I had an incredible adventure this week.
As I wrote in a recent post, I’ve been trying to write my second book and facing intense creative pain and stagnation. Instead of fighting with myself, I decided to take a break.
On Monday, an old friend of mine came to visit Jamie and I here in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. This was the perfect excuse to take a break from work. And thank goodness we don’t have to go anywhere to take a vacation now that we’re travelling in these beautiful places! We just have to drop our laptops (which is often harder than it seems).
After Marc arrived, we spent the first day at the beach and made plans to go, the next day, to Cahuita National Park. Although Google maps reported that the park was 14.8km away from our location, we decided to walk. The map indicated that we could walk along the coast and that it would take about 3 hours.
Sure, we could have taken a taxi. Sure, we could have bought a tour from any of the numerous tour companies in town. But we didn’t.
We wanted adventure. We wanted to see this beautiful country, not just visit it.
We began our journey at 9am on the coast of Playa Negra—a beautiful black sand beach with wisps of neon green moss dotting its sparkly surface. As we walked along the water’s edge, the dark and light sand mixed together underneath the surface of the water in spotted patterns that looked like tiger stripes.
In front of us, we saw a curved landscape with beach on the right and trees on the left. According to Google, the national park would be a few kilometers before the tip of the land we saw in front of us. The town of Cahuita would be a few kilometers after the tip.
Google also indicated that, at any point on the beach, we’d be a maximum of 20 meters away from the road. No big deal, right? If we got stuck on the beach, we could just walk to the road.
As we began our journey, I mentioned how Jamie and I had walked along here the other day and the tip never seemed to come any closer. Of course, we all thought that wouldn’t happen now that we were headed on a long journey in that direction. Of course, our destination would be close. After all, I used to do 13km runs all the time in Toronto, which would take just over an hour. How long could 15km take? And along the beach with good friends?
Piece of cake. Or so we thought.
With smiles on our faces, we watched the beach become more and more deserted. After just an hour, there were no more people. And there wouldn’t be, not for the next three and a half hours.
What began as three people walking along the shore of the Caribbean sea chatting about past anecdotes, current epiphanies, and future dreams intensified as the coast changed in front of us. The casualness with which we sauntered along the barren landscape turned to mental and physical exhaustion as we climbed over increasingly tall and wide expanses of fallen trees.
Trying to avoid the obstacles on the beach, we’d go into the thick of the forest. We would find paths which we thought led to the road, but then the paths would either circle back to the beach or become so thick with trees that we’d have to claw our way back to the sand.
The sun beat down hard on us. And still, we were in great spirits. We had more than enough water. We took breaks in the shade when we needed them. And, best of all, we had each other to talk to, to joke with.
After a few more hours, the tip didn’t seem any closer. But, of course, that was an illusion. We must be closer, right? How much further could it be? How long could 15 kilometers take?
Eventually, an hour or so before we should have reached our destination, the rations ran out. We joked about whom we’d eat first as we shared our last apple. We’d only been at it for a few hours. We could go one hour without food or water.
An hour later, we were still manoeuvring obstacles, sweaty, tired, giggling from exhaustion. The park was nowhere in sight. We should have already arrived.
We watched an iguana run face first into the water, joking about how he’d become lost, like us, and drowned himself. Shortly after, we noticed some vultures over our heads. Were they circling us? Could they tell we were tired? Of course, it was still a big joke. We’d be there in no time. Right?
The branches began to get even thicker. Yet another path that we thought might lead to the road came right back to the sand. My muscles started to get tired. A sunburn slowly emerged on my shoulders. Marc noticed red patches emerging all over his body. We all became slower, less talkative.
I remembered other adventures that had made me feel this very same way. In Georgian Bay, three years ago, I hiked around an entire island by myself. I thought it would take an hour or two, only to emerge covered in burrs and blood 5 hours later, sunburned, my stomach full of dirty stream water, and my heart full of pride. I remembered Jamie and I hiking the beach to Manzanillo, about 12km, a few weeks prior. It was the same—an adventure that took longer than expected, had more obstacles than anticipated, and humbled us to the power of nature.
