Natural History and a Few Books We Like


"Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits" - by Wilson Popenoe.

This is a 1974 facsimile reprint of the 1920 classic hard cover.

For years the only handbook of its kind helping those interested in subtropical horticulture - if you grew bananas, coconut, pineapple, citrus, cacao etc etc you would or should have taken heed of the detailed knowledge the author was transmitting in this work.

Interestingly there is a preface to the book written by the author in 1919 and the reprint edition has an introduction also written by the author in 1974. Talk about having a perspective on your work - entire entries for avocado and mango for example had been superseded by the time of the reprint.


"Tropical Travel" - by Juan Carlos Vargas

This huge 600 page large format book is a series of reprints (as the author calls them primary documents) primarily from the wonderful Harpers Magazine - the articles range in time from 1854 to 1895.

These are first hand accounts of travels in Costa Rica along with the exquisite pen drawings of the time and place. My favorite being the first hand accounts of Thomas Meagher who I call the first gringo tourist and the same guy who went on to form the Irish Brigade in the American civil war and kill more Irish than almost anyone in history (and all under his command).

But I digress. Snr Vargas is a professor at UCR and seems to have built this large tome with a view to prove the bias by gringos against Latin Americans - racial superiority and the like are his charges.

No question some of these writers were biased but no more than the times they lived in - and some authors not at all. I think Snr Vargas missed the point but did us all a huge favor by collecting this excellent series of relevant first hand accounts. Thanks!


"The Quetzal and the Macaw"

Also in my must read list!

The story of the founding of the National Parks of Costa Rica and the particularly valiant efforts of two Costa Ricans - Boza and Ugalde. The tireless efforts of these two geniuses with a real vision of the future are an inspiring tale of possibilities for other developing countries.

"Balancing political enlightenment with environmental concerns" maybe one synopsis that describes the efforts of many people to make the parks system a reality. In 1969 not a single acre was under protection from the government - now over a quarter of the country is protected. This book is out of print but email us for a source which has some used ones.

Huge cameo by Dan Janzen (see Most Influential Book below).


"The Scorpions (Arachnida) from Costa Riva" - by Francke and Stockwell

Really a big pamphlet, this is a Texas Tech University treatise on something people worry too much about. This book and its life size illustrations probably won't help such folk.

We have lived here and traveled here many years and have yet to face down a scorpion though there are folk we know who see them daily. We do not live there, wherever there is.

This book describes 3 species never known in Costa Rica and 3 species "new to science". As the authors marvel "scorpion fauna is more diverse than previously known."

If you are into scorps, this is your bedtime reader :-)


"A Naturalist in Costa Rica" - by Alexander F. Skutch

Dontcha wish you had been here on one of Skutch's expeditions? This book was first printed in 1971 - my copy is a 1992 reprint.

The opening introduction has a photo of Skutch on a horse in a Costa Rican river entitled "The author in search of a farm, March 1941". These are tales of a naturalist who has influenced more people than any one person in the appreciation of Costa Rican nature. It starts in 1935 so this is almost a history book .

A snippet,

"Yet my neighbors considered me most valiant because I slept alone in the forest on the mountaintops, where they, if benighted, would sit up tending a fire through the hours of darkness for fear of the tigre. Since I had never heard of a Jaguar attacking a man in Costa Rica, I had no fear, slept as soundly as the cold would allow, and did nmot imagine that I had done anything heroic. Courage, as the Greek philosophers contended, is largely a matter of knowing what is to be feared."



"For Love of Insects" - by Thomas Eisner.

This huge hardcover book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in bugs. In the neo-tropics, it is bugs that often have an interest in you. In Eisner's remarkable work of empirical research we learn along with him and his students how insects defend themselves, how they evolve and numerous examples of remarkable behaviour such as how does an insect store large quantities of highly toxic material inside them without killing themselves.

Excellent photography, very readable and superbly produced - this book should be on your Christmas list (OK maybe not yours? well it WAS on mine). Stunning!

