Hiking on the beach sounded like fun. I pictured us walking barefoot on the sand and carrying light packs. In my vision, there were palapas off to one side and multiple limbo contests happening on the other. Along with that, a gentle sea breeze played with our full heads of hair and kept the temperature within the perfect zone. The surf perpetually crashed onto what seemed an endless white sand beach. And the waves showered us with refreshing breaths of ocean air as we walked into the heart of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula.
But that’s not exactly how it happened. Instead, it was more like this:
There was an actual plan, at least for the initial part of the trip. First, we flew commercially into Costa Rica’s capital city, San Jose. From there, we took a vintage and more intimate plane to Golfito, where a small boat ferried us across the bay to Puerto Jimenez. After a night at a quaint boutique hotel, a private truck drove us a few miles to the little town of Carate. Finally, we backpacked for about 5 miles along the beach to our ultimate destination- the Sirena Biological Research Station in Corcovado National Park. Once at the station, we camped outside the main building for a few days and had the full-on Costa Rica/Osa Peninsula/jungle experience.
The black sand absorbed and magnified the solar heat on the backpack in which made the skimpy wind seem more like stale breath. In addition, the beach was hard to walk on since it was off-camber as it dropped down toward the water. And we were in something of a time crunch to top it all off. Our jungle guide had told us it was essential to cross the various stream inlets during low tide when the sharks and crocodiles wouldn’t be in the water hunting. So with that last part in mind, we pushed the pace a little more than we probably should’ve, which only exacerbated the various physical challenges we already faced.
And then, there were the Howler Monkeys. They kept screaming invisibly from somewhere back in the jungle, which only added to the stress of it all by creating something of a primordial and uneasy tone. And lastly, our backpacks were not at all light, although we’d thought they would be while organizing gear. Sure, there were things like fleece gloves and wool caps that we didn’t need and had taken out when packing. But they’d been replaced by jungle gear such as umbrellas, rubber boots, and extensive rain paraphernalia. And so, the result was only a negligible net gain in weight reduction.
To paraphrase, we walked down the beach with full packs, in stifling heat, at a hurried pace, and with the extra exertion required for walking at a strange angle on the sand. Late that afternoon, we finally did reach our destination but only after experiencing our fair share of heat/exertion/dehydration problems. Nonetheless, we ultimately got there, and with plenty of time to set up our tents in an open area around the actual station “house.” And we had reached our day’s destination without losing a single person to sharks or crocodiles.
Back then, in the ’80s, the primary station structure was a spectacular, one-story wooden house with a big front sitting porch and was nestled into the jungle only a few hundred yards inland from the coastline. A clearing of about two acres in size surrounded the main building. It provided a small enclave of predictability and a place for various outbuildings, including bathrooms, storage buildings, and living quarters. Finally, there was a dirt landing strip between the station and the Pacific. In addition to being what it was intended to be, the runway created a convenient open space for wildlife viewing.
The National Park was created in the mid-’70s to protect one of the world’s largest remaining intact lowland tropical forests. It encompasses almost a third of the Osa Peninsula and is considered one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. In the jungle around the station, it’s not uncommon to see Tapirs, American Crocodiles, four types of monkeys, exotic birds, various types of cats, and even Poison Dart Frogs. The area is home to 13 types of forest and is a short-term destination for all kinds of ecologists and researchers doing everything from bird-watching to studying the movements of Army Ants.
In short, it’s the real thing in regards to the rainforest. We were “sort of” aware of that fact since our guide/facilitator, Art, had provided us with all kinds of pertinent input right from the start. Since I was the organizer and leader of the trip, it was up to me to make sure we were all ready. To that end, I brought Art into the process and lined him up to both prepare and join us. While we all valued his input from the start, I’m not sure that we completely heeded it, at least up until the time when it all started to occur. Up to that point, the bulk of everyone’s outdoor experience had either been in Texas or at various US mountain locations. And that meant an environment of relatively cool/dry air and either alpine tundra, pine forests, Pecan bottoms, or cedar breaks. We were accustomed to being around deer, elk, and only the occasional snake. But suddenly, we were living in a world of weird trees, humidity, and weird-looking organisms that we figured mostly wanted to eat us.
