Quest for the Black-headed bushmaster(Lachesis melanocephala)
Trip Report: Hiking in the Rio Nuevo/Rio Tigre highlands of the Osa Peninsula, October 2003
All Pics By Rudy Edlund/Vidcaps by M. Harris.
Summary: This following story depicts the most recent trip to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula to search for the black-headed bushmaster (“Plato Negro”, “Matabuey”). What started as a simple excursion turned into a foray into some of the most remote forest in the eastern Osa Peninsula; Afforded views of some of the most impressive primary rain forest left on the peninsula; And resulted in a snake bite from one of the most feared pit-vipers in the neo-tropics.
The trip was originally intended as solo venture. Unlike our April trip to Sirena, this trip would be based at a new tent lodge situated way up the Rio Nuevo valley and spend several nights making forays 3-4 miles further up the river. That depended too, on the river level, as October is the rainiest month of the entire wet season in Costa Rica! Earlier this year while clearing a trail through primary rainforest, some lodge workers (Ticos) happened upon a large Matabuey under a log, that was blocking a trail, and killed it. Our hope was to spend several evenings hiking up into this area and, if we were lucky, stumble upon one. After a few days, we would take a collectivo around the peninsula to Carate and stay at another lodge there, near a lagoon, that is infested with crocodiles, where we had spent nights chasing them on our 2002 trip.
This was not a trip suited for a large group, as we had no set itinerary. After some discussion with Mike Boston, our guide, we decided to just hike across the peninsula and camp out one night in the rainforest rather than spending an extra $40 for a collectivo. I thought it was a great idea as I’d get to spend some quality time hunting snakes at night and I love the spontaneity of having absolutely no idea what to expect, in contrast opposed to some travelers who like to make sure every last travel detail is taken care of. A month earlier, my cousin Rudy, from Niagara Falls had emailed me that he had received his passport and wanted to go along. I figured it would be a perfect time to take him, as originally we had not planned to hike any vast distances and the mayhem of a bigger group would not exist. Since I had told Rudy we’d only be taking 2-3 mile day-hikes, splitting the 10-mile hike across some really rugged terrain into two 5-mile sections meant, it wouldn’t be such a shock to him (at least it sounded so in theory!). Mike assured me, via email, that he knew the trail well, only we would end up not taking the same trail but another that lead deeper into the heart of the peninsula.
The marvelous spontaneity of the Osa Peninsula would turn this trip into a 15-mile-trek through some remote area where there are only two types of trails: game trails and those used by animal poachers or gold miners--following either one blindly only gets you lost and deeper in the jungle.
As usual, the flight from Miami was uneventful. I slept through the entire flight (a talent most of my friends are envious of) since I was up until midnight feeding baby snakes before I left for the Newark airport at 2AM. I arrived in San Jose a half-hour before Rudy and waited for him to arrive. He was right on time and we passed immigration and went outside to meet the taxi driver the hotel sent for us. We checked into the hotel and I was pretty tired, so I laid on the bed and turned on the TV to see if the Yankees-Twins playoff game was televised.
I found the game and watched it for a few innings until I was convinced Clemens had it under control when the phone rang. A few weeks earlier, I had emailed Quetzal Dwyer, who operates a reptile park in Dominical. He had mentioned that he had received a collection permit from the Ministry of Agriculture and Energy (MINAE) to collect a black-headed bushmaster and asked if we find any to hold it for him to come pick up. At the last minute (late Friday night) I received an email from him, stating that he was going to be in San Jose to pick up a Spanish film crew, so he could meet me to talk herps for an hour or so before going to the airport. I answered the phone and Quetzal was down in our hotel lobby. Rudy and I went out to the lobby and introduced ourselves, and the three of us decided to head downtown for a cold beverage. Quetzal informed me that he had just picked up some snakes from a friend and had them in his backpack. We walked to a casino and sat at a table in the restaurant area and talked about various areas of Costa Rica, specifically where you can find the Black-speckled palm pit-viper (Bothreichis nigroviridis). He opened his backpack up and pulled out a 20oz plastic bottle with a large Yellow-striped palm pit-viper (Bothriechis lateralis) crammed inside like a ship in a bottle! It was possibly the nicest “lateralis” I had ever seen. He also had a gecko and a SCORPION EATING SNAKE!! That was really neat. We chatted for a couple hours and then he took us to a really neat bookstore, which had scads of field guides. I was in herp-guide heaven!! I had never seen so many books on Costa Rican flora, fauna and natural history anywhere!! I would later return to the store and spend about a fortune on field guides.
We went and grabbed dinner then returned to the hotel. I had to go through my gear and wanted to get to bed early. I was still tired, and although we weren’t flying to Puerto Jimenez until 12:30PM the next day, we were taking a taxi at 8AM to the serpentarium where I import snakes from to check out their collection and new bushmaster breeding facility. The next morning we awoke and had a great breakfast of scrambled eggs, rice, beans, fresh mango and various fruit juices and of course…Costa Rican coffee (I love their coffee! If only Dunkin Donuts would get it!!)
