Rainforest Guiding: Whose Idea Was This Anyway?

Maria Fadiman

When I was a junior in college I found the opportunity to volunteer as a rainforest guide. However, I knew nothing about the rainforest. Learning all I could that first time, after I graduated from Vassar (after a six month stint cocktail waitressing in Vail, CO), I returned as a paid guide. I wrote each night using a candle, battling the insects for use of the flame. The submitted writing includes various pieces of my time learning, laughing and falling in the jungle.


(Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica)



          A shiver runs through my body, ending in my toes now curling away from the edges of my flip-flops. A demon looks at me.

          Okay, it’s just a snake, but it’s a fer de lance, commonly called terciopelo in Spanish, meaning velvet trim. Apparently the dark diamond pattern on its back looks velvety. Never knew velvet could be so creepy. The fer de lance has a brown body with light tan marks that crisscross its body, making a pattern of triangles. It has a large diamond shaped head and long fangs out of which comes highly toxic venom. The snake is known for its edgy disposition, and is one of the most dangerous fauna in Middle America, causing the most snake-bite related deaths in Costa Rica. To top it off, they can get big, growing to be more than two meters long.  The specimen in front of me barely fits in the jar with the formaldehyde. I know the fangs are tucked in there somewhere. I’m certain that when darkness falls it will slither out and track me down in the night. However, this one in front of me is not really the problem.

          “The big snake, the fer del lance, is aggressive,” Luis says.

          “Right,” I respond, feigning calm.

          “It will even bite at your flashlight beam.”

          My flashlight beam? Who bites at light? Scary snakes apparently.

          “If you see one, don’t run,” he continues. “You don’t know what else might be out there.”

          What else?  “Okay” I say.

          Luis’s voice is as calm as if he’s giving me a basic math lesson. I never liked math much, but it’s looking good in comparison. “If you’re falling,” he says, which I learned will be a daily, if not hourly, occurrence in a world of rain forest mud, “don’t grab anything. Various trees have poisonous thorns. And of course, there are the tree vipers.”

          I nod. Tree vipers?

          Unconsciously, I pull my feet off the floor up onto the rungs of my chair.

          “You need to be careful out here.”

          “Right.” Thanks for the advice.

          “There are also the wild peccaries,” he says in the same even voice.

          “Wild what?” my voice comes out in a particularly high register. He seems not to notice.

          “Wild pigs.”

          “Oh,” I say, picturing a band of little bright pink pigs. I didn’t know there were little Wilburs out here.

          “Large brown hairy hogs. The males have tusks.”

          “Oh.” Decidedly un-Wilberesque. Charlotte’s Web was indeed not set in the rainforest.

           “A few are okay, but they can travel in groups of up to 150 and can bite you up into little bits.”

           “So, if they come?”

          “Climb a tree,” Luis answers.

           “But, the tree vipers?”

          “Look first,” he says.

          Good thought.

          “Oh, and if you are with tourists, make sure you help the tourists up before you climb,” he adds, without even a hint of a smile.

           “So the tree vipers get them first?” I almost say.  “Of course,” I say quietly.

           “Don’t grab any handrails around the lodge without looking under them first,” Luis continues. Too late, I think. I’d practically dragged myself up the hill hanging onto the handrails.


          Terrific. I’m going to love it here.


          The four seat plane circles. The pilot aims for the grass runway…again. Beneath me, the scene sprawls out green on three sides and blue on the fourth. It looks like paradise from up here. And, if I embrace an inordinate amount of mud and a preponderance of creatures that bite and sting into my definition of paradise, perhaps it is. After landing, boating, slogging through the ocean to shore, heaving myself up the hill, sweaty, and full of doubt, I’ve arrived. Luis, the director of the Marenco Biological Station and Lodge is in his late twenties, dark curly hair frames his face and large brown eyes directly look at me. Not much blinking. He wears white pants, rolled up above his ankles and a blue cotton button down shirt tops the outfit. He periodically wipes the sweat from his upper lip. A biologist by training, academic with a gentle and matter of fact way about him, Luis stands in front of me pointing to the jars of snakes, explaining my surroundings. We are on the Osa Peninsula on the west coast of Costa Rica in a tropical rainforest that leads right into the pacific ocean. The lodge has its own tract of land, and they also take guests to the national parks of Corcovado Park and Caño Island. We sit on the main deck covered with a thatch roof and open on all sides, revealing the ocean view. Cabins dot the hillside where guests stay.

