People think they're going to get to Costa Rica and a sloth's gonna high five them when they get off the plane.
“All right Costa Rica, lemmie at dem sloths. I don’t have all day.”
These things survive in the jungle by being fucking impossible to find. If your dumb ass can find a sloth, how hard is it gonna be for a jaguar?
“Sloths are disgusting,” my guide explained, clearly scarred by a lifetime of experiencing the incongruity between tourists’ fantastical expectations of magical sloth encounters and the gritty, on-the-ground reality of Sloth Life.
“They have no defenses, so they live by staying in the tree tops and blending in.”
I mentally scratched “Just wander around and find some sloths” off my trip to-do list.
“They move so little that moss grows on their fur, which helps them blend in, and adds to the fact that they smell like a wet couch that has some kind of disease. This also makes it difficult for predators to find them, because they just smell like the rest of the wet jungle.”
But we still get to hold them, right? And snuggle?
“Occasionally we get called out because a sloth is crossing a road to get to a tree on the other side. This takes a very, very long time and sometimes we have to help the sloths along so they don’t get hit by a car. The instant you touch them, your hands will be covered by a swarming, crazy assortment of strange bugs.”
Oh man, I really hope the airport doesn’t check inside my suitcase. I’ve got at least three sloths in there. I’m not sure exactly how many, it just looks like the end of The Nightmare Before Christmas in there, when Oogie Boogie gets his sack ripped off and underneath he’s just like a big piñata made out of vermin.
The simple solution to all of life’s inconvenient Sloth Reality problems is to visit one of the petting-zoo type places where they have captive sloths you can hold and take selfies with and high-five to your heart’s content. I was pretty sure these places were unethical though, and every guide I asked about it confirmed my suspicions.
“They say those sloths are rescued, but really most have been poached from the wild. And it’s not a good or natural situation for a sloth to live in a petting zoo like that, all the noise and commotion is stressful for them. Even the ones that have really been rescued are bad for the environment, because sloths are plentiful but all of their predators are endangered. So every sloth you rescue you’re basically killing the jaguar or Harpy eagle that lost that meal.”
Damn. I want to hold a sloth as much as anybody. I mean aside from the fact that in reality they're covered in beetles and moths and smell like a wet dog. This is one of those times when doing the right thing kind of sucks. I squinted through the binoculars up at the vague blur of fuzz way up in the treetop that my guide insisted was actually a sloth’s butt. Hmm. If you say so.
We drove from place to place, scanning the treetops for another fuzzy butt and sharing copious Sloth Facts.
Sloths only come down to the ground once a week to poop, and take dumps so massive they can be one third of the sloth’s total body weight. I imagine the bewildering horror of this is the only thing that keeps predators at bay when the sloths are defenseless on the ground. I’ve always been baffled at why sloths risk their lives just to not rain poop down from the trees, and it turns out science doesn’t know either. I guess they’re just really polite.
Sloths have special tendons that allow them to hang from trees with no effort, and they sometimes even remain hanging in place after they’ve died. As slow as they are in the trees and on land, they’re surprisingly good swimmers, and can hold their breath for 40 minutes. They’re just all-around weird.
Their slowness is probably the only reason you can find them at all, since if a guide had found one in a tree a week ago, it was probably not more than a few feet away from that spot now. On one of our stops we’d hiked deeper into the jungle, set up the scope, and got our only clear view of a sloth in the wild. A mother held her baby way up in the treetop.
While we were out searching for sloth butts, we managed to stumble across a fun variety of colorful little birds, howler monkeys, toucans and even more fun: the tiny Blue Jeans Frog.
Also known as the Strawberry Poison Arrow Frog, these little dudes would fit on your fingernail and it’s only really possible to find them by following their high-pitched chirp chirp call, then staring at the leaf litter until you suddenly notice a tiny little orange dot wearing Wranglers.
On the hike back, a cool millipede navigated through his tiny world of massive grass blades.
An enterprising coatimundi made off with the cut up fruit we'd put out to attract birds.
