Rolling out of bed we hustled down to the bar in front of the hostel to grab a quick breakfast before heading into Manuel Antonio National Park to hopefully scope some animals. While we were shoving food and coffee into our faces a local guy named David began talking to us, letting us know if we wanted a guide for today’s walk he’d be pleased to take us at a discounted rate because it’s the off-season. We said we’d think about it as we finished eating.
At Carara we’d briefly spoken to some tourists who’d gotten a guide and they’d seen a lot more than we had – snakes, frogs, etc… So we figured it was worth a shot and when we went down to buy our entrance tickets, we found him as well. David was from Monteverde, where we’d been just two dies prior. With a telescope slung over his shoulder we headed into the park and he asked us what we were looking at for time and whether we just wanted to sight some animals or whether we were interested in learning about the plants and the habitat as well. Yup, let’s take our time and do it right. Before we even entered the park there were two fauns grazing at the gate.
Almost immediately upon entering, David pointed out a two-toed sloth hanging from a tree. Apparently they’re the less common of the two types of sloths in the area. “This is the Chewbacca of sloths”. Looking at it through the telescope we could see it just hanging out and scratching itself. D said that’s about as active as you’re ever going to see a sloth. While we were watching it an iguana slipped behind us across the road and into the foliage. We ran over to see where it went, but it’s colors blended perfectly with the undergrowth and it was gone.
A couple of minutes later he pointed the telescope at the side of a tree about 30 feet above the trail and asked if we could see two black marks on the tree. It looked as if something had scored the tree, leaving a strange jagged gash. “Those are bats.” What?? A second look and a refocus and we could tell they really were. They looked like they were only an inch long. He stretched his fingers out to about two and a half inches and said it was closer to that.
D pointed to a palm of some sort with a long hanging ‘flower’ that looked like a package of firecrackers. “We call that a poor man’s necktie. If you ever need a tie you can just grab one of those and put it around your neck. You may get some funny looks, but at least you’ll have a tie when you need one.”
Next up was another palm which he called a porcupine column. Natives pull the protective needles from the trunk, rub them on poisonous frogs and use them in blow guns to hunt with. Slung between one of the leaves was a giant spider web, “That’s a Silverback Spider”. David knew his shit.
Shortly after that he re-pointed the telescope at the surface of a leaf and told us to have a look. Sitting on the leaf was a rainbow-colored grasshopper smaller than a dime. Each part of its body was a different color – one color from the legs, one color for the body, another for its head and so on – but all were extremely bright and metallic. This guide idea had paid off in a matter of minutes.
We added two more members to our group when D chatted up a German couple who were walking without a guide. They seemed pretty friendly so it didn’t phase us in the slightest to have them tag along, and it didn’t hurt that the girl was very easy on the eyes.
It had started to drizzle a bit, bringing the temperature down, when David pointed out another bat – this one was about the size of a hardball and was hanging on the underside of a large leaf. It had its wings wrapped around itself and looking through the telescope we could see it shivering and trying to bury its head into its wings because it was cold. Pretty cute. It was so close to the trail we could’ve easily grabbed it, and seeing it without telescopic aid was easy.
Although we didn’t see any, D informed us that there are both crocodiles and caimans in the area and that the mangroves are extremely unsafe to venture into as a result (it’s extremely rare to run into trouble at the open beaches, though). He told us a story about a river and a bridge in particular that borders Carara – we’d driven over the bridge the day before – and a guy who’d gotten shitfaced on a bus running between two of the towns in the area. Under Costa Rican law a bus driver has to kick an inebriated passenger off; once they’ve sobered up they can flag down another bus and resume their trip. This passenger decided it was good swimming weather and jumped in the river, only to be flailed about and eventually eaten alive in front of the entire bus. The moral of the story was that if you’re drunk on a bus, try to get dropped off near rivers without any crocs.
