VIP tour tonight – you are the only one on this tour!”
Wooot?! This never happens to me!
“Here follow me… I will be right with you, in the meantime, look at this.” He shone his own light at a grey bundle in a palm tree, not three meters from the edge of the terrace. It was a sloth!
I stood there admiring the sloth plucking a leaf in slow-motion while José got ready for us to leave.
“Alright, chica, are you ready?”
We headed out into the park. It was way past sunset but it wasn’t that dark. A full moon illuminated much of the scenery around us.
“Does a full moon mean we get to see more or less wildlife?” I asked José.
“Less unfortunately. The smaller animals need to hide because it’s easier for predators to find them.”
Hm. Okay. But not two minutes later José turned his light cone up a tree and pointed at yet another grey ball. Or balls rather. It was a sloth with a five day old baby, up in the tree top.
“She won’t come down for a year or so” José explained. “She will stay up there to care for the baby. After that, the baby will get another year, then it needs to find its own tree. It will stay on that tree for the rest of its life, plus a few trees around it. But sloths don’t move around unless they are forced to.”
We continued slowly through the forest, keeping the flashlights trained on the big leaves and the ground, in search of insects, frogs and lizards. We spotted a stick insect, a wolf spider, chewing on a wasp, some bright neon green spider, that was hiding in its cocoon when we got too close and many, many frogs.
José loves frogs! Every time we spotted a frog he would get really excited and said: “Give me your phone, give me your phone!” Then he would take ten pictures of the frog before I got to see it.
“I love my job!” He would exclaim and snap another photo.
After a while we sat down in a clearing and turned off the flashlights.
“Just observe the trees” he said and I started to see the fireworks produced by hundreds of fireflies, blinking in and out to attract females.
“With fireflies” he explained, “the males fight a lot. And the winner eats the loser and gains his light – it makes him so much brighter and more attractive to the ladies.”
As we continued on, José asked me to hang back a bit. He carefully rifled through the foliage on the ground and after a minute or so came back to me holding a leaf. On it the tiniest frog that I had ever seen, and, as it turns out, the most poisonous one!
“This is a poison dart frog. It is so poisonous, it can kill a thousand men!” The tiny red amphibian just sat there and looked at us.
“You know,” José said, “Poison dart frogs are only poisonous in the wild. Their poison comes from the ants and insects that they eat. But in captivity they aren’t fed those, so captive frogs are not dangerous.”
“Why is it not jumping away?” I felt the urge to poke it. I was thinking of the frogs in our garden pond back home. They were impossible to catch. But this little fella was just sitting here, very much undisturbed by José poking my cell phone camera in its tiny face.
“But its eyes are open.”
“Poison dart frogs are day active, they sleep at night. It will probably wake up soon because we are shining light at it, so let’s let him sleep.” He carefully stuck the frog’s leaf in a nearby Bromelia plant.
We hadn’t walked very far when José suddenly stopped again.
“Don’t move” he said quietly and carefully inched forward, looking over the side of the path. Not two meters away lay a fer-de-lance, also called Bothrops asper – a very venomous type of viper.
“How big do you think it is?” I whispered. I was amazed that it was just lying there. I had thought snakes moved away when they felt the vibration of foot steps through the ground, but this one was just curled up right in front of us.
“At least one and a half meters” he whispered back. “Be careful and don’t get too close.”
We just stood there for a few minutes and marveled at the snake who was patiently waiting for any unsuspecting rodents to pass by.
Eventually we carried on towards a pond, passing busy leaf cutter ants. When we reached the water, José pointed at the dark basin.
“Look at the fish… watch out, don’t step on it!”
Don’t step on the fish? I wasn’t… I looked down. Oh.
After the smallest frog, I was now observing the biggest frog I had ever seen. Somewhere between the size of my fist and the size of my head, it sat right in front of me and was observing the pond, not interested in my almost stepping on it.
“This is an American bullfrog. It eats other frogs. And even chicks when it gets near farms!”
About ten minutes later, we spotted some of its eggs – marble sized and stuck to a leaf over the water. When they hatch, the tadpoles fall right in.
“There is one more frog that I want you to see” José says and leads me to another pond, close to the entrance of the park. He makes croaking noises and looks under all the big plants.
“Aha!” he exclaims and holds his hand out for my phone. On a wide leaf there it sits, Costa Rica’s treasure: the red-eyed tree frog.
“This calls for Empanadas!”
We return to the main house, where José’s wife is serving freshly made black bean empanadas with green salsa and hot sauce. They are piping hot and delicious and the perfect finish for a night walk to remember.