When Bryn finally got the collection and export permits, it all happened so fast. One minute we were eating our huevos fritos in Orosi, and the next, driving back to San Jose. After some navigational hijinks (Was it Calle 11 y Avenida 1 or was it Calle 1 y Avenida 11? It’s the latter, by the way, just in case you are ever searching for the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energia. But since nobody living San Jose even knows what the streets are named, good luck to you.), we had the permits in hand. After two months of lead time and four days in Costa Rica just wandering the countryside and waiting for these permits, it was like this: We walked into a nondescript office building, were basically handed a few sheets of paper and Bryn’s “Pasaporte Scientifico,” and we walked out 5 minutes later, slightly stunned.
The following day we finally entered Parque Nacional Tapantí-Macizo de la Muerte. This park, which remains relatively wet even during the dry season, is the entire reason that we stayed in Orosi. But this was our first visit to Tapantí. There was simply no reason to even enter the park before we had the collection permiso (especially considering the $10 per gringo entrance fee—it’s less than $1.50 for Costa Ricans). After so much anticipation, our first day in Tapantí was anticlimactic. OK, it was far worse than anticlimactic. Yes, we did seek out the lluvia, but did we ask for it to pour on us the entire day? And the miserable rain-drenched hiking really just added insult to injury: We only made 7 collections the entire day.
Now, we know rain and mud. Hiking at Los Cedros in the Ecuadorian highlands during the rainy season pretty much requires a complete daily hose-down. My rubber boots are still full of this persistent dust, the remains of mud built up over the course of weeks, which sifted into the crevices of all my belongings. But at Los Cedros I wore rain pants and wellies and a vinyl poncho. At Tapantí, in contrast, thanks to the concerted efforts of quick-dry field pants, my otherwise lovely Asolos, and an aging rainjacket, I became more thoroughly saturated with water than ever before in my life. Somehow we pushed past the limits of Gore-Tex-lined hiking boots until our feet came to resemble ungodly crosses between a mud-puppy and a naked mole rat.
Under these conditions, the most interesting trail also became the most treacherous. El Sendero Natural Arboles Caidos, or the Natural Trail of the Fallen Trees, had two attractions for us. Many of the trails at Tapantí have been constructed for bird watchers and casual hikers. They are relatively flat and short and lead to a lookout or small river. By contrast, the fallen tree trail climbs steeply up into the forest, getting closer, we hoped to those elusive oak trees. And, for people who hate to backtrack (us), hiking (driving, canoeing, any kind of transportation) in a loop is totally ideal.
Did I mention that the trail climbed steeply, however? Let’s say, actually, that while you, the hiker, are climbing steeply, most of the trail is actually exiting the forest in the opposite direction, in a sizable stream that mounts a pretty decent catarata at times. Conclusion: Naming a trail for its fallen trees is actually an effective way to abdicate responsibility for trail maintenance. A hiker expects erosion and tangles of brush on a trail named for destruction, right?
All in all, however, we did make one very nice find. A totally bizarre bolete (Yes–this is good! A mycorrhizal fungus!), Calostoma cinnabarina (often called the “gelatinous stalked puffball”), which looks as if it is covered in slimy tomato seeds. However, by Bryn’s calculations, which weigh the cost of a research trip against the number of collections made, this bolete ought to be covered in 24-karat gold leaf, not tomato-seedy slime.
So, what next? We decided to enter the park from the other end, at a biological station called La Esperanza, where the elevation is considerably higher. This entrance, which Roy Halling showed Bryn some years ago, is unsigned at the Inter-American highway and lies at the end of a pretty nondescript, rough country road running through an extremely tiny town full of very friendly people (and at least one very cute little cow).
Fortunately, my husband has a photographic memory when it comes to the location of mushrooms, as well as an internal compass to beat the band. I’m not giving too much of the story away when I reveal that, in addition to these fine qualities, he also appears to have some surprising and extremely useful skills that involve the artful combination of a padlock and bobby pin.
Driving into the park on this gorgeous morning, we happened to pass a Ministerio de Ambiente y Energia truck driving in the opposite direction. Myself, I took this as a promising sign that we were moving in the right direction.
When we arrived at the entrance, however, it became clear that the truck also represented the departure of the ranger. No, we did not break into the park. Luckily for us, the ranger had left the gates wide open, so we simply drove up the road to a large grove of alder, where we started our mushroom search. Over the course of the morning, we worked our way back down the road, enjoying a really beautiful sunny day below the aforementioned oaks.
Just after lunch, however, we were near the station again, so we decided to go chat with the ranger. This was the moment that we discovered ourselves to be locked into Parque Nacional Tapantí-Macizo de la Muerte.
For days we had been trying to gain entry and now, well, it appeared that we weren’t going to be leaving it anytime soon.
It was 2pm, so we had about 4 hours till sunset. It looked like we would be hiking out of the park, so I wanted to make sure that we got a jump on the darkness, just in case it proved to be a struggle to contact someone who could also get our car out. Bryn had other ideas.
We’ve been here before. I have a lot of faith in my husband, in many respects, but as a lock-pick, he has never displayed much talent. But when he said: “Do you have anything I could use to pick this padlock?” I just dug out a bobby pin and shut my mouth. It was an opportunity to lay in the sun for a little while and gear up for the long hike back to the Inter-American.
Not five minutes later, however, there was a loud clang. He truly did pick that lock.
Art or luck? More likely that double-layered luck again—the fortuitous convergence of some preparation and that telling “Made in China” stamp on the lock’s iron backside. In any case, we proved to the bureaucratic administration of Costa Rica’s natural resources that we won’t be kept out of the park—and we sure as heck will not be kept in either.
Yep, we showed ‘em. Even if neither of us quite had the vocabulary en Español to explain the lock-picking story to the ranger when he reappeared later that day.