It’s a science-fiction nightmare. You have shrunk to the size of an insect and the insects have mutated into giants. There’s a cannon-sized bullet ant, a cicada the size of a hawk, and a supersized praying mantis, poised to pounce.
Happily, it’s a fantasy. You are in the insect exhibit at the new VeraguaRainforestResearch & AdventurePark near the Caribbean port of Limón, and the gigantic insects are magnified models, perfectly replicated by fine arts students at the University of Costa Rica.
In the same exhibit hall, you also get glimpses of raw nature, up close and perhaps a little too personal. Hapless grasshoppers wait to be hunted and devoured by real praying mantises. And today, in one of the showcases, a paper-thin female Tauromantis championi (praying mantis), about 12 centimeters long, has a yellow frog in its clutches and is slowly eating it alive. The frog’s legs are still moving. It’s horrible to watch, but compelling and, ultimately, scientific.
Resident entomologist Juan Mata is observing the grisly process and is eager to explain to visitors what is going on. There have been anecdotal reports, he says, of mantises – his specialty – devouring frogs, but this is the first time he has seen it with his own eyes. He will write up the experiment and enter his observations into a database maintained by the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), Veragua’s scientific partner in this new kind of nature park.
Having scientists on hand to interpret what you see is one of the major attractions at Veragua, named for the Spanish colonial province that once stretched along this coastline.
The park, which encompasses 1,300 hectares of mostly virgin rain forest, aims to combine adventure with serious scientific research, education and conservation.
It’s early days – the park officially opened July 4 – and not all the “bugs” in the exhibits are worked out yet. But what impressed me most on a recent visit is the quality of the guiding here. At the open-air reception hall, visitors meet their personal guide who will accompany them for their entire visit.
As part of the park’s sustainability ethic, all the young guides are from the Limón province, and most have been studying to be naturalist guides at the LimónCollegePrep School. My guide, Johnny Hernández, grew up in the southern Caribbean beach town of Puerto Viejo. Like the other guides, he has undergone months of training by INBio, and he is bilingual, personable and, best of all, enthusiastic.
Even if the forest’s denizens don’t cooperate by showing up, these guides have enough information about local flora and fauna to keep your interest for the average three and a half hours that each tour lasts. The tour is a combination of indoor and outdoor exhibit areas, with a spectacular descent on a gondola tram deep into virgin rain forest, accessed by a kilometer-long network of raised wooden pathways.
The first stop on the tour is the Reptile Vivarium, an open-air exhibit featuring local lizards and snakes in glass cases, from rainbow-colored galliwasp lizards to coiled-up boa constrictors and stretchedout vine snakes. Captions are easy to read, with bilingual information on scientific and common names, size, range, habitat, food and reproduction.
En route to the Ranario (frog exhibit), you get a panoramic view of the TalamancaMountains and La Amistad International Park, Veragua’s neighbor, for which it acts as both buffer and biological corridor. Inside the frog exhibit – a deliciously cool, dark contrast to the hot Caribbean heat outside – large, colorful graphics and excellent captions detail the life cycle of frogs and toads in layman’s language, and offer some interesting factoids: Did you know, for instance, that the longest recorded frog jump is 10 meters? This is a child-friendly area, with educational cartoons at kids’ eye level.
A corridor with glass-fronted cases of daytime frogs and toads includes the ever popular poison arrow frogs. Looking at the strawberry poison dart frogs, my guide tells me about scientific studies under way to analyze the potentially powerful analgesic and anesthetic properties in this frog’s skin secretions.
Before entering the nocturnal frog exhibit, you wash your hands, then wipe your feet on a coco mat saturated with an antiseptic solution, to avoid contaminating the simulated nighttime humid forest habitat inside.
With a waterfall and manufactured misty rain, it’s frog heaven for the more than 20 species of nocturnal frogs in showcases and hopping free among the leafy plants. Using his flashlight – the only illumination in here – Hernández shows me tadpoles and finds a red-eyed leaf frog, the star of the frog world and also the park’s mascot and logo.
Next stop is the insect and butterfly exhibit, where more than 1,500 butterfly and moth species are mounted in colorful displays. Before you enter the 500-squaremeter butterfly garden, you can observe scientists at work in a glass-walled lab, examining pupae for parasitic, viral and fungal infections. Costa Rica is the No. 1 exporter of butterflies in the world, so keeping pupae shipments healthy is important.
The staff here are also cataloguing local butterflies and building a database to determine butterfly life spans. Mata recently identified a butterfly species never before recorded in Costa Rica: a mottled orange, brown and blue Memphis anna elina.
After you’ve had your fill of live butterflies in the mariposario, be sure to check for winged hitchhikers on your clothing in the full-length mirrors at the exit. Once outside, you’ll be in a natural hummingbird garden.
There are no feeders here, but lots of flowering shrubs and plants to attract the local nectar gatherers.
As in most primary forests, birds are few and far between and hard to spot. Veragua Site Manager Daniel Torres, an excellent birder and former manager of the Rain Forest Aerial Tram, told me the best birding time here is about 4 p.m. So if you’re a birder, plan your visit for the afternoon.
