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Costa Rica Continues: House Geckos, Lizards and Realizing I’m Not a Jungle Girl

So, where did we leave off?

Ah, yes… about to head up the mountainside dirt road. Now slicked with rain.

After a few tries to ensure the 4×4 function was working properly, I shifted into low gear and began what I expected to be a 5-minute (so I was told) slow climb up. The jeep lurched along the dirt road, rutted and pitted by small and large stones alike. Dark and muggy, the jungle’s moist branches and vines hung low and glistened eerily in the glare of the headlights. With only about 10 feet in visibility, the jungle felt closer and more oppressive and each hidden, unknown stretch more harrowing. Battling with the shadows and the darkness, I had spent far more than 5 minutes trying to follow (figure out might be more apt) the directions, sneaking in u-turns on the path when I was clearly wrong, then just randomly turning this way and that praying I’d find a sign (in the dark) that would point me on the right road. Eventually, I knew it was time to give in and ask for help.

Jungle Walk – Dominical, Costa Rica

Ah, thank goodness for that local SIM card. I tried the number the owner had given me. Three, four rings… no answer, then, a message in Spanish. In desperation, I began dialling the number in different variations: with the country code, without the country code, with a leading 0, etc. – none of them were working! Then I remembered that the owner, N, had provided a different number for her partner, B. He answered! It turns out, I had chosen the back path – while shorter, it was a little harder to navigate for newbies, particularly, in the dark. Kindly (I learned later that he was actually away with visiting family), he stayed on the phone guiding me all the way up. Upon arrival, he told me just to honk twice and N would come out.

A little surprisingly, I was greeted not only by N, but by 8 dogs as well, all varying in colour, size and shape, her rescues and adoptees. Trying to make my way to the little studio in the dark (no outdoor electricity really) without running them over was an additional challenge I didn’t feel I needed at that moment, but it was the least of the difficulties for the day.

N kindly gave me some food from her own kitchen and some tea. She showed me to the little studio and then left me to settle in.

Relief does not fully express how I felt at that point to have arrived in one piece with no damage to the car nor to myself, especially after having had to put serious deliberation into the possibility that I might crash into a tree, a car, an animal or just drive off the side of a cliff. I wolfed down the rice crackers with jam that N gave me and enjoyed a sip of hot tea.

View of Playa Hermosa and the Surrounding Jungle – Sunrise from the Studio, Casa Vista

Suddenly, loud scratching noises started up. I looked around, trying to isolate the sound. More scratching, along with a few bumps. From the corner of my eye, I noticed movement. Two pale, grey-coloured lizards had come racing out from behind the tall dresser in the corner. Completely startled, I really didn’t know what to do. I watched as one chased the other, back down behind the dresser then back up onto the wall above it. This, was too much.

I couldn’t do this… could I? I called N and informed her that there were two lizards in my studio. Two lizards? What colour were they? How big were they? Small, pale grey I replied. Oh, she said, those are house geckos; they’re kind of everywhere here in Costa Rica, nothing to be afraid of, they don’t go near humans. Oh, okay… I sputtered, embarrassed by my fear of them, not to mention my ignorance. How had I come to Costa Rica and not known that I would likely be sharing my space with house geckos?

My heart was still pounding. The geckos continued scuttling and scratching. Without fully realizing it, my anxiety continued to expand, now verging on panic. I tried to tell myself that I could handle this – after all, the way N described them, they were clearly harmless and ubiquitous here. Rationality does not help in these situations.

I reached for my cell and called my friend, L, dearly hoping that she would pick up. When she answered, I proceeded to relay the entire story to her from start to ‘finish’, picking up the car, getting lost, avoiding stray dogs, driving through the wall of rain, losing all concrete awareness of where I was or what was around me, getting lost again, driving up the wet, muddy, dark dirt road, getting lost, finally arriving and then, being accosted by geckos. I relayed the reaction of the owner and then, unbelievably (to me), began to cry, all the while feeling absolutely ridiculous for crying in reaction to a bunch of tiny-ass practically domesticated lizards that no one here felt any fear of. And as we continued talking, her discussing random topics to try and take my mind off things, it gradually dawned on me that my tears weren’t really a reaction to the geckos, but rather to the shock of having the hard-won relief I’d finally attained upon arrival so abruptly torn away by another unknown, another experience I wasn’t prepared for. Eventually, I made it to bed.

