By Tyus Loman
Our car filled finished its ascension up from the Estación Biológica Cuericí. We pulled over to the side of the paved highway, where we met with a blonde woman named Jayne, whom I soon learned had spent her entire life in the Costa Rican páramo. She led us further down the road, until we abruptly turned right, away from the highway. Suddenly, we were in a small immediate clearing, covered with limited vegetation including shrubs and grasses. Beyond the clearing, endless hills and mountains of green surrounded us, extending in all directions. I am from Los Angeles, California – a dry desert with limited green, especially in the hilly areas of the city. The environment I then found myself in was new to me; rarely had I ever seen so much uninterrupted natural land, as even in US National Parks the presence of humans is always apparent. I knew that the opportunity to experience the páramo ecology with my small group of twelve, without a trace of any urbanization or vehicles, was one I was lucky to be afforded.
We began hiking up a trail on the nearest hill, a trail so narrow I would have missed had I not been with our guide. The surface was rocky and dry, a comfortable hike outside of the steepness and altitude. The sides of the trail were dense with berry bushes; some were young blueberries that were healthy to eat, while Janie informed us that a similar looking berry, one which looked like a blueberry with a crown, was slightly poisonous. I broke a small branch of blueberries off a bush, and fed on the small berries hardened by their young age and cold weather. We stopped at the top of the initial hill, where Janie introduced us to a species of grass that was scattered throughout the area. The grass had a sharp edge to the point where running my finger quickly on it would have resulted in a cut.
When we reached the top of the first hill/mountain, the landscape flattened out. Everyone took pictures of each other, eager to capture the vast landscape not covered by clouds. Once we had enough, we continued up the next hill to the next point. Near the top of the next hill, the group stumbled upon an alligator lizard – a beautiful, blue and green colored, quick little creature not quite the length of my hand. We were lucky to have caught it, and we all took turns holding the small lizard, while some people in the group allowed the lizard to nibble their fingers. At the next mountain peak, we caught an Emerald Swift lizard. This one was smaller than the other alligator lizard we saw, with a brown and black coloration. By tickling its underside, we were almost able to lull the creature to sleep, and some of us with better cameras could capture pictures of the lizard with its eyes closed. Those were the only two lizards my group could capture and release, with many others being too quick and seeking shelter under rocks before we could even move.
Along the way, we continued to identify more plant families. All the plants we encountered in the páramo were small in stature, shrub-like compared to the trees of Palo Verde and other Costa Rican habitats. At one point, we came across a small patch of moss that covered the rocky ground, comparing in texture to a carpet. Outside of the small lizards we encountered, animal life was limited, perhaps to avoid the intense UV radiation of midday. Bird calls were not noticed, nor were bird sightings. Eventually, we reached the fourth peak of our upward climb, one which had a telephone line planted in the middle of the mountain. We descended downwards on the muddier, rainier side of the mountain. I slipped numerous times, and my clothes had the proof of this.
We took a break for about half an hour, and I reflected on the páramo I had just seen. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to visit a different country to study and explore a limited biome, in a country that understood the importance of preserving its natural beauty. The lizards, plants, and landscapes we saw were now more than mere pictures in a textbook. My opportunities to see such an environment again would be limited, especially as climate change pushed the endemic species out of their limited space on the summit of the mountains. When we finally descended the mountain, my group and I were disappointed our time in Cuericí was quickly coming to an end. Hopefully a return is in my future.