When Frank and Heidi Boynton of Oceanside decided to venture to Costa Rica for eight days last May, they couldn’t have predicted what was to come. They went to the small Central American country because “it was a very economical trip and many people we know had raved about it,” Heidi said.
They weren’t disappointed.
“We liked the lush vegetation, beautiful flowers and bushes … the unusual monkeys and the many varieties of birds and colorful frogs. We were impressed with the cleanliness of the towns and roads and the friendliness of the people.”
When the Boyntons checked into the Selva Verde Lodge & Rainforest Reserve, Frank wrote: “Our room hides in this Eden. The food is very good, the people warm and friendly … It is great fun in an animal kingdom of howler monkeys, iguanas the size of your arm, exotic birds and insects, poisonous snakes and bright colored frogs. The lodge has covered walkways through the rainforest. During the torrential rains every afternoon, we can reach out through a wall of water and touch the flora.”
On their last morning at the lodge, Frank decided to take a 25-minute walk on what was portrayed on a hotel trail map as a clear, easy loop.
“I showed the map to two people who knew the area,” Frank recalled. “I left feeling great (but) took no water or insect repellent.”
Twenty minutes into his walk, he was lost. The rainforest grew thicker and the light dimmer. The super-high humidity steamed his glasses and soon he was in knee-deep mud and rotted logs, but he reminded himself that the trail was a loop and should bring him to his starting point.
“My shoes filled with mud and slipped off sideways,” he remembered. “I was half blind and … when I slowed or stopped, more insects found me. I smeared mud all over to keep the insects off.”
Dehydration, exhaustion and disorientation took over. Fortunately, Frank had the presence of mind to fashion a “palm-leaf bed with a vine headrest and cover my muddy body with another huge palm leaf. I laid down and listened. I could hear the howler monkeys far away.”
Back at the lodge, Heidi was annoyed when Frank didn’t show on time, then panic and fear set in.
“He likes to explore,” she said, “but would never go off a marked trail, especially in a foreign country. Also, I knew he was experienced in the woods and would never miss a departure time.”
The Boynton’s luggage was removed from the bus, which was taking the group to its next stop.
“I was very distressed by now,” Heidi said, “but also worrying what to do in the middle of a foreign country, in the middle of the rainforest, far away from the nearest major town. I could not get my thoughts in order.”
Another traveler handed Heidi a Spanish phrase book, and their guide helped arrange extra nights at the hotel, but mostly “I was left behind to fend for myself.”
The lodge staff eventually began a search and Heidi went into emergency mode.
“I’ve traveled and lived all over the world,” she said. “I could get back home and think of the things I had to do without Frank. Everything was in slow motion, but I had a rough plan.”
Back in the rainforest, Frank heard the search party and began to yell. He couldn’t see them and vice versa, so he stumbled through thick growth toward the searchers’ sounds.
“Suddenly, a hand reached through the leaves and pulled me on the trail,” Frank said. “I was about 300 yards from it. Ten young Costa Ricans, with machetes and rubber boots, half carried me back and … radioed that I was OK. I leaped up and hugged the lead searcher, crying ‘mucho gusto, gracias, vaya con Dios’ — anything in Spanish to say thanks.”
Once in the lobby, Frank and Heidi hugged and wept.
“He was a mess — soaked and covered in mud,” she said. “He was disoriented and shaking and hardly able to walk.”
Heidi managed to get Frank in the shower — clothes and all — then treated his cuts, bites and dehydration. He fell into bed. Both agreed that was the longest three hours of their lives.
“Now we don’t take each other for granted,” Heidi said. “We say ‘I love you’ every day.”
And never go off alone, Frank added. “Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return.”
While leaving the lodge, Frank asked for a trail map and received the same inaccurate one.
“We don’t know if they ever changed the map, but we don’t think so,” he said. “Unless someone never returns or really dies, they probably won’t bother. They don’t seem to take these things that seriously if the person is found.”
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.