Approaching Playa Nicuesa by boat, the indigo ocean melts to aquamarine in the shallows where the forest-green canopy spills unimpeded into the sea.
The lodge and guest cabins as well as the beach chairs are invisible from the shore tucked into a dense jungle of ceiba and cedar, cacao and mango.
I followed Jody, the guest coordinator, along a winding path through a botanical garden lush with blooming hibiscus, heliconia and flaming ginger. There are just a few rules, she told me. “Always wear closed shoes in the jungle – no sandals – and be in off the trail by five.”
“Everything’s more active at night. Especially the vipers.”
After lunch, I met my guide, Vladimir, a Tico with (possible) Russian heritage, for my first jungle hike. Following him into the forest, I felt like I’d stumbled onto an action movie set – Vladimir the hero with his shaved head, pumped triceps, and the rusty machete he brandished to hack anything that blocked our path. My skin was damp in the afternoon heat. As we moved deeper into the woods, speckles of lacy sunlight filtered through the forest canopy. My ears buzzed with the sawing of cicadas; a carpet of dry leaves crackled as we ambled forward. At least the snakes can hear us coming.
“What about snakes?” I asked Vladimir.
“Oh, they’re here.”
“Will we see one?
“We might. Just watch where you step.”
Up ahead, a mish-mash of tree roots and dead leaves obscured the trail. I shivered in the heat. “If I see a snake, what should I do?”
“Just stand very still and let it pass. Don’t approach it, and don’t run.
I practically tiptoed around tree roots and over streamlets, praying for the steel to stand my ground. Suddenly, Vladimir stopped, signaling sshhh, pointing down toward a copse of bushy fern. A sudden rustle sent my heart racing crazily. I jumped back, then laughed when I saw the object of my terror: a tiny neon blue poison dart frog. Further down the trail, a flight of royal blue morphos butterflies danced across the trail. Following them, enchanted, I forgot all about the snakes.
That afternoon I strolled the quarter-mile crescent of pebbly beach. With each break of surf across my toes, each riffle of salt breeze through my hair, I relaxed a little more, noticed more. Tiny translucent crabs scurried across the sand; two ducks bobbed on turquoise waves, a scarlet macaw swooped from a mango tree taking flight just over my head.
For the next four days I kayaked and swam in golden sunshine and crystal water, watching antic dolphins in the gulf and puckish monkeys in the jungle. I had four nights of thrumming jungle sounds: the rustle of unseen reptiles in the high grass, the mad sawing of cicadas, the whimbrel’s high pitched night cry and, just before dawn, the primordial screeching of scarlet macaws punctuated by screaming howler monkeys just overhead.
Snug in my rainforest hideaway I found a visceral understanding of why I continued to travel despite my limitations and my fears: not for Jack, but for myself, for the rich taste of living free, out on the edge.
But, despite everyone’s predictions, I never found a single snake.