Costa Rica’s new attraction? Mushrooms – Q COSTA RICA

QCASTARICA (Adventure.com) Forget about sloths, quetzals and toucans: there’s a new trail through Costa Rica’s diverse ecosystems, and it showcases the country’s prized… mushrooms. In addition to supporting the country’s already strong ecotourism opportunities, tour operators are encouraging citizen science and conservation participation in a fun world of mushrooms.

Most of the time, Luis Francisco Ledezma ventures into the forests of Costa Rica with a hand basket and a small trowel. At all altitudes, from the highlands of the country to the lowlands, he gently combs the ground with his fingers in search of the soft bodies of mushrooms. Once he finds something of interest, he carefully dips the tip of the shovel into the dirt and picks up the fragile fungal structure in his palm.

Using a handheld magnifying glass (it’s a pretty cute process), Ledezma zooms in on the mushroom’s features: the cap, gills, stem, hyphae, mycelium, and any visible spores. This identification is a crucial step in his research, not only for safe consumption, but for the conservation of the fungal kingdom.

Which, if you didn’t know, is a huge kingdom.

Researcher and mycologist Luis Francisco Ledezma is the co-founder of environmental nonprofit Funga Conservation, which this year partnered with travel agency Oropopo Experience to create Costa Rica’s first Fungi Trail. Photo: Ida Alvarado

The Bradbury Science Museum estimates the number of species in the mushroom kingdom to be between 2.2 and 3.8 million different species. The wide range of estimates is because there is still so much we don’t know about mushrooms. In fact, scientists have only named about 1,200 species so far. And it’s only recently (historically speaking) that mushrooms have even been properly classified.

For decades fungi (a group that includes mushrooms, molds, molds, yeasts, and puffballs) have been identified and treated as botanicals. But almost nothing about them – how they reproduce and breathe, how they build themselves – bears no resemblance to the plant world.

“Structurally, they have more in common with animals in that they build their cells from chitin, a material that gives them their distinctive texture,” writes Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything. “The same substance is used to make the shells of insects and the claws of mammals, although it is not as tasty in a stag beetle as it is in a Portobello mushroom. Fungi will eat the sulfur in a concrete wall or the rotting matter between your toes – two things no plant will do.

There is still so much to learn about mushrooms (and mushrooms in particular). Ledezma and her colleagues are working on these discoveries – one little digging with a trowel and one peek through a mirror at a time.

Scientists estimate that there are millions of types of fungi on the planet, but only about 1,200 species of fungi have been identified and recorded. Citizen science and research could help close the gap. Photo: Ida Alvarado

Ledezma is the co-founder of environmental nonprofit Funga Conservation, which this year partnered with travel agency Oropopo Experience to create Costa Rica’s first Fungi Trail. The ecotourism project was designed to introduce locals and tourists to the country’s fungal network, inventory existing fungal species through citizen science, spread environmental wisdom and give back to communities along the route.

Photo: Ida Alvarado

“In Costa Rica, we don’t have a list of mushroom species,” says Ledezma. “We already have the plant species, the animal species, but the knowledge of fungi here is not common.”

It is magical not only in appearance but also in practice. Without mushrooms, the world would be buried under dead materials.

Costa Rica, Ledezma says, is one of many “mycophobic” countries, where people have traditionally been averse to mushrooms. A negative attitude is common. Mycophobia (or the aversion or fear of fungi and molds) dates back to the colonization of the Americas. While it is true that some mushrooms are deadly and others are hallucinogenic, fear has caused the mushroom kingdom to be disliked.

“Our goal is to start changing that mindset, bit by bit,” he says.

According to Ledezma, a journey down the mushroom trail should be slow, experiential. It’s not about trekking, but about the opportunity to discover a world all around us. Photo: Ida Alvarado

The first step is to create a plot. Costa Rica is famous for its white sand beaches, cerulean blue waters and lush rainforests. It is a must-visit destination for travelers and tourism is an essential sector of the country’s economy, especially during the dry season from November to May.

Photo: Ida Alvarado

But the rainy season is just as magical, when the forests teem with life. Mushrooms grow on the underside of fallen logs, under browned leaves and in the middle of the forest floor.

