COSTA RICAN RAINFOREST ECOLOGY FIELD TRIP FAQs
(FAQs of ISU alumni & Friends of the Fell Arboretum have been added at the end of this page. Look to see if your question has already been answered.)
What is a field trip?
A field trip is a learning experience. A field trip is not a tour. The leaders of this field trip are biological instructors not tour guides. If you are an ISU alumnus or a Friend of the Fell Arboretum and considering traveling with our class to Costa Rica, make sure you understand this distinction. This trip will afford you an unparalleled opportunity to learn about rain forests and to observe tropical organisms. The rain forest is beautiful, fascinating, and endlessly interesting, and a great educational experience for biology students or avid naturalists.
What can I expect during this field trip experience?
You can expect to receive a first-class natural history learning experience! The vast majority of all participants rank this field trip as their most significant educational experience! There will be planned natural history lessons for both the students and alumni/friends. There will be plenty of time for walking and observation of organisms of all types. There is no shortage of things to see for the observant and interested person. And you will be traveling with instructors who can explain what you see. But unlike any tour (many tourist groups only spend 3-4 hours at the field station!)a field trip provides an indepth experience, even giving you the opportunity to observe a rain forest at night, when it's often most interesting. Alumni and Friends will have an opportunity to assist undergraduate and graduate students in gathering data for their research projects.
How physically fit do I have to be?
You must be able to walk a good distance, but usually at no more than a strolling pace. Walking is the only means of entering the rain forest, and the instructors and students sometimes cover 10-12 km or more in a day, but alumni & friends are not obligated or even expected to cover such distances. However, walking 5-6 km a day is not unusual. There are a few ups and downs on trails where they cross streams and ridges, but nothing more than 50 m. Otherwise, there is nothing particularly arduous. If it turns really hot and humid (it's always a little hot and humid in the tropics), you must adjust your pace to stay comfortable. Ranging from 1 km to 6 km, improved trails of near sidewalk quality exist to make walking easier and to reduce damage to the forest.
When will the field trip take place?
The field trip will take place during an 11 day period from December 12th or 13th to December 22nd or 23d depending on how it falls on the calendar. This is basically the only time of year that avoids ISUs semesters and when we can get space at this field station (dual constraints).For students this may mean rescheduling some final exams, but faculty generally are very cooperative for educational reasons.
How much will the field trip cost?
The biggest variable is the cost of the airfare, but we estimate the cost for students to be $1500-$1600, depending on the number of participants and other variables. Some travel fellowships may be available. This includes all transportation, lodging, fees, and meals with the exception of 2 meals on the town in San Jose. A downpayment of $250 must be made by Sept. 10; the remainder is due 10 November. This will include purchase an international ID card and insurance policy. Other expenses may include purchase of boots (a necessity, see below) and US passport if not already holding one, and some additional spending money. The cost to ISU alumni and Friends of the Fell Arboretum will be $500 higher, a tax-deductable donation used for student travel fellowships.
Can I get credit for this field trip?
You can earn two hours of credit by registering for BSC 306.08 Costa Rican Rain Forest Field Trip. The class is taught in the fall semester and meets 1 hour each week, plus the field trip. In addition to reading and discussing, , students will plan a research project. Students who have taken BSC 306.08 can return to conduct research (BSC 290/495) or independent study (BSC 287/400) depending on whether undergrad or grad. Credit will depend upon the project constructed.
How do I prepare for this field trip?
Just like lectures and laboratories, the better prepared you are the more you will get out of the field trip. As part of BSC 306.08 you will be expected to read and discuss aspects of rain forest ecology and neotropical natural history. You will also be expected to generate a proposal for an individual field research project. Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America (by Forsyth and Miyata) is required reading, and we recommend this very readable book for alumni and friends as well.
Where will the field trip be conducted?
The field trip is conducted at La Selva Biological Station, operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies, one of the most famous locations in Latin America for rainforest research and study. Segments from this field station have appeared in two recent episodes of National Geographic Explorer. Almost all tropical biologists in the U.S.A. and Canada have been there at one time or another. La Selva is located in the Caribbean lowlands of northeastern Costa Rica near the town of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui in Heredia Province. The total area of La Selva is 1508 hectares (3700 acres) and ranges from 35-150 m above sea level. The mean daily temperature is 24 C (75 F) and the average annual rainfall is 4 m (157 in). The southern border of La Selva is adjacent the Parque Nacional Braulio Carrilla which rises to volcanic peaks of over 2900 m. December is the 2nd wettest month of the year at La Selva, while it is often quite dry in San Jose to the west of the mountains.
