It’s 5am in the jungle and the orchestra is tuning up for sunrise. Cicadas strike up a tremulous soundscape, toucans and quetzals lay down their motifs, and then comes the bass: a deep-throated roar that crescendos into the howler monkey chorus. The symphony is in full voice as the sun peers over the horizon.
A piece of paradise
This is what it’s like to wake up at Bolita, an eco-hostel in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. We’d arrived the night before, after a stern uphill hike through dusky forest. On reaching Bolita’s glade, an impossibly beautiful sunset opened up over the distant Golfo Dulce. While we drank in the scene, a grey-haired man appeared at our sides with a glass of water. “It’s piped straight from our rivers, 1200m high,” he informed, as we gulped it down thirstily.
Anton and I had just met owner Ron, an urbane Canadian in his early fifties with a twinkling eye who’d bought the place in 2003 along with his business partner Val. “Not a single bag of garbage has left here for 11 years,” he told me proudly. Ron’s passion for sustainable living has found its creative outlet here, in rustic overhead showers and a fully flushing toilet system that transforms all waste into compost. And all this under the umbrella of the forest canopy. As we toured around the place, a pair of scarlet macaws screeched high overhead, flashing their red underbellies.
And then there’s the trails, laid in a flurry of landscaping during the first few years. I couldn’t begin to imagine how it feels to own 150 acres of rainforest, never mind selling everything you own to buy them. “I didn’t want to work for anyone anymore,” Ron told me. We knew the feeling. So many of us dream of a great escape. What was the secret to making it reality?
As nature intended
The next day, I asked Ron for advice on the trails. “I encourage people to take the Big Banana,” he quipped wickedly. “It’s clothing optional. If it were up to me, the whole place would be. But we have to think of the guests.” In fact, Bolita’s guest are a remarkably relaxed bunch, here to soak up the natural beauty and catch a glimpse of the region’s diverse wildlife. Plus there are a handful of international volunteers who help with the running and the upkeep of the place. Always on the lookout for improvements, Ron and Val are constantly renovating and improving this gem of a hostel. The recently added cabañas are the latest innovation; little pods of luxury opening to panoramic views of the rainforest.
Later that day, Anton and I set out for a hike. Once I reached the “clothing optional” sign, I pulled my bikini strings to free myself from the triangles of material. It felt like opening a parachute. With a little persuasion, Anton did the same. Despite our fear of seeing another guest, it was exhilarating. If it was this easy to break out of one convention, why not more? Perhaps in this small act of escape lay the key to a greater one.
A walk in the woods
We didn’t encounter a soul on our hike that day. But we weren’t alone. A troupe of spider monkeys gesticulated from the branches. A black and green poison dart frog hopped by. The iridescent wings of a fallen Morpho butterfly shimmered in the midday sun.
Hiking on the 14km of trails at Bolita took us through dramatically different terrain. One winds around the Valle de Frijoles, a former bean plantation. The path clings to the valley as it edges precipitously higher, and curves around a U-bend with views across the canopy and out to the distant ocean. Another trail furrows its way through mossy virgin forest. We gasped in awe at the girth of ancient forest giants, and craned our necks to trace their dizzy heights above. Yet another led us along the bed of the Rio Tigre, wading through the shallow stream and hopping over boulders and the occasional fallen trunk. As we descended in altitude, the river grew in width, and the trees grew in height until we were walking through a vast bed, perpetually gazing upwards.
Up the creek
From the river bed, we were looking for a turning on the left, a creek trail that would take us back to Bolita HQ. Finally, an opening appeared, although there was no clear path. As we procrastinated, a man appeared from a small wooden hut hidden behind undergrowth near the creek’s mouth. His dreadlocks were matted, his clothing ragged and he brandished a machete. In faltering Spanish, I explained that we were looking for the path back to Bolita. He pointed sternly up the creek with his glinting weapon. On closer inspection, the route appeared to be entirely overgrown. Still, he seemed to be confirming that it was the right direction. Off we went.
After a few minutes, we reached an impasse. There was no way through. We decided to turn back. As we returned, the forest dweller was coming to get us. “Es my feo, la ruta,” he said, jabbing his machete at the creek. The path was not in good shape following the heavy rainfall of the previous month. In fact, he told us, his shack had been all but destroyed. He’d lost most of his belongings and had relied on the kindness of locals to replace his clothing and possessions.
And so, our mysterious guide motioned for us to follow, and led us across to the other side of the creek, his little dog following faithfully behind. We proceeded along the trail, a rather generous description. In fact, without this wild apparition coming to our rescue, we wouldn’t have made it far at all. As it was, he tirelessly hacked a way through the tangled mess of fallen branches for half an hour, until we reached a recognisable trail once again. We waved him off gratefully and he slunk back into the undergrowth.
