The sun scorches the breezeless beach on its descent towards the horizon. Stacey and I are stranded in the jungle, although we don’t know it yet.
We are vacationing on the still primitive Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, a bucket list item for die-hard nature lovers. While relaxing on a deserted shore under the stretching shade of a jungle palm, we wait for our ride home. Under a serenade of squawking parrots, crashing waves, and cicada screams, I finish the last of my warm tuna salad sandwich and drink the last few drops of my water. I bask in the afterglow of the idyllic 7-hour hike we just completed. My muscles are sore from exertion and my body is exhausted from the heat. I’m looking forward to the breezy boat ride home.
“The hike is simple,” said our German host. “You must go during low tide. Just follow the path. At Rio Claro, whistle for Jorge who will boat you across… unless he is asleep. He’s been having a little troubles with the alcohol. But don’t worry, it happens sometimes. You end the hike at San Josecito Beach and turn around or end it at San Pedrillo. In San Pedrillo you take a ride back in the boat that always stops there everyday at 2pm.”
The hike was a deserted paradise playground. My surroundings changed every five minutes from one amazing scene to another, like I was on an Avatar movie set. I wanted it to last forever, so did Stacey, so we chose option #2 – the long hike.
Emerald greens, sparkling turquoises, rich fuchsias, brilliant yellows and oranges surrounded me. Everything smelled green, earthy, and alive.
I crossed dozens of unique footbridges over multicolored rivers, inlets, and creeks. I trekked over beaches made of kaleidoscopic sand or huge colorful shells. I scaled towering rock formations. I saw Atreyu’s sinking horse Artax. A jungle dog joined us; we called her Arena. I climbed steep slippery hills made from ancient tree roots. I clumsily clambered over crumbling sand banks 20 feet high, wet and exposed by the temporary low tide. I walked under countless forest canopies. A screaming gang of gesturing white-faced monkeys threw mangos at my head, warning me out of their territory.
As we reached the beach that marked the end of our hike, we congratulated each other on the perfect day. We had brought enough food and water to keep us hydrated and energized, but not too much to weigh us down. We had exhausted ourselves on the hike – a feeling the both of us enjoy. Covered in salty sweat, my calves and hips were already tightening up, my feet blistered from hiking in hot, wet shoes.
2pm came and there was no boat. No big deal I thought, pura vida – it would be odd if the boat was on time.
2:30 came and still no boat, still no sign of people. The sun is closer to the horizon. The tide is rising. I’m wondering if this boat is ever going to show. I’m wondering if we are on the right beach.
“The tide isn’t high yet, but already the path we hiked in on is deep under water,” I say to Stacey, who confirms what I’m thinking, “We can’t go back that way. Currents and crocodiles.”
I check my phone. No cell service in the middle of nowhere. Part of its charm, sigh.
“We have two options. We can stay here overnight in the real jungle without any food, water, or shelter or we can climb to the top of that mountain and follow the ridgeline back to Drake Bay,” I say in worried disbelief, not liking either of those options.
“I don’t want to be in this jungle at night,” says Stacey as I imagine a jaguar devouring me, “which means we just have a few hours to get back home before the sun sets.”
The sound of a motor in the distance brought our conversation to an abrupt halt.
We jump up laughing with relief and haul ass in to the water to meet the boat. We get there just as two passengers jump off and the boat reverses direction, heading out to sea.
“Wait!” I scream, chasing the boat further out in to the water. “Can you give us a ride?”
“No!” they holler back emotionless, their voices fading as the boat speeds further and further away.
“Where are those people going that got off the boat?” I ask Stacey. “There’s nothing here!” she replies, “Maybe they know if another boat is coming.”
I turn around towards the shoreline to see the only other people on the face of the earth disappear in to the shade of the jungle. My stomach drops. Why are they running up the hill?
Still chest deep in water, holding our bags over our heads, Stacey and I half swim half run, fighting the water pressing us back in to the sea. I struggle with all my might to reach the shore and our only hope before they disappear forever with the answers we crave.
On the shore, I yell after the fading mountain runners from the ground where I had just fallen. I’ve never had a loud voice.
“Wait! Please stop! Help!” my pathetic screams disappearing in to the wind.
Stacey, choking on laughter, isn’t able to get their attention either. We are in sad shape. Sore and exhausted, stranded, and we can’t even yell for help. We laugh at ourselves until I realize we are losing our chance at rescue.
I jump up and sprint, resuming the chase, fueled by fear of abandonment and a fleeting hope for rescue.
Our voices catch up to the women’s ears, but the women don’t stop. Without a glance backwards, they gesture for us to follow, “We can’t stop!” they shouted.
We are chasing the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. Still in my bikini, I leap over mud, jump over roots, hop rocks, and whiz past palm leaves that cut in to my skin. I use the last of my energy to keep sight of the superwomen ahead.
They disappear in a dark shadow underneath an expansive bamboo deck.
We arrive and find one of the women sitting on the deck, still. Finally caught. I collapse on the ground from exhaustion. I can’t believe this is happening.
