Heed The Close Call Interview Series How We Almost Spent the Night In the Jungle

We’re excited to bring you the second edition of our new blog series entitled, “Heed the Close Call,” a play on our tagline, Heed the Call. These are stories about when amigos’ adventuring went south, fast. For this story, we interviewed three of our Howler Brothers teammates about a travel day from hell. This one is more of a comedy of errors, but has some good takeaways. Enjoy!

Thanks for telling us your story fellas. Can y'all introduce yourselves?

RW: I’m Rick Wittenbraker. I’ve been at Howler Brothers for almost nine years, but was really on this trip to drive the van. Oh, and I speak Spanish.

PG: I’m Paul Graham, VP of Marketing at Howler Brothers. I was also the innocent driver of the truck leading the way.

SR: I’m Sam Roberts, Senior Marketing Manager at Howler Brothers. I organized this shoot and it was not my first rodeo despite how this story may sound.

You heeded the close call. Sum up your experience in one sentence:

ALL: We tried to “save some time” on our journey and almost ended up spending the night in the Costa Rican jungle.

Incredible. What are three words you’d use to describe your close call?

ALL: Muddy. Dark. Endless.

This sounds like a good one, ha. How did you heed the close call?

PG: [Audible Sigh] We started the day with a 4AM wake up call for a 7AM flight from ATX to Houston. It was me, Rick, Sam, Howler Ambassadors Tegan Gainan, Nate Floyd and Kameron Brown and Boone Rodriguez, and fishing guide Diego Solis. Our friend and professional surfer, Nacho Pignataro, was traveling from Uruguay to meet us there.

As we rounded the tarmac in Houston, the guy sitting next to Sam started puking. Like, a LOT. Exorcist-level amounts of puke.

SR: He was running out of bags and was seriously about to unload on my lap, so I stand up and the flight attendants are like “Sir! Please sit down, we are about to take off.” And I go, “Yo this guy is puking everywhere!” The flight attendants flocked over as pukeboy continued to HURL into more bags. Apparently he took some meds on an empty stomach (and it wasn’t the first time!?) so he continued to puke out what did not seem like an empty stomach.

RW: The rest of us were dying laughing in our seats sending as many barf emojis back and forth. They eventually had to bring over an industrial-sized plastic trash bag.

Oh man. Did y’all still take off??

SR: After an exchange between the flight attendants and this dude that lasted too long about his ability to fly and him saying ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ we ultimately had to take him back to the gate so he could take a later flight. Challenge one: complete. We pulled out again without Sir Pukes-A-Lot and landed in Liberia 2.5 hours later.

RW: Paul had just grabbed his oversized checked luggage of clothing for the shoot and was stopped out of nowhere on suspicion of selling in bulk. I tried to intervene as the resident Spanish speaker, but they weren’t having it and separated us.

PG: After a lot of back and forth over 30+ minutes that I didn’t understand, I finally picked up some context clues that I needed to pay a “tourist tax.” We were suddenly cleared and allowed to start the next 14 hours of our day.

Note to reader: This is where the meat of the story begins.

RW: So we pull up to the car rental stall and they directed us to our vehicles. We got the equivalent of a Toyota Sequoia, and then a super bueno van with 2 inch clearance, a 4-hamster engine, and bald tires. Not fit for heeding the call. Great.

[laughing] 4 hamster engine is such a clear visual.

PG: Yeah, it was not fit for our trip. So we looked at Google Maps and it said 4 hours to Santa Teresa. Seemed chill, just loop around the peninsula to get there, right? 

As we approached a curve in the road about 2 hours into our drive we noticed the ability to shave off 6 minutes by taking a road through the jungle. At this point we’d been traveling for 12 hours, so we were about any time savings. And Google suggested it was a legit road. We just didn’t know we were about to add 10 hours to our trip haha. 

Pretty much 30 minutes into the jungle “roads” which got less and less paved, we started to have doubts. About an hour into the jungle, it was dark. Like…pitch black.

RW: Paul was navigating with phone in one hand, steering wheel in the other in front. Boone was just messing with his camera, carefree. Nate was sleeping. I was just following the lead car. And so, right as I was starting to dream of a stiff tequila in a hammock to end the evening, we started descending down a ravine fast into what we didn’t know was creek/riverbed/gulley crossing 1 of 12. I was snapped back to attention by the truck’s red brake lights and forced a stop as I bottomed out HARD. 

Two of the guys got out to inspect the front of the van - now with the license plate completely horizontal after slamming into a creek bed - and realized that the aforementioned bald tires were completely failing on the incline out. We were pushin’ it up if we were gonna get out (see pics for proof). 

Once we got it far enough to move on its own again, we kept going. But 300 yards later, we hit another tire-spinning fiasco. Same deal. Out of the truck, push van up hill, wipe brow, continue. By the third time of this, we decided to let some air out of the tires for a little more surface area in hope that would do the trick. It did not. 

