Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Eric Schickler’s full-length travelogue, “Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula.”
THE MATAPALO HIGHLANDS – Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica
Cabo Matapalo is situated at a very strategic point on the southernmost tip of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Golfo Dulce. Its location isolates it from everywhere in Costa Rica, although it does have several upscale hotels.
Named after the amazing strangler figs found in its forests, Matapalo is a most scenic ocean cape, with three outstanding beaches.
Long-board surfers find high pleasures near Matapalo, with its well-formed beginner and intermediate-level right-point breaks. Advanced surfers from around the world flock across the gulf to Playa Pavones, which boasts the longest left-hand break in Central America.
We were treated to some fantastic surfing exhibitions that afternoon at Matapalo, as some of the talented locals sliced up the 15- to 20-foot waves.
Our day-long adventure into the Matapalo Highlands was billed as an audition for the next Tarzan movie. Sounds cool. Sign us up!
Getting to the highlands required a fairly arduous hike in dense forest. It was very warm and very humid, a new kind of hiking adventure for we Coloradans, who are used to cool, dry hiking conditions.
Our experience hiking in Colorado’s high altitudes did give us an advantage when it came to pulmonary stamina and endurance.
Along the trail, our guides showed us how to find poisonous frogs’ hiding in the cool, moist areas under rocks. They’d simply chirp a few times and were quickly answered with a similar chirp from one of the frogs, revealing its general location. They expertly chose the correct rock to uncover and, VOILA!, there was our frog.
These frogs are known for their aposematic patterns and vibrant colors, meant to advertise their toxicity and deter predators. They are also diurnal, or active during the day, rather than nocturnal like most frogs.
As we moved further up the ridge, and the late-morning heat began to build, we found a very cool spring, that fed a large pool. It was the opposite experience of hitting the hot-tub, as we do in the snowy mountain ski towns of Colorado, after a cold, tiring day on skis. But the experience was equally rewarding.
The cool swim was just what we needed to make it comfortably through the final leg of the hike, up to the location of the fabled tree. The ocean breeze greeted us as we reached the top of the ridge, which loomed some 450 feet above the gulf.
This was where our guides introduced our small group to THE local legend: a 120-foot, 500-year-old Strangler Fig Tree. Locals like the climbing and rope-swinging fun offered by this monolith, which is not exactly your average tree.
It’s a fig tree that took over the tree that formerly held this beacon position on the sunny ridge. It’s a parasite tree wrapped around the hollowed out remains of a very large tree.
Some explanation is needed to understand a competitive displacement process in the Costa Rican rain forest. Multi-layer tree canopies keep most sunlight from reaching the forest floor, and they are often quite devoid of growth. All things growing tall enough to get light compete for it fiercely. This causes an abundance of epiphytes and vines.
Rather than grow huge trunks to hold their leaves up to the light, epiphytes and vines “reverse the rules” by growing from the top down.
Epiphytes are plants that grow upon or are somehow attached to another plant or object for physical support. Epiphytes are primarily tropical and are sometimes called “air plants” because they have no attachment to the ground or other obvious source of food or moisture. They obtain water and minerals from rain and debris that collects on the supporting plants. Orchids, ferns, and some pineapples are epiphytes.
Birds and monkeys eat the fruit of an epiphyte, then climb or fly to another tree, where they defecate. The seeds, mixed in the rich feces, get caught up on the bark or in the crotch of a tree high up in the canopy where there is more light. Vines quickly send roots down to the ground to get minerals and water.
Epiphytes may grow against the tree or form a basin with their leaves. The basin will fill with a combination of water and feces from canopy animals and the epiphyte pulls minerals from the contained water.
Perhaps no vine exhibits this clever behavior better than the Strangler Fig. The seeds germinate in the crown of the canopy and a root makes its way downward to the forest floor. Once it reaches the ground, it sends nutrients upward, and the fig up top reciprocates by dropping more roots down the trunk.
Over time, the roots completely surround the trunk and begin to fuse; above in the canopy the fig is shading out the host tree’s leaves. The host tree falls victim, dies, and eventually decomposes. The strangle fig remains, however, towering above the forest floor, its fused roots creating a hollow trunk the same height as the long-gone host tree.
The vines of the parasite become thick and strong, almost like giant steel cables. They are so strong that you can climb inside the tree, using the vines as a “ladder” to reach the tree top.
Our guides showed us how to climb barefooted up the tree–90 feet up the tree! I go barefooted often in Colorado and have strong calloused feet, but next time I’m wearing some kind of protective grippy shoes, I’ll tell ya that.
The climber’s hip harness gets tethered to a rope, which is hitched to a carabiner up top and anchored around the guide’s hip harness on the ground.
The harrowing climb brought me intermittent bouts with height paranoia.
I stopped halfway as the insanity of what I was doing hit me. Then I reassured myself—I was tethered to a rope! I wasn’t going to die if I slipped. But I didn’t want to go there. Who could predict the inherent dangers of falling, even with a rope on your hip-harness? Not to mention the embarrassment. And, God help me, what if Bob, the guy on the ground, in charge of MY rope—MY life!—didn’t like me?
I felt as if I were 200 feet up, but I had only climbed 45 feet. “Keep going!,” screamed the blonde-haired, muscle-toned 25-year-old Australian guide. This was the same woman who had scampered up to the 90-foot perch with the greatest of ease moments earlier, making it look oh so easy.
