Play, Slide Show, Travel — October 13, 2011 6:00 pm

Costa Rican Cowboyin’


A ride deep into the Costa Rican rainforest results in saddle sores but reveals a greater truth about what small steps it takes to help save the planet.

Vamonos!” I yelled pleadingly as I nudged the silent Waco gently in his sides with my heels. But there we sat, planted along a steep, narrow horse trail, deep in the mountains of the Corcovado National Rainforest in Costa Rica. Dense, untamed forest stretched green as far as the eye could see, and gargantuan trees, hundreds of feet tall, clung tenaciously to the sides of hilltops. Meanwhile, I hung my helmeted head as Waco chewed grass at a frustratingly slow pace and other riders passed by me in snickering amusement.

This was not what I’d imagined when I signed up for a journey to the heart of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. I was more than 4,000 miles from Cincinnati, accompanied by 18 Walnut Hills High School students, four chaperones, one high school biology teacher, two fellow journalists and an eccentric outdoorsy philanthropist. I was tagging along to chronicle the students’ trip, hosted by Gary Morgan of Morgan’s Canoe Rentals in Cincinnati, and planned by Bill Schnure, a biology teacher at Walnut Hills. The adventure was part of an ongoing project to give Cincinnati students the opportunity for some incredibly immersive education and exploration.

On our way to the horse trail that morning, our driver told me his name was Jorgé, or “George” in English. He piloted a four-wheel-drive white Mitsubishi along the rutted path with a keen awareness and practiced skill. This was certainly was not his first rodeo. I sat shotgun and watched him steer and shift, as the hard morning sunlight sculpted his features like a chisel: the tiny soul patch, high cheekbones and hard furrowed brow. Along with his faded camouflage T-shirt, his dark skin starkly contrasted with the bright, tropical surroundings. Jorgé was quiet, stoic even. His face was worked into constant concern, but it was his dark, intensely focused eyes that hinted at the deep thoughts mulling through his head. Unfortunately, for me, his poor English and my poor Spanish limited us to a distant, although friendly, acquaintance.

The dirt path left the main road to Puerto Jimenez about two miles north of town. We passed a palm tree farm that was slowly dying from a chemical used to make way for a fresh batch of trees, and then the road opened to small patches of farmland, separated by living fences of trees and barbed wire, with a small river meandering through. Up, over, down and around: The little off-road vehicle made its way deeper and deeper into the forest, crossing through the snake-like river numerous times, its low, clear water unmasking the smooth pebbles along its bottom. It felt like hours passed in the silent car; the only sounds were the crunch of the rocky road, the whine from the transmission and the occasional cough from a student in the back—either too nervous or too tired to converse. Finally, we reached our stop: a shaded patch of road harboring 15 horses tied along a hitch rail, and three men relaxing in the respite from the sun.

Our guides were from The Rio Nuevo Lodge, a rainforest getaway owned and operated by the Aguierre family for more than a generation. Located on a mountain in the southern depths of the Corcovado forest, the lodge sits high on the bank of the Rio Neuvo (“New River”), which makes its way all the way down to the Gulfo Dulce (“Gulf of Sweet Water”). Beautifully handcrafted, the main lodge overlooks the picturesque river; behind it sit several small cabanas, each with its own bed and private bathroom. Each structure was handmade of tropical hardwoods, white cane, palm fronds and corrugated steel, all shaped into this little outdoor community for travelers, accessible by a rickety foot bridge of suspended wood planks hanging over the river. It looks like something straight out of Indiana Jones movie.


Walter Aguierre, owner of the Rio Neuvo Lodge, rests after tethering the horses. Photo by Eamon Queeney.

In addition to creating a safe haven in the middle of the jungle for adventure-minded tourists, the Aguierres give guided horseback tours of the forested hills of the Corcovado. Ecotourism, a major industry in this tropical country, includes staying in self-sustaining places like the Aguierres’ lodge and participating in eco-friendly activities like the horseback treks through the forest. As one of the few countries with “real” ecotourism, Costa Rica is the most visited nation in Central America, and tourism is a vital part of the nation’s economy, generating almost $2 billion per year. And, as home to half of Costa Rica’s species, the Osa Peninsula is a perfect place for a jungle adventure.

As we poured out of our two cars, my excitement and fear grew quickly. I had ridden a horse only once before and that was just a short gallop on a proud steed owned by a high school acquaintance. Kicking up the dirt around a rich, teenage girl’s personal stable with cowboy hat fixed in place, I’d felt like a natural Clint Eastwood. But my straight-out-of-a-spaghetti-western self was in for a rude awakening. The guide with the best English, Oscar, gave our rag-tag group a once over and was appalled at our lack of long pants. Every one of us was wearing some form of shorts, and although our tour would continue, he kept repeating how much jeans were essential. Then he gave the group—already sporting our bright blue and red insurance policy helmets—a quick speech on equine safety.

The mounts would never be Derby contenders, but they got the job done. Photo by Eamon Queeney.