This book also is an excellent antidote for waiting in interminable lines ate various local bureaucracies in Costa Rica.


"Costa Rican Natural History" - edited by Dan Janzen.

With 173 contributors, this was a book with a mission. The contributions were written by 1983 and this book sounded an alarm that has been heard by every naturalist that arrived in Costa Rica since. Nearly all have seen this huge soft cover book and understood the idea. If something isn't done to protect what we have it will be all over for Costa Rica.

Most interesting is that what the "editor" worried about most never came to pass. That is - the worst scenario. I am pretty certain that is in part because at some point this book has existed on the shelves of every naturalist who studies Costa Rica.

Very detailed, many contributors, choppy, a tough read (for us neophytes), good index and just perfect for it's time. The "editor" went on to become the godfather of Costa Rican biology and was instrumental in the reclaiming of what is now the largest park in Costa Rica - the Guanacaste National Park. Read more about his work in "The Green Phoenix".


"Tropical and Sub-Tropical Trees: An Encyclopedia" - written by Margaret Barwick.

This thing must weigh 2 kilos. It is a beautifully produced book with excellent photography and put together by someone with a passion for trees. Good for anyone with an interest in the many many varieties of trees in the neo-tropics.

Th photography is second to none, the detail is excellent and as a reference work it is unsurpassed when it comes to learning about trees in the neighborhood.

Another book for the Christmas list and will never been done justice by a Kindle or an IPad!




"Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America" - by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata.

Ken died in the rapids of the Big Horn River - in the In Memoriam section of the book are the words "as we wrote this book we labored under the knowledge that the richness of rain forest would ever exceed our ability to describe it."

Unfortunately it is true of this book and their task is complicated by the efforts to set part of the book in Costa Rica and part in Ecuador. Each chapter can be read almost stand alone but I'd prefer more empirical evidence for some of the theories proposed.

Thanks Ken, you did leave something behind for the future.


"The Earth Dwellers" - by Erich Hoyt.

This may be the only book ever written from the perspective of an ant. Set in the nature reserve of La Selva, Costa Rica this book tells us all we wanted to know about the world of ants.

What makes this book work so well is the idea that the ants are being observed, tracked and studied by two of the world's most renowned field biologists. One of these is Edward O' Wilson who has taught the world more about ants than perhaps anyone ever. A very satisfying read - you will enjoy it. You may learn that there are some 30,000 species of ant and only 15,000 species have been discovered as yet.

"How DO they know that?", I recently asked a visiting biologist studying birdsong at Santa Rosa in Guanacaste. She said "Berni, it may well be 50,000" which somehow didn't help me much.

Great book, great ants! And it explains an awful lot about what is happening at levels you never see in our local garden culture.

Try visiting La Selva on your trip here . . . but do get up early.


MORE FRIGGIN ANTS - "there is hope for humanity"

"The Armies of the Ant" - by Charles Hogue.

Only kidding - I love ants! The tale of what happens when you send a solitary biologist for months to the amazing Osa Peninsular - home of the Corcovado National Park in south western Costa Rica. There is no question in my mind that anyone spending even a little time in the Osa will come back a changed person.

"There is hope" for humanity if such a magnificent place can still exist on this planet. Dr Hogue is clearly touched by his experience and his observations of nature at it's most prolific in the Osa.

If you get a chance on your next trip to Costa Rica, the Osa is a must visit for anyone interested in flora and fauna - a truly diverse region with few roads and fairly decently protected by the parks service.


"Handbook of Tropical and Sub-Tropical Horticulture" - by US Department of State, printed 1964.

Ok so maybe it is the only sub-tropical horticultural handbook! Completely out of print but available from rare books sellers perhaps (email me if you need a source). An interesting 250 page soft cover pamphlet provided to US AID personnel to assist them help local populations receiving aid.

Quite detailed.



"Volcanoes of Costa Rica" - by Fundacion Neotropica, 2003.