Near the roadside, a shockingly huge iguana lazed on a tree branch, giving those lazy sloths a run for their money.
Well, not a run, exactly, but... you know.
I’d landed in the unremarkable capital city of San Jose the day before, and wasted little time meeting up with the driver I’d hired to take me a few hours across the countryside to the small town of La Fortuna, near the Arenal volcano.
I was five months into a mid-pandemic ramble across the world, having fled Minneapolis when things were rioty and weird during the summer. This came after spending four straight months in my apartment during the covid lockdown. Since then I’d been everywhere in the world that would let me in. At the start of the year I’d set a New Year’s resolution to visit 30 new countries in 2020. I was ten countries into this plan in March when the pandemic hit and froze international travel, making that goal seem hilariously unlikely. But over the months I’d talked my way into enough places that now in November, improbably, I was here. Costa Rica was #30.
We cruised through the rolling hills in a light mist of rain, stopping briefly along the way to buy some authentic local chocolate, which was somehow the worst chocolate I’ve ever eaten. Huh. Maybe that’s why I’ve never heard of Costa Rican chocolate before.
My driver’s license had expired on my birthday two months before, in the middle of my trip, meaning I spent the second half of the trip finding creative ways to get around since I couldn’t rent any more cars until I got back to the US and renewed my license. My driver didn’t speak any English, and my brain lurched trying to shift into Spanish. I’d just come from Albania, where I definitely wasn’t speaking any Spanish.
“Pura vida!” my driver exclaimed with a smile while he was loading things into our van.
Pure… life? I smiled politely as I tried to figure out what in the hell he was talking about.
The driver dropped me off at my hotel and we said our warm goodbyes. The owner of the hotel was a funny middle-aged guy from Mexico who was wearing a bitchin’ hat. He played a video for me he’d just shot on his phone about how you can test for coronavirus by making sure you can still taste a shot of tequila. The joke was that it took four or five tests to really be sure.
The hotel was a little arc of rooms curving around an outdoor pool, with the volcano looming in the distance.
There was a little miniature bar set up with fresh fruit laid out for the birds.
The Wifi password for the little hotel was “puravida.” Okay, that’s weird. Is this a popular brand name here or something?
There was a strange poetry to me being in Costa Rica now, since I had planned all along to spend Thanksgiving 2020 here, and this was the only pre-covid travel plan I’d made that had come even remotely true. I’d had trips booked and paid for to India, Nepal, Ethiopia, Somalia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Cuba, Trinidad & Tobago, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Croatia, Cyprus, The Seychelles, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All cancelled. I’d had 24 flights cancelled and an insane thicket of airline credits, many of which would expire before those airlines even started flying anywhere again. But Costa Rica had opened up to Americans on November 1st, so here I was, not quite on Thanksgiving but close enough as far as 2020 things go.
2020 ended up being the year when I visited all the places I’d been saving “for later” because they were safe and easy to get to, which unsurprisingly ended up being the first places that opened up for travel this year. I generally take the approach of visiting the sketchiest places while you’re still young enough to run away from trouble, so I had intended for tourist-friendly Costa Rica to be my last stop in Central America. Nicaragua’s meltdown this year meant that it will actually be my last, some time in the future. C'est la pura vida.
I popped into my hotel room to drop off my bag before getting some lunch in town. Flushing the toilet in the bathroom, suddenly something very unexpected happened. Water came out of the toilet, yes, which I had mostly been expecting. But so did ants. Many, many, maaaaaany ants. A convulsing volcano of ants erupting all over the bathroom like a surreal nightmare come to life.
And not the polite little ants I was acquainted with from previous life experience. Huge ants. HUGE ANTS. Ants so big I briefly thought I had somehow shrunk like Alice in Wonderland. They just kept pouring out of the toilet like an ant fountain. Why, life? Why is this the thing you’re doing right now?
I normally try not to kill anything in my daily life. Spider, you’ve just won yourself a taxi ride to the outside! Moth, come with me my small confused friend. But this dream-logic situation didn’t seem to involve any other options beyond just continuing to pummel the toilet flush handle. That was the only controller this video game had offered to me, and I mashed it furiously as ants continued to cascade down the drain like a flow of angry black water. Wow, that one had wings! Was that the queen?
