Costa Rica Jan 17-27 2003


In January 2003 I took part in the Costa Rica Jungle Trek to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Relief. An itinerary of the trek was provided by our tour guides. This is my journal of the expedition. I've added some photographic links, though I was not very pleased with my photos. It's impossible to capture the vastness of the rainforest and in the depths of the forest it was very dark so flash had to be used, giving some odd effects. After you've clicked on the links to see the photos, use the back arrow on your browser to get back to the text.

Friday

I'm starting my journal mid flight. We are travelling from England to Costa Rica by a very odd route. We left Heathrow at 6.30 a.m. and flew to Amsterdam, where we met up with the Scottish contingent, resplendent in Tam O'Shanters.

We then flew back over Scotland, Iceland and Greenland. Not the most direct of routes but apparently the quickest due to the prevailing winds across the Atlantic. Flying over Greenland, Baffin Island and northern Canada was amazing. The skies were clear and we had fantastic views of the icecaps, icebergs and iceflows, all reflecting the sun.

Other highlights of the journey were seeing the CN Tower in Toronto and the Shuttle launch site at Cape Canaveral. We stopped off at Miami for an hour while the plane was refuelled and re-crewed.

Finally got to San Jose at 6.30 p.m. local time, 18 hours after leaving Heathrow. Travelled by bus to the Quality Inn for the first night. First impressions of San Jose are of a sprawling haphazard town, with strange lorries and trucks.

The view from my hotel room is fantastic; miles and miles of twinkling streetlights, surrounded by mountains. San Jose is in a high level basin amongst the central mountain range at 1000m.

Saturday

On our initial bus journey to the start of the trek we learnt a lot about the country from one of our local guides Txema, (pronounced Chema). Costa Rica is a very "young country" in terms of geological age. It was relatively recently laid down, being on the central plate which even today is being uplifted by 1m every 200 years. Despite being so young (or perhaps because of it?) Costa Rica has amazing biodiversity. It has 11 of the 18 major life zones that the world has, lacking desert and arctic! One of the reasons for the biodiversity is the meeting of the three major trade winds.

Costa Rica is also a very humanistic country. It was the first country to abolish the slave trade, the death penalty and the army. The money that would have been wasted on keeping an army is used to fund free health and education for all the citizens. They do still have a police force but only employ 6000 in total. All citizens however have the right to carry a gun.

Apparently last time Nicaragua tried to invade, a call went out on the local radio and hordes of armed Costa Ricans set off in buses to the border, successfully repelling the invading army. I notice that all the houses have extensive security with bars at the windows and high railings, but apparently there is not a high level of crime. Here you are guilty until proven innocent, the Napoleonic legal system. Perhaps that is more of a deterrent?

On route to the start of the trek we passed through Cartago, passing a sculpture to mark the exact centre of the Americas, at 10 degrees N latitude, equidistant from the top of N America and the bottom of S America.

My first sight of exotic bird life was when we stopped for a 'wee stop' at Rest y Hotel and saw iridescent blue humming birds at a bird feeder, a bit more exciting than the sparrows at home!

Our first day of trekking was on an undulating path at about 3000m around an extinct volcano, Mt Irazu. We got some good views over the surrounding countryside. The effects of the altitude were noticeable, as my lungs felt as thought they didn't have enough air in them!

We saw lots of wonderful flowers; bromeliads and orchids in most of the trees. The sky was deep, deep blue and cloudless above, although we could see clouds beneath us on some of the other mountains.

Passed through the Orosi coffee plantations en route to our first camp site at Palermo, where we put up the tents by the stream. Had supper in the shelter of a wooden hut. The forest at night was amazing; full of flashing fireflies and chirruping crickets.

Sunday

Slept well and woke to a somewhat different dawn chorus at 5 a.m. We had breakfast at 6 a.m. and set off at 7 a.m. This area of cloudforest and was very lush with tall spindly trees and lots of bizzy lizzy flowers.

We started the day by travelling in the back of a truck, standing up like cattle. This was to give us a head start up a steep hill. How we loved that truck! We passed some Brahmin cattle on the way.

Once on our own feet again we walked up and then down a ridge, crossing the gorge by a rope bridge. Only three people were allowed on at a time. It was not as bad as I'd anticipated, but then I didn't look down!

We then did the hardest uphill climb of my life, 1000m through dense cloudforest on an almost non-existent track. We clambered over fallen trees, avoiding "roots and holes"; a common cry heard throughout the trek as we warned following trekkers of the hazards as we encountered them.

Our local guide, Frank, warned us not to hold onto any trees before checking first for snakes! We also had to avoid touching the brown thorned branches of a particular plant which could inflict skin burns (as I was later to find out!)

