Searching for Sloths
© Copyright 2021 by Žiga Povše
“It doesn’t hurt them when they fall like that?” I ask.
“They inflate. When they land, their belly is like a pillow.”
The red-headed iguana is motionless in his hands. Its striped tail is twice, perhaps even thrice the size of its grey body, and I can’t help but think what a powerful weapon it could be. My brother and I caress iguana’s coarse scales before Junior offers it a tree to claw on.
Dominical was after the city of Jaco the second stop on our trip; a place where my appreciation of Costa Rican nature truly began. Already the first morning in the hostel, I was awoken by the bellowing of a howler monkey. I jumped to the window, but the deep howls can echo for more than a mile, and all I saw was the dense forest behind our hostel. These monkeys became my morning alarm during my trip in Costa Rica.
Dominical was a small but vibrant coastal town where a well-maintained hotel on one side of the street faced a neglected shanty on the other. It was tied together by three dirt roads, and it occupied only a fraction of a beach that stretched for miles. A belt of palm trees separated the town from the beach, giving Dominical a sense of jungle resoluteness. Parrots and toucans were flying around and resting on trees or electricity cables. Monkeys came and went, and there was a river with crocodiles nearby. During strong rainfall the river flowed intensely into the ocean, and crocodiles sometimes wandered there, endangering surfers. Junior actually showed me a video of one crawling on the beach, not more than one month prior to my visit.
We met Junior through another guest of our hostel. One afternoon we were chilling on the beach close to his surf school, and he stopped by since he recognized one of us. We were talking about what parts of Costa Rica were worth visiting. My brother and I were choosing between Osa Peninsula in the south and Manuel Antonio National Park slightly to the north. The nature in the south was much praised, but the national park guaranteed sightings of wildlife. One of my main goals was to see a sloth.
“You wanna see sloths?” Junior asked. “I’ll show you sloths. Bring your car.”
We picked him up five minutes later, and he guided us to the highway above Dominical. We drove north for about a mile when he told me to slow down, stretching his neck out the window and scanning the treetops.
“They are always here, man!” he said.
“How big are they?” my brother asked from the back seat.
“Not that big. But you can see them. You can see them on these trees.”
The road ahead was empty and I also dared a hasty glance at the trees, discerning no monkey-like shape.
“Come on, sloths. Don’t make me look bad,” Junior said.
After two miles, he told me to turn around. On our way back he continued searching for sloths but detected none. We stopped once and he ran into the forest and returned disappointed.
“Usually there are so many here, man. They come to sunbathe after lunch. You can see many.”
“It’s okay. It’s just bad luck.”
“They made me look bad, you know,” he said happily. “But I promised you sloths. And you were talking about going south. Let’s go to Osa Peninsula tomorrow! I don’t have any surf lessons. We’ll see sloths and howlers and everything!”
We picked up Junior at 8 the following morning and drove southward. The lush forests surrounding Dominical, teeming with toucans, black vultures, macaws and other smaller birds, soon vanished. The shift to the extensive oil palm plantation was quite sudden. Although I was fascinated by countless palms growing in strict lines as far as the eye could see, the empty space between them told the disheartening story of jungle wiped out. The road we drove on cut through the plantation, and we had to stop once to let a group of workers cross the road. One of them stopped the traffic and then signaled the others. A short caravan of carriages pulled by oxen emerged from the plantation on the right, crossed the road, and disappeared among the palms on the left.
After we branched off the main road we reached the town of Sierpe encircled by a river bearing the same name. Its water was impenetrably brown, reminding me of the rivers from cartoons where crocodiles were mistaken for floating logs. The road went straight ahead and disappeared under the water, so I thought this was a temporary river; a flooding consequence of the rainy season.
“No man, this river goes in the ocean,” Junior said. He rolled down the window and greeted the idle locals close by. “Pura Vida!”
A low, fenced platform with a small boat attached to its port was moored on the other side of the river. One of the locals waved to the man on the platform, and he jumped to the boat and turned on the engine. The whole platform jerked.
It dawned on me. “Oohhh, it’s a ferry?”
The ferry turned around and sailed for our side, moving almost as lazily as the river--which made sense because the little engine could not have developed more than five or six horsepower. After the ferry landed, the man dropped the planks and I reversed onto it.