La Selva is an outstanding example of the biological diversity to be found in the Central American wet tropics. Costa Rica is about the same size as West Virginia or Denmark (51,000 square kilometers) and is known to have over 12,000 species of vascular plants. La Selva alone is estimated to have over 2000 species in its vascular plant flora. About 90% of the La Selva reserve is undisturbed tropical rainforest including several swamps and creeks. For its area La Selva is one of the richest areas in the world for diversity of bats (63 species), birds (407 species), and palms (29 species). There is also impressive diversity in trees (460 species), butterflies (143 species), reptiles and amphibians (122 species), and fish (42 species). Disturbed areas and recent additions to the station's land have been converted to an arboretum containing over 1300 tree species, successional plots, and reforestation research. Field trip participants have recorded as many as 108 species of birds during 8 days at the station. The 1999 Christmas bird count recorded 237 species in one day, and we saw one species they didn't (a spotted wood quail).
Access to the rainforest is facilitated by an extensive system of well-marked trails and bridges. Trails are marked every 50 m with the linear distance from the trail head. Trail maps will be issued to everyone. Only one small portion of La Selva on the east bank of the Rio Puerto Viejo is accessible by car and this area contains the dining hall and several dormatories. The rest of the station is on the west bank including the laboratory buildings, library and study lounge, and long-term resident cabinas are only accessible via a 300 foot suspension bridge (see pictures of previous classes). No motor vehicles or gasoline engines are allowed on the west bank. One wide 6.5 km trail provides access to the western portions of the station and researchers frequently use bicycles. Within 1 km of the station most of the trails are improved and provide easy walking. Further out and secondary trails can be unimproved; expect them to be muddy. Even the improved trails can be slippery when wet, which is often.
What will the accomodations be?
Short-term visitors are housed in dormatory style rooms with 2-3 bunk beds per room. Bedding and towels are provided, although an extra personal towel is not a bad idea. The rooms are screened, well ventilated, and have ceiling fans. Shower, bathroom, and free laundry facilities are very convenient. Hearty cafeteria style meals are prepared by teams of cooks employed by the station and served in the dining hall at 6:30-7 am, 11:30-12:30, and 6-6:30 pm. Bag lunches can be requested the day before for longer hikes. The rather bland cuisine shows a distinct Spanish influence, bearing no resemblance to what most North Americans think of as Mexican food. They do use many tropical fruits and vegetables, and lots of black beans and rice. Vegetarian diets are easily accomodated. Coffee is always available, and is always good. During regular business hours there is a small store where postcards, snacks, cold drinks, t-shirts, and posters can be purchased using small denomination US currency.
In transit, coming and going each way, we spend a night in San Jose at a Best Western motel. You will get an afternoon and evening to explore downtown San Jose (markets, shops, gold museum, eateries, etc.) in its pre-Christmas exuberance. Here we usually do play tour guide for the undergraduates. We will provide everyone with a simple map, a few common sense rules, and our usual dining, shopping, and cultural recommendations.
What field station facilities are available?
We will have access to a classroom area, the library and herbarium with AC, a couple of lounge areas, bench space and common laborabory equipment, and some computer facilities. Several porches and verandas allow for resting and relaxation in comfort, but have your field glasses handy.
Do I have to get US$ exchanged?
The Colone (ko-lone-ee) is the Costa Rican unit of currency; the current exchange rate could not be determined at this writing but has been over 250 colones/US$1. So as a rough guide, 2500 colones = US$10. Taxi fares within San Jose were typically 500 colones ($2). Meals might cost US$10-12. US currency is legal and accepted in many places in Costa Rica, although they insist on undamaged, unmarked bills. Even restaurants are quite fair about the exchange rate usually coming within 2-3 colones of the official bank rate (change is received in colones). Around San Jose major credit cards can be used at large restaurants and shops.
Can I call home?
Yes. The field station has a phone booth in one of the laboratory buildings and calling card calls can be made. Just dial the MCI/AT&T number, and you get an English speaking operator. The telephone number at La Selva is (506) 71-6897, the FAX number is (506) 71-6481. However this number should only be used to reach you in case of emergency.
La Selva does have an email address: <firstname.lastname@example.org>, but they dont want your personal messages. Emergencies only.
Access to Internet computers is available, so you can send email, although the connection is rather slow at times.
What if I dont speak Spanish?
English is widely spoken at La Selva and in most places that deal with tourists, but some knowledge of Spanish is both useful and recommended to facilitate good interactions. For such a brief field trip involving limited travel within the country, you will have less need of Spanish than if you were to travel more widely, so dont worry about it.
Do I need to get shots, take malaria medicine, or worry about drinking the water?
