Costa Rica 2010

Finally got around to editing this. This is filmed with low-resolution point-and-shoot cameras, handled with wobbly camera work, and edited with no prior film-editing experience.

Backpacking through unfamiliar environments and not showering for a week during spring break had become a tradition by my senior of college. While walking to Columbia’s business school library one night in February 2010, I received a call from Seth who asked, “We’re booking tickets to Costa Rica right now. You in or out?” Although a group of us had talked briefly about hiking through Costa Rican rain forests, I’d fallen out of the loop and hardly knew the details or costs. “I’m in,” I said.

Spring break was only a month away and our group of nine had yet to book plane tickets. To ensure we’d be on the same flight and to bypass the headache of coordinating purchases, Anthony generously charged the $1,194 Expedia plane fare to his credit card. He then e-mailed us the ticket confirmation:

February 16, 2010

new york to san jose plane ticket

The e-mail ended with: “You guys owe me $276! Love Anthony.”

Botflies, Mosquitos, and Sharks. Oh, My!

Anthony created a Google Sites page and even reminded us to get vaccinated by Columbia’s Health Services department, in particular a woman named Yvette. Unfortunately, I ignored this precaution and never had the pleasure of getting stuck by Yvette. I’m sure she’s a sweet lady. Fortunately, even though I ignored my fellow hikers’ warnings of wading in fresh rainforest water and did so nearly every chance I got to cool down from hiking in near 90-degree weather, I haven’t noticed symptoms from parasites ranging from the incurable and life-threatening Chagas disease to the just plain gross Botfly. But stay tuned.

Some of us began brainstorming mosquito management. Anthony recommended DEET insect repellent. He proffered this quotation from a New York Times article:

In one particularly vivid field trial against mosquitoes in Alaska, published in 1988, volunteers in permethrin-treated uniforms who also used a repellent containing 35 percent DEET on their exposed skin were bitten an average of once per hour over eight hours; volunteers in untreated uniforms who did not use DEET averaged 1,188 bites per hour.

I psyched myself up by fantasizing that immediately after arriving in San José, I’d be fighting off bull sharks on a daily basis.

Anthony, ever the compulsive worst-case scenario planner, carried a satellite phone for emergency calls. Our parents could call this phone in case they worried that Sandinistas or Colombian drugrunners kidnapped us at the dodgy San José Coca-Cola bus terminal.

Equipment and Supplies

I packed too much food and reluctantly decided to throw away a seven-pound Ziplock bag of gorp at the Corcovado ranger station even though travelers were supposed to abide by one of the most hallowed laws of hikerdom, leave no trace. I violated that law big time. I tried to rationalize my guilt away. Perhaps leave the saying really implies “leave no trace of wildlife” and an ancient scribe got lazy and left out the last two words. Maybe Smokey the Bear had an evil twin who would wag a furry bear finger at you and say, “Only you can prevent forests.”

More from Anthony:

  1. Cash: Please bring enough USD with you. Below is the breakdown for on-ground costs (i.e. stuff I didn’t pay for in advance for you).

Bus from Puerto Jimenez to La Palma ~$10-20

Misc activities in Puerto Jimenez ~$30-40

Bus from Carate to Puerto Jimenez ~$10-20

Lodging at Puerto Jimenez ~$63 in total per person for 3 nights (around $20 per night)

Lodging at San José (at Marriott located in a former hacienda) ~$103 in total per person for 2 nights (around $50 per night)

Misc food costs ~$100

TOTAL: comes out to around $320-$360.

$38 transport from San José to Puerto Jimenez

$26 Costa Rica Govt Departure Tax What bullshit right! a fuckin departure tax. While at San José airport, there was a sign breaking down this $26 and explaining where each dollar went. At the bottom of the list was some dude, the airport director or something. Probably some crony appointed by his friend whom he supported and then won the elections.

I was smarting from the pain of having spent close to one grand at the end of this trip.

Permetrhin sprayed on tents and clothes. Show picture of Seth with gas mask.