With eight people watching my progress, I gathered my monkey-man fortitude, stopped looking down, and moved for the summit! “Just pretend you’re hiking a 14,000-foot mountain, like you do all the time in Colorado,” I told myself. “You can do this. You have to. You signed up for this lunacy.”
Then the catcalls and orders and suggestions started from those on the ground. I couldn’t bear it. I told everyone below to shut up; their shouts and instructions and cheerleading was making me dizzy and distracting me and freaking me out more. I needed to concentrate and not over-think my mission. “Just climb. There’s no turning back.”
Concentration is an amazing thing. It got me to the end of the rainbow. I spotted the ornamental bell they nailed to the tree that signified the designated “monkey perch.” I gave it the ceremonial jingle, at which came a round of applause from the peanut gallery below.
I secured myself in a stable sitting position in the crotch of a tree limb, took a deep breath of relief and gathered my fragile composure. I wanted to savor my accomplishment and enjoy the view for a moment. “Wow. So this is what it’s like being a monkey in the canopy.”
I liked climbing trees as a kid, but it’s not something I’ve done very often as an adult. I can’t say I like heights all that much either.
I wondered what I was doing up here, and thought about my future (and possible lack thereof). I thought about the money my parents spent on my college education, about our car parked back at Denver International Airport, and about my nonexistent life insurance policy.
My contemplative moment was quickly interrupted by our Australian honey on the ground. “Okay, get ready, then at the count of three, JUMP! Like Tarzan,” she screamed in her cute accent.
Then the man holding my life-rope added: “Just don’t do the Tarzan yodel, P-L-E-A-S-E! If I hear that one more time, I’m going to become an anthropologist and quit this nutty guide business.”
The half-naked, barefoot dude who matter-of-factly rambled through all the climb logistics and safety procedures minutes earlier was telling me to jump, and trust that he would prevent my glorious, Jungle Jim death.
I had met him but two hours earlier, and was never shown any “Rope-Holding-Expert” certification papers, background-check reports, etc. And yet, there he was 90 feet below, with Ana and our new friends, the nice family from England, telling me to jump from Heaven to Earth…. and in just THREE seconds!
“You can trust me,” he yelled with a laugh.
I caught the encouraging, yet impatient stare of little Katrina, the fearless eight-year-old who had just climbed the darned tree like a monkey and jumped from it faster than you could say amusement park. Then, in chimed the howler monkeys in the trees near me, barking like sports-fan hecklers in the cheap seats.
So with my time dwindling (down to one second now), I held fast and tight on the rope and threw myself overboard–off my safe and comfortable perch, to certain peril.
There I was….. swinging, gasping, dangling, semi-panicking, just missing trees, getting belayed down gradually, but quick enough before the onset of cardiac arrest.
After both feet felt the joy of reaching the forest floor, I caught my breath, said a very sincere prayer of thanks, then the thrill of it all sunk in. I suddenly felt a fantastic adrenaline rush and felt profoundly alive.
Now I understood. Now I realized why adrenaline junkies jump out of airplanes, parachute of skyscrapers, ski off cliffs, bungee-jump bridges, paraglide off mountaintops, race dragsters, and attempt other assorted flirtations with death.
Now I knew why Tarzan yodeled.
Ana was equally stirred up as she was lowered down from her 90-foot jump, and I could see her visibly shaking from her adrenaline rush as she neared the ground. Her smile came back quickly, once she caught her breathe.
With everyone safely returned to the forest floor, high fives were rampant.
As we left the tree, little Katrina smiled at me and snickered, “I knew you could do it. If I could do it, you could do it.”
“Gee thanks, Katrina.”
I trudged up the trail, looking back and up at the monster fig, knowing I had reached a new pinnacle of personal courage. I had matched the bravery of an eight-year-old.
The mood was spirited as we took our hike back down the ridge, legs fluttering along the trail with jubilation and a sense of accomplishment.
We stopped at a favorite adventure spot, the 90-foot King Louis Waterfalls, where guided visitors and locals rappel from the top of the falls, down through the cascading waters and mist.
Our guides had not only brought us back alive, but had taught us a bevy of cool things about the local geography, landmarks, vegetation and wildlife. Guides are good for that. They deserve their tips. I floated good ol’ Bob an extra 20 bucks for his dedicated hold on my rope.
Ana and I, and our five British friends, all shared a new common bond. We had all survived a 90-foot leap from the notorious 500-year-old Strangler Fig tree.
Back at the lodge, happy hour, highlighted by some very robust mango daiquiris, was never more rewarding. We settled into our easy chairs, sipped our drinks and watched the iguanas slither in the trees off the second-story lodge deck, as the sun set in the distance out over Golfo Dulce.
Not a bad weekday in Costa Rica. “Pura Vida” was in the air, and was indeed having its wondrous effect on us.
Our active day resulted in a very good night’s sleep. Until we were awakened at 3 a.m. by a crashing ka-boom! on the tin roof of our casita. We thought we were being shelled and, come to think of it—we were. A coconut had dropped from 25 feet above. Locals call them “grenades.” I can’t recall why I never heard one hit during the day. It was always at night. Hmmm. I sensed a monkey was involved, and he knew darned well what he was doing.
To continue the travelogue, click here to go to Part 6: http://ericschickler.com/2011/11/04/costa-ricas-osa-peninsula-part-6/
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