The trail head to Nauyaca Waterfalls was at the bottom of a treacherous gravel road. After purchasing our $5 per person pedestrian tickets, Adam 4-wheeled us down curves and steep grades that seemed to be trying to flip the rental car over it’s nose. Most of the road was dusty and in full sun. It leveled out into a little tree covered valley that held a house, a 15 vehicle parking lot, and hitching posts for the horses that were a tour option for getting to the waterfalls. (Also has a Facebook page here)
We had chosen the much more cost effective pedestrian mode of travel. The horseback riders had begun much earlier in the morning, and even though there was no room for our car in the parking lot, there was no one else around. The canopy of majestic trees was apparently home to a huge number of insects. Their sounds filled the air like a symphony of a million castanets. One person in our group suggested that if they were trying to communicate with each other, they had to be very good at tuning in to just the right sound. My mind was filled with images of giant bugs clicking their claws as a war-call, preparing to leap upon us. The road, which was also the path that we would begin our hike on, was carpeted with curly, brown leaves the size of footballs. They seemed to be continuously floating down from the upper branches in slow motion. (click on any photo to enlarge; see video slideshow at bottom for more)
Within a couple of minutes we were at a swinging cement bridge. It was swinging because someone in our party was feeling unsympathetic about my discomfort on bridges and stood on the opposite end jumping on it. I think that even he was surprised with how much it began moving, though. It was wide enough for a small car, but it was not anywhere near as heavy duty as what I am accustomed to drive over.
Immediately, the path changed to an upward angle of 35 – 40 degrees. There was some relief at having the stereophonic insects fall to a slightly lower volume, but finding our footing required concentration. The remainder of the wide trail alternated between sections of loose, chunky, sharp rocks and clay deeply sculpted by horse hooves. The shade came and went. When it went, we baked. I was glad I had opted to bring my Luna sandals.
A couple of kilometers along in the hike, we came to another house. It had a quaint farm look to it, with a manicured garden. One lone horse was standing obediently next to a hitching post on the other side of the road. Suddenly, a bright mostly read parrot swooped across, very near behind my head. I didn’t hear it or see it, but my companions were exclaiming. I didn’t get a look until it settled on a branch about five feet over our heads. It seemed at least part way tame, possibly expecting treats. When I picked up a brochure later in the gift/ticket office, I saw that it was in photos.
Even though we were working hard to get up the mountain, there was a serenity. Possibly it was because anything would seem peaceful after the 4 hours we spent in crocodile territory the day before. Pretty soon, all of the horses with riders were passing us on their return trip. A couple of sets of walkers were also making their way back down, one lady looking upset with her husband for talking her into this excursion. Soon, we reached a gate where an older gentleman stood at a not-so-secure-looking gate and double checked our tickets for entrance onto the rest of the hike.
We could tell we were close to the waterfalls when we reached a flat section with more hitching posts and some small, but serviceable changing rooms. We were grateful to find a small restroom, too. The changing rooms were clean and private, making it easy to get into our swim suits. From there, we had to maneuver down a nearly spiral set of stairs. It was lined with questionably secure bamboo handrails. The steps were worn and slick from the light mist in the air.
As soon as the waterfall came into view, we knew the hike was worth it! It was a dream come true, a jungle fantasy. The lower falls fell like musical notes into a swimming hole surrounded by smooth, sunny rocks. Only a handful of other people were around, a couple sitting half-way in the water near the edge, another man playing with a child in a smaller, calmer pool below. One young man was on the far side of the natural pool at the bottom of the waterfall. He had two well-behaved dogs there with him. They startled me when they walked right in front of me out from behind a rock as I got close to the water, but I could see right away that they were not aggressive. We laid our packs on a nearby rock and fell under the magic of the place.
The water was crisp and refreshing after our hike. We each eased deeper into the water at our own pace. The fellows tried to get close to a small cave, but the force of the water pushed them back. Fortunately, Adam had thought to bring swimming goggles and let me have a turn with them. The water was clear enough so that I could see flash-drive sized little fishies swimming around me near the surface. I could never be all the way comfortable in the middle of the deep pool, always wondering what was down there in the dark blue, beyond my visual acuity. Still, this was not enough to deter me from the chance to swim out under the waterfall. Three times. There were rocks to sit on directly under it. A circular rainbow formed around me as I sat there, in the sun with the droplets pelting me. Yes, pelting. It didn’t take long for it to feel like the constant force was going to leave me with permanent dents.
Wild Greg, however, did not completely succumb to the tranquility of the surroundings. While at the far side of the natural pool, he observed that the young man, whom I had supposed was just another tourist, had raced to the area right behind our packs. The young man was furiously getting dressed while eyeing our bags and quietly calling his dogs. Our bags had our car keys, snacks, water, and clothing in them.
Putting in his best swimming effort, Wild Greg made it to the other side and scrambled up the rocks to our supplies just in time, right before the young man finished dressing. The young man then disappeared into the foliage. Wild Greg was able to gather everything all at once and bring it closer to where we were getting in and out of the water, which was also barricaded by a few large rocks and a small stream. It would be hard for anyone to get there quickly, or make a quick get away. Also, from then on, someone always stayed right with our things. The seemingly private seclusion of the waterfalls had lulled us once into complacency, but would not again.
When we were ready for our snacks, we wandered up to the upper falls. There was not a place to swim there. We sat on a large rock, not very close to the edge and in the shade. One other family of four arrived soon after to wade in what pools there were, taking their two small children much closer to the edge of the falls than I would have. It was the time of relatively low water, we had been told, so there was not a surge of water, but there was still quite a drop if someone slipped.
The hike back was uneventful, except for an occasional foot slide on the gravel. And the guys taking a few minutes to try to scare up snakes in the undergrowth near the side of the trail… The constant downhill felt easy for me as I applied the bent-knee form I have learned for running downhill barefoot, again in my Luna sandals. I wasn’t running, but lightly trotting in a way that allowed me to keep comfortable pace with my friend walking beside me. Total hike: just over 8 kilometers UNLESS you don’t drive down the that valley parking lot. If you accidentally park up near the ticket office, you will be faced with a brutal hike back up to it.
Wherever you park, keep in mind that there is probably a thief around, looking for that moment when you get far enough away from your things as you bask in the beautiful environment. Everything we read before our trip AND our briefing by our resort personnel warned us about thieves being a real and constant problem in Costa Rica. There were many genuinely friendly people, but friendly could often be used to get us to lower our guard. The waterfall nearly did that to us, but Wild Greg was one step ahead of the thief of Nauyaca Waterfalls this time! (you can make the video full screen by clicking on the 4 outward arrows near the bottom right)