15-26 Oct 2022
We flew from Mexico City to San Jose in Costa Rica to volunteer on a Wildlife Conservation project with GVI for two weeks in Cahuita National Park on the Caribbean coast. We landed in San Jose in the pouring rain and if the forecast was to be believed, this would be the weather for the whole of our trip!
Taxi drivers outside the airport were trying to charge us the equivalent of £40 to Hostel Casa Colon in downtown but we got an Uber which was £9! There's nothing to write home about for San Jose airport, it's tiny. The traffic was bad because it was Friday night and the Uber driver played awful country music for 40 minutes because I think he assumed we were American and would like it. We met Alison from Vancouver Island who was already at the hostel and was also joining the project. We all went for pizza next door at a place that looked nothing special but was our first glimpse of how expensive things would be in Costa Rica - £33 for a pizza, pasta, and 2 beers.
The next morning Duggie, one of the GVI Field Staff, arrived to pick us up and we met the other volunteers, Zoe and Jack, who had conveniently torn his ACL a few weeks before and was wearing a knee brace. The journey to Cahuita took about 5 hours and we travelled through amazing scenery that changed from the city to cloud forest and then palm tree-lined coastal roads.
Cahuita is a small, very Caribbean-feeling town close to the Panama border. We got settled at our base for the next two weeks, Hostel Palmer Makanda and met the other volunteers who had already been there several weeks. Evelyn, the Programme Manager, gave us an induction and then Duggie took us on a walk around the town and it wasn't long before we spotted our first sloth sitting typically motionless in the fork of a tree, just looking like a clump of fluff. Volunteers have Sundays off so we all went down to Playa Negra to play some team games like human knot before “cooling off” in the warm Caribbean sea.
Unfortunately, when we arrived, most of the volunteers on base were either suffering or recovering from Dengue Fever so most days a few of them were taken to the clinic to get their platelets checked. Dengue is passed via mosquito bites during the day, so we diligently covered ourselves in insect repellent to try and avoid getting bitten. Luckily everyone recovered well and none of the newbies (including us) contracted Dengue during our stay, probably thanks to a full hostel fumigation by the World Health Org that GVI organised just before we arrived!
Our base was only a couple of minutes’ walk away from the Cahuita National Park entrance where we would spend most of our time doing biodiversity surveys. Duggie would tell us our schedule for the next day via a blackboard and a typical day on site either started at 5.30 am or 8.00 am dependent on the trail you were walking that day. Either Duggie or Sandro, the two Field Officers, would lead us on the surveys. They are both insanely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about wildlife, and are incredible photographers too. We owe a lot of our photos on here to them (and to Louis, a volunteer intern) - check out their Instagram pages.
We would then have some time to have a cold shower (one of many throughout the day due to the never faltering heat and humidity). Volunteers take it in turns to pair up and cook for the rest of the group (16 of us in total) and lunch is usually at 11 am because of the early mornings. We ate mainly vegan or vegetarian meals consisting of simple ingredients like beans, rice and veggies which were always improved by a generous douse of precious hot sauce.
Then we'd go out on another survey in the afternoon before dinner at 5 pm. There are four different trails: Viper, Hermit, Deadman's (in order of length), and Rodrigo Road (named after the resident frog). On the walks we would be assigned parts of the forest e.g. down right, eye height left or canopy to scan for any signs of life. Anything we saw we would try and identify and record for the biodiversity survey. The early morning Rodrigo Road survey was best for birds and we would sometimes do night surveys down there, especially if we'd had any rain, where we'd be looking out mainly for frogs, snakes and scorpions. One night survey, we all had to abort mission early as some of the group started getting harassed (and stung) by a suspected Tarantula Hawk Wasp (one of the most painful stings that can be administered from the insect world).