It was hard work, climbing continuously for 8 hours, but the pace was whatever we wanted it to be, thanks to the understanding of the Costa Rican guides, Para, Txema and Frank, and the team from Discover Adventures, Fi, Alex and Rob. We naturally fell into three groups.

I was happy to be in the back group, going slowly but having time to look at and photograph some of the fantastic flowers. This part of the cloudforest was full of very old oak trees all resplendent with bromeliads and orchids.

There was some evidence of forest management where we stopped at the top for a break, some trees had been recently felled. As might be expected in a cloudforest the air was damp and in the afternoon we looked down on a rainbow across the valley.

We finally reached the endpoint of our day, an idyllic setting by a stream and two ponds, from where our supper of trout was provided.

Monday

Last night was really cold; I presume because we were camping at 2800m. Once the sun rose it soon warmed up and we had another glorious sunny day. We had some good views over the countryside.

We travelled for a short distance by bus along the Pan American highway, the main route from North to South America. I was surprised to find it was just an ordinary two lane road, probably about the size of a B road at home!

It still had huge trucks on it though and we passed an accident where a car had been crunched by one. Just one police car was attending and there was no traffic hold up, a but different from the M25.

We walked along the old colonial route through coffee plantations, where forest had once been. One of our guides, Para, is from a family who was responsible for much of the previous deforestation. He is now "poacher turned gamekeeper" and is into conservation, preserving young saplings and replanting forests.

We passed some exotic fruit trees and had a chance to taste their fruits, a soursap and a grenadilla, both were gorgeous. Also saw avocados hanging from trees. The coffee bushes were laden with beans, just beginning to ripen to a lovely red colour.

We had a steep descent down to our campsite on the outskirts of Santa Maria di Dota. The town had a real mix of houses. We passed a very old colonial house, painted in the traditional green colour. Right next door was an ultra modern bungalow. All the buildings are single storey because of the earth tremors which are experienced on a regular basis.

Found a giant cricket(?) and a very well camouflaged stick insect looking just like a leaf. If you can't spot him here's some help.

Having arrived in camp early, there was an opportunity to visit the Coffee Cooperative, where we saw the local farmers with wagons laden with the raw red coffee beans.

At the co-op the beans are dehusked and patio dried. Apparently there are two methods of drying, oven and patio, but the later is the best. Here all the coffee is patio dried, then the pale beige beans are bagged for export. Most of the beans are roasted in the country of destination as the flavour is short lived once roasted.

Some beans are roasted locally for home consumption, though they only lightly roast in Costa Rica to retain the smooth sweet flavour. We watched them bagging up some of the best quality coffee, which we then bought.

The staple diet in Costa Rica seems to be beans and rice, which I had three times today! It was cooked and flavoured with coriander for breakfast and served with scrambled eggs and ham. For lunch I had it with an avocado and for supper with a chopped vegetable dish.

In the evening we went to the local bar run by Tito. She collects traditional Costa Rican artefacts so it's a bit like a museum. Tito was selling bags woven locally to a traditional design. I bought a couple, one to use as a shoulder bag and the other for a mobile phone!

I drank the fruit juice Tropical Guanabana. There seems to be just one brand of beer in Costa Rica, Imperial. Drinking it to excess must be a problem as we passed an Alcoholics Anonymous building, totally isolated up a track so not very anonymous!

Tuesday

Had a lie in this morning to 6.30 a.m. Breakfast was wonderful, guava and watermelon. Our tents and rucksacks are transported by truck each day onto the next site. We set off for an 8 hour trek to it, walking uphill most of the day. I had no idea before I came here how hilly a country could be. There seems to be no flat land and all the hills are at angles of at least 45 degrees!

Had some lovely views back down the valley to Santa Maria di Dota. Spotted a silkworm nest high in a tree and had vultures circling overhead.

Today we were going through rainforest and it was noticeably hotter and more humid. Saw yet more beautiful plants, which we grow as garden or house plants, but which grow wild here; dahlias, begonias, honeysuckle, busy lizzy, orchids, bamboo, ferns and lots more that I didn't recognise. I ate some berries, which were a sort of cross between a raspberry and a strawberry.

We passed by a waterfall where some of the girls dunked their heads to keep cool.

There were a lot of birds in the canopy but it was difficult to see them. Frank heard a Quetzal, the national bird of the area. He called to it and it responded but we couldn't see it. He also heard some Toucans but we couldn't see them either.

Parakeets flew in flocks above us calling out as they passed. They flashed by so quickly though it was not possible to admire their colours. I did see another pretty bird with an orange tail, a Montezuma Orapendola (?). I also saw my first venomous snake, a small fer-de-lance, thankfully already dead on the path.