ON TO THE OSA!
It was a cloudy day in San Jose, and the flight started out smooth. As we neared the Osa Peninsula, the storm clouds thickened and eventually only the highest peaks of the Talamanca mountain chain could be seen. We passed through several heavy thunderstorms and as I looked down at the mouth of the Rio Terraba where it empties into the Pacific, I could see that the area had had torrential rains, as it looked like someone had poured hot chocolate into the Pacific Ocean. The river made a light brown semi-circle where it spilled into the Pacific….Oh man, we are gonna get soaked on this trip!!
We approached Puerto Jimenez and the first pass wasn’t right so the pilot turned the plane around and we approached the runway from the opposite end. Normally you fly right over the Golfo Dulce and head straight in, but this time we passed over the town and came in from the opposite end passing low over some pasture fields and palm trees. Mike was standing there with a grin from ear-to-ear waiting for us to get off of the plane. We walked into town and dropped our backpacks off at Mike’s bungalo and went to Carolina’s restaurante for a bite to eat. The taxi ride from town to the Rio Nuevo was only about 15 minutes, so Mike said we had plenty of time. In addition, the river was pretty high so we could only go up the road about 5 miles and then we’d be met by Jerry, one of the lodge hands, waiting with several horses. Jerry would load our packs on the horses and we could either ride to the lodge on horseback or walk. We finished lunch and headed to the Rio Nuevo. It was a short ride because, I remember very little of it. Suddenly we stopped and there was Jerry with 4 horses. We sat all of our gear on a tarp and he told us to take off up the road while he packed the horses. He’d catch up to us. Before we left though, he pointed out to Mike where on the way down the road from the lodge, he’d seen a “Perezoso”(Spanish for ‘lazy’, their word for a sloth) about 25 feet up a tree.
We waded the stream and crossed a pasture field with a couple of bulls watching us slog through the swampy field. We started up the road and Rudy was mesmerized at the squawking macaws(“red crows”) and toucans that were chattering as they flew overhead. In a tall grove of Teak trees, we could hear several macaws---they just would not stop squawking! How anyone can keep them in their homes without going deaf is beyond me!
Also, we heard a laughing falcon calling from the teak trees! Mike mentioned that when laughing falcons are around, there’s a good chance there are snakes around as they favor snakes as prey. About a mile up the road I noticed quite a racket in the trees and on the right side and at eye level were 15-20 squirrel monkeys scavenging nuts in a tree. The male came out on a branch and screamed at us. I tried to get my video camera out to film them but it started to rain hard so I put it away. About that time, Jerry caught up to us with the horses. We didn’t go more than 100 yards up the road and there sitting in a tree almost at eye-level was a 3-toed sloth. Now it wasn’t easy to see since it was overcast and raining, plus it was already 4:30PM and it was getting dark in the forest. I tried to get some video, but aside from seeing two little eyes staring at you….it’s difficult to even tell it’s a sloth! It’s no wonder these creatures are rarely seen in the jungle because most of the time when they’re 100 feet up a tree….you would not see much more than a dark bump on a log! While the sloth was about 25’ up the tree, the tree was actually on a steep bank and the road is higher up, making us nearly eye-level with the sloth. Since it was starting to rain, Mike suggested we maybe come back the next day when the sun is out because a sloth will not move for several days, and if it does, it’ll go into a nearby tree so we could easily find it again. We headed on to the lodge.
Another 45 minutes and we neared the lodge. The last turn before the lodge, Jerry pointed out that where the road dips down near the Rio Nuevo is a good area for Terciopelo. He said he killed a huge female of over 6’ in length right there but sees most of the terciopelo within that last ½ mile near the lodge where there is a steep bank on the uphill side of the road and the river on the other. It was near dark now, around 5:30PM and as we walked past their horse pasture, Jerry yelled “There’s a snake!”. I couldn’t see it and Mike shined his light down. Jerry yelled “You stepped right over it Mike!” I tried to shine my light on it but couldn’t see it. Finally Mike got a light on it and I could tell it was a 2- 2 ½ foot terciopelo (Bothrops asper). It crawled under a barbed-wire fence and I grabbed a switch that Jerry uses to move the horses. I crawled through the barb-wire and chased the little snake around and around until finally it coiled and I was able to pin it’s head. I carried it closer for Rudy to see but the snake made several attempts to wriggle free and exposed its fangs trying to bite me. After its second attempt to wriggle free, I could feel my wet fingers slipping so I dropped the snake and we headed up to the lodge to get out of the rain and settle in. Only 3 hrs into the trip and already we had seen a three toed sloth and our first terciopelo. We were so wound up from the snake, that it wasn’t until I sat down at the table in the rancho, that I noticed how loud the frogs calling around us were. The jungle was much more alive now in the rainy season, much different from the dry season in April! This was gonna be an amazing trip!
