TravelPhoto Essay

Venture Into the Hazy Cloud Forests and Wild Jungles of Costa Rica

Explore a tropical wonderland filled with waterfalls, rainforests, and wildlife with National Geographic Explorer Erika Bergman.

Photograph by Parker Young
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Costa Rica’s natural water features, such as the Desafio’s Lost Canyon cascade pictured here, create above-the-surface adventure possibilities for submarine pilot Erika Bergman.
Photograph by Parker Young

On a mission to support, encourage, and celebrate restless spirits and their pursuit of endless exploration, Coors Light teamed up with National Geographic to help Erika Bergman make her mark on the world. For submarine pilot Bergman, making her mark requires emerging from the depths of the ocean to scale new heights in tropical Costa Rica. In the second of four photo essays, explore with Bergman as she encounters a biodiversity hot spot teeming with life.

Into the Clouds

When we landed in Costa, there was this sense of anticipation that comes from knowing you are about to explore a new place and you don’t know what to expect—and that’s fantastic. That’s true of any expedition. You might go with mission objectives, but you know that the experience that will turn out to be life-changing is not the experience you were expecting. You can’t predict what that experience is going to be or when it is going to happen, but it’s going to be awesome.

For me, the cloud forest was that experience. When thinking about Costa Rica, the cloud forest was an environment that was completely foreign to me. I thought about jungles and monkeys. What I didn’t anticipate was standing on a suspension bridge hanging 100 feet up in the forest having this wet, chilly breeze rustle my hair. The only way I can describe what it felt like is this: It’s as if I were riding on an airplane and suddenly the airplane disappeared. It was just me left there in the clouds. I could feel particles of water from the flowing clouds in between the little hairs on my skin and permeating the fabric of my clothes. I never imagined what a cloud forest would feel like before.

There were birds calling, but what struck me most was the sound of the clouds, kind of a light, rustling of leaves in surround sound. It was layer upon layer of leaves blowing in the cloudy wind. It was very peaceful, that is, until a millipede made my sister scream. As a submarine pilot, my tendency is to go slowly and study my surroundings in great detail. That’s how I saw the giant millipede. I was with my sister so, obviously, I pick up the millipede and let in crawl on me. It felt like a thousand tiny needles brushing across my skin. My sister thought this was gross, of course, so I said: “You just have to hold it.” She did, for me. It was so much fun to just feel like kids again, romping around in the cloud forest picking up bugs—and pestering my sister with them.

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Bergman and Barrans examine the surreal, lattice-like trunk of the Finca Valverde ficus tree.

A “Magic School Bus” Moment

The ficus tree was something I’d never thought existed on planet Earth. I had come to Costa Rica to climb trees, so I assumed this tree would require a technical climb with harnesses. But, the Finca Valverde was made for people like me who love to scramble up trees. It’s this spider web of branches that has slowly grown down from one germinating seed, 100 feet up. It drops these tendrils, which eventually strangle the internal tree. The original core rots away and all that is left is lattice.

The coolest thing happened when I saw the ficus tree for the first time. I had been trying to describe the glass sponge—the oldest animal on the planet—to people who’ve never seen it before. Glass sponges are animals found in the deep ocean, so the word sponge doesn’t begin to describe how amazing they look. The sponge is made from a lattice work of tiny glass threads, which, when viewed under a microscope, looks like the ficus tree. I hadn’t expected that at all. Looking at the tree was like traveling inside the sponge for me. The physics of molecules created two completely different organisms—one giant and one small, one in the ocean and one in the forest—that mimic each other.

Chilling in El Chollin Hot Springs

Before we went to the hot springs, I hadn’t realized that Costa Rica is so volcanic. When I think of hot springs, I picture a few little bubbling pools. El Chollin was an entire rushing river of hot water. We were sitting in the river relaxing in this comfortable bath tub-like temperature water. My sister was super relaxed. I was thinking about what was underneath us. To me, no matter where I go and what I’m exploring, it’s really interesting to take the earth and cut it as a cross section in my mind. At the hot springs, what I was envisioning was some giant molten magma chamber heating up such large quantities of rock and earth beneath us that it was causing the water in that river to be hot.

