Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Los Campesinos, Costa Rica

We were headed from Alajuela to the Pacific coast, down through Jacó, Parrita and Londres to Quebrada Arroyo, the village home of La Reserva de los Campesinos. Los Campesinos is a former vanilla-growing co-op of 14 families, which had lost its livelihood to a vanilla plant blight. To survive as a community, they decided to develop their spectacular 33 hectares (about 84 acres) of primary and secondary rainforest into a network of trails, build modest lodging facilities and invite paying guests.

We wound our way up into the mountains on increasingly rougher roads and arrived at a nearly-deserted little roadhouse where we were to transfer to the back of a 4x4 pickup truck. Our guide, Luís, told us he’d just learned the road ahead had been washed out by rain and we’d have to hike the last mile or two. So, he said, forget your luggage. As dusk approached and the rain increased, we quickly rummaged through our bags on the cafe tables and tried to pull out a few essentials we could hand carry for overnight and the next morning’s hiking.

As the truck lurched and bucked over hub-deep ruts, the tarp over the back acted like a funnel, collecting the rain and pouring it down our backs. We clawed our way up and skidded down 30-degree grades. One such plummet ended in an abrupt 90-degree left turn onto a ten-foot wide bridge. As we approached the critical maneuver, the flailing headlights revealed yet another challenge: six inches of reddish mud right where we had to make the turn. Our driver, a young member of the Quebrada Arroyo community, knew there was only one way to negotiate that turn. It took a series of back-and-forth 15-degree turns, combined with a few controlled skids and scuffing the tire sidewalls against the bridge’s concrete curbs, but he pulled it off.

We held on for dear life to a couple of flimsy metal posts as every other bump threw us well off of our thinly-padded bench seats. By this time, everyone was laughing hysterically—a thin guise for terror.

The truck tiptoed over a landslide—we weren’t sure if it was the one to which Luís had alluded. It recently had taken out the whole road and been hastily filled in with very loose-looking gravel.
After a couple of miles the thrill ride finally came to a stop. With daypacks and handfuls of toiletries and scant changes of clothes, we set out on foot in near darkness on the home stretch to dinner and dry beds. We slogged along for another mile or more through what seemed like the thickest, most primeval of jungles. The still, saturated air and strange jungle sounds enclosed us like a large hall. Somewhere inside, the rana martillita (little hammer frog) enchanted us with a sound just like the loud clink of a fork against a crystal wine glass.

At last we came to a row of modest little homes. The cold light from a few compact fluorescent bulbs barely punctured the darkness. Against the dim glow, we could make out the silhouettes of a few curious inhabitants looking out at us. After running a gauntlet of several more homes, we were met by Miguel, the head of the community co-op, who escorted us by flashlight away from the main (and only) street and down a long, sloping path to our quarters.

At the base of the hill was a large, open-air dining hall and kitchen. Behind a counter, a couple of women worked on dinner, one of them stoking the wood cooking fire. They seemed all business, but one of them broke character long enough to smile warmly and reply to my “hola, buenas”.

Our cabinas were basic, but clean and functional, with electricity, running water and flush toilets. While other members of our group shared cabins, I had mine, with its three sets of bunk beds, to myself. Or so I thought, before spotting the six-inch mega-moth (it looked like our sphinx moths on steroids) on the inside of my screen. Harmless, I told myself. Still, the prospect of its flapping around my face during the night suggested action. So, as I’ve done several times with bats and once with a cockroach of nearly the same size in Tortuguero, I plopped my cap over it, slid a piece of paper under it and released it harmlessly outside the door. Thank God, I thought, now my little haven is pretty tight against bugs, especially mosquitoes—suspect here for carrying things like dengue and malaria. (Only the next morning did I notice the quarter-inch gaps between the floorboards!)

After a good chicken dinner in the dining hall, I retired to my flimsy bunk mattress and listened, in awe, to the gentle chorus of exotic music reaching out of the rainforest. Falling water, insects, and who knows what else chimed in. And the percussion section kept time. Clink….clink…. clink….

