When I was in Costa Rica I spent two days hiking in the Cordillera de Talamanca. I was with a small group of other university students and the plan was to hike to the top, camp out, and hike back down the next day. It was a six hour trek up the mountain, and even today I still find it hard to describe. Breathtaking, to say the least. Even in the torrential rain it was a wonderful experience, trudging through the brush and mud-slicked trails. Nothing was waterproof in this weather. We were sponges, all of us, soaked to the core by the warm rain every step of the way. My poncho barely lasted the first few hundred meters.
Eventually we rose above the clouds. We peaked over the cliff edges to peer down, the rain clouds below us a thick and billowy mass as we trekked onward and upward. This was my first major trip outside of Canada, and the moment I stood on a hilltop above the rain I knew I had to travel again.
I was a bit concerned before I left for the trip. I had allergies- to weeds, to dust, to hay, and unfortunately to cats. The Great Outdoors was an ironic nemesis to my immune system, forcing me to stock up on allergy meds in anticipation of itchy eyes and a stuffed-up nose. Miraculously, I found that I wasn't much bothered during my two weeks in the rainforest. With that in mind, I didn't bother to pack them for our final trek up the mountain. Amusingly, this may have saved my life.
Near the summit my eyes became itchy and my nose, runny...but I didn't care. I was on the top of a MOUNTAIN, gazing out over a vast and biodiverse panorama. At the top we climbed some trees to lounge and rest, drinking in the scene. To the east we could just make out the edges of the Atlantic Ocean, and to the west, the Pacific. We stayed in those trees for some time, taking in the indescribable sights as deeply as we could. Eventually, though, it had to end.
I climbed down from my perch and called everyone to a clearing so we could take a picture. Preoccupied with the view, nobody came. Standing there, it was just me and one other traveller. She was maybe 5'2” and weighed in at a fragile 90lbs or so. Obviously, she was tougher than she looked because she had made it to the top. We stood there awkwardly waiting for the rest of our group. We waited, with my itchy eyes begging to be clawed out. And waited, as my sinuses clogged with mucus. And that's when I smelled something...something you don't want to smell when you're alone in a jungle: a wet cat.
It suddenly clicked. Allergies- cat allergies, to be specific. As soon as the thought registered, I heard it. It almost sounded as if it was purring; a low and rolling growl slowly circled in from behind us. It wasn't loud, just audible enough if you listened closely. It was a jaguar, I discovered...and it was about 12 feet away.
I heard it moving in the brush, catching a glimpse here and there as it edged closer. I stood in front of my companion and pulled out the only weapon I had: a Swiss Army knife. Armed with my 2” blade I knew this would not end well. Sometimes, size matters. We held our ground as it came closer, brief flashes of color inching toward us. Surprisingly I was not as scared as I should have been, seeing that my demise was imminent. I guess when there is no hope of escape, there really isn't really much to fear.
Branches suddenly snapped and cracked behind us. The group was finally coming down the slope and the clatter was just enough to cause the cat to pause. I motioned for the group to stop. Our guide could tell there was a problem. I guess the colour draining from my face was a clue. He reached into his bag and kept his hand there, likely clutching a loaded pistol he had to defend himself against poachers. We all stood still as could be, waiting to see what would happen next.
Cautiously, our guide made his way down and the group followed. The noise of us all kept the cat at bay, though we waited there a few moments before trekking back down. For whatever reason I lingered behind as everyone passed just to see if the cat was still around. It was. It followed us for a few hundred feet before disappearing into back into the misty jungle.
The rest of the trip in Costa Rica was great, though not nearly as intense as my encounter with the jaguar. However, I did end up getting chased by a crocodile...but that's a Travel Story for another time.