Costa Rica Journal: A jungle hike through a Tico’s family biological reserve


A jungle with a view: Playa Samara from the edge of the Werner Biological Reserve.
A jungle with a view: Playa Samara from the edge of the Werner Biological Reserve.

Here’s one way to get away from ex-pats even in a place without many: Dive into a jungle. Costa Rica is lousy with rain forests. Jaguars still roam the dense growth throughout the country which, from the air, looks like the Amazon with beaches.

The jungle in Samara, the Werner Biological Reserve, is a private jungle. Named after the descendent of Alvaro Teran, my guide and supreme defender of Samara. Tall and tan with black parted hair and the youthful face of a young man in love with nature, Teran is the grandson of German immigrants, the Werners, who came to Costa Rica 100 years ago. They opened an office supply store in Costa Rica but would started coming to Samara 50 years ago to get out of boring, ugly San Jose. (In three trips to Costa Rica, I have yet to hear anything good said about San Jose. It’s the Indianapolis of Central America.) Back then, Samara had two or three houses.

Twenty years ago his parents bought 246 acres outside Samara. It was once dry, tropical land used by cattle farmers. Instead of using the land for profit, his parents turned it into a biological reserve. Two years ago, Alvaro cleared a walking path through the jungle and started tours. TripAdvisor rates it the No. 1 activity in Samara. Even with a glistening beach beckoning me like the Sirens and the infinity pool just below my breakfast table, I woke at 6 a.m. to meet Alvaro.

I hopped in the back of his pickup for a 15-minute drive to the trailhead. It was 7:30 a.m. and already 80 degrees. But the humidity was even higher. I don’t sweat much. I can run a 5K, and it looks like I’m going to work. But in this humidity I sweat like a pig being led to slaughter. Fortunately, the jungle’s canopy is 100 feet high. Sun only occasionally leaked through and a weak breeze was just enough to keep me from melting into the bushes.

Alvaro was a walking Encyclopedia of ecotourism. Nearly everything in the jungle had a controversy. This jungle is full of teak wood. It’s one of the prettiest woods you can put in your home yet it apparently destroys the environment. Alvaro explained that because the teakwood trees’ leaves are so thick, the sun can’t break through at all. Thus, the ground below it rots. It’s eating away at the jungle yet manufacturers keep planting more trees.

We wandered the narrow dirt path just muddy enough from the evenings rains to turn my Tevas into ice skates. Luckily the trail only went to 780 feet which is about the highest point in all of Nicoya Peninsula. You could live in this jungle. There’s that much food. Most of it tastes like shit, but you could live here. Take termites. I did. Alvaro laid his hand on a tree branch connected to a termite nest the size of a beehive. He let about a dozen little specks crawl over the back of his hand. Then he licked it.

“Here,” he said, pointing to the branch. “You try. They’re good.”

So I put my finger up and I pulled away when just a few hopped aboard and I didn’t get engulfed in a black swarm. I flicked my finger with my tongue.

“Now bite,” he said.

I crushed the little critters with my teeth and, believe it or not, a sweet fluid leaked onto my tongue. It wasn’t bad, tasted a little like weak nectar.

“Put a few thousand on your hand and you can get filled up,” he said.

Alvaro Teran leads us through his family's jungle.
Alvaro Teran leads us through his family’s jungle.

To be honest, it tasted better than the bitter leaves I ate or the thick, gooey nut I cracked open and tried to eat like a kiwi.
What did taste good was the carao plant. Alvaro cracked open a lime-sized nut and inside was the gooey brown goodness of what tasted just like dark chocolate. It was like stumbling onto a tree of Godiva.

Actually, this area has one of the highest average life expectancies in the world. Alvaro said sociologists have come to Nicoya to study why and they have made three conclusions: One, people avoid the heat. They wake before sunrise and work until about 11. Then they quit. They have a coffee, eat lunch, sleep, visit with friends. When the sun starts to go down they finish their work. It’s low stress, low fatigue. It’s a direct opposite of what Americans do. Two, there are no chemicals in the food. Everything is natural. Costa Rican cuisine is one of the blandest in the Western Hemisphere. Pinto gallo (rice and beans) is the national staple. It’s tasty and filling but eat it seven days in a row and you start dreaming of clones at Starbucks. However, Costa Rica is crawling with fantastic fresh fruit and fish. How many people get fat and have heart disease eating fruit and fish? Three, they drink rain water. Costa Rica has one of the healthiest water systems in Latin America. Alvaro said the rain water has more magnesium and calcium than regular tap water. Costa Ricans have very strong bones because of it.

“Go to the town of Tanto Domingo,” he said. “You see people 87, 93, 97, 100 years old. My grandfather is 75 years old and still keeps up with me here. And he has a machete.”

After a while I started asking Alvaro questions. He grew up in San Jose and came here every summer with his parents. He went to college on the Caribbean side to study agricultural biology and returned here to work. I asked why Samara hasn’t become overrun with expats and tourists.

“We have the example of Tamarindo,” he said.

Tamarindo, 17 years after my visit, has turned into the punch line of Costa Rican ex-pat jokes. It’s as if the country conceded that beautiful corner of their country to North Americans, kind of like an ex-pat zoo where they locked them in and threw away the key.
The government of Samara put their mouth where their money is. It controls the valuable water source but has refused to allow any prospective hotel to use the water. No water. No hotel. Thus, as I look out over the beach from this spectacular living room vista, I don’t see a single multi-story building.

The Ticos resent the growth. Sure, Tamarindo has supplied thousands of jobs for locals but expats have driven up housing costs to the point where locals can’t even buy in their own country.

“Costa Ricans live outside Tamarindo because it’s too expensive,” Alvaro said. “In town they make good money or they sell drugs.”

I asked other towns he said have been overrun.

“Flamingto, Brazito, Langosto, Port Rios, Monezuma, El Coco …”

He went on and on. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so sweaty in the jungle anymore. I felt especially in tune to nature with so much wildlife around me. Nearly every 10 minutes we saw a chachlaca, the largest bird in the jungle. It’s the size of a hawk with beautiful plumage and a squawk that could be heard in Nicaragua. In one clearing we looked up and saw howler monkeys hanging out on precariously thin tree branches. One seemed to be holding paws with its baby.

“Be careful when you look up,” Alvaro said.

“Why? Do they make branches break over us? I asked.

“No. They pee on you.”

At the end of the three-hour tour I gave him $40 instead of $35 and then soaked in the infinity pool. Few feelings are better for the skin and soul than swimming to the edge of a pool and looking out over a jungle I just explored. It’s full of life and brings so much life to all of us.