Night hike at Santamaria
We hiked along the edge of the rainforest. On our right stood a bramble of leaves and brush, dry and brittle; on our left, the shallow valley of an overgrown pasture pockmarked with wild banana trees. Over our heads the sun's last rays graced the tops of the trees and fell behind the horizon. Beneath us in the valley, a large, furry animal resembling an overgrown guinea pig, dashed behind the trees. Our guide Johnny said it was an agouti, the second largest rodent in the Americas, and the first of 9 animals we encountered on the Santamaria Night hike.
The Santamaria Reserve
The hike leads guests through 17 acres of primary and secondary rainforest that form the Santamaria private reserve. Owned and operated by the Santamaria family, the reserve features one of Monteverde's most popular night hikes. On most nights, at least five different tour groups shuffle through the reserve searching for animals. Our group was lucky enough to be guided by Johnny, a 21-year-veteran tour guide, who works in the Santa Elena Reserve by day and Santamaria by night.
Flashlights in the forest
Darkness eclipsed the forest as we entered the trail and turned on our flashlights. Following in a loose group behind our guide, we scanned the forest looking for animals. Our first sighting was a little speckled frog, known as a Dink frog, perched on a leaflet hanging beside the trail.
Not long after Johnny spotted the red eyes of a blue-crowned motmot (a colorful bird with bright blue, green and yellow feathers) nestling into its feathers getting ready to fall asleep. That's when Johnny got his first call on the radio. One of the other guides had spotted something moving in the trees not far from our location.
Combing the canopies
We rushed to the scene. Johnny scanned across the canopy with his flashlight like a beam from a lighthouse. Here and there the branches shook. Then, two big eyes caught the reflection of the light and we saw the long tail of a kinkajou (also known as a honey bear) wrap around a branch. We watched as it danced across the branches scurried off into the night.
In the midst of our run in with the kinkajou, we'd already gotten our second call on the radio. We headed to the next location, on the outskirts of the forest beside a pasture. Already, two other groups were huddled together with flashlights pointing toward a tree. In the center of the limelight, a two-toed sloth calmly negotiated between branches looking for choice leaves to eat.
Inside the understory
Ten minutes passed and we received out third call on the radio. We joined a group in the forest, starring off the trail at what first appeared as a shiny, green vine. On closer inspection we saw that it was a snake, hanging down from a branch. Johnny said it was a side-striped pit viper.
The big animals seemed to go into hiding not long after. We watched a colony of leaf-cutter ants make their trail through the forest leading to one of the largest ant hills I've ever seen (it spanned nearly a football field from one entrance to another) and afterwards came up a pair of giant stick bugs (maybe a foot in length) getting intimate on a bush.
As we headed back toward the visitor's center, a nine-banded crossed our path rustling leaves and digging holes in the mountainside looking for bugs. Our last spot of the night hid three-feet deep inside its nest; the eight eyes of an orange-kneed tarantula reflecting back from our flashlights. Safe in its hole, it no doubt was waiting for us to leave before attending to its nightly ritual of catching and feasting on bugs that scurried past its front door.
Back at the visitor's center we shook Johnny hands and discussed all we'd seen on the night walk. It's not often you have the opportunity to see so many animals on a single night hike.