On our first day in Monteverde we learned a very important lesson about the weather in this mountainous area, it is predictably unpredictable. I'll get back to that in more detail later on. In the morning we walked from our hostel to the Monteverde Butterfly Garden and on the way we passed the Monteverde Lodge which gave me a flashback to when I was here about 13 years ago with my family (wow that was almost half a lifetime ago...I feel old).
Now there are several butterfly gardens to choose from in the Monteverde area and we only visited this one, but we can say after talking with others that we saw types of butterflies that some of the other gardens do not have, like my favorite the glass winged butterfly. The Monteverde butterfly garden also offers internships and great learning opportunities for young persons to come and learn and then give tours. Our tour guide was a very enthusiastic Canadian who was there for an internship after finishing university.
At the start of the tour we first learned about several other insects and arachnids (I had reservations about the latter). We saw a few different types of tarantulas and learned about the tarantula wasp who is their worst nightmare. The wasp uses the tarantulas as an incubator for their eggs by first paralyzing the tarantula with their sting, but keeping it alive. The eggs after they hatch begin to eat the tarantula from the inside out while it is still alive, carefully eating the nonessential organs first so their meal stays fresh. Once they have eaten up all the yumminess they break out to go find a tarantula and start the whole process over. The wasp dies after stinging the tarantula and laying the eggs. Every wasp is a different size and how large it grows to be depends on the size of the tarantula it is born in. All of the tarantulas we saw were females because the male tarantulas are constantly on the hunt for the females to reproduce so they are not the best to keep in confinement, because they are pretty good escape artists.
We also saw some really cool leaf bugs (katydids) that we could barely spot at first and when we did we only saw half of them because their camouflage is so good. The katydids either look like green leafs or dead leafs from birth and the reason is just in case a bird was to figure them out and start eating them it will still only get half of them at best. The first katydid we spotted was a green one and so our eyes only searched for green ones after that and we did not see the brown ones until our guide pointed this out to us. This is the same way their camouflage works with the birds.
And of course right next to the katydids were the stick bugs. The two should get together and make a bug bush! After one of the beetles peed on our guide she showed us one of the huge male Hercules beetles which can carry up to 850 times its body weight in it's huge pincers. The female Hercules beetles do not have the pincers which may come as an advantage as the males primarily use the pincers to battle one another for mating rights over a female. After mating the males commonly pick up (gingerly) the female in their pincers and whisk them away on a little beetle honeymoon.
Scorpions are very common in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, so much so that our guide recommended to us that we check our bed sheets every night before crawling in because they like to hide in dark places. She flipped over a couple of pieces of bark to reveal a couple of female scorpions hanging underneath, one of which had just given birth a couple days ago. It was very easy to tell which one it was because she was covered in several small scorpions on her back. After birth the baby scorpions have two choices: quickly crawl on mom's back or be eaten by her or another nearby scorpion. However, once the baby scorpions pass the test and make it on mom's back she will protect them like a mama bear. We also learned there are no poisonous scorpions in Costa Rica, but if you get stung by one it is like a bee sting on steroids and it will hurt like hell.
That night we made sure to check our bed sheets well and in the morning we checked our shoes too! We really didn't expect to find a scorpion anywhere in our room, but better safe than sorry! The next night while laying in bed, just before turning out the lights, that we heard a bizarre light scratching sound coming from the ceiling in the corner of the room above our bed. Bryan looked up and jumped to the other end of the bed after seeing the large scorpion which had emerged from the small crack in the wall, it was a male scorpion. The scorpion was not there very long and crawled back from where it came. After he had gone we sat in an uncomfortable silence noticing the plethora of gaps in the wooden walls all around the room from the shoddy construction of the hostel. Much like the male tarantula, the male scorpion also hunts all night long in search of a female to mate with. Before closing our eyes we convinced ourselves that although the scorpion could crawl on the wall and ceiling he definitely could not jump! That would just be preposterous. So we moved our bed a good 6 inches away from the wall and headboard to make ourselves an impassable "scorpion gap". Needless to say we slept very soundly that night. The only times I awoke during the night were when Lauren would jump upright in bed and begin scanning the room with her flashlight like the search tower in a prison break.