The next morning we awoke and the sun was shining. We debated over breakfast whether or not to walk down the road to get a better look at the sloth or to start exploring the forest above the lodge. Rudy mentioned that he wanted to see some poison dart frogs and Jerry noted a trail that they had just cut on the hill up the right of the lodge that he had seen quite a few Green and black poison frogs (Dendrobates auratus). The trail, he described, lead high up on a ridge with nice views all the way to the Golfo Dulce, then heads through some primary forest and loops back around to the lodge, following another queb(stream). We decided to do this first then go look for the sloth in the afternoon. We finished breakfast and headed up the trail. The trail gained elevation quick. We got near the top of the ridge and a gorgeous chestnut billed toucan was sitting in a tree but took off before we could film it. I suddenly realized my digital camcorder would NOT record any video. The record button was jammed and it only would record digital stills. Now I was mad. We went up the ridge and stopped at a vista to take some pictures. We entered primary forest when it began to rain. Above us there was a raucous in the canopy as a dozen or so spider monkeys frolicked in the canopy. We climbed higher and higher and it started to pour.
And when you thought it couldn’t rain any harder—it rained harder and harder. Never in my life have I witnessed rain of monsoon proportions! Mike and I started chatting about dart frogs, when no sooner did pounce down on a frog in the leaf litter----a tiny Dendrobates auratus, (Pic 2) (Pic3) about 1/3 grown, roughly ¾ of an inch long. We couldn’t get pics with the torrential rains so we tucked it into a film case to take back to the lodge. Just a little further up the trail, Mike grabbed a 7-8” anole, and flipped it over before it tried to struggle away. This was Norops capito, the pug-nosed anole, and after it was upside down, it simply stopped moving, playing dead, similar to an alligator (which isn’t actually playing dead but their equilibrium is affected, and thus they stop moving).
The rain turned the trail into a muddy stream and Jerry cut us each a large heliconia leaf, which believe it or not, makes a very fine umbrella in the jungle. You still get wet, but at least it keeps it off your head and if you tie a couple over your shoulders----PRESTO, Jungle-poncho! I think I enjoyed learning the simple ways of jungle living such as this, as much as actually seeing the animals. Observing things that Jerry and Mike pointed out was as fascinating as seeing the animals. For example, the Bako tree is a huge tree with a smooth trunk, that when hacked with a machete, oozes a milky secretion that is the base for “Milk of Magnesia”…so if you have an upset stomach in the jungle, you can find one of these trees to soothe your stomach!!
Well we slogged back into camp after crossing that small Queb (stream) that had turned into a raging torrent. For a soaked, 3 mile hike we saw 1 toucan, spider monkeys and a Green-and black poison frog. We decided to film the frog after lunch and then would release it on our way to search for the sloth. Jerry volunteered to carry a 15’ section of aluminum ladder down the road so we could climb up to see the sloth. It sounded like a good idea, BUT we still didn’t know if we could even get across the Rio Nuevo. At one point, the road crosses through the river, which was only 2 feet deep on the hike in, but now it poured and now the river could easily be chest high.
Well, after lunch we took off down the road. We stopped to get Jerry and found a Thecadactylus gecko (Pic 2) on the wall of the cabin. We released the little dart frog and found that the Rio Nuevo had risen and fallen quite rapidly…it was now only about waist high. As we neared the sloth area, we noticed one-heck-uv-a racket in the trees. A MONSTROUS troop of squirrel monkeys was passing overhead and crossing the river. They were everywhere…too many to count. Mike mentioned of a study by a renowned mammologist which, stated that the Osa Peninsula only had a population of ~250 squirrel monkeys on the entire peninsula. As Rudy got his camera out to try to photograph some of the monkeys, Mike and Jerry went down the bank to the river to watch the monkeys leap from one side of the river to the other. Mike yelled for me to come down and I wish I had my video camera because watching dozens of monkeys leap 40 feet across the river was amazing and they just kept coming and coming and coming and coming. I spent about 30 seconds counting the number of monkeys and stopped at a dozen. This mass monkey exodus went on for nearly 10 minutes!!! We easily estimated that there were well over 50 monkeys in this single troop! If the study Mike mentioned was accurate, then between yesterday’s troop of 20 and todays of 50+, we had already seen over 30% of the entire squirrel monkey population on the Osa!! Our conclusion: The published study is wayyyyy off!
