CENTRAL AMERICA: TREKKING CLOUD FORESTS AND CANYONS

By David Dannecker
Senior Editor

This is the third article in our 2015 Week of Photo Journals: Changing Perspectives. Check back each day this week to see more beautiful photography and travel accounts from UC San Diego students. Click on the images in the article to view the photos up close.

In my third year as an undergrad, I had the amazing experience of studying abroad in Costa Rica. I spent two and a half months living in Costa Rica, followed up by a month of exploring Nicaragua and Belize. The nations of Central America host a range of stunning environments, from crystalline coastlines and boggy mangrove forests, to humid lowland forests and river valleys, to otherworldly cloud forests threaded through the many mountain ranges. Amid all of these beautiful ecosystems, Central America also hosts a mind-boggling amount of native biodiversity, much like their Amazonian neighbors. Costa Rica alone has five percent of the world’s biodiversity, including thousands of species of insects and plants, and hundreds of species of birds, mammals and reptiles.

Costa Rica Cloud Forest

In Costa Rica, I had the chance to venture into the Monteverde Cloud Forests on horseback. Cloud forests are tropical forests that tend to occur at higher elevations around the world. Besides Central America, cloud forests can also be found in the mountains of South America, the highlands of tropical Africa, and the islands of Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. As you can see in the photo above, these forests are aptly named for the ever-present cloud banks which permeate the forest canopy. In fact, some of the cloud forest’s native plant species have adapted to utilize the moisture held in the mist, absorbing water from the so-called ‘horizontal precipitation’ in order to better withstand the tropical dry season.

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

Violet Sabrewing

Monteverde is known for its access to one of Costa Rica’s best-preserved cloud forests, and the incredible diversity of birds and insects that call it home. Particularly notable are the hummingbirds – 14 different species of brightly-colored and energetic hummingbirds can be found in the town of Monteverde alone. Compare that to the 54 species found in Costa Rica as a whole, and it’s clear why Monteverde is a prime destination for tropical birders. The photos show two of the 14 species that can be found in Monteverde, tending to artificial feeders at a local butterfly garden: a female Purple-throated Mountain-gem (Lampornis calolaemus) [top] and a male Violet Sabrewing (Campylopterus hemileucurus) [bottom].

Orange and Black Froghopper

Caterpillar

Butterfly with eyespots

The size of Costa Rica’s insect community is staggering. You can hardly walk through the rain forest without encountering a species of insect that you haven’t seen before. The sizes range from walking sticks several inches long and moths the size of a human hand, down to plentiful minuscule species that you’d scarcely notice. Costa Rica has over 300,000 species of insects, comprising the vast majority of the species that have been described in the country. Pictured are an orange and black species of planthopper (Auchenorrhyncha) [top], a well-defended caterpillar [middle], and a sizable Lepidopteran showcasing prominent eyespots for defense as it rests on the underside of a fern [bottom].

Fer-de-lance

Eyelash Viper

Snakes are another category of species that are especially diverse in Costa Rica. Over 160 species of snakes can be found in the country, and 22 of them are venomous. Pictured here are two of the more venomous species: the Fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper) [top] and the Eyelash Viper (Bothriechis schlegelii) [bottom]. Fer-de-lances are generally considered the most dangerous of Costa Rica’s venomous snakes, and bites can often be critical, especially if you are not near an emergency medical center or hospital. The arboreal eyelash vipers are also quite venomous, but are smaller, and less prone to biting humans unless directly provoked or disturbed. Eyelash vipers also occur in a broad range of color variations, from mossy camouflaged patterns like this one, to bright yellows, greens and blues.

Somoto region panorama

Somoto Canyon

Somoto Canyon Walls

After my study program ended, I spent a couple of weeks exploring Nicaragua, devoting much of that time to the mountainous northern region. Nicaragua has quite a few amazing natural sites to offer, especially if you are willing to venture slightly off the beaten path. Near the small town of Somoto, guides are available to lead you on a tour of Somoto Canyon, which is an incredible geologic feature that was actually fairly unexplored until just over 10 years ago. The steep walls rise up on either side of the often narrow canyon as you hike, swim and float your way from one end to the other. It makes for some spectacular views.

Miraflor waterfall

Arbol Historico

Another attraction well worth a look in Nicaragua is the Miraflor Natural Reserve. Home to plenty of biodiversity, engaging hiking trails, friendly guides, and picturesque waterfalls, Miraflor is really an unmissable diversion if you find yourself in the city of Estelí. One truly unique sight in the reserve was a 600-year-old tree (Ceiba pentandra) that stands between two open fields. At that age, the tree has been standing since before Europeans ever visited Nicaragua.