March 15, 2010 – JFK International Airport

We arrived at New York City’s JFK International Airport – terminal 4, gate B31. Sparrows inside the terminal flew above the travelers. I couldn’t wait for the wildlife in Costa Rica. I’m wearing my permethrin-treated, UV-protective, all-green long-sleeves and pants; wool socks; and brown, leather hiking boots.

After landing at Juan Santamaria International Airport in the capital of San José, we piled into a chartered van and drove south to Puerto Jiminéz. Our driver took Route 209, stayed on Route 34 for 127km, and exited via Route 245 which brought us to Puerto Jiminéz where we had booked two small cabins for several nights at Osa Resort Club.

Osa Club Resort pool
s Costa Rica guide

With a population of only 1,780, Puerto Jiminéz is the largest town on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula and a tiny airport with a single landing strip.

March 16, 2010 – Mangrove Tour

We rented kayaks from business-owner and tour guide Alberto Robleto H. Alberto was half-indigenous and had given kayak tours for 17 years. After giving us a quick kayaking tutorial he proclaimed, “Now you are all experts” and motioned for us to push our individual kayaks into the water. I sat in my kayak so that my legs hung over one side, like Alberto instructed, and then pivoted until I faced forward.

We paddled to a mangrove swamp. Mangroves are amazing plants. Their roots can desalinate water that’s twice as salty as ocean water. I don’t know which mangrove species I saw, but this site talks about the seven species present in Costa Rica. We saw wild pineapples, cousins of bromeliads. According to Alberto, the bigger the pineapple fruit, the more closely it’s related to bromeliads. These pineapples were very alkaline.

Alberto stopped often to inform us about the ecosystem and explain the flora and fauna. While paddling next to me at one point, he said he recently hunted conch shells in the bay and that only indigenous people are allowed to hunt conch shells. Alberto asked if I knew why. “Because they were here first?” “It’s because they are not capitalists,” he answered. They only take as much as they need for themselves for that day. They don’t think about trying to harvest all the conch shells and whole-selling them to others.

Steven Spielberg and Reese Witherspoon toured the same mangrove swamp. At this point many of us became distracted by the scenery and started having side conversations, which annoyed Alberto. The mangrove crabs distracted us further.

When dusk arrived, Alberto led us across a sandbar to a beach facing the Golfo Dulce. There, he taught us how to husk and crack coconuts, a useful skill later in our trip. To husk and crack a coconut: get a thick, slightly pointy stick. Plant the stick firmly into the ground, pointy end facing up. Grab the coconut with both hands and spear it onto the stick to peel off one side. Repeat this to remove the rest of the shell. To crack the coconut, use a rock, stick, or machete if you have one, and hit the coconut on the side where the holes at the top are closest. The shell will crack, and juice will flow. Fresh coconut juice has a mildly oily and sweet taste. Be sure to choose coconuts that aren’t too heavy. If they are soggy and heavy, they’ve waterlogged and/or have gone bad. They might also be too old and all the water in the nut has solidified.

(Watch carefully for the expression ten seconds into the video.)

Alberto then served us the best pineapples I’ve ever tasted. Their water and sugar content made them incredibly juicy and sweet. After Alberto cut the skin off the pineapple, he showed us how much water was in even the skins. He wrung a pineapple skin like a wet towel, and juice poured out. He said no one could export this variety of pineapple because it would spoil on the trip. Hearing that this was my only chance, I stuffed my face with as much pineapple as possible.

After the sun set, we pulled our kayaks into the Golfo Dulce inlet and paddled as the sky transitioned through ever deeper shades of purple.

I put my hand in the sea and dashed it about. Bioluminescent plankton immediately lit up. While we paddled along the beach, our oars left a trail of faint lights. I wish I had time to stop my kayak, jump into the Golfo Dulce for a swim, light up the water around me by treading water. As it became darker, more plankton began lighting up. For a scientific explanation of these “fire plants,” read this website which states:

Bioluminescence acts as a type of burglar alarm defense mechanism in dinoflagellates. Dinoflagelletes produce light when the deformation of the cell by minute forces triggers its luminescence. When the cell is disturbed by a predator, it will give a light flash lasting 0.1 to 0.5 seconds. The flash is meant to attract a secondary predator that will be more likely to attack the predator that is trying to consume the dinoflagellate. The light flash also makes the predator jump and worry about other predators attacking it, making the predator less likely to prey on the dinoflagellate.