Lunch is simple and quick – a tasty sandwich wrap in a box, fruit drink and plantain chips, eaten in the airy, ultramodern restaurant. (Until the park is fully up and running in October, when the first cruise ships arrive in Limón, there’s no working kitchen). The specialty coffees are excellent, and the bathrooms are bright and spotless.
After lunch, it’s off to the tram station to make the 200-meter descent to the rain-forest floor. This is not an amusement ride, says Veragua General Manager Felipe Koberg.
“It’s really just a way to get from the exhibit area to authentic virgin forest,” he says. But he can’t resist detailing how the Swiss-engineered tram, suspended from 600 meters of cable and supported by six pylons, was built over two years with as little damage to the forested slope as possible.
There’s no guarantee you’ll see any wildlife, but my eagle-eyed guide pointed out a three-toed sloth lounging on a branch at eye level and an armadillo snuffling along the forest floor below. On the silent, eight-minute descent, you glide past huge trees, including a 50-meter-high javillo (sandbox tree) estimated to be 300 years old, and gaze at spectacular coastal views toward Moín and Limón.
Once you leave the thatched-roof tram station at the bottom, you’re enveloped in forest, far from any man-made sounds. The only signs of human interference are the raised wooden walkways, safe to walk on without tripping over roots, and wide enough for two wheelchairs (about 90 percent of the trails are wheelchair-accessible). The Puma Waterfall trail follows the course of the Río Victoria to an impressive waterfall. The longer Trail of the Giants leads you past impressive, huge trees, and a short trail branches off to the Alma de la Selva, the “soul of the forest,” a cool clearing beneath a rock face glistening with water from a natural spring.
It’s certainly a beautiful forest, but nothing really new for visitors who live in Costa Rica. What makes this forest tour memorable, though, is the lore you learn along the way. One example: While I was taking a photo of a fascinating coral-colored fruit, Johnny told me how the carambola de montaña is being studied for its oil, which may provide a treatment for leprosy.
Along with training excellent local guides, Veragua has succeeded in training all the staff to enthusiastically share the natural wonders of their home turf with guests. At the very start of my tour, a maintenance employee who was sweeping a walkway near the entrance excitedly beckoned us to follow her along a trail. For 10 minutes, we stood there, thrilled to watch a northern tamandua (anteater), only six feet away but oblivious to our presence, industriously rip away bark and forage for termites.
With that kind of staff enthusiasm and involvement, Veragua is on track to fulfilling its official goal: “to be the leading rain-forest tourism attraction in the Caribbean basin.”
As Koberg puts it, “We have all the elements here – trails, waterfalls, tram, unique education and research facilities, all in one. It’s our chance to show visitors, both from home and from abroad, a real rain forest and to say, ‘This is Costa Rica!’”
It’s a long day trip from San José and back, but if you’re on your way to the Caribbean coast, Veragua is definitely worth a detour. September is a great time to check it out, when the weather is relatively dry and you can have it more or less to yourself before the cruise ship crowds arrive.
Making a Conservation Dream Come True
Costa Ricans have a saying: “De tal palo, tal astilla,” basically, “Like father, like son.” But for Felipe Koberg, son of Limón lumber baron Max Koberg, the astilla splinter) reversed family tradition and convinced the palo (tree) to stop cutting trees and start preserving them.
Over a period of 30 years, Koberg senior amassed 1,300 hectares of mostly virgin rain forest in a remote area bordering on what was to become La Amistad International Park. Fortunately, because it was so inaccessible, the forest was never cut. For the past 13 years, his son has been thinking about how to preserve that forest.
In 2004, a young group of Tico entrepreneurs led by Felipe started shopping the idea of a rain-forest park in the Limón province that would combine conservation with education, research and tourism. So persuasive were Felipe and his partners, they secured the partnership of INBio, gaining prestige and credibility for the research facet of their adventure park. And they impressed Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy enough to garner financial backing for their ambitious project.
The rest of the $8 million investment they raised entirely in Costa Rica.
“We are very proud to say that,” says Felipe, now general manager of the park. “We wanted to be able to say, ‘Hey, we can do it ourselves, right here in Costa Rica.’”
The rain forest is now under the protection of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET). Of the original 1,300 hectares, 78 hectares now contain the park’s exhibits, tram line and buildings. The rest is virgin forest, much of it yet to be explored. And Veragua now employs many of the locals who used to work in Felipe’s father’s lumber business.
Getting There, Rates, Info
Veragua RainforestResearch & AdventurePark is 12 kilometers south of the Liverpool exit on the highway to Limón, about a three-hour drive northeast from San José and about 40 minutes west of Limón. Four-wheel drive is recommended for the final steep climb up to the park. Future plans include a safe parking area at the highway turnoff and a shuttle bus up to the park.
A half-day tour for foreign tourists is $65 per person ($45 for children under 12), including personal guide, all exhibits, tram ride and lunch. Costa Rican residents pay only ¢8,000 (about $15; ¢5,000/$9 for kids), but lunch is extra. Package tours are available with bus transportation from San José, Siquirres (to pick up visitors leaving Tortuguero) and Puerto Viejo. For more information, call 2296-5056 or visit www.veraguarainforest.com.