Any qualms I had about continuing to stay in this studio for the full two weeks completely disappeared when I awoke to the view.

Sunrise View From the Porch of Casa Vista

Deluding only myself, I vowed to stay the full two weeks.

True to N’s word, the two geckos clearly did not want any part of me, preferring to stay behind the dresser/armoire. Foolishly, I chose not to consider what might be going on hidden away from my now-alert eyes. Just as I began to get comfortable with the presence of the two clandestine geckos, I discovered that there were now babies, three to be precise.

Now, two adult geckos who tended to stay out of sight and in one place, that was one thing. But now I had three baby geckos who clearly hadn’t developed a fear of humans yet, who hadn’t figured out that they should stay in areas out of reach. They were now surprising me on the kitchen wall by the toaster oven, by the light switch, by the faucet and on the counter; then, upon entering the bathroom, there one sat, on the low, tiled shower wall. 

Baby Gecko (1 of 3) on the Shower Tile

The anxiety returned and multiplied. Even as I reminded myself that the baby geckos were hardly likely to come near the giant being that I must have resembled, their behaviour was not increasing my confidence in this conclusion (they clearly hadn’t developed the appropriate fear and flight responses yet). Finally managing to convince myself that I was physically safe, there was still the problem of gecko poo. I was finding a fair amount of it in the studio now that there were five of them. Given the tendency of the baby geckos to wander haphazardly, immune to the dangers that led adult geckos to hide, wasn’t it possible, if not likely, that one might decide to hang out over me as I slept and release a dropping?

Geckos like humidity, so my solution – as futile as it may have actually been – was to keep the fans blowing cool air around me to keep the geckos away. Well, it seemed to work anyways.

Each morning, I would awake to that spectacular view and any residual presence of the anxiety and difficulty sleeping from the night before would dissolve and I would renew my pledge to stay.

One day, I thought I’d spend some time hanging out at the other studio, Casa Selva. I had originally booked this studio, but due to an accidental double booking, I ended up at Casa Vista for the first few days of my stay. Casa Selva now sat empty, but the previous guests had mentioned that they’d seen a mouse (not so unusual in a jungle, I suppose), while N also remarked that she believed there were bigger geckos living there. I decided that just visiting would be fine with me.

Wearing just a sarong and my flip flops, I eased into a deck chair with my coffee in one hand and my book and cell phone settled on the low table beside it. Enjoying the glimpse of water below that peeked out from between the trees, I rested my feet on the low railing and leaned back into the cushion. I felt my breathing slow, the light wind teasing my hair and skin.

Remember the porch from Casa Selva…?
Suddenly, I felt something land on my upper left arm. From the corner of my eye, I saw green. A leaf perhaps? I desperately wanted it to be, but it had more volume and some weight to it. I realized it had to be… well, a THING. A mottled scream left me and I jumped out of the chair, flinging my left arm out instinctively, knocking the object off its comfortable perch on my limb. Drops from the forgotten coffee in my right hand sloshed onto my sarong. I looked down and to the left, having caught a glimpse of the THING arch and land on the corner of the porch. A green lizard, 7 to 8 inches in total length, roughly half of that made up by its tail. It stared at me calmly, unaware of why its choice of my arm as a resting place could possibly have resulted in such a violent upheaval. I did the only thing I could think of: I took its picture with my cell phone. 