We saw a private yacht whose blue and yellow lights illuminated the sky and water around it. We marveled at the luxury and wondered about the affluence of the individual who might own the vessel. After rounding the corner of the peninsula and reaching land, we dragged our kayaks ashore and walked back to Alberto’s shop to rinse grime and salt water off our bodies. I smelled something faintly sweet while walking on the dirt road back and plucked a flower from a tree that emitted the fragrance. Alberto told me I was holding an ylang-ylang flower, an ingredient used in the Chanel No. 5 perfume. Another strongly-scented flower that grew around the area that I’ve seen in China was the Cestrum nocturnum, or Dama de noche as Alberto called it.

3:15 AM March 17

Joseph’s iPhone alarm set to the sound of a wailing klaxon wakes me. I heard it faintly, got up, and woke Joseph, Peter, and Jonny in my cabin. I shined Joseph’s flashlight into the windows of the other cabin where Seth, Margaret, Cleo, Dragos, and Anthony were sleeping. They shined back to signal they were awake. We packed and headed into town to catch the 5 AM bus to Palma for $2.50. We almost missed it because a bus labeled “San José” pulled up, and we thought it another bus for Palma had yet to arrive. Jonny asked the driver and saved us time.

Aboard the bus, we met a red-haired girl named Rafaela who was heading to San José. She had been in Costa Rica for five days and had hiked through Corcovado National Park, which was where we were headed. She paid $300 for a guide, food, and lodging. Rafaela was an Amherst College senior traveling in Costa Rica by herself. After graduation she planned to work as a bartender aboard a cruise line named Quark Expeditions that specialized in voyages to Antarctica. “I’m really drawn to Arctic regions,” she confessed. Quark Expeditions had asked her to get additional working experience before she could come aboard. So she did, and now she’s going.

Rafaela majored in environmental science and wrote her thesis about the small town of Reyðarfjörður in Iceland experiencing rapid growth from the construction of an Alcoa aluminum smelting plant. The population increased from 600 to 3,500, largely from an influx of Polish immigrants seeking work.

6:00 AM

We arrived at Palma and paid 2,000 Costa Rican colones for a flat-bed-truck ride to the ranch where we rented our horses. My steed was a grayish-black, three-year-old mare named Dita. Our guide Jonathan rode in front. Horseback riding was fun even though I had to ride with a 40-pound frame pack. Our horses were tame and docile, and I quickly learned how to guide Dita. Pulling the reins to the side made her turn, pulling back slowed her down, and nudging her stomach sped her up. Dita was cooperative, for the most part. She wandered off the trail only a few times and was spooked by another horse on the roadside because this fellow kept sniffing her ass.

I became good enough to stick close to Jonathan and even followed his cue in plucking a cashew apple (marañón) in mid-trot. Like the Costa Rican pineapples, the cashew apple cannot be exported without spoiling. A single cashew nut grows at the end of this fruit which grows in turn from a tree. The cashew apple’s skin is thick and leaves rough, waxy texture on the tongue. Its flesh is mushy and sweet.

I wondered whether Dita was treated well by its owners and had adequate food and rest. I’d read that horseback-riding tourism often caused horses to suffer maltreatment and overwork. The possibility of maltreatment doesn’t only apply to horses but to other beasts of burden as well, like elephants in Phuket. I suspect that the majority of horseback riding tourism businesses do not abuse their steeds out of cruelty or even negligence. It must be simply the fact that these businesses can make a greater profit by providing more rides even at the expense of their “assets” depreciating faster than they can if they treated their horses better in terms of food and rest. If the horse burns out or dies, they’ll simply buy a new one. The money tourists like me pay must outweigh Dita’s economic value.