How would this adventure go? Would we arrive before exhaustion set in? Would we lose morale? Would our group begin to fall apart from hunger and desperation?
Suddenly, to my left, I saw something through the jungle thickness—a roof! It was a roof! That must be a house or a restaurant or, even better, the national park entrance!
I pointed it out to my companions and, after some deliberation, we all agreed to wade through the jungle towards it. After cutting through spider webs with sticks and wading through what could only be described as “the perfect spot for a snake to be sleeping”—we reached where the roof should have been.
There was no roof. Confused, we searched around for what we’d seen. We found only trees.
Somehow, from a unique combination of exhaustion, hunger, and wishful thinking, we’d all seen a roof where there wasn’t one. We’d group hallucinated salvation, but salvation wasn’t there. There were only palm trees and spider webs.
We tried to keep walking, but after just a few meters, the jungle turned into a swamp. There was no way to push through.
Until that point, the journey was more physically demanding than anything. After our failure to come out to the other side, there was a vulnerable moment among us. Our morale had fallen a bit. In another group of people, maybe someone would have snapped at this point. Maybe someone would have started complaining, started saying they wished we’d never come, become frustrated, curse Google.
No one did.
We kept walking, choosing the solace of silence and focusing on overcoming the obstacles—obstacles which, at this point, reached their highest peak.
The tip of the curve didn’t look any closer than it looked a few hours prior. In fact, the town we’d just left looked closer than our supposed destination.
Was it an illusion? Or, were we really, really far from the place we were aiming to go, too far to turn back and too far to continue, with no visible way to come out in the middle?
We hardly spoke for some time as we did the most physically exerting climbing and manoeuvring I’ve ever done. It became more and more clear as we went on—people didn’t go here. No one took this route.
What we were doing was not something people did.
Where was the park? Was the map correct? When the park website said there was a “trail from beach to road”—did they mean the beach on the other side of the tip? Why didn’t I check? What if we couldn’t wade through the jungle to the road? Would we have to go around the tip to Cahuita? What would become of us if we had to travel another 5k without water or food in the blistering sun?
Panting, sweating, and tired, we set a destination. We agreed that, if by the time we reached a certain spot we saw in the distance that looked promising, there was no entrance to the park—we’d just push through the jungle, no matter what. No matter how difficult.
This gave us hope, even when the beach became completely covered in trees and branches. The climbing was ceaseless.
And then, the jungle produced an ever-growing swamp. I swallowed, my mouth parched. There was no way through, no way out.
Some excitement came a few minutes later when we saw cut up coconut shells, clearly cut by a machete. People had been here! Maybe the trail was soon!
And yet, each path either led back to the swamp or into thick bunches of spiky branches. We climbed and climbed.
Where was this evidence of humans coming from? How had they come here? From where? Where was the park?
For a moment, an ugly thought reared its head into my mind: maybe there was no way out after all. Maybe going around, starving and thirsty, would be the only way.
I realized, as I had in such situations before, the power of the natural world. It’s one thing to think about it or to see it in pictures. It’s a whole other thing to feel like a pawn in the giant scheme of things, to feel oneself as a grain of sand in the beach of the universe, being swept to and fro by larger forces.
It wasn’t just humbling. It was a strange mix between frightening and comforting, like the feeling that wounded animals must get when they’re staring into the eyes of the human being who’s rescued them, wondering whether this strange being is going to protect them or eat them or disappear at any moment.
At one point, I looked up to see a spider monkey staring curiously at me. Unlike the monkeys back in Puerto Viejo, this one was very close to face level. He climbed upwards when he saw us, eyeing us suspiciously. As if he spent most of his time undisturbed. Or, maybe, all the time?
Suddenly, in the distance, I saw a wooden pole wielding a metal sign. I couldn’t tell what it said, but it didn’t matter. A sign meant one thing—people went here.
As we approached, we saw an entrance and, beyond the entrance, a bulletin board. On that board, were the words “Parque Nacional Cahuita.”
You could have smelled the relief off us.
Suddenly, the hunger and tiredness lifted in one magical second. Our mood continued to improve as we read the contents of the bulletin board. We laughed looking at the map in front of us, seeing that the territory we’d tried to cut through was the national park—territory that the map indicated contained vipers (!) and wasn’t safe for humans to cross through. We laughed again when we realized that Marc still had half a bottle of water in his bag.
