Chile Tip to Toe

Chile Tip to Toe

Chile Tip to Toe

PAUL COOK

The one thing that everyone knows about Chile is that it is a long, thin country. Before I went a representative from one the lodges I was visiting showed me a map of the country superimposed over a map of Europe, with the northern tip of Chile amongst the fjords of Scandinavia while the southern toe rested against the desert of North Africa. However, seeing it on the map is one thing. Experiencing it in person is quite another, as I found out travelling from Atacama to Patagonia in a day.

I was travelling in the middle of September, which is the start of spring in Chile. While the nights can be chilly in the Atacama Desert at this time of year, the days are pleasantly warm and sunny. With daytime temperatures hovering around 20°C (about 70°F) the weather was perfect for a hike. On my last morning in desert, I headed off with my guide to the Catarpe Valley, a few miles outside the town of San Pedro de Atacama to follow a route which followed the ridgeline overlooking the valley. On one side, the green valley was encircled by sunblasted red hills, backed by the distant snowcapped Andes. The other side of the ridge looked like something from the planet Mars. It was a typical cloudless Atacama day with no shade, and I slathered myself with sunscreen and donned my sunhat to protect myself from the high-altitude sunshine as I hiked along in my T-shirt.

“I wasn’t ready for the snow”

After a final lunch at my lodge it was time to begin my journey south, taking the evening flight from nearby Calama to Santiago with a night in a hotel next to the airport and then the early morning flight to Punta Arenas, the gateway to Patagonia at the southern tip of Chile. The sun was shining when I landed, but as I headed out to Torres del Paine National Park, the sky darkened and I passed through drifts of fresh snow.

I thought I was prepared for the weather and I wrapped up warm in a fleece jacket with a woolly hat and thick gloves for my afternoon hike along the shores of Lake Nordenskjold, quite a change of wardrobe from the previous day. However, I wasn’t ready for the snow. The previous night had seen what was probably been the last heavy snowfall of the winter, and the ground was covered with a thick layer of snow. Even during the day, the temperature hovered around freezing, and low clouds clung to the mountain slopes bringing a light patter of fresh snow. The scenery on my trek was incredible, but I felt I had earned my beer as I warmed up around the fireplace and watched the celebrations for Chile’s Independence Day in my lodge that evening.

From blazing desert to freezing snow in just one day. It was certainly the biggest shift in climate I’ve ever experienced in a single day, and there aren’t many countries which could offer such an incredible variety.

You can read Paul’s various blogs from this journey if you’d like to know more, he’s always happy to chat about Chile if you’re considering a trip here.

Other Chile blogs by Paul include:

Leaving Paradise on Earth

Leaving Paradise on Earth

Homeward – leaving Paradise on Earth

FELICITY COWLEY

Flickcowley Photography

Continuing from her last post,

We made our last transfer by private taxi back down the windy paths but this time in daylight. It was sad to be going home after there has been so much to see. We decided that next visit would include the volcanoes and mountains. There is so much to explore despite the land mass being so small. Such a diverse green landscape just waiting to be explored. Once at the airport we collected a few memorabilia from the souvenir shop and made our way to the departure gate. Here we found the guests we’d been staying with at Playa Cativo so we caught up on our last day of adventure. They were snorkelling enthusiasts so although the high mountains weren’t their preference they enjoyed the scenery I could show them.

“We have had such a rich experience that we have been treated with Paradise – there really is nothing quite like it. ”

 

A tropical storm decided to hit San Jose just as we boarded the plane (basically telling us we should just stay!) which would have been fine if we weren’t delayed by the Cabin Crew stuck in traffic. As we were late for our take-off slot the Captain let us know that the airfield was in fact closed due to low level cloud – we needed a window of 800 foot to take off but only had approx 400 visible. Maybe we would have to stay?! I looked on hopeful but the clouds passed and night fell and our slot opened up. We left Costa Rica in mixed cloud and felt like we were leaving behind a dream. From start to finish it was just out of this world – somewhere you need to visit for yourself to truly appreciate the serenity and inquisitiveness of it all.