As we stood there admiring the monkeys, Rudy yelled down to us “Hey guys, here’s the sloth in this tree”. Mike had a puzzled look on his face like “Sloth? This isn’t where we found it!”. We ran up the road and lo-and-behold in the tree another 25 feet up, was a sloth, only this time, you could ACTUALLY TELL it was a sloth in plain view. Jerry grabbed the ladder and we proceeded to try to stand it up on a bare tree next to the sloth-tree. As Mike stood there looking at he exclaimed “That’s not the same sloth, in fact, it’s a completely different Species….that’s Hoffman’s Two-Toed Sloth (Pic 2), It’s not very common, in fact it’s only the 3rd one I’ve ever seen on the Osa!” I could not believe it. We had been here less than 24 hours and I saw not one, but two sloths, and one of each species!! Mike and I could not stop laughing about how ridiculous the wildlife diversity is on the Osa Peninsula. Our first thought was: “We gotta hike back to town and email Kenny (Barnett) that we’ve seen two different sloth, each of a different species, less than 24 hours since we got here!!! It was too much. We just kept saying “I can’t believe this! We gotta go email Kenny!” After taking pictures and video for 15 minutes, Mike took a GPS reading for the fauna database he is doing of the Osa Peninsula to document all instances of animal observations he makes. We then went down the road looking for the 3-toed sloth but couldn’t find any sign of it. Mike and Jerry concluded it was probably up the tree, we just couldn’t see it.
We headed back to the lodge to celebrate our find. Again, we were nearing the lodge, about ½ mile away when I looked down and noticed a snake move….”Snake! It’s dark, probably a terciopelo!” Sure enough, we found another terciopelo in the stretch of road before you get to the lodge. This one was what we called the “Blair Witch Terciopelo”. It was starting to rain, and we tried to illuminate the snake with our headlamps so Rudy could get some decent photos of it. He asked me to film with his camcorder, while he took photographs. While trying to videotape the snake, I asked Mike to control it with my hook. I assumed Mike had control of it, so I leaned in toward the snake to get a closer look and all of a sudden it LUNGED TOWARD ME!! WHOA!!!!! Suddenly the screen went black, but the film kept rolling!! What you see on the video is a black screen with audio of a bunch of lunatic herpers laughing psychotically over the most feared pit-viper in Central America giving them the time of their lives!! It was absolutely brilliant! Most people have a fear of the terciopelo; I, unfortunately, have an addiction to it.
We were back just after dark and I tried to get my camcorder working to no avail. Just after dinner, I tried to dry it out again and went I turned it on, it suddenly started recording---go figure. I immediately went out behind the rancho(the open air kitchen and dining area) where there is a small pond loaded with frogs. Around the pond were several heliconias and smaller bushes just loaded with Red-eye tree frogs (Agalychnis callidryas) (Pic 2), Hyla ebbracata and masked tree-frogs (Smilisca phaeota) (Pic 2) (Pic 3). Getting there, you have to look out or you’ll trip over one of the large marine toads or smokey-jungle frogs (Leptodactylus pentadactylus). The frogs were calling so loud that it was deafening. You really need to experience it to appreciate it. Also, floating on the surface of the pond were Physalaemus postulosus (mud-puddle frog) or what Mike calls “Nintendo” frogs. The name was given to them since their call sounds like a video game. I searched high and low for a possible cat-eyed snake in the bushes but no such luck. We did observe, however, a large wolf spider feeding on a small male Hourglass Treefrog, Hyla ebbracata (Pic 2) (Pic 3) (Pic 4). I hated to see it happen because the ebbracata are such cute little frogs, but it was neat to actually see nature in action. I could also hear the “Tink” frog high up in the trees….I had waited 6 months, since we left Sirena in April, to hear one of these frogs.
The next morning we took a hike down across the Rio Nuevo to explore an area, which Jerry calls the “Lagoon”. It is essentially a swamp that in the rainy season floods like a cypress swamp of the deep South. Basically a stream empties out onto a plain and fills it about knee deep with water before the water eventually flows into the Rio Nuevo. Often their horses meander down there and it’s a real chore to get them back because the flora is so dense. Jerry thought, there could be some caiman down there. We walked down the road and crossed the river near where he killed the big terciopelo. As we crawled up the far bank, Mike stopped and looked up the bank. “What is it?” I asked. “Vittatus” he replied “Several of them”. Cool. The Golfo Dulce Poison Frog, Phyllobates vittatus. We had found one in April at Sirena, but now the bank had quite a few of them calling. He and I tried to pinpoint the location of one that was close, but calling sporadically. Then Rudy calls out “Something just went down this hole, it looked like a snake”. Jerry went over and tried to dig the hole out, but gave up realizing, there’s no way to get the snake out and it was probably a terciopelo. I resumed searching for the frog when Rudy shouted again “Is this one of those little frogs?”
“What’s is look like?” I asked. He yelled “It’s black with two little bright green lines”…..YUP! That’s it.
