As we began walking up the gravel path away from our resort, I studied our guide. He wore jeans, a polo shirt and rubber boots, but what stood out was the long machete that swung by his right thigh. It seems a commonplace accessory for most Costa Rican men, so I didn’t worry. At first. I even joked that he’d brought the machete for “un perizoso peligroso,” or a dangerous sloth. I delighted in the alliteration, and the absurd idea that a sloth might attack us on the trip.
“No,” he said, not laughing at my joke. “It’s for the snakes.”
Soon, two more men joined our small hiking group. Anna and I were with our three girls (Camille, Agnes and Elsa) on the hunt for poison dart frogs. And we were accompanied by three tico men with long machetes, walking away from the safety of our cabinas and our husbands, heading toward the jungle.
My inner dialogue was conflicted. One part of me sensed adventure; another sensed the great opening scene of the worst horror movie. Two women and three young girls enter the jungle with three machete-wielding men …
But I searched my heart and I watched these men, and nothing in me felt that the danger was real. So I decided to listen to the part of my brain that sensed adventure.
But first, to the beginning of the story.
We are spending this holiday weekend with the Ankarberg family in a resort near Rincon de la Vieja National Park. It’s a mountainous, rainforest area surrounding a volcano, with natural thermal springs and rivers that turn blue from the volcanic minerals coursing through the water.
We’d had a lovely time soaking in the warm thermal springs, spreading volcanic mud on our bodies and then soaking some more.
Saturday morning we signed up for the waterfall hike, and we all boarded the “safari truck” to head out toward the Rio Azul. In true rainforest fashion, one minute the clouds would descend and a pounding rain would pummel our truck. The next minute, the winds would blow the clouds away and sunshine would reign.
The truck took us to a trailhead, and then we spent about an hour winding through the rainforest on foot alongside the blue river.
The trail was very well-maintained and the scenery was beautiful. We ended our trek beside the Grand Waterfall, where the children were the only ones brave enough to enter the frigid waters for a swim.
As the adults lounged nearby, we talked with our guide about wildlife in the area, and he mentioned that you could see poison dart frogs not far from our resort. My ears perked up – I’d never seen one in the wild and it was on my Costa Rican list of “Important Things to Do.”
“You just go about 80 meters up the road from the hotel, and then take a right into the jungle for a bit, and then you can see them,” he said. Anna and I pressed for more details, thinking we might just wander over there ourselves. But our guide shook his head, “No, it’s not so easy to find,” he said.
I sighed loudly and dramatically to Anna, “Oh, I wish we could go see the frogs.”
Soon, the safari truck picked us up and transported us back to the hotel. As we turned to leave, the guide asked, “You want to see the frogs? Maybe we can go this afternoon.”
So it was arranged. We would meet at 4 and he would lead us to the frogs. Just up the road and into the jungle a little bit.
As the afternoon wore on, Lee and Ted decided they’d rather rest than see the frogs, so they left us girls to our adventure.
So up the road we went, and as our guide indicated, about 80 meters from the hotel we turned right toward the jungle. Then we began meandering through pasture land, but with thick undergrowth and thorny plants that bit at our ankles, and mud that threatened to suck the shoes off our feet. I was glad we hadn’t tried to find the frogs on our own, because we weren’t following anything that seemed like a discernible path.
Several times we crossed barbed wire fences – each time the men stepped on the lower wire and held the upper wire aloft, creating a space for us to slip through.
Then we left the pastureland behind and descended into the jungle. The machetes were pulled from their sheaths, and put to work hacking at the vines and plants in our path. We came to several small rivers, some which we crossed easily. Others, the men picked up the three girls and carried them across. Anna and I, ill-dressed in tennis shoes, just plunged our feet into the icy water and forged ahead. What else could we do?
The deeper into the jungle we went, the more conflicted my thoughts. Listening to the rhythmic sound of machetes slicing through overgrowth, a part of me marveled at the thought that we were literally cutting our way through a jungle. What explorers we were!
Another part of me noted the total vulnerability of our position. We were at the mercy of these men. They spoke to one another in rapid Spanish, most of which I couldn’t understand. But once I heard the question, “Estamos perdido?” a phrase I knew to mean, “Are we lost?” But no, our guide assured he knew where we were, but recent rains had made the area very muddy and he was just searching the best route. The men would often split up while we waited in one spot, whistling to each other to indicate which had found the best route. And always, there was the slicing and slicing with the machetes while swarms of mosquitos buzzed around our heads.
As we went down one muddy hill, one of the men turned to us and said, “Follow only in my footsteps. And don’t reach for a tree if you start to fall.”
It’s a natural thing to reach for the tree trunks to help you down a muddy hill, so I asked him why we weren’t to touch the trees.
“Because the tree might be a snake. And please, always look down. Watch your step for snakes.”
So I kept my eyes downcast, watching my shoes sinking deeper into the red mud, marveling at how much every tree root looked like a serpent.
Finally, our main guide whistled to the others and shouted that he’d found a frog.
We all rushed to his side. There it was, the tiniest frog, about the size of a dime. It had a red body and blue legs, which earned it the name “Blue Jean Frog” because it looks like it’s wearing a pair of Levi’s. It hopped all around as we snapped a hundred pictures.
And that was it. Darkness comes quickly in the jungle, and it was already descending. We needed to begin our trek home.
I felt pretty certain at this point that these men didn’t mean us harm, or they wouldn’t have spent so much effort in first finding us a frog. But they decided they wanted to go a different way back to the hotel because they were worried about snakes, and this meant a lot of arguing over the route and hacking, hacking, hacking at the vines and plants to make new trails.
Camille, meanwhile, was muddy and miserable and completely done with the hike. As the jungle grew darker and darker, her fears began to creep in. “What if we don’t get out of here before dark?” she asked in a panic. “I don’t want to be here in the dark!”
I didn’t either, but I knew worrying wouldn’t help so I tried to say words of comfort. Meanwhile, when we didn’t think the girls were watching us, Anna and I would glance at one another and lift our eyebrows, as if to say, “WHAT IS GOING ON?”
Our main guide was fairly far in front of us, searching out the best route, when he clearly yelled my name. “GINGER!”
“Yes?” I yelled in return.
“Look! A rainbow!” he said. I turned, and sure enough, there was a rainbow in the jungle behind us. I snapped a picture and decided to take it as a good omen. We were going to be all right.
Soon we began pushing our way through a sugar cane field. Our guide put his machete to work on the cane, peeling and slicing sections for the girls to eat.
As we emerged from the tall cane stalks, I could see a road ahead, and just up the road I could see our resort. The sun was low and the sky was golden, but we’d made it out of the jungle before dark, and without harm. While I hadn’t really been worried, I couldn’t help but feel relief.
And I was glad I’d trusted our guides. Yes, we were vulnerable. But they did everything they could to take care of us, carrying our girls when the way was difficult, and making sure we made it out of the jungle before dark. They even managed to find one tiny frog for us, which I’m sure I would’ve missed on my own.
All that adventure for one tiny frog. But it wasn’t just for the frog, really – it was for the sake of adventure itself. I’m glad we let ourselves be transformed temporarily into explorers, particularly now that I know the story ends well!