           I was19, in college, and had just finished a study abroad program in Mexico. I figured that while I was in Latin America, I’d look for a summer job. I came across an opportunity to guide in a biological station. My credentials were that I spoke some Spanish, could analyze literature pretty well, and….those were all my credentials. They certainly did not include any knowledge of the rainforest. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.


          “Check your sleeping bag at night, scorpions, snakes….” Luis continues.

           “Okay” I answer. Whose idea was it to come out here anyway?  Oh right, mine.

          “Don’t knock the roof thatch; it’s a good home for scorpions and rats.”

           Fabulous. “Okay,” I say.

          “Alright, that’s enough for now.” He starts to walk away then turns back.  “Sleep well.”

          Are you crazy? “Thanks,” I say, and manage a little wave.

          Sleep well? Sure, no problem. Carefully, very carefully, I walk to my room and climb up the ladder. I have been assigned a bed above the office.  A little wooden platform was originally built to store boxes, and now apparently houses sucker gringas.  If I stand all the way up, my head will hit the thatch. Critter-filled thatch. I crouch.

          Opening my sleeping bag with thumb and forefinger, I peek into the folds. Moving as if in a vat of jello, trying to keep my head back far enough in case something comes flying out, I raise the top layer up, shining the flashlight into the darkness. The beam of light goes into each little nook. Seems safe. I get in and lie down.

           Lying awake, afraid to sleep, afraid to sit up, afraid to move in case something has crept into a previously empty spot, and definitely not venturing to the bathroom until light of day, I draw a calendar in my head. I don’t mean to.  Dates just start to take shape. One stands out “July 25th, go home!”  I count the number of days I agreed to be here, and draw a big mental golden star on that last one.

          July 25th came and went. I stayed. I came to appreciate and then revel in the vibrant buzz of the forest and also to respect the dangers. Even though I didn’t want to leave, at the end of the summer, I had to reenter my Vassar College life in Poughkeepsie, New York. As I switched my insect repellent for perfume and mosquito net for a down comforter, I made a new calendar. This one had a star on the earliest day I could return to the rainforest.


One year and one month later.

          So, now I’m back, and after being out here for a month, I thought I finally reached super-cool guide status and had got my worries about creepy crawlies, thorns and peccaries under control.  Apparently not.

           At the night meeting with the other guides, Jaime and Rosita, my cool was tested. Jaime is really James, but has been out here so long that everyone calls him Jaime. He’s a blonde, tan, biologist in his twenties from Texas who left Peace Corps permanently to come and be a guide at Marenco. He knows the forest and Marenco inside and out. Rosita is a Costa Rican biology student who has come out here for her research projects over the years and guides when she can.  She is now out here for her whole summer break. She is petite with long brown hair tinged with blonde, and as tough as she is pretty. Luis stands behind his desk and assigns the next days’ tours. He turns to the whiteboard to sort out the guests, when I feel a little wriggle. What the…? I’m trying to maintain my unruffled, savvy demeanor. The last thing I want is to be seen as the squeamish guide.  However, whatever is wriggling, happens to be in my bra.


           My eyes are glued on Luis’s mouth. “Jaime, you can take the school group…” Whatever it is really moves around. Can I get it out without being seen? Given that I would have to reach into my bra, search around, find it, extract it, and then get my hand out from under my shirt…unlikely.

           “Rosita…you take the group of four.”

             Can I squash it? Squeeze my arm into the right boob where the wriggler is creeping? I have become quite respectful of the fact that most everything bites out here, so why not this sneaky-bra-creeping-wriggler? If I don’t kill it, then I have an injured-angry-something sharing my bra; a negative as well. When will this meeting end?

