The view off the deck of the house in the hills above Dominical was a rainforest—a vast, deep, and steep hillside of dense tropical trees and brush so thick you could not see the ground or the trees in front. To explore the rainforest you need a machete and the knowledge of how to use one so you don’t cut off a leg. When not used in immediate path-cutting, a machete is used to continuously smack all surrounding brush to scare away snakes; and there are a few very nasty snakes in Costa Rica. The good news is the same as for all creatures—they truly do not want to encounter humans any more than you want to see them. Make a lot of noise and they will leave.
But snakes and rainforest path-cutting was not the issue that day. That had been done for us. The owner of the 100 hectare wood that surrounded us in all directions, was a man named Randy, an old surfer from the US who had come to Costa Rica to surf in his twenties. Now in his early 70s, he still got up every morning at dawn and drove the 10 minutes into Dominical to spend the morning with the waves. After one surf trip, he didn’t leave. Instead he bought a lot of land for nearly nothing. At that time, it was all pasture that had been beat down by the free roaming Brahman cows. With the cows gone, the forest reclaimed itself and within years of his purchase he had a rainforest.
Randy has asked if we wanted to take the hike down to the waterfall and of course, we did. One morning he sent two of his workmen over to cut a path with the information that we should use the path within a few days or the path would be gone—consuming itself back into the forest.
Steve and his business partner had car issues that day. As I walked toward the trail I could see Steve’s legs sticking out from under the car. Josh was waiting for me and called over that I would need to bring a walking stick, “it’s a bit steep,” he said.
There were two sticks I had found on the beach at Playa Negra, so I grabbed them both. I had put on a long sleeve shirt and shorts but in hindsight, some long pants would have been a better choice. We started down the hill weaving through the varieties of cut palm and Heliconia leaves, trying not to trip on the Strangler roots or brace myself against one of the many thorned tree trunks often running with biting ants or odd-looking spiders. None of that bothered me. I didn’t mind walking among them. I braced myself with two walking sticks to secure my steps against the mud that slid underneath the downed brush and leaves.
Josh, who was in his mid-twenties, was making some serious progress in front of me, even though I watched him slip a few times. He called back every couple of minutes.
“Are you okay? “It’s a bit slick down here.” “Watch out for this tree. Major thorns.”
I was trying to keep up but at one point told him to go ahead.
“Are you sure?”
“I’ll be fine. I just need to take it slower.”
I continued the trek determined to get to the forest floor and see the waterfall. I was close enough to hear it. In one section, it was so narrow and slick with mud that if I took a misstep, I would have tumbled over the edge. It was impossible to see how deep the edge fell. I wouldn’t have rolled far because of all the trees but I might have sunk down into the dense mass making it impossible to climb out without help. At that point, I was acutely aware of my limitations of arm and leg strength. Clearly the twenty-something in front of me had no such concerns and was making steady progress. I could hear him but he was out of sight. I was still determined to not be a sixty-something—I was a perennial and although my age number was high, as far as I knew, my heart was strong—and my will was stronger.
About 40 careful and slow steps further, I encountered another narrow slick passage, that if missed, would put me worse off than the one above. Although, I couldn’t see the forest floor, I could hear it. I was nearly there, but my legs were beginning to burn and I knew I was at a critical point. Would I turn back and have failed? Or would I risk a fall and have to wait for Josh’s return back up the trail to haul me out—possibly having to call to the others for help? What if he didn’t take that same route back? I stood there, before that narrow passage, for a good five minutes, catching my breath and weighing the options while acknowledging that my legs were burning and even if I turned back, I still had to climb all the way back up.
It was also hot and I was dripping with sweat. For all the usual reasons, I had brought my Nikon DSLR with me—not a small camera. Early in the trek I realized that was insane and tucked the large camera inside my stretchy yoga shorts. Shorts. Another bad idea. I made the smart choice and turned around. It was harder going back up. There seemed to be even fewer places to position my walking sticks as some of the climb sections required a 90 degree step up. At a few places, I had to wrap the wrist cord around my neck to release the stick so that I could grab onto a tree to pull myself up.
My steps were slow and with each one, my thighs were burning. The sun seemed to grow in intensity and my face was red hot. I was talking to myself at that point. Was my heart strong enough for this? What about my blood pressure? My mother died of a stroke, although she never climbed anything other than the 10 steps up to the church door. Who did I think I was? What was I trying to prove?
I kept stopping in the few shady areas to catch my breath and I would listen to see if I could hear the two guys still working on the car; that would mean I was close to the top. For the longest time, I couldn’t hear anything but a rustle in the forest surrounding me. Snake? Anteater? I was about half way back when I began to feel a little light headed. The heat had amplified the pain of each step and I assumed I was becoming dehydrated due the sweating. I came to a shady area where a lot of the broad leaves of the banana trees had been cut and were lying across the path overlapping each other. It formed a somewhat clean surface and I chose that place to sit for a while.
I drank what was left of my water and put my head on my knees to slow my heart rate and cool down. As I sat in that little clearing surrounded by forest, I didn’t feel afraid of anything. Through my legs, I could see a few ants and bugs cross the banana leaf completely ignoring me. A thought crossed my mind about the banana spider, aka the Brazilian wandering spider, considered the world’s most toxic, or the bullet ant (apparently, a very painful bite similar to being shot with a bullet), or the very awful fer-de-lance, probably one of the worse snakes anywhere. I listened to the sounds in the forest for about a half an hour sitting still and quiet and unafraid. I knew that if given the choice to die there from a snake bite or a heart attack at an office desk—I would have chosen to stay where I was.
It wasn’t until later that I realized I had only one bug bite from that whole time in the thick of the forest and that was on my abdomen next to where I had stored the camera in my pants at the very beginning of the trek.
After about 30 minutes of sitting on the banana leaves, a brown and yellow butterfly landed on my boot. I stared at it for a minute and admired the feather “eyes” on its back. It flew around me several times and landed back on my boot and sat there, wings in slow movement. Was it telling me it was time to go? I got up and pickup up my sticks—as I still had a steep hike ahead. The butterfly flew in front and to the right side of me the entire way back. Was it my imagination? Was it just going in the same direction? Or was it my temporary spirit guide to give me the strength to move on and accompany me back home?
Finally, I could hear the two guys at the top still working on the car; and when I reached the stone wall at the top of the hill, the butterfly flew off into the forest.