Sitting under this dirt overhang was a tiny (about a ½” long) vittatus. It took us a good 5 minutes to catch it with it eluding us and escaping into the leaf litter numerous times. Finally we corralled it and got it to sit still long enough for Rudy to get some nice pictures. Then we placed it back under the lip of the bank overhang and headed down toward the lagoon. The hike produced no other real noteworthy creatures aside from several small basilisks but, Mike described some neat features of the geology of the Osa that we observed as we walked back up Rio Nuevo. Several times we crossed just to peer into small caves carved into the bank. He pointed out the hard limestone created during the cretaceous period and the alluvial sedimentary rock formed during the Pleistocene epoch. This is basically compacted, alluvial, sandy clay. I grabbed a piece of each to bring back for illustration along with a piece of somewhat petrified wood that was now charcoal, which I dug out of a piece of sedimentary rock.
We took a break that afternoon and lounged around the rancho. While eating lunch, I happened to look down at the base of a palm tree next to the rancho. At first, I thought a snake was crawling up the tree, but then realized it was too flat and was some sort of worm. Jerry exclaimed "Its a planaria" Holy Cow! This was the biggest planaria (Pic 2)I had ever seen! We found a nice littel Golfo Dulce Anole (Norops polylepis) (Pic 2)sitting on our tent platform. We decided to take an easy hike that night along the road as we’d need our energy for the next days hike up into the mountains for what we called “Expedicion Quatroplumes” (Expedition Four-feathers)—we would be heading into bushmaster territory.
After breakfast we donned our packs and followed the trail that leads up the valley behind the tent camp. The trail followed the Rio Nuevo up a smeary clay trail, then leveled out across a swampy area, crisscrossing the Rio several times. We turned off the trail and headed up a steep climb. Half way up the climb, we stopped to rest and at my feet there sat a amazingly colored, medium sized toad. It was a Wet Forest Toad (Bufo melanochlorus).
We arrived at a trail junction around 2PM and decided to head down the river valley to where the Matabuey was killed. This would save us time in having to hike down the opposite trail to the tin shack to drop our packs and then back, which would’ve taken a half hour or more. We went down the trail, in fact only a short distance, to where a huge log once lay across the trail. “This is it!” Jerry exclaimed. The Matabuey had been found lying under the log after the ticos cut it and rolled it away. Jerry had shown me pictures of the snake, pointing out that he thought they were just going to photo it and then let it go when one of them hacked its head off with a machete. His picture shows a tico holding a beautiful yellow and black snake like it’s a trophy fish. To the locals, Matabuey are feared and all killed nearly the same way all snakes are killed. The belief is that every snake is a deadly snake (and it’s not an unwarranted belief with all the terciopelo that are found there). What they don’t understand is that the Matabuey, unlike the terciopelo, is a very fragile indicator species of extremely healthy, untouched primary rain forest. Matabuey require specific environments (cool, humid) that are undisturbed by man to survive. Thus, the mere presence of these large serpents is an indicator of a very pristine environment, whereas the terciopelo can adapt and thrive in areas altered by human encroachment.
We hiked around this area for an hour and a half searching for paca burrows that might house a bushmaster. I had just come down the bank where I was investigating a large hole with a circular pattern in the dirt, not unlike the car-tire sized impressions my captive bushmasters make in the substrate of their cages. Coming down the bank, I felt something in my knee pop as well, as I almost slipped on the muddy wet bank. As I got to my pack and sat down, Rudy yells from way up on the bank (where I just had been)…”Matt, There’s a snake up here”. I asked him, “What’s it look like?” He yelled “It’s gray with black triangles!”
Gray? Hmm, bushmasters aren’t gray. “Which way do the triangles point, up or down?” I asked.
“Up!” he yelled back. “Nuts, It’s gotta be a terciopelo”, I thought. The triangles of a terciopelo point up with the base near the ventral surface, whereas the bushmaster has the base near the vertebral ridge and the point faces down and terminates with a vertical bar that extend to the snake’s ventral scutes.
I hiked back up the bank and sure enough, he has his hook near a tiny neonate terciopelo about 12 inches in length. “Can we bag it, I want to get pictures of this one because I don’t think the ones I took the other night turned out?” I said “I don’t have any bags…they’re all down in my pack, and I really don’t want to pin it because this bank is slippery and I nearly hyper-extended my knee sliding down the first time!”.
“Then I’ll pin it”, he said. “Oh no you won’t”, I interrupted. “Hang on, Let me see if I can get on that side of the log and I’ll grab it. This ought to be good, I thought. I bent down and gently pinned it, being careful as the leaf litter wasn’t a solid surface and I was worried it’d slip through my fingers and bite me. While, I knew it was entirely too small to produce a fatal bite, it could do some serious tissue damage to a finger.
I pressed its head down and got a firm grip but, juvenile terciopelos have such a tiny head, it’s nearly impossible to securely hold them. I had a good grip as I picked it up and started to walk down the bank, using the giant log to steady me as I descended. All of a sudden, I slipped and tried to right my self, almost losing my balance. As I did, the little snake wriggled free and although I never saw it happen, I felt two tiny little fangs pierce the end of my thumb.