We landed in the UK in usual grey cloud and it was all go. We said our goodbyes to our new acquaintances along our travels and collected our bags. Car to train, train to train, train to car. All this time I had been explaining to the Ticos (Costa Ricans) about where I live in the UK – Devon – a bit like their country – its green and rains for a substantial part of the year but its just a lot colder. I looked out of the train window and thought, no its not like that at all. Its like whilst I had been away someone had turned down the saturation filter over the UK because nothing looked green any more. At that moment my Poppy messaged to say “I’m confused; the birds just look dull now.” We have had such a rich experience that we have been treated with Paradise – there really is nothing quite like it. Once I made it home I stopped before unloading everything to check my watch. It was 8:30pm UK time. It was still light. What a novelty! Our nine day adventure had some truly high moments, scary moments, fascinating moments and more importantly some seriously amazing ones. I will never forget my experience here and again I have some fantastic people to thank for the opportunity.

I am so thankful to both The Eden Project for the creation of the competition and Tribes Travel for creating an incredible, unforgettable, breathtaking, stress free experience which truly was out of this world. From start to finish we were looked after, collected, transferred, provided with tickets of  where to be and when. They thought about everything. We had seven glorious days and two days of travel. If you can stay longer it is definitely recommended. At first not being in control of your trip can be confusing but its safe to say that we were looked after at every stage – daily updates were given of important times and schedules so we could relax knowing somebody knew where we were supposed to be. Tribes Travel really excelled my expectations with a fun filled adventure – one in a million! And to The Eden Project – I can never thank you enough for choosing my photograph to win this amazing trip of a lifetime. I feel so honoured. And remember… people do win these things! What’s more; next time it could be you!

I have loved my time in Costa Rica, a true Paradise. A land so small yet so diverse. It is truly one of those places which captures you and draws on the heart strings. The people are kind and welcoming, they are friendly and forthcoming and the guides are so knowledgable because they want to bring the magic to you, to join in their passion for the World, the environment, for nature, and for the planet. It challenges you to remember to look at the World in a new perspective. To protect the land on which we live, so that it will be here for others to enjoy – in an attempt to protect the World they have opened up the door for it to flourish – to grow beside us in harmony. The land is captivating, the flora, the fauna, the richness, the colours and the fact that it is home to five percent of the worlds biodiversity in a space of 0.3 percent of the planets entire surface. It is incredible. So stunning to gaze upon and just so much to see. Take a step too quick and you have missed 10 different sets of eyes watching you pass by be of wildlife, insects, plants, trees. It is beautiful. A place which never sleeps.

I have learnt so much about the environment, the biodiversity, the wildlife, from the people who live and work in amongst the rainforests everyday. Their expertise for birdsong and plant life is so engaging, with complete passion, heart, enthusiasm, joy and delight. They are just as excited to see a Toucan as you are! And what’s more it’s genuine. It is real. These people care. And they want to share it with you so you have an incredible experience but at the same time protecting the environment being at one with nature, letting it co-exist with human interaction rather than encroach on their land and ways of life so that more can one day enjoy it too.

I never expected I would be one of those people who enter a competition to win a holiday and actually walk away with the top prize! Not only did this happen but through a Photography Competition – my favourite free-time passion. It sounds like a cliche to say ‘Does anybody actually win these prizes?’ and my response is now yes! Please enter! It could be you.