           Luis looks at his lists and says. “Actually, we have the intense birding group. Maybe we should switch. Jaime you can take the birders and then Maria, you can take…”

     “I’ll take them!” I shout, far too enthusiastically. Jaime, who knows I never want to guide birders, looks at me sideways. I’m not about to explain that I’m just trying to end the meeting, so that I can remove whatever is skittering around in my lingerie.

           “Me!” I repeat loudly.

          Luis looks at me quizzically, partly because of my offer, and also because of the volume at which I state my interest. He shrugs. “Okay. That wraps up the meeting.”

           Wham! I’m out the door…not so smart of me to zoom, really, given that poisonous snakes are more dangerous than whatever inhabits my shirt. I race around the side of the office hut and feel for the perpetrator. In I go,… gently, don’t want my fingers bitten…gently… and I got it! I extract a tiny harmless beetle. Wriggling its legs in the air as I remove it from under my shirt, I gently place the little legged beastie on the ground. Jaime has followed me, and witnessed the whole thing. He shakes his head and raises an eyebrow. I look at him and say matter-of-factly. “You don’t have a bra. You wouldn’t understand.” 

          “True,” and he heads towards the cabin.


Month Two

          “You go,” I say.

          Now that I have been here two months, I am quite unsafely and inappropriately full of myself. We guides have all decided that shoes are for tourists, and it seems that tonight, flashlights are too. Jaime, Rosita and I walk back to the cabin after dinner.

          “You’re sure the batteries are dead?” Jaime calls back to me.

           “Yeah,” I reply, flicking the switch on my flashlight, again, as if repetition might cause battery resurrection.

          “You should’ve checked.”

          “Yeah… maybe you should have brought a flashlight,” I retort.


          I’m still flicking the switch on the light as I stumble over a root “Ack!” Nothing like being cocky, and thinking that you have spidey sense when you don’t. Rosita laughs. I elbow her. She elbows me back.

          “This one looks free.” Jaime says over his shoulder as we arrive at the cabin door. He has been here far longer than we have, and doesn’t need a flashlight to know where he is. However, he does seem to like to use my light when it’s available.

          “OK. You go in first and make sure,” I say

          He really does have spidey senses.

          He goes in. Rosita and I wait for his call.

          “No snakes!” he shouts.

          “Alright,” I answer. We enter.

         Still, we gently slide our feet across the floor. Better to bump something than step on it.

         It’s low season and has become unofficial policy, determined by us, that we sneak into empty cabins at night. Although I no longer stay over the office, our official rooms are cement floored, tiny windowed, jungle-jail cells. The tourist cabins are high ceilinged, and overlook the ocean.

         “Get the corner,” Jaime calls to me.

         “Got it,” I say, as I reach for the edge of the mattress.

         Jaime gives the foam a shove to get it off the bed, and it ends up in my knee, knocking me to the floor. Whomp! Jaime snorts as he tries to muffle his laughter.

         “Doofus!” I hiss from my spot on the ground, but that comes out funny to me, too. My butt hurts, but somehow, since tumbles, toe stubs and bumps are so common out here, minor injuries crack us up.

         I pick up my corner, as does Jaime his. Rosita drags a smaller mattress, and out we go to the porch. As guides, we have decided to always sleep outside. We are forever proving our toughness to tourists, and to each other, but mostly to ourselves. And, listening to the howler monkeys making their last lion-like roars of the evening, and the birds calling to and at eachother, it feels like the best place to sleep. After we check our sleeping bags for critters, we settle into them.

         Sleeping with fellow guides nearby, one has to be careful, not of the dangers of the ubiquitous bugs, but of the dangerous fellow guides. When you get up to go to the bathroom, invariably someone else wakes up just enough to steal your pillow. This is our own little law of the jungle. So, hearing Jaime get up, blearily I grab his pillow and toss it to the side. There is a long silence before it hits. Whomp!  Why so long before landing? Uh oh.  I tossed with a little too much vigor, and over the edge it went. So, now it rests on the forest floor below.


         He returns. I feign sleep.