“Ah, nuts. It just got me!” I tried to say calmly. “What? It bit you?” asked Rudy. “Yeah. I’m letting it go, this is idiotic!” I replied.
We got back down to our packs and Rudy said “Don’t tell your mom about this. Where’s the Antivenom?”
“I don’t need it”, I said. “That snake is too small to
cause any serious damage, we’ll just watch it and make sure it doesn’t
swell too much”. I could see a little reddening of the thumb, and my
thumb began to throb.
A short time later, Mike arrived from down in the valley and then Jerry followed. We headed back up the trail, and then down the other side of the valley. About 20 minutes later, we hacked our way through a patch of wild string beans and made our way down a path. Jerry remarked “Make sure you fix the plants and don’t leave any boot prints—We don’t want any visitors tonight!”. Rudy turned around and asked “Is he serious?”. “Yeah”. I said. The shack we were sleeping in, was known only too the few ticos who venture up this high on horseback, gold-miners, poachers, and bandits. If either of the first two came along, they wouldn’t bother us…but the latter two, may decide we have more booty, than they would get hunting or robbing a tico. We were careful to not leave a track. It took us quite a while to hack our way through the thick undergrowth. Jerry could see a large tree where the shack stood, but getting there was another story. It took us a good ½ hour to go about 100 yards. Finally we crawled through a barbed wire fence and what was left of a corral and found the shack. There was large wild lime tree just loaded with limes next to the shack, which we named the “5-hole Hotel”—It’s the exact opposite of a 5-star! It was pretty nasty to say the least, and even more so when the scout party of army ants came crawling though around 10PM.
The next morning, we woke and Rudy and Mike weren’t feeling so well. Some kind of flu hit Mike and he had a racing pulse, so rather than leave right away, we let them sleep for an extra hour. Jerry and I spent an hour cutting a trail to a vista overlooking the Rio Tigre. It overlooks a sharp horseshoe bend in the river. As you follow the Rio Tigre further upstream, it forms the eastern border of Corcovado National Park, yet very few people ever see this area as it’s not accessible to tourists from within Corcovado—it’s very remote. We got Rudy and Mike moving and headed out. Our goal, if all went well, was to make it to Carate on the Pacific coast around 4PM, a mere 5 hr hike via the little gold-mining community of Piedras Blancas (not to be confused with Piedras Blancas National Park, on the other side of the Golfo Dulce). By community, I mean 3 or 4 gold-miners with shacks. We headed along and up a steep mountain for about an hour, climbing up to about 1300 feet elevation to an abandoned house. We stopped for a rest, while Jerry knocked down a few pipas (coconuts) and hacked a couple open to drink the “Agua de pipa” (coconut milk, which is more like water). Mike and Rudy still didn’t feel well, so only Jerry and I drank the coconut milk. It doesn’t taste like much, but it saves on water. Mike took a GPS reading and we rested 5 minutes then started on the trail. In another 20 minutes we came to a very high area, where the wind was really blowing. Jerry pointed out that way down below was the Rio Tigre and as we looked across the valley to the other side, there was Corcovado National Park. This was our highest point on the route, at an elevation of 1594 feet. Piedras Blancas was another 10 minutes away. We descended down a steep muddy bank and came upon a wooden frame house with 3 gold-miners standing outside. Mike and Jerry conversed with them in Spanish. I could only make out the words “Matabuey”, “Terciopelo” and “Como se Llamo?” (What’s your name?”. By the hand gestures, I could tell that the miners were saying that they have seen Matabuey higher up on the hill behind the river while terciopelos were found low near the river and that the trail to Carate was to the left of us (due South from there). They said goodbye and we headed south. The trail was obvious here, as it had boot prints and followed the stream. Further on upstream, though, it would disappear as the stream became the trail and it became so small and split into smaller streams, that we had no idea which branch to take. A few of the stream banks had been dug by miners, so we weren’t sure which ones were natural and which were created by gold-miners.
The problem you have with following trails, especially those with horse prints on them, as Jerry pointed out, was that, if you follow one leading West into Corcovado N.P. and it happens to be used by an animal poacher, you could end up going deeper into the jungle, rather than heading to where you need to be. Our problem was that at some point, we needed to go west to hit the Rio Carate---our shortest most direct route to the Pacific Coast. Our problem was, where were we relative to the Rio Carate? Were we at the headwaters, or was it still further south?
