Tropical dry forests are ecosystems in which life changes drastically between long periods of rain and drought over the course of the year. Found in regions where atmospheric conditions like the rain-shadow effect are prominent, these forests give rise to species of plants and animals that are adaptable to both the long periods with little water, as well as the abundances of water during the rainy season. The result is an environment filled with change.
Las Catalinas is located on the coast of Guanacaste, at the base of an 1000 acre hillside tropical dry forest reserve, and the dynamic nature of town’s surroundings is clear to any who have visited multiple times throughout the year. At times, the hillside is covered by thin foliage in delicate yellows and golds, while other times throughout the year the mountains are full of deep rich greens.
Stepping out onto the trails, these differences are even more prominent, and provide an entirely different experience to a hiker or mountain biker in the green season as they do in the dry. Today, we focus on the green season, where the abundance of rain brings the foliage into full life, changes weather and trails conditions, makes wildlife more active, activates features like creeks and streams, and offers a vivid texture to sunset views.
How Rainfall Changes Hiking and Biking Conditions
The change from dry season to green season is brought about by the rain, which also provides a corresponding shift in weather and trail conditions that are ideal for hikers and bikers. More frequent rainfall brings temperatures down to a daytime average in the low 80s, and on cool cloudy days the weather suits midmorning or afternoon trips onto the trails.
Trail conditions themselves change, which is particularly prominent for mountain bikers. Guanacaste’s moderate rainfalls typically come in short, intense aguaceros (downpours) that clear loose dirt and rocks off of the well-irrigated hillside track and leave behind a pristine, smooth trail that’s perfect for riding.
For many hikers and trail riders, these afternoon aguaceros are a favorite time to set out onto the trails. The air is cool, misty, and refreshing, the earth is smooth beneath the feet, scents and sounds of the forest change, rushing water provides some variability to familiar trails, and views over town, greenery, and sea change in the rain.
During a steady rainshower, the best trails to explore are Principal and Las Cruces. For hikers, these trails provide a balance between expansive hillside views and immersion in tropical forest across a variety of different elevations. For riders, the added benefit of gentle flow riding along these smooth trails while dipping in and out of the rain creates a diverse, high-energy experience.
Changes to Plant and Animal Life with More Water in the Ecosystem
The results of returning rainfall on a tropical dry forest are not instant, and instead flow up through the web of life. Water seeps into the soil, helping saturate the ground and fill previously empty underground aquifers.
Trees, plants, and shrubs begin to collect this water through their roots, which helps trigger a shift from drought survival behavior back to growth behavior. Within a few rains, plants, trees, and shrubs have enough water in reserver to begin putting out foliage again, to capture sunlight and energy so trees can continue to grow.
More foliage to consume and more plentifully available water draws out herbivorous animals, which cluster closer to areas in the reserve with watering holes during the dry season, similar to the Serengeti and other parts of the African Savanna. Increasing plant cover also provides more places to hide for first-order prey animals, which encourages increased movement and activity as well.
With more herbivores and omnivores beginning to move, plants begin to flower and fruit, taking advantage of pollinators and seed carriers to reproduce. Second and third-order predators also become more active, as they don’t need to conserve as much energy or water to find food.
The end result is that the distribution of water throughout the ecosystem helps decentralize animals from specific water sources, making it more likely to encounter them while walking along the trails.
Finding animals is not always visual, as both predator and prey animals tend to stay hidden in the newly rejuvenated brush, but listening carefully and keeping an eye through the trees can yield sightings of the reserve’s many reptiles, mammals, birds, and insects.
For hikers and bikers, the best way to experience this abundance of life is on the trails beyond the ridge, like Secreto and the far end of Zapotal. Traveling slowly, especially on lowland portions in which greenery passes on both sides of the trail, brings a high chance of encounters.
Seasonal Creeks, Streams, Springs, and Waterfalls Activate
The late green season rains bring the return of seasonal streams, waterfalls, and springs. By this time of year, the region as a whole has captured a vast amount of water, leading to a much quicker cycle of evaporation and precipitation that yields the more frequent rainfall of September and October.
The filling of groundwater reservoirs is the key factor in the arrival of these aboveground water features. In areas where groundwater reservoirs are close to the surface, they bubble up aboveground, creating pools and springs. On the hillside, saturated soil naturally creates creeks and streams. Since the soil can’t take more water, rain pools on the surface and begins to run downhill, strengthening with each continued rainfall. From there, topography dictates the water’s route, creating seasonal waterfalls and crossflows on trails.
For visitors to the trails, this aboveground water offers diversity to a hike or bike ride. Bikers can zip in and out of creeks alongside the trail or fire across crossflows, while both hiker and biker can cool off under the flow of a waterfall. Two trails that showcase these streams and waterfall are La Cuesta and the portion of Zapotal overlooking town. Both cut across the face of the valley, meaning that water flowing downhill crosses directly over the trail.
The Vivid Colors and Textures of Rainy Season Sunsets
Rainy season sunsets have several special characteristics in Guanacaste, especially viewed from up on the trails. Lower temperatures and gentle ocean breezes bring cool fresh air onto the mountain, an effect that is enhanced by elevation to create a striking set of conditions.
From there, the effects of refraction come into play. As light bounces off of differing densities of moisture in the air, the perceived color of light at a given position changes, casting the sky in gradients that feature up to dozens of different colors. The presence of clouds in the sky makes this bouncing light even more complex, creating a vivid color and texture to the sunset that is different every single night.
To get the best views of these rainy season sunsets, the two best options are Punta Guachipelines and McHenry Peak. On Guachipelines, bike riders race along the coastal hills out to the far end of the point, where the panoramic sunset views over the ocean provide a feeling of immersion into this natural beauty. McHenry Peak provides a different perspective, offering a 360 degree view that encompasses town, mountains, ocean, and the land beyond Las Catalinas all cast in this colorful light, creating a natural connection to the surroundings of Guanacaste
The Heart of Green Season is Arriving
September and October are the heart of green season, when these unique trail and atmospheric conditions reach their peak, and the best way to enjoy the trails is to stay in town, where you’re never more than a few moments away from a hike or a bike ride. Hope to see you out there soon.
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