More a picture book, delicious ones at that - makes a nice coffee table addition - made us want to take a hike to Rincon de la Vieja.

This must be locally printed - find it in Universal bookstore in San Jose.



"A Neotropical Companion" - by John Kricher.

This book is a decent and detailed introduction to the "animals, plants and ecosystems of the new world tropics". Tropical forests occupy 7% of the earths surface but contain 50% of the biodiversity of the planet. Nowhere is this biodiversity so accesible as in the forests and parks of Costa Rica.

This is not a casual travelers book but rather for the amateur naturalist perhaps who wants to better understand the underlying structures and environment that make such biodiversity possible.

A good scientific introduction - well written and presented for the layperson like you and me?



"Pura Vida - The waterfalls and hot springs of Costa Rica" - by Sam Mitchell.

OK, so it's the ONLY waterfall book! This book is surely out of print but also one of the only good descriptions of places like Angel falls, also known as Congo falls - "300 feet of pure devil" and a "raging torrent of hydro-energy" and "swimming in the pool would be foolhardy". These are useful tips if only you could find Angel Falls.

Unfortunately we once sent a guest there hoping the description I got would be "helpful". He and his son came back many many hours later soggy and covered in mud with the report that " the first part of the trail description was pretty good however the trail had fallen into the river some years ago so, as they could hear the falls, and based on my recommendation, they proceeded in the river . . ."

They nevre did get there but it was quite an adventure they said :-))


"National Museum of Costa Rica - Over 100 Years of History" - by The Ministry of Culture

I do not know where to put this book so it is here willy nilly. It's really a "coffee table" history of the national museum, the old Bella Vista Fort.

Lovely illustrations but a kind of dull read - though is I was the Ministry of Culture in 1987 I'd be very proud of this accomplishment. Costa Rica needs a lot more of this kind of work (with livellier writers).


"The Batriachia and Reptilia of Costa Rica: Atlas" - by E. D. Cope

Edward, the dude in the photo, was a prodigious author and paleontologist - his wiki is quite an amazing tale and includes this comment about the period that our "pamphlet" comes from when 50 copies were published in 1875.

"The 1870s were the golden years of Cope's career, marked by his most prominent discoveries and rapid flow of publications. Among his descriptions were the therapsid Lystrosaurus(1870), the archosauromorph Champsosaurus (1876),Amphicoelias (1878), possibly the largest dinosaur ever discovered. In the period of one year, from 1879 to 1880, Cope published 76 papers based on his travels through New Mexico and Colorado, and on the findings of his collectors in Texas, Kansas Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. During the peak years, Cope published around 25 reports and preliminary observations each year."

Cope was in fact a most interesting scientist of his day, 1840 - 1897 though not the greatest physician - when sick the last two years of his life "Cope often prescribed himself medications, including large amounts of morphine, belladonna, and formalin, a substance based on formaldehyde used to preserve specimens."

Now how do I review this "book" - my reprint has only about 8 actual pages of drawings and no text whatsoever. Oh heck, skip it!


"GUIDE TO THE MOST ATTRACTIVE PLANTS, Poas Volcano" - by Leon, Paveda and Sanchez-Vindas.

A pretty picture book, 1/3 format, bi-lingual and almost unreadable.

Obviously something made to be sold in gift shops. This thing is so hard to read with pages of green text on green backgrounds and such I would not bother. However as we live near the slopes of Poa Volcano it was a must in the collection.


"Before Guanacaste" - by Frederick W. Lange

It is actually quite a nice book if you'd like a primer on Guanacaste though the binding is fragile and the production is high quality - I never quite understand that.

This book definitely adds to the collection of English language books and data about Costa Rica.


I guess I'm not an archeologist :-)



"Taking Care of Sibo's Gifts" - by Palmer, Sanchez and Mayorga.

"An environmental treatise from Costa Rica's Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve. From the introduction "The Kekoldi Reserve has fewer than 200 people" as of the writing of this slim volume - their physical and cultural survival is threatened . . . the Kekoldi people want their struggle to be known".

