Costa Rica: Mountains in the Mist
The winds were hot but they carried no sting. Instead, the rush of moisture carried from the Pacific tempered their fire and left the jungle glistening with a sheen of crystal that danced and twisted as the westerly winds flew through the labyrinth of trees on their way to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The Captain and I had come to Costa Rica to explore more of Central America, and the morning sun found us deep in the rainforest at the edge of the Arenal volcano.
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?”, I playfully asked my husband as I crossed a swath of hardened lava and entered back into the dense jungle on the other side. “Well, we’re still going uphill” the Captain replied, “always a good sign when you’re climbing a volcano right?” I ducked a large overhanging vine and dryly wondered if his rather cavalier approach to navigation extended to his cockpit at 36,000 feet as well. We had driven our Suzuki Jimny off the paved roads that encircle Arenal and parked it just beyond the National Geographic lodge that marks the edge of the mountain’s steepening slopes. There we journeyed on foot into the jungle on an old trail that led to an overlook of the buffer zone. Beyond that, human travel was prohibited as toxic gasses and steam warmed by the magma beneath the surface make walking a dangerous enterprise.
The trail was fairly benign at first, but it had since narrowed considerably and the jungle pressed in much closer than it had at the outset. Several gaps in the thick foliage looked the same and it was difficult to figure out exactly which way to go. The sounds of the jungle were a veritable cacophony of life; birds, insects, and mammals all packed into one of the highest concentration of biodiversity on the planet. The jungle seemed to swallow up the path ahead and we had not seen another soul since we started our trek. Our altitude increased and we soon found ourselves overcome by the thick grey mists which gave these dense cloudforests their name. As we journeyed on, I was forced to use tree branches to ascend a rise and I was silently thankfully that the Captain had the lead, given the high volume of poisonous snakes in the area.
Toucans called and howler monkeys shrieked, and then like suddenly breaking the surface of the ocean from below, the rainforest parted, the mist cleared, and Arenal’s fearsome visage dominated my view. We had found the overlook and it did not disappoint!
The Captain and I had lunch in the shadow of the colossus and then delved back into the thick downslope jungle. The going was quicker downhill and the chasms of volcanic rock became fewer and farther between. I held out my hand as the path became more rocky and had the Captain escort me over a particularly dicey stretch. Hey, I may have been deep in the Central American cloud forest, but I’m still a girly girl at heart and a lady always knows when to ask for an escort! Beyond the hardened lava, the path vanished under the haunting mist hanging over the treetops. As the sun faded behind the grey veil, the Captain suddenly stopped and leaned over the base of a Alloplectus tree. He got his Canon 7D out and pointed it at a small lizard he had discovered in the dew covered undergrowth.
I heard the soft click of the Canon’s shutter and the swish of his Ecco boots as he turned to get back on the path. The next sound I heard was a sharp intake in breath and the Captain recoiled and jumped back into the underbrush. At the same time I saw a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. I moved to investigate it, but the Captain held me back. He pointed to where the movement had stopped and I soon saw a bright mass of coiled colors eyeing us from the jungle less than six feet away! With his attention focused on the lizard, the Captain had almost stepped on a snake hidden in the leaves of the forest floor. I saw colored bands of yellow, red, and black and remembered an old rhyme I had heard long ago: “If red touches yellow, you’re a dead fellow, if red touches black, you’re OK Jack.” The rhyme referred to the Coral Snake, a highly venomous elapid endemic to the middle latitudes of the Western Hemisphere. Milk snakes and other small constrictors mimic the Coral Snake’s pattern and color to deter predators, but the banding is different. Red is always bordered by black for the non-venomous species and bordered by yellow on true Coral Snakes (with the exception of some southern species who actually have no yellow at all).
Pit vipers like the rattlesnake and the Fer de Lance dominate the venomous species of serpent in the Western Hemisphere, but the Coral Snake is unique. More closely related to the cobra than the rattlesnake, these snakes have neurotoxic rather than hemotoxic venom and are one of the deadliest snakes in the New World. The snake just gazed at us from the bush and I was able to see clearly its surprisingly beautiful bands of color. Yellow surrounded by a deep luminous red. The Captain gave our new toxic friend a wide berth, grateful that it had chosen to flee from his heavy footfall rather than attack. He led us into the jungle on the west side of the path, ceding the forest floor to the elapid and leading us back by an alternate route over an old suspension bridge.
By afternoon we were back at the trailhead and packing our camera equipment back into the Jimny. I lounged in the SUV’s comfy front seat and watched the jungle go past as the Captain engaged the 4 wheel drive and headed back down toward the town of La Fortuna. Costa Rica would hold many more adventures for us, from rafting down the Rio Balsa to an unforgettable introduction to the sport of canyoning (courtesy of a 200 foot waterfall),
But that’s another story….