If mammals were the most disproportionately exciting animals in Costa Rica, then reptiles seemed the most disproportionately abundant. Lizards were freaking everywhere: underfoot, in the trees, in the water. We even shared a hotel room with several small geckos. At night they made soft chirping noises like muted crickets as they scurried across the walls. During our hikes I felt constantly on the verge of treading on Ameiva lizards and anoles. Yet lizards were just the beginning. En route to Manuel Antonio National Park our guide said “If it’s open, we’ll drop you off at beach #1 for about an hour. Yesterday it was closed.” He waited, obviously for us to ask why. We obliged. “Crocodiles in the water,” he said.
The anoles (Norops sp.) were particularly abundant, but identifying them to species was a virtual impossibility. Apparently Costa Rica boasts some twenty-five species of anole, and the mere handful known in the US are already notoriously difficult to distinguish. After all, one of their key features is their noted ability to change color, and they are crazy fast. Picking out field marks is a fool’s errand.
In contrast there are only four species of Ameiva, or “whiptail” lizards in Costa Rica, but they too were a little tough for me to tell apart. These guys were drawn to the sides of forest trails for the sunny spots, so we saw quite a few. The excitement at seeing them eventually gave way to disappointment that they weren’t something more unusual.
We were pleased to observe a few green iguanas (Iguana iguana) and black iguanas (Ctenosaurus negra) as well. It’s captivating to see the wild version of common pets; in that regard Costa Rica’s iguanas did not disappoint. I had no idea that some green iguanas have a striking red coloration, or that black iguanas are not really members of the Iguana genus.
I’d pretty much always wanted to see basilisks, so my glee at their presence was unmitigated. I wasn’t quite fortunate enough to witness their Jesus-runs but did see and photograph (albeit poorly) both the common (Basiliscus basiliscus) and double-crested (B. plumifrons) varieties at rest.
Snakes were a rarer treat, but we did observe two of the classic rainforest species in the boa constrictor (Boa constrictor… I know, right?) and the eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii). The juvenile individual of the latter, second photo below, is among the deadliest animals I’ve had the privilege of viewing. Before adulthood venomous snakes can’t control the amount of venom they inject with their bite, so one always gets the full dose. I’m told these snakes are perfectly safe to observe… it’s the failure to observe that tends to cause problems. Several people per year die from the bite of an eyelash viper in Costa Rica, almost always because of a misplaced step or blind reach.
Progressing upward in size brings me to the spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus). We only saw the one, but were able to observe it two days in a row. It had taken up residence in a stream between the two major beach areas of Manuel Antonio NP, and its contentment there was our gain. The header image for this post is its face.
My favorite day of the trip was our travel day between Manuel Antonio and Monteverde. While we breakfasted at our hotel with the company of sloths in one nearby tree and parrots in another, the staff chatted with us about our plans for the rest of the trip. “Oh, you have to stop at the crocodile bridge,” they would invariably say. This, we were told, was a bridge over the Rio Grande de Tarcoles. We should park and walk out onto the bridge for a “good chance” to see “a crocodile.” After a brief pause at a pleasant, rocky beach we did just that. I’m not sure how best to put… let me collect my… if I could just have a mom- HOLY SHIT!
As we began walking the span and looked down, I didn’t see much in the way of crocodiles, but I did note some huge boulders. As we drew closer to the river itself, of course, I became more and more certain that the boulders were, in fact, the crocodiles I wasn’t seeing. My god, they were huge! And there were so many of them – at least two dozen. And they just kind of looked… like they weren’t real, somehow? Clearly these were actual, living crocodiles but part of my brain kept insisting that they were not real things. Nothing alive could look like that. We knew we were stopping to look at crocodiles (if we were lucky) but were wholly unprepared for the reality of what we were seeing.
Just across the bridge we stopped for lunch (and I’m not sure which of Costa Rican lunch or Costa Rican breakfast is best, but both kick the crap out of what we eat in the US). I was tracking the progress of an iguana across a playground when it occurred to me that this was a playground. Approximately a hundred yards from the river teeming with prehistoric killing machines. I didn’t want to consider the implications of the emptiness of said playground at midday.
The rest of that day was also quite enjoyable, except for the 17 kilometers of death-defying mountain driving, but I can’t say that much could compete with the crocodile bridge. It neatly divided our trip into BC and AC (Before Crocodile and After Crocodile). During the AC portion we toured a “serpentarium” in Monteverde, where researches house a huge variety of native reptiles and amphibians. This was a great way to kill a couple hours and fill in the blanks of some of the creatures we’d missed out on.
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