San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hotel Costa Rica: It’s an ant’s world

Chapter 5 of 8

Our miniature Rottweiler, Macho Eatchu, was howling like a 9-year-old girl on the Fourth of July. Unusual for a dog that hated to call attention to himself. I ran from the hotel to see the reason for his outburst.

In the middle of the lawn, headed directly for our newly opened hotel, was a river of ants – a black swath, 10 feet wide and two inches deep, of voracious army ants, their powerful jaws snapping, a dozen bodies thick as they climbed over each other in a rush to get to the hotel. The dog, standing at the edge of this swarming horde, had curiously placed a paw too close and now was being bitten by hundreds of the beasts. He yelped in agony, trying to wipe them off himself.

“Milady!” I screamed for our maid, who, having been raised in this place, was seldom surprised by what appeared from the surrounding jungle. “Get the Raid!” This was the Gringo’s main protection from all creatures that crawled or flew from the rain forest.

Milady ran from the hotel, took one look at the advancing horde and started snapping orders. “Raid no bueno, throw the dog in the pool, get everybody out of the hotel, pronto!

With the guests evacuated, we now stood about in all manner of dress as the flood of insects crashed into the hotel and, without slowing, swarmed up the walls. In seconds, the entire exterior was coated in a black mass of frantic, clawing insects. Their ranks still stretched across the lawn, into the jungle and continued out of site. There were billions of the creatures, leaving in their wake a 10-foot-wide swath of bare earth. No living thing was left unconsumed.

“They’re going to eat the hotel!” My wife was still, after six months, not completely comfortable in the jungle.

“No,” said Milady. “They are going to CLEAN the hotel. When they get done, the hotel muy limpio!

I was beginning to find the Tico attitude aggravatingly optimistic. You could be among a sinking boatload of Costa Ricans who would all be excited about visiting the bottom of the sea – extremely annoying to the Gringo mind constantly focused on calamity, one step away from disaster.

For the next two hours, the black silent mass covered the hotel. The walls, curtains, beds – one could only imagine the horror of waking up in one of those beds, now literally blanketed in silent, all-consuming insects.

Then, slowly, they started congregating on the opposite walls from where they had entered, and like some slow-moving, single alien being consisting of billions of individuals, formed a snaking river out into the waiting jungle.

The few guests we had left cautiously tiptoed to their rooms, gingerly packed their bags, and left. Not only were the guests gone, but Milady had been right; gone was every speck of dust, every dead or alive insect, every spiderweb, every gecko, every houseplant, wiped clean from the face of the earth. Now I knew it to be true: In Costa Rica, ants rule.

No one who has lived in any jungle anywhere is without a snake story, some more horrifying than others, but all of them disturbing. Whenever neighbors converged at happy hour, the snake stories eventually raised their scaly heads. There was the woman who returned to her home after a monthlong absence and opened her underwear drawer to find an eyelash viper coiled atop her delicates. There was our tile setter whose right hand had been bitten by a bushmaster and now sported only a thumb and pinky. A deep furrow of flesh had been removed day after day from his arm as it rotted away for the next month. His shoulder was now deformed, as a great pocket of meat had been removed when it went putrid.

There was the pizza joint with a 14-foot python living in its open rafters. Another restaurant had a snake drop from the roof right onto a table of four very startled Dutch tourists. With more than 130 varieties of snake in Costa Rica, it is only a matter of time before you have your own close encounter.

So, it was a dark and stormy night, when my wife and two children headed off to bed. Our quarters lay across a small parking area adjacent to the hotel, a well-lit short walk on concrete steps cut into the lawn – not particularly dangerous.

Our chef, Danny, and I lingered about the bar, cleaning up and finishing off any half-drunk bottles or glasses. We had puffed on a couple of leftover Cuban Cohibas and told each other some elaborate lies when I decided it was time to cash in.

Macho Eatchu and I left the building in the pitch dark, my wife having decided it was time to save electricity. Suddenly the dog went straight up in the air with a sharp yelp.

Being barefoot, I felt it prudent to stop in my tracks, and slowly backed up to switch on the floodlight. There, directly in my path, the next step away, was a coiled fer-de-lance, Costa Rica’s most feared reptile. It had apparently struck at the Rottweiler, whose canine sixth sense had no doubt saved the creature.

A loud Gringo curse brought Danny running, machete in hand. He seemed to know just what to do. “My grandmother taught me this.” He then threw the machete, sticking it in the ground inches from the coiled snake.

“He will now strike the blade, coil around it and cut himself to pieces,” Danny said.

The reptile’s ugly, triangular head followed the weaving machete inches from its flicking tongue, but oddly the snake did not attack the blade and dice itself into mincemeat.

Next, I retrieved the tiny handgun I had purchased in San José for $75. Barbie’s gun.

I unloaded all eight shots into the coiled beast from not five feet away … and missed. The snake was now obviously agitated.

“Great!” I yelled at Danny. “Now no machete and no gun!”

“Let me show you another trick my grandmother taught me,” said the still optimistic cook, and retrieved a shovel.

Quick as a mongoose, he leapt at the murderous creature, stabbed the shovel down and leapt clear in the blink of an eye.

The snake’s great head lay snapping at the air. Its five-foot body coiled and uncoiled, writhing in its bizarre death throes.

“What the heck is going on down there!” yelled my wife from her bed.

“Nothing, dear! Danny’s just showing me a trick his grandmother taught him.”

To be continued. Find previous chapters at U.S. writer and former humor columnist Steve Church owns El Castillo hotel and villa on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast (

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