We found a horse trail that went straight up a muddy hill. It was the climb from Hades. It was one-step-up, two-slides-down! We got most of the way to the top, and at that point, we started to doubt our direction. It was the point, where exhaustion sets in, and if you lose your bearings, you can get very dejected, panic, make stupid decisions---I’ve seen it before while climbing in the White Mountains; while caught in a white-out on Mt. Rainier and even hiking in the Catskills. Jerry volunteered to go to the top of the hill and see if he could get a clear view of any landmarks. I said, if we can see something, we have the GPS, topo maps and a compass—we can figure out which is the easiest route out down a stream or river valley. Jerry said it couldn’t be far to the top, as this hill looked like horses pastured on it. He came back and said the trail seems to keep going, and there was a crude gate to keep horses in, so it must be the right trail. On the other side of the hill, the trail split…NUTS! Now what do we do. Well, we decided to get out the topo-maps and Mike took a GPS reading. The maps didn’t have a detailed scale of degrees and minutes, but I tried to pinpoint as close as I could. We found a spot on the map that looked like it could be the hill we were on and it made sense. If we went to the right, the trail went due West, but the trail ahead of us went South….if we took that one, it looks to swing to the west and probably drops down the valley to the Rio Carate! Off we went---THE WRONG WAY!!
We headed down the valley, and the trail, amazingly, got better and better. Unlike the mud, we had been slogging in, we now were on a firmer trail, which followed a small stream, but the stream was getting bigger. Past a clearing, Jerry found the hacked body of a keel-backed racer, which someone had recently hacked with a machete….it doesn’t matter if it’s harmless or not….all snakes are presumed deadly until proven innocent. We descended rapidly down this stream when about another ½ mile we came upon a hooded house up on stilts. We found a lady inside and Jerry asked her which we were near.
“Rio Oro” she replied. “Rio Oro?”, Mike asked when he arrived about 5 minutes behind us. That wasn’t the one we wanted. The Rio Oro will get you to the Pacific, but it makes a long arc, which is about 3 times the length of the Rio Carate. Suddenly, it donned on me, that our 5 mile hike was turning into a 10 mile hike. The senora told us it would take 3 hours to get to the road. That seemed optimistic, considering the rivers were high, and we’d probably be crossing it a lot! We decided to pick up the pace, though I wasn’t sure if Rudy’s pace could be picked up any more.
We headed out, and didn’t even pause to look at a terciopelo Rudy saw after two of us stepped right over it. That’s how possessed we were to get to the road. About another ½ mile down the trail, Mike suggested he go ahead of us, and radio to one of the lodges to come down and pick us up where the river met the road from Puerto Jimenez to Carate, so he took off. Jerry was in the lead, and I followed trying to keep him in sight without losing Rudy. I didn’t want to push him too much, but I realized how dire it was for us to at least get somewhere that was familiar where we could hike out in the dark and at that time we were on terrain too steep to safely navigate in the dark, let alone deal with poisonous snakes after dark. Mike wanted to at least get to where the trail he normally hikes from the Rio Nuevo Tent Camp to the Rio Oro comes out. At least, he told me, from there the trail is flat, and he knows it well, but he had never been this far up the Rio Oro before and had no idea just how far it was from here to there.
We scurried along, crossing the stream so many times, that it’s easy to conservatively guess it was over 100 times in total, that we criss-crossed that river. Sometimes the stream would be in flat forest, then be in the middle of the river, then in a muddy slurry, then in gravel….and it just kept going down….and down….and down…..and all I could see ahead was one steep jungle covered valley wall slanting down only to see another beyond it sloping down the other way…….with no end or ocean in sight. At least, I had been on the road to Carate before, and I knew how far it was roughly from studying the topo maps for the past 3 months, so to me, 3-4 miles meant…”ehh, 2-3 hrs(even with the awful trail)”. It wasn’t a big deal really to high at night, in fact, sometimes it’s easier because you don’t dwell on the length of the trail. BUT, when you’re on a steep slippery trail, that really isn’t more than a river bed, in snake infested jungle…well, this could be a different story, and I could only guess how Rudy felt.
We came upon a gold miner(actually 3 but two didn’t speak English) but the 3rd one spoke English quite well. He told us, we STILL had 2 solid hours to get to the road and that was ONLY if WE kicked it into high gear! It was now 3:45! IF we were lucky we’d be out by 6PM. At that point, I knew it was going to be dark when we got to the road. The thing that worried me though, was that, every one we talked to since Piedras Blancas had been telling us it was 2hrs to Carate…….and that was 2 hours and 15 minutes ago!! I suddenly couldn’t rely on what anyone was telling us. It could be 5 hrs for all I know, but realisitically I knew that we were at most 3 miles from the road, so if we moved it probably would be about 2hrs.
We kept going and not much longer, we found Mike, sitting along the river. As I got nearer to him, I expected to hear something like “It’s not far now”, but what I heard instead was “We’re A Hell of a way up this river! I’ve only been this far up once before, I caught a nice little coral snake right there once!”
“How far are we to the road?” I asked. “I don’t know”, he replied “I don’t recall how far it is from here to where the other trail comes in. Once we get there, I know the trail well, but from here to there I don’t know!”