This went on for some time, the ants letting me know that however much they seemed to be at a disadvantage in this current situation, they would surely make up for it in sheer numbers. It seemed that an ant colony had set up shop in the toilet tank, which probably worked fine for them for months when there were no tourists coming to Costa Rica. Now had come a chaotic reckoning for us both.
Eventually I got the toilet to stop vomiting up huge ants, and slammed the bathroom door on the stragglers who were marching frentically across the bathroom floor with a furious sense of purpose. I’ll let them work out what the next phase of their plan is, and hope that I don’t have to poop any time soon. I’ll have to ask the sloths how they go a week without pooping.
When I told the hotel owner about the antapalooza in my room, he handed me a bottle of green spray and explained that covid regulations prohibited him from entering my room. Great. Sure dude. Covid regulations.
Okay, so maybe Costa Rica is going to offer some sketchy adventure after all.
I walked down the street to the town’s conveniently-located vegan restaurant.
“Pura vida!” the owner greeted me.
The great thing about being one of the first tourists to return to Costa Rica after the country had begun to open back up was that I was repeatedly the only person to show up for group tours, so I ended up getting private tours for the group tour price. Probably not so great for the guides, but they mostly just seemed happy to have someone to take out into the wilds.
My first night in La Fortuna I’d booked a night hike through the jungle to try and find some nocturnal tree frogs. This ended up being absolutely the best thing I did in Costa Rica.
My naturalist guide Jerold led me through the pitch-black jungle as the rain began to hammer down.
Oh cool, rattlesnake plants!
Jerold warned me to stay to the middle of the trail, as there were any number of things in the trees and brush that could jump onto you without warning. Oh hey, like this massive spider!
The spider was pummeled by raindrops for several seconds, looking like a badass, before it scurried back down the huge leaf.
Jerold explained that I was lucky to be there in the rain since it brought all the animals out. As if in agreement, a thin wisp of a snake worked its way down a frond to greet us.
A tiny frog perched on a small stick in the middle of the trail.
On a nearby leaf, a pretty yellow frog was adding the to cacophony of jungle sounds filling the dark night all around us.
Another perched on a rock on the trail, allowing us to get quite close as it squatted low to the ground.
Holy toad! A giant toad in the leaf litter blinked at us in the darkness.
Something brightly-colored slithered by on the left side of the trail. I shone my flashlight into the brush and an orange and black striped Halloween snake flicked its tongue out at us as it curled through the wet leaves.
Jerold pointed out a Red-Eyed Tree Frog, the star attraction of any Costa Rican nature hike, up in a tree to our right. Wow! I futzed with my phone and flashlight, trying to get a good photo of the distant frog. Jerold laughed.
“No, no, don’t photograph that one. Come here.”
I followed him to a branch right at the edge of the trail, which hosted two Red-Eyed Tree Frogs that were close enough to touch. Oh. Okay then.
Well all right then. Those are probably the best photos I’ll ever take. (Everyone seeing these photos: “Did you take those?? Bullshit, those are stock photos.” Thanks guys.) The mating frogs waited patiently as we snapped away.
Further up the trail, another red-eyed frog posed for his close up.
And further along, another. Wow.
Well then! That’s everything I ever could have wanted from a night hike in Costa Rica. What a lucky-AHH!
Something brushed between my feet and Jerold’s.
“What the fu-”
It was a huge jungle rat. Its wet fur matted and sticking up at weird angles, it limped up the trail and scurried awkwardly into the underbrush off the edge of the trail.
“That’s very strange,” Jerold mused. “Normally they would not come anywhere near to us. It’s almost like he was coming to us for help. I think something happened to him. Oh, wait. I think I know-”
He shone his bright flashlight up the trail behind us, and we waited.
A minute passed, and then something slithered into the light.