“Oh,” said Ron, after hearing about our adventure. “You hiked up the creek. I always advise people not to do that.”
A close encounter
The next day, we visited Bolita’s two waterfalls. After a baking hike, we soon cooled off in the crisp, shallow pools and massaged our sore backpackers’ shoulders beneath the thundering cascades. We also decided to check out the new discovery by one of the volunteers. He’d found a way to enter the pool above the waterfall. Ron had always known it was there, but never fancied entering, in case he couldn’t get back out. But the volunteer had done it, and the pool had been affectionately named ‘Adam’s hole’ in his honour.
The water hole was fairly accessible by clambering down some boulders and with a gentle plop into the water. Sitting in the pool above the waterfall, we could peer down the vertical jet of water. Once the cold permeated our bones, we moved to find our way out of the pool. Anton went first, while I clung onto the ledge below to keep myself out of the chilly water. All at once, he gave a yelp. “A spider!” he cried. “It bit me!” With some effort, he managed to climb back up, and give me a hand out. But the bite was bothering him. I saw panic in his eyes. We were at least an hour’s hike from HQ and this the Osa Peninsula after all. There had to be a few poisonous varieties lurking here.
“Did you get a good look at it?” I asked, trying to ascertain how worried we should be. He hadn’t, but he’d seen a big black spider scuttling off. And now pain was shooting up into his armpit. He sucked the wound to try and get rid of any lurking poison.
“Right,” I said, taking charge although with absolutely no idea of what was the best course of action. “Let’s hike back as quickly as we can.” And so we retraced our steps, hopping over stones to navigate the river, and to find our way back to the trail. We climbed briskly back up the steep trail to the Valle de Frijoles, then rushed our way around its perilous paths. Finally, we made it back, and a flushed Anton asked the assembled guests for advice.
“Well,” said one, “The first thing to do if you have a bite is to stay still and be calm. if your heart rate goes up, the poison will circulate around your bloodstream faster.”
Anton and I looked at each other. Clearly our decision to hike back at top speed hadn’t been a wise one. Another guest wondered out loud whether sucking out the poison wasn’t a good choice either, as it meant ingesting it through the digestive system. The guests began googling spiders to find the culprit, and a host of nasty looking tarantulas, and their wound-bestowing capacities, were bandied around.
Despite all this, Anton was looking pretty healthy, although the excitement proved a little too much. He retired early that night, non the wiser as to the identity of his attacker. I woke a couple of times in the night to check, and thankfully found him still very much alive.
Ron listened to our story with concern, but reassured us that no one had ever been seriously hurt by a creature at Bolita – although there are certainly dangerous ones around. I quizzed him on what he’d encountered in his time here. The list was impressive: he’d sighted a suspected jaguar on the Chiquita trail, a tayra walking past the house and a skunk had come into the hostel twice – once 13 years ago and another just last week. On one memorable occasion he saw three jaguarundi (a small wild cat native to the Americas) in a single day. Impressively, his closest scuffle had been with a boa constrictor. “We used to have chickens here, but I had to get rid of them after a particularly savage pizote attack. One day, I found a boa constrictor in there, his mouth filled with feathers.” Ron acted with nerves of steel, donning gloves, mask and raincoat to seize the intruder and release him back into the jungle. “I’ve been up here for 14 years and I still see something new every day,” he concluded.
What’s in a name?
On our last day there, I asked Ron about the name. Bolita means little Bola, a title that came about as a secondary project. “Initially, we were going to create a luxury resort called Bola up near the viewpoint.” The highest point on the estate has impressive views across the forest canopy. We hiked up there one morning for dawn to watch the sunrise over the jungle. But while Ron and Val were building their own home on the land, they started to take paying guests. In the end, Bolita took over. But the word Bola too, had its own meaning, Ron explained. It refers to a perfectly spherical stone ball, anywhere from a few centimetres to up to two metres in diameter. Several of these mysterious artefacts from Pre-Columbian times have been found on Bolita land over the years.
It was a fitting note on which to end our stay. After all, Bolita inspired the same sense of wonder for me. How did such a place even exist? Just like the bola stone, while the practicalities of its fabrication might be explained, there was still a touch of magic about this rainforest haven that defied rhyme or reason. On our final morning, the jungle chorus serenaded our dawn descent along the trails, with a particularly rambunctious group of howler monkeys playing us out. We couldn’t wait for our next visit.