Corcovado National Park

We checked and double checked the bus schedules and ferry schedules ahead of our departure from Finca Bellavista, the tree-house community where we had been volunteering for the past two weeks.

With two buses, a ferry, and a non-responsive airbnb host, I had my