As we were halfway across, the view of the river opened. I had never seen mangroves before and they were an interesting shift from the European riverbank trees. Their roots reached a foot or two above the water, making the crowns look like they were shying away from it. Palm trees rose on the riverside we were sailing to, and beyond them deciduous trees thickened, marking the beginning of another jungle.
“Are there any crocs in this river?” my brother asked.
“For sure,” Junior said. He pointed to a sandy clearing on the far bank. “They often rest there. Not today apparently. Did you see the Crocodile Bridge?”
“Yeah we did. So many crocodiles in one place!”
Reaching the other bank, we paid the ferryman our fare, and then drove onto the muddy soil.
“Turn on 4x4, it’s going to get rough now.”
I pushed the button and the car jerked uphill. Rocks protruded from the muddy road, tossing the car left and right. The back door started creaking, louder and more insistently than ever before, but Junior reassured me it was just the fault of that car model. Trusting him, I focused on the road but couldn’t help glancing at the rear-view mirror every now and then. The door remained closed and I shifted my glances to the surrounding nature, hoping to glimpse a macaw, sloth, monkey or any other animal we had set out to see. But the jungle was dense; it barred our eyes from looking too deep inside.
The road led up, and the jungle soon thinned. Meadows with groups of trees spread around us, and an occasional house came into view.
“Stop here,” Junior said.
The road turned left, but a gate was straight ahead. He jumped out of the car, opened it and waved us inside. The short driveway led to the top of the hill where a cottage stood.
“Can we go here?” I asked, alerted by my western private-property mentality.
“Sure, my friend owns this place, but he’s not here now. It’s not the season.”
The cottage was a small soda; an open-air restaurant serving only traditional Costa Rican food, but it was closed. Junior led us to the veranda in the back. Below us were the estuary and the Pacific. From afar it looked like a peaceful land with a few rivers finding their ways to the ocean, but Junior explained that the water was everywhere, that the river branches we saw were just the biggest whereas many more were hiding under the canopies of tropical trees and mangroves. Junior explained this labyrinthine terrain was the perfect setting for drug traffickers to smuggle their cargo farther north but perilous to a regular person.
“You can easily get lost in there,” he said. “But you also have tours for tourists in some parts. It’s beautiful.”
We lingered a little longer on the veranda, then drove deeper into the peninsula. Rain forest swallowed us again as we descended, but not for long. It spat us into another oil palm plantation, but the sight was unlike the others. Many palms were snapped, rotten, their ferns brown. Dead. The undergrowth had already claimed several, but reaching up it was hungry for more.
“Why don’t they clean it?” my brother asked.
“This plantation’s gone. They won’t plant new palms. Jungle will be here again and that’s good. More monkeys and parrots, which means better economy.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re running Eco-tourism in Costa Rica, and tourists are crazy about it. It’s good for nature. In some cities you see monkeys running on electricity cables and on houses. We live together.”
“What about big cats. You have those?”
“For sure, man. We have jaguars and pumas. One of my buddies lives a bit deeper in the jungle and one day a jaguar came and took his dog. Just like that. It’s crazy, man. But I love it.”
For a spoiled Westerner lad like me it was difficult to imagine, to truly understand how Costa Ricans lived. Usually when you build a house you adjust the land to your needs; get rid of the weeds, the shrubs and the excessive trees. The property has to be top-notch, the lawn golf-like. In Costa Rica, towns grow beneath the tropical trees, houses are hiding in their shades, and the backyards are a vestibule of jungle. And apparently if you lived deeper in the jungle, the sounds that woke you up were not monkeys howling, but jaguars snatching your pet. Costa Ricans are reported to be among the happiest nations in the world, no doubt because of their laid-back connection to the nature.
The dead palms and young forest soon disappeared, the land became flatter and the dirt road upgraded to gravel road. It was enclosed on both sides by a wooden fence and trees; cows were grazing on the meadows beyond, making the area somewhat familiar and charming.
Not much farther we entered a forest again and Junior smacked my shoulder.
“Stop the car. Capuchins!”