I mounted Waco with help from Oscar, and sat atop the horse like a natural, or at least with as much confidence as I could feign. The high school students displayed a range of excitement, experience and fear: Some, experienced from expensive private lessons in Ohio pastures, were thrilled to be back in the saddle, while others quivered in fear from terrifying memories of equestrian run-ins. One student in particular, 15-year-old Brandon Miller, perched on a lean, white stead with a confident swagger, ready for a mountain hike or the Kentucky Derby. I looked down at my white horse, patted him and offered an affectionate whisper. I figured I would be some sort of prodigy, an expert rider and horse whisperer, a regular re-animated Wyatt Earp (without all the zombie urging for brains). But every time I looked down, Waco’s stomach diameter seemed shockingly out of whack. Horses are always this fat, right?

As we sat all saddled up and waited for the guides to get ready themselves, I tried to get the feel of the reins. It was such an odd feeling, controlling a beast so much larger than myself with flimsy strips of leather. Why would this creature willingly allow something else to ride it—especially something it could surely trample? Never mind that.  I decided Waco and I were going to be best friends. If we were going to take this journey together, we needed a relationship, and what better way to establish it than through extensive petting and whispering? Then he turned to bite my foot. Stupid horse.

Two macaws whirl in a scuffle high in the trees in the Costa Rican rainforest. Photo by Eamon Queeney.

As I speculated on the adventure that awaited us, I excitedly wondered what we might see on our jungle trek. It is nearly impossible to spend time in the Osa Peninsula and not see a gang of capuchin monkeys, a flock of scarlet macaws or a family of three-toed sloths, among hundreds of other colorful animals. The Osa is impressive even by Costa Rican standards and is one of the world’s most biologically diverse areas. Biologists, scientists and adventurers come from everywhere to research and experience its diverse ecology.

Eager to see what parade of species might cross my path two-by-two in ark-like order, I still couldn’t shake my focus from the Equus ferus caballus that was trying to gnaw off my big toe. Thankfully my stirrups had tapadero, leather covers over the front of the stirrups for my horse to chew instead. But as I looked at every other horse’s pair of stirrups, mine were one of the few that needed tapadero, which ominously suggested that Waco had a history of digit-severing.

But before I could politely decline my vicious, man-eating horse and ask for a dirt bike instead, we were off. By off, I mean we walked off slowly in a tame, single-file line. We certainly would not be competing at Churchill Downs any time soon.

The group follows Jorge', one of the lodge guides, up the first of several mountain climbs. Photo by Eamon Queeney.

I did my best to follow the tips Oscar had given us: Lean back going down hills, lean forward going up, pull on the reins and say “alto” to stop, and bounce on the saddle to initiate a gallop. Although I thought I had the rules down pretty clear, Waco begged to differ, stopping often to sample the plant life. Up and up and up we trekked, the horses hugging the edges of rutted rainforest paths. At times the jungle seemed to swallow up the trail and scraped hard, red lines on my exposed legs. Swimming trunks were a great strategy in the Costa Rican heat, but terrible for any sort of horseback riding, let alone through the jungle. I regretted the wardrobe decision immediately.

It was not until the first clearing that I realized two things: (1) just how damn high we were and (2) just how damn slow Waco was. The trees parted on the left and the rolling hills of rainforest spilled from the view in a sea of solid green. Far ahead on the trail, six of our 11 riders appeared tiny in the distance, while Waco held up the back five with his sure but lethargic hooves. One horse, so eager to trot, sped past me, closing the gap to the other group; his rider Eric Lane, powerless to stop, screamed in a terrorized amusement.

The sky looms large to the left of the trail as it winds its way along the crest of a hill. Photo by Eamon Queeney.

We rode up and down the spines of hills for what seemed like an eternity, until my wish was granted: It was time for a short break. We paused on a descending trail in the middle of the forest, while the guides tied the horses and helped us down, one by one. Not quickly enough. The last four horses, mine included, got bottlenecked on the trail as the guides tended to others. And we happened to be standing on a giant fire-ant mound. All it took was a single bite on one horse’s back leg to start a chain reaction. Stomping the bug off led to an army-sized wave of pissed off ants ready for blood, human and horse.

During the monsoon season, small streams like this one can become impassable torrents. Photo by Eamon Queeney.

We started yelling nervously; our guides seemed oblivious or ambivalent, or both. I forcefully steered Waco to safety and dismounted as quickly and ungracefully as possible. A few quick, nervous leaps and leg pats later, I was far from the hive and relieved by my lack of festering ant wounds.

A gigantic strangler fig tree provided our break-time entertainment. The tree, which was hundreds of years old and at least 100 feet tall, according to Jorgé, stood with a columnar, hollow trunk, with pillars of vine-like roots. Because the host tree it had originally grown around had died, the tree seemed like a giant web of towering, living wood, organically weaving in and around itself.