(Sadly, I’m having some trouble retrieving my own image of the lizard from my old SIM card, so for now, here’s a close-up shot of the same type of lizard, a green anole, from ‘caspar s’ and flickr, via Wikipedia)

Neotropical green anole on vegetation.jpg

Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I looked down at my left arm and saw scratches from the lizard’s nails, a perfect impression of where at least one of its feet took hold during its very brief stay on my appendage. I wasted no time leaving that porch. Clearly, I was not meant to stay at Casa Selva. When I saw N next, I told her about the green lizard that docked briefly on my arm and showed her the nail marks and the cell phone snapshot. She was in absolute disbelief: in the eight years she’d been living in Costa Rica, she’d never heard of a lizard touching a human being and had told me as much on my first night when I called in a panic. She laughed that she’d never be able to make that statement again!

The Hammock Under the Porch: My Spot for Napping, Reading & Spotting Howler Monkeys

Despite my not-so-pleasant encounters with house geckos and green anole lizards, all the other birds and animals that resided in the jungle were captivating. Napping in one of the hammocks, I awoke one afternoon to the sounds of munching above me. Shuffling to the right edge, where I could see past the porch roof, I craned my head out searching for the source of the noise. Happily ensconced in a cecropia tree (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecropia) was a howler monkey enjoying a commonly-sized leaf from said tree. It continued to munch away contentedly, oblivious to the human laying below staring at it wide-eyed.

Another day, I was cooling off in the pool when I heard this fwoop-fwoop-fwoop-fwoop sound above my head. Looking up, I caught just a glimpse of the bird now in a glide at the end of its short trip, the unmistakable multicolour bill and body of a toucan. Another soon arrived and they swooped back and forth from a tree at one end of the pool to another on the opposite end. I would lean back and just watch, admiring the powerful sound of their wings beating the air. (Unfortunately, this picture is also, currently, locked away in the old SIM card).

Can You Spot the Lizard? – Hacienda Baru, National Wildlife Refuge

Resting White Ibis Seen at Hacienda Baru, National Wildlife Refuge

White-headed Capuchin Monkey – Nauyaca Waterfalls Horseback Riding Tour

Each time I was lulled into thinking that my comfort level with Costa Rica and its indigenous creatures was turning the corner, a new encounter would send me plummeting back to the soothing image of a nice, enclosed modern hotel room: night would return and the baby geckos would make their way out to surprise me in odd locations; I would return home from dinner, flashlight out to illuminate my foot path, when my eyes would land instead on the burly cockroach about 2/3 the size of my foot (I’m a size 6.5) standing just outside my door; a spindly-legged black spider that looked like a 5-year old had drawn it, would scuttle off with astonishing speed, the flip flop in my hand barely moving before the arachnid had disappeared from view. The final straw, though, that thoroughly decimated my determination to stay the full two weeks was the collection of ants I found in my bed, whose source I located on the next night after which I promptly drowned what I thought was the opening, along with a trail of ants, with a heavy spray of Raid.

Willing to finally admit defeat by the second last night of my Costa Rica stay (my bizarre way of balancing my need to ‘prove myself’ with giving in), I made up my mind to spend the last night in a hotel by the airport, which turned out to be a wise choice that had nothing to do with the country’s lizards or insects: on my drive back to San Jose, a day earlier than originally planned, I encountered a 2 to 3 hour delay due to an accident on the main highway that led up and over a mountain, blocking the one northbound lane leading to the capital city. I never would have made my flight had that happened on the day of my flight!

In the end, I had to concede that I couldn’t cut it. Friends from tropical locations found it hilarious that I was afraid of the geckos but I’m from Canada! The uneasiness that started with the adult geckos and grew with the disturbing innocence of the baby geckos only multiplied thereafter with the hefty cockroach, the super fast stick figure-like spider, the line of ants and the other foreign flying, crawling and buzzing insects.

