By: Lacey Walker
Manzanillo is a magical place. Howler monkeys in the trees, sloths hidden among the cecropia leaves, black volcanic beaches and fresh coconuts are just the frosting on the cake.
The Centro Ashe Roots and Culture Tour and each of their Costa Rica Programs are centered on learning from the local authorities to "share the story of real Costa Rican culture through Costa Rican people."
So who better to lead us on a hike through the Gondola -Manzanillo jungle than Manzanillo native and naturalist Omar Cook Campbell.
Omar has an easy grace to his stride and he punctuates each sentence with a smile and a "heh" reminiscent of a teeny bopper throwing "like" into any empty pause between words.
He started the tour by saying "Heh, so there lots of you, you know, heh, so I'll call you girl or boy. No need to take offense right? Heh."
I wondered how we would know which girl or boy he was talking to but as we soon came to find out Omar would fashion us each with nicknames as necessary. We set out on our jungle expedition with high hopes of seeing monkeys and untouched vegetation.
We didn't even have to leave town to experience our first jungle creature.
We had stopped to talk about the name Manzanillo and its origin. Innocently huddled on the beach stood a manzanillo tree, ringed in tiny golden apples.
"Don't go near that tree, heh. You know why girl?" he asked.
"It's poisonous, right?" girl #1 responded.
"Yeah!" he laughed "You fall asleep under that tree, heh, you don't wake up, right?"
Every part of the tree is poisonous from the fruit to the vapors and sap released from the bark and can cause terrible burns.
We surveyed the tree from afar like a lion in a cage.
"Ah look," he pulled us along towards another creature.
Golden Orb Spiders build giant webs and have...well giant bodies. Omar beckoned us all towards the web to admire the spiders beautiful colors and patterns.
"Ok now I need a volunteer," he said with a devilish grin. We all stepped back.
"No no, come on girl, girl, come on, come help me," he said nodding to his first victim as he reached over to the web.
The spider seeing the hand coming for her tried to scurry away but Omar snatched her off the web and held her in his hand as we watched wide eyed.
"Heh, they call the golden orb spider the therapy spider, heh. She don't bite. Unless you are her mate, heh. Come here girl," he held his hand out to Morgan.
To our surprise, after a little prodding from Omar, Morgan stretched out her hand and let the spider crawl over onto her hand.
After a few snapshots we were on our way again, headed through Manzanillo towards the jungle entrance. Again we stopped before getting to our destination - this time for tiny little busy wood cutter ants.
Leafcutter ants, also known as chicara hormiga by the Spanish speaking locals, can be seen all over Costa Rica carting their shiny jewel-toned leaf cuttings back to their hill. Omar explained to us that inside the anthill there is a fungus growing. In fact, the ant-fungus mutualism based society is more common than I would have thought. Different species of ants partner with different fungus but the end result is always that the ant feeds the fungus and the fungus in turn feeds the ants.
The quality of the leaves cut is controlled and policed by certain ants in the colony that accept or reject the ants as they pass them before entering the anthill.
As we walked through the town Omar asked us what we were interested in seeing. Everyone has different answers: medicinal plants, snakes, frogs, ironwood trees. I told him I was interested in birds.
As we approached the entrance to the jungle Omar yelled back over his shoulder,
"Hey bird girl, look, yellow-crested night heron."
Bird Girl was my nickname for the rest of the day.
The entrance to the jungle is not like any reserve or park entrance I've ever seen. There is no uniformed patrol of fee collectors, there are no gates, there is actually no road either. Instead we reached the edge of a sandy bank where a cold river flowed into the ocean and Omar squatted down and yanked off his shoes.
"Heh, you going to take your shoes off girl?"
Families carrying lunch were wading across, children holding their shoes high and Omar was already half way across motioning for us to follow.
We had been exploring for almost an hour at this point and hadn't even gotten into the jungle yet so we were all raring to go and to hike into the depths once we had crossed the stream and squeezed our wet feet back into socks and shoes. But no sooner had we started on the trail then Omar stopped us again.
"Who knows this plant?" he asked.
A few guesses were made and then a collective "Whoa really?" when he revealed the name: Ortiga, known to most of us as Stinging Nettle. The stinging nettle that most of us in the states know is a tall spindly plant with leave that usually don't grow any larger than a hand. These massive leaves were the size of my head.
Just behind us stood another spiny plant waiting for an unsuspecting victim. Hura crepitans, also known as the sandbox tree is armored in a million little spikes. If that weren't precarious enough to encounter in the forest, the fruit of the sandbox tree explodes when it is ripe, launching little shrapnel-like seeds as far as 330 feet away.
With seemingly volatile plants all around and howler monkeys bellowing in the distance, sounding very much like one's worst Jurassic Park dream come alive, it was comforting to know that a path through the jungle had already been forged by many before us and that Omar could maneuver the twists and turns leaving us to take in all the sounds, smells and sights in front of us.
We stopped at the base of an imposing tree. It's trunk swelled straight into the sky and disappeared into the canopy and its girth would have taken several of us girls - namely Bird Girl, Family Girl and Shoe girl maybe? - to encircle it.
Omar told us that this tree is referred to as an Ironwood tree. They were prized for their straightness and their durability for constructing train tracks.
The jungle is a mysterious, magical and sometimes strange place.
Case in point...
"Heh, hey Family Girl," he yelled over to Becky who has been quizzing him earlier on different plant families, "What do you call this tree, heh?"
We all had a good little snicker.
We trekked further into the trees until we came upon a tall latticed structure in a clearing. Vines stretched down from stories above and we peeked inside what would be my first encounter with a strangler fig. Strangler figs are hemiepiphytes, meaning they start out as a seed dropped on a tree branch. From there they germinate and send roots down towards the earth, vining along the tree as they go, and they send vines up towards the sun. In the process they sometimes kill the host tree and create this open airy latticed structure. It was like standing in a cathedral, looking up into the stained glass.
Along our trail we came upon this leaf massacre.
"Heh, hey girl, didn't I tell you they have a quality control ant. Heh. These leaves didn't cut it."
Aside from his vast knowledge of different plant and animal species and habitats and his obvious understanding of the jungle ecosystem, the most impressive part of Omar was his eagle sharp eyes. He would stop us all cold in our tracks and say, "Do you see the snake?" at which we would all recoil while our eyes darted to every dark clump of greenery, searching for a slither.
When he stopped us for the eyelash viper snake we were all so shocked by how far away he had spotted it that I was half tempted to poke and it and see if it was a fake that he had planted before.
Eventually the path brought us to a beach, a little sliver of beach that could only be reached by this path or a boat and we stopped to take it all in for a while and explore the tide pools and the treasures left behind in the tide.
We had one more destination to reach in our tour of the jungle so we turned from the beach and headed back into the trees.
We finally broke out of the trees again to one of the most beautiful spots in Manzanillo -
Miss May Point.
In the end we realized that we hadn't covered much ground at all, but we had seen so many things. From the beautiful blue morpho butterfly to the leggy walking palms to the impressive monkey ladder vine and all the snakes, birds and frogs in between.
The reserve is open to anyone who cares to enter but we all felt that without a guide, especially a local guide like Omar, we would have walked right by so many of those amazing things and never known they were there.