Paradise on Earth Days 6 – 8

Paradise on Earth Days 6 – 8

Paradise on Earth – Days 6-8

FELICITY COWLEY

Flickcowley Photography

Continuing from her last post, Felicity’s adventure continues …

After our goodbyes here we again hopped onto the boat to cross the water leaving our Jurassic Wonderland behind (thankfully without the dinosaurs!) The trip across the bay was stunning, the waters were smooth and reflective against the blue skies. On arrival at the airstrip at Puerto Jimenez we learnt that the plane coming to collect us managed to get a flat tyre meaning we had an hour delay. We took this opportunity to walk back to the coast and look across the gulf from the opposite side to where we stayed. It was such a clear day. We gathered some refreshments and chilled. However, once we turned to our left it suddenly looked gloomy towards the North and dark clouds looked like they were heading our way so I suggested we should make our way back. As we approached the airfield again (only slightly more commercial than Tortuguero) the rain came down monsoon style. It echoed through the tin roof. Again the staff here had many job roles under their title and the same guy who checked us in then became baggage control and hastily attempted to waterproof everything to transfer our bags safely to the plane.

Once our plane arrived and we boarded, our flight had a quick stop over in Goldifo (back across the bay) to collect more passengers on route to San Jose. Due to the fact we had an hours delay we weren’t sure what was going to happen to our transfer at the other end, but sure enough there was a private taxi with our name on it casually waiting to collect us. It took about an hour as we rose higher into the mountains and along windy roads whilst nightfall began. Men casually wondered the streets where traffic was queuing to sell sweet plantain crisps to the peckish drivers. Our driver bought a bag and shared them with us. On route, we noticed many trucks were using the Pan-American Highway being the main route through Costa Rica from North to South America. We arrived at Chayote Lodge for our last night and you could tell instantly the air was cooler. We arrived in darkness but we could see lights sparkling all around in the distance, but we did not know where we were. It was exciting to know we would wake up to a new view in the morning.

“ I lifted the blind to be greeted with a stunning sunrise…”

We enjoyed a pleasant meal in the restaurant and was joined by the owners dog aptly named ‘Chayote’. We were amongst a remarkable complex of lodges and main building surrounded by coffee plantations. They cleverly followed the theme of coffee throughout. The lodges even resembled coffee houses where they separate the beans once picked. The woodwork in the lodges even down to the toilet roll holder had been constructed using coffee plant wood. An extra service of coffee before breakfast brought to you in your own lodge topped everything. This is Coffee Lovers Paradise!

We met the owner after pudding and I scheduled a bird watching walk for the morning and then we retired to bed. We noticed above everything that here we had duvets. Not sheets. The air certainly was cooler therefore we must be high, especially as we knew coffee is supposed to be reared nearly 2000 feet above sea level.

Dawn broke and we were startled by falling avocados and a new bird which sounded a little like the seagull trying to sing in The Little Mermaid. I lifted the blind to be greeted with a stunning sunrise.. and we had a balcony. I grabbed my camera and out I went. You could see for miles. What a stunning location! We were up high on a mountain and had views across the mountainous central valley near San Jose where in the distance you could see views of Poas, Barva, and Irazu volcanoes! To our far left there was even one erupting! The light was perfect and the hues of blue were magnificent. You could see deep into the valley – where all the lights had been sparkling. The colours were just outstanding – blues and greens and just so much to distract you from everything. It was the perfect way to wake up and start the day. Feeling totally refreshed and enlightened. After sunrise I managed to tear myself away and off we went for breakfast. My guide had arrived early but was happy to wait for me but just then before my last mouthful he called out… TOUCAN! I was up. I had been anxious all week to see this particular toucan – the Keel Billed Toucan, and there it was. Bobbing in the trees above me. We had managed to find two other species of Toucan during the week, but this was my gem in the rock. I took a few snaps and then enjoyed watching its elegant dance. With a beak so big and awkward you would think they would be top heavy but he swung about high in the treetops like a gymnast. Poised, balanced, magical. Our tour had certainly begun!

“With a beak so big and awkward you would think they would be top heavy but he swung about high in the treetops like
a gymnast.”

