I love rankings. Rankings of countries by size, ranking of countries by population size, rankings of countries by population density, rankings of countries by Muslim population size. Did you know that Indonesia is first? So one of my favorite questions to ask the other students in the course is “what’s your ranking of the sites we visited?” Here’s mine:
1) La Selva: Before arriving at La Selva, it was described to me as “Disneyland for ecologists,” and I was not disappointed. Peccaries were everywhere, parrots were as common as sparrows, toucans were regular visitors. We were crazy with work—faculty-led projects, podcasts, videos, independent projects—but when four armadillos let me pet them, how could I resist the temptation to take a break? Things like that happened every day there.
La Selva also felt magical because of the scientific atmosphere. It is a place just for nature and science. I got to talk science with anyone I felt like pestering. Normally, when I find a cool animal or plant, I tell people around me, and they mostly feign interest. At La Selva, it was different. When I got a picture of a basilisk outside the GIS lab, the girl I was working next to demanded I show her where it was.
Best of all, we spent almost two weeks there.
2) Monte Verde: Monte Verde was dreamlike. There’s nothing as ethereal as fog rolling through lush forest. Every morning we woke up in what can only be described as a fairy land. At the tops of mountains, the plants became dwarfs, barely reaching over our heads. On one of our hikes, we saw a Quetzal (kwetzal), an avocado-eating bird with some of the most iridescent flower one of the crown jewels for bird enthusiasts.
3) Cuericí: Nearly as magical as Monte Verde was Cuericí. We stayed at 2600 meters (8500 feet), high enough to get winded walking up a flight of stairs. The reason Cuericí made it to #3 was the Páramo, a scrubby habitat that reached up to ~3400 meters. At that elevation, there are only short bushes, wildflowers, intricate lichens, and a thick moss that made a comfortable mattress. Plus, there was a resident sheep-horse hybrid at the station where we slept.
4) Cabo Blanco: Cabo Blanco was the hottest, most humid site. I’ve never experienced a more dreadful climate. Despite that, it had two of my new favorite animals: crabs. Crabs are the cutest! Something about their ineffectual scuttle is immensely endearing. There was one species of land-crab with bright red legs and purple claws, and hermit crabs everywhere. Sometimes they were so numerous that I had to plan my steps meticulously to avoid squashing those adorable buggers.
5) Palo Verde: Palo Verde deserves to be #7. It was blisteringly hot, and the mosquitoes outnumbered oxygen particles. I barely saw any mammals in Palo Verde. I think the mosquitoes had sucked them all dry. What saves Palo Verde from being last were the iguanas. They were everywhere, and they were big. When it comes to lizards, bigger is better. I caught my biggest lizard by far there.
6) Las Alturas: Las Alturas was a quiet, mid-elevation site. We didn’t spend much time out hiking because we worked on a meta-analysis project. So Las Alturas didn’t make much of an impression me. On the positive side, the group had plenty of time for bonding, catching aquatic cockroaches and singing around a bonfire.
7) Las Cruces: Las Cruces is a combination tropical botanical garden and nature preserve. It came in at #7 because we stayed in the botanical garden. At all the other places, we stayed in nature, which is way cooler. However, I did see the tiniest frog ever and an equally tiny walking stick so small that it floated like a feather when it jumped off me.
But what does being #7 mean anyway? Las Cruces was cooler than any eastern deciduous forest I’ve ever seen. I’m actually worried that I’ll never be able to enjoy the forests I’m used to, after being in these seven remarkable places. Let’s hope that’s not the case.