The next morning I awoke by 6:00, anxious to finally see what this place looked like. Stepping out onto my large deck, I saw that, already in a deep valley, we were perched on the edge of a still deeper ravine. Bright sun caught the clouds still clinging to the hilltops. After an ice-cold shower, I packed up and slurped along the muddy path to the dining hall, where a simple but filling breakfast and, more importantly, coffee, were in the works. While waiting, I threw enough Spanish at the cook to earn a compliment.

Miguel was our guide for a hike around some of the co-op’s nature trails. The path wound up and up, some of the steepest parts neatly staired with gravel-filled tires. I tried to stay near the front of the group, both to make sure I could hear about everything Miguel was pointing out and to help translate where I could. Among the wonders he showed us: mushrooms that seemed made of translucent, coral-colored plastic; vanilla plants—once this community’s stock in trade; cacao; and lots of medicinal plants. (Miguel explained that his parents had been like naturopathic doctors.) There were more toucans; some striking red-headed black birds; a five-inch, armor-plated centipede; hundred-foot lianas dangling from trees; lizards; various frogs and toads; peccary tracks; orchids; helicons; and strange egg-shaped rocks that, when touched, shed layers like so many onions. Iridescent blue morpho butterflies seemed lit from within as they fluttered against the deep green foliage.

At the trail’s highest point we came to the mirador (lookout), a small covered platform raised on stilts, from which we could see the Pacific and the beach at Quepos. In one corner of the platform we pointed out a fresh pile of excrement, which Miguel informed us was the calling card of a jaguar. He said the animals, too, found the mirador a useful vantage point, as well as a forum to declare their contempt for visitors.

After a lunch of chicken stew, rice, beans, tortillas and cabbage slaw, some of us opted to cross the ravine on a 417-foot-long, 40-meter-high cable bridge to a beautiful waterfall, cascade and swimming hole on the other side.

As I stepped out onto the double course of six-inch-wide boards, I told myself I wouldn’t do the math, but the calculation forced itself on me anyway: I’m walking over a bouncing, swaying, foot-wide, mossy-boarded ribbon 13 stories above a rocky creek bed. I took some comfort in the fact that there was a little netting on either side and chest-high cables to hold onto, but, every six or eight feet, vertical cables forced me to let go momentarily of my only grip on sanity. Focusing on where I was placing each step wasn’t entirely successful in keeping me from noticing, through the cracks, the rocks and trees far below. And it kept reminding me of the condition of the boards to which I was entrusting all my 190 pounds of dear life. In this, one of the wettest places on earth, a film of slippery, wood-devouring green moss crept from the edges of each board, its effects witnessed by the many scraps nailed on top as patches and reinforcements. To keep from imagining the sensation of one of those boards giving way under my feet, I performed a mantra, humming the first tune that came to mind, the March of the Toreadors, to my own lyrics: “I-I can do this, one step at a time, I-I-I can, oh yes I can…”

The cascades and pool were beautiful. Climbing out to the very brink of the waterfall, I was able find the right angle for a good shot of the bridge with the stream below. The return crossing proved a bit easier, despite the onset of our daily rain. By the time we got back to the dining hall and prepared for our departure, the next guests, a group of young Germans, was just arriving.

The trek out of Los Campesinos was just as harrowing (and wet) as our arrival, but for the benefit of daylight. The walking leg saw us skirting another recent landslide that had collapsed half of the road. Once in the 4x4, we had to ford a couple of rushing creeks which threatened their own washouts. And then there was the narrow bridge/sharp curve maneuver, even more hairy coming from this direction. The extremely tight bridge, followed by the full right turn, meant the driver had to slow down to a crawl. But how would he make the turn in the middle of the mud hole and still have enough speed to make it up a steep hill? In the span of three or four seconds, he slowed, turned and edged into a delicate turning skid. Then he stomped on it for about ten engine-screaming, tire-smoking seconds until we caught solid ground—to a burst of laughter and cheering from his shaken passengers. All in a day’s work for a campesino.