Our guide, Cristian, stopped on the trail, his torch shining downwards.
“What is it?” we whispered, half hoping it wasn’t the puma that had been spotted nearby, or the jaguar he had joked was stalking us from above.
“I can smell something. Yes, it’s a tarantula,” Cristian replied.
Although it was dark, I tried to scan his face for clues. I’m known to be quite gullible, so I have to be wary in situations like these. “What do they smell like?”
“Well, to be a guide you have lots of training. It takes years to smell it. I can’t describe it really.”
Following the stony path, we stopped to shine our torches into the small holes that burrowed into the verge. Where the path grew wider, we stopped to gaze up at the starry sky with the unmistakable wisp of milky way.
We were walking inside the cloud forest at Refugio de Vida Silvestre, where 30 hectares of cultivated farmland was transformed into a protected refuge for the wildlife.
“Here!” We gathered round a hole the size of a saucer. Poking out, we saw four very hairy legs. Behind those, eight shiny eyes studied us carefully, before retreating slowly. I surreptitiously sniffed the air, hoping to smell something.
During the night tour, our guide pointed out creatures of all sizes, hiding in the undergrowth or concealed in the canopy. Although sightings are never guaranteed when it comes to wildlife tours, with 60% of the wildlife here being nocturnal in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, we had a good chance of seeing some animals.
Giant stick insects the length of my forearm and fat glow-in-the-dark caterpillars crawled along twigs that shook as they moved. In the depths of the forest, we turned off our lights and as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, a log appeared to emit its own bioluminescence due to the fungi that grew over it.
Higher up, we spotted a sleeping brown jay that had puffed up its chest to stay warm. Beyond it, we saw a male-gartered trogon with its distinctive orange breast. Then not far away, our guide spotted a snoozing white-tailed sabrewing with striking oil-spill feathers.
Armed with a UV torch, I was tasked with trying to find a scorpion in the dead leaves. Some insects are able to see beyond the spectrum of human sight, so using UV light can reveal lichen and other organisms that are not usually discernible to the human eye. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to locate a scorpion, but we did enjoy the fluorescent disco shoes of our hiking companions.
Climbing further into the reserve, Cristian blocked the path with his telescope and asked us to take a peek. Right in front of us hung an acid green snake, only 7ft away. The side-striped palm pit viper is extremely venomous, and can be fatal if an antidote isn’t administered in time. Coiled up and ready to strike, its pale eyes were scanning the ground for a tasty rodent.
Just around the corner, a larger pit viper was scaling a thorny tree. Despite the inhospitable bark, the snake persevered to reach an unlucky wren’s nest.
The highlight of our night tour was seeing a sloth high in a tree. The Hoffman’s two-toed sloths are the only sloth species here in Monteverde, as the three-toed variety have thinner coats and dislike the cooler climate. The female was visibly pregnant and happily munching away on leaves.
Contrary to popular belief, she moved at quite some speed! The locals here call sloths ‘perezoso,’ meaning lazy, but this nickname seemed undeserved after watching her in action. After two minutes, she had clambered into the dense growth, just in time to create a veritable challenge for the next passing group.
If you would like to sign up for the Refugio de Vida Silvestre tour, you can easily book it through your hostel/hotel here in Monteverde / Santa Elena.
Tour: Refugio de Vida Silvestre (Wildlife Refuge), Monteverde
Website: Relaunching soon. More information here.
Cost: $25 per person, plus a 10% tip for your guide in dollars. Discount available for residents.
Duration: 2-3 hours.
Time: 6pm and 8pm every night.
Group size: small, maximum of 8 people per group. We had just 4 in ours, and didn’t bump into any other groups except to share the sloth sighting.
Fitness level: Easy to moderate walk. Might be muddy after rainfall.
What to bring: Raincoat, suitable walking shoes, long sleeves and trousers.
Optional: water, binoculars, camera/mobile phone. We didn’t need insect repellent as we’re at high altitude here.
Included: Spanish or English-speaking guide, torches for each person, a telescope to take photographs/videos through using your mobile.
Lodge amenities: free coffee and bathroom.
We will definitely be returning again soon in the hope of spotting an armadillo, kinkajou, opossum, coati, pygmy owl, resplendent quetzal, scorpion and the resident cloud forest tree frog!