I had begun to get the feeling that things were a bit “different” when we boarded the startlingly old DC 3 back in San Jose. Right off the bat, both the age and condition of the plane were of concern. But once we were in the air, and I noted the amount of jungle below us, my left eye had started twitching due to my level of uneasiness. That, coupled with the fact that we were without the bulk of our gear (which the airline guy in San Jose had sworn would get to us, somehow, although not on our plane), created a feeling of uncertainty. I was utterly discombobulated by then, especially as I realized that we hadn’t even set foot on the Osa.
I can say now that we underestimated the significance of what Art had been telling us about rainforest living, especially regarding the need to time our hiking with the tides. With a certain amount of pain and discomfort, we had made the crossings when we were supposed to. And we had ultimately arrived at Sirena on schedule. At the time, we were all wondering if it had been worth it.
We spent three nights camping in the yard outside the main Sirena house. During the afternoon of our second day, one of the guys in our group went down to the nearby Rio Sirena and caught a nice-sized fish. He brought it back to the station, where he cleaned and then saved it to use as bait for something even bigger. On the third day, we joined a group of park rangers as they headed down to the ocean for some fishing in the surf. Before making the short walk down to the water’s edge, they grabbed a shark fishing handline, complete with an astoundingly large hook, for our fisherman to use in conjunction with his baitfish. The hook size should’ve been a clue about the seriousness of what we were about to experience. But it wasn’t, and we all just fell in behind the Costa Ricans and made the short walk down the runway and to the water’s edge with little thought about what was about to happen.
We arrived at a small cove with waves swelling and crashing onto the rocks below where we stood. Once there, our fisherman wasted no time as he quickly baited the massive shark hook and tossed it some 20 feet out into the water. Initially, I was skeptical about his chances until something, and apparently, a significant something attacked the line. Luckily, as it turned out, the fisherman was able to maintain his perch on dry ground and, rather than being tugged into the water, pulled in an empty line with a bent hook. We quickly began marveling and commenting on the near-miss of a big fish. But then, we started spotting multiple fins and even some entire bodies of massive eight-foot Blue Sharks in a feeding frenzy, and they were only a few feet from where we stood.
There was no denying the fact that they were both real and near. Thankfully, I didn’t act upon my initial instinct to fake push people into the water. Within moments, I broke out into a cold sweat as I visualized the mess that would undoubtedly occur if any part of anybody from our group were to end up in the water. With that thought stirring in my mind, I stepped back from the edge, even though I wasn’t all that close, and made sure our various group members did the same. And then, I thought back to our crossing of the nearby Rio Sirena and the other streams we’d encountered during the walk-in. I speculated about what would’ve happened had we gotten to a crossing at the wrong time. Among other things, I wondered what we would’ve done if faced with the prospect of either spending the night out on the beach without drinking water or just “going for it.”
I still have visions of teenagers being drug and carried down to crocodile nests for seasoning. Of flapping backpacker arms being torn from bodies. And young people wondering about whether their Snickers bar had melted as they were being drowned right before my eyes. Thankfully, the emotional chaos which arose subsided when I realized that none of it had happened. As I think back to my years of adventuring in the outdoors, I now recognize that it was on that trip that I came to an important realization. It’s that whenever outsiders venture into the real, wild world, they need to understand what they’re getting into. I decided that wild places are very much worth experiencing. But at the same time, visitors who enter that realm should do so with serious thought and be prepared to deal with the consequences of being in the midst of it. Things like Grizzly Bears, avalanches, and Rattlesnakes are genuine parts of that place. But, so too are gentle sea breezes, wildflower-covered meadows, and Whitetail fawns. Perhaps, the meaning of authentic wildness is beyond my ability to comprehend fully. But on that day, while standing and gawking at the magnificent power that was swimming nearby in the ocean, I learned to respect it.