Tapir

Jaguar

After my time in Nicaragua, I flew northward to Belize for the final leg of my journey. Lying on the eastern coast of Central America, Belize had a far more Caribbean atmosphere, both in terms of environment and culture, than the largely Pacific areas of Nicaragua and Costa Rica I’d seen so far. Belize is sparsely populated, and so much of its natural land is untrammeled by human development. One of the easiest ways to witness some of Belize’s most impressive native wildlife is to pay a visit to the Belize Zoo. Founded as a sanctuary for tame native species that had been filmed for a documentary in the 1980s, the Belize Zoo now houses an impressive collection of some of Central America’s most iconic wildlife, including the Tapir (Tapirus bairdii), which is the national animal of Belize and the largest terrestrial animal in Central America, and the Jaguar (Panthera onca), the largest species of feline in the Western Hemisphere. While Belize has plenty of natural spaces where it is possible to view these species in situ, visiting the Belize Zoo is a nice way to guarantee a view of some of Belize’s rarer species.

Howler Monkey

Central America is home to fewer than 10 species of monkey. That figure pales in comparison to the dozens of primate species that can be found in the Amazon rain forest. Nevertheless, monkeys in Central America play several crucial roles in the ecosystem, having spread out to fill different niches. Squirrel monkeys are omnivorous; spider monkeys are active, mobile herbivores; and capuchins are voracious generalists, eating insects and fruits, but even going so far as preying on lizards and birds. Howler monkeys [pictured] are much more lethargic and eat the most foliage of the various species. They spend the vast majority of their time sleeping.

Bats indoors

Bats outdoors

Bats comprise about one fifth to one quarter of all mammal species worldwide. In the tropics, the proportion is even greater. Bats make up over half of the mammal species in Costa Rica, and nearly 60 percent of mammal species in Belize. Bats perform many vital services, from pollinating flowers, to dispersing fruit seeds, to keeping the insect population under control. While many tropical bats are under threat from disease and habitat destruction, some bats have been able to find ways to coexist with human communities. Pictured [top] is a small colony of bats sleeping in the rafters of a visitor center in Bermudian Landing, Belize. The second picture shows a roost of well-hidden bats, camouflaging against the bark of a tree on the banks of a river in northern Belize.

Black-collared Hawk

Vermillion Flycatcher

One of my final stops in Belize was the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. This sanctuary sits on a lagoon and is best known as a birdwatching hotspot. I saw over 50 different species of birds on a two-hour boat tour, and it wasn’t even peak season. Belize has a singularly impressive 543 species of birds, including perennial species and migrants. To put that diversity in perspective, Belize is slightly smaller than the State of Massachusetts, but Massachusetts is only home to roughly 200 species of birds. Pictured here are a striking Black-collared Hawk (Busarellus nigricollis) moments before taking flight, and an equally stunning Vermillion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) perched on a fence, both observed at the Crooked Tree Sanctuary.

All images by David Dannecker, Prospect Senior Editor

ICELAND: THE COUNTRY OF FIRE AND ICE

By Natasha Azevedo
Contributing Writer

This is the first article in our 2015 Week of Photo Journals: Changing Perspectives. Check back each day this week to see more beautiful photography and travel accounts from UC San Diego students. Click on the images in the article to view the photos up close.

One week after my arrival in Iceland, I had already: jumped off a 30-foot cliff into Iceland’s most dangerous river; rafted through the rapids of Hvíta; caught a geyser erupting near Þingvellir National Park; rode an Icelandic horse through lava fields; and photographed three separate waterfalls on the south coast. For two months I was fortunate enough to work as a photojournalist and marketing intern for Arctic Adventures, one of Iceland’s main tourism companies. I’m still quite confused on how I ended up there, but my penchant for hopping on planes alone gave me another summer of incredible solo adventures, making Iceland one of my favorite countries thus far.

Þórsmörk Valley

Þórsmörk Valley

As the company’s summer photographer, I primarily conducted my work across Iceland’s incredible landscapes, shooting out in the field about four times per week. This first photo was taken on a nine-hour hike through Þórsmörk, known as the Valley of Thor (as in Thor from Marvel’s Avengers). Rightfully named, there was nothing but thunder and hail for a six-hour vertical climb until the skies cleared for 10 magical minutes and this rainbow emerged.