The group stayed just long enough to snap a few tourist photos under the tree and put our crayon-colored helmets back on. Just the thought of getting back in the saddle made my already sore legs glow red with burn. For round two, I was ready to show Waco how I actually rode: right. Surprisingly we sped up on the downhill (although students behind me still teased and yelled at us to speed up or make way). Waco avoided rocks and sought purchase in the loose, dark soil as I leaned back like a pro, the saddle-horn in one hand, my camera in the other. Then came a major drop, at least 80 degrees of vertical nightmare, while I sat atop a thousand-pound creature with no steering wheel or airbag. We dove in. I couldn’t help but laugh as I leaned parallel to the hillside while Waco stumbled in a controlled fall. As he kicked up dirt and rocks, I realized, my heart pumping, this was the riding I had been waiting for. Huffing and puffing, we galloped to solid ground and into the nearby river. My horse was thirsty; he deserved it. I looked back to my death-defying feat, and noticed the drop was only half as big as I thought it had been.

The only obstacle left was another uphill trail only feet from an ever-increasing, straight drop into the river below. I am not afraid of heights, but I have chosen to block this section of the ride from my memory altogether. Finally, we reached our destination and dismounted. I did my best not to kiss the ground under my feet.

A sign by the bridge that takes patrons to the lodge wisely advises no more than three people crossing at a time. Photo by Eamon Queeney.

Yards from the stable, we walked across a suspension bridge, three at a time, just as the sign said in plain English. The bridge had just enough gut-wrenching sway and slack to make you appreciate the three-person load limit. If making it across the bridge and through the forest alive did not make my day, our final destination, the Rio Nuevo Lodge, certainly did.

Before I knew it, Jerome, one of the chaperones, and I were conversing with Oscar about life, and his beautiful home. Being a proud man, Oscar quickly jumped at the chance to give us a private tour. He started with the cabanas, showing off the private bathrooms for each (a rarity in jungle lodge living), but I could tell there was something much more unique he wished to show us. We followed him along a narrow jungle footpath without a word about what we were heading to or how long it would take. Oscar, vinyl boots stomping, made his way through the overgrown trail with ease. I worked to keep up, my bare legs the perfect target for an aggressive fer-de-lance, one of Central America’s deadliest vipers. Jerome worked even harder to keep up; he was still tired from the horse riding (I can’t say I blamed him), but Oscar neither paused nor looked back to check our progress. We could have tumbled down the vertical slope to our right, and, in his excitement, Oscar would have never noticed.

Our first stop was a stream that trickled from a concrete hole in the hillside, leading to a standing pool of water, and then again to a large, white-plastic globe from which a PVC pipe extended out of sight down the hill. My interest was piqued. Here, Oscar motioned with a sweat-covered arm, was their supply of fresh water. But there was more. We stepped over the stream and carefully walked down a muddy path. My shoe slid to the ankle in mud, and Oscar’s boots started to look more and more appealing. At the bottom of the hill was stop No. 2: a small shack made entirely of corrugated steel, full of a loud mechanical humming. I peeked inside the dark, dirt-floored chamber and saw a simple, faded-red generator spinning at a terrific RPM.

The simple generator at the heart of the lodge's sustainable hydroelectric system spins inside a small tin shack. Photo by Eamon Queeney.

This was Oscar’s pride and joy—other than his two children, of course—he explained. The source of the lodge’s power was this TV-sized contraption hidden deep in the woods, happily humming to itself 24 hours per day. The hilltop aquifer fed a small-diameter PVC pipe that traveled downhill to spray out with fire-hose intensity, subsequently spinning a small water wheel. Here we were in the Costa Rican jungle, I thought, and Oscar has rigged up a DIY, completely sustainable source of hydroelectric power, the last place I expected to find it. “Ten or 15 years ago, I had no idea about [hydroelectricity],” Oscar told us. “My father showed me because my father worked at the electric plant, in Puerto Jimenez, and he make this. I love it.” I was baffled to find this perfectly feasible and effective power source, an oasis of green power in the middle of the green jungle.

Oscar also mentioned the solar cells that power the lodge during the rainy season. Through September to the beginning of November, it stops raining for maybe an hour at a time in weeks of downpour, so they must move the generator from the river basin before it is swept away. “In Costa Rica, no people like to use the water for electricity, or do not know. It is important how we use the water,” Oscar said. “It’s amazing.”

We hiked back to the lodge, and I marveled at my luck: a native Costa Rican taking his time to show us what he was proud of, what he felt was important to do to keep his country the way he loved it. He had no idea the impact it would have on me. If one family in the middle of the rainforest with a very simple set-up could create a sustainable lifestyle, why couldn’t any of us do it America? Or better yet, why couldn’t I?

I was ready for a car ride back to the small civilization of Puerto Jimenez, but instead Waco greeted me once more. My legs were unhappy about that, and my shirt reeked of sweat, but I obediently mounted my friendly steed. Waco must have sensed my exhaustion; he galloped his way back to the clearing in the woods. Well, he galloped for the first 100 feet of two-mile ride. After that, things got sketchy. I checked my watch; it was only 2 p.m. We had all the time in the world. 




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