         I listen with my eyes shut as he pauses. I can picture him using his spidey sense in the dark to determine which one of us has done it, Rosita or myself. I try to do slow breathing, Isn’t that what sleeping people do? But, then I can’t help it, and I start to giggle. While I lie there, snuffling my own laughter at my own not-so-very-funny act, I feel a whisk, and my head plops to the mattress. In one swoop Jaime has ripped the pillow out from under my head and tossed it below next to his. He then flomps on his bed as if I would never know what happened. I gather myself for a moment, and then I’m up.  I have his blanket, and hold it over the edge. I whisper. “Get my pillow, super dork!” Without looking up he says. ”You get mine.” Then, lifting his head, he says evenly. “And I’m not a dork.”

         “You want your blanket?” I respond, dangling it a little lower.

         And then, although I felt certain I had the upper hand, he is up and has my blanket. He really is a spidey snake with jaguar reflexes. He holds mine over the edge. We stand there in the dark, dangling the blankets back and forth. “Give mine back,” he says menacingly.

         “No!” I whisper.

         So he shrugs and drops mine over the edge. What? So, in a fit of pure maturity, I drop his. Without a pause he lunges for my mattress and, poof! It’s over the edge. I lunge for his mattress, grab it, and toss it over the edge. We stand there, both triumphant that we have bested the other, and then, we look down. Where are we going to sleep?

         Rosita pops her head up now. “Are you guys kidding me?” She has been gripping her bedclothes, knowing that hers would have been next. She now moves over so that we can both share her mattress. We get in on either side of her. I give Jaime a quick punch over Rosita, which I know will be returned and curl up to protect myself against the retaliation. I feel the thump. We go to sleep. We have to rest well, since we have to get up early to pick up the mattresses before the Thompsons from Wisconsin wake up for their tour.


Month Three

         After three months out here, my morning routine is pretty set.  I wake up, pull my mattress in from the porch, splash water on my face, pluck the least damp pair of shorts and T-shirt from the line where I hang them each day after washing, whip my hair into a ponytail, shake my boots out in case of critters, slip on my back pack, and pat the pocket where I carry anti-venom that I’m not completely sure how to use. I stride onto the main porch with a slight guide swagger to meet the day’s group. Today, as I arrive at the porch, I notice one of the guests, a tall thin woman, tucking a stray blonde hair behind her ear. She applies a coat of slightly colored chapstick to her lips. She slips the tube of lip moisturizer into the tailored pocket of her clean, kacky pants; ones that match her shirt. Her manicured nails grip her husband’s arm. I size her up as someone I would call a Girly Girl. Although my clothes were not yet stained when I first arrived, I do keep my hair up, and chapstick does always rest in my pocket, being a tall blonde out here myself, I make a constant effort to see that I’m not viewed as a Girly Girl. As a guide, I am, in my own mind, far too tough to fall into that category. Even when reality proves otherwise, I push it neatly out of view. 

         I begin the tour, starting down the river trail. Right away I see a lizard, a tiny one: a common Anolis. It is small enough to fit into the palm of my hand, soft tan on the bottom, with a darker brown stripe on top punctuated by strip of cream ending on a small pointed head. Seeing the slight rustle of movement, this is my moment. The lizards depend on camouflage, so without the movement, they look like the leaves and dirt of the forest floor. We practice catching them on our days off.   I freeze, stalk, grab, and slowly open my hand to show the little guy to the tourists. Although I feel bad for the lizard in this moment, I justify submitting him to being momentarily captured and displayed as part of increasing rainforest awareness. I gently take his throat sac between my fingers and stretch it out revealing the bright orange color. Well, Girly Girl takes one look at my carefully stalked lizard and jumps back with a squawk.  She meets my eyes, looking for some element of sisterly connection to justify her reaction. I look back with a clear “I’m your super-confident, totally fearless guide” look, although in private I still squawk plenty out here and had to get used to the lizards myself. We walk on.

         Nearing The Log, I think. “This is going to be a problem.”

         As a guide, I shine a flashlight into the hollow part of this particular log. The clients lean down; peer in and, voila! A tarantula.  When I take people through the forest, I am always watching for something exciting, monkeys, parrots; a “Wow!” experience. Some days you see only green, which forever amazes me, but most tourists like a monkey now and then. And, honestly, me too. So, if you have a guaranteed “Wow!” you utilize it. Seeing a tarantula up close usually works.

