Puerta Viejo, Costa Rica. I never considered myself to have arachnophobic tendencies until I found myself in the middle of the jungle at a seven-day yoga retreat in Costa Rica.
Samasati Retreat and Rain Forest Sanctuary, a vast expanse of rainforest, is perched atop a mountain 10 miles inland from the Caribbean near the town of Puerto Viejo, just north of the Panama border. The name Samasati derives from what are said to be Buddha’s last words. This single word is supposed to mean, “Remember you are one with the ocean, trees and stars. Remember you are Buddha.”
At Samasati, one is quickly made aware— you are also one with the scorpions, cockroaches, bullet ants, geckos, neon-colored frogs, snakes and giant-horned rhinoceros beetles easily mistaken for small, low-flying helicopters.
I was no stranger to the outdoors. I’d just come from eight days of mountain biking, river rafting and trekking in the northern part of the country with REI Adventures. Samasati was supposed to be the relaxing part of my vacation.
My first night there however, was anything but. I sat bolt upright, awake in bed, hyper-vigilantly listening and watching for anything that moved or looked as if it might. Each nerve stood on highest alert, too paralyzed to kill the light for fear of creepy crawlies.
A phobia is an irrational fear. Mine was substantiated. I’d just brushed my teeth, spitting toothpaste on a scorpion trying to fight the stream of water to keep from going down the drain. I thought I’d won but one could never be too sure if the scorpion wasn’t simply playing possum, waiting until it heard the rhythmic breath of sleep to make its counter move.
Bullet ants are the most feared of all insects in Costa Rica. They easily span two inches in length, like some Arnold Schwarzenegger of ants. It wasn’t clear to me if they were called bullet ants because their bodies were shaped like bullets or if the sting felt like being shot by one.
Bart, whose job it was to sweep the steps with bleach to keep to slippery moss from growing, warned ominously at check-in, “It is a pain like you will never forget.” A bullet from a gun wound sounded more welcoming. I’d been stung by fire ants and could only magnify that pain infinitely in my mind.
Bart went on, “Olivia, one of the cooks, was getting dressed for work one morning, pulled up her panties where a bullet ant was hiding and,” he smashed the broom handle down firmly and pointed to his backside, “bit her right there on the cheek, she couldn’t sit for three days.”
My Casita was one of 10 on this 250- acre rain forest with a spectacular view of the sea that far surpassed what the website promised. The décor spelled organic rainforest—hardwood floors, walls and ceiling, accented in ivory linens, fresh-cut rainforest flowers, leather rockers and an inviting hammock swaying on the veranda. By day it was relatively peaceful except for an occasional toucan squawk.
Nighttime is when the jungle awakened with a symphony of nocturnal noise that was almost deafening. A cacophony of what sounded like hundreds of thousands of frogs ribbeting, howler monkeys shrieking, locust-like creatures of all sorts reverberating in a range of pitches. Anything that could chirp, squawk, howl, clatter, hiss, buzz or twitter joined in. Alone in my bungalow, I felt like a human trapped in a bug’s jar.
Eyelids heavy that first night, I finally managed to turn the light off—fingers clinched on blankets pulled taut over my head. Under the covers, I was sure I felt things biting me. Bed bugs? Fleas? Or just my imagination creating adrenaline-induced delirium tremors? This was like a seven-day episode of Fear Factor.
I awakened my first morning to a howler monkey hurling a coconut on my tin roof. “Hey, stop that monkeying around!” I shouted. (I’d always wanted to say that to a monkey.)
I rose and opened my blinds, startling a gecko, which scurried up the window and sent my heart rate soaring. Climbing in the shower I noticed an otherwise innocent fly. Back home in Los Angeles, I’d ignore the same insect as a common housefly. Here, I suspected it had fangs, venom and a personal vendetta; the buzz I felt certain sounded a little off. I flinched every time it hovered near me as I washed my hair in record time.
Walking to breakfast it was clear some of the sounds I’d heard the night before were insect construction noises. The spiders had been busy spinning massive webs large enough to capture a 125-pound human.