There is very little published in english about them - find a copy somehow for a senstive view of their ways.

I have no current knowledge of this group - perhaps a reader on the net can point me somewhere?


"Costa Rica Land of Volcanoes" - by Guillermo Alvarado

My 1993 English edition is a translation of the 1989 more detailed Spanish language version - the cover picture at left is a more modern update.

This is actually one of the better Volcano books (best yet?) on Costa Rica with nice diagrams and details of the various "volcano complexes" in Costa Rica.

It is less than comforting to learn that our very own Poas Volcano in 1910 ejected 800,000 cubic meteres of material to a height of 8 kilometers.

But if it did this again, there'd be a great view from our Volcano Studio :-) For awhile.

I'm putting this one back on my "to read again" pile.


"Gesneriads of Costa Rica" - by Ricardo Kriebel Haehner.

Well I'm not a biologist but every now and again something unusual flies into my garden and starts to grow that I do not understand. In this case a little spindly plant started to grow down by the Katydid Casita during the rainy season.

It grew and grew inches each day.

It was long and spindly but quite nice and one day it started throwing out these beautiful blue and yellow bracts of flowers. It was now maybe 5 weeks old and it was now forming maybe 56 or 6 spindles and bunches of lovely flowers. Closer photographs showed it was a favorite place for mosquitoes to have sex as there were always paired mosquitoes on every flower.


The rains stopped, the plant died. Nobody could tell me what it had been. It was not identified as a Gesneriad but it sure looked like one.


Irrelevant tale? It's why I now have this beautifully produced book. BTW Wilson Gardens down near the Panama border has some lovely specimens.


"The Chocolate Tree: The Natural History of Cacao" - by Allen M. Young.

It starts "Somewhere in Central America, a thousand or more years ago, an Aztec Indian picks off football-shaoed fruit from the trunk and branches of a smooth barked tree of the rain forest . . . ".

This book first published in 1994 traces the history, culture, cultivation and uses of Cacao. There are some fascinating pot holes in history filled in by this book as the author spent more than 10 years doing fieldwork in Costa Rica on Cacao plantations.


"Science and Scientists in a Costa Rican Cloud Forest" - by Sneed B. Collard III.

Sneed and we presume his predecessors # I and #2 lives in Montana when not writing books with catchy titles.

As you may be able to tell I really didn't get this book at all - odd format, disconnected sections, snippets of information when maybe you wanted more. This book is neither the big picture nor the little picture. Oh well better luck next time.

NICE GENERIC WILDLIFE GUIDE - if you only bring one wildlife guide?

"Travelers' Wildlife Guides: Costa Rica" - by Les Beletsky

A nice effort to provide a big picture of our flora and fauna for eco-tourists. And most guests at the Pura Vida are exactly that.

If you want to know what the black vultures are just outside of town or understand the iguanas of Muelle or learn about the red eyed tree frog - this book covers a lot of ground.

It is not really a field guide as you really need to read it before you come here to get the bigger picture and figure out perhaps things to look out for.

Quite nice. 400 pages 2007 edition.


"Traveling Post Offices" - by Alvaro Castro-Harrigan.

You know you are onto a winner of a Costa Rican book find when a google search yields 241 results and all but one are wrong.

A pre review commented, "El Correo Ferroviario de Costa Rica" (Costa Rica Travelling Post Offices) . . . is written in English and Spanish. It portrays the history of railways in Costa Rica, and comes illustrated with many photographs of the railway, landslides, bridges, banana and coffee farms, wagons, rivers, and mountains. The final chapter is a catalogue with all railway postmarks known since the nineteenth century until 1982, and multiple photographs of stamps and covers bearing such postmarks. If you collect Costa Rica postal history or railway mail, or if you are interested in old photographs from this country, trains and bridges, this book should be in your library.

Some of the old photos are very nice indeed.


"Mammals of Costa Rica" - by Carrillo, Wong and Saenz.

From 1997 and now out of print - quite nice.

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