Boca Tapada: Playing With Fire

To read my Costa Rica journal from the beginning, click here.

Marco had suggested a nearby hike through the forest. If I understood the Spanish correctly, we could make a simple 2 km loop, or (taking a left-hand fork in the trail) a longer 4 km loop.

Well duh, that’s easy! We’ll do the 4 km hike, thanks. The little trail led us through the jungle, its edges dotted frequently with placards identifying various plants with both scientific and common names.

Occasionally a big scary sign in all capitals would appear: “CAUTION! BULLET ANTS!” which always launched Martin and Dakota into an agony of indecision. They were both powerfully drawn to the fierce tropical ants. They desperately wanted to see them, so they nervously peered around the forest floor and poked long twigs into every nearby hole, prodding the cavities to see what might swiftly emerge.

Simultaneously, they were rightly very fearful of the ants’ exquisitely painful sting, rightly worried they might suddenly find themselves in the midst of some really pissed-off ants. Were the ants gathering themselves to swarm out upon the next twig that was thrust into their home? Were they preparing to destroy their enemy? Martin and Dakota were aggressively jabbing sticks into their burrows!

These were ants who knew how to take care of themselves.

So each time the sign warned them away, Martin and Dakota couldn’t help but fearfully approach. They hopped around in front of the sign, peering, squinting, cautiously probing holes with long twigs, and then suddenly taking alarm, scampering away with gasps and high-pitched squeals. Giggling with embarrassment at their jangled nerves, but drawn inexorably to the ants, they always apprehensively returned. They inched closer and closer, clutching at each other, ready to dart away, twittering, only to be startled again at some unheard sound, scurrying back down the trail with more girlish shrieks.

I could have whispered, “Boo!” to their trembling backs, and they both would have peed their pants, right there.


For Dakota, it was heaven. He was engaged in his favorite activity: peering into every dark hole he could find, looking for giant spiders, venomous snakes, horned bugs, bloated grubs – anything that might give him a good case of the heebie-jeebies which he so seemed to crave – especially if it was getting dark outside and he could fantasize about all those hairy, toothy, slithery, biting, poisonous monsters creeping out in the darkness to surround him. In this case, the “monster” was the very real – not to mention fearsome! – bullet ant, with its powerful sting that purportedly caused twenty-four hours of unrelenting, unadulterated agony. What could be better than that?

Well . . .

Stawberry Poison-dart Frog

Maybe the Strawberry Poison-dart Frog.

Martin found some of the tiny frogs among the leaf litter, the frogs’ flaming-red skin advertising their extreme toxicity. While these particular frogs are not actually lethal to humans, they have close relatives that are: a single frog is capable of killing ten people. And just because touching them is not actively “lethal” doesn’t mean they’re “harmless.” So Martin and Dakota again jostled around in front of the frogs, inching closer, wanting to meticulously inspect them, leaning in until their noses nearly brushed the brilliant red and poisonous frog, just a little closer, can they get just a tiny bit closer – and then fearfully snatching themselves away, backing up hurriedly, giggling nervously, alarmed the frog might suddenly spring up into their faces and, I don’t know, spit at them.

There they were again: very nearly wetting their pants with excitement.

What is it with boys who love playing with fire? Dangerous ants, poisonous frogs, venomous snakes! Their favorite.

We came to a fork in the trail and I confidently directed us towards the left. But I was clearly wrong; the trail ended at a road. We found a bunch of industrious leaf-cutter ants at work, though. Martin busily photographed the ants. I busily photographed all the thick, Tarzan-worthy vines. Dakota busily napped under a tree.

Doesn’t that just say it all?

So we left the leaf cutter ants and Tarzan-vines, retraced our steps, and soon found the real left-hand fork, clearly marked with a sign. We wandered through the jungle, enjoying the green leafiness of it, looking for animals, peering into holes. At one wide trail junction, we stopped for lunch. The word “lunch” is used very loosely, since we only had a few nuts and granola bars. I’m as sick of nuts and granola bars as I am of sandwiches or burritos made of pressed meat and weepy cheese. I want real food.

It was hot and humid, and we were starting to drag, despite the short nature of the hike. Sticky and uncomfortable, I started carrying my binoculars so they didn’t have to hang hotly around my neck. I began fretting over whether this truly was a loop or not. The map at the trailhead (which Dakota had photographed and occasionally studied) did not seem to match, at all, the trail we were actually traveling. It certainly didn’t show a loop, although that was my understanding from Marco. Of course, I could easily have misunderstood him. We had been speaking in Spanish; I have no idea what the Spanish word for “loop” is.

Why did I think it was a loop, anyway? Was I leading us terribly astray?

The trail led us to an old road which did not appear on Dakota’s map. His neck hairs pointed towards the right, so we trudged up it. My fretting deepened. Would this road lead us back to the truck? Would we have to retrace our steps, go all the way back around? The idea was unthinkable; I was barely stumbling along in the heat. Where would we end up? When, oh when would we get there, wherever “there” was? I was hot and tired, wilting in the heat, hungry, thirsty, sticky and uncomfortable. It was only early afternoon, but it was time for the hike to end.

Suddenly the road opened up into a pretty, perfectly-manicured spot looking much like the trailhead, and a short walk brought us back to the SUV. Hallelujah!

We staggered gratefully into our cabins for cool showers and an afternoon siesta, although it was a long and hungry wait until dinner. I couldn’t eat another nut or granola bar.

Unfortunately, dinner didn’t go down very well. Marco served unappetizing (to me) pork chops, with onions and a locally-grown starchy white vegetable. The heat, and lack of food, combined with all the kayaking and hiking we’d done, was starting to catch up with me. I’d been hungry for days. I needed some gooey comfort food, and lots of it.

I could have eaten a big juicy hamburger, or a cheese-laden pizza, or even a huge stuffed burrito slathered with guacamole and sour cream. Instead, I felt mildly nauseated as I eyed the food in front of me. I knew I had to eat it — and I did, all of it —  except for that white vegetable. I knew if I forced that stuff down, it would surely come right back up. I preferred to keep my stomach contents intact, thank you. I needed every calorie.

We ordered wine and toasted each other in that open-air dining room by the wide San Carlos River, out in the Costa Rican jungle near the Nicaraguan border. We looked at each other happily and toasted to a great trip on this, the last real night of our adventure. Tomorrow we would travel back to Liberia; inconceivably, we would fly home the next.

That night we were graced with an exquisite sunset over the wide and majestic river. Gorgeous tropical birds cavorted before us, and colorful, fragrant flowers released their heady aromas into the warm air. Martin, Dakota and I sat outside long into the night, reveling in Costa Rica’s unparalleled beauty and our good fortune to be sharing it together.

It wasn’t just the wine that made me feel drunk with happiness.

Sunset over Rio San Carlos


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