Oh man! Oh well, we may as well get going. We started moving, and Mike kicked it into high gear. We found two more terciopelos on the way, but we really didn’t stop for anything except for a brief 10 seconds to get a good look at a cat-eyed snake Mike grabbed in the weeds—at least it was a little variety from all the terciopelos we were finding. It was getting dark, and Rudy asked how Mike knew it wasn’t a terciopelo!! Mike replied, “you can just tell by looking at them” although I have been witness to Mike’s “Grab first, Identify later” technique, so I knew better, but I’m sure he knew absolutely what it was, not that it mattered. Finally around 5PM, we arrived at the trial junction with the other trail. Mike said “We’ll stop here for a rest!”
“Is this the road?” Rudy asked. “No, it’s still another One-and-a-half to two miles” Mike said, but he estimated it’d take us about 45 minutes. Rudy looked heartbroken! We only sat there for about 5 minutes and then we all got jittery because we were anxious to get to the road. Off we went. We turned on our headlamps and now the trail was much wider, in fact without a headlamp, you could probably see the trail in the dark, but with all the terciopelo we had seen (5 that day alone) we didn’t take any chance of stepping on one. About a mile down the trail, the river really widened now and was very shallow. We were basically walking down a flat gravel bed when around 6PM we arrived at the road!!!! FINALLY!!!!!
To say we were exhausted was an understatement. I was afraid to look at my feet, which had been killing me since Piedras Blancas as I could feel my feel, not really blisters, but the tops of my toes being rubbed off. I had even put new dry socks on at Piedras Blancas, but I had a bad feeling that my about my feet getting infected.
Mike radioed the Rio Oro lodge and asked them to radio the Terrapin lodge and then the Lookout Inn. Normally there is someone there, but this time of year, the rainy season is the slow tourist season, and as desolate as the Osa is, some lodges shut down. Luckily, the caretakers at the Lookout Inn, by far the Osa’s Nicest Beach Hotel, were there and came down with a pickup truck and picked us up! Because it’s the slow season, we got a really good Bed-and-Breakfast rate, and they made us a sphaghetti dinner AND WE EVEN HAD CHOCOLATE CAKE FOR DESERT!! When you haven’t had chocolate cake for a week…it’s the best ever!
My feet were in bad shape. I got a shower and cleaned off my feet and put antibiotic cream on them. I was in such pain I took (4), 600mg Motrin and almost fell asleep in the hammock. My feet were all black and swollen like I a bad case of frostbite. About an hour after the Motrin kicked in, I was out….
The next morning we awoke around 5:30AM. You walk out of your room at the Lookout Inn, which is built on a hillside about 100yards from the Beach, and you can look out over the tropical gardens and see the palm trees on the beach. We relaxed on the deck while the hostess brought us some coffee and fresh juice (Mango or Papaya I think). I took the time to record all the waypoint data from Mike’s GPS so I had it for the species database we are creating. The senorita brought out a clump of bananas and 4 White-faced Capuchin Monkeys (or Meenkeys, if you are Inspector Clouseau) (Pic 2) (Pic 3) came down out of the trees and one even took one from her hand. The rest sat on tree limbs overhanging the deck. I couldn’t get them to take a banana from me, so I gave up—no need to aggravate the monkeys. We had scrambled eggs, sausage, beans and rice for breakfast while we watched a huge cruise ship sail well offshore.
About 7:30 we packed our bags, paid our bill and headed down the driveway to await the collectivo for our ride to Carate. I could barely walk, even in my sandals, as just the breeze hitting my toes sent pain shooting up my spine. The ride around the peninsula took us 2 hours and we made it back to Puerto Jimenez at 10:00AM. After dropping our packs off at Mike’s we went and paid our bill for the Rio Nuevo Lodge, and then went to Carolina’s for lunch. On the way, we stopped along a grove of almond trees so Rudy could photograph half-a-dozen macaws (Pic 2) munching on almonds. There even was a large iguana high up in the tree.
We had to be at the airstrip at 1PM, so we left Carolina’s
at 12:30. Mike wanted to take us to a lagoon behind Parrot Bay Village
to feed the caiman. It’s right behind the airstrip. We got there and
there were 3 other ticos there feeding several monstrous
caiman (Pic 2) (Pic
3) —one was 7 feet and easily 125lbs. Several others were 5-6 feet
and 75-100lbs. The biggest spectacled caiman I had ever seen. As a bonus,
there was even a medium sized American
crocodile (Pic 2) (Pic
3) (Pic 4) there
about 6 feet long and probably 75 lbs. Expedition Quatroplumes was a
SUCCESS! Rudy even got to see a crocodile on the trip! It was now complete…we
could leave knowing we had seen all we intended except, the black-headed
bushmaster. Well there’s always the next trip and it’s only 6 months
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