I stopped the car and looked up. The trees from left and right reached over the road, interlocking their branches above our heads and forming a leafy vault. At first I didn’t see anything, so I stepped out of the car. Birds greeted me with their singing, and straining my eyes I finally perceived a black-and-white fleck moving above me. Then there was another fleck. And some more before I realized I wasn’t listening to the birds singing but monkeys squealing. Jumping from branch to branch above us was a whole tribe of capuchin monkeys. We tried to lure them closer with a banana but they were to busy jumping around, squeaking, and playing a game of tag. We admired the scene until they jumped away and we carried on with our drive.
The road proved to be a gold mine for observing monkeys. We stumbled upon another, smaller group of capuchins, but these just lay on the branches, gazing at us sideways. Later on, still in the same forest, Junior caught a glimpse of howlers--for the first time I not only heard them, but saw them as well. They were bigger than capuchins, without white spots, and they mingled higher in the canopy. Even farther down the road, Junior showed us two spider monkeys; pale, slender monkeys with long arms and legs. Then, as we were nearing the end of the forest, Junior made me stop the car again.
I gawped at the spot he was pointing his finger at. Nothing. Just trees.
“There are two!”
“Where the…” I needed some time before I noticed two black birds sitting on branches high above us. They were so far away I barely discerned the colors on their beaks.
“How the hell you saw them?! How do you see them when we are moving?”
Junior shrugged. “Been living here all my life.”
Simply put, I was impressed.
After about two hours of maneuvering the back roads, we reached the comfortable concrete highway that led to Puerto Jimenez. The ocean accompanied us the whole drive, glistening on our left. In Puerto Jimenez we ate lunch at a soda, and I downed my plate laden traditionally with beef, potatoes, rice and beans.
The last part of our trip was before us; the tip of the Osa Peninsula called Cabo Matapalo. The prior jungles were inhabited mostly by tall trees, often resembling more a dense forest than a jungle, whereas the rain forest of Matapalo boasted many more palms, strangler figs, almond trees, smaller ferns and flowers. The road between Puerto Jimenez and Cabo Matapalo failed to gift us with animal sightings, but Junior ensured us Cabo burst with macaws.
We were on a dirt road again--if you could call it that. It was full of brief, steep descents and ascents which rocks made even more laborious to drive on. Junior reassured us that it was very short, but we drove for around 20 minutes on what could not have been more than two miles, accompanied by the creaking trunk door. We soon passed some bungalows, but Junior explained they had neither electricity nor water and they were all tucked neatly among the trees. Otherwise, the nature there was untouched. He led me through the narrow trails; twigs hit against the car, tires skid where the trail was muddy. I was relieved when we reached a small clearing where Junior said to park the car.
We followed him through the Matapalan flora, pushing the ferns out of our way and on our guard for macaws. As I pushed away the last twig, I was blinded by the sunlight that the sea reflected at us. My toes sank into the soft sand of a beautiful beach. And we were alone.
The palms and almond trees stretched their crowns as far towards the sea as they could, tempting adventurers to climb them--which I did and failed quickly. I fell on the soft sand basking in the sun. I lay there for a moment, squinting at the brilliant blue sky, but the sand that received me so softly suddenly scorched my back. I jumped up, and ran to the shade where Junior sat, leaning on a palm and staring at the sea.
“Man, why didn’t we bring our surfboards?”
Even though the turquoise sea was still, the waves brought up from the south were big enough to break into small barrels. Junior pointed with his finger at the land on the other side of the bay. “That’s Pavones. One of the longest left breaks in the world. You can surf the wave for a mile. And that cape farther down is already Panama.” The Panamanian cape was far away and was slightly obscured by the heat. But now that we were so close, I wished we could stay here much longer. I wished we could stay and explore also Panama and Nicaragua, maybe even countries beyond these two.
For the moment, I settled for Costa Rica and its sparkling seas, for its rain forests and all the animals it sheltered. I hadn’t seen any sloths so far, but I had ten days of vacation left which gave me hope.
Žiga Povše has written a few short stories in the past, currently he’s also working on his first novel. He is a graduate of Translation Studies (Slovene-English-German) at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. He has worked as a translator on many projects, but he decided a while ago to dedicate more time to creative writing. He has previously been published in The Calvert Journal and has his first fiction work forthcoming for TouchPoint Press.