No! Health conditions in Costa Rica and at La Selva are generally very good, among the best in the third world. No innoculations are required and no malarial prophylaxis (chloroquinine) is needed for La Selva. You may wish to consult with the student health center, the McLean County health department, or your personal physician about tetanus and typhoid boosters, polio immunization, and immune serum globulin for protection against hepatitis A. If malaria ever turns up in the La Selva area (it never has), you may obtain some chloroquinine upon your return (1 horse pill a week probably for just 2 weeks). The water in San Jose is OK, but play it safe. The water at the field station is as good as any city water in the US.
La Selva is a remote location, 2 hours from the nearest hospital. An excellent first-aid kit is maintained at the station, and we will have some of our own medical supplies for minor injuries. Persons with any serious medical problems should reconsider their visit, and thus we require students to have a physical. Persons allergic to insect stings should come prepared. Anti-venom serum is on hand at the station, but boots and an alert, observant attitude are the best protection against the all too common poisonous snakes (fer-de-lance, bushmaster, tree vipers, coral snakes, etc., etc.).
What do I have to bring?
1. Rubber boots - These are not an option! You must have proper boots to walk on any trail. The tall, calf-covering Wellington-type rubber boots with good arch support and tread that you wear with just socks are excellent protection against mud and snake bites. Make sure they fit well and are comfortable for walking. Sore feet make for a miserable time. You won't be allowed out on trails without them for safety reasons.
2. Umbrella and a rain coat or poncho - A lot of rain can fall during our field trip (16+ inches is the record) so a travel umbrella is almost an essential. You might also want a rain coat or poncho, although most field workers consider them rather awkward and hot.
3. Insect repellent - Mosquitoes are really the only bother if you avoid confusing other plant seeking insects perfumes or other scents. Long pants and a loose, long-sleeved shirt offers good protection minimizing the need for dousing yourself with repellent.
4. Swimming suit - Even if you decide not to take a dip in the Rio for a close up look at those caimen, they're useful for washing your hair in a tropical rain. Light weight, easy to dry suits are best.
5. Sandals - Sandals or thongs that can stand getting wet are good for wearing to the showers or around the residence and dining hall so long as you remain on the sidewalks.
6. Flashlight - A good flashlight, big and bright, is essential. Good batteries are not available. We plan to have some head lamps too. Bring a couple of an extra sets of batteries and a spare bulb with you. It can get very dark out there, very fast. Rainforest at night is part of the tropical experience.
7. Shorts & T-shirts - Light weight sport wear is both comfortable and easy to pack. When not in the field, you'll want to dress comfortably. Youll want long pants & long sleeves for out in the forest.
8. Sun block - OK here's a rule. No sunbathing, even if there's time. In the forest the sun is really not a problem, but we'll be arriving with December pasty complexions. The tropical sun can burn you to a crisp within minutes, so all fair-skinned types must be very cautious.
9. Underwear - Use light, breathable, cotton undies. Tight, nylon or other non-breathing synthetic fabrics can make you very uncomfortable in the tropics. Many experienced tropical field workers will suggest that underwear just isn't very useful or necessary in the tropics. Use good judgment.
10. Small field notebook - It's a good idea to have a small notebook for making field observations. These can be transferred to a journal notebook during study times. A small notebook is easier to keep dry in the field. Have a plastic bag for it. Students will be provided with a waterproof field notebook.
11. Camera & film - Best to bring your own. There really isn't anywhere to purchase any. During a short-term trip there won't be too many troubles with humidity and your camera, but keep them in a plastic bag. Good pictures are hard to get with average automatic cameras because the conditions of light and contrast, temperature and humidity are far from average. Use a fast film (ASA 400 and up).
12. Hat - Umbrellas also provide shade, but you might want to have a hat to shade your eyes, face, ears or ward off the rain. You can decide about this one.
13. Field glasses/binoculars - Even if you are not a bird watcher, monkeys, sloths and other organisms live high in the canopy. We will have some ISU binoculars with us for the students. If we have room we'll bring a spotting telescope.
14. Backpack - To carry many of the above items on the trail, youll want some kind of pack. Use plastic bags to keep items dry when not in use. A water bottle is a good idea out on the trails.
15. One dinner/evening outfit for your one night out in San Jose. Most places are very casual, but young Latin Americans tend to dress pretty sharply at night & at least one fashion conscious student complained bitterly about not having a dress. Darn! How could we have overlooked such a necessity!
16. Medicines and First Aid - We will have a very complete First Aid Kit with that includes many nonperscription medicines for everything from dehydration to GI distress, and medical supplies for everything from sratches to broken limbs. And no, we're not anxious to try these things out. If you have any specific personal needs, you will be responsible for having your own supply.
