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Muddy in Rincon de la Vieja

Destination: Rincon de la Vieja

I like to wake up with the sun, and in Costa Rica, this means that I get up early -- 6:30 a.m. is sleeping in. Cesar, however, has completely redefined the term "early bird." He bounced out of his hotel room almost every pitch-black morning, scouting for photos during the very earliest moments of daylight. I envied him sometimes, especially when he came to breakfast with photographic evidence of shy wildlife or perfectly lit nature shots.

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This morning, it was toucans. Toucans! It may have something (or a lot) to do with a certain breakfast cereal, but I had wanted to see a toucan since I was a little girl. Over a plate of rice and beans, toast, fruit, and coffee, I reached for the camera and clicked though several shots of multi-colored beaks and bodies. "What time was this?" I asked. "5:30," he replied. Crestfallen, I realized that I had awoken only 15 minutes after the toucan show. In hindsight, if I had known what awaited me that day, I would have gone straight back to bed.

Consoling myself by planning our day, I asked Cesar what he thought about going to Rincon de la Vieja National Park. He was game. After a few wrong turns, we made it to the hotel's activity center, and asked about our park options. Since it was only three miles away, we chose to go on horseback. I was excited. Though I hadn't ridden in more than ten years, I had studied both English and Western styles as a kid.

We walked to the stables, where a genuine ranch hand waited to help us. In retrospect, this should have been my first clue that this was no American trail ride. He asked me if I knew how to ride a horse. Ignoring clue #2, I thought to myself, "Do I know how to ride? Ha! Of course!" When I nodded, the cowboy smiled and pointed me to a brown mare, "That's your horse. As long as you know how to ride..."

Confidently, I walked over to my horse and prepared to mount. My jeans were uncomfortably tight; I had to adjust. (The third clue, if you're keeping count.) A leg up and I was ready. We headed out of the corral and down a muddy, rocky path. Canela, whose name means cinnamon, was not at all concerned with the ground conditions. She almost immediately broke into a fast trot and then a loafing canter, ignoring my shocked instructions to slow down.

Somewhat surprised that our guide had not told me to keep her at a walk, I decided to let Canela run a bit. Down the road we cantered, and I enjoyed the old, familiar feeling of a horse's quick gait. Soon, our guide called ahead to me -- he was back with Cesar, walking the horses at a much more appropriate pace -- and indicated that I was to turn left, off the road. Onto the muddy, rocky path we went. Though I regarded the new terrain with mild unease, Canela did not.

Canela had no interest in walking, and I learned quickly that she required a firm hand. The reins were made of only rope, and when I pulled back to slow her down, she spit foam. Clearly, she was displeased by my limitations. Finally growing tired of my commands, she took off. As we bumped over stones and sloshed through mud, a brief "uh oh" flashed through my head. Just moments later a branch caught my helmet, holding me stationary as Canela rushed forward. I watched myself fall in slow motion, my body slamming into the ground.

I had landed on a hard stone, but thankfully, my behind had absorbed most of the impact. Canela stood beside me, as if surprised by my fall, staring straight ahead. Her body language stated clearly, "I didn't do it!" I righted myself, testing that everything still worked. It did, and I called out "I'm okay!"

The look on both Cesar and our guide's faces was almost enough to justify the fall -- they stared at me with the same horrified and concerned expression. I think they thought I was going to cry. But this was not the first time that I'd fallen off of a horse, and I doubted that it would be the last. "I'm fine," I reassured them, and asked for another lift up. Our guide walked over quietly, checking to make sure that I wasn't broken, and offered me his cupped palms. Up I went.

The branch had left a scratch just above my eye, and the fall had caused a few bumps, but my ego was most bruised of all. I had fallen off a horse during a trail ride, and felt a bit humiliated. Soldiering on, I launched a discipline campaign, refusing to allow Canela to run at will. She would not dump me overboard again. We had a few small arguments over the next ten minutes, but I was fed up with her attitude, and didn't give in.

We arrived at the park a short time later. My legs ached after dismount, and the necessary bow-legged cowboy walk made my mud-splattered exterior look even more comical. We climbed the hill to the parking lot, and a coatimundi ran up to us immediately. We headed for the park entrance, paid for our tickets, and disappeared into the dense jungle.

Rincon de la Vieja's circuit path is known as one of the most interesting and beautiful in the country. Everywhere we looked along the earthen trail, we saw flitting butterflies, marching ants, and investigative insects. Cesar was immediately enthralled, commenting that he knew of no other park with such natural trails.

