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The stone balls of the Isla del Caño
By Nathan Welton
Nathan Welton photos
Mountainfreak Magazine
July, 2000

For four months, I envisioned witnessing, even touching, the giant stone balls of the Isla Del Caño. Rumor had it these balls were carved by natives thousands of years ago, and guide books report them to be six feet in diameter. The balls, I had read, were scattered throughout the forest on a small island off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. The history and function of the balls remained a mystery in my research, but I was convinced they constituted the Tican version of Stonehenge. I wanted to wrap up my travels in the region with a pilgrimage to the balls.

My quest began in Panama City, and the day I left for Costa Rica started poorly. After I awoke and ate a hearty meal of eggs, toast, sugar (with a few drops of coffee), and beans, I stumbled onto the curb and was soon inside a taxi headed to the most dangerous bus stop in the country, nestled deep in the slums of Panama City.

As soon as I got out of the taxi, a bizarre looking man approached me. He was vertical: His hair was on end, constituting a striking visual display of maximum verticality; his pin-striped pants were pulled down, and his lined boxers were hiked to his sternum; he was tall, had thin, bony fingers, and he walked rigidly. He spoke to me in English with a tinge of New York Bronx, telling me stories of his brokerage days on Wall Street. I was in a hurry and tried to ignore him, but he followed me into a bathroom, through a few ticket lines, and all the way to the door of the bus. Every time I turned around, he averted his eyes and pretended to be riveted by a trashy romance novel.

As soon as the bus driver asked for my passport, I realized I had left it in my hotel room on the other side of the city. Half an hour away. With my bus to Costa Rica leaving in five minutes, I stood in mute panic.

“Pasaporte, amigo.”My ability to speak Spanish vanished.

“Amigo! Dónde está el pasaporte? Necesito el pasaporte porque ...”

I gazed at him, unaware I was holding up the line. Going on a later bus was out of the question because I had told friends to meet me at a particular time and place, and I had no way to notify them.

After a ten second eternity, the vertical man approached. He spoke rapid Spanish to the bus driver, grabbed my arm, and dragged me outside. He then stuffed me through the door of a small, green taxi and instructed the driver to take me back to my hotel, and drop me off at an old church outside the city where the bus would meet me. Next, he stood in front of the car with an outstretched hand and refused to move in spite of the hectic schedule he’d just arranged for me. The cab driver honked his horn and suggested I give Vertical Man some cash, which I did, and we zoomed through the claustrophobic streets to the hotel. In the cab, I asked about Vertical Man: He was a drug addict, and I had bought him another hallucination.

After a dizzying 45 minutes, I found myself on a street corner in an unknown part of the city, next to an unknown church with all my belongings already checked on the yet-to-arrive bus. But ten minutes later, I sat comfortably in a rear seat, driving toward the border.

Vertical Man’s schedule had produced solid results.

Next to me was an obese, young pink fellow, clad in a beer T-shirt and a collegiate baseball cap. He pressed his sun-baked face into the window and, not surprisingly, left grease marks on the glass. He turned to me and began picking sunburn scabs off his forehead.

“Hi! I’m Aaron.”

He opened his window, evidently needing a place to fling scabs, and talked to me ad infinitum. His vocabulary was notably unrefined and vulgarities peppered every scabrous thought. Aaron, though limited in expression, had the sort of charm that captivated me simply because our encounter plunged me into the surreal.

Indeed, I marveled at his introduction, but my initial awe was only the beginning. We tried to talk about the corporate western takeover of Latin America, but he shrieked, “What? I can’t hear you!” every time I opened my mouth and usually before I spoke. It was as though he had a headset on and was too rude to remove it. After a while, it dawned on him: I was sitting on his left, so then Aaron drifted into a lecture about a strange degenerative hearing disorder in his left ear. Something about catheters, drainage, fluids ...

I felt like I was dreaming.

Eventually, I did go to sleep, but I was awakened intermittently by a decrepit, old man screaming, “Jaguar!” every time he saw a dog by the side of the road.

I awoke many hours later in central Costa Rica in the town of Sierpe. Aaron was asleep, too, a thin rivulet of drool shining from the corner of his mouth, so I carefully crawled over his sprawling legs and disembarked to find myself in a howling rain storm. The water drops were large and coming down so hard they almost raised welts on my skin. I met my friends, and we found a boatman who told us to call him Pops. He took us through a banana plantation to a dock on the Rio Sierpe. The river was slow and muddy, complete with crocodiles and floating organic waste from the banana processing plant.

The boat ride was magical. We were headed toward the center of a storm in an open-hull Boston Whaler with two outboard motors, which Pops operated masterfully. He stood in the back with one hand on each motor, cruising toward the grim clouds, winding in and out of secret passages in the mangroves. We quickly found ourselves in a large, open delta surrounded by expansive and untouched forest. We felt small. The waves were monstrous, the rain beat on us, it thundered. Dusk was approaching, and the sky was dark. Pops stood over us, an outboard clenched in either fist, screaming defiantly into the wind, looking something like a Latino Zeus. He was taking us to some cabañas in Bahia Drake, on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. It is a region accessible only by plane, foot, or boat. The Osa Peninsula is probably the largest, wildest section of old growth jungle in Central America. When we reached the shore, two muscle-bound Ticos ran to our boat. With each receding wave, we threw our packs to them; when the waves crested, we were ten feet off the sand, teetering nervously. Even Pops, I believe, was a little intimidated.

Following my friends’ bold lead, I hopped overboard and dragged myself to the beach. We followed the men, who wore nothing but underpants, through a jungle path to a series of inviting thatch huts, illuminated from within by candles. We dried off at the bar in the company of a couple of American expatriates.

The next morning, the sun sprouted and burned the clouds away. Morning dawned hot, humid, choking, stunning. In the distance, shrouded in coastal mist, was Isla Del Caño, a National Biological Refuge, home of the stone balls. We found Pops in town, boarded his boat, and motored toward the island. Dolphins swam and dove next to us for the ten-mile ride.

“Be back in eight hours,” Pops yelled as he dropped us on the beach and captained back to sea.

We admired the tidal pools, then ventured into the forest to find the orbs. We hiked through the tropical jungle for roughly an hour, sweating, tripping over tree roots, watching, paranoid, for fer de lances or other equally deadly snakes. I wore sandals, not the best jungle footwear, so the merest rustle underfoot caused me to leap into the air.

Eventually, we found the famous balls. I was prepared for the awe and wonder of being dwarfed in the shadow of a virtual city of six-foot-tall spheres. What I saw, though, lay half buried in the decaying leaves. Disbelieving, I stood sweating in the jungle, wiping spiderwebs from my face, staring at the balls. Looking down at the balls.

There, before the Stone Balls of Isla del Caño, I laughed. I laughed as I snapped photos for the grandkids, and I laughed walking away. After another boat ride from Pops, we were back on the mainland at the Corcovado National Park ranger station where we picked mangos from the trees and lounged on the beach, lost in this veritable Eden. Robert Louis Stevenson once remarked, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." The Stone Balls of Isla del Caño, then, are the ideal destination for the hopeful traveler. Today, I am still laughing.