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A Brush with Death in the Corcovado Rainforest

In the earlier months of our trip the three of us from Calgary, travelling in Costa Rica together figured out that the jungle held a special allure.

We had been to several cloud forests, explored many rivers, waterfalls and volcanoes but always in the back of our minds was the trip we were planning to the Corcovado, some of the most biologically intense rainforest in the world. Finally, in the last weeks of our trip we found ourselves camped just outside the limits of the park. We set up our tent where the dense rainforest meets a beautiful black sand beach, under the shade of some palms , and we took three days relaxing and preparing for our hike into the jungle. The days passed in true Pura Vida style: we surfed, fried up some fish we caught with our speargun and snorkel, and in general just lounged out and got a feel for the place. After two nights we began tour trek into the darkness of Corcovado.

We would only carry the minimum: food for 2 days, a three-man tent, a couple of tarps, and some cooking equiptment. We decided to start the hike at 5 in the morning – to avoid having to move in the heat of the day.

Setting out from the beach under the starlight it was not long before we came to the La Leona ranger station, passing families of large parrots and monkeys along the way. The ranger station signifies the entrance to the limits of the park, and the start of the trail into the jungle. Enthusiastically we headed down the path into what must be the wettest, more dense, hottest most humid place in the entire world. Seattle is a Sahara by comparison. But the wild life was rampant. We passed large mammals that appeared to be weasels, rummaging on the floor of the forest. Kurt tried to catch one saying they might make good dinner but they proved elusive. We found two different species of monkeys in the first 20 minutes of hiking. They threw nuts at Kurt when he whipped out his frying pan. We were so enchanted to see all these animals.

Later on, about a kilometer furthur down the trail, we came to a sign that pointed to the Rio Madrigal. We decided to stop for water and cook a small breakfast. During breakfast, the sun threw scattered rays over flitting butterflies, and we were spellbound with the crystal blue water coming down the Rio through the surrounding trees. One of us suggested that we ditch the well-worn trail and hike up river instead. Adventure – isn’t that what travel is about?

We were all proud of ourselves and our new route, and as we made our way up the river we saw the most unique wildlife we had ever witnessed. There were waterfalls every 50 feet or so, falling from the 100 foot high canyon walls. We saw crawfish with glowing blue claws, monkeys, fish, parrots, spiders, poisonous viper snakes, and much more. Kurt even tracked down a sloth but we wouldn’t let him eat it.

After finding a decent spot at around noon, we decided to pitch our tent. We were pretty far into the jungle by now and couldn’t imagine finding a more beautiful location. We set up the tent about 15 feet from the running water. We set up tarps and continued on with our day, hiking and bathing in the river.

Night fell quickly on the jungle and as the lighting change the landscape seemed to transform itself. We found ourselves in a loud, dark and mysterious canyon. Wildlife comes alive at night, and the scampering of dozens of small creatures surrounded us. Larger creatures thumped out in the distance. Fireflies glowing bright green and blue and orange zigzagged about, exploring the canyon walls. After allowing the bugs to feast on us and smoking a bedtime session, we decided to hit the sack. Colin set the pots and pans and food, away from the tent, on the edge of the river. We bedded down with thoughts of sleeping in the next day, eating a wonderful breakfast and then marching back our only way out – following the river down the canyon. It was another day in the paradise that is Costa Rica. We were a million miles from school and the rat race of the cities.

It was midnight when first heavy drops of rain pattered down on the tarps. Shit. Brian ran quickly outside to grab the backpacks, and to gather the things next to the river bed. The rain quickly gained strength, a few drops becoming a deluge. Rivulets of water passed over the tarp and began pooling in the tent. Our gear was getting absolutely soaked. Kurt then decided to take his flashlight and check the level of the river.

“Fuck guys! Come look at this!!! SHIT!!!”

To our horror the river had already creeped six feet up its banks on each side, gaining more than a foot in depth. The waterfalls were gaining power, and a feeling of urgency comes over all of us – we started to panic. With the river increasing and high canyon walls on both sides there was no high ground to move to. The rain picked up speed and the weight of the situation sank in. The only way out was down the river with its growing white rapids. Our thoughts became frantic. Rio Madrigal was a small blue trickle on the hike up but in this rain it had quickly became a raging floodway.

We quickly decide to leave our campsite while we still could. It was after midnight and pitch black but there was no choice. We rapidly packed the tent. Within 10 minutes of adrenaline-fueled packing we were ready to take on the river. For safety we decided to use our rope to cross deep sections of the river tied together. The rain just kept coming.

We were scared shitless for our lives, hustling downriver. We crossed four separate waist deep rapids cursing the whole way. And then we were stopped. An impassable section of the river, whirling and gushing in fury under the heavy rain, blocked our way. It was dark, wet and cold. There was nowhere to go. The river has gained at least another foot or two, but we are now stranded on a section of rocks below the steep canyon walls hundreds of feet high. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, we huddled together, wrapped up in a tarp, and tried to conserve precious body heat.

This was bad. Three guys, just out of school, stranded in a rainforest riverbed. We began to pray and thoughts of our families and friends began to go through our heads. If this rain were to continue and the river kept rising it was only a matter of time before we’d be swept away to our deaths. It was a time for bonding between the three of us. A time for confessions. We told each other how much we loved each other and how great a trip this had been.

Then our prayers were answered – the rains began to subside. It had been about 4 hours since the rain had started and not if finally was stopping. We had to sit and hope that the levels of the river would go down by sunrise. We stayed huddled on the rocks untill the first light made it over the steep canyon walls.

With great relief the water levels subsided after a couple of hours, and we could begin to hike back down stream, through the murky water. As it got ligheter, we became more and more relieved and made it further downstream. We followed the Rio Madrigal all the way to the river mouth at the ocean. It was late morning. No one had slept since we had initially woken up (at 5 AM) for this hike the day before.

Deliriously we ate dry oatmeal, with sugar and powdered milk and we just laughed our asses off. We still had 2 hours of jungle and beach to hike through to get back to the road, but the worst was over. We spent 7 more hours waiting for a truck ride from that road to the nearest town. By the time we downed dinner and got into bed, we had been up for about 33 hours.

I doubt any of us will ever forget this night. The sheer intensity of the panic, the hopelessness of being cornered by the river and the exhaustion of hiking out in the morning soaked was an experience we’ll probably talk about twenty years from now. But isn’t that what travel is all about? The adventure?

Brian Maude

Brian Maude is from Calgary and can most likely be found leading wilderness tours in the backwoods of Canada’s great north. Or else surfing on the beaches of Costa Rica.