The adventure of getting to Corcovado National Park

White-nosed coati

White-nosed coati

We were finally heading to Corcovado and I felt the familiar knot of nervous excitement in the pit of my stomach, as we walked in pre-dawn darkness towards the main street of Drake Bay. Bolivar, our guide for the next three days was waiting for us at the tourist office. 

We already met Bolivar at the pre-departure briefing the night before, and the very necessity of such a briefing made me realize that a visit to Corcovado is not exactly a walk in the park. We discussed the condition of the trails and the available, albeit very limited facilities at Sirena Ranger station, calculated the necessary quantities of provisions we needed to take, and walked through the potential dangers that a visit to a remote wilderness entails. 

Once we were done with the logistics, I dropped my bomb: ‘What are the chances of seeing a wild cat in Corcovado?’

Bolivar appeared a little dumbstruck as if I asked him about finding little green extra-terrestrials in the park. 

“Ummm… cats are very difficult to see in the forest…”, he started to respond. To avoid a lengthy educational speech about the difficulties involved in finding cats in the wild, I quickly assured him that this wasn’t my first rodeo and I was well aware of the odds. I did, however, come across a couple of reports of Ocelot sightings in the park and thought it sounded promising.

Bolivar wasn’t convinced. “I worked in the park for 10 years and I never saw an Ocelot. I saw a Puma once.. last year… and that was the only cat I ever saw in Corcovado “. In his opinion, our chances of spotting a wild cat in the next 3 days were slim to none. In my opinion, however, you never say ‘never’. Over the years I have seen a fair share of unlikely creatures in unlikely places. In the end, the three of us decided to get excited about pumas, despite Bolivar’s reservations.

When we arrived at the meeting point at the tourist office, we were greeted with the much-appreciated flavoursome Costa Rican coffee. As we sipped the hot brew, the sky slowly began to lighten and soon a pickup truck came rattling down the road to take us for a short drive to the boat landing.

When most of us think about a boat landing site, we imagine a pier or a jetty, but here on the Osa Peninsula the surf is too high for the boats to dock and the only way to get in and out of them is by a beach landing. It sounds like a bit of adventurous fun. That is until you actually attempt to jump onto a constantly moving boat with all your luggage in the surf that rises up to your waist. 

We did, of course, have some help. The well-practiced locals moved with military-like calm efficiency as they passed our bags to the boat crew, who deposited them in strategic places on the boat. When it came to loading tourists, however, it turned into a slightly less graceful process. 

There were two main challenges involved: approaching the boat without getting hit by it as it was tossed towards the shore by the waves; and jumping onto the boat while it was at the lowest point of the wave and not tumbling down the rows of seats, as the boat was sharply lifted by the next wave. 

There were about 12 of us trying to climb onboard and I imagine we provided some welcome comic relief to the residents of Drake Bay who were just starting to emerge from their homes to attend to early morning chores. 

In the end, we got away with a couple of scraped knees and stubbed toes and somewhat injured dignity. Amazingly, the small boat fit all of us in, as well as the crew, though it was a tight fit. 

Having successfully climbed onboard, I naively imagined that once we moved away from the shore, the ride would become a lot smoother. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. The captain fired up the engine and the boat burst forward climbing the crests of the waves and then dropping into the troughs with jarring thumps that jolted me out of my seat and pushed the air out of my lungs.

Ruth, sitting next to me, did not look too impressed. To my surprise, she confessed to not being a big fan of the open sea. Usually, I am the only nervous customer in the boat, since I am typically the only person in the group who can’t swim. To my shame, I found Ruth’s discomfort reassuring and immediately cursed myself for being such an awful friend.

Pacific coast

Pacific coast

There wasn’t much to be done about our discomfort, however. We were now committed to two and a half hours of the bumpy ride. To take my mind off my rattling teeth and sore bum, I looked to the surrounding scenery for distraction. The day was promising to be the epitome of a tropical paradise. Bright blue sky stretched out of view as it merged with the equally bright blue ocean on the horizon. The sun was warm, but without the midday bite and the breeze was refreshing even though it came in gusts as the boat continually dropped out from underneath us. 

We followed the coastline of the Peninsula that rose out of the ocean in undulating slopes, wrapped in a thick carpet of lush tropical rainforest and framed by sandy strips of wild beaches. Most of the peninsula is protected by Corcovado National Park and the sheer expanse of its wilderness was staggering.

Just as I started to desensitize to the bone-rattling tossing of the boat, about 2 hours into the ride, I sensed the mood around me change. With a sense of foreboding i followed the nervous gazes of people around me and saw a dark mount of jagged rocks menacingly protruding from the sand bar ahead. The water churned around the rocks betraying the strong pull of the current.