Staying one step ahead, I devised a way to walk that knocked down the invisible webs by windmilling my arms. If my propelling appendages missed a spider’s web and I inadvertently stuck my head in one, I’d spasmodically brush off every limb, while running in place, bending over upside down, running my fingers through my hair, thrashing my head side to side. This display of insanity provided great entertainment for those on the dining deck.
Yoga took place twice a day. Time to relax and get centered—for some. The studio was a hexagonal, screened-in structure that appeared to be inviting to two-legged as well as six-legged yogis. There were those New Age types who gingerly, picked up bugs and lovingly guided them outside— the same way a boy scout might assist a little old lady crossing the street. Not me.
Middle finger to thumb, I flicked the ants away from my mat with a scud missile force that launched them halfway across the room. I watched especially for the ones that tried to blend into the brown hardwood floor. Sneaky bastards. I kept asking people “Is that a bullet ant?”
“No, not big enough.”
“Om” vibrating from our larynxes must have sounded like a mating call to the insect world, luring them into the glowing hut. I meditated with one eye open and when I was certain the other meditators had both theirs shut, I’d give the six-legged creatures a kind shove into their next incarnation with my yoga block. Crunch.
During one of the evening meditations mid week, I was laying with my rear-end pressed up against the wall, legs straight up, arms out to either side, palms up and open— this time managing to shut both eyes for more than a few seconds. Breathing the ujjayi breath, I had entered into a state of deep relaxation just when an exceptionally oversized cockroach mistook my palm for a landing strip.
I went from Zen bliss to full-blown fight or flight syndrome. Letting out a shriek that rivaled a howler monkey’s, I flung the cockroach into the air behind me, jolting the rest of the class from their calm, meditative states. Quickly, I tried to regain some composure and hyperventilating whispered, “sorry, grande cucaracha.” If ever there was a time to take dead bug pose.
Massages were available day and night. I opted for an evening massage as after a proper one, I’m usually rendered vegetable-like and drift off to sleep afterwards. But naked on the massage table, coated in oil, surrounded by candles, I imagined every insect on the 250-mile reserve with their antennas pressed up against the window, buzzing to have at just one artery of my blood. If a dust particle touched me, I’d flinch. Robert, the massage therapist would ask, “is the pressure too much?”
“No, I thought I felt a mosquito.”
“Maybe you need to embrace the rainforest life force, not resist it,” he offered.
I took at least one excursion a day off the Samasati premises. My favorite was the canopy tour with Terra Aventuras— a thrilling adventure where you see the jungle through the eyes of a monkey. At tree top level, a hundred feet up, secured with a rock-climbing harness, one leaps off a platform, careening via suspended cable the length of a football field to a total of eight platforms before rappelling down the final tree.
While en route through the jungle to the launch site, our guide caught a poison dart frog in his hand. In an attempt to get the neon-spotted amphibian to hold still so I could snap a photo, he propelled the frog around and around in his hand as if dislodging ketchup from a bottle. On about the ninth rotation the slippery creature flung out of his hand and onto, naturally, my chest. Needless to say I didn’t get the photo I’d hoped for, but had anyone else been poised with a camera, they’d have captured a real Kodak moment.
Angie, the yoga instructor and I ventured off to a sloth sanctuary and river cruise along the Estrella River Estuary one afternoon. We first embarked on a two-hour tour via dugout canoe through the narrow river. A British entomology photographer also happened to be in our boat. Lucky for us. Never mind that he had a foot-long lens on his camera, he insisted on getting as close to any freak of nature along the riverbank. Just a few feet away from a chartreuse lizard that Cali, our Caribbean guide said “that baby iguana, nickname Jesus Christ Lizard.”
Staring eye to eye with its red beady ones, I pondered which aspect of Christ the mini- dinosaur was like. Has it been persecuted by its predators, conceived immaculately, when the mini dinosaur bolts towards me walking on water with its webbed feet like s something out of Jurassic Park. I almost back flip off the other side of the canoe. A swift pan on the camera, followed by a loud thud hitting the bottom of the boat with Cali laughing uncontrollably, was all that was captured on home video of this miracle.
