Location : 2 miles (3 km) S of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí (79 km) from San José via Braulio Carrillo Park. From Ciudad Quesada, 37 miles (60 km) NE.
La Selva Biological Station near Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí offers a unique opportunity to experience and learn about tropical ecosystems at one of the top two biological research stations in the Neotropics. About 250 researchers from 26 countries come each year. La Selva is owned by the Organization for Tropical Studies.
Educational natural history programs now share this marvelous reserve and the wealth of accumulated knowledge with the nonscientist. Half-day guided walks begin daily at 8 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Groups are limited to abut 10 people per guide, so reserve beforehand. These are high-quality educational experiences led by bilingual guides, either biologists or local naturalists trained by OTS in intensive courses. Overnight stays are possible if space is not filled by researchers and people enrolled in courses.
From the viewing terrace in front of reception, the panorama can include flocks of parakeets flying overhead, the red flash of scarlet-rumped tanagers, a sloth in the cecropia tree, and hummingbirds. At the start of the long suspension bridge over the Puerto Viejo River, look for the granddaddy of all iguanas in riverside trees, turtles sunning on trunks partially submerged in the water, kingfishers and morphos. Around laboratories and researcher cabins, depending on what’s in fruit, families of coatis are at home and peccaries (yes, peccaries !) feed quietly. Because of the long history of protection and research here, forest mammals such as these no longer flee at the sight of human being.
La Selva is home to 120 species of mammals, including howler, spider and white-faced monkeys, agoutis, jaguars, tapirs and 60 species of bat. There are some 2,000 species of vascular plants in this tropical rain forest, 420 bird species and 500 species of butterflies.
An inventory of arthropods (insects, spiders, crustaceans) at La Selva has already identified more than 400 species of ants alone. Known as ALAS, this long-term study involved development of innovative computer software to incorporate species information, complete with images and sounds. Think of the implications for sharing information around the world.
Guides describe the ALAS project and others underway and lead you on some of La Selva’s 35 miles (57 km) of trails as they explain about tropical ecosystems. They point out the bala, or giant tropical ant, infamous for its powerful sting and the largest ant in Costa Rica (up to 1 inch (33 mm) long); they spot the tiny blue and red poison-dart frog and tell you its life history.
The three-hour natural history walk is a good introduction to lowland rain forest biology. Another option is half-day Birdwatching 101 for beginning birders, which combines classroom instruction with field identification. Overnight guests may explore further on their own.
On the easy, wheelchair-accessible Sendero Tres Ríos trail, a 3.7-mile (6-km) paved path, you’ll encounter staff and researchers traveling by bicycle to more distant research sites. Watch for toucans, agoutis, and peccaries as you enjoy flowering bromeliads in towering trees. Don’t miss the arboretum. Some of the 1,000 trees are labeled.
Situated at the confluence of the Puerto Viejo and Sarapiquí Rivers, La Selva’s 3,739 acres (1,513 ha) are contiguous with Braulio Carrillo National Park, which extends the protected habitat for flora and fauna to more than 120,000 acres (49,000 ha). Annual rainfall is about 152 inches, which is 13 feet or 4 meters ! More than 4 inches (100 mm) of rain falls even in drier months, February to April, but La Selva has some of its best weather in October, when rain falls in most of the rest of the country. Elevation ranges from 115 to 492 feet (35 to 150 m) and average temperature is 75°F (24°C) – it gets cool enough for a blanket toward morning.
Overnight accommodations are generally in ten dormitory-style rooms with bunk beds, reading lights, a ceiling fan, closed space, and a study table. The rooms were designed for researchers and students. Each two rooms shares a bath. Two rooms for up to six have private baths.
Meals are served cafeteria-style in the modern dining room, where you may find yourself rubbing elbows with leading tropical scientists, field assistants, or student researchers. Check the chalkboard there for evening talks by graduate students participating in the intensive OTS field courses or by researchers. Natural history visitors are invited.
A new Welcome Center with an exhibit highlighting research at La Selva may be completed by your arrival. A small shop in the main building has snacks, handcrafts, and a good selection of T-shirts and books.
Getting there by bus : the San José bus to Puerto Viejo through Braulio Carrillo passes on the highway, a 10-minute walk from reception.
By car : from the Guapiles-Limón highway, turn north toward Puerto Viejo; watch for entrance on the left just past Lapa Verde restaurant. From Puerto Viejo, turn south to the La Selva entrance, just before a covered bus stop.
Source: Costa Rica Adventures in Nature by Ree Strange Sheck, John Muir Publications, Santa Fee, New Mexico.