But the truth that I am loathe to admit is simple: none of the incidents listed are unusual or foreign in Costa Rica (or in many other countries for that matter); I am the odd one out. I am the one who could not get comfortable with or used to my surroundings. I’ve always thought that I could handle anything that travel threw at me and I suppose I hung in there long enough to not be totally embarrassed; nevertheless, it saddens me to think that this city girl was unable to divest herself of that layer and adjust to her surroundings. I’d like to think that one day I will overcome my fear of geckos (and the like) and return to Costa Rica or head to some other new tropical destination with nothing but an appetite for more adventure, but the nagging voice in my head is telling me that perhaps, I’m just not a jungle girl.

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Costa Rica Baby! The Journey Begins….

Sorry for the random early morning Wednesday posting, but writer’s block got in my way and I finally managed to beat it down last night.


No idea why this title jumped into my head, but it did, so I decided to just go with it. Perhaps it’s a sudden renewed enthusiasm given the country’s performance thus far in the World Cup. I mean, fair’s fair: group D winner beating both Uruguay and Italy!!

So why now? Why choose this moment to write about Costa Rica?

As part of a daily (well, almost daily) self-appointed writing exercise, I’ve been going through my travels chronologically and it’s led me to reflect a lot on traveling solo and on which locales I’ve done by myself and how/if those experiences have significantly differed from when I travel with others.

And thus, my meandering mind eventually led me back to my time in Costa Rica.

Trees near the Nauyaca Waterfalls

In December 2012, I was looking for a place that had these attributes:

  • No significant time zone difference from Toronto as I would be working while away
  • Relatively short flying time
  • Internet access
  • Warm temperatures
  • Proximity to water
  • Good value accommodation with a nice view/setting
I had negotiated into my contract a two-week period during which I could work from abroad allowing me to get my travel fix. It was a particularly touch-and-go time for my client so I needed to find a place that was in the same time zone or very close to it. 
When you get to pick up for two weeks and work from elsewhere, though, it’s hard to find a companion. First, that person has to enjoy a fair amount of alone time as I would clearly need to dedicate time to the job. Second, he/she also can’t mind staying in one place for two weeks, another tough sell when you consider that most people in Canada get a maximum of 4 weeks paid vacation per year. Or else, this individual has to have flexibility regarding how and where work is completed. 
So, solo trip it was. 
I started off by looking for a country and then whittled it down from there. Based on the above list, I felt like the Caribbean, Central America and possibly South America regions offered the best options. I ruled out the first because it tends to be more expensive and the third because I didn’t know enough about the countries there – or speak any passable Spanish – to feel like I could make it around comfortably and safely on my own. 
Once I’d settled on Central America, Costa Rica quickly popped to the top of the list as friends who’d been there before enjoyed their time there and came back with fun stories.

Now, let me tell you about how I conducted my search for a place to live (in this case). Price was clearly a factor but after that it was about surroundings, rather than location. I didn’t want to be in a city: I wanted to feel about as far away from Toronto, traffic and crowds as I could. 
A quick search on one of my favourite vacation rental sites (www.vrbo.com) followed and I quickly found a more than suitable property: Casa Selva, a little studio that looked like it was built into the jungle, surrounded by trees, and about midway to two-thirds up a mountain.

Casa Selva Porch

It was at this point, after I fell in love with it, that I realized I still needed to learn WHERE this place was. I crossed my fingers that it was a decent driving distance from one of the two international airports. Casa Selva was located in… Dominical. Huh. Where was that? A trusty Google maps search  and… 4 hours driving from Juan Santamaria International Airport. Score! A small surf town… up a mountain dirt road…. 4 x 4 required. I was in. 

Surfers Finishing Their Day – Dominicalito, the Smaller Beach in Dominical

Upon arrival at the airport, the first thing I took care of was purchasing a SIM card. Not as easy as it sounds. Juan Santamaria airport is not very big and it turned out there was only one mobile phone stall before exiting the customs area. Because I’d be driving straight to Dominical, this was my best chance, especially, as I would need to conduct the transaction in English.