We continued on our walk and discovered a few more birds: Steely vented Hummingbirds, Scintillant Hummingbirds, Cavinet’s Hummingbirds, Green Violet Eared Hummingbirds, Rofous Collared Sparrow, Tropical Kingbird, House Wren, Turkey Vultures, White Tipped Doves, Blue Crowned Motmot and last but not least; the national bird of Costa Rica – the Clay Coloured Thrush. Not as vibrant as its counterparts but equally as magnificent. Three hours passed and we wondered through forests and farmland and headed through the plantations back to Chayote. My guide was a plant and tree specialist and had a brilliant sense of humour (who even caught me out by whistling bird song pretending some rare exotic birds were on our fingertips!) – He was one of a kind! Before we arrived back he gathered leaves and fruit and we tasted/smelt them all. So many aromas. A small green fruit which looked like a tangerine once peeled was offered to me to try – I tried just one slice and what a rookie mistake I made! It was the sourest thing I have ever tasted. A cross between a lemon and lime and seriously powerful! When we arrived back I thanked him and told him to never stop laughing!

There was still so much on my mind, so much to take in, so many new amazing memories and stories to share. Costa Rica is incredible. They don’t use the the saying ‘Pura Vida’ for no reason – it really is Pure Life through and through. The people, the passion, the strive for a healthy environment, to live in harmony and co-exist with nature. To protect all who share the land space and complement each other with a happy medium. So much flourishes here and it makes perfect sense – everything is so well considered and all who inhabit here – people or animals – know it.

Read the next instalment of Felicity’s Costa Rica adventure shortly.

Paradise on Earth – Days 4 – 6

Paradise on Earth – Days 4 – 6

Paradise on Earth – Days 4 to 8 – The Osa Peninsula

FELICITY COWLEY

Flick Cowley Photography

Continuing from her last post, Felicity’s adventure continues …

The airfield at Tortuguero was small. In-fact, blink and you missed it. There were only two members of staff (other than the pilots standing with the plane) who wore the hats of 10. Passport, Check-In, Customs, Anything to Declare… two guys. Needless to say there was no Duty-Free. We were handed hand-written tickets and made our way across the 4 metres of forecourt. Once onboard the 16 seater we were quickly in the air, and the views were outstanding. You could see how lush the colours and density of the canopy were across the land and the river courses winding through the hills down to the sea. We headed to San Jose for a stop off and then joined another Nature Air queue for departure to Puerto Jimenez – and of course there were more staff here at Juan Santamaria and we had a much further walk to the plane!

Flying over the Golfo Dulce was stunning, the sea isn’t as deep here so it glistened a mesmerising blue colour against the green trees surrounding. Once we arrived in Puerto Jimenez (after hearing we had a trainee pilot who was on loudspeaker listening to how many feet above sea level we were)… 200, 100, 50, 20, 10, touchdown. We arrived on a small airstrip with not too much around. Immediately after stepping from the plane ‘Alan’ wearing a ‘Playa Cativo Lodge’ t-shirt greeted us and took our bags to a nearby jeep. Our adventures in the Pacific had begun.

“Hello Paradise! Hello Playa Cativo!”

FELICITY COWLEY

The jeep took us to the dock where we boarded a small speed boat and spent the next hour or so crossing the gulf. It was beautiful. Blue seas, blue skies, wind in the hair and along we bobbed. As we approached land once again it felt like we were arriving at Jurassic Park (just like in the film). We started to realise the rainforest here is also very dense and plentiful of colour.

Our lodge came into view and there stood a magnificent one piece, three story structure, rich in mahogany wood and no sign of neighbours for miles. It has its own bay and once we touched land we were greeted with fresh cool towels and a cocktail. Hello Paradise! Hello Playa Cativo! Alan took us into the open windowed structure along with our bags. He explained how things worked here.

The staff were here for us, whenever we needed them. No schedule, just when we wished to dine, they would be there to serve. The service was impeccable. They created a relaxed environment where it was encouraged to walk in bare foot so that you gave in to relax mode on holiday, which quite often people don’t. It was like having the comfort of being in your own home but with staff on hand at all times.