6:30 AM

We rode from 6:30 to 9:30 AM. By the end, everyone was saddle-sore as I expected. We should’ve greased up our groins with Vaseline and donned pantyhose like the US military in Afghanistan. We crossed plains, brush, rivers. A horse in front of me became pissed at my tailgating and kicked Dita in the face. Sorry, girl. I fell asleep several times while riding because of Dita’s rhythmic trotting. I often woke up just in time to prevent myself from falling off.

We arrived at Los Patos at 9:10 AM, and Jonathan tied up the horses. We ate, drank, and took a bathroom break. Los Patos station’s bathrooms were gorgeously tiled and immaculate. I did not expect this in the middle of a tropical rain forest.

The trek from Los Patos to the Sirena ranger station was nine hours. According to a Corcovado National Park pamphlet I picked up, the national park and the Osa Peninsula has 375 bird species, 124 mammals, and more than 50 are bats. (Peter and I ran into some later on one night.) 8000 insects, 71 reptiles, and 46 amphibians. Although we tried to spot bull sharks hunting for food in the mouths of rivers when the tide came up, we never saw any. Joseph professed that he saw a puma cub.

We set out half an hour later. I tried to eat much of my food before we started hiking because I realized I’d overpacked on food and would have to suffer more weight than was necessary. The trail kicked off with stairs built into the side of a hill. My legs began to burn already.

6:20 PM

We arrived at Sirena Station. We had hiked the last 20 minutes in the dark with headlamps and flashlights. I had hiked the entire trail in my waterlogged Land’s End water shoes. After being bathed in tropical rain forest fresh water for eight hours, my feet had become swollen raisins. Miraculously, I developed only two minor blisters.

We emerged from the forest, stumbled across a grass clearing, and collapsed on Sirena Station’s porch. Other travelers lounging in Adirondack chairs on the station’s deck watched with curiosity. Nine disabled-looking people had suddenly hobbled out of the jungle thicket at night and collapsed in a heap before them. I would’ve stared as well.

March 18 – Day at Sirena

We got up and waited for other travelers to leave so we could claim our spot on the deck. I didn’t want to sleep on the station’s surrounding lawn again for two reasons. After pitching our tent in the grass, Peter found ten ticks on himself. The grass’ dampness from the dew that condensed at night was the second reason. The humidity made it hard to breathe inside a tent where breathing was already like inhaling a hot stew of sweat and body odor.

We spent the morning eating, packing, and planning our day. We hiked to the beach and lounged there for the first half of the afternoon. Most of the group took a nap because they were exhausted from yesterday’s hike. I scouted for coconuts to practice what Alberto taught. I found three slightly waterlogged coconuts and tried to husk them. I could puncture them on my walking stick but couldn’t rip their shells off. I gave up, but fortunately Peter succeeded. Here’s a video of Anthony cracking a coconut with a machete Peter bought in Puerto Jiminéz.

I wanted fresh coconuts straight from the tree so I enlisted Peter to look for a palm tree to climb. He tried wrapping his belt around the trunk of a tree and was about to demonstrate his self-proclaimed amazing palm-tree-climbing skills that he learned in Hawaii. Alas, blisters, fatigue, and an unsuitable belt deterred us.

A few of us hiked along the beach to the river inlet in the hope of spotting bull sharks. No dice. We only saw a crocodile, and I threw rocks at it until its shape sank below the water. It occurred to me that irritating a large reptile four times my mass while standing close to the water might not be a good idea.

We saw a strangler fig. While eating dinner Peter busts out his home-made ethanol-fueled stove. Composed of two bottom portions of Arizona Iced-tea aluminum cans with holes punctured on its sides and through the middle. He opened a bottle of isopropyl alcohol and poured it through the middle. Then he used a penny to cover the middle holes and lit the side of the can. Ideally, one would get an even burn through each hole.

Anthony led us on a circular trail around the station. I was able to see many wild animals. We returned to the station as dusk. Anthony, Peter, and I then walk back to the beach so he could take some photos with his nifty SLR camera. Problem was Anthony forgot his camera. We use my low-tech point and shoot. Later on I lose the memory card.