         I look in to make sure she is there, which she always is. Also, I peer in to demonstrate that she won’t suddenly turn on those eight hairy legs, focus that bunch of eyes on the disturber of her sleep and spring at the intrusive eyeball. The problem is, I’m never fully convinced that she won’t.

         I don’t like spiders.

         I understand that they play a vital role in the ecosystem.  Nevertheless, creepy little creatures they are. As a little girl growing up, being afraid of spiders was nothing of which to be proud, nor was it particularly shameful. But out here, in the unwritten rules of Guide Culture, fear is not accepted. You have to get over it, or at least pretend you do. Just a few days earlier, and I did know very well to check my bed, and of course check my shoes, but sometimes I’m rushed. You give a shake, stick your foot in the boot and rush off to wherever you were supposed to have been 15 minutes earlier. So, that particular morning, as I scrambled to get my back pack ready, patted my anti-venom, gave my right boot a quick shake stuck my foot in and….wah!!!!!!! My toes were not alone! Yanking my foot out I jumped back. Four hairy legs gently reached just over the boot rim, tapped slightly back and forth, and encountering no threat, stretched themselves all the way out pulling her whole body over the edge, followed by another four legs. Dizzy and more alarmed than I was, the tarantula paused, got her bearings, and then used those eight legs to cruise away from the boot, which happened to be towards me. With an un-guide like scream, I jumped back. She stopped, changed course, and scurried over the edge of the deck.  Now we were both safe. I stood there waiting for my heartbeat to slow down, not thinking what hers was doing.


         At The Log, I lean over, shine the flashlight, look, stand up with my eyeball still intact and motion for the guests to line up to take a look. “Ooh, ahh,” they say, and I do have to admit, hysterical fear aside, it’s pretty cool. Well, Miss Doesn’t-like-lizards, when it comes to her turn to look, says. “No thanks,” and hands the flashlight to the next person.

          I think “Oh no you don’t.” and gently hand the flashlight back to her.

         So, failing to reveal my personal shoe experience (although I am now an avid shaker of my footwear) I gently extol the excitement, and somehow the virtue, of poking your head into the log.  Perhaps I should not push her. Really, this is her tour. She paid. Who I am to force her face to face something that even gives me the chills? But, it’s my job to acknowledge people’s fear, and then help them work through it so that they can have, what we consider, a more memorable experience.

         I peer in again, feel my stomach drop, master a face of delight, look up and keep my voice even. “It really is interesting,” I say, and hold out the flashlight for her.  She sighs and eyes me with a “This better be worth it” look.

         I nod in an “Oh yes, it sure will” kind of way—and down she goes. I remind myself to exhale.

         As she flips on the light, she instinctively closes her eyes. I feel the need to point out the obvious to her, looking into a log with closed eyes is definitely going to lessen the visual experience.  Suddenly, she flicks her lids open and stares. I know that her eyeballs are focusing, first on the brown ball, which as her eyes adjust will turn into the long legs, body, and individual hairs. She peers into the log for, what seems to me, a long time. She then pops her head up and looks at me. I ready myself for the barrage of “nasty, scary, gross” but, instead she exclaims.  “Wow!” and smiles. She bends down to look again. Up she pops, hands me the flashlight, and sloshes in her boots to tell her husband that she looked, and “It was amazing!”

         I move past the log, imagining the spider’s irritation at being spied on each day at around 1:00 pm. I find them scary, and I also feel some tenderness towards those creatures we disturb to educate others. And, today is a good reminder for me not to judge those Girly Girls. I’m reminded that I should understand anxiety of the unknown. After all, I still take an awfully deep breath each time I look in that log too.


Month Four

        The small black paw fumbles in my ear. Sleepily, I bat it away and say “Oh, Pancha.”

         The rain forest, depending on your point of view, holds not only what I term the “creepy creatures,” but the cute animals as well.  Back at the station after my vacation days in the capitol city of San José, eating my plate of gallo pinto (rice and beans, stir fried with little bits of onion and pepper and topped with salsa Lizano), a black and brown blob with legs races between the tables. My fork freezes. The rice and beans tumble off the tines into my lap. “Agh!” I exclaim as I push back from the table. Little bean bits and rice spill over my bare legs.

