I had been staying in the beach town of Dominical a few nights already, and compared to the world-class surf experience I had just had in southern Costa Rica, the conditions had not been great.
It was August, and the off-season for the droves of American and European tourists that flock to Costa Rica every winter. So Dominical was sleepy – very sleepy. This isn’t a big deal when the surf is good, but when it’s not, a surf bum can quickly start to wonder about what they’re going to do with their day. And what the hell are they doing with their life!
And that’s when you know it’s time to get a move on. Time to get on your feet and out of your head and find something else to do in the area. Besides – it’s Costa Rica! Apart from great surf and beaches the country is filled with natural treasures, wildlife and all sorts of activities for tourists to get up to.
Thanks to the internet and the well-developed tourism industry of Costa Rica, it wasn’t hard to quickly come up with a few ideas and narrow it down from there. I decided I would head to some waterfalls in the area, and from what I had read, Nauyaca was the go.*
I had a chat with the guy working at the front desk of my hostel, and told him I wanted to head that way soon with a ride. He told me it would be $20, which was actually a pretty good deal compared to what I was expecting for a random, on-demand transport in Costa Rica, and I soon figured out why.
Perhaps because my Spanish is functional and I indicated I was looking for an affordable way there, or perhaps just because that’s the way it was on such short notice, his brother (or cousin, or friend, like I said, my Spanish is only ‘functional’) and a buddy showed up in an old Mitsubishi van from the ’80s or ’90s that, overall was in pretty good shape, but things like door handles and window levers and the like had long ago fallen victim to a combination of time and las brechas (dirt roads).
From my hostel, it was about 10 km into the mountains to the turnoff to Nauyaca. Here, the road turns to gravel and quickly descends into the valley for about 2 km before arriving at the trailhead. There is a tour company that have small Tacomas that will pile you into the back to take you down this section of the road if you like, although they only travel at certain times of day. Instead, a lot of people walk from here if they don’t have their own 4×4 or high clearance vehicle. The road seemed fairly well maintained to me, but it was very steep. My drivers weren’t about to take me down it, and I had never expected them to. I paid up here and we said our goodbyes, feeling glad to be out of that death box of a van (those mountain roads get a little hairy) and onto the reliability of my own two feet again.
I walked down the hill and along this road for a while, being passed by other tourists returning from their excursions to the information center by Tacoma pickup bed. Eventually, I reached a little parking area where there was also a small and quaint horse ranch, which also provides accommodations. This is where the road ends and the trail begins.
I kept on moving, onto what you might describe as an ATV trail and across a small bridge over the Río Barú, eventually moving into a wide, muddy ‘road’ with a fairly steep ascending grade to it. It seemed I was working my way out of the valley again.
The path winds along like this for a while, before reaching a final, steeper section at the top of which sits a small little hut marking the entrance to the Nauyaca Conservation Area. Here I paid an incredibly friendly man – I believe he is named Arturo – the entrance fee of $8 USD (or did I pay it at the information centre and simply show him my ticket? – either way visit the small information center first to sign in!). I turned left and moved onto a smaller trail where I started to descend again into the river valley.
I was in the jungle again now. Shaded by the canopy of the greenery above, I could hear the river and the falls, and it wasn’t long before I could start to catch a glimpse of them down below. There were howler monkeys and all types of birds and insects filling the lush valley with the echo of their calls.
This is not the Baja, I kept thinking to myself throughout my time in the lush landscapes of Costa Rica, and especially now. I passed the last of the trees blocking my view, and came to see the falls themselves finally, as they splashed into the pool and rocks below them.
Often when traveling I find that some of the most popular tourist attractions in an area can be a bit disappointing in the end. They’re often too busy or have perhaps been damaged or detracted from in some way due to their exploitation. But this was not really the case at Nauyaca!
Once I had made my way down to the pool, I greeted a handful of other people that were around, and found a nice little spot a bit out of the way to set up camp and hang out for a while. I had a few snacks, and continued to take photos.
I took a dip in the pool to cool off from the sweaty hike, and explored along the river a little bit downstream of the falls. As I was taking photos, I noticed at a certain angle that I could see some other falls, up above. They looked spectacular and like they may be a fair bit higher than the lower falls.
After feeling satisfied with my time spent frolicking in the lower pool, I made my way up to the upper falls. And although they didn’t have the same opportunity for swimming, they were definitely much taller and quite spectacular in their own right.
It was later in the afternoon now, and I was the only one around at the upper falls. And that’s when I started to feel a bit of rain. “Well wouldn’t that be something”, I thought to myself at the prospect of a tropical downpour just as I was about to start my 16 km hike back to the hostel.
And within minutes, practically just as I had made up my mind to start working my way back, sure enough, it started to pour. It wasn’t so bad with the shelter of the rainforest canopy above, but as I reached the road again I could see it was really coming down. I took shelter for a couple of minutes with Arturo, but realized that it was unlikely to completely let up soon, and that I had to get a move on. So off I went, out into the monsoon, shirtless with my raincoat thrown over my head and backpack to protect my camera gear. I was drenched to the bone within seconds.
I made my way down the trail and back to the ranch fairly quickly. Then up the valley road back up to the highway. It was still raining, and there was a bus stop nearby where I saw two fellow travelers from the hostel waiting, but from what I could tell it would be about 45 minutes until the next bus. I waved, it can’t be that far to walk, I told myself, not having made great note of exactly how far it was back down the mountain road to Dominical. I was training at the time for a long trail run race in the desert sun, so figured this extra exertion couldn’t hurt. But I had underestimated the journey. ahead and soon came to regret it.
Down the hill I went, trying to walk on the ‘shoulder’ of the road but it was busy and the road was small, so I got relegated to the brush and scrub on the side of the road. It was wet from the rain and I was just becoming more and more soaked with every moment, and walking in the ‘forest’ of waist-high plants had me thinking of all the insects that call Costa Rica home. I quickly started to realize this was not ideal. Should I try to hitchhike? Nah I’m sure it will get better soon…
And then before long, a saving grace. A car stopped in the middle of the road with its 4-way flashers on. What the? It seemed like a mirage at the time.
The driver opened the window and waved me over, and I quickly realized it was some folks from the hostel. They must have also been doing the hike that day, but enjoyed the luxury of their rental car to get back. They had even picked up two others from the hostel – the guys that were waiting at the bus stop. Clearly I should have waited there too.
And then, just minutes after starting to worry I was going to be starving, exhausted and full of insect venom by the time I made it back to the hostel, I was pulling up to it in a nice, comfortable, air-conditioned SUV with some good company and conversation about the day’s adventures, and everyone’s larger stories and travel plans.
And as I have a tendency to do, I turned to one of many quotes that carry meaning in my life, and tend to recur throughout it: it all works out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out yet, it musn’t be the end.
*now kids, always keep in mind not to believe everything you read. Google ‘critical thinking’. It’s a dying skill.