Holy shit. It’s a Fer-de-lance, a highly venomous pit viper, the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica and one of the most dangerous in the world. Jerold had just been warning me not to step off the trail, lest I become another Fer-de-lance statistic.
“If we see a snake, don’t run off the trail, because you’ll probably run away from a harmless snake and then step on a pit viper in the process.”
Costa Rica is one of the leading producers of snake bite antivenoms, exporting them to all the surrounding countries. The Fer-de-lance slithered determinedly up the dark trail toward us.
“She’s moving slowly now, but they’re very aggressive and unpredictable. If she decides to come at us, you’re going to want to be ready to run.”
The Fer-de-lance can shoot their venom up to six feet from the ends of their fangs. If their bite doesn’t kill you, it can cause staggering tissue necrosis that often leads to limb amputation.
We continued up the trail, keeping the Fer-de-lance behind us, and watched as it wove its way back and forth across the trail.
“She following the trail of that rat she struck, looking for where it went to die.”
We watched for an hour as the viper followed the rat’s trail, veering off the path and swimming through the ponds of accumulated rainwater off in the swampy landscape surrounding the trail, moving with startling grace through the water. She flicked out her tongue, tasting the air and following whatever miniscule traces the rat had left behind as it was fleeing. She slithered up out of the water and across the path as we gave her space.
The viper swam steadily across a small pond on the opposite side of the trail, climbed back up onto the land, and disappeared into the night. The fate of that rat would remain a mystery.
“You’re really lucky,” Jerold marveled. “I’ve never seen anything like that!”
We were further up the trail, talking about the differences between frogs and toads, when Jerold suddenly stopped.
“There’s something very nearby that could kill you right now. Do you see it?”
Shit. I looked around. It’s night in the jungle, I can’t see shit. Is it diabetes? Is this some kind of existential question?
He shone his light down into the brush off to our side and there sat a magnificently coiled second Fer-de-lance.
Wow wow wow. Yeah. Stay on the trail. Stay on the trail.
For my third day in Costa Rica I’d booked a local guide and a driver to take me around to see the top sights in the area, which started with the Arenal Hanging Bridges park.
This began with a hike through the beautiful flower gardens at the park’s entrance.
From there, my guide Ericka and I ventured deeper into the jungle and took in the various sights as we hiked along.
Oh! Check out this frog! He knows the cops are here!
Army ants swarmed across a nearby log, in perpetual motion, apparently searching for my toilet.
Sleeping bats clung to a nearby tree...
While tiny bees exited a bee-made wax tube sticking out of another.
I shone my flashlight into a hole in the ground and- oh hey! Tarantula!
The park’s claim to fame is its many hanging bridges, which span up over the canopy and give fantastic views of the tree tops and the Arenal volcano in the distance.
I could imagine crossing the bridges being daunting for many, as it was a long way down.
I enjoyed crossing all of them though, the main challenges being (1) walking as close to the center of the bridge as you can, to discourage it from swaying back and forth from left to right, and (2) timing your steps to the rhythm of the bridge bouncing up and down. If you got the pace right it was like the bridge was walking with you. If you got off the beat it was like the bridge was trying to bounce you off, down in to the abyss.
We stopped and enjoyed a small waterfall. Nearby, one of the bridges had clearly been on the receiving end of a falling tree in the recent past. It seemed pretty stable in spite of the mangled metal of the railings.
Cicadas that sounded like a chainsaw revving called out loudly all around us. I looked up and realized there was some kind of bizarre tree turkey hanging out up over our heads above the trail.
From there we were off to hike the volcano itself, which grew ever larger as we approached.
At the trailhead, an elaborate model of the area sat complete with a little smoking volcano.
As we hiked in the bright sun, Ericka and I shared travel stories and couch surfing advice. The more guides I talked to in Costa Rica, a clearer picture formed of what a struggle it had been to have the tourism economy shut down for the better part of the year. People tend to discount this side of the covid pandemic and lockdowns as “Waah waah, it’s only money, big deal” but people had committed suicide. It sounded very rough. Over the decades, Costa Rica had shifted from an environmentally destructive farming economy to a thriving eco-tourism model, with large amounts of native jungle that had been cleared for farming and cattle being cultivated back to their original natural state and biodiversity. Which was beautiful to see, but this was clearly also a place that was hit very hard by the lack of tourism in 2020.
