Monthly Archives: October 2015

Cerro Chirripo Hike, San Gerardo, Costa Rica

Hiking. What’s that all about then?

Having just completed our third hike, I must confess – I’m none the wiser. Admittedly, this was a far more successful climb than the last one, which will be known forever more as The Hike of Death. It turns out that Costa Rica knows how to do its national parks, with clearly marked signs each kilometer, playful names for every section and even motivational mottos to keep the flagging energised. This time round we would not be relying on blind luck and the kindness of wandering watermelon farmers to get us home.

And it started extremely well. Sensibly packed with enough water and food rations for at least a week, we left ourselves the whole day to reach base camp, where we’d stay before pushing on for the top. Setting off at 4am and climbing upwards in the dark, we were breakfasting on hot coffee and homemade brownies by 5, overlooking the valley below as the sun glimpsed from behind the tallest of many peaks. Beyond the first official resting stop the terrain grew pretty steep, but the landscapes were varied and interesting – cloud forest full of curious birds, spooky grey bracken and stripped trees, engulfed in wispy fog. As we trekked Chris happily hummed the Jurassic Park theme, no doubt imagining himself as Sam Neill, hat and all. Brandishing as I was a large walking stick, and with Chris’s well-defined and hairy calve muscles in my direct line of sight, I was feeling more Gandalf than Goldblum. By the time we reached base camp, the air was thin and our bodies were tired, but we were pleasantly surprised that we’d made it by 11am. The base was overpriced and basic, but within minutes we were wrapped in blankets and huddled like penguins, fast asleep.

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After a fairly uninspiring meal served by a surly chef, we had an early night and set the alarm for 2am. Creeping out of our dorm room and armed with torches, we were soon picking our way towards the summit. In the main the trail was clear, and the only time we questioned our night hike was when we had to use hands as well as feet to clamber to the top. But we were rewarded with the Costa Rican flag snapping in the wind and a clearly painted sign to tell us we’d reached our destination. We didn’t have long to wait before sunrise, which was lucky as we were the coldest we have ever been – even with all extremities covered, it occurred to us that we might never have feeling in our hands again. Yet the view was more than compensation. As spears of pink darted across the horizon, the folds of mountain and deep, cratered rock around us were revealed. Beyond, and very faintly, we could see both seas, to the east and west. And, amazingly, it was ours to enjoy alone.

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Duly rewarded we set off back to base to collect the rest of our stuff. By 8am we were on the move, ready to tackle the 14k back home. Or so we thought. On reflection, and despite popular opinion, down is not always better than up. Having seen the landscape once, it feels a bit like overkill having to pass through it all again, at least by the time your knees have started to feel like balls of fire with every laboured step down. And while this time the descent didn’t involve getting lost, it did involve torrential rain, hitting about the half-way point and acting like cold, sneaky fingers that work their way into collars, cuffs and waistlines and turning the formely robust path into a mulchy slide.

With three hikes now behind me I’ve realised something – hiking brings me out in a rage. All rationality goes out the window: if Chris dares to suggest that, perhaps, my toddler-like pace might be quickened, I feel utterly affronted; the occasional mosquito on the way up become scheming, evil swarms determined to fox my every move; each slip or step in ankle-deep mud is Mother Nature herself slapping me in the face. And there’s something else. I am not designed for hiking. My back aches within an hour and my ridiculous flat feet barely keep me upright when standing still. What’s more, there is not a competitive bone in my body. I blame my arts-led school: where elsewhere children were encouraged to fight for that cup, or medal, or title, our school were busy using rugby balls as papier mache mask moulds for the next school play.

Ultimately though, it’s not the discomfort, the mud, or the rain that is to blame. The problem, I’ve realised, is ourselves. We chose to climb this mountain. We put ourselves in this situation; hell, we even paid for it! Chris spent a good 3 days trying to phone someone to arrange a permit and the first time he got through a woman screamed at him in rapid Spanish while apparently in the midst of a fist fight in a wind tunnel. Just to get to the right town involved three buses, two taxis and a punishing climb, laden with all of our belongings.

But it’s the strangest thing – as soon as the pain is over, it’s forgotten. Once we reached Casa Mariposa – mercifully at the trail’s end, and one of the nicest places we’ve stayed – all was forgiven. We even revelled in our aches, acting as they did as the contrast to the pure joy of a hot shower and a proper bed. It’s like tattoos, or child birth, or golf – in the relief of getting through it, you’re somehow convinced it was a good idea all along.

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Madera Volcano Hike, Ometepe, Nicaragua

Buoyed by the success of our first hike, we felt ready to tackle another. So confident were we that we decided to forego the usual research, deeming a quick scan through the first of many travel blogs sufficient.  Somewhere, someone said we could walk up Madera Volcano (Ometepe) without a guide. That was good enough for us.

That morning, the breakfast we thought we’d pre-ordered didn’t materialise so we opted for some slices of bag-squashed bread with a light spread of bag-dried peanut butter, all washed down with three large mugs of sweet coffee. Setting off around 9am, we were sure we’d be back well within the 8 hours proclaimed on the sign at the foot of the national park, and we’d packed accordingly: one bottle of water and a handful of crackers was all we’d need.

