Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 11: Monkeys, Sloths and Neon Frogs

Destination: Cabo Matapalo

Beach hutI woke up at 5:00 a.m. to prepare for today's journey to Cabo Matapalo, located at the southernmost tip of the Osa Peninsula. The group consisted of me, two members of the Marine Corps, and our guide, Manuel. From Puerto Jimenez, the trip normally takes about an hour by car, but because we often pulled over to look at colorful birds and local plant life, it took us about two and a half.

The first stop was at a beautiful man-made lake, where Manuel pointed out two species of tiger heron and a plant with unusually rough leaves -- which he said were so scratchy that they could wound the skin of those who handle it. He then began scraping his finger against the plant, until it became bloody and red. We all looked at each other uncomfortably, thinking: "Please stop. There is no need to sacrifice your health to teach us how powerful this plant is." The joke was on us when we figured out that the leaf, not the person, emitted thick red liquid when irritated -- a type of liquid that looked identical to human blood. He boasted that on previous tours, he had made old ladies cry with that gag.

LakeBesides trying to scare us, our guide also enjoyed guessing games: "Do you know what the Latin name for this is?" he would ask in an intense, interrogative tone, motioning toward an extremely obscure plant. He would then stare at us for two to three awkward minutes after it had become clear that nobody knew the answer. Enduring an hour of this was enough for one of the marines, who eventually declared that she did not like guessing games -- the routine stopped.

We finally arrived, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Cabo Matapalo was even more beautiful than I had imagined. An incredible concentration of birds and mammals exists in the area, and the wildlife viewing was second only to Corcovado National Park.

Howler monkeyBefore we even exited the car, a howler monkey tossed a piece of fruit onto the roof. This made us laugh, and we began to kick through thick layers of leaves toward the beach. We spotted a strange red bug that nobody could identify, and a family of squirrel monkeys passing through the forest.

The next point of interest was a pile of orange dirt standing about five feet high. Trails of leaf cutter ants filed in and out of a little hole on top. Our guide began stomping his boots around the hill until an army of soldier ants, about six times larger than the leaf-carrying variety, stormed out to defend their castle. The guide picked one up, and provoked the creature until it bit onto his shirt. He then popped its head from its body, and the insect's teeth amazingly held their grip on the fabric. After repeating this seven more times, he had created a rudimentary suture line -- which indigenous tribes still utilize in emergency situations where access to staples or stitches is limited.

Green poison dart frogTaking care not to step on chains of leaf cutter ants, we came upon a black frog with neon green splotches. It was about the size of my thumb, and the most mesmerizing amphibian I have ever seen.

Manuel explained that these are called green and black poison dart frogs, and they reign supreme at controlling mosquito populations. In fact, this species was successfully introduced into Hawaii for that very reason.

Ocean surfOur group then worked our way past all three of Cabo Matapalo's picturesque, white sand beaches. Playa Pan Dulce was short with lots of seeds, shells, and sea brush washed ashore. A few surfers took advantage of the point break between here and Playa Backwash, which was longer and even more breathtaking than its predecessor. Finally, we visited Playa Cabo Matapalo, which offered the most impressive waves of the trio. A powerful boa constrictor watched us from high in a tree above, while an enormous manta ray cruised the crystal waters below.

Sand crab at Cabo MatapaloAfter chicken salad sandwiches for lunch, we began a hike to the King Louis waterfall. For dessert, Manuel stopped at a termite colony and popped one into his mouth. Great sources of protein, termites are the Costa Rican camper's natural food of choice -- and supposedly taste like peanut butter.

The two marines confirmed this theory by snacking on two termites, and then peer pressured me to do the same. Spoiling the fun, I had absolutely no desire to eat an insect -- making it a general rule never to consume anything that will wriggle and squirm in my mouth. While outgoing and up for almost anything, this traveler draws the line at eating bugs.

Kinkajou in logThe hike only took about thirty minutes from beginning to end, and along the way we managed to spot several Golfo Dulce Poison Dart frogs. Interestingly enough, actually reaching our destination was a bit anti-climactic. All of the sudden, the guide looked around and cheerfully said "here we are!"

We were confused; the landscape had not changed, with the exception of one giant rock. Our wise leader had forgotten to inform us that the falls are bone dry at this time of year -- and won't flow again until well into the rainy season, around August. We were indeed staring directly at the waterfall, just minus the water.

Sloth in treeOn the way back, our group spotted a nocturnal kinkajou curled up in a hollowed branch in broad daylight. Although they possess prehensile tails like primates, these adorable creatures are technically related to raccoons. They are cuter than care bears, and we were lucky to spot one at that hour of the day. In Spanish they are known as martillas, or "little hammers" due to their enormously powerful claws. Tongues that stretch five inches long allow the kinkajou to easily invade bee hives, earning it the nickname honey bear.

Returning to the car, we came across a second nocturnal ball of fluff -- a three-toed sloth. Living high in the canopy, sloths seem rare and elusive to the untrained eye -- however, researchers estimate that there are at least 1,900 per square mile. While the black stripe across its eyes may make them look like mischievous bandits, they actually lead quite mundane and boring lives. Parents teach their young a single route through the rainforest, which they repeat over and over again, eating the same leaves for the rest of their days. They are indisputably the slowest mammals on the planet -- and with a heart rate of 11 beats per minute, who can blame them for sleeping 15-20 hours per day?

Day 11: Monkeys, Sloths and Neon Frogs in Pictures