With a stable economy, Costa Rica, a country roughly the size of West Virginia, can boast of an abundance of eco–tourists, surf shops, and newly planted Coca–Cola billboards. Natural wonders have made Costa Rica a study destination for biologists and scientists from all over the world. Stretched between the shores of the vast Pacific and the unpredictable Caribbean, surfers flock to this tiny mark on the map to ride the waves that rise and crash against each shore. Tranquil living draws vacationers; the national motto, pura vida ("pure life") alludes to the peaceful and fulfilling life most Costa Ricans enjoy. The clean air, tap water one can drink without fear, the incredible vistas from every possible angle, the constant call of the howler monkeys from the rainforest canopy have also encouraged yoga retreats and meditation centers to spring up with increasing frequency. But in spite of European ex–patriots opening classy restaurants alongside local restaurants serving gallo pinto at 5 AM, or newly–sprung night clubs playing Sean Paul more often than hosting live salsa bands, Costa Ricans continue to live in parallel worlds: the modern world of a tourist resort and the timeless world of the rainforests, rich with hidden secrets.
In 2004, I attended a language school in Playa Tamarindo in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, a small beach village with one paved road that connected, at some distant point, to the Pan American highway. I lived with a Costa Rican family just outside of Tamarindo and hitchhiked to school every morning, bumbling down the dirt roads in the back of a pick–up truck or a topless Jeep filled with young Costa Rican surf instructors on their to work at the beach. By 7 o'clock in the morning, the sun had already been up for two hours, the rainforest animals noisily greeting the day in the steadily mounting heat. Mating cicadas whirred without ceasing as I sped over rough roads to school, and the air was pungent with the scent of fallen mangos cooked by the sun.
The school, held under a series of "rancho" roofs (tall, pointed roof structures built of Guanacaste tree trunk columns and supports, covered only on the top by dried palm fronds), was surprisingly cool. No matter the time of day, the hot stuffy air rose and was trapped high above in the frond–covered vaults. The instructors were young Costa Ricans who taught grammar for two four–hour sessions a day. My teacher, Lysia, was a short woman with a flat, round face and unruly brown hair. Her two front teeth angled in, which made her upper lip droop slightly, giving her speech a pleasant roundness. By far the most interesting teacher at the school, she taught the more advanced students. For weeks I asked Lysia to bring me any storybooks she might have on Costa Rican folklore, mythology, or duendes (faeries). Then, on my last day at the school, she took me aside and quietly suggested that I speak with her after class. Thrilled, I assumed that she had brought a book to loan to me — but what Lysia had in store was not a book. Instead, it was a personal story of her encounter with a creature called La Segua. Sitting in the cool shade of the rancho, the midday sun glistening off the restless sea and white sands, Lysia recalled for me her frightening encounter with Costa Rica's other world.
One evening, as she walked home from the esquina, a fork in the road at the entrance of the town of Villareal where she lived, she noticed a storm gathering in the sky. It's common in Costa Rica for thunderheads to appear without warning — erupting with a brief, intense rainfall before clearing completely, the heat evaporating the rain and the humidity continuing as though nothing has interrupted it. Lysia had been alone on the dirt road just after sunset, unconcerned about being caught in the rain until the mosquitoes thickened in the twilight and forced her to pick up speed. As she told me this, Lysia's forehead wrinkled into worried knots above her usually steady gaze. She nervously tangled curls around a finger, a gesture I had never seen her make before. The confidence she exuded while teaching faded, and her voice wavered. She interrupted the story to tell me not to talk about this with any of the other foreign students. She added, however, that another teacher at the school had a similar story, if I was interested in hearing more about La Segua. Then Lysia continued her tale.
As the heat lightning streaked the sky, she noticed a woman standing alongside the dirt road, slightly set back in the shadowy edge of the rainforest. She described the woman as about her height, standing stock–still, legs apart, hands hanging at her sides. Lysia thought at first that the woman was waiting for a ride, hitchhiking home to avoid being caught in the downpour. But it was getting late, and cars did not tend to stop on this particular road. The woman stared straight ahead, ignoring Lysia as she approached — yet Lysia felt her skin prickle and the hair lift on her arms as she neared the dark spot where the woman waited, motionless.
Once more my teacher interrupted her story, glanced over her shoulder and edged closer to me. Despite the bright midday sun, it was impossible not to feel the chill of her fear. In a low voice, Lysia told me that upon passing the woman, a great relámpago, a bolt of lightning, illuminated the sky. And in that brief second, the woman turned her head. Lysia nearly fainted when she saw the woman's profile: a horse's long muzzle, a mane of beautiful black hair, and a huge, shining eye that flashed red with the lightning. It was La Segua surveying the town, watching for a certain kind of traveler who might be out on the dark roads at the edge of the forest.
Although she was terrified at the time, Lysia said she knew that it was not for her that La Segua waited. La Segua, she explained, is a forest creature with the voluptuous body of a woman and a sensual, inviting face. It is only when she turns her head that the woman's true nature is revealed as her lovely face transforms into a horse's head with blazing eyes and a black mane. She stands waiting for drunken husbands rolling home late from the bars, seducing them into cheating on their spouses under the cover of night. She permits their hands to grope her body — but not until daybreak does she reveal her horse's head. Cringing, and suddenly all too sober, these shamed husbands must endure her fierce reprimands before she releases them.
An all–around mother's helper, La Segua has also been known to kidnap rebellious and wayward children. Tossing them across her back, she takes them on a frightening, wild ride through the forest, carrying them farther and farther away from all that is familiar. The nightmarish ride is said to be a physical reminder of how lost and vulnerable they are without their families and their village. Only when they are chastened and repentant are they allowed to return home.
After Lysia confided her story, other Costa Ricans told me similar stories about evening encounters with La Segua, and it was hard not to fall under the spell of such tales. I was more cautious as I walked home late after nights of dancing with my friends. With my dog at my heels, I was respectful of the women I saw waiting along the road, or strolling the forest edge above the beach. I had left my own country abruptly, in mid–semester of my first year at college, to come to Costa Rica — and I wondered if that constituted a wayward child in La Segua's fiery eyes. All right, I would silently promise, I'll write home.