Finally got to our nights campsite at 4.30. It was set on a steep hill with two wooden huts which were used by the foresters. It had the luxury of a plunge pool, fed by a stream. I took the advantage to wash my hair and generally cool down.

As I write up my journal for the day I can hear howler monkeys in the forest behind us. They make such a racket. I doubt it we'll be able to see them though.

The night sky here is magnificent. You can see the familiar constellations like Orion, but there are so many, many more stars visible. The whole sky sparkles. Shooting stars seem to be whizzing across too. It makes you realise how much light pollution we have at home.

Wednesday

Today I walked with Frank and had a real nature walk. I made notes as we walked along so these are some of the things we spotted:

Black faced/masked solitaire - a bird with a bell like song, though it sounded a bit like a squeaking gate. It used to be caught and caged for its song, but it is now a protected species. Grey colour with a black face and a red eye ring

Secopia tree - the leaves of which are the diet of the sloth

Melostomatatia - the name of the family of plants with the four ribs

Lycopodium - a frondy creeping plant from which they make baby powder

Santa lucia - the flower of luck which grew everywhere and looked a bit like a tall ageratum

Woodclipper - a climbing bird with a tail that finished like a claw to support it against the bark

Squirrel Cuckoo - a russet coloured bird

Wild tomato - a small orange tomato, which I tasted. Also eaten by squirrels and monkeys

Wild selanthro - the food of tapirs

Humming bird - spotted feeding on a pink flowered bush

Lichens - everywhere!

Tapir footprints - a three toed footprint photographed by the side of a horse hoof print, which gives an idea of the size - big! The animals are about 2m long. We also saw the track up through the forest used by the tapir as a regular route.

Black and red wasp - which kills tarantula spiders lays its eggs in them and then leaves the larvae to feed of the body.

Chicasas wasp - a friendly wasp family which had nest holes in a clay wall.

Large bromeliads - where tree frogs leave their eggs, so that the tadpoles can hatch out and have their own private pool to swim in!

Blue worm - not much to say about it other than it was a worm which was blue!

Nameless leaf! - but beautiful all the same

Fungi - a poisonous red one and a penis fungus which was slimy and when it was touched the end opened up and puffed out a cloud of spores!

We trekked all day through the deepest rainforest on a narrow track, having to wade through a stream at one point. We did some more steep ascents and descents as we crossed at the foot of more waterfalls. Just as we reached camp it started to rain but only for about 10 minutes.

Despite using DEET I now have over twenty bites on my legs and more on my arms. I think they are sandfly bites. I've already used up a tube of hydrocortisone cream. All of them started to itch after about 24 hours. Some are beginning to blister and others are crusting over. The delights of the jungle!

[Added once home - I'm now sure they were sandflies as I have read that they breed in humid places on damp soil rich in humus. The Lutzomyia species are linked to rainforest ecosystems, where they breed in rotting leaves between the buttresses of tree trunks. They transmit the protozoal parasite that causes leishmaniasis.]

Where we are camping tonight can only be reached by foot, so the tents had to be carried here by horses. We didn't actually get to see them loaded up, I suspect on purpose as I think we might have thought they were overloaded. They are such scrawny looking horses, but they'd have to be quite small to fit on the paths.

The horseman also had some scrawny looking dogs with them. One of them was delighted to find some dinner which had been dropped in the mud. It ate ever last scrap up. Dinner tonight was cooked on a very basic stove in a foresters hut. We ate under a plastic shelter.

We are camping in the depths of the forest. The trees are enormous and impossible to photo. I attempted to get all of this tree in by lying on the ground at the base of the trunk.

The toilet facilities on our trek are basic; a deep hole dug in the ground with a wooden seat and black plastic sheet around it. I've been told not to shine my head torch down the hole as the bottom of the hole is usually writhing with all manner of living slimy squirmy things.(I leave it to you to guess whether I looked!)

This evening about ten of us set off with Para for a night trek through the forest. He led us off the path into the midst of it, and we stood still for about five minutes in total darkness before then all turning on our head torches to observe the wild life, but nothing exciting appeared. We found some more tapir footprints, and some tapir poo, but that was all!

Thursday

Set off today in the middle group, walking with Txema. More nature notes:

Ginger brassa - a magnificent red flower.

Heliconias - an orange flower related to the strelitzia, one variety of which had white seed pods.

Tiger butterfly

Today was a really tough walk and we had to do it at some speed. We had one break while some of the group went on a detour down a stream with Fi to find some water which we then purified, for topping up our water supplies. The usual water source had dried up.