This time, Peter poured a liberal amount of alcohol into the stove and onto the ground. One click of his lighter and the stove and ground became a mini-bonfire. The flame was over a foot high. Peter tried to shield any passersby and station rangers/employees from seeing the potentional arson of the station by sitting with his legs on both sides of the flame. He was hardly able. “My balls are sweating,” he said.

Collective inertia is immense. Unsurprising given the fact that we’d hiked 20km the day before. But we finally are ready to do some day hikes through Sirena’s surrounding jungles.

For the first time on the trip, there’s no sense of urgency, rush. It’s leisurely. I don’t have my pack only a bottle of water. light-footed, nimble. Anthony, Peter, Joseph, Jonny, and I tread through the forest. We walk slowly. I try tot stay in th efront to spot some wildlife. I see a male and female pavon. A huge bee’s nest (we got freaked out), baby peccaries, lots of spider monkeys, we hear howler monkeys, some pheasant-type bird.

I treat the walk like a game: how to walk as quietly as possible and be extremely alert, focus on teh slightest sound of movement. While hiking to a destination, it’s easy to tune out everything around myself and focus only on your sore feet, aching legs, and the passing tree roots, rocks, leaves on the ground. Now I’m concentrating on being in the moment, resent and not thinking about the destination or the waiting for the end of the walk. I’m looking up at teh forest canopy and around. I’m trying to hold onto this moment, because time has already started speeding up on this trip. The intiial shock to my senses is over and teh days have begun flowing faster.

March 19 – Back to Puerto Jiminez

Sirena to La Leona is 16km about 6 hrs but we took much longer b/c freq stopped for rest, filtering water, food, then another 3.5km to Carate. Did we hike to Carate?

We asked rangers about the tides. We have to plan when to wake up to make it across a tidal river at a time of low tide. We don’t know how large or swift it is, but don’t want to take any chances. There’s some disagreement over when to set out. We end up leaving around 5AM?

When we got to the place where river met ocean, I picked up my frame-pack, took off my boots and socks, and hoisted it above my head and walked across the river. The chilly water only rose to my chest. Some of my friends headed inland where the river was wider and slow-moving. They started walking across. Then Margaret? saw what she thought was a protruding rock ahead of her suddenly submerge itself. Crocodile. Everyone eventually crossed near the point I crossed.

We made very slow progress. And knew we would miss the last bus to Puerto Jiminez. There was something about a tour guide that Seth had met the day before? who told us there was no way we’d make it to x location in time. He said he’d go ahead of us and call some taxis to pick us up once we were there. we later saw this man in Puerto Jiminez again.

March 20 – Bus back to San José along Route 2 (lonely planet pg 362)

3:15AM Joseph’s iPhone klaxon wailed. We packed quickly. Taxi to the bus stop. Jonny suddenly started complaining that his left foot’s big toe is broken but doesn’t know how. Peter said it was a jam. It was ironic that Jonny made it through all of yesterday only to injure himself by hitting a step in the resort pool.

At the bus stop we see a German Bavarian guy again. I eat instant oatmeal mixed with cold water in my coconut bowl. Everyone immediately started sleeping during the first half of the bus ride. I missed a lot of sights and sounds by sleeping away the ride.

On the drive there we got to experience the [Pan-Am highway][?]. (Supposedly some controversy over the highway what with governmental disputes and whatnot.) It’s not much of a highway as much of the road is single-lane, twisting through mountains.

the bus climbed a steep mountain gradually for an hour. Forests here were covered in cool clouds and mist. It’s at least 20 degrees colder up here. Ghostly shapes of trees appear through the mist. There’s hardly any sun right now. I couldn’t even see the valley below. It was so steep sometimes I can see straight down the side of the road off teh cliff.

I saw some graves and tombstones up here. very exclusive looking houses. This is the mountain of death and we’re currently approaching it.

