A huge thank you to Michela Vincent who tells us about her two weeks taking part in our Expedition Medicine Training program in Costa Rica. This gives a great insight into jungle life!
After a stressful, delayed flight to San Jose and a morning spent hanging out with my new wilderness medicine pals, the trip, for me really kicked off on our 4 hour bus ride to the Caribbean coast. The views were spectacular; I couldn’t tear my eyes from the road. The rapidly changing countryside varied from misty mountains to wave battered coastline and rivers with turtles sunbathing on rocks.
Almost as soon as we arrived at our destination – a house in Punta Uva near the colourful beachside town of Puerto Viejo – we headed straight to the beach to cool off and unwind. This would be our base for the next few days as we prepared to head into the jungle. I particularly enjoyed our bathroom with a view which quickly helped us become accustomed to Costa Rican wildlife. Being woken by a chorus of howler monkeys each morning was increasing our excitement for the jungle part of our trip.
We had a couple of jungle survival lectures and an introduction to wilderness medicine. These included Health and Hygiene, in particular how to keep yourself and your team safe and healthy in the jungle. This was a very interesting lecture as it encouraged us to think like wilderness medics and how we would look after our expedition team. It touched on the mental difficulties as well as the physical. It also gave us a little insight into what to expect when we headed into the jungle. The importance of these simple tips e.g. how to avoid foot rot became very apparent after the first 48 hours in the very damp/humid jungle. We discussed the importance of hydration and simple basic hygiene rules to prevent infection spreading amongst a team in the jungle. After learning about the various diseases and dangerous insects and animals prevalent in the area we were heading towards, we realised the seriousness of what we were about to do.
Later that day we were introduced to our machetes, which we were told, would be like an extension of our arm by the end of the trip.
The next day began with the first of many Spanish lessons. These were particularly enjoyable, much more so than when learning a language at school as we actually learnt useful words and phrases. This made me feel much more comfortable in this Spanish speaking country. That afternoon we had our first venture into the jungle. After walking as a team up a very steep hill for half an hour we arrived at a Green Macaw sanctuary which was a fantastic introduction to incredible jungle wildlife. Within 10 minutes of being in the jungle we were treated to seeing Green Macaws (an endangered bird), a couple of iguanas, a brief glimpse at an unknown mammal, and countless giant insects (much to my horror the insects here were as large as large mice). I gradually overcame my dislike of creepy crawlies and by the end of the trip was able to appreciate their beauty; the biodiversity in the jungle was incredible.
We learnt how to use our machetes – there really is more to it than simply chopping and slicing. Learning how to set up bashas and hammocks came next.
The day before heading to our jungle camp we were treated to a surf lesson. I very much enjoyed my first experience of surfing with our hilarious Costa Rican instructors, despite suffering from sea sickness, who knew that was a thing when surfing? After spending the evening sorting out food rations and repacking our giant rucksacks with jungle essentials, we were all set for the start of our jungle expedition the next day.
Finally it was here, the day we were all looking forward to (expedition leader Colin’s talk on flesh eating infections and venomous snakes hadn’t quelled our enthusiasm). We were driven to a local family’s house on the outskirts of the Pacuare River Forest Reserve. This incredible family welcomed us to their home, allowed us to store our rations and belongings not needed in the jungle, and provided us with one of their sons as a guide into the jungle. One thing that particularly stood out to me on this trip was the hospitable, friendly nature of the Costa Ricans. The subsequent 45 minute trek into the jungle was tough going and required a great deal of teamwork due to the rocky, steep, slippery nature of the trail we were following. It was exhilarating with stunning scenery:
Our first task on arriving in the jungle was to set up our hammock areas. I was a little anxious at how far apart we were and how dense the jungle was. We really were immersed in the wilderness and it was an effort to put a lid on my fear of all things that creep and crawl. A fear not helped when a member of our team revealed she had been attacked by angry ants after setting up camp too close to a hidden nest. One thing I had to get used to was the constant moving of the jungle floor, so full of life it was. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long before I was gazing in wonder (instead of fear) at the streams of leafcutter ants hard at work carrying their leaves above their heads.
After our first experience of river bathing, leaders Jade and Colin took care of the fire and with my first jungle meal in my belly it was off to my hammock for a very cosy night listening to the jungle come alive.
Our first full day in the jungle introduced us to the challenges of lighting fires in the pouring rain. We were taught which types of wood were useful for tinder and kindling. Our lunch fire involved 2 of our team using massive banana tree leaves as umbrellas to protect our hard fought over fire. We then managed to pack in a Spanish lesson in addition to 1st responder first aid scenarios. We covered the basics in first responding including a primary assessment, checking vitals and then how to carry out a secondary assessment on a casualty.
The next day was a total washout, after 12 hours plus of solid rain, the importance of Colin’s health and hygiene lecture became very apparent after our skin started to suffer. Before the river had swollen to dangerous levels we practiced ways to rescue a variety of casualties from a river. These casualties ranged from unconscious to panicking and thrashing around. We also learnt the best and safest way to get a team across a fast flowing river. After a Spanish lesson we learnt to tie knots – this I found particularly useful as I was previously using the same simple knot on everything and it was proving practically impossible to undo! We spent the afternoon learning how to safely make our way up and down a very steep muddy, slippery slope first as a team and then as a team helping a casualty with a broken leg.