Thing is, at this point we had crested the top of the mountain ridge and thought, we’re good! It’s all downhill from here, right? The major challenges were behind us.

And then BAM! Another creek. And another.

Finally, we turn a corner and literally slam on the breaks as we approach a legit river cutting off the road. We get out and even with the help of our flashlights could not see the other side.

Kam jumped out and said, “Hold up, this can’t be the end of the road. Lemme do some reconnaissance” while he started running up the riverfront. 

PG: Thing about Costa Rican roads—they don’t have to follow the rules. Kam discovered the road did continue about 500 feet down the river on the opposite side, but we had to ford to catch the road again. Totally safe, totally not sketchy at all. We held our breath, creeping the van and truck through the water along the shore, hoping we hadn’t misjudged the water’s depth. When we finally hit dry dirt again, it was essentially a dirt bridge connecting us to the other side.  

SR: At that point, we were SURE it was the end of the trials and tribulations, but it wasn’t. After crossing 3 more creek beds where we bottomed out and had to push our way up increasingly steeper banks, we decided to let air out of the tires one last time. We were basically Tokyo Drift fish tailing all around the place.

PG: It was now midnight, We had entered the jungle road at 8PM, and we were just a couple kilometers from the main road. So. Close. 

RW: But still so far away haha.

SR: It was maybe 5 minutes more before we got to a river that was truly impassable. Even if we got successfully across, we couldn’t push the van up the steep cut bank on the other side. We got out of the car and threw our hands up in the air. It was an, “are you freakin’ serious?!” moment. We realized we had to turn around and go allll the way back.

So there was NO way you could get across or try to push?

RW: Nah, because the road up out of the ravine was washed out and was too wet and slick to make it work. And honestly, we might flood the van trying to even get across the river to the other side. Because it was so late, we did consider sleeping in the van til morning or sending a bat signal for a helicopter [laughs]. Instead, we basically recreated the scene from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery where he turns the cart around in the hallway. 

PG: Yeah the road was so narrow we were afraid we’d fall into a ravine if we weren't careful haha. After basically a 30-point turn, we begrudgingly started back the way we came, defeated. In some ways it was less painful because we knew what to expect, and the ravines were less intense to get over going back the opposite direction. We said screw it and hauled back to the main road in lieu of slow and steady. 

But about an hour en route back, we hit a fork in the road. And of course, we had no service. It was 1AM, and neither direction was marked because again, it was the jungle. 

RW: We were all wondering—well what the heck do we do now? Is this the point where we sleep in the van til morning? We were just sitting there stumped, because the wrong turn could mean actually spending the full night in the jungle. We all sat there quietly, too tired to think. Morale was at an all-time low. About 10 minutes later, we see two lights coming down the road and it’s two guys on motorbikes. Kind of a scary sight in the middle of the night in the jungle, but honestly I imagine they’d feel the same way [chuckles]. I talk to them and in Spanish they ask, “what are y’all doing here right now?” They basically laughed with us after we explained, confirming there was no alternative route because that dirt road was washed out, so we did indeed have to go ALL the way back to the main road. They really saved us though. For sure without their direction we would have gotten seriously lost. 

PG: As an aside, this was Diego’s first trip with us, and pretty sure he was thinking, “Who are these clowns??” Haha.

Ok, so was that it then? You made it out of the jungle?

PG: I mean, it took another 3 hours but yes. We just retraced the entire jungle journey, just way more tired this time. We finally got back to the main road and this time stayed the course around the peninsula until we got to Santa Teresa at 4AM.

Wow. And you had to get up for a shoot?

RW: Well, Nacho, Tegan, Nate, and Diego slept for 45 minutes and then got up to do dawn patrol. It was impressive.

I would die.

RW: Yeah the rest of us slept in later than planned cuz we canceled our morning shoot after the disaster day and night we had. They took a nap after surfing, but Diego thought we were shooting that morning and got up after sleeping for less than an hour even though he didn’t need to. Yikes.

Oh man, so all in all how long was the trip from the airport supposed to take, and how long did it actually take?

RW: It was a 4-hour drive, but it took us 12 hours because of the mistake of going through the jungle.

Would you do it again?

SR: Take the back road in the middle of the night in a foreign country? Maybe in a military vehicle, but not in a passenger van with bald tires. Actually, probably not.

Your piece of advice?

PG: Don’t always take the road less traveled…there were context clues along the way telling us to turn around.

RW: Sometimes heeding the call means following your instinct, aka, “This is not a good idea.”

Sam: When in doubt, upgrade your equipment. Walkie talkies that Boone brought were KEY. Without the ability to communicate with them we probably would have both cars stranded in ditches. So bring walkie talkies when you’re navigating new territory with limited service

Also—Don’t take your meds on an empty stomach!