After that the rain picked up and visibility decreased, so David mostly pointed out different types of vegetation along the side of the trail. We learned a pile of stuff from him, such as:
– One type of tree with horizontal rings acts as a home to Aztec Ant colonies. D called it an ant hotel. They live on the inside. The rings are different from the horizontal rings on other trees that tell age. These vertical rings tell you the wetness of a season, the larger the distance between the rings, the wetter the season. The ants synergistic relationship involved the tree synthesizing a particular sugar that the ants liked while the ants attack anything that attempts to climb on or land on the tree.
– He grabbed a leaf from one tree and crushed it up, making a pungent smell. “Natural mosquito repellent.”
– He pointed out some stinging nettles and told us a story about older folks milking cows in his hometown would develop rheumatism. They would rub stinging nettles on their wrists to relieve the pain. It seems counter-intuitive to use something that causes inflammation as an analgesic but he assured us it works “It’s a lesser evil, y’know”.
– There was taro in the forest, the root of which can be cooked similar to a potato.
– The tuber of one plant could be cooked and eaten to relieve diarrhea.
At one point David asked where we had been and where we were going. We told him about our trip and he was really impressed. “Travelling is the best way to spend your money. You spend money and you get richer. You learn about the world. About yourself. You get to see how other people live their lives.” Couldn’t agree more. Fist bumps. Fist bumps. Fist bumps from the German couple. No? Ok, continue.
After a steady incline we reached a fairly steep decline and walked down to one of the beaches that makes up the park. There was a capuchin monkey, or white-faced monkey, scurrying about in the branches overhead, dropping tree bark on us. I don’t think that was his primary goal – he was looking for termites to eat – but having tree bark fall around us was a secondary effect. Occasionally he’d give out a loud chirp that sounded more like a bird than one of our close relatives. Success?
Even though buckets of rain were being dumped on us the beach was beautiful nonetheless and there were a handful of people undeterred from swimming. After seeing a family of raccoons going through the undergrowth David explained that this part of CR is where the flora and fauna of North America and South America really collide, with a lot of run-of-the-mill North American species like raccoons and skunks living among sloths and tapirs.
We spent so much time looking through the telescope and listening to David that very few pics were snapped. The rain certainly didn’t help either. This is about it:
As we reached the end of the trail the Germans remained behind to chill on the beach and David walked back with us to the front of the park. We talked trucks, specifically about how North America got gypped by missing out of a bunch of awesome vehicles that are everywhere in Central America, i.e. the Toyota Hilux and the Nissan Patrol. His brother lives in Seattle and he’d been considering a trip back to CR in order to pick up a Hilux and drive it back to the States. (Seriously Toyota and Nissan – give us those trucks. We WILL buy them.)
He then told us a bit about his personal situation and about how he didn’t usually work this time of year, but a year and a half previously he’d been in a serious car accident where he’d lost the ability to walk and talk. Doctors told his wife he would be permanently disabled so she filed for divorce and got herself a new man. When he recovered, the judge ruled he had to pay her child support – and for him to leave the country he had to pay at least fourteen months of support in advance. So dirty. He conceded that in the past, women in Central America didn’t have many rights and were often left holding the shitty end of the stick but since an “ultra-dyke” came into power the situation had gone “from the North Pole to the South Pole without even thinking about the Equator”.
As we left the park we were thoroughly drenched to the point where it would’ve been physically impossible to be any wetter. I’ve been less wet coming out of the shower. I had fortunately taken several things out of my backpack before leaving and moved my passport and international driving permit into a waterproof case but Murphy hadn’t and almost everything in his backpack had gotten totally soaked. His IDP was soaked, his yellow fever vaccine card was in the same condition, his passport was pretty damp, some clothes that had previously been a clean change were damp and had streaks of dirt through them, and his camera was worryingly damp. There wasn’t much we could do about it at this point though, we’d checked out the hostel and had to get back on the road to Panama, and the rain wasn’t letting up. The best we could do was run to the showers outside the hostel’s pool, throw on a dry set of threads and run back to the car as quickly as possible.