If you stand still long enough, Costa Rica’s flora and fauna has a way of making you feel like it’s closing in, threatening to drag you into the dense vegetation’s fold. It’s difficult to not linger when you see a busy chain of leafcutter ants crossing the trail or when you marvel at an ecosystem bursting with trees and vascular plants like angel’s trumpets, lipsticktrees, or—my favorite—wild sensitive plants, with leaves that curl and close when touched.
Early one morning I woke to the deep yowls of howler monkeys, right outside my door. I scanned the cloud forest, hoping to spot the troop. Even though I knew that the thunderous, guttural cries were coming from bantam tree-dwelling folivores, my eyes widened, and I felt like I should be on high alert. As it turns out, this hair-raising warning wasn’t unwarranted. As I went back to my bedside to grab my glasses to get a sharper look, I sensed that they were heavier than normal. A tan scorpion was wrapped around the wooden frame of my lenses. Nature was unquestionably closing in.
Fortunately, one of the guides I had on my adventure was Jackie Garcia, who is not only a fantastic leader, but also, a lover of the outdoors and wild places. She didn’t seem too concerned when I told her about the scorpion at breakfast and much like how you’re supposed to look at the flight attendants to gauge danger when in the air, I felt myself relax at the ease in her smiling face.
At home in Costa Rica, Jackie adores her country and all of the opportunities she has to explore outside. “I have tried rappelling in waterfalls, white water rafting, hiking, bungee jumping, snorkeling, biking, and now I am completely passionate about surfing,” she says.
In fact, it was through guiding that Jackie was exposed to how magnificent Costa Rica is for adventurers. “Guiding not only opened my mind, but also, my heart toward the people who have visited and given me the opportunity to get to know my country in a special way,” she says.
Surfing has developed into a full-blown passion for Jackie. “I finally have the chance to practice a sport that I have dreamed about since I was a little kid,” she says. “Surfing has taught me how to be a humble and patient person with perseverance and it challenges me like no other sport I have practiced before. I have to try to understand and read the ocean, which is really powerful and magic at the same time. For me, setting the alarm for a sunrise surf session is one of the best things that can happen in the day. Getting to be at the water that early, feeling how warm the water is, and also looking around and being able to watch and enjoy the paradise that surrounds me has no price!”
Jackie has many guiding stories, but one that sticks has to do with buying fruit from a roadside vendor. “I will always remember stopping near a gas station with a group for bathrooms—I got out of the microbus to buy tangerines for everybody,” she says. “They were not ripe yet, so I just bought a couple to support the seller, and I ate one—as a local, it wasn’t too bad. Later, I heard two of the ladies from the group laughing. To my surprise, they got something similar to the tangerines in the grocery store at the next stop (because they saw me buying and eating them). I saw that what they bought were lemons. They were eating them, thinking it was the same king of fruit, but they didn’t understand why it was so easy for me to eat. The next day, I was able to stop into a real fruit store and buy ripe tangerines for them and the whole group!”
Part of what Jackie loves so much is interacting with travelers from around the globe to not only share in these funny lost-in-translation moments, but also, to show them how beautiful her country is. “Costa Rica is special because it is really diverse,” she says. “When walking into the tropical rain forest or a cloud forest for a few steps, pay attention and you’ll see hundreds of different plants and, at the same time, small interested-yet-hiding creatures. Once you have the eye, you will start seeing camouflaged animals.”
Jackie says that it’s possible to find several distinctive habitats in a short time as you move across the country. “You can see the sunrise on the Caribbean side and watch the sun set on the Pacific side in the same day,” she says. “Something always in my mind was having the gift of watching and showing one of my groups a mother howler monkey eating the umbilical cord of her baby and then cleaning her baby, just a few minutes after giving birth. It was just something magical that nature gave us!”
A woman full of gratitude and apt perspective, Jackie has learned many lessons through guiding. “I appreciate when someone sits next to me and treats me as a friend, or as part of their family, even if they don’t really know me yet,” she says. “So, I want to make my guests feel the same way when they come and travel with me, even when I know that it will probably be the only time in my life that I will see them.”
For more outdoor adventures, follow Wendy Altschuler.