QCOSTARICA ( Forget sloths, quetzals and toucans: There’s a new trail through Costa Rica’s diverse ecosystems, and it’s showcasing the country’s precious… mushrooms. Beyond buoying the country’s already-strong ecotourism opportunities, trip organizers are encouraging citizen science and conservation participation in a fun world of fungi.

Most days, Luis Francisco Ledezma ventures into Costa Rica’s forests carrying a handbasket and tiny trowel. At all altitudes, from the country’s highlands to its lowlands, he gently combs the ground with his fingers looking for the supple bodies of mushrooms. Once he finds something interesting, he carefully plunges the shovel’s tip into the dirt and scoops the fragile fungal structure into his palm.

Using a pocket-sized magnifying glass (it’s all quite a cute process), Ledezma zooms in on the mushroom’s features: the cap, gills, stalk, hyphae, mycelium, and any visible spores. This identification is a crucial step in his research, not just for safe consumption, but for the conservation of the fungi kingdom.

Which, if you did not know, is a huge kingdom.

Researcher and mycologist Luis Francisco Ledezma is the co-founder of the environmental non-profit Funga Conservation, which partnered this year with tour 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 fungi kingdom to be between a whopping 2.2 to 3.8 million different species. The wide range of estimates is due to the fact that there is still so much we don’t know about fungi. In fact, scientists have only named about 1,200 species to date. And only recently (historically speaking), were fungi even classified properly.

For decades, fungi, (a group that includes mushrooms, molds, mildews, yeasts, and puffballs) were identified and treated as botanical. But almost nothing about them—how they reproduce and respire, how they build themselves—looks anything like 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, though it isn’t nearly so tasty in a stag beetle as in a Portobello mushroom. Fungi will eat the sulfur off a concrete wall or the decaying matter between your toes—two things no plant will do.”

There is still so much to learn about fungi (and mushrooms in particular). Ledezma and his colleagues are working towards those discoveries—one little dig of a trowel and peek through a looking glass at a time.

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

Ledezma is the co-founder of the environmental non-profit Funga Conservation, which partnered this year with tour 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, take inventory of existing mushroom species through citizen science, disseminate environmental wisdom, and give back to the communities along the route.

Photo: Ida Alvarado

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

It’s magical not only in looks but also in practice. Without mushrooms, the world would be buried in 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 fungus and mold) can be traced back to the colonization of the Americas. While it’s true that some mushrooms are deadly and others are hallucinogenic, the fear has caused the fungi kingdom to go unappreciated.

“Our objective is to start changing that mindset, little by little,” he says.

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

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

Photo: Ida Alvarado

But the wet season is just as magical, when the forests teem with new life. Mushrooms sprout on the bellies of fallen logs, underneath browning leaves, and in the middle of the forest floor.

There’s the indigo milk cap, which grows on the ground in groups. The bridal veil stinkhorn forms a conical shape with a webbed veil around its stalk. And chicken of the woods (a particularly tasty variety), usually bright red and orange, clings like a shelf to trees.

It’s magical not only in looks but also in practice. These intricate organic bodies are nature’s recyclers and nourishers. Some species devour dead plant and animal matter, and others connect and collaborate with the roots of trees by sharing nutrients. Without mushrooms, the world would be buried in dead materials.

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

Along the Fungi Trail, Ledezma leads the way. The trail itself isn’t a continuous route like the Pacific Crest Trail in the US or Camino de Santiago in Europe. It’s more of a tour, like an ale trail or sightseeing excursion, of different destinations and events throughout the year. Stops aren’t popularized by advertisements or travel brochures either. Instead, the Fungi Trail showcases lesser-known ecosystems in more rural communities, like the La Selva Biological Station, a protected area of lowland tropical rainforests along the Río Puerto Viejo.

Photo: Ida Alvarado

Eventually, as Ledezma and other organizers develop the trail beyond its pilot phase, they’ll involve Indigenous communities to rescue and honor ancestral knowledge of fungi and mushrooms. But to start, they’re taking it slow to first learn how visitors interact with the trail.

The trail’s first stop in May in Monte de la Cruz introduced participants to the most common wild fungi of the Central Valley. The focus in October will be on bioluminescent and cloud forest fungi in Monteverde—and there’s even a chance in December for participants to forage for edible mushrooms and learn how to cook with them at the Cerro las Vueltas Reserve.

“I think at a deeper level, it’s about the connection with nature and hope.”

Monthly experiences cater to a range of interests, and they’re accessible to people of all abilities, says Carlos Bolaños, director general at Oropopo. The mushroom excursions can take the better part of a day, but you usually won’t be walking more than 10 kilometers. Foraging takes patience and keen eyes.

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

Once participants leave the trail, they’re encouraged to keep recording their findings through the iNaturalist app to contribute to the country’s catalog of fungi. So far, users have logged more than 500 species in Costa Rica. Ledezma has also reached out to the Ministry of the Environment and Energy to hopefully start a more formal documenting and monitoring program.

According to CBS, a recent study found that spikes in electrical signals generated by fungi can resemble a language. These spikes can be grouped into “words” and “sentences,” and according to the study, fungi can have a vocabulary of up to 50 “words.” Photo: Ida Alvarado

Globally, mushrooms are having somewhat of a moment in popular culture. There’s designer mushroom fashion and jewelry, mushroom-shaped furniture, mushroom coffee, mushroom tinctures, and at-home mushroom grow kits. Then there’s the entire psychedelic movement, in part brought back to the modern stage by Michael Pollan’s 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind, which dives into the power of psychedelic drugs in regards to mental health and wellness, which has been adapted into a Netflix docuseries this year.

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

Ledezma thinks the popularity has something to do with the pandemic and climate change, with people reconnecting in nature and being more open about mental health. Studies show that cordyceps in mushrooms have pharmacological and therapeutic potential. “I think at a deeper level, it’s about the connection with nature and hope,” he says. Mushrooms are also proving to be useful alternatives to plastics, leather, and other high-carbon-footprint materials, and they have even been used in remediation cleanups of oil spills and wildfires.

“This amazing kingdom is the foundation for every ecosystem on the planet,” Ledezma says. “We want people to get closer to it to understand that we need to preserve and protect it.”

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