Costa Rica 2014: Corcovado National Park

4:30 came entirely too soon this morning, and I woke up with snakes and pumas and spiders on the brain. In all honesty, Corcovado scared the crap out of me, and for a split second, I almost chickened out and stayed at my safe little cabina. I mean, just think of all the things that could go wrong, on a trip where so many things already had. What if I stepped on the tail of a deadly fer-de-lance while tromping through the rainforest? What if we were too far in to get help? I know that this doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. On average, one person each year dies in Corcovado, due to things like snake bike, heat stroke, and other various maladies. Because I’m the type of person to assume that person will be me, for some inexplicable reason, I was a little nervous this morning, to say the least. Here’s my 5 am pre-Corcovado selfie, taken against the backdrop of the jungle mural above my bed in Cabinas Jimenez:

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But I picked up my pack, already loaded with a poncho, sunscreen, bug spray, a couple pairs of socks, my Chacos, some food, and 3.5 liters of water,* and headed out the door to meet Steven, my guide, and the other members of the group.

As Steven had explained to me the day before, when I booked his services, he had a full taxi (i.e. Jungle-worthy 4×4) to Corcovado and back, but he had found a space on another jeep going out at the same time. I was to take the 2 hour journey with them on “the worst road in Costa Rica,” as I think every local I met exclaimed with glee, and meet up in Carate, the point where the road ended and the hike began. I bought a sandwich at the panaderia next door as instructed, and jumped into the (very crowded) back of a jeep full of a group of French excursionists and their multilingual guide, Carlos. As we bumped and shook over what must be the worst road in all of Central America, knocking knees and elbows and trying to stay in our respective parts of the bench seats, the main topic of conversation was l’Americain perdu dans le jungle – the American lost in the jungle. Erm, pardonez-mois?!?

As it turns out, an American backpacker went missing in Corcovado 11 days previously – he went in with a local, who claimed to be a guide, and a few days later, the guide came out alone, saying that the kid had wandered off and never came back. Talk originating from a ranger station the two men passed through suggested that he was a skilled hiker, as is his father, who owns and operates a business here in Costa Rica, but also that he was a big stoner. Most of the narratives describing his disappearance focused on this second trait, claiming that he got high at La Sirena,** took off on an exploratory hike around the area (which many people do) and simply never returned. After establishing these basics, talk in the jeep then turned quickly to possible death scenarios – was he struck by the elusive fer-de-lance? Caught unaware by one of the large cats that roam Corcovado? Fall and break something, and then get ravaged by one of the ferocious 300 kilo taipirs that lurk around the beaches? Perhaps he was bitten by a snake, then eaten by a group of cats, or wild pigs, which is why they still hadn’t found the body after nearly two weeks of searching.

This wasn’t exactly what I needed to hear as I splashed hot coffee all over myself in the vehicle taking me to the jungle that had recently swallowed a fellow American tourist. Granted, I had no plans to smoke a joint and set out to commune with nature solo at any point during the day, and I was confident in my guide and his capabilities, but… Was I right to be a little scared? I had just convinced myself that things were going to be okay! Looking down at my Keens, which Steven told me would work just fine for a day trip, I was painfully aware of how much exposed flesh I would be flashing at any aggressive snakes or angry spiders. Was this all a big mistake?

Luckily, the conversation eventually shifted, and we began comparing travel plans and other personal information. I got to practice my terrible French, which the Frenchies seemed to enjoy, in a “oh, look how the silly American’s trying!” sort of way. And somehow, we arrived at Carate, our spines a little out of whack and our bodies a bit bruised from all the jostling around, but intact, nevertheless, which is more than can be said for the dead bird we found among our packs as we unloaded them form the top of the jeep. The Frenchies wished me luck and set out right away, eager to take advantage of the good morning conditions and escape as much heat as possible later in the day. I waited for Steven and the two couples that had ridden out with him, glancing periodically at the dead bird that the driver had set unsettlingly close to my pack. Hey, Universe, are you trying to send me a message?

Before too long, Steven and the gang showed up, I showed the French woman the area I had already designated as the “ladies’ room,” made some small talk with the young Swiss couple, and asked Steven once more if my Keens would put me in some sort of mortal danger. He laughed, patted my arm, and yelled “¡vámonos!” And so we set out.

It’s a bit of a trek to get from Carate to the park entrance, which is marked by the first of four stations – La Leona. It took us about an hour, through the beach, via jungle trails, back through more beach, and through a few small streams that crossed the path that led us there.

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As we moved toward La Leona, we began to see glimpses of why Corcovado has been proclaimed “the most biologically intense place in Earth in terms of biodiversity,” according to National Geographic. First we saw the enormous banana spider and his incredibly strong web, used, according to Steven, in the manufacturing of bullet-proof vests. It was about the size of my palm, black, with greenish-yellow parts on his long legs. I did not get close enough to take a picture, which I regret now. Next we saw a poison dart frog, which was tiny and cute and not deadly-looking at all. Steven picked it up for us to have a closer look, explaining that it wasn’t really THAT poisonous, that it excreted a chemical that one had to be careful of not getting in one’s eyes or mouth, but that really only caused some weird hallucinations if that happened. Oh, okay then. He made no effort to clean his hands after holding the frog. Hmmm…

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Note: The frog is hard to see because it’s so tiny here. Here’s a hunt: it’s black with bright green spots, and it’s in the middle of the frame. It’s also about the size of Steven’s thumb-nail, which you can see on the far upper-right right corner.