Skogafoss

Skogafoss

One of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls for international tourists, Skogafoss is truly a sight to see. Iceland doesn’t believe in fencing off the wilderness, partly due to the constant shifts in the environment. You’ll catch glimpses of Icelanders and tourists alike swimming in nearby pools, or even jumping off the smaller waterfalls in the north.

Landmannalaugar

Landmannalaugar

Easily one of my favorite places in Iceland, Landmannalaugar is a jewel of the highlands. This photograph captures the natural hot springs that emerge in the region, where geothermal activity makes springs like these a Jacuzzi for hikers taking day trips.

Skaftafell Glacier Lagoon

Skaftafell Glacier Beach

Skaftafell Glacier Lagoon and Beach

Skaftafell is a key location for volcanic activity in Iceland, largely situated near Vatnajökull Glacier. After hiking Skaftafell’s glaciers for a few hours with a group of Japanese tourists, I accompanied a guide to the famous glacier lagoon. As glacier chunks melt, a small river carries the pieces to a beach on the opposite side of the lagoon. With only 20 minutes left before I had to board a ship, I sprinted over to the beach to capture the beautiful simplicity of these giant glacier pieces.

Laugavegur Trail

Laugavegur Trail

Laugavegur Trail

Laugavegur Trail

Laugavegur Trail

One week of my stay was dedicated to embarking on one of National Geographic’s Dream Treks: the Laugavegur trail. The 36-mile trek was brutally breathtaking: my legs turned orange and green from crossing glacial rivers on foot, several hours were characterized by thick fog and hail, and the ground constantly changed from snow to ice to mud. While the trek transported me into a different world, where herds of horses galloped by and picturesque valleys emerged at every turn, travelers should be cautioned to take a guide, as memorials dot the landscape to remember solo nature enthusiasts who could not prevail against the harsh weather conditions.

Gulfoss Flows

Gulfoss Flows

Day trips to famous waterfalls were some of my favorite days throughout the summer, when I could stare at beautiful falls such as Gulfoss. Gulfoss is the iconic destination in Iceland’s Golden Circle, the most popular area for tourists each summer.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

If you’ve ever searched “Iceland” on Google Images, Seljalandsfoss will be the first waterfall to appear. One can walk all the way around the waterfall, as a cave lets you go beneath the falls. Icelandic parents often tell their young children that trolls are in the cave in order to deter them from getting too close; mythical legends of trolls and fairies are fun tales that Icelanders enjoy. Seljalandsfoss is one of hundreds of waterfalls that scatter the south coast. As you drive along the main highway, one can easily observe six waterfalls cascading from the cliffs along the road in merely 10 minutes.

Skaftafell’s Glacier

Skaftafell’s Glacier

Throughout my internship, I was able to photograph and pursue a myriad of activities including cliff jumping, ATV-ing, snowmobiling, whale watching, kayaking, snorkeling, and one of my ultimate favorites: glacier climbing. I spent four hours on this particular glacier, yet had the opportunity to get comfortable in crampons on a few other glaciers across the country. Towards the end of my stay, I helped photograph a music video for the Icelandic band Árstíðir on top of Langjökull, making some of my favorite memories of Iceland on glaciers.

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir is an almost reverent spot for many Icelanders, as the first parliament was established here. One can also find Silfra in the park, a fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates where I snorkeled in melted glacial water. Very cold.

Harpa

Harpa

I spent an inordinate amount of time in Iceland’s wilderness, feeling kind of like the female version of the film “Into the Wild”. It can get pretty lonely in lava fields and volcanic valleys, so occasionally checking in with civilization was nice. Because my apartment was based in Reykjavik, I spent a few evenings per week exploring the city. One of my favorite locations? Harpa, the famous concert hall along the shore. The building is a bit controversial as the government used taxpayer’s money to finish the hall during the recession, but the staff at Harpa is wonderful: you can roam the hallways in a wedding gown or muddy boots and a filthy jacket… all visitors are welcome.

Guido Van Helten's Graffiti

Guido Van Helten’s Graffiti

One of the best aspects of Reykjavik, besides its eclectic collection of cafes, colorful rooftops, or constant music festivals, is the way in which you can stumble upon beautiful street art at any corner. This particular photo captures the graffiti of Guido Van Helten, an Australian artist who was constantly arrested for tagging in Melbourne before pursuing a visual arts degree in Brisbane and re-defining graffiti through commissioned works throughout the world.

All images by Natasha Azevedo, Prospect Contributing Writer