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One perk of having a submarine pilot as a sister, Barrans discovers, is being the first person to fly an underwater robot in the Laguna de Hule crater lake.

Embracing Jungle Life

Laguna de Hule was teeming with life. Hiking down into the crater we saw highways of leaf cutter ants, so, of course, I had to stop and watch these critters. It was like looking down from an airplane and seeing trucks and cars zipping along the highways below. I could tell which ants were the semi-trucks ones, because they were carrying all the leaves. Then there were the warrior ones that appeared to be protecting the workers. My sister and I tried not to step on their highway and make them late. It was clear they had jobs to do.

Hiking through that hot, sticky, and stinky jungle was awesome. It was stinky because the monkeys sitting in the trees above us were pooping, which may be gross to most people, but to me it was exhilarating. The jungle was so alive. Then, we emerged out of the dank jungle and the crater opened up to this beautiful lake edged on every side by the most impenetrable forest. At that moment, I remember thinking that the only thing that could make this experience even more amazing was seeing the animal I most wanted to see in Costa Rica: howler monkeys. As if on cue, we heard this “woo hoo” echoing across the lake. It was the call of the howler monkeys and it was so powerful. My sister started crying, because all of it—the nature, the primal sounds, the moment—was so overwhelming. That’s what being a Citizen Scientist is all about: going out into nature and soaking it up in this amazing multisensory experience. I was smiling for her and for me. It was so deeply satisfying to be in the jungle surrounded by howler monkeys. Planet Earth never ceases to amaze me.

I carried my OpenROV, a remote underwater robot, pack on the hike, so that my sister could fly it underwater in the lake. I helped invent the robot and I work with them all the time, but Arianna hadn’t had the chance to fly one before. The ROV goes underwater and you fly it through a laptop using a game-pad controller. The camera on it lets you look around under the surface and study the marine life. So, there we are standing in a forest filled with yammering howler monkeys flying an ROV in this really vibrant crater lake. We saw tons of fish. It was cool to know we were the first people to ever explore that crater lake with an ROV.

That’s what being an explorer is about: discovering places and things that are new to you, and also seeing and experiencing things in a new way. I think people often believe that everything on Earth has been explored, but that isn’t true. Even though people have hiked to that crater lake we—two doofus sisters carrying a 10-pound ROV pack—saw the lake in a completely unique way.

Conquering Lost Canyon

I was super excited to rappel down a waterfall. I mean, how fun is that? When I was a kid growing up in Hawaii, I would crawl down waterfalls, but rappelling down the face of it with the water crashing was something I’d never tried before. The rocks are covered with algae so they’re slippery and the refreshing torrent of water is trying to drag you off the rock. I felt as if we were in training to go deep inside the Amazon. There were water features everywhere. Being in the canyon connected everything for me. I had experienced the cloud forest with the wet breeze through my hair and now the canyon where all the water goes. The water from the Caribbean Sea evaporates, rises into the sky, cools and condenses into rain clouds or fog, and transits across the country. Low clouds hover around the upper canopy of the cloud forest—condensing onto the trees and dripping onto the plants below—and rain clouds fill the lakes and rivers that create waterfalls. I followed the water flow across the entire country—from the ocean to the sky to the land to the ocean—which is what I wanted to achieve.

As I mentioned earlier, a huge part of this Costa Rican expedition for me was being able to share the experience with my sister. While I was super excited about the Lost Canyon excursion, she was nervous. We were standing on the platform together before the first descent. I went down first and had a great time. When I got to the bottom and looked back up 150 feet to platform, I wasn’t sure if she’d come down. But, she did. I saw her swing off that platform and I was so proud. I knew that even though she was nervous and this wasn’t quite her thing, she was doing it for me.

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