Ericka explained the involved educational process and schooling that guides and anyone who wants to work in the tourism industry goes through growing up, and how learning English had become a priority as Americans and other English-speakers began coming to Costa Rica in larger and larger numbers as she was growing up. She joked that British tourists were often annoyed that Costa Ricans learned English with an American accent.
“So Ericka,” I asked. “What the hell does Pura Vida mean?”
“Ha ha, it means everything and nothing. It’s a way of saying hello, or that life is good, that all is well, or to live simply and in tune with nature. Basically I tell people you don’t really need to speak Spanish to visit Costa Rica as long as you can say Pura Vida.”
I had asked all of my guides about life in Costa Rica, as I found it fascinating that it seemed to be the most developed of the Central American countries I had visited. It was by far the most expensive to visit but felt safer, and the people in general seemed to be better off compared to what I had seen in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and possibly even Panama, in spite of the natural resources appearing to be very similar.
Most of the answers I got revolved around the government being more stable, being more open to trade and US investment, the population being more educated, and higher taxes providing more services for the people.
As we approached the volcano, vultures circled above. I hoped they weren’t there for me.
It was an enjoyable hike over the increasingly bumpy lava-rock landscape, as the active volcano loomed above us. The weather in Eastern Europe had been turning unpredictable toward the end of my time there and I was enjoying a chance to hike out in the sun again.
Once we reached the highest point the law would allow, I guess to give us a running start in case the volcano erupted, we took in the panoramic view all around us. The distant sound of a powerboat on the lake took its time reaching us.
From there we hiked back and made a stop for lunch, where I was introduced to authentic local Costa Rican food, which was adapted to veganism pretty smoothly. I was fascinated by the Super Cristian grocery store across the street. I had seen a few of these around town, was this a religious thing?
Our driver Hector told me the story of a local family who had a developmentally disabled son named Cristian that they'd had to stay home to care for, and they made ends meet by selling goods to the locals out of their home. Over time this grew into an entire store, then another, then another, until they had the largest grocery chain in Costa Rica, all named after their son Cristian.
Our third stop on the Arenal sampler platter was the Fortuna waterfall, a spot popular with local and tourists alike. On the walk in, Ericka found the shed skin of a praying mantis, which is absolutely not something I knew happened.
Nearby a line of ants was carrying away shwag like it was Black Friday at Wal-Mart. This little guy carrying an absurdly oversized flower blossom gave me a good chuckle.
A small orchid garden nearby was an unexpected treat.
From the overlook, the waterfall cascaded down in the distance.
We hiked down the one million and one steps down to the waterfall.
A family of four from Texas, who were the only other Americans I saw in Costa Rica, frolicked in the cold water at the base of the waterfall. Oh yeah. I kind of forgot Americans were a thing. Nothing against the Texas family, I had just spent months traveling with no American or Chinese tourists around at all thanks to covid, which was a different world in a sense. That was a unique experience I’ll probably never have again. Ericka told me stories of tourists coming from Florida who refused to wear masks. Yeah, I kind of forgot that was a thing too.
I crossed over to the opposite side of the land from the waterfall, where the falling water had turned into a small, cold river and there were no other people.
I sat down and took my shoes and mask off. Ahh. Nice.
As I waded into the river, I was startled by all the fish that swarmed around me, seemingly unafraid.
I stood very still in the clear water and they swam right up to me.
God, this is great. I breathed in the clean air and felt the soothing cold soak into my feet. This must be that Pura Vida.
During the three-hour drive back to San Jose for my flight out the next day, our van gradually made it more and more clear that it was dying. I had the same driver from my ride out to La Fortuna at the beginning of the trip, and I watched as his good natured “Pura Vida!” personality gradually transformed into oh you goddamned van you’d better not leave us for dead out here. In Spanish, he told me that the transmission was going out and we’d be okay as long as he didn’t have to shift gears too many times on the drive back. Then of course we hit heavy stop and go traffic 45 minutes outside of San Jose and I learned some new Spanish swear words I didn’t know before.