Our top floor suite (which we were upgraded to on arrival because it became available), was astonishing. Absolutely breathtaking. Like no where I’ve ever stayed. We had undisturbed panoramic views (no windows) around three sides of the Lodge – from the bay right around to the rainforest, with the sound of the sea and the birdsong surrounding you in this amazingly spacious room. A settee area to relax, desk area to catch up on the diary and table and chairs if you wanted chill out (and get your Domino skills up to scratch) and yet still ample room for the luxurious double bed. The bathroom too was magnificent – with double shower/wet room with a view right over the gulf looking out to the Osa Peninsula. Probably the best shower I’ve ever taken!

After exploring the lodge we had many options and the choice was ours; snorkelling, hiking, waterfall walking, bird watching, a trip to an animal sanctuary, trip to their working farm, relaxing by the pool, swimming in the sea, kayaking, paddle-boarding or just simply chilling with a book taking in the atmosphere with the warm glow of sunshine directly overhead and the odd Scarlet Macaw flying by. It was pure bliss, or ‘Pura Vida’ as they say.. Pure Life. Lizards scuttled by. Butterflies danced in the sun. Hummingbirds would share a moment and be gone the next. The sea waves gently broke the birdsong as a gentle reminder to go paddling every now and then. The water was warm and and palm trees stretched across the bay. Along the way was a picturesque pier which you could walk along to in the afternoons when the weather is a tad windier. If it gets too windy however it is not recommended to stay too long under the palms in case of falling coconuts!

“It was pure bliss, or ‘Pura Vida’ as they say.. Pure Life.”

“Costa Rica isn’t for the squeamish! ”

We decided to walk to the waterfall and went clambering over the terrain, up high and down low over the valley and found the waterfall in a picturesque setting with high foliage. A lovely place to pop along to for some peace. Along the route back we carefully stepped over tree routes and dodged ant hills when suddenly I had both feet on the ground and the ground rumbled beneath me. An aftershock of an Earthquake had reached us from Nicaragua and it was the most surreal thing to know how powerful and how far these tremors can fetch. Once we were back to the Lodge it was time to relax in the pool and put our feet up for five minutes.

One afternoon I chose to take the walk to the farm which was particularly engaging. My guide and staff at hand ‘Gustavo’ talked about the growth process of the rainforest explaining the formation of the Primary and Secondary and how the understory plays an essential role of the continuing of the bio-structure in a functional way for all to share. What fascinated me the most was the Leaf Cutter Ants and their trails made all over the understory, clearing obvious paths for them to bring forth leaf cuttings to take into the nest to stop moisture and help to develop their underground network of living space. Gustavo also explained the different ants and their job-roles. Those who clear paths, those who carry and those who fight off parasites from attacking the knees of the working ants. So much activity filled the forest, and all have their own part to play in the upkeep for  harmonic living.

I also learnt about plants growing half way up trees since there is so much water run off from the canopy, anything will grow pretty well up the tree. However, this can pose a big threat to the existing tree as the new tree or plant will send roots out and grow with gravity and once they find the forest floor can plant themselves and use the existing tree to grow around, resulting in the first tree starving of nutrients. Once we arrived at the farm I could see how economically and ozone-friendly they were. Functioning without import meant it was protecting the area, making it free from emissions and created sustainability for the guests and staff. We found tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, melons, pigs and chickens and more. Gustavo was a young guide but he already had the ongoing passion and knowledge ready to share with first come jungle goers. We found a variety of wildlife across our walk including White-Nosed Coati, Howler Monkeys, Peccary, Agouti, Great Curassow, Cherries Tanager, Bairds Trogon, Chestnut-Crested Toucan, Turkey Vultures, White-Headed Caracara, Ruddy Ground Doves, a mixture of Flycatchers, Honeycreeper and Bananaquits among others.