The Sloth sanctuary is where baby sloths like “Happy” whose mother was killed by dogs are brought for care and rehabilitated back into the wild. “Buttercup” is the teaching sloth meaning visitors can hold her. Able to turn their heads 180 degrees, little Buttercup tilted her head around and lifted her arms for me to hold her like a small child wanting its mother to pick it up.
My maternal instincts gave way and I cradled this coarse-haired creature like an infant on one hip, it’s arm wrapped around my back and holding my finger with its three big toes. I pressed my cheek against Buttercup’s, taking my massage therapist’s advice and embracing this adorable force of jungle life. I was ready to adopt Buttercup and raise her as my own.
Another day a few brave souls went trekking in the rain forest along the beach in Punta Uva. We encountered giant 10-inch millipedes and finally, scores of bullet ants trying to find cover. It was pouring—day five in a row of what the guidebooks called Costa Rica’s “dry season”. The rain turned the jungle floor a rich orange mud, which we spread like tribal war paint on our faces— mine in hopes of warding off any bullet ants. It proved affective.
While waiting for my ride to the bus station, I boasted to Bart that I’d made it through the entire week bullet ant-bite free. He offered no congratulations but instead a few parting scary bug tales.
Most sounded like Costa Rican urban myths, like the jungle urethra worm that “set up residence” in a local village man’s appendage while relieving himself too close to a tree. The unfortunate man’s penis swelled up so large, he had to cart his inflamed mass in a wheelbarrow to get into town and have it seen to. I was overcome with a feeling of whatever the opposite of penis envy is. Vagina gratefulness?
I was thankful Bart waited until my last day to launch into his litany of entomological horror stories. To a comparatively large degree, I’d desensitized much of my phobia to a reasonable watchful eye. By now I let the smaller spiders share my bathroom and even went so far as to name my bungalow’s geckos, which I viewed as guard lizards against more dangerous insects. I was after all, a guest in their home. And they were probably thankful the five foot nine giant who kept the light on half the night was finally leaving them in peace.
IF YOU GO: And, despite my initial bug aversion, I DO recommend going. Samasati is spectacular whether traveling solo (pre-mommyhood) as I did, or as a family. Children are welcomed and half price.
2-story, 2-bedroom/2-bath casitas start at $130 per person per night (children under 12 are 50% off), which includes breakfast and dinner along with complimentary shuttle to the beach. Excursions are a nominal fee extra.
Check Samasait’s website for guest artist retreats to coincide with your favorite yoga instructor and special packages. Costa Rica’s Samasati offers an affordable and memorable beach vacation.
HANDY TIPS FOR THOSE BUGGED BY INSECTS.
1.Pack plenty of mosquito repellent— OFF, Cutter or Jungle Juice will do. Even if you’re there in the “dry season” of winter like I was and there really aren’t any mosquitoes, it’s comforting to know you reek of something that wards off insects of some sort.
2. For that same reason, you can’t have too much of an arsenal of Benedryl, sting stick, cortisone and the like. Arm yourself well.
3. Let’s talk clothing. A mosquito hat (a goofy thing that fits over your head with netting that extends down the neck, tucking in the shirt collar) might allow for better breathing than covers pulled up over your head. I’ve also seen full-on suits made of mosquito netting. Severe phobics might opt for a beekeeper’s suit.
As good of an idea as it may seem to wear one of those strap-on headlamps for walking through the jungle at night, freeing up arms for the spider web windmilling move, remember bugs are attracted to light.
4. A long stick makes for a nice “spider web machete” in a pinch. Trekking poles work better and serve a dual purpose should you actually see a spider and need to “shish-ka-bob it”.
5. While you might not make yourself popular with the extreme “entomology lover types”, a portable bug zapper disguised as a tennis racquet won’t raise eyebrows when passing through TSA. The zapping noises sound like electric chair frying to an insect. At the very least, you’ll feel part of the reincarnation practice for kamikaze-ing bugs.
This story originally was published on divinecaroline.com but has been updated with current pricing. If I’d realized earlier just how kid-friendly Samasati is, I’d have gotten back here as a mom sooner. Ames was a natural at yoga from his early days. Hopefully he’ll still embrace yoga now.