Top tips for rainforest walks

Rainforest in Costa Rica
Rainforest in Costa Rica. Beata Becla/Shutterstock


There are few things more magical than a hike through Costa Rica's rainforest, spotting local wildlife and soaking up the sounds and smells of the earth. But the rainforest is a wild landscape, so I asked my experienced colleague Olga to share her top tips for preparing and taking a walk in this splendid environment... 

Rainforest… This otherworldly word brings many things to mind, from the most romantic – slowly descending sloths, the roaring sound of howler monkeys, the coarse song of keel billed toucans up on the canopy – to the very roughest, such as ongoing competition for sun and water, the pouring rains that allow diversity to thrive, the dramatic fight for life of so many creatures. Can you imagine yourself in a rainforest? The route, the path (a bit muddy, maybe?), the humid aromas, hiking boots, the movement of monkeys above your head… It sounds great, doesn’t it? It is! But when you're on the ground and walking in the actual rainforest, there are some guidelines to be aware of that will help you really enjoy the experience to its fullest.

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Be prepared for your walk in the rainforest

This is not a city walk. You are going to the jungle!

Repellent, repellent, repellent 

The first thing to do, especially if you are going to be in the lowlands, is apply repellent. But not right before entering the jungle. Long before...when you wake up in your hotel room, before going to breakfast, after you've dried off from your shower, this is the time to apply the first layer of bug spray. Yes, everywhere on your body before dressing. And then, as you put on your clothes, spray repellent on top of them. So not only in the bare areas of your body...over the clothes. You are going to the jungle and there are literally tonnes of mosquitoes. (Tonnes!) Finally, just when you are about to enter the forest, a third spray shower of repellent won't hurt. But do this before you get in, please! Not on the trail, where you will risk  spraying plants, fungi and many other invisible creatures. (As an aside, it's always a good idea to have some cream or oil repellent to apply if you want to do it inside the forest.)

Lush tropical rain forest canopy in Costa Rica. Photo:  Matt Tilghman/Shutterstock

Clothing 

Keep it fresh! It doesn't matter if you'll be walking in the montane forests at 12,000 feet or if you're right on the coast at a temperature of 37°C (100°F), clothes have to be able to breath. Technical clothing brands like Columbia or North Face are always a good idea, particularly for clothes that can be easily dried and won't get heavy if you get soaking wet. Even underwear should be considered in the same way. And in the rainforest, it rains. So leave your jeans at home! They're the worst thing you can wear in the rainforest.

Shoes

You'll need hiking boots. Ones with good tread in the soles and waterproof uppers are the best. They can be expensive, so my advice is to read a range of boot reviews before buying.

Bag

Take a waterproof bumbag (fanny pack) or small backpack where you can put a water bottle, your camera, money or anything else you want to carry. Should it be one of those with a hydration pack to easily drink your water on the go? If you like, but it's not mandatory. I've never had one in all my years of walking in the tropical rainforest, and I've survived perfectly well.


Suspension bridge in Costa Rica. Photo:  Volt Collection/Shutterstock

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Who are you going with? This is the decision: Take a tour or go it alone?

If you're going by yourself, please make sure someone knows exactly where you are going, although my advice is not to go that way. If something happens to you (and I am not talking about a snake bite here – although it can happen!) and no one is behind you on the trail, you are in big trouble. I remember once being on a forest trail by myself and seeing a silky anteater just off the path. I wanted to see it and got off the trail in just a few steps...or so I thought. It took me hours to find the trail again! In the jungle it all looks the same and getting lost happens in a matter of seconds. And even though you may think that all trails are good and as long as you don't get off them you will be fine, that's not necessarily so. Every now and then, a tree falls on the trail and the path is gone; and you're lost. So, once again, my strong advice is, please – do not go into the jungle by yourself.

"What about going with my boy/girlfriend?" Better but still not the best idea. Again, just imagine: One of you falls and breaks a leg, forcing the other one to go search for help by themselves.

The best way to see any rainforest is to go with someone who knows it well. In addition to avoiding the perils of the jungle, a good tour guide can also turn a rainforest into an amazing magical realm. First of all, they know what to look for... and where! And they usually carry a telescope to see things that are too high or far away from the trail (such as sloths, certain mammals like kinkajous or some of the big lizards; not to mention monkeys,  of course!). They also know about plants and trees, relationships between them, and interesting facts. A knowledgable tour guide really turns a walk into a fantastic learning experience.

Yes, there are some of us who are loners and like to experience the noisy silence of nature alone. If you must go by yourself, stick to a short trail close to the hotel or a National Park ranger's booth, and let the reception staff or guards know where are you going, making them aware that you are travelling alone. Please!

 Couple of tourists in rainforest in Costa Rica. Photo: CREATISTA/Shutterstock

On the trail

Do find out if there is a paper map of the trail, and use it. Hotels and parks often offer self-guided trails and maps for this purpose. Do not rely on Waze or GPS here…you may easily lose signal in the forest.

Second rule: Do not touch anything! In the rainforest there is one big word that means survival: mimetics. Not everything is made to be seen. Invisible creatures are part of life here. And from snakes to ants to spiders, they often lurk unseen on tree trunks and leaves.

Do not pull any strings. It is quite common in the rainforest to see long veins coming from the tops. Rattan is one such thing – long and tiny. Resist the urge to pull on them. You don't know what's up there!

The walk

The word is slow. Everything has to be slow. I've met people who thought that they were walking to a destination and rushed in and out of the forest. Remember, you're not walking TO somewhere, the walk IS the destination...enjoy it! Experience every bit of it. A half-mile walk can turn into a fantastic two-hour hike if you really look at everything and pay attention.

There is so much to see! From miniature orchids to monkeys up on the trees; tiny red poison dart frogs (only poisonous when you eat them, don't worry) to fast-paced iridescent hummingbirds. Walk slowly. You're on vacation, after all. There is no business meeting after this walk, only lunch.

Also, drink a lot of water, take some snacks, engage your senses, and enjoy a slow-paced, attentive walk.


A wild Capuchin Monkey in Costa Rica, Cebus capucinus. Photo: Matt Tilghman/Shutterstock

Pictures

Please avoid the use of flash photography when taking a picture of an animal, even an insect. They have eyes, and flash lights are terrible for a tiny retina. You may accidentally hurt a defenseless creature by taking a picture with a flash. Or worse, you could leave it blind, which in the forest means an almost immediate death.

When talking a picture of a poisonous snake, use your zoom lens and don't get close; no matter how curled and asleep it looks. A snake won't bite for the fun of it, but it also won't hesitate if it feels cornered.

Pay attention. A rainforest can be like one of those Russian dolls…one thing inside another. There are so many hidden amazing things to photograph!


Take it from a rainforest lover, it's all about life here. A rainforest is a region of wonder, a magnificent system where everything is connected, where awe is experienced at every step; if your senses, mind and heart are open. If you follow these few rules, your discovery of the rainforest can be full and may even be magical. So enjoy! (Be careful, but enjoy!)


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