The guides keep in touch by satellite phones. I copied down the words we heard throughout the trek to remind me, "Para, Para, me copia? Txema. Cambio" which literally means (thanks to Anna for the spelling and translation) "Para, Para, do you copy me, (can you hear me) Txema, I change (over)"

We walked the furthest downhill I have ever or will probably ever walk. Starting at 2000m at 7.20 a.m. we walked for 9 hours, dropping to 450 m. It wasn't all downhill either as there were quite a few short sharp ascents, just to add the variety and effort! It was hot, humid and dark in the jungle.

All day we clambered over fallen trees, slid down precipitous slopes and generally got exhausted. I fell several times and managed to get snarled up on one of the prickly twigs we were told to avoid. It left some quite impressive crisscrossed grazes on the back of my leg.

The last group didn't get back until 9 p.m. They had been walking for 13 hours, with 4 hours in the dark. Everybody was very emotional when they returned. I was so glad I'd been in the faster middle group, but also felt so much for what they had been through.

They did get to see a lot more wildlife though; tarantula, giant hawk moths that flew into your face, tree frogs and another venomous snake. Two fer-de-lance snakes had been sighted and killed by the guides en route.

This evening Para's children, Danielle and Christopher, who have been at the campsites with their mother and older sister, who do all the cooking, had a bug with bright green fluorescent eyes. They weren't just reflective they were actually emitting light. It was about 2 cms long and scurried over their jumpers like a little pet! They were very careful not to let it walk on their bare hands though so I wonder if it bit or at least had spiky feet.

Friday

Our final trekking day. Woke up feeling really sick and I almost fainted when we stood to have a group photograph taken. I set off on the walk and managed about two hours. I wanted to try and carry on but couldn't. I was feeling so peculiar, nothing like I've ever felt before, I just wanted to go to sleep every time we stopped for a break, and did at one point.

I felt totally spaced out. I can remember hearing others talking about me, saying "we need to keep an eye on Angela" etc. I can also remember people talking to me and me not wanting to reply or feeling I had to answer them. I wanted to struggle on with the trek, but I could feel myself getting weaker, sort of punch drunk.

Catherine, the doctor on the trip, was worried about me and persuaded me to go on the truck which was taking the tents down the final stretch of track. I was so relieved she did. It was a nightmarish bumpy journey, but even so I fell asleep! When I got to the destination of the walk I lay down under an orange tree and slept again until the other trekkers arrived.

A final celebration lunch had been prepared but I couldn't eat it as by then I had stomach pains and although it was baking hot started to get goose pimples. I managed the group photo though.

[added once home - I have since wondered whether I had Sandfly fever, also called Three-Day fever, which is caused by the bite of a bloodsucking female common sandfly infected by a certain virus. The symptoms are that three to six days after the bite there's a sudden feeling of lassitude, abdominal distress, nausea and dizziness, followed within one day by a chilly sensation.]

Saturday

Spent last night in the luxury of the Jaco Beach Resort. What joy to soak in the bath and lie between clean sheets. Today I spent all day on the beach, mostly lying beneath the coconut trees.

I walked the whole length of the bay and was surprised to see fish swimming in the shallow water of the sea, some silver ones about four inches long and a black and white striped angel fish. I also spotted an egret catch a fish at the water's edge. Pelicans flew overhead too.

The sea is incredibly warm. I didn't attempt to swim as we were warned that the beach is renowned for its rip tides, which pull you out and then deposit you back further up the shore. Leaping the waves was good fun though.

This evening was Burns night and our Scottish contingent did us proud with all the traditional honours, having substituted a coconut and machete for the haggis and sgian dhu!

Sunday

Left our beach paradise for the journey home. We stopped on route by the Pareto River and looked over the bridge to see the giant crocodiles, which were lazing beneath. Some boys were dangling a fish on a string over the side for them to snap at.

Had an uneventful but very long journey home.

I was surprised that I didn't have any jet lag on my return. I think it was because in Costa Rica we woke at 5 a.m. in time to get up, get our tents down, make breakfast and lunch etc. to set off yomping at 7 a.m. and then we went back to our tents to sleep at 7.30 p.m. So the six hours time difference was not so apparent!

Postscript

When I got back home I told Ian never to let me go on another Challenge, and yet just one week later I'm already thinking about what to do next! A bit like childbirth you soon forget the bad bits and only remember the wonderful times.

Acknowledgements

On behalf of Macmillan Cancer Relief I would like to thank all those who sponsored me. In addition to all the personal donations the following companies also sponsored me: Boehringer-Ingelheim, Boots the Chemists, Faulding, Genzyme, Janssen-Cilag, Lloydspharmacy, National Co-operative Chemists, Schering Healthcare.

I would also like to thank all my fellow trekkers, the team from DA (Rob, Alex and Fi) and Sophie from Macmillan Cancer Relief.


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