A Family Affair: Summer camp in the Costa Rica rainforest
by Kristen Grace
Sloths and howler monkeys, night hikes exploring the forest floor with frog experts and tropical birds galore – this is not your typical summer camp.
Yes, you’ll need sunscreen, and there’ll be bugs, but you’ll be deep in the rainforests of Costa Rica.
A two-toed sloth rests high in the trees on the grounds of the Selva Verde Lodge. These nocturnal animals are common in the area, but can be difficult to see at first. Expert local guides help family campers learn how to spot these and other animals in this unique tropical landscape.
Howler monkeys are native to Costa Rica and can be seen around the grounds of the Selva Verde Lodge and in the reserve. They are famous for their loud howls, which can be heard up to 3 miles away.
David Blackburn, Florida Museum herpetologist, steadies a leaf with a blue jean dart frog while a camper takes a photo.
A collared aracari feeds another bird. These communal toucans are common around the Selva Verde Lodge and can easily be spotted during morning bird hikes before breakfast.
A basilisk lizard at the Selva Verde Lodge in Costa Rica.
A leaf beetle, Alumnus ornatus, crawls along rainforest vegetation in the reserve.
Campers have the option of exploring the grounds of the lodge in the forest on the edge of the Sarapiqui River at night. Local guides and Museum experts lead groups on the various trails in search of mammals, amphibians and insects that come out after dark.
The Costa Rica Family Rainforest Camp in the Selva Verde Rainforest Reserve is an opportunity for the whole family to venture into a living classroom with local guides, partnered with Holbrook Travel, and Florida Museum experts, creating family memories that will last a lifetime.
Costa Rica is home to about 5% of the Earth’s biodiversity, yet occupies a very small footprint on the planet. It provides a rich and diverse environment where you can encounter wildlife feet from your doorstep.
The camp, based at the Selva Verde Lodge in Sarapiqui, is nestled on the bank of the Sarapiqui River with a thrilling suspension bridge into the lush rainforest. A quick walk up and over the river and you are immersed in a dense, damp forest with natural delights all around.
You’ll spot dart frogs and leaf cutter ants almost immediately, walk through huge, ancient trees and hear the calls of howler monkeys in the distance.
Leaf cutter ants carry bits of leaves across the forest floor. The Sarapiqui region is one of the most diverse places for ant species.
David Blackburn holds a blue jean dart frog, Oophaga pumilio, also known as the strawberry poison arrow frog, while camp participants take photographs. These common frogs are one of Costa Rica’s most colorful and iconic amphibians.
The heart of the Selva Verde Rainforest Reserve is accessed from the Selva Verde lodge via a suspension bridge high above the Sarapiqui River. Crossing the bridge for the first time can be exciting, swaying with every step while the water rushes below.
Ivan Castillo, a local guide with Holbrook Travel, welcomes the group and reviews safety rules.
David Blackburn shines a flashlight into the cavity of an old growth Sura tree, Terminalia oblonga. Emergent trees like this one, trees that rise above the rainforest canopy, are important to a variety of species, including the endangered great green macaw, whose populations are at risk due to habitat loss and changing climates.
In the rainforest, faint howls from howler monkeys can often be heard. Museum educator Tina Choe, right, tells campers to cup their hands behind their ears to hear the calls more clearly.
Upon arrival, families learn how to be researchers and are introduced to the concept of fieldwork. And after becoming familiar with some of the local plants and animals, children and caregivers become scientists themselves, learning how to collect specimens and record and document species they see.
Kids will dive feet first into fieldwork, donning rubber boots and sloshing into a creek to look under leaves, turn over rocks and catch fish with dip nets.
Dave Blackburn, Museum herpetologist, guides the kids as they look for signs of glass frogs native to Costa Rica’s tropical rainforest. The frogs lay their eggs on large leaves that hang over streams. Others use screens to catch insects and spiders and scoop them into collection bottles for further examination back at the lodge lab.
David Blackburn explains how a screen and other tools can be used in the field to collect specimens for later identification and study back in the lab.
In the lodge classroom, David Blackburn explains how aspirators are used to capture tiny specimens, like ants, safely into tubes. Before venturing into the rainforest, campers learned about basic field tools researchers use.
Museum educator Tina Choe helps campers use dip nets and examine organisms in a reserve creek.
David Blackburn shows a cluster of glass frog eggs to a camper in a creek of the Selva Verde Rainforest Reserve. Learning how to explore a natural area through the eyes of a scientist allows kids and families to observe their surroundings more closely.
David Blackburn points out a glass frog and its eggs on the underside of a large leaf in the reserve. Male glass frogs guard the eggs 24 hours a day until the tadpoles emerge.
A simple, yet effective, field tool is a large white screen. When placed at the base of vegetation while shaking the vegetation, it will catch the falling insects and spiders for collection and study.
Camp participants collected smaller insects like this caterpillar and brought them back to a makeshift lab at the Selva Verde Lodge for identification and study.
Back at the makeshift lab at the lodge, Blackburn and campers examine and discuss the specimens they collected in the field. Kids were challenged with using field guides to try and identify what they found.
David Blackburn, right, stands by to handle a red-eyed tree frog as camp participants take photos in a special field light box.
Specimens like this red-eyed tree frog were carefully brought back to a makeshift lab at the lodge where participants could photograph them on a white backdrop. Taking photos in this setting allows for better observation of the specimen. After photos were taken, this frog was returned unharmed to the site where it was collected.
Blackburn says the camp provides an opportunity for “families, together, to go out and look at the natural world and experience the world through the eyes of how we’d approach science at the Museum.”
In addition to learning about the unique natural environment in the Selva Verde Reserve, camp participants will learn about Costa Rica culture, community and the important relationship with the delicate ecosystem in which residents live. A visit with local schoolchildren at a community center provides an opportunity for campers to explore similarities and differences in every day life.
Children in the family rainforest camp play games and jump rope with local children at a community center in the Llano Grande community.
Children in the Llano Grande community in Costa Rica perform traditional dances for participants of the family rainforest camp at a community center.
Extend your experience with a new optional add-on where you will visit El Bosque Nuevo, a butterfly farm and conservation project where butterfly pupae are raised before they are shipped to the Florida Museum for emergence and flight in the “Butterfly Rainforest” exhibit!
“Feeling like you’re one with the natural world is something we can do with this camp,” said Tina Choe, camp co-leader with Florida Museum’s Exhibits and Outreach. “We are able to get people out there and away from all the distractions of today’s world, it’s really the best thing.”
Find out more about summer camp in Costa Rica and other eco-tours offered by the Florida Museum and Holbrook Travel.
Kristen Grace is the Museum’s resident photographer and had the opportunity, in partnership with Holbrook Travel, to visually document the Family Rainforest Camp during the summer of 2019, as well as photograph the rich biodiversity Costa Rica has to offer while at the Selva Verde Lodge. She has a passion for documenting informal science learning, especially when in the field with children.