17. Camp Stool - It's hard to find places to sit down in rain forests. Don't sit on logs or stumps; ants think they belong to them, and we know better than argue with ants! Your readings will explain about ants. You can carry a piece of plastic or tarp to sit upon, but having a folding camp stool can be very convenient and more comfortable particularly if you want to observe something for a bit.
18. Zip-lock Plastic Bags - Electronic things don't like tropical humidity. It's best to keep things bagged and dry when not in use. Keeping extra clothes in plastic bags once they're dried is also a good idea.
19. Field Guides - The class will have field guides and reference materials available including some pictoral plant identification guides. However, serious birders should consider getting a copy of their own field guide to Costa Rican birds.
Do you have any general travel hints?
1. Travel light. You don't need much fancy on this trip. Plan to take only 1 suitcase or duffel bag and 1 carry-on bag or backpack. We end up hefting everything, sometimes onto the top of a coach (bus).
2. Cosmetics, deodorants, shampoos - To pack light, only bring the essentials. Avoid anything scented. Very few insects have sensory organs adapted for finding humans, so why confuse them by smelling like something else. Good old Head & Shoulders unscented does not seem to attract any undue attention in our experience.
3. Essentials - Remember, there will be no opportunity to shop, so if you will need it, bring it with you. The station can assist in obtaining some items from the local village.
4. Snacks & drinks - You will be able to get small snack items (like yuca chips) and small souvenir items at a small shop next to the dining hall. Cold sodas and ice cream can be purchased. Anything food items you bring or try to keep around the dorm must be completely sealed, or it will have ants in it within hours.
5. Plastic bags - Anything you want to stay dry should be packed and kept in plastic bags. The humidity will be high.
How safe is this field trip?
This field trip poses no unusual or exceptionally risks; in general terms, you are quite safe providing you adopt a watchful attitude and follow relatively simple safety rules.
1. Wear boots on the trails. No one crosses the bridge without wearing their boots. The only people ever bitten by a snake at La Selva were also bootless, but most of the bites were in or near the field station proper. Poisonous snakes are actually quite common and we usually see several, but you just have to be careful of where you step.
2. Don't reach in anywhere. Don't grab with your hands until you are quite certain it's safe. You can be within inches of a fer-de-lance, which is way too close, before you see it. We speak from experience.
3. Use buddy system on outer trails. No one will venture more than one kilometer from the main station alone. When venturing outward, leave your trail destination and expected return time at the residence.
4. Carry your trail map. Carry your trail map with you at all times, and get a good sense of the terrain, your direction, and your bearings before venturing off trails. A compass is not absolutely necessary, but you can easily get disoriented and turned around in a rain forest where in just a few meters vegetation can obscure your view.
5. Carry you flashlight. It gets very dark, very fast in a tropical rain forest. Carry your flashlight late in the day.
6. Step with care, and be certain of your footing. Even the improved trails can be quite slippery, and falls are the number one cause of injuries in all outdoor activities. Tropical clay soils add a new dimension to the term slippery. A walking stick might be a good idea if you tend to be unsteady. If you cannot easily take a hike of a mile or two on a nature trail, you should probably not consider this trip.
7. Water & ice. At the field station, both the food and water are of high quality, and you have few worries of contracting any wogs (wog is an Aussie term for anything that produces GI tract distress, vomiting or diarrhea). Wogs are sometimes called Montezuma's revenge by gringo tourists.
8. Rain & flooding. If we get heavy rain you will have to be very conscious of low trails and flooding. Streams can rise several meters in just a few hours. We will issue warnings and watch out for people, but still you don't want to get stranded on the wrong side of a flood.
9. No climbing trees.
10. No running or horsing around on the suspension bridge; No jumping into the river.
11. No swimming if river is up.
12. Never enter a building with wet or muddy boots. Remove them at the edges of porches and verandas and leave them. Sock feet indoors is SOP. Why is this a safety issue? People will kill any dope who mucks up the buildings!
13. No one leaves the field station without permission.
14. Minor injuries. Please report all minor cuts and scrapes. In the tropics infections are easy to get. Clean all minor wounds thoroughly & use disinfectant from 1st aid kit. Get assistance with removal of splinters or ticks (rare, but possible). Get assistance for any insect stings (remember Bolas ants are the worst; but not dangerous unless you are allergic to insect stings in general).
15. Don't sit on logs or bare ground. Ants are everywhere & they think everything belongs to them. Carry a camp stool or a ground cloth for ground work. Watch for Bolas on tree trunks and limbs.