As we walked downhill towards our first stop, a small waterfall, I had my first non-horse related fall. The dirt-packed paths, perfect during the dry season, had turned into wet, messy slop, and my sneakers stood no chance against them. It happened as I stepped down onto a slippery rock, no tree or vine to grab. I toppled backwards onto my behind for the second time that day.

I was getting frustrated with myself. I am not clumsy -- I practiced gymnastics for nine years, and usually have excellent balance. Determined to enjoy the day, I picked myself up and scooped the mud off of my clothing. We walked on, arriving at the waterfall. It fell in myriad small trickles, cascading down huge, shiny rocks. It was a beautiful sight, framed by green trees and hanging vines, and we spent several moments entranced.

As we made our way back to the main path, it was Cesar's turn to fall. Though he didn't get muddy and slimy, he did manage to slice the side of his calf. Park: 2 Tourists: 0. Moving on, we arrived at the celestial blue fumaroles where we watched in awe as the water bubbled and boiled from the heat below. The air smelled of sulfur -- just like a rotten egg -- and we dashed around the small area, taking as many photos as possible. I was fascinated to see steam rise off of the water where a sign needlessly warned us that it was very, very hot.

We turned back to the muddy trail, our shoes sinking with every step. The skies were still bright, a present from Mother Nature. We were thankful that no new rain fell to make the paths even harder to navigate. We headed next to a small volcanic crater, just ten or fifteen feet in diameter. Muddy water bubbles boiled, making distinct, enjoyable plopping sounds as they popped. The area didn't smell of sulfur, though it was distinctly hotter -- a sign warned that temperatures could reach 248 degrees Fahrenheit.

As we made our exit, I slipped on another rock. Falling hard, I couldn't control the camera around my wrist, and it knocked against a nearby rock. After checking to make sure it still worked, I struggled up again. It was my third unplanned meeting with the ground that day, and I was not pleased. As we walked back to the main path, my peripheral vision caught something. Looking down, I saw that I had cut my wrist, and blood bubbled out, dribbling along my arm.

No fan of blood, especially my own, I almost ran for the stream ahead. I dunked my wrist and arm into the cool, clear water, and my mind raced. How far was it to the nearest hospital? Would they give me dissolving stitches, or would I have to go back to get them removed? Would I lose a lot of blood along the way? Pulling my wrist out to check its progress, I saw that the bleeding had nearly stopped. Crisis averted.

We moved along to my favorite part of the park: boiling mud pots. To reach them, you have to deviate from the normal trail and walk a few yards into their secluded location. The effort is rewarded with huge, boiling tubs of mud. The sounds that emanate from the mud pots are mesmerizing and very relaxing. We walked around the area and, finding a particularly active pot, stopped. The three of us watched in silence for many minutes, until raindrops on our heads pulled us out of the reverie. It was time to leave.

Heading toward the exit, a small lake lay just a few yards off the path. Against better judgment, we ran to see it, hoping to beat the downpours. Unfortunately, the skies opened up and the rains started, forcing an early departure from the lake. We walked briskly back toward the entrance, but even in the best of conditions, we were fifteen minutes away.

I pulled out my umbrella to protect our cameras and cell phones. It began to rain with earnest, and I realized that we were going to get soaked. Hungry, wet, battered and now cold, our small group marched to the entrance. When we finally made it out of the park and under shelter, I was shivering and thoroughly miserable. There was no way that I was going to ride That Horse back to the hotel.

Instead, we called a van from the hotel to pick us up, and waited for it to arrive. I daydreamed of a warm shower and a plate full of food. It was already past 2 p.m. and Cesar checked out our camera gear. To his horror, one of the cameras had gotten wet and wouldn't write any photos to its memory card. "Take it apart, let it dry out," I told him, and he nodded.

Our transport finally arrived, its air-conditioning on full blast. If you've ever wondered if hypothermia were possible in Costa Rica, I'm here to tell you that it is. I thought I'd shiver myself into warmth, but no such luck. We finally arrived back at the hotel, and with determined swiftness, I made a beeline for my room. Never has a hot shower felt so good in all my life.

After spending a considerable amount of time in our respective showers, Cesar and I met for a late lunch. We gobbled down our food, and dragged ourselves back to the rooms. I was so tired that even my bones were exhausted, and I fell into bed for another night's much-needed sleep.

Muddy in Rincon de la Vieja in Pictures

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