There is the indigo milk cap, which grows on the ground in groups. The bridal veil stink forms a conical shape with a webbed veil around its stem. And the Chicken of the Woods (a particularly tasty variety), usually bright red and orange, clings like a shelf to the trees.

It is magical not only in appearance but also in practice. These complex organic bodies are nature’s recyclers and feeders. Some species devour dead plant and animal matter, and others connect and collaborate with tree roots by sharing nutrients. Without mushrooms, the world would be buried under dead materials.

Mycopia, or the irrational aversion and fear of mushrooms, permeated colonial culture for generations. But a recent resurgence of interest in the medicinal and practical powers of mushrooms has led to a certain cultural boom and a new – how should we say – myocuriosity. Photo: Ida Alvarado

Along the Fungi Trail, Ledezma leads the way. The trail itself is not a continuous route like the Pacific Crest Trail in the United States or the Camino de Santiago in Europe. Rather, it is a visit, like a beer trail or a sightseeing excursion, to different destinations and events throughout the year. Nor are the stops popularized by advertisements or tourist brochures. Instead, the Fungi Trail showcases lesser-known ecosystems in more rural communities, like La Selva Biological Station, a protected area of ​​lowland rainforests along the Río Puerto Viejo.

Photo: Ida Alvarado

Eventually, as Ledezma and other organizers develop the trail beyond its pilot phase, they will involve indigenous communities in saving and honoring ancestral knowledge of mushrooms and mushrooms. But to start, they take their time to first learn how visitors interact with the trail.

The trail’s first stop in May at Monte de la Cruz introduced participants to the most common wild mushrooms of the Central Valley. In October, the focus will be on bioluminescent and cloud forest mushrooms in Monteverde. In December, participants will even have the opportunity to look for edible mushrooms and learn to cook with them in the Cerro las Vueltas reserve.

“I think on a deeper level it’s about connecting with nature and hope.”

The monthly experiences cater to a range of interests and are accessible to people of all abilities, says Carlos Bolaños, CEO of Oropopo. Mushroom tours can take most of the day, but you won’t usually walk more than 10 kilometers. Foraging requires patience and keen eyes.

“When you’re looking for mushrooms, you walk slowly,” says Bolaños. “It’s not about distance, it’s not about exercise. It’s more about being connected with the forest, with the mushrooms.

Once participants leave the trail, they are encouraged to continue recording their findings through the iNaturalist app to contribute to the nation’s mushroom catalog. So far, users have registered over 500 species in Costa Rica. Ledezma has also contacted the Department of Environment and Energy to hopefully initiate a more formal documentation and monitoring program.

According to CBS, a recent study found that the spikes in electrical signals generated by mushrooms can resemble a tongue. These spikes can be grouped into ‘words’ and ‘phrases’ and, depending on the study, mushrooms can have a vocabulary of up to 50 ‘words’. Photo: Ida Alvarado

Globally, mushrooms are having a moment in popular culture. There’s designer mushroom fashion and jewelry, mushroom furniture, mushroom coffee, mushroom tinctures, and mushroom grow kits at home. Then there’s the whole psychedelic movement, partly brought back to the modern scene by Michael Pollan’s 2018 book How to Change Your Mind, which delves into the power of psychedelic drugs as they relate to mental health and well-being. -be, which was adapted into a Netflix docu-series this year.

And while the idea for the Fungi Trail didn’t spring directly from the mushroom boom, it certainly helps Costa Rica capitalize on myco-curiosities.

Ledezma thinks the popularity has something to do with the pandemic and climate change, with people reconnecting to nature and being more open about mental health. Studies show that the cordyceps in mushrooms have pharmacological and therapeutic potential. “I think on a deeper level it’s about connecting with nature and hope,” he says. Mushrooms are also found to be useful alternatives to plastics, leather, and other carbon-intensive materials, and they’ve even been used in oil spill and wildfire cleanup.

“This amazing realm is the foundation of all ecosystems on the planet,” says Ledezma. “We want people to get close to it to understand that we have to preserve it and protect it.”

Read the original article How Mushrooms Became Costa Rica’s New Attraction on Adventure.com.

Keith P. Plain