Things started well. Within minutes we were surrounded by nature’s loudest alarm, the guttural call of a family of howler monkeys. Soon we could see the tell-tale dip in the branches as they moved closer, and found ourselves looking straight at them as they hung from their tails to get a closer look. After the obligatory photo shoot, we left them to their breakfast and were soon hiking up through the wet forest, sweating buckets as the humidity clung on. The combination of heat and poor hydration started to take its toll earlier than usual, and I had to stop regularly to catch my breath. During one breather the trees above began to sway and were soon filled with the much smaller capuchin monkeys. Cute as they were, we’d both watched enough David Attenborough to know that their somewhat sketchy demeanour suggested we were on their patch. So, filling our lungs as best we could, we carried on.

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The terrain was punishing. When not churned mud, the ground was covered in a metro map of tree roots, or, even better, actual swamp. We met two groups coming down as we ascended: the first said nothing but “good luck”, their mud soaked trousers giving a hint of what was still to come. The second only asked where our guide was, with panic in their eyes. As we headed roughly upwards, the slope grew even steeper, and as each bend revealed ever more climb we realised we had to ration our dwindling water supplies. Further ahead entire felled trees blocked our path and we had to rely on low-slung vines to help us make it across the deepest mud. More than once I misjudged the height of the trees above me and clattered into hard wood; finally, a branch snapped backwards, catching me straight across the forehead. Determined not to cry, I instead was reduced to mono syllables – a sure sign that my patience for heading blindly upwards, away from home, was wearing thin.

Finally, after hours of clambering up rocky river beds, tripping over endless hidden, mud-covered tree roots and narrowly avoiding grabbing handfuls of ant-infested vegetation to break our fall, we reached the summit. The view across the lake was spectacular, and ours alone. Buzzards soared above our heads and the sea breeze flowed around the valley carved into the mountain as sunlight played on the lake below. It was a poetry-worthy sight.

To which my only contribution was to shout, as loudly as I could, “FUCK YOU, OUTDOORS!”image

Duly relieved of my frustration, we finished off the last of our water and started our way back, happy in the knowledge that we were heading back to civilisation. There was even a lightness to our steps as we tackled the trail in reverse, those same branches aiding our primate-like swings over the churned clay. My silence switched to happy banter as we dicussed which drinks we’d buy first when we emptied the nearest tienda of its supplies. Nothing but getting lost could put a dampner on my mood.

So, obviously, we got lost.

We hadn’t even noticed when we strayed from the right path, all mud and branches looking pretty much the same. It wasn’t until we hit new and thick, knotted coffee plantation that we realised something was amiss. We persevered with our chosen path, desperately trying to ignore the fact that the sun was setting. I tried to take comfort in the fact that coffee meant a finca, and fincas meant people, until I remembered we’d just been told that it was terrain exactly like this that had been used in the war between the FSLN and the contras on the Honduran border, because it was so easy to hide in – or hide the bodies in.

Despite the setting sun the heat was intense and with no water the panic levels started to rise. Chris had obviously read the alternative version of ‘How to Motivate People‘, using phrases like “I think we’re running out of light”, “we’re definitely not in the right place now” and, my personal favourite, “I know it’s dark, we’re lost and we’re going to die, but look at those ants – they’re all carrying leaves!” By this point any attempt to avoid getting muddier had been abandoned, and we staggered through deep puddles like drunk women walking home without their heels on, propelling ourselves forward head first and willing our feet to keep going.

The coffee plants were never ending, and the slope so steep and rocky we were falling at every third step. The shadows around us were growing longer and at one point we reached a dead end, with nothing but sheer drop into the vast lake below. Retracing our steps, we came to a cross-roads and had to make a choice – the wrong one and we’d be heading further in to uninhabited jungle. Parched beyond belief and with no way of knowing where we were, I’d settled into unhelpful, silent terror. The nadir of my internal over-reaction came around the time the expression “this too shall pass” flashed across my brain. Mercifully, it was ridiculous enough to snap me out of dramatism and make me focus on finding our way out.image

Finally, the ground levelled and we found ourselves in recently worked fields. We eyed plastic rubbish dotted here and there in hope of half-finished drinks, and followed the well worn trail in what we hoped was the direction of town. And then, at last, we spotted human life – a farmer taking his cows to the river. Sweaty, pale and babbling a stream of poorly expressed Spanish, we must have looked insane. Thankfully, he didn’t run away and instead simply nodded, beckoning us to his camp with a wave.

As we collapsed in a heap, we roused the farmer’s son, who emerged from his hammock with a curious grin. It transpired we weren’t the only idiot tourists to have got lost here; they’d rescued others before. In fact, the farmer knew just what to do, appearing from behind us with two freshly cut watermelons, still hot from the sun. What followed was not refined, with both of us setting about the slices of fruit with pure, animalistic desperation. Chris at least attempted basic conversation while I sunk my whole face into the sweet flesh, gurgling and dribbling with utter abandon.

The farmer’s son – Miguel – took us the rest of the way to the main road, though not before revealing that someone had died getting lost on Madera at night. As we ached our way home, the darkness fully set in and a thunder storm rolling in around the mountain, we resolved to never, ever be that stupid again.image

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