One evening at Playa Cativo we congregated with the other guests – two British Couples and a UK travel agent who had popped by for one night. Gustavo had planned us a night hike so we could finally find out which creatures were keeping us up at night! With wellingtons, cameras and torches at the ready we started off at 6pm – after total darkness settled in with no light to spoil our view. Noise instantly surrounded us. Frogs, crickets, birds and other insects I didn’t have a sound bank for. We spotted a green tree frog almost instantly followed by several toads – some of which we were instructed were poisonous. We continued around the parameter of the land and were told to keep our eyes out for snakes! Because we were missing our vision it almost heightened our senses into sound and smell. As we delved deeper we kept finding more and more… it truly is on your doorstep, nature just surrounds you here. We found crabs on leaves, spiders, grasshoppers the size of my hand.

 

The Leaf Cutters dare I say were tucked up safely in their underground shelter as their paths lay dormant in the night. We found frogs galore, the smallest ones in fact made the loudest noise which almost distracted us from the marvel which lay calmly in the bush behind us – none other than the Red Eyed Tree Frog. Yes! One happy photographer! We didn’t expect to find much more but at last minute out popped the giant Red Eyed Bullfrog like he wanted to steal the show. We were almost back to the lodge when suddenly we discovered a snake resting on the leaves beside us. The walk certainly wasn’t for the faint hearted! Then again, Costa Rica isn’t for the squeamish! Its an adventure for those seeking it, and what you put in you’ll get out. We headed back in to the comfort of the Lodge and sat down as one table for dinner so we could enjoy chatting about our new exciting experience.

Read the next instalment of Felicity’s Costa Rica adventure shortly.

We had an enchanting stay at Playa Cativo. The cuisine was impeccable and served when you were ready, not the other way round. It was rich in taste and was cooked with all the fresh produce from the farm. The buttery garlic chicken was to die for and the white chocolate cheesecake was pure bliss. I couldn’t give them enough credit for their culinary skills here.

Chocolate a divine gift

Chocolate a divine gift

Amanda Marks
TRACY EDWARDS
Tribes Travel Consultant

Costa Rica is an incredible place!
Not only does it have stunning wildlife, pristine beaches and plenty of adventure, but did you know you can also have a genuine cultural experience with indigenous tribes?
I didn’t.

I am always weary about ‘tribal tours’ as many have become a tourist attraction rather than a real look at the local way of life. I was very pleasantly surprised by the Bri Bri tribe and the village tour on my recent trip and think it is a ‘must’ for visitors.

“I’m not sure orange is my colour!”

The Bri Bri reservation is in the province of Limon, approximately 30 mins from Puerto Viejo town and you can do this tour from many of the hotels in this area. You will be accompanied by a bilingual guide and you will quickly find yourself immersed in the middle of the rainforest learning about farming methods, hunting techniques (not practised anymore), medicines from the land, houses and most importantly chocolate – one of their most sacred beliefs is that chocolate, from the cacao plant, is a divine gift which they use for natural medicine and purification rituals as well as for a source of food.

I tried miracle fruit, which is exactly what it’s called, a miracle because it had me eating a whole lime and thinking it tasted delicious. It does something to your taste buds…. for the better. I learnt ‘forest makeup’ with the numerous seeds and plants used for nail polish and eye shadow. I’m not sure orange is my colour but fascinating nonetheless.

Chocolate tour

Where it all begin…the cacao fruit

Then grinded into…….

 

Dried seeds being roasted

Delicious chocolate

Rory crushes the seeds

Sampling our ‘banana sandwich’

Once you’ve seen how the families live and sustain their culture by growing fruits, beans, rice and other native crops, you then learn about chocolate making, a highlight indeed. When I looked at my Dairy Milk bar at home I honestly don’t think about where it came from, but seeing it (and making it) first hand is a wonderful experience. Of course, you get to sample the fruits of your labour with a banana/chocolate ‘sandwich’ followed by some hot chocolate.