16. San Jose safety. San Jose is a typical big city; it has good parts & bad parts. Our motel is on the edge, so pay close attention to your directions. It will be crowded & pick pockets always target gringo tourists. Keep your cash and travel documents safe. You should leave your passport in a safe place & carry a photocopy for ID. Don't leave your bag or backpack alone. Watch for traffic; pedestrians do not have the right of way. They drive on the wrong side of the road, so always look both ways. Always travel by taxi after dark; they only cost a couple of dollars. Please follow our recommendations about safe places for dining and dancing. Report any problems to 1. tourist office in Central Cultural Plaza, 2. the motel, 3. the instructors. Above all, use good sense. Watch out for each other.
17. Passport. Treat your passport like the most important thing in the world. This is not just another ID card. Too many students treat them too casually. Don't. You can't board a plane without a passport. Stop & think carefully about keeping your passport safe. There isn't much we can do if you mess this up. Comprendo?
FAQs from ISU Alumni and Friends about this field trip travel opportunity.
Can I bring along my 8-yr old son?
Well, whatever else would you do with him? OK, seriously, the trip is geared for college-age and older students, but my own daughter visited the station when she was about 11 or 12 along with my wife, and they really liked seeing the rainforest. They seldom ventured more than a kilometer from the station, but they still saw lots of wildlife and fascinating things. Clearly you would have to adjust your activities to suit your son's pace and his interests, but as long as you are willing to take this responsibility, we see no particular problem. As for safety, at 8 he's probably too big for a boa constrictor, so that's not a problem.
Can I bring my husband along on this trip?
Well, whatever else would you do with him? OK, seriously, why would you ask me this question? Is he worried about letting his wife travel with professional biologists and college-aged students into the tropical rainforest and Latin America? Does he have reason to be concerned? Or is he the problem? Your question raises so many interesting possibilities! Or is it that your husband is just not an ISU alumnus or a Friend of the Fell Arboretum? Well, we cannot change the former, but we anticipate that some significant others may wish to accompany us on this field trip, and that is OK. You can always solve the other problem by renewing your FOFA membership as a family. Your affiliation will actually make no difference.
I have standard leather hiking boots. Could I use these in place of rubber boots?
NO! There are two reasons. The waffle soles of hiking boots can pick up several pounds of tropical mud and hold it tenaciously. Yes, you can wash them off in convenient boot cleaning sinks, but they will never dry in the tropical humidity. Second, they are not high enough to offer protection to your caves and ankles, or allow you to wade through deeper puddles and keep dry feet.. If those two reasons are not enough to convince you I can put you in touch with a former student and a former colleague who ignored our advice on this. My student just gave up after 4 or 5 days when each boot looked like a mud ball about 10 inches in diameter. My colleague's boots simply fell apart from the abuse after about 3-4 days, and he was tired of wet feet by then anyways. He discarded them without benefit of a proper burial.
Can I bring a personal stereo?
So long as no one else can hear anything, i.e., so long as it's really personal, OK, but why would you want to? Part of the experience of the tropics are the sounds. Do you only want part of the experience? Why not try to get away from as many artificial stimuli as possible for awhile? In other words experience the real world for a change. Even now too many man-made sounds intrude upon the station at times, a form of audio pollution just as bad in some respects as other kinds of pollution.
I'm a vegetarian. Would I have a problem with the food?
Actually no. Rice and beans are a staple here, present virtually at every meal, and the dining hall provides some fruit, a salad, and at least one other vegetable dish at each meal. Again, if you're not too picky, you should do fine. By the way, fried plantains are one of our favorite dinner treats at the station.
Is there a place to swim?
Not really. The field station is not a resort or constructed for tourists. We recommend bathing suits because they are a convenient way to experience a tropical downpour. Some of our students like to wash their hair in the warm, heavy rain. December is a rainy month and the rivers and streams are often dangerously high. There is one nice small stream with a rocky gourge crossed by a convenient trail. It's a nice place for a cooling splash in hot weather when the water is normal. When the water is low, river swimming will be allowed in certain designated locations. People who are not excellent swimmers should not venture into the river. The caimen pose no threat.
Can I fish in the streams?
Dr. Juliano and I both wish we could, but the streams and rivers are part of the ecological preserve, so the fish are protected. We must obtain a permit from Costa Rica to even touch a flower or catch an insect. Even if we had a permit OTS would require that we have a scientific reason for catching any fish. This is too bad, because there are two species of "fruit-eating" fish in the river that would make very good sport. With some luck you can do the next best thing by feeding the fish. You may arrange for a guide to take you fishing at some other location. Local touring is easy to arrange for a fee.