Moving forward, we saw a couple of spider monkeys jumping around the trees above us, with the sounds of the howler monkeys voicing their disapproval from afar. It was amazing how loud they were – they sounded like a pack of dogs barking at us! The spider monkeys were incredibly agile, using their tails as appendages to help them move from tree to tree. Steven told us that mother spider monkeys often use their tails and arms together to create a sort of bodily bridge for their young to cross distances they can’t yet manage, during the time when they are still learning how to use their own versatile tails. We also saw numerous macaws,

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a few colorful Halloween crabs,

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and the howler monkeys that has chastised us earlier (or was it the spider monkeys, showing off for the tourists?).

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And then, after a couple quick stream crossings and one last short trek through a trail, we reached La Leona.

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Steven gave us 10 minutes at La Leona to use the bathroom, get the sand out of our shoes, eat a snack, and fill up water bottles as needed. He claimed that the water from the tubo was totalmente limpio – totally clean – but my body tells me otherwise today. These things happen. After getting the black sand out of my Keens and toes the best I could, I signed in the book of passers-through and thought again about l’Americain. Surely he had signed his name and destination in this same book eleven days before as he set out into the jungle. What was his name? What was his story? What happened to him during his brief time in Corcovado? As Steven chatted with the ranger sitting next to me, who had just returned from a 3 day search expedition, I was tempted to ask the man his name, so that I could flip back the pages and see what he had scribbled in there before setting out for La Sirena. But something prevented me – some combination of respect for the dead and knowing that the written prof of his existence would make the threat of Corcovado seem more tangible. Instead, I scarfed down a few granola bars, talked to the ranger about my pack, which he admired, and said he wished that park officials would buy for his crew, instead of the enormous, heavy, leather and canvas bags provided to them by people who knew nothing about hiking. After some more small talk about tattoos and travel, I said goodbye to the ranger and joined my crew – finally, we were entering Corcovado itself.

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The things I saw and felt in the jungle are too numerous to recount and too abstract to fully explain, but I was continually awed by the rich fecundity, the incredible diversity, the sheer beauty and the visceral sense of simply existing inside such a delicately balanced system. Watching hundreds of little hermit crabs scuttle out of the path, macaws squawking from the trees, anteaters lumbering around and a lone coati scurrying from his hidden little den through a relatively clear patch of jungle, I felt truly privileged to be a part of this environment, even for one short day.

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The squirrel monkeys that came and “played” with us, dancing through the trees right above our heads and coming nearly within arm’s reach, seemed almost entertained by our presence, and seemed to want to return the favor.

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In addition to these sightings, we saw an owl, a male Jesus lizard (said to walk on water because they run so quickly over its surface),a bat hanging from the underside of a broad leaf, and a slinky black weasel, among many other creatures.

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Steven was the perfect guide, spotting things I never would have seen on my own, carrying along a powerful magnifying lens mounted on a tripod to show us the things he spotted in detail. He was also kind enough to take pictures from us through his lens, so I have him to thank for most of the close-up shots I have included here.

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He also possesses an incredible wealth of information about the diverse flora and fauna that compose Corcovado, and I was many times awed by his knowledge and expertise. If I ever bring students to Costa Rica, which I now hope to do, he will be a great resource – he says that he enjoys working with students, and would be happy to work with me arranging tours through Corcovado and other activities, like touring a local cacao farm and kayaking, zip-lining or rappelling. Definitely something to keep in mind!

Of course, my hike through Corcovado wasn’t all squirrel monkeys and butterflies. A lot of the time, it was a sweaty, exhausting, painful hike. The stretches of beach hiking were almost unbearably hot and difficult, and we sunk into the black volcanic sand with every step, which quickly permeated our shoes, socks, and the delicate cracks between toes. I quickly realized that I was allergic to the bug spray I brought, and the sunscreen I applied melted almost instantaneously. I did limp out of Corcovado as I had anticipated, filthy and sweaty and sunburned and tired, but it was well worth the experience, and I can’t wait to do it again. Next time, I think I’ll do the 3-day tour to La Sirena and back 🙂

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———————-

* I’m a sweaty beast, especially in this humidity, which can range from 60-100%. The guide recommended 2 liters for the first leg of our trip, so I packed 3.5. I was glad I did. In retrospect, I almost wish I would have packed one more, as the liter of water I refilled one of my bottles with is the most likely culprit for my, um, current situation, which I will spare you all the details of.

** La Sirena is the famed ranger station in the heart of Corcovado, and the mid-point for those undertaking a 2-3 day hike, which is not for the faint of heart (or untrained body). With a kitchen, open communal spaces, sleeping quarters and even wifi, La Sirena functions as, at minimum, an overnight stop before beginning the trek back to Carate. In many cases, it also serves as a base from which to explore the trails encompassing the surrounding area, where some of the most intense flora and fauna can be observed during the day following the hike in. Those that choose to utilize La Sirena in this way, as did the missing American and his dubious guide, make the return hike back to Carate on day three.

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