When I was picturing Costa Rica cold weather and oak forests definitely did not pop into my head. So when we arrived at Cuericí and were given three heavy blankets I was a little shocked to say the least. In the orientation packet it said to make sure and bring enough warm clothes and in my mind I thought, “I go to school in Minnesota it can’t be much colder than that. I’ll be fine.” However, once you get up above 2600 meters it’s a whole different story. Our visit to the Cuericí biological field station and the Páramo, which is a special ecosystem that occurs above 3000 meters, demonstrated the true diversity of ecosystems in Costa Rica.
At 2600 meters Cuericí is, in my mind, a very special and unique biological station. Tucked away in the Talamanca mountain range it has protected oak forest in addition to a trout farm and some pastureland. Don Carlos, who has always lived on the land, runs the station. We first arrived at this station by driving on a very bumpy, windy road. The combination of the much colder weather and the cabin style of the station made it feel like home. We first toured Don Carlos’s trout farm, which was not only interesting, but a good test of my Spanish listening ability as well. Although trout are not native to Costa Rica, the farm is an important income for Don Carlos and keeps Cuericí running. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I’ve always heard a lot about fishing and the problems that are encountered in the industry but I didn’t realize how delicate the process of raising trout could be until touring Don Carlos’s farm. Don Carlos farms his trout in a very natural way without using hormones or fancy machinery. They even sort through the eggs they plan to use for breeding the trout by hand. Don Carlos has learned all of his methods by experimenting, which is something that I found particularly astonishing. Several days after touring the trout farm we had the opportunity to catch and clean trout for lunch. I had the exciting experience of catching absolutely nothing, but in the end it tasted delicious.
In addition to our fishing experience we went on several hikes to experience the higher elevation ecosystems. Our first hike was through the oak forest at Cuericí led by Don Carlos. Here we heard hummingbirds singing their hearts out to attract mates, saw a multitude of butterflies and examined the differences between secondary and old growth forests. I was surprised to find out that whole trees would sometimes be cut down to harvest a moss that is used in nativity scenes around Christmas time. As we went along the hike it amazed me that in the past part of the forest used to be pastureland and recovered naturally to become the secondary forest that it is today. As we learned at our previous site, reforestation is not always so simple.
The next day we took the OTS car up the road to go hiking in the Páramo. In the Páramo the temperature changes rapidly and ranges from about 26 ºF at night to 85 ºF during the day. It is also windy, dry, and subject to strong sunlight as 97 percent of ultraviolet light entering the atmosphere makes it to the ground. These extreme conditions result in unique adaptations that give the Páramo a high number of endemic organisms, meaning they can only be found in this ecosystem. For example, plants benefit from being shorter to the ground because it’s warmer in low temperatures and provides more protection from the wind. Therefore the plants we observed were mostly grasses, small shrubs, and herbs. On our tour of the Páramo I felt like every other plant we learned about had some kind of medicinal or practical purpose. From the Lycopodiaceae family to the Asteraceae (daisy) family we learned about plants that when prepared the right way could cure ailments from a UTI to a stomachache. In addition to the medicinal properties, we learned what tasted good if we ever happened to be lost in the Páramo. To my surprise, we tried a berry that tastes like a mixture of apple and banana. As we sampled and examined plants we made our way higher up to a point where we could look out and see the Pacific Ocean and the town of Cartago off in the distance. If it had been a little less cloudy we would have been able to see the Atlantic Ocean as well. As we headed back down to the car I remember thinking about how crazy it is for these plants to adapt to such extreme conditions and on top of that many of them have practical uses for humans.
Cuericí and the Páramo gave me my first taste of the amazing diversity of ecosystems in Costa Rica. Learning about the uniqueness of these ecosystems also helped demonstrate the importance in conserving them. While we were there our lectures and discussions covered how conservation works in Costa Rica. We also discussed this with Don Carlos who explained how difficult it can be to live and conserve yet conservation is still so important. Listening to Don Carlos was very inspiring since he is so passionate and committed to protecting the forest at Cuericí even when it is difficult financially. Although we were only here for four days, there are many aspects of life at Cuericí that I will miss such as seeing the sunset over the mountains, feeling the slight mist from the clouds directly overhead, and especially the cups after cups of hot chocolate that we had every night trying to stay warm. Hopefully I’ll be able to return one day.
Hayley Stutzman, Macalester College