Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 13: Afraid of the Dark

Destination: Golfito

red-eyed tree frogThis morning we were going to explore Piedras Blancas National Park and do a waterfall hike. Our guide, a botanist named Eric, specialized in arboreal studies as well as medicinal plants. His goal today would be to show us how useful the rainforest can be to modern society.

Before the tour began, he explained that Piedras Blancas is a relatively new park, composed of lands that remained unprotected until 1992. As a result,the wildlife in the area is still recovering, and is not as prevalent as that found in Corcovado. Next, he somberly warned us to look out for poisonous snakes such as the fer-de-lance, eyelash, coral and bushmaster.

piedras blancas waterfallJust a few minutes from our lodge, a troop of spider monkeys rustled in the trees above us. We took care not to step on the toxic yellow millipedes crawling on the fallen leaves under our feet, nor the bright red martini cup mushrooms scattered along the path.

Eric plucked a vibrant berry off a tree, noting that Costa Rican schoolchildren often use the sticky substance inside in place of store bought glue. Just a few feet away grew an amaranth plant, one side of which served as nature's Velcro. The leaf was as adhesive as any commercial product, and when placed on my shirt, did not fall off until the end of the day.

crushed medicinal plantAt least 270 medicinal plants exist in the small country of Costa Rica. Eric pointed out 15 in the first few minutes: some served as antibiotics, others cured kidney infections, and many had the power to heal a stomachache. He showed us a purple plant growing low to the ground that can invoke a miscarriage if taken when pregnant. Indians were known to rub the Costa Rican version of poison ivy on newborns, which functioned as a sort of primitive vaccine against the flu.

I slapped the plant with the back of my hand, and a number of white dots appeared on my skin. Eric instructed me to do it again, this time holding my breath. Strangely, no dots appeared and it did not sting- by ceasing to breath, I could avoid an allergic reaction.

mating millipedesNext, we stopped in front of a plant that looked oddly familiar. It reminded me of a big leafy plant in the foyer of my parent's house. As a child, one of my favorite things to do was to prick the leaves of this plant with my fingernail to watch it bleed pasty, white milk -- and then quickly patch itself up again. Eric explained that if this "blood" comes into contact with an eyeball, the eye will be irreversibly blinded. He remarked, "Incredibly, someone thought it would be a good idea to make this a common household plant in the U.S."

Then, he gave me a curious look -- as if I represented all the people of the United States and could offer an explanation for this madness. I shrugged, and it suddenly dawned on me that this was the plant from my parent's house. Clearly, Mom and Dad were trying to blind me when I was young.

tarantula

We feasted on a variety plate of tuna sashimi, smoked jack, whole snapper fish, and upside-down pineapple cake. I was satiated and prepared for our 7:30 p.m. night hike. After taking a hot, steamy rinse in Nicuesa's outdoor shower and a second, less-pleasant bath in DEET bug spray, I met the group at reception. Dressed accordingly, in long pants, long sleeves, and rain boots, we were all ready for the evening tour.

Eric was our guide once more, and began the trek with the same unnerving, but necessary, warning about poisonous snakes. Strangely enough, the first thing we saw on the trail was a (non-venomous) orange cat-eyed snake. The serpent was about a foot long and as thick as my pinkie finger. Next, we heard a lovely noise coming from the canopy of a tree, and Eric explained that a kinkajou was nearby. It was well hidden and the skies were threatening to storm, so we moved on.

cicada and exoskeletonShining our headlamps at a certain angle revealed a multitude of glittering eyes in the forest. Thousands of tiny reflections looked at first like little droplets of water on leaves and branches. Upon closer inspection, I realized that about 95% of them were spider eyes, ranging from the size of a pinpoint to the size of my fist. The other 5% turned out to be frogs; one of which was a vibrant red-eyed tree frog.

On one tree we spotted a sleeping dragonfly, along with a cicada emerging from its discarded exoskeleton. The fresh new body looked like it had been colored with a crayon in bright, cartoonish blues and greens. A bit farther along, the trail ended at a rocky beach. A massive hermit crab sat on a coconut, but we saw no other signs of life until reaching the pier.

Here, Eric walked me out to the end of the dock to see the Golfo Dulce's famous ocean phosphorescence. He turned on a faucet, and I watched the water cascade into the sea. Millions of pieces of glitter flitted and jerked spastically, like epileptic sparklers under the sea. I stared, mesmerized until Vincent called me over to the river.

caimanJust 25 feet away, I saw a pair of piercing yellow eyes belonging to an enormous caiman. Vincent got a little too close -- anything for a great photo op -- and made throaty reptile calls in an attempt to coax the reptile even closer. A huge flash of lightning lit up the sky long enough to take one last picture; we put away the cameras and returned to the lodge just as the sky opened up.

Day 13: Afraid of the Dark in Pictures