         “Careful there,” Jaime says, neatly putting rice and beans into his own mouth.

         “Yeah, yeah,” I respond absently while trying unsuccessfully to gather up the food on my lap before all of the ants in the forest let each other know that there are vittles on the floor by my bare feet.

         “What was that?” I ask as Jaime flicks one of my spilled beans that made it over to his side of the table, back at me. I duck, but not fast enough and the bean bounces off my ear.

         “Pancha,” he says, pleased at having at least hit my ear.

         “It’s a pancha?” I’m confused.

         “No. That’s her name. It’s a coati.”

         “Cool!” I reply. “Uh…what’s a coati?”

         “A coati looks kind of like a raccoon. We found her as an abandoned baby, so we brought her to the station. Honestly, she’s a bit of a bother. Sweet in a way, but I wouldn’t get too close. She’s definitely still wild.” He brings his plate to the kitchen.

         Not a bother for me, I think. Even knowing that ethically I need to let a wild animal stay wild, I absolve myself of moral accountability. After all, I didn’t bring her to the station.  I become determined to hang out with Pancha.                                                                                                        

          It turns out that Pancha seems equally determined to hang out with me. I go to my room, and there she is! Little black eyes look up as I come in and we both pause. She cocks her head to the side, and then looks down and returns to her current activity, ripping up my notebook.

         “Hey!” I holler and snatch the book. Pancha pops up, jumps on the bed, looks at me, and then leans down and starts to nibble something. I can just barely make out the corner of my toothpaste tube from between her paws. Toothpaste is a hot commodity out here. “Hey!” I shout again, louder than last time, and reach for the tube. Pancha scrambles onto my one piece of furniture, a wooden table next to my bed.  Usually on the table sits a blue and black wind up travel alarm clock which I now see has been tossed to the ground and lies face down.

         “You win,” I say, as I look at my few belongings all chewed and strewn about. I sit on the bed. Pancha carefully creeps towards me. She gently climbs onto the bed, eyeing me. Then a light paw reaches out and rests on my leg. “Breath slowly,” I tell myself. I don’t want to spook her. She’s touching me! Apparently, I don’t have to be so cautious. She presses down on my leg and scrambles onto my head. 

         Pancha and I end up spending quite a bit of time together. I know she is wild, not domesticated, nor always even tame.  Definitely not a pet.  Definitely. But even so, I can’t help forgetting all of that and thinking she is. One of our favorite activities is going for walks. She starts on my head, and then jumps down once we enter the forest where the terrain provides hollow logs to explore, trees to climb and branches of green leaves into which she disappears. At night she follows me to my room and climbs into my bed. In the morning, waking up to a coati digging about in my ear looking for grubs, although uncomfortable, makes it almost impossible not to start the day laughing. 

         Eventually, once she is old enough to take care of herself, and proves that she can, Luis tells me that we are taking her to the National Park where she can live a true coati life. Of course we are. We should.  I agree whole heartedly, except that I don’t. The day we leave, she clambers onto my head, perching her front feet on the top of my baseball cap. As we enter the park boundary, I feel her body tense, mine does too. Her muscles bunch however, just to balance herself in order to jump off. She springs from my head and starts to walk into the woods. I wait for her to turn and look at me, expecting a “goodbye” of sorts. However, she walks right into the forest and doesn’t look back, as really, she shouldn’t. I return to my room and put duct tape on my toothpaste tube.



Maria Fadiman
Maria Fadiman

Maria Fadiman conducts ethnobotanical research (how people use plants) in the developing world. She was named one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers in 2006, and conducts most of her studies in the rainforests of Latin America, while also researching in Africa and Asia. She currently is working on a global scale cross cultural study of people’s use of a cultural keystone species (the flora and fauna that are deemed important to the survival of a culture), and how these plants can act as larger ecosystem preservation incentives. She did her undergraduate work at Vassar College, M.A. at Tulane University, and Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin.  She is an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University in the department of Geosciences.