March 21 – Day at San José and Mariott

The Marriott was a gorgeous authentic old Spanish hacienda converted into a hotel. It’s warm yellow walls and rustic roof tiles and prime location made it a sight for sore eyes and feet.

March 22 – Flight to JFK

in the last couple of days, my friends (mostly Joseph, Dtragos, and Margaret) have been killing time with brainteasters, riddles, and math puzzles.

I had a sudden twinge of reluctance the couple of hours before leaving for Cosata Rica. I couldn’t pinpoint why more specifically than the fact that I was somehow falling off the face of the Earth for a week and losing all contact with the relevant people in my life.

Now int he couple of hours before boarding TACA in San Salvador back to nYC, a feeling of regret hit me harder still. An entire week passed. This was supposed to be an awesome tri, fun, adventurous. But I don’t feel like it was after all was said and done. The disturbing thing is that I’m thinking, “What do I have to show for this past week?” Smelly clothes, blistered soles, lost weight, and a good tan/slight sunburn.

That’s not what I want. If anything, this trip now feels frivolous, lavish, and wasteful of time, money, and my abilities. Fun while I’m doing them, a brief sense of accomplishment at completion, followed by a fast disillusionment of meaninglessness right after. I want to apply my abilities to solving pressing problems in the real-world. Something that helps individuals.

“What am I doing?” I thought as I lounged on Sirena’s beach for hours, floated in Osa Resort’s pool for days, and as I admired the great view fromt he Mariott’s fifth floor along with allt he other rich, white folk by the pool. I’m somehwo wasting my time.

Why didn’t I ever do one of those “alternative spring break” trips? The ones where college kids like Jamie go to a Native American reservation to help or where David Zhou went to Costa Rica. Painitn shcool, designing and building a microhydro dam with Engineers without Borders in india. I could’ve done so much but I chose to have fun in a touristy way when I couldv’ehad much more fun and impact doing volunteer work.

At least I’m figuring out more clearly what I want now out of a future vacation. Travel, budget expense, immersion in local culture (particularly indigenous and away from tourists), volunteering/helping in some way.

Perhaps this vacation was just too long. 7 days. i was restless by the end of the 3rd or 4th day. I wanted to check e-mail, start homework, go to the library. I need a purpose. it’s fin e when I’m midlessly hking to keep trudigng on. My goal is teh destrination by a certain time. but I can’t be resting.l I have to be moving forward in a meaningful, lasting way.

“Don’t think of the negative,” Joseph said after I switched to his row on the return flight. He’s reading The Wya of the Pilgrim, he didn’t buy The Alchemist from the Mariott gift shop after all.

may beetle, weevil, turkey vulture, tody flycatcher


were they white-lipped peccaries, Corcovado pamphlet says these have disappeared from rest of Pacific coast.



Medicinal plants



mangrove crab

red crabs

Stayed at the Marriott in San José for the last two night of our trip. From sleeping in the forest bitten by mosquitos, covered in grime, with all sorts of nasty, pungent odors streaming from our pores to the seat of luxury.


  • $276.42 plane fare: JFK-SJO depart 3/10/10 return 3/22/10
  • $96 two nights at Marriott
  • $50 Columbia nylon-polyester long-sleeved shirt
  • $44 North Face nylon cutoff trousers
  • 2x $13 wool socks
  • $7 30% DEET insect repellent
  • $1.19 alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • $10 50 SPF
  • $163.48 REI Mars 85L frame pack
  • $44.31 silk sleep sack
  • 2x $3.39 pepperoni stick
  • $6.69 pecans
  • 1lb of saltines
  • $1.50 anti-diarrheal pills
  • $1.50 antihistamine pills
  • $35 water shoes
  • 2x $8 freeze dried hiking meals
  • 2x $2.99 craisins
  • dried apricots, prunes, persimmons
  • granola
  • almonds
  • $5.49 beef jerky
  • $3.19 string cheese
  • $2.19 peanut butter
  • $3.29 nutella
  • $2.39 tuna
  • hydrocortisone

Our friend Jonny created a large, complicated spreadsheet to sort out the mess of who owed who how much.