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One Croc Over The Line

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An Adventure Begins

“Reptil es grande” Balvin, our guide, said, pointing to the 18-foot saltwater crocodile lying on a spit of rocks and gravel. There were drips of rain filtering through the canopy of mahogany and vines that looked like giant slender trees. “How many shades of green are there in the world,” I thought to myself as we glided through the fog banks rising from the river’s surface. From green to green, each shrouded in a mist that gave away the true shade of the foliage it was hiding. Light green hinting at soft lavender. Dark green as deep as limbs of the banana tree. The mist opening only long enough to show water that held the promise of adventure few would be fortunate enough to experience. I whispered another “thank you”.

We were headed up Rio Colorado which flows from Rio San Juan, the river which separates Nicaragua from Costa Rica in search of giant tarpon, a fish I have chased from the keys of Florida to the Jungles of Central America.

Upriver was the region where, in the1980s, Oliver North was giving weapons to the Contras as they fought the Sandinistas in the Nicaraguan Civil war. Where the Iran/Contra scandal began. “This is really cool,” I thought to myself as I took in another location where big things had taken place.

Along the river’s edge, tiny creatures in the millions were making their way to the sea.   “Doz be shrimp,” Balvin told us in his thick Nicaraguan accent, touched with a hint of Jamaican Jerk and a soft sweetness all his own. Balvin had been born in Nicaragua and was of African descent as were a lot of the people in the region of Barra Del Colorado. Their families had been brought to the region from Jamaica a century ago to build the railroads that service the banana industry.

Barra Del Colorado sits barely on the edge of the civilized world. It can only be reached by boat or a small airplane like the one that had brought us in from the capital of San Juan the previous day. We had been picked up at the dirt runway and taken by boat upriver to the rainforest worn lodge where struggling with the elements is a daily task. Randy, Pat, my wife, Jan, and I off into the unknown. I think Randy and I figured if there was enough beer and rum, the ladies wouldn’t notice the crocodiles.

The Jungle

The first morning we headed downstream to the Caribbean. Randy managed to boat a nice tarpon in the range of one hundred pounds. By early afternoon the sea had gotten too rough so we headed back to the river into one of the most beautiful rainforests on the planet. We were in the dry season where it only rains half the day. 

Rain and mist cover the jungles on the Caribbean coast of Central America. Boats are required to go anywhere in the lowlands, and as we sailed into the mist, I said a quiet “thank you” to whatever spirits had brought me to this breathtaking place. It was like being in the middle of one of those photographs you see in National Geographic. In fact that is exactly where we were, the mist dampening our faces and the sounds of unknown creatures filling our ears. I wiped the taste of salt from my lips and took in everything I could until I felt my heart would burst from the beauty of it all.

Balvin was a guide of immense knowledge of the jungle, the river, and the sea. He had two daughters and a son. His daughters were in university and his son wanted to grow up to be a guide like his father. All of their education, health care, and many of the other things one needs to be successful had been provided by the Costa Rican government. “How can Costa Rica afford all of this?” I asked Balvin. “No army,” he replied, his broad smile telling me that he was happy his son had chosen to be a guide rather than a doctor.

Even the small, isolated community of Barra Del Colorado had a clinic and a dentist. Houses were another thing. There were no big McMansions like you see on the cul-de-sacs in the US. It rains every day. And status depends on how you live your life, not where you live it.

The howler monkeys began to roar in the trees above us. “Monkey know it rain,” Balvin said and here it came. At first the distant sound of rain softly hitting the forest leaves across the river coming closer by the minute, finally drenching us in our rain suits and puddling up in the bottom of the boat. “Monkey know,” Balvin smiled. After a day or two of roaring high in the trees, I finally saw one. While a howler monkey sounds much like King Kong, it is not more than a small, ball of black fur. “Monkey small but monkey loud,” Balvin laughed.

Balvin was a guide of incredible knowledge and ability. He knew every creature that swam, crawled, climbed, or flew in the Costa Rica lowlands. He was also a woodcarver. His ability there rivaled those he had as a river guide. At the place where the river flowed into the Caribbean, there is a long spit that collects the flotsam and jetsam as it drifts down the 129 miles of the San Juan. The driftwood here in the Ozarks is made up of oak and pine. Balvin’s driftwood contains a tremendous variety of jungle plants, the most important being mahogany. Balvin’s carvings of the local fauna hung on each door at the Lodge and in the small gift shop. I grabbed one of his Tarpon carvings which now sits, proudly, in my living room.

Dreams Come True

Fishing had been tough on the San Juan but the mystery of the jungle and its sounds were more than enough for me. And then there he wasSilver on silver flashing high into the air. This was my winter’s fantasy come true. My mind raced as the tarpon exploded from the water, again and again, each time shaking his head and rattling his gills. After a few long and unforgettable minutes, Balvin dipped his gaff into the water and gently hooked my trophy by the lip raising him high enough for a quick picture before returning him to the water. “Nice one,” Balvin said. I could see the relief in his smile. He had given me what I had come all this way to receive.

A Long Goodbye

We sat on the long deck as we had every evening, recounting the day’s events. The sound of a million frogs, each with a different voice filled the air. A few glasses of good wine and a Cuban cigar to end another wonderful day. The river was rising again. When we arrived the lodge was sitting on grass. Now we were surrounded by water. The river could be seen flowing between the spaces in the floorboards of our room as we called it a night and turned off the light.

It was time to leave. We had arrived by airplane but, Balvin said because the river was up, we could be taken out by boat. There we could meet the car that would carry us to our next adventure. The volcanos.

Somewhere there was a creek channel that only Balvin could see. A spider monkey carrying a youngster climbed down a branch and nearly into the boat. The ladies had spent their days at the lodge while Randy and I dealt with the jungle, the tarpon, and the crocodiles. I was glad they had a chance to see some of what we had seen. We bid Balvin adieu and thanked him many times over for taking us to a place that had only existed in our dreams. Where Costa Rica and Nicaragua are separated only by a river where few souls care to go.

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