Moonlight & Fireflies

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Note: The following was a journal entry from July 16, 2000 – before I had a digital camera or a cell phone!  So, unfortunately, no images from this adventure survived my many wanderings since.

Moonlight and Fireflies – An Adventure Tale

I reached the Costa Rican border in about two hours. On the bus ride, I felt excited. I felt the anxiety of going to a new place without plans, without barriers, and with only my senses and intuition to guide me. I felt a fresh rush of anticipation, a rush that has me addicted to travel.

Golfito was a run down port town spanning along the Pacific Ocean. The peninsula across the bay from Golfito is home to Parque Nacional Corcovado. The blurb in my guide book described a vigorous trek along the coast and into the tropical rainforest. The protected park would likely include sightings of birds, monkeys and a host of other wildlife. While I was geared with a tent, stove, cooking pot, and food, I was undecided how far into the park I would reach.

I couldn’t help but check out the karaoke bar I saw during my walk around town. When I arrived, a scrawny Costa Rican guy was belting “musica romantica” into a microphone. An imaginary ball bounced from word to word on a blurry TV screen while a number of other patrons hummed along. I laughed to myself as the microphone was passed around. Each song featured a low budget video with bikinis on the beach and wide angle shots of resort centers and city skylines.

I was just settling in when three more backpackers arrived. They asked to share my table as the place was packed. After basic introductions and traditional traveler chat we made arrangements to meet the following morning. They had plans to spend 4 nights trekking into Parque Corcovado. When I left the bar, karaoke was in full swing.

The four of us arrived in Puerto Jimenez by ferry boat, one hour across the bay from Golfito. The plan was to sleep the first night in Carate and then walk to the second ranger station approximately 8 hours up the beach. We had to be sure to cross one section of rocks while the tide was low, otherwise the ocean smashed into the rocky cliffs making the way to the park impassable. To avoid being cut off by the tides and stranded in the jungle, we would have to leave from Carate at 4:30 AM.

Since there was no public transport available on Sundays, we needed to hire a 4×4 truck to make the two hour journey to the end of the rough road leading to the Park. Carate wasn’t a town, it was a pension offering budget accommodations and basic dry goods. We pitched our tents for free on the beach shortly before sunset, just as the looming dark clouds began to sprinkle rain.

I cooked a soupy pasta for the group with my stove. The two girls were from Israel and the guy from England. Ian was a colorful character with business in his blood but adventure in his heart. Janat and Gil were extremely kind. All made for good conversation. Ian shared tales from Australia, Fiji and Thailand while I pressed the girls to enlighten me about Israel, a country I know very little about. Conversation was cut short however as the rain fell; we hid in our tents.

As I lay there, I could hear thunder clapping in the distance. The whole tent would light up suddenly as flashes of lightning stormed into the valley and descended upon the sea. I was not sure if my aluminum tent poles would attract a bolt of lightning. I realized that while my tent was a tiny two-man, it was easily the tallest object on the beach.

The rain came in torrents, slashing into the tent walls. I could feel moisture entering from some unseen flaw in the construction of my tent. I tried to sleep, but I was kept awake by the increasing noise of waves crashing into the shore. They were big waves, and as the tide advanced closer, I wondered if we had made camp too close to the water. If we weren’t to be struck by lightning, surely a tidal wave would sweep us all out to sea.

Ian broke my drifting slumber announcing the time, 4:15 AM. At that moment, a strong internal voice screamed for me to forget about trekking into the park and cling to the moist warmth of my sleeping bag for the next three days. Then, a smaller, weaker, but pestering voice said, “don’t be such a baby”. Gil had begun packing her things, so I unwillingly began cramming my stuff into my pack. I knew I was about to face the worst of all evils – packing a wet tent in the rain.

My backpack was getting soaked as I grasped at the tent poles. While dry sand is soft and fluffy, wet sand is sticky, gritty, and heavy. I felt water drizzle down my back and into my pants. I made a grim attempt to shake off the larger puddles before stuffing my tent into its sack. I heaved my pack onto my back and looked ahead to see a misty and dark beach. Ian reminded us that we would have to cover 20 kilometers to reach the second ranger station. After 50 steps we were stopped in our tracks – a murky river rushed into the sea blocking our path.