A couple of locals, who were hitching a ride on the boat, started yelling words of encouragement to the captain. Bolivar turned to us with a goofy grin: “Don’t worry, he is a good captain”. I didn’t even know we were supposed to worry! Until now.  Pete gave me and Ruth a reassuring smile that looked like he was trying to convince himself more than anyone else. 

Meanwhile, the waves grew even larger and the tension in the boat reached its peak, as we came level with the rocks. In order to keep meeting the waves head on, the captain had to steer the boat directly towards the sandbar, which meant he was risking getting caught in the powerful current that pulled towards the rocks. He revved the engine and the boat started climbing a wave so high, it blocked the rocks out of view completely. Someone screamed, while most of us held our collective breath and held on to whatever we could with white-knuckled grips. When the boat finally reached the crest of the wave, the captain skilfully turned it around and sent it down in free fall. An agonizing second later it slammed on the surface and immediately started climbing another wave that effortlessly carried us away from the treacherous rocks. 

Passengers on a plane often like to give a round of applause to the pilot on successful touch down. I frankly find the notion quite ridiculous. I would have thought that at this point in the evolution of commercial aviation a safe landing is included in the price of a ticket. But having avoided a potential ship wreck in this little rackety tub of a boat, I clapped for the captain with the rest of the passengers, and I meant it from the bottom of my heart. I would’ve given him a hug if it didn’t involve running the risk of being tossed out of the boat by a rogue wave. 

Once we cleared the rocks the captain steered the boat towards the shore and soon we arrived at the beach that serves as the entry point to Sirena Ranger Station. The beach landing didn’t seem to worry any of us this time.   

Ruth, Pete and I waded out onto the beach and found a log to sit on while we waited for the boat to be unloaded. As I watched hundreds of Hermit crabs scatter away from underneath our log, I took a moment to appreciate the fact that we were finally in Corcovado.

Dubbed by National Geographic as ‘the most biologically intense place on earth in terms of biodiversity’, it protects a dozen of major ecosystems that harbor an unparalleled abundance of wildlife. Most importantly, five species of wild cats: jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays and jaguarundi prowl these jungles at night. This place is probably, as close to a wildlife haven, as the modern-day planet Earth has to offer.

As if to prove my point, within 20 minutes of landing on the beach we were looking at the first endangered species of the trip. Two Baird’s tapirs were taking an afternoon nap in a shady puddle just off the trail that runs from the beach to Sirena Station. We quietly made our way to the edge of their little swamp and sat there watching the odd-looking creatures sleep. It may not sound like much fun, but it felt incredible to be this close to the wild animals, to be so accepted into their world.

Baird's tapir at Corcovado National Park

Baird’s tapir

We entered Sirena station via the jungle airfield where a cute little 4 seater plane sat parked in the freshly mowed grass.

The Station had an idyllic appearance of a tropical research station that brought to mind images from the Jurassic Park movies, which came as no surprise, since some of the films were actually filmed in Costa Rica.  But behind the romantic façade, hid Sirena’s ugly truth. The facilities were not simply dilapidated, but seemed to be intentionally offensive. The only saving grace were the dining area and the wide wrap-around veranda of the ranger’s office. I could easily imagine lazing around after dark in the comfortable chairs on the veranda, watching wildlife emerge from the jungle. 

But for now, we were content to have a quick cup of coffee and to leave the station to explore one of the trails. 

As soon as we stepped from the brightly-lit clearing of the station into the dim unknown of the jungle, we were engulfed into a different world that was absolutely teaming with wildlife. A beautifully-patterned Tiger snake slithered across our path. Exotic birds colored in vivid colors darted through the trees. Collared peccaries and White-nosed coatis scurried in the leaf litter completely unafraid. Up in the trees Howler monkeys and Squirrel monkeys raced across the canopy, dislodging ripe fruit that would land with a thud at our feet. It seemed like at every turn there was something amazing to look at. 

Tiger snake at Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Tiger snake

Baird's trogon

Baird’s trogon

Spider monkey

Black-handed Spider monkey

Central American Squirrel monkey

Central American Squirrel monkey

Bolivar spotted a Northern Tamandua – Costa Rica’s largest anteater, high up in the canopy. It seemed to have too ungainly a shape for a tree-dweller, yet it moved with unexpected grace. It poked its curious face through the branches to have a better look at us.

Northern Tamandua

Northern Tamandua

Not to be outdone by the high flyers, a little Eyelash viper curled up on a branch by the side of the trail, perfectly camouflaged against the moss-covered bark. Apparently, ‘she’ can be found there any day, frozen motionless for hours, waiting for an unwary prey to approach within her striking distance.

Eyelash viper at Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Eyelash viper


Corcovado Days 2 & 3 – Wild Pumas and Tent-making bats

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