Unluckily for me, the name on the booth’s signage wasn’t a company I recognized and so, I walked right by it and into a gaggle of people, passengers, taxi drivers, and guards. It looked like the exit but there were no signs or doors, just a couple of luggage scanners and security guards standing by. Did I need to scan my luggage again? I wasn’t sure, but no one waved me over either so I kept walking and  landed immediately at the car rental desk. Oh crap.. I’ve ‘officially’ left the airport now?

Shoot. The SIM card. I asked the gentleman at the desk and he indicated that the stall back in the airport was the only supplier available. He got up, walked me back to the security area, spoke with one of the guards and I was allowed back in to return to the cell phone company. Thank goodness for the more relaxed atmosphere of Costa Rica! The cell phone would come in so very handy later that day….

I picked up my rental car, a Suzuki Jimmy (4 x 4 with manual transmission), including GPS. TIP: if you’re driving yourself through Costa Rica, a GPS is a MUST, as roads wind unpredictably and often don’t have signs. Also, if you need to do any uphill driving as well, I recommend a more powerful engine. I had some interesting moments trying to match gears with degree of incline.

In order to get to the highway, the genteel female GPS voice led me through city streets, turning this way and that, down residential streets, veering off to merge with local traffic. The instructions didn’t work all that well – for example, directions were given in miles… I don’t have a clue how far a mile is… I’m Canadian! – and in minutes I was lost. A few U-turns and some serious nervous sweating later, I managed to get back on track and on the road. The main road that would take me to Dominical had been paved in the last 5 years or so which made the drive much more pleasurable: earlier accounts from visitors and ex-pats usually included details of bone-jarring ruts and bumps that went on for hours!!!

Inevitably, traffic jams would appear on random stretches of the road, no surprise really when much of the journey provided only for one lane traffic each way. Stray dogs were everywhere and I was terrified that I would hit one who had cluelessly wandered onto the road.

I was running late. The plan had been to get there relatively early, preferably before it got dark, but I failed to realize that in Costa Rica, unlike in Toronto, even in summer the sun sets early, around 5:30pm. Then, it started to rain, heavy, steady drops. Things were getting more complicated and I could feel my body stiffening with tension. The drops turned into a downpour and as night began to fall, the downpour turned into a torrent of rain covering the car so rapidly and violently that my windshield wipers were rendered useless, shooting back and forth so rapidly that I feared they might fly off at any moment. The sky turned pitch black and there were no lights to ease my way; while I knew the safest course of action would be to pull over, I couldn’t see anything and had no idea where I could pull over, lest I end up, best case, in a ditch, worse case, off the side of a cliff.

On top of these, let’s call them adverse conditions, the directions involved spotting landmarks that while easy (or easier) to see during daylight, were next to impossible at night. Paraphrasing slightly: once you enter Dominical, you’ll drive over a bridge (more of a gut feel than a confirmed sighting at night time in the pouring rain) and past a police shack on your left (hmmm… that concrete structure seems like a good possibility); just past the 150 km route marker (say what?!?!) you’ll see a salmon-coloured bus-stop on your right (one: bus-stops don’t look the same in Dominical as in Toronto; two: what does salmon-coloured look like in the dark??); turn left onto the dirt road leading up the mountainside across from the bus-stop. Riiiight…. The directions only got murkier once I started the uphill dirt road climb.

And during all of this, with the threat of a stray dog hit-and-run incident, little to no electricity, a pitch black wall of night sky, a deluge of water, and no clear idea of where I’m going, the one thought running through my mind is: please don’t let anything happen because I do not want to explain to my father how I got into this situation. I’m not concerned so much about the possibility of damage to the car, injury to myself, or being completely lost in a foreign country – I am shit terrified of having to explain this to my father if I live.

Clearly I made it. More on that, what I learned during my stay and how the domestic SIM card was a very advantageous item to have on hand in the next post.

Sunset at Dominicalito

Do you have a story like this to tell too? What place were you unprepared for and why?

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