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An A.M. Costa Rica reprint
First published Feb. 22, 2008

A.M. Costa Rica Page One
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Contents copyrighted 2008 by Consultantes Río Colorado S.A. (cédula juridica 3-101-290-170).  Republication without permission is prohibited under U.S. and Costa Rican laws and international conventions.


Parque Nacional Corcovado
corcovado montage
Photos by Martin Laube
A flight of white butterflies greets a tourist
while a crocodile basks in the sun. Where else could it be but the unspoiled Parque Nacional

Corcovado on the Osa Peninsula. And the base there is the Sirena ranger station. Here is a detailed look at hiking and camping there.


pont he way to corcovado
Photos by Martin Laube
Hiking on the beach toward the entrance to Parque Nacional Corcovado
To walk to the Sirena station is to see Costa Rica as it was
By Helen Thompson
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

It has long been said that you have to suffer for beauty. While counting mosquito bites and pulling ticks out of their toes, hikers who have just walked 50 kilometers (31 miles) in tropical heat through the Osa Peninsula might be inclined to agree.

From volcanoes with drive-up access to luxury beach resorts, Costa Rica makes beauty readily available for the tourist. Parque Nacional Corcovado is, on the contrary, a small pocket of undisturbed wilderness that hides its deserted, undeveloped beaches and rare wildlife away from human eyes.

Corcovado lies on the outside edge of the Osa Peninsula, and protects the only old growth wet forest that still remains on the Pacific coast of Central America. The forest is easily comparable to an Amazon rain forest, the tall trees with their impressive buttress roots outstripping the height of those in the Bolivian Amazon. The lush vegetation and the yearly 6 meters (about 20 feet) of rainfall provide the perfect habitat for some of the continent's rarest creatures.

Puerto Jiménez, the small town that is the gateway to the national park lies a 10-hour bus journey away from San José. From here hikers take a dawn pick-up truck ride for the two-hour drive around the bottom of the peninsula to Carate.

The colectivo heads past eco-lodges hidden in the jungle, stopping only for small ginger-furred anteaters who amble across the dirt road, safe in the knowledge that on the peninsula wildlife is everyone's top priority.

Carate is the end of the road, although it is still 2.5 kilometers of beach walking to the park boundary. José, a worker for Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp, often takes pity on hikers and slings their luggage into a cart for his horse to drag down the beach — a service usually reserved for those who want a more relaxing Osa experience in the beach-side camp.

“From here, there's a long way to go before you hit Sirena,” he says, skeptically eying up the day's quota of would-be hikers. “People come here with packs that are far too heavy for this trek.”Backpacks start out stuffed full of granola bars, trail mix, dried soup, and other preservable foods that represent an entire diet for the next several days. Tents, water filters and camping stoves add several kilograms to the load.

Carrying everything needed for the duration of a stay in the park is essential, unless reservations for accommodation and meals are made months in advance to land a spot in Sirena station's jungle lodge. The rangers cook three times a day for the well-off kids who arrive on boats or fly in on tiny planes to Sirena's grass airstrip, carefully avoiding the sweaty hike.

Walkers make do with the more basic aspects of the park's infrastructure. This consists of a network of relatively well-marked trails and four ranger stations with space for camping. No food can be bought anywhere in the park, and the water filter is essential for topping up drinking supplies from rivers along the way.

La Leona ranger station is the first port of call on the south side of the park. A ranger takes the $10 tourist entrance fee (It's $7 less for Ticos) and sends them on their way with a rudimentary trail map and a warning that planning river crossings to coincide with low tide is essential if one doesn't want to wade in up to the chest.

Although only several dozen tourists enter the park a day, the trail system has been well thought out. The trail that leads north along the coast winds through the trees next to the beach, infinitely preferable to walking 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) on the baking sand. Bursting through the trees to get to the beach for a bit of refreshing breeze is still easy, and well worth it, as the beaches are some of the most untouched imaginable.

Dark sand may not seem as idyllic as the blinding white bays on Caribbean postcards, but the coastline has a natural charm. It looks just as it must have for centuries, since well before the first Europeans landed in the Americas. Massive pieces of driftwood, some the size of entire trees, lie on the sand, and millions of hermit crabs are still the beaches' rightful kings. The palm trees and dense vegetation that line the coast are only interrupted by rocky outcrops and cliffs, against which the bright red and blue wings of scarlet macaws stand out as they fly above the treetops in their lifelong pairs.

