Each morning in Cahuita, I sip a hot coffee on my little patio and watch in silence as multiple species of hummingbird, tanager and woodpecker go about their morning routine.
Just as the early bird catches the worm, the early human captures the bird in Cahuita. I keep my weapon, a Canon 600D with a telephoto zoom lens, within easy reach and snap every new visitor. Twitching has never been easier.
When I manage to scrape myself out of my hammock, I hike into the national park on the far side of the town, where an 8.5km trail is home to countless species. One shaded path hugs the shoreline for most of the walk and I regularly dip out to watch the waves running up to the tree line. Most days the park is relatively quiet, with only a few other groups being guided through. I choose not to be guided (possible in this particular park as there’s only one way to walk and absolutely no chance of getting lost). As I continue the trail crosses a river outlet – it’s boots off and a bare foot wade for this part – and narrows slightly as it ducks back behind the ocean.
Towards Punta Vargas, a beautifully protected stretch of tropical sand behind Cahuita’s reef, most people stop for the day to enjoy a swim and a sunbathe. Although by this point my sun lotion, repellent and sweat has formed a permanent glisten on my skin, I keep walking. I’m rewarded with the emptiest part of the hike. Silence enough to spot leaves rustling in the high canopies that turn out to be bright toucans and aracaris.
A slow pace guarantees that the undergrowth’s inhabitants – agoutis, racoons, anoles and crabs don’t dash before I arrive. I stop momentarily to snap my unassuming subjects; a moment of precious eye contact shared between us. The trail twists and turns, still never more than a few meters from the sea, although the fauna encroaches just that little bit more overhead. I’m careful to duck the cobwebs of the golden orb spider and am cautious not to grab vines that might in fact, be snakes.
Less sinister perhaps, are the butterflies and hermit crabs that cross my path. Almost the size of my hand with a 12cm wingspan, colossal blue morphs change from vivid blue to intricate brown and white circles as they flutter past. Underfoot I have to take care not to tread on crabs carrying their colourful homes on their backs – diving into tiny burrows or collecting inside the trunks of large trees.
As I decide to turn back, I spot one of the park’s most dangerous inhabitants; a yellow eyelash viper. Coiled neatly on a large root at a distance I’m comfortable with, I zoom in with my camera to get a better look.
Retracing my steps at mid-afternoon, I’m grateful for the shade of the canopy and even more grateful when I realise I’m not alone in seeking the shade. A troop of howler monkeys move overhead, using their hook-like tails to dangle from branches to feed on berries. I’m still alone on the path as a cautious mother encourages her little baby to swing to a new tree. He bridges the gap with innate expertise and I continue on.
As one of Costa Rica’s smallest national parks, Cahuita packs a punch for the wildlife it holds. Although perhaps I should assume this rewarding ratio in a tiny country that apparently holds over 5% of the world’s total species. However, there may be a twist in my romantic tale.
During my first few days on the coast, unseasonal storms had eaten up both beaches. Sea surges and broken fauna had rendered a huge swathe of the national park impassable and snorkelling on the endangered reef dangerous. Already macaws and tapirs have been deemed extinct on this Caribbean coast and I wonder weather global warming, as well as development of the towns here for tourism, is going to endanger other species in the future.
For now at least, Cahuita’s array of colourful species are protected, but for how long there will be hummingbirds at breakfast here is by no means certain.