The rain forests of Central America are so close, yet so exotic
By Rob Sheppard
Reptiles abound in the jungle. Most species, like these iguanas, are harmless. And while there are some varieties of poisonous reptiles, they’re rare, and you’re unlikely to see them even if searching for one.
According to Webster’s, a jungle is "an impenetrable thicket or tangled mass of tropical vegetation." Many of the rain forests of Central America fit this definition, and unless you possess superhuman strength, you won’t be able to hack through such vegetation with a machete like they did in those old "B" movies. (It looked good, though, didn’t it?)
Luckily for photographers, we don’t even have to consider exercising our machete muscles. In places like Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, private and public parks and preserves offer excellent paths through superb locations, including covered paths in many areas so you still can be outdoors when it rains (a rain forest isn’t named for the sunshine).
When I first explored the rain forest, I was in awe. At first, it just didn’t seem normal—these plants and animals couldn’t be wild! But they are, and they’re wonderful. There are bromeliads (or air plants) growing on trees, huge trees with buttress roots reminiscent of Gothic cathedrals, wild begonias, colorful frogs that never seem real until you actually see one, unlikely basilisk lizards, iguanas that seem to think they’re squirrels, toucans that aren’t advertising cereal, birds with colors that can’t be real (yet they are), spider monkeys who taunt the photographer by staying just out of reach, and so much more.
The visual possibilities are overwhelming at first. For one thing, there’s just so much green. But after awhile, you begin to find amazing photographs. The green starts to differentiate into colors and tones that come to life. Big trees anchor the green and give definition to the photograph. The exotic flowers and animals become colorful parts of the viewfinder as you search for focus and composition. Flowing rivers break up the jungle and give form to new landscape photographs.
It Can Be Thrilling!
But what about the snakes? We’ve all heard about the poisonous snakes in the jungle. In fact, they’re rather shy and you’re unlikely to see one, let alone be threatened by one.
Ants turned out to be the worst of the threats to me, and they really were more of a nuisance. The tropics have an incredible number of ant species. Most of them are harmless, some fascinating (such as the leaf cutters), though if you disturb any ants’ nests, they will bite.
One time I was photographing flowers next to water and had knelt down for a better view. Suddenly, I felt something like mosquito bites all around my ankle. My foot had scraped back over an anthill and my boot was covered with ants. I had to take off my boot and socks to really get rid of them. I can‚’t blame them—I was, after all, destroying their home.
One thing you won’t find in many places is unbroken jungle. Driving through the low areas of much of Central America reminds me of driving through rural Illinois or Ohio. Those states, like many others, have large stretches of farmland and pasture with forests interspersed because the overall forests were cut down long ago.
Central America is largely the same; deforestation has removed most of the big stretches of jungle. The dense rain forests are there, just like there are woods in Illinois and Ohio, but they’re in isolated private and public landholdings. In recent years, some countries, such as Costa Rica, have done better than others in halting deforestation and preserving rain forests. A big issue for all countries now is about creating corridors of plants between jungle properties so wildlife (and plant species) can move between them.