The Last Hike of David Gimelfarb

Four years ago, a Chicago grad student entered the Costa Rican jungle and simply vanished. What happened?

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The bridge to Las Pailas

Photography: Daniel Shea

The bridge to Las Pailas.

Rincón de la Vieja National Park is a vast wonderland filled with ancient trees, postcard-perfect waterfalls, and bubbling geothermal mud pits that can reach a skin-scorching 200 degrees. Visitors flock here for the opportunity to hike near an active volcano, which is often obscured by cloud cover, lending the park a mysterious aura. Legend has it the volcano’s peak is haunted by an old witch who, in a Romeo and Juliet–style legend, became a recluse after her disapproving father threw her lover into the crater.

Listed as a “not to miss” site in The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, Rincón is exactly the kind of lush, tropical destination that has helped establish the Central American country as the ecotourism capital of the world. But despite the park’s wide appeal, locals will tell you that it is unquestionably wild. Pumas, jaguars, and at least four varieties of poisonous snakes lurk deep in the jungle. Some of the labyrinthine trails aren’t particularly well marked, and drug traffickers have been known to use them to smuggle narcotics into Nicaragua, just 25 miles to the north. And a section of the park was quietly closed for several days in 2009 and again in 2012 after hikers were robbed at machete point.

Some 300 visitors from all over the globe were there on August 11, 2009, the day a 28-year-old graduate student from Chicago arrived. He walked into the visitors’ information hut
just before 10 a.m. and scribbled his name—David Gimelfarb—into the guest book. He told the ranger in Spanish that he intended to take an easy three-kilometer loop called Las Pailas (the Cauldrons), after the steaming pots that pepper the path. Then the young man walked out of the hut, up and over a rickety footbridge spanning the cool waters of the Colorado River, and vanished.

Nearly four years later, I stumbled across a report about the disappearance while researching a travel story about the Rincón area. David’s tale resonated with me because I spent much of my twenties traveling the world solo, often hiking in wild places. And he had lived in Wrigleyville, just blocks from the apartment I shared with friends when I was his age. I couldn’t shake the chilling sense that what had happened to the young hiker could easily have happened to me.

Three weeks before I left for Costa Rica, I drove up to the Walker Bros. Original Pancake House in Wilmette to meet with his parents, Roma and Luda Gimelfarb, a pair of Russian émigrés who had settled in Highland Park and whose lives had been shattered by the disappearance of their only child. They had the hollow look and melancholy aura of souls who had survived a terrible ordeal but still hadn’t recovered.

I was struck by the fact that they hadn’t given up hope. “We believe David is alive,” said Roma, 66, his eyes searching mine to gauge a reaction.

They told me that there continued to be sightings of a man who resembled their slight, red-headed son. The latest report had come last October from Limón, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, a five-hour drive from the national park. A man who was dirty, disoriented, and unable to speak had walked into a minimart there and gestured that he needed something to drink. Recognizing him from a newscast they’d seen on TV about David’s disappearance, a family took the stranger to a local police station. But after a brief interview, the police let him go without even snapping a photograph. The minimart’s owners insisted that the man was the missing American hiker.

Was this David Gimelfarb? Or just another false glimmer of hope for two grief-stricken parents desperate for good news?

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12 months ago
Posted by Missing Americans

Thank you for writing this piece about David Gimelfarb's disappearance. His case, while unusual, is not exceptional. In the past month, two more Americans have gone missing in the region -- one in Ecuador, the other in Panama -- and two more families are struggling with official and media indifference to their ordeals. Articles like this one are essential to helping people become aware of the risks of Third World travel and prodding government to take a more proactive role in documenting and investigating these cases.

Jeff Dunsavage
The Missing Americans Project

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