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Costa Rica Lesson: Jump Naked into Waterfalls

by Daniel Murphy

I’m not sure exactly how high up in the mountains our resort was, but if I had to guess, I would say two miles. This is, of course, an absurd guess. But I am an absurd man. And hey, if you know off the top of your head how high up in the clouds we were in Costa Rica, then go ahead and correct me (side note: don’t correct me), but the fact remains that when the clouds rolled in, they rolled in our friggin' windows. You’d be walking down the road and up ahead would be a big, billowing formation. And no, it wasn’t just fog. There was a clear demarcation between standing in cloud and standing outside cloud. And when you walked in, it was like being hugged by a friendly ghost.

The downside, of course, is that clouds get everything wet. At first it was annoying, but eventually we got used to it, because that’s what Costa Rica does to you – it makes you accept nature in all its moist glory.

It started when my girlfriend, Brooke, decided that she wanted to go horseback riding. Horses, it seems, are a viable mode of transportation in small Costa Rican towns, which I personally think is fantastic. Having not ridden a horse since I was a kid at summer camp, I was skeptical at first. But as soon as I saddled up, it just felt right.

And just like when you drive a fuel-efficient sedan you scowl at SUVs, when you drive a horse you scowl at anything motorized. “My transportation is fucking ALIVE,” you think. Your horse decides to stop and bite a branch off a nearby tree. Refueling. It doesn’t get greener than this.

We met up with Cuca, the guide who offered to take us down for a scenic ride along the beach. We had just come from the beach, so Brooke suggested a ride into the woods instead. We’d heard there were beautiful waterfalls in the mountains. Unfortunately, Cuca spoke very little English, so there were a lot of hand signals, butchered verb conjugations, and more wild gesturing from Brooke. Finally, Cuca seemed to catch on to what we were suggesting. Water. Falling. Pretty. Gringo. We smiled, mounted up, and followed Cuca down the dirt road.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that my horse thought trotting was for sissies. The slightest kick, and he would accelerate into a gallop. Cuca would laugh, saying, “¡Le gusta correr!” Good to know.

Meanwhile, Brooke lagged behind, content to meander down the path, stopping every few minutes for her horse to graze. Cuca suggested she hit the horse’s rear with a stick, but Brooke insisted that the cornerstone of a good horse/rider relationship was trust. This philosophy proved equally troubling when it came time to cross the stream.

Eventually, we made it to the end of a path where Cuca told us to dismount and tie up the horses. He then unsheathed a machete from his saddle bag and motioned for us to follow. Brooke and I exchanged glances. I mean, Cuca seemed like a nice guy, but I don’t recall the guide book recommending ziplining, snorkeling, and following a machete-wielding native into the woods as part of the lovers’ getaway package.

But in Costa Rica, there’s a saying: pura vida. It translates to “pure life,” but means so much more. It is used as a greeting and as a farewell, as an exclamation, an excuse, an answer, and a philosophy. You’re moist? Perpetually lost? You poop out in the open? Pura vida.

And this is what Brooke said to me as we followed Cuca into the woods as he swung his machete. (Side note: If we were in a Chevy Chase film, the next scene would have been me and Brooke tied to boulders while indigenous tribe members danced around our bodies holding spears.)

A few minutes later, we came upon a clearing. There before us was a beautiful stream surrounded by large rocks, pocked with white-water rapids and a cascading waterfall in the background. It was beautiful — peaceful, serene, truly an untouched natural enclave.

Then Cuca took off his pants.

Brooke: “I don’t think this is part of the tour.”

He must have noticed the slight shock on our face, so he motioned that now we would swim. Taking off everything except his underwear (briefs) and shirt (gentlemanly?) he jumped in the river.

Brooke and I had to think fast. What the hell were we supposed to do in this situation? Swim in our underwear with a complete stranger who took us — and his machete — to a secluded area where our screams would be drowned out by the cascading rush of water?

At least this would have been the important conversation to have if Brooke had not already taken off her shirt and jeans and jumped in the river, too. Problem solved, I suppose.

When you’re young and you dream about the day when you, your girlfriend, and a Latin American man who you just met will ride horses to a secluded mountain oasis, undress and take pictures of one another, it always seems awkward. But you know what? It’s not.

We also played a ridiculously fun/dangerous game called “Don’t Get Swept Away in the Current and Crack Your Head Open on Those Rocks.” Cuca taught us how. Basically, you let the current carry you down the river, and right before you get to the part where there’s a lot of rocks and white water, you swim as hard as you can to the shore and reach out for the stick that Cuca is holding so he can pull you to shore. It had the recklessness of the Russian clown course combined with indomitable forces of nature and the need to make split-decisions in a language you didn’t speak. In short, it was fucking awesome. (I’m thinking of having a T-shirt made. Like the “I saw boobs in New Orleans” shirt, except it would say “A man in his underwear saved me from drowning by pulling me to shore with a branch in Costa Rica.”)

After that, we got dressed and rode back without a hint of shame. And as my horse galloped wildly ahead of the pack, leaping over puddles with reckless abandon, I heard Cuca’s booming laugh over my shoulder and I had a thought: Pura vida, indeed.


This story was reprinted with permission from Daniel Murphy's blog, Redacted

Dan is an editor in New York City. He travels for the room service club sandwiches.

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