Finally, after a soggy night (my hammock had started to leak a bit) the rain began to clear and we were left with scorching sunshine on the beach by the river. We took advantage of this and spent the morning figuring out different ways to physically evacuate a casualty with differing numbers of team members. We had to take into account different types of injuries ranging from a broken leg to a spinal injury. We spent the afternoon practicing a rope throw into the river as an alternative way to rescue casualties from rivers. After a post dinner Spanish lesson we enjoyed the spectacularly starry night. We don’t get this kind of darkness and abundance of stars back home. On this day I also saw my first snake which was quite exciting and weirdly not as scary as I expected. It was just fleeing into the jungle as I saw it, the fact it wasn’t trying to eat me made me less scared of the prospect of encountering snakes.
For the next few days we practiced some very realistic medical scenarios. In each scenario, one of us played the role of medic, one of us was the expedition leader – the incident manager, one was the casualty and the rest of the team were there to help. The scenarios ranged from a leg laceration to a cardiac arrest, anaphylaxis, snake bite and a multi casualty trauma amongst others. Whilst these were serious and scary at times, the hilarity brought about by some of the team members’ acting meant that giggle breaks were necessary.
These scenarios showed us the difference between the ideal plan and the best possible real life plan – using what we could in the situation we were in. This included, for example, improvising splints and weighing up whether it was best to attempt to carry someone out of the jungle or to wait the potential hour and half for help to arrive.
In addition to medivac scenarios we continued to build on our survival skills, learning to make improvised fire shelters and learning to use a compass to navigate the dense jungle.
Our final day and night in the jungle was a solo survival mission. After being shown the section of jungle that was to be my home for the next 24 hours I set about hunting for a good couple of trees to hang my hammock on. This had its own difficulties as I managed to get lost finding my way back to the trail after picking my trees. It amazed me how easy it was to get disoriented and lost in such a small patch of jungle, but with the trees all looking the same and it being so dense, I really should have expected it. I used my jungle training to keep myself calm and found my way back to the path. I then proceeded to mark a clear path back to my hammock trees so it didn’t happen again. Due to the previous heavy rainfall I had a lot of difficulty lighting my lunch fire (lunch was served at 15.45), but my superb fire shelter meant that when the rain started back up again it was fully protected and evening’s fire was much easier to get going. I used this solo time to reflect on how far I’d come in the last week since entering the jungle. I was able to light a fire for myself – 3 times and no longer flinched at the sudden appearance of giant insects and spiders, I consider myself desensitized! Although, this new confidence was shaken slightly at the potential night time encounter with the dreaded territorial Fer-de-lance snake, described as the ultimate pit viper. Whilst on the hunt for a pre bed time pee spot, the light of my head torch was reflected in some very snake like eyes, and the fact that it wasn’t making itself scarce at the sight of me, made me think it could have been the Fer-de-lance. I made a hasty retreat and after finding another location for said pee, I was safely ensconced in my hammock when I heard what I thought was a hiss. I was kept awake that night by the sounds and sights of a spectacular thunder storm and was up at the crack of dawn, slithery encounter forgotten, to light my breakfast fire, wash in the river and pack up my camp. Solo night was a success, I survived on my own in the jungle!
All that remained of our trip was the trek out of the jungle. This was no easy task as it was uphill nearly all of the way and very slippery. We narrowly avoided being squashed by a falling tree and rallied together as a team to make it out of the jungle. We were rewarded with fantastic views at the top of our climb.
After gathering all of our belongings from the local family’s house we began our journey back to San Jose. We encountered true Costa Rican spirit on this journey. After having missed our bus to Seccures we were facing a long day of travel as this meant we missed our connecting bus to San Jose. Nevertheless, Jade managed to flag down a servicemens bus which proceeded to drive straight past us as we realised it was not a public bus. Much to our surprise it stopped and promptly started to reverse back towards us, up a main road! After discovering we needed to get to San Jose, the driver, also heading that way, let us hitch a lift in what had become our own private bus! Unfortunately I no longer possessed the ability to admire the views along the way as I went out like a light the moment my bottom hit the luxurious soft seat (wonderful after the previous 8 days of sitting on rocks and logs). We were very excited to see beds and a shower (luxury!) in our San Jose hostel.
After some much needed washing and feeding (pizza!) we explored the Market, which was a beautiful sea of colour. We bought a colourful array of hammocks and I invested in some delicious locally made chocolate.
It looks like British Airways had the last laugh on my trip. After 2 weeks of rations – rice and beans or pasta in tomato sauce, guess what the airplane meal options were for my return flight? Rice and beans or tomato and pasta, I mean seriously what are the chances? At least the rice option had chicken (our jungle trip was devoid of meat).
After one day at home, the novelty of home comforts has worn off and I would very much like to be taken back to the thrills of the jungle. What a memorable experience it was!
To find out more about our expedition medicine training in Costa Rica, check out the Expedition Medicine Training page.