We also went mothing one night where Duggie set up ultraviolet light and an old bit of mosquito net as a sheet to see what we could attract - unfortunately not too much since we only gave the setup 30 mins and usually it needs a few hours, but it was another good experience to learn survey techniques. On one of our final days on the project, we visited Kekoldi, indigenous lands, and helped a project monitoring migratory raptors as they fly between North and South America. The narrow land mass of this area of Costa Rica means it is the second-best spot in the world to witness the migration, and on a single day, they have seen 500,000 birds fly overhead!
Our downtime was mainly spent hanging out with the other volunteers, playing cards, going to the beach, reading, or making travel plans. We also found the local gym where we'd pay ~£4 for 2 hours just in case we weren't already feeling sweaty enough! Because work can be very tiring due to the heat, there is a rule that volunteers and staff can only have alcohol on the weekend so we all went out on Saturday night to a local restaurant and had some cocktails.
The next day, we decided to catch the public bus down the coast to the furthest place before you reach Panama to visit Manzanillo and Puerto Viejo and although the morning was quite stormy, we managed to avoid most of the worst rain while we were on the bus. There wasn't much going on at Manzanillo as it was Sunday so we just had a walk on the beach to check out a rusty shipwreck then caught the bus to Puerto Viejo. This is a bit more touristy so we did a bit of shopping (in the bargain bins of course as everything is extortionate), bought some necklaces off of a seller on the side of the beach who hand carves pieces of coconut into turtles, got some amazing street food of Jerk chicken, rice and beans and had a dip in the sea. We were waiting for the bus back to Cahuita when a taxi driver offered us a ride. There were already three women in the taxi and he didn't look like he would murder us so we accepted and enjoyed a more comfortable, mask-free ride home for 25p more than the bus. No murders. Win.
On another afternoon off, Steve, a Sales Rep for GVI who was staying on-site took us to some gorgeous natural pools and for some beers at one of the Reggae bars. On other days we would have presentations by Duggie or Sandro on frog, snake, bird, or mammal species and how to identify them in the field. The mountain of knowledge they have is even more impressive as the base in Cahuita only got established 7 weeks before we arrived. Everything we are spotting on the biodiversity survey is serving as the first record in the park and we don't know what we might find. We had a biodiversity test one night where we had to identify species from photographs in the field and bird calls. There is a great app called Merlin which has records of all the birds - how they look and sound - for most countries in the world which is a very useful resource from which to learn.
We learnt so much from the Field Staff and other volunteers in just two weeks and it wasn't long before we were impressing ourselves out in the field naming the calls of Western Slaty Antshrikes, Bay Wrens, and Montezuma Orependolas (probably the coolest bird call I've ever heard - it sounds like someone singing underwater. Google it). In total, we walked around 90km in wellies through the park trails and probably drank tens of gallons of water. Most species we saw we didn't even know existed before! Some of the highlights were Spectacled Owls, Slaty Tailed Trogons, Squirrel Cuckoos, a Red Eye Tree Frog, a Masked tree frog, Strawberry and Black and Green poison dart frogs, a White-nosed Coati munching on a coconut, a bright yellow morph Eyelash Palm Pit Viper, a rare Agami Heron, cute families of White-throated capuchins, Mantled howler monkeys, racoons, and lots of sloths! Note to self, don’t walk through the jungle looking up with your mouth open, you might get howler monkey pee in it. Second note to self, don’t get soda crackers out in the open, a capuchin might steal them. There is a photo album at the bottom of the page with many more photos from our time in Cahuita.
On one of our last nights, two of the other volunteers, Robert and Fliss, shaved Em an undercut and they did a very professional job as well as providing entertainment and Justin with a heart attack!
We had planned to go north after finishing our programme to spend some time in La Fortuna and Monteverde Cloud Forest. Fliss was also finishing her internship at the same time as us and Robert and Ella wanted to come for a long weekend so after saying our goodbyes, we all caught the transfer back to San Jose, spent the night in Hostel del Paseo in downtown (luckily with a games room on the top floor which passed the time as San Jose isn't really a city any of us wanted to wander around), before catching the bus early the next morning to La Fortuna.
Stay tuned for what we get up to...
Take a look at the rest of our photos