Thankfully, we made it, the Spanish swearing casting some kind of enchantment on our van that carried it through. Inside the airport, I was stopped at security for the crystal skull I’d been carrying in my backpack the entire trip. This was a hilarious Groundhog Day experience all trip long, as I kept having the same experience over and over again, of watching the X-ray technician stare, bored and half-asleep, at his screen as my bag went through. Then his eyes would light up and he’d jump off his stool.
OH MY GOD! THIS IS THE DAY I TRAINED FOR!! WHAT DO I DO WHAT DO I DO?
I laughed every time, wondering if they thought I had a real human head in my bag or what it looked like on their screen.
Every time I’d have to carefully unwrap the skull, explain what it was, and ask them to please not drop it or throw it like a football to their security friends who they called over to see the crazy crystal skull in this guy’s bag. Then they’d make an Indiana Jones joke, we’d all laugh, and I’d go off to get stopped by security somewhere else.
Now, after going through this routine for the hundredth time on the trip, it suddenly didn’t look like they were going to allow the skull on the plane back into the US. Shit. It’s not like I can mail this thing. I thought quickly while the supervisor’s supervisor was called over to see what in the hell was going on with me. When he came, I explained that the skull was needed for a religious ceremony, hoping this would carry more weight than “I’m a weirdo, let me through.” It worked, as the guy thought for a second about infringing on my relationship with God and then thought better of it.
Inside the airport, I struggled to piece together some kind of vegan meal before my flight took off. This took getting something small from each of a few different stands. I was at the final stand buying a Kombucha when the woman working there put aside the Kombucha I had chosen and picked up a Kombucha with CBD in it instead.
“Eh?” she gestured.
“But…” she sputtered. “It’s CBD!”
“Yes, I know I look like I’d be all over that but no thanks all the same.”
So guys, did something happen while I was gone where now there’s CBD being pushed on us every ten feet everywhere? Does it help with coronavirus?
My phone buzzed. It was an email about my cancelled trip to India. I was dealing with a very classy and spiritual Indian woman named Bina about getting booked on the same trip some time later next year. I began to type a reply-
My phone auto-corrected this to “Hey Boobs.”
I screamed briefly and mashed the delete button before the email could accidentally send.
Goddammit phone! Stop doing that!
I laughed out loud as I tried to figure out why my phone kept doing this. It even capitalized Boobs like it knew I was addressing a person. I’ve never referred to anyone as “Boobs” in my life, where was it getting this from? Was Google pulling this out of the collective unconscious? Do the computers think this is how we talk to each other? I laughed out loud at the thought of one of these emails accidentally getting through. Maybe one already had. Dammit Snowden, why didn’t you warn us about the important stuff?
When I got off the plane in Florida I was suddenly struck by the feeling of being back in the US for the first time in over five months. There was a very clear, unmistakable and intense feeling of being back among my countrymen again. I think when we’re in the country where we live, we tend to focus on our differences from other people and feel like we have little in common with them. But being away so long, even though I hadn’t consciously missed the US at all I was suddenly overwhelmed by the rush of realization that I was no longer a stranger in a strange land, and was home. And however I might differ from the people walking through the airport next to me, we had more in common than not, both consciously and unconsciously. We’d grown up with the same stories and expectations, the same history and norms and music and movies, in this same soup together. And that tied me to them in a profound way. I’d never have been able to really see this if I hadn’t left the country for so long.
Now I was in a country I couldn’t get kicked out of! I suddenly felt the weight of being a representative of my country and culture melt away. Wow, I didn’t even know I was carrying that.
“Hey,” I thought. “I can talk to anyone in this airport! I haven’t experienced that in months.”
About ten minutes later I realized that wasn’t true at all because I was in Florida. Whoops. At least my Spanish won't fall out of practice while I’m here.
It was powerful to be back, all the same.. . .