“Why were you running?” we exclaim in breathless unison.
“It’s good exercise,” replies the woman, “What are you doing here? We’re not expecting you.”
“We’re lost, or stranded, well both” I say, scared because we are so far from the beach now. “I think that boat was supposed to pick us up and take us back to Drake Bay. Do you know if there is another boat?”
“No,” says a voice from behind. I turn to see the second woman standing behind us. Short in stature with dark leathered skin, coal black hair, and not making eye contact, the rabbit informs us that the boat isn’t coming back until tomorrow and there is no guarantee it will pick us up.
“Do you know how to get back to Drake Bay?” I ask. “By boat,” she replies, and then signals us to follow her further up the mountain.
She brings us to an empty restaurant and leaves us with an older man with soft kind eyes sporting the same stature and time-leathered skin.
He brings us mango juice. It explodes in to fireworks in my head as the delicious sweet nectar pours over my tongue, quenching my thirst.
He then counsels us on our predicament. “You can stay here, but we do not have any way to take you back to Drake Bay until next week. There is a road above our home, up the hill and past some stairs, past the cow field. Follow it and do not stray. I will have my daughter take you to the steps. I’m too old for the climb now. From there you cannot get lost.”
With many thanks to the kind old man, refreshed from the mango juice, water bottles filled from his faucets, we follow the daughter up the hill, again racing to keep up.
We arrive at the steps. “There is only one road, right?” I ask, my voice heightened in anxiety. “At the top of this hill? We just follow that road and there are no forks or turns or anything? What did he mean by ‘stray’? Wait, how long is this hike?”
“Maybe an hour,” replies the daughter as she races back down the hill, “Que dios bendiga!”
Left alone, we sit to catch our breaths and confirm our decision to hike the ridge back to Drake Bay in the failing light without a clue about where we are. We have soggy shoes, no food, no flashlight, no weapon or supplies for camping, but we just recharged on mango juice and we now have two full bottles of water.
“We can do this!” and we climb up the ancient stony steps jutting out of the mountain, past slowly chewing cows curiously gazing from their shimmering green cow field.
We arrive to the top of the ridge, to a fork in the road.
I feel my stomach drop and burn in fear and frustration – there is already a kink in the plan. Why did I ever think my problems would all be solved as soon as I made it up to the ridge? The top of the ridge is not Google maps, it is just another scene in the lush towering jungle in which I’m small and insignificant.
We have three options at this fork: left, middlish-left, and right. All three rocky, grass-covered roads appear less traveled. Glancing again at the setting sun, we choose left.
I hustle along the rough road. My feet slip on loose odd-sized stones that litter the ground.
I’m covered in red road dust and sweat streams from my pores. My blisters are on fire, full of gritty sand. The merciless heat causes my vision to blur and my mouth to dry.
My calves burn and my hips ache. I reach the top of a hill and round the bend, only to discover the steepest part lay ahead.
Always up up up or down. Never flat and easy.
Always craggy, never smooth.
Each downhill trek ends in water – from trickling streams to rivers of unknown depths. The water beds are slippery rocks that pierce my bare feet, twist my ankles, or divert my forward march with their insurmountable size. At each crossing I push out thoughts of dangers lurking under the surface, of the crocodile we saw at the last crossing.
I twist my ankle again. The pain comes in jolts of piercing lightning, but I can’t stop to let it in.
I want to quit, but I am nowhere, so I keep walking. One foot in front of the other. My eyesight focused on the relentless rocky ground beneath my feet as it rhythmically passes me by, getting darker and blurrier as the sun drops closer to the tree line.
Three hours have passed since we crested the steps.
I don’t care anymore what I look like. I’m not thinking about jaguars or crocodiles. I find a rhythm with the cobbled ground.
Lost in the meditative trance of a long hard hike, I almost didn’t hear the vehicle approaching behind us. I look at Stacey, and she says what I am thinking, “we don’t need a ride.”
I nod my agreement, too focused to speak. I’m determined to finish on my own merit. The truck rambles on by, the bed full of curious eyes. Somewhere on the hike from an exhausted mind and body, worry subsided and was replaced by confidence and determination.
I crest the 900th hill and see a familiar site below – the edge of town in the distance. I burst with elation and feel freshly energized. We made it.
7:30 pm we walk through the door. The last hour and a half of the hike conquered in darkness. I feel out of place in the house we are calling our home, my mind not yet recovered from the preparations it made when I thought I was going to be in the jungle all night. I collapse on the bed, lightning shooting up my calves from the ceased movement, ankles throbbing.
Adrenaline still pumping, I think about all the fears I just confronted. Was I at any point actually lost in the jungle? I wonder how bad it would really be to spend the night out there without shelter? How many of those fears were real? Which ones were imagined? I can only guess that on this hike, we made the right decisions resulting in all my fears being imagined because none of them realized.
Exhaustion warms over my mind and my thoughts drift toward dreamland. I doze off feeling overjoyed with gratefulness from the experience and proud of the obstacles I overcame. I could not have planned a better day.
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