Apart from carrying your house on your back, the toughest thing about this trip is the climate. The almost perennial cloud cover does little to relieve the heat, which is oppressive due to the intense humidity. It's not even necessary to start hiking to break a sweat. Minor activities like eating will bring it on too.

It is a relief at the end of the first day's hike to find that Sirena station is in fact perfectly habitable, not overgrown or snake-infested as a jungle station might be expected to be. It is an extensive wooden platform several feet off the floor connecting various different rooms including showers, bathrooms, a camping area, a canteen, and a kitchen where campers can set up their portable stoves and cook themselves a hearty portion of pasta.

Sirena is the perfect spot to spend a day or two immersed in the rain forest that once covered much of Costa Rica's Pacific coast, but has now shrunk to this 100,000-acre space. Rarely-sighted jaguars prowl through the forest, multicolored spiders hang in their massive webs, and hundreds of different types of birds attract avid bird watchers.  

Río Serena, a few hundred meters north of the station, is a prime location for wildlife spotting. Bull shark fins in their dozens dart through the water just a few meters from the river mouth, warning tourists away from spontaneous swimming trips. Six-foot crocodiles bask on the opposite bank, and the long grass by the beach has numerous openings where tapirs have crashed through the undergrowth to reach their hideouts. There is always someone at the ranger station who can point animal lovers in the right direction, and those with sharp eyes can also see three-toed sloths relaxing in the treetops.

Hours can be spent stalking wildlife along the trails marked out around the station, where crossing paths with another person is as unlikely as catching a jaguar unawares. The animals here are entirely wild. Spider monkeys shake the branches and beat their skinny chests, trying to scare humans away from the troop when tourists cross underneath their path, unlike the monkeys that inhabit some of the more accessible parks like Manuel Antonio, who hardly
neighborhood coati
A neighborhood coati with its distinctive long, ringed tail continues to search for food.

ocean view from trail
Beach view along the Sirena trail

corcovado hermit crab
This hermit crab and relatives are kings of the beach


flinch when they see a human. Central American squirrel 
monkeys also live here, the last place in Costa Rica where these endangered primates find a home.

Night strolls along the beach are popular, as tapir and jaguar tracks are often found in the sand at dawn, but boots are essential as various types of lethal snakes hide themselves in the long grass alongside the airstrip.

In the dry season it is possible to continue the hike along the beach, for another 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) north to the San Pedrillo ranger station. But once there, hikers are stranded unless they want to spend another day or two walking to the nearest settlement, or hire a pricey water taxi to Drake Bay. Not eager to do either of these, most tourists turn away towards the east, following the trail into the jungle. The terrain changes entirely; sand gives way to red, clay-filled earth, and the flat path turns into hilly climbs during the last two hours of the 17-kilometer (10.5-miles) trek. The humidity is amplified by the lack of coastal breeze, and frequent rain turns some paths into slippery mud chutes.

Plenty of streams along the way provide handy picnic spots and places to top up drinking water supplies using a water filter. Los Patos, right on the eastern frontier of the park, is  
far more basic than Sirena, with a field cordoned off for campers and basic bathroom facilities. At night, campers get eaten alive by mosquitoes, and there is no wooden platform to save tents from the tropical downpours that hammer the forest every other night.

After a full day's walk, it can be difficult to find motivation to hike further, but the waterfall a couple of kilometers away is well worth it. The fall is small, but it has carved out a blue pool, surrounded by jet-black rock that looks almost hand-carved in its perfection. Swimming in the cold water is refreshing, but ticks are rife in the jungle, and swimmers can sometimes find them hiding in the most unlikely places.

The exit from the park is only 2.5 kilometers from Los Patos, but the nearest town, La Palma, is another 10 kilometers (six miles) further on. Tourists coming the other way often hire jeeps to drive them through the gravelly river bed to avoid this extra hike, and anyone exiting the park should be able to flag a returning jeep down to save their legs.

The aches should disappear after a couple of days, the mosquito bites will take a little bit longer to stop itching, but the images of Costa Rica as it was intended to be, before the boom in tourism, before logging companies and before cattle ranching, will stay for far longer.

Map of Corcovado shows the key points: Carate where the oceanside hike began and Serina station where facilities await visitors. Then there is the trail to Los Patos through the heart of the park.
osa map
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An A.M. Costa Rica reprint
A.M. Costa Rica Page One
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Write us
About us
Contents copyrighted 2008 by Consultantes Río Colorado S.A.  (cédula juridica 3-101-290-170).  Republication without permission is prohibited under U.S. and Costa Rican laws and international conventions.