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Wild for Wildlife

Wild for Wildlife

Destination: Tortuguero

After yesterday's unseasonal rains -- the Caribbean is usually dry during September and October -- I was happy to awake to a sunny, beautiful morning. We ate a big breakfast, packed our bags and hopped across the canal to Mawamba Lodge, our final stop in Tortuguero.

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As soon as I got off the boat, I felt a tug of nostalgia -- more than ten years ago, I made my first visit to Tortuguero. I couldn't remember where I had stayed, but the question was answered as I toured the lodge: I remembered Mawamba's wooden decks, rustic rooms and beach. I was excited to have rediscovered this place, and ready to commence making new memories.

Mawamba's rooms are typical of Tortuguero's lodges, but their grounds are exceptional. Medicinal plants, edible fruits, and hot Panamanian peppers were planted all around, but we bee-lined straight for Mawamba Park. As an animal lover, I was more than excited to investigate their iguana nursery, frog pond and butterfly garden.

The iguana nursery's open-air enclosure houses about thirty juvenile green iguanas, but their intense color blends in very well with the surrounding foliage. A bit sad that I couldn't spot any iguanas, I turned to leave when a quick darting movement caught my eye. On the ground were several bright green iguanas, about 12 inches long from head to tail. After "infancy," many of the iguanas leave the nursery on their own to sunbathe and patrol Mawamba's grounds.

We entered the first of two butterfly gardens, where nectar-loving butterflies flitted to and fro. I love butterflies, but I was most eager to see the frogs, so after a few minutes of butterfly appreciation, I moved on to the next garden, where the famous blue morphos flew around with abrupt but graceful movements, jumping from banana to papaya in an attempt to find the tastiest fruit.

I hate to admit impatience, but I could hardly wait to get into the ranario, or frog pond. As soon as we passed through the heavy, plastic doors, I was happy. The humidity was high, and we could hear dripping water and singing frogs around us. If you've never heard frog song before, it's akin to the chirp of a cricket or gecko, but delivered in shorter spurts. The red-eyed tree frog, for example, chirps twice, then waits for a reply. (It's fun to mimic a reply and have the original frog answer you back.)

The first frog we found was a gliding tree frog, a green and red frog with almost-transparent legs. He was adorable and I was happy to have spotted him -- they camouflage well and I had never seen a gliding tree frog outside of a glass tank. The frog pond is also home to three other species-- the red-eyed tree frog, blue-jeans poison dart frog, and the green and black poison dart frog. We observed all three, including a baby red-eyed frog that was no larger than a poison dart frog (about one inch long).

A few hours and a delicious lunch later, we were on a boat headed over to Mawamba's hiking trails. The trails are only six months old, and offer one of the area's only handicap-accessible hikes. They're also easily walkable, great for kids and anyone that may have trouble traversing rustic, muddy paths.

Tiny blue-jeans poison dart frogs hopped over the forest floor, and I quickly became an expert at finding them. This is a huge accomplishment for me since, as I've mentioned before, Godzilla could be seated on a branch in front of me and I probably wouldn't see him. Nevertheless, bright red frogs against green leaves and brown dirt are hard to miss.

We came across a red bleeding tree, which was used by the indigenous to heal wounds. The tree's sap is a viscous red, and it's speculated that the indigenous first used the sap because of its resemblance to the color and consistency of human blood. However, the sap is also an antiseptic and a coagulant (it closes the cut), making it one of nature's best healers.

Looking up into the trees, my eyes focused on a small, brown lump high above. At almost the same moment, our guide Piero saw it too -- unlike me, he knew that this was not a bunch of dead leaves, but rather a spectacled owl. Now, I'm a fan of wildlife so almost any sighting makes me happy, but when your guide gets worked up over something, pay attention. Piero was focusing his binoculars and murmuring in a quiet, fervent voice that this was a very uncommon event.

In the jungle, most exciting moments come courtesy of pure luck. Of course, you must have an experienced guide who can identify what you're looking at, but when it comes down to it, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. The only way to increase your chances of an awesome wildlife encounter is to log more time in the forest. Today was our lucky day, and I thanked our timing and Piero for his wildlife knowledge.

Before the tour finished, I had one more triumph in store. Taking a break on one of the "talking platforms" -- talking is generally prohibited on the trails so as not to scare off any animals -- I glanced down. Just ten feet away, a tree frog clung to a dark green leaf. Given that I never spot anything, let alone see something first, I danced with glee, pointing at the frog, and whisper-yelling "frog!". Piero and Vincent congratulated me on my find, and Piero identified it as a gliding tree frog, the same species we had seen in the frog pond.

It had been an amazing day, and as we motored back to the lodge, I reflected on all that I had seen. Spotting two new species is a rarity, even in the lush tropics of Costa Rica, and I knew this day would remain a highlight of the trip.

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