So now we are finally getting to the butterflies! We first saw some cocoons and learned that the color of the cocoon indicates how far the caterpillar is into the metamorphosis of becoming a butterfly. The green cocoons are still early on in metamorphosis and the darker colored ones are closer to emerging which can take several hours for the butterfly to fully emerge. We saw over a dozen different butterfly species in the four different viewing areas, each of which replicated a different micro-climate. The most interesting butterfly we learned about (Dryas iulia - the solid orange ones) sometimes feeds on the salty tears of turtles and crocodiles. This fearless butterfly lands on their faces and flutters their wings, releasing an irritating dust to make their eyes water. Luckily none of them tried this on us while we were there! We also saw dozens of the beautiful Blue Morpho which is Costa Rica's largest butterfly. Getting a picture of these guys proved to be a challenge because when they land the always close their wings which are brown on the outsides with large eyes to make them look big and ferocious to any predators lurking nearby. It was really amazing walking through the habitats with hundreds of butterfly's flapping all around us. As I mentioned before, our favorite was the glass winged butterfly which we missed the first time through. After our tour ended we decided to walk through all of the habitats again and with great determination we finally spotted about four of the glass winged butterflies. I remembered this specific butterfly from my previous visit to Costa Rica with my family in 2005. On that trip my parents faithfully entrusted me with the family camera, our one and only means of documenting our coveted family vacation. This trust lasted for only one family vacation.......it's not that I was too young for the responsibility, I was 18. I just severely lacked a shred of talent when it came to photography. Here is a photograph of the glass winged butterfly from my 2005 trip and one from our trip taken by Lauren. You can now see why I was assigned the responsibility of videographer with an auto-focusing, waterproof, shockproof, and idiot-proof GoPro :).
After the butterfly garden we had some hunger a fluttering in our stomachs and luckily for us there was a lodge with a restaurant just a little bit further down the gravel road past the butterfly garden. We got a great view from the second floor of the open air restaurant and a reasonably priced vegetarian Casado. Now that we were fueled back up it was time to continue on with our plans for the day which next included the one free hike in the area. All we knew about this hike when setting out was where it started and that it led up to the TV antennas mounted on the highest ridge in the area. The start of the "trail" was a little sketchy with broken glass from a car window on the dirt/gravel road and other debris scattered about. We continued on and felt a bit better when we passed a few houses and even saw some people working in their yards so we pressed on up the steep road. I am not sure what is a more difficult hiking terrain; a rocky terrain with natural stair stepping, or this a severely steep loosely packed dirt road which at times was difficult to keep your footing without slipping or sliding down the slope. We had to do one of those lean forward and stick your butt out and move up the incline with short steps kind of hikes. Once we started up the road it seemed to get steeper every bend we went around. Finally it seemed like we had made it up the worst of it at about the halfway point, but there was a new peril looming above in the form of dark and ominous clouds quickly rolling in over the top of the ridge ahead. Still we pressed on. While we continued our way up towards the highest ridge where the big metal antennas our conversation was paused when a flash of light about blinded us both. We stopped cold in our tracks when seconds later we heard the thunderous growl from the clouds, the rolling thunder lasted for at least a full minute. It was 1:37 pm. Remember when I mentioned earlier that the weather in Monteverde is predictably unpredictable? We learned during our week here that it is almost guaranteed to rain everyday, some days harder than others and almost like clockwork the deluge would start at 2:00 pm sharp. This being our first full day in the area we did not yet know this vital piece of information, but being the good sport that mother nature is she was giving us a fair warning and a short window of opportunity to save ourselves from what would be a muddy slip and slide back down the road to town. When the thunder finally stopped rolling and our legs stopped shaking our conscience had already made the clear call for us...get the hell out of there! It took us about 45 minutes to get up to this point on the trail, care to take a guess at how long it took us to get back down? 38 seconds....okay fine it was actually about 15 minutes and we both made it down without falling! Once we were down from the trail we certainly felt better, but were still not safe from the imminent storm so we hustled back to town and decided to stop on the way for a cup of coffee to wait things out. As we stepped in the door of the coffee shop I felt the first rain drop hit the back of my leg and when we looked back we could see people all over running for cover as the skies opened up.