At the end of the tour the local families do have a small gift shop where you can purchase hand crafted items, but in no way, are you pressured into buying anything. Your finish your tour a with few minutes’ drive to one of the many beautifully, cool waterfalls where you can relax and enjoy the refreshing water.

The Small Stuff aka Ant-tastic

The Small Stuff aka Ant-tastic

Normally when we talk about our travels, we tend to focus on the big stuff – the large mammals, fearsome reptiles and brightly coloured birds – and it is all too easy to overlook the small stuff. On my recent trip to Costa Rica, I saw plenty of bigger creatures – monkeys, sloths, crocodiles, toucans, macaws – but what about the little critters? After all, the rainforest is home to millions of different species of insects.

It’s not just the little biting insects I’m thinking of either. They can be found in Costa Rica of course, you can’t escape them in the rainforest, although they are less of a pest than in the Amazon. Beautiful butterflies catch the eye wherever you travel in the country, with iridescent Blue Morphos wafting through the forest and bold Zebra Butterflies standing out in the cloudforest. Looking carefully you can easily find beetles and millipedes on the forest floor, although you have to be lucky to find the Hercules Beetle, one of the largest insects in the world.

Morpho peleides

  • The brilliant blue color in the
    butterfly’s wings is caused by
    the diffraction of the light
    from millions of tiny scales
    on its wings.
  • The entire Blue Morpho
    butterfly lifecycle, from
    egg to adult is only 115 days

Somewhat less pleasant are the convoys of army ants which march through the undergrowth, clearing everything in their path. If you watch carefully, you can see dismembered limbs of insects and even small birds and mammals being carried along in their tide. For me though, it is another type of ant, the leaf-cutter ants which really fascinates.

forest-floor

I’ve seen leaf-cutter ants many times in the rainforest. The ants find the paths cleared by us humans through the forest undergrowth perfect highways, and I have often had to step over convoys of ants, each carry a freshly cut leaf back to their colony. However, staying at El Remanso in the Osa Peninsular, my guide Felix really brought the complex society of the leaf-cutter ants to life.

Leaf-cutter ants are of course the only other species on the planet that practices agriculture, and their society is said to be the most complex in the animal kingdom after humanity. The ants strip plants of their greenery, capable of stripping a tree to the branches in a matter of days, and can be seen hauling pieces of leaves many times bigger than themselves underground to cultivate the fungus which feeds the colony. Each colony is a vast city containing a many as ten million ants with dozens of entrance mounds leading to hundreds of subterranean chambers.

At first the ants just look like – well ants – but Felix was quick to point out the different castes.
Tiny minimis scout around the convoys and protect the heavily laden workers from parasites,
often hitching a lift on the back of a leaf, while majors are the soldier caste using their fearsome
jaws to defend the colony. Holding a soldier careful by the thorax, my guide demonstrated its
strength as the little ant clamped its jaws onto his hat and refused to let go, bearing the weight of
the hat, many times its own weight in its powerful grip. I learnt to respect the soldiers after that
and give them a wide berth.

Leafcutter ants can carry more than 5000 times their body weight and cut and process fresh vegetation (leaves, flowers, and grasses) to serve as the nutritional substrate for their fungal cultivars.

Hidden deep underground, a single queen is mother to the entire colony, living for over a dozen years laying thousands of eggs each day. Felix explained how the queen is shifted from chamber to chamber underground, giving birth to daughter queens who fly high above the rainforest carrying a scrap of fungus with them to start a new colony. Only the strongest males can catch the young queens who mate just once on their first flight, storing the sperm needed to populate the entire colony.

I thought there was no way to see inside the colony, but back in San Jose for a travel conference I met someone even more obsessed with the leaf-cutter ants than myself. At La Quinta lodge in Sarapiqui, Leo Herra has created an artificial colony with a glass wall, allowing visitors to peer inside the world of the ants and search out the queen and her nursemaids. That is a must-see for my next trip to Costa Rica.