There was no bridge, nor even a shallow section of the river. I threw a log across to bridge the gap but it was too short and was quickly swept to sea. After surveying the riverbank for alternatives, we took off our boots and plodded into the currents. The river was strong and the last thing I needed was to slip and dump my whole pack into the river.  When I put my boots on at the other side of the river, I felt the sand grinding between my toes with each step. We smiled at each other after the successful crossing and Ian lead a brisk pace up the beach.

I was in my own world, sheltered within the hood of my poncho. Step, step, step … After hiking an hour, we took a break at the first ranger station and asked other travelers about the journey ahead. “You should be able to do it in six hours” and “watch the tides” were the primary comments. We carried on into the jungle, winding through viney trees and splashing through muddy streams. The rain was letting up and after a few hours, it stopped.

As the day got lighter, my mood became brighter and I began to enjoy the fresh sea breeze and the lush smells of the forest. The girls followed along with stiff determination as the trail alternated between beach and jungle.

A loud squawk broke my dazed consciousness. “Look up to your right”, whispered Ian, “its a parrot”. The red and blue feathers were characteristic of the Macaw, a species of parrot famous in the area. They were beautiful, with long red tails and colorful personalities. We watched a group of them dance among the high branches before continuing on down the trail. They would soar past us squawking loudly, as if pointing the way and encouraging us to keep going.

We crossed the rocky face during low tide on schedule and eventually reached a calm wide river. We broke for lunch and a brief photo shoot after rinsing in the river. Our spirits were high but my neck and back ached from the weight of the pack.

Advancing around the corner, someone spotted monkeys. They were tiny, cute little guys with white faces and curious eyes. The parrots squawked overhead and iguanas scrambled across the sand looking for cover. There was a sudden burst of life around us with each of us peering at the scene through our camera lenses. The sounds reminded me of a scene from one of those TV documentaries and I half expected to hear the low voice of the announcer cut in before breaking to a commercial.

We pressed on, and by 2 PM, we reached the ranger station. I dumped my pack with relief and snacked on nuts and dried fruit.

The girls were exhausted, but Ian and I decided to do a quick hike around the ranger station. With only water and cameras we bounded into the jungle. We spotted a wild turkey bird up in a tree and a large rodent. The trails were muddy and swampy and we crossed several more rivers. Indiana Jones would have applauded.

Engaged in conversation, Ian and I didn’t realize that we had been walking for so long without seeing the turn to loop back to the camp. We reached a deep wide river with a sign saying “Los Pasos – 15 km” – not a good sign. We were not in a loop heading for camp, we had hiked directly away from the camp. It was nearly 5 PM and light would be fading soon. We decided the safest bet would be to retrace our steps nearly 8 km back to the camp. We hurried double time and arrived before dusk. My legs were aching, my shirt soaking and my stomach empty.

I awoke early, packed my stuff, hugged good-byes and started back toward Carate. Instead of rain, it was clear blue sky and scorching hot by 9 AM. I was drenched in sweat and drank loads of water. I came across a family of cat-like creatures with long tails. I also saw a set of enormous paw prints which could only belong to one of many jaguars inhabiting the area.

The parrots had returned along with several families of monkeys. I watched them all with amazement. Making good time, I reached Carate in the afternoon and passed the afternoon dozing in a hammock strung up at the little pension. My clothes and sleeping bag were rank with mold growing in some spots due to the water and high humidity in my backpack. My third night was again on the beach and again it rained. The lightning never struck.

Puerto Jimenez, like many parts of Costa Rica has become a haven for seasonally living, semi-retired, transient cultured 30 to 40-something Americans. During lunch I was flung into stinging reality, suddenly immersed in a low-grade conversation about the servants of one American. He was keen on the cheap labor of the Tica people, “but they can’t cook worth a damn”, he said. I overheard disrespectful and judgemental comments and lost my appetite. Instead I went to the park where friendly school kids enticed me to become the umpire of their brief baseball game. All were bright-eyed and open-hearted.

I left that morning at 8 AM and it required one 4×4 truck and 4 separate bus connections plus hassles at the border to reach Boquete, Panama by 10 PM that night. There were no taxis. Bearing down, I hiked the last 30 minutes up the mountain to my rental house in pitch dark. My only guidance came from moonlight and fireflies.

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