And we laughed again when we realized that the beach entrance we had just come through sported a giant sign that said: “Do not enter. Unsafe!”
We’d made it.
The map informed us that we could go 1km one way out of the park towards a restaurant, or we could hike just over 7km through the whole park and emerge in Cahuita. We chose the latter.
Somehow, we all had more energy. We’d made it. We were safe.
As we walked through the trail, congratulating ourselves and each other for sticking through, for maintaining morale, for being such a great group together—we heard strange sounds. Were those… bulldozers?
We saw two men in the distance as the sounds became louder.
As we passed by them, they spoke to us, asking us how we’d come in. We told them we’d walked along the beach. One raised his eyebrows and the other looked away. Without making eye contact, the second man told us: the park was closed for four days due to construction. We’d have to leave.
So we did.
Maybe it sounds like it would be disappointing, but you know, it wasn’t. Not even a little bit. Completing the strenuous journey to the park taught us something about what we were capable of. We’d become different people on that beach. We’d gotten closer not only to each other but also to ourselves. We’d persevered through obstacles and adversities, and we’d emerged victorious. And that was something I wouldn’t trade for entrance to every national park in every country in the world.
Our spirits high, we emerged out of the park, seeing the handwritten “Park is Closed” note taped to the door of the unmanned entrance. When we walked past the “Welcome” sign, I remembered I had my camera with me and decided to take a picture.
Just a few meters away, we saw a restaurant with a pool.
The owners were shocked to see us, and even more shocked to hear where we’d come from. They couldn’t believe it. They told us we could use their showers, use their pool. They said they’d prepared no food because the park was closed, and they didn’t think anyone would (or could) pass through, but they could prepare us something simple if we wanted it.
We decided to go to Cahuita for dinner. As we waited for the bus, we had a drink and listened to the restaurant owner tell us all about his life—he came from Italy, married a local, had 6 children, and now worked at this restaurant he’d built along with a discotheque, pool, and shop that his wife ran.
Everything he said was hilarious. Of course, he was very funny. And of course, we were a little loopy. But mostly, we were happy.
I felt the most profound sense of joy I’d felt in weeks, maybe months.
Soon, the bus arrived, and we set off to Cahuita to have dinner and reflect on our adventure. I could tell we were all different. We’d all changed, right there, in front of each others’ eyes.
We’d conquered the unbeaten path, the unsafe path, the uncharted path. We’d been where few people had ever dared to venture before, and we’d lived to tell the tale. On some parts of our journey, we might have actually been to places that no one had been before.
And that really does something to a person.
It does something that no amount of planned, controlled, guided activities will do. I could never have gotten those feelings from paying $50 to get onto a bus that pulled nicely and neatly into the national park, having a guide show us around, walking on the paved path with other camera-wielding tourists.
There’s no glory in safety. There’s no joy in the beaten path.
And today, as I sit here and recount to you this amazing adventure, I’m happy to say that I’m ready to write my next book. I’m full of ideas and inspiration and wonder. I’ve regained what I felt was lost. I’ve come out of my mental and creative stagnation. I’ve regained my awareness of my inner power.
I’ve learned, from this incredible adventure, that it’s one thing to say you believe in yourself, but it’s a whole other thing to put yourself into situations that test your abilities.
Self-confidence, happiness, joy, inspiration—these aren’t things that you get one day and that’s that. These are side effects of the constant, continual process of self-discovery, of reinvention, of ceaselessly throwing yourself back into the arms of uncertainty, emerging on the other side with the direct experience of your own potential.
And there’s no way to experience those in your comfort zone.
You can only experience your greatness by stepping into it, by stepping out of what’s familiar, by becoming a student of your own highest self.
And we can all do that. We all deserve to do that.
I hope that, if there’s something you’re afraid of doing, something that seems dangerous, something that no one around you seems to care about—I hope you do it. In fact, I implore you to do it. Because, until you do, you won’t really feel alive.
And you can’t live if you don’t feel alive.
So get out there. Get lost. Go get lost, so you can find yourself.