Remote RESERVA RARA AVIS, 17km south of Puerto Viejo and about 80km northeast of San José, offers one of the most thrilling and authentic ecotourism experiences in Costa Rica. Bordering the northeastern tip of pristine Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo, the reserve features both primary rainforest and some secondary cover dating from about 35 years ago and boasts an incredibly diverse rainforest flora. The area is home to a number of unique palm species, including the stained-glass palm tree, a rare specimen much in demand for its ornamental beauty, and the walking palm, whose tentacle-like roots can propel it over a metre of ground in its lifetime as it “walks” in search of sunlight. Orchids are also numerous, as are non-flowering bromeliads, heliconias, huge ancient hardwood trees smothered by lianas, primitive ferns and other plants typically associated with dense rainforest cover.
Established in 1983 by American Amos Bien (a former administrator of the Estación Biológica La Selva), forest ranger Robert Villalobos and biologist Carlos Gómez, Rara Avis combines the functions of a tourist lodge and a private rainforest reserve, and is dedicated to both the conservation and farming of the area. A pioneer in the country’s ecotourism movement, its ultimate objective is to show that the rainforest can be profitable, giving local smallholders a viable alternative to clearing the land for cattle. Rara Avis supports a number of endemic plants that have considerable economic potential, including geonoma epetiolata, or the stained-glass palm, which was until recently believed to be extinct. Another significant part of the reserve’s mandate is to provide alternative sources of employment in nearby Las Horquetas, where most people work for the big fruit companies or as day-labourers on local farms.
Rara Avis also functions as a research station, accommodating student groups and volunteers whose aims include development of rainforest products – orchids, palms and so forth – as crops, as well as the silk of the golden orb spider.
Watching wildlife at Rara Avis
Watching wildlife at Rara Avis
A mind-boggling number of bird species have been identified at Rara Avis, and it’s likely that more are yet to be discovered. As well as the fearsome black, turkey and king vultures and the majestic osprey, you might see nine species of parrot, over twenty types of antbird, thirty different species of hummingbird, both chestnut-mandibled and keel-billed toucans, and the unlikely named great potoo. The endangered great green macaw also nests here, and trogons, bare-necked umbrellabirds and the distinctive-looking three-wattled bellbird can also be spotted.
Among the more common mammals are opossums, monkeys, armadillos, anteaters, sloths and bats (eleven species in total). The reserve harbours five of the country’s six cat species, though the closest you’ll probably come to an ocelot or jaguar is discovering their tracks on a muddy trail. You may also encounter the Watson’s climbing rat that frequents the Waterfall Lodge and has a voracious appetite for hand soap.
Amphibians and reptiles are abundant, ranging from the tree-climbing salamander to the white-lipped mud turtle, and including eight species of tree frog alone. Along with other vipers, the fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes, two of the most venomous in the world, may lie in wait, so take extra care on the trails by looking everywhere you step and put your hand. Boa constrictors also hang out here; if you do see one, be careful as the generally torpid boa can get aggressive when bothered.