Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would ever trudge through a marshy jungle in Costa Rica wearing thongs (that’s Flip Flops to you, Northern Hemisphere). Nor did I ever imagine I would stomp defiantly through knee-high grass, weeds and prickle bushes in only a pair of shorts (again, with aforementioned thongs on my feet). And finally, I never ever expected to find myself pulling my bare feet (thongs had been removed by this point – too hard to walk in) out of ankle-deep mud while batting away bird-sized mosquitos, trying to maintain my balance/keep an eye out for snakes/not walk into a giant cobweb.
The day after we almost eaten by a pack of hungry crocodiles at the beach, Rich and I did the obvious. We went on a crocodile tour and jungle hike.
Collected from our hotel bright and early on Saturday morning, we were introduced to Big Tortuga (I thought “Wow, this guy really knows his stuff, if his name is Big Tortuga – that means Big Turtle, right?”), which I later discovered was actually Victor Hugo. Not Big Tortuga. But Victor Hugo is still a pretty great name for a bona fide crocodile tour guide!! I imagine in his spare time he writes poems about crocodiles on the streets of Paris in the 1800s, selling their teeth for 10 francs… singing on street corners…. getting hustled into a life of crime and/or prostitution… “Don’t you fret, Monsieur Crocodile….”
We tumbled out of his early 90s aqua Suzuki Vitara (yes, my Grade 5 dream car) on the banks of the estuary, scrambled down a leafy hill, padded across the sand, and climbed aboard his 8-seater covered boat. Twas just me n Rich on the Crocodile & Estuary Tour, so we got prime position at the front of the boat. The narrow boat. The “my elbows are very very close to the crocodile-infested estuary” boat. The “this seems light has a crocodile ever leapt out of the water and tipped it over” boat.
Victor Hugo started up the engine and, as they say in the classics, we were off!
First we putt-putted along the shore for a while, as Victor Hugo pointed out various birds. One quite striking yellow-eyed, grey bird was immediately shunned as “bad bird – very bad bird”. Victor Hugo explained that this “very bad bird” arrives in Tamarindo in late-October and sticks around for a few months, with this sole purpose of eating BABY TURTLES AS THEY HATCH FROM THEIR EGGS!!! I agree with Victor Hugo that these guys were bad birds indeed.
Further along, and after moseying to the other side of the river, we saw it: our first crocodile! Quite a biggun, but apparently still pretty young, Madame Chomp-Chomp was sunning herself on the sandy banks. Victor Hugo brought the boat quite close to the bank, and as I scrambled to get my camera, said Croco opened one pre-historic eyeball and appeared to give me stink eye. Her teeth were very big. I was glad when the boat reversed and we were putt-putting away.
Until… Oh Em Gee!! We found ourselves NOT continuing up the wide and seemingly safe river, but into a thin corridor of mangroves. The trees hung low over the water, their snake-like roots pointing down to the water and scraping along the roof of the boat, like an upside-down Medusa on a bad hair day (“Who forgot to get the conditioner??? Sssssssss!!!!”)….
Victor Hugo explained that we were in the mangroves (not mangos). The wind rustled gently through their leaves, the birds tweeted, and a strange snapping sound surrounded us.
“What’s that noise?” I asked Victor Hugo, obviously thinking that the snapping sound was one hundred crocodiles, hidden amongst the roots of the trees, limbering up their jaws for a good ol-fashioned tourist eating fest.
All the wrongs of all the Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunters the world over will be made right by this delicious feast of Australian flesh, I was sure the crocs were thinking…
But no. The snapping was actually clams, who hang out deep in the mud for a few hours a day, and snap their shell together when they’ve had enough. Apparently clam gathering is a very dangerous pastime for the locals, because to get them, you need to plunge your hands into the mud, feel around for the clam, and avoid getting your finger pinched by their snapping shell-jaws. Victor Hugo explained that many a clam-hunter has lost the top of their fingers in such ventures…
Victor Hugo was keen to introduce us to a family of howler monkeys, so we moored the boat in the mangroves and disembarked on the sandy bank. He said “We will hike for five or ten minutes until we find the monkeys”.
45 minutes later, we emerged from the jungle, having seen two monkeys high in the trees. For the entire duration of our monkey hike, Victor Hugo frenetically shook an old Coke bottle (filled with rocks and sand that he had craftily hidden inside the trunk of a dead tree – I imagine there’s a lot of sand-filled, bottle theft in these here parts), and shouted and howled and yelled like a monkey to attract the simian beings. In between howls he gave us helpful tips like “don’t touch this plant or it will sting you with its prickles and it feels like you’re on fire” and “it’s much easier to walk barefoot in the mud” and “I hope you brought some insect repellent because there are a LOT of mosquitos in here” (there were… bajillions, actually).
I had one of those great moments of making an observation, and then being instantly crippled by said observation: in this instance “Hey Rich, look at that funny tree covered in ginormous prickles” and then, literally one second later, stepping on one of the ginormous prickles IN BARE FEET – it got me right in the heel. I cursed like a sailor, but like the intrepid traveller I am, I pulled that prickle right outta my foot and kept on walking. In bare feet. In the mud. With the snapping clams and the boa constrictors (yes, really) and various other terrifying creatures.
Thank heavens for pre-travel tetanus shots…
Anyhoo, after espying our little family of howling monkey friends, we were back in the boat, in search of MORE CROCODILES. Around a corner, literally metres from where our boat had been moored, we spied two toothy beasts, nestled in the grass on the bank. These fellas were bigger than the first lady we saw, and we were ALL reluctant to get any closer…
Around a bend and into a covered grove, we were greeted by a big splash and the sight of a crocodile tail disappearing into the water. I gasped and Victor Hugo said “O, THAT was a big one!” which, of course, meant that he stopped the boat and decided that this would be the perfect spot for a mid-morning snack. In a narrow, shallow estuary with a monster crocodile under the boat. Victor Hugo sliced up a pineapple (which I stupidly thought was for the crocodile and was about to throw overboard) and we ate the sweet fruit with muddy fingers and fear-filled bellehs.
To make matters even more comforting, Victor Hugo thought this would be a great spot to rinse off his muddy feet, so sat with his legs dangling in the water above Mister Sharp-Tooth’s very sharp teeth (and, no doubt, watching beady eyes…) as we motored the boat back to the beach.
So in all, we saw five crocodiles. Along with the three bigguns, we also spotted two babies in the mangroves (mums not in sight – very reassuring) and we both felt that it was money well spent and an interesting lesson in biodiversity and prehistoric monster-toothed beasties.
Back in the clear blue salt water of our starting place, other tour boats bobbing around, and a bunch of fellas doing some washing in the shallows, I saw something strange floating in the water. It’s unusual to see brown, spiky buoys – all the other ones are bright blue and bright red and smooth. And… wait… is it a log? Or a cluster of coconut husks floating on the surface?
No. It’s a mother-flipping crocodile. Just bobbing along. Smiling at us as we pass within inches of its scaly, spiky, avocado-skinned body….
“Very good luck, very good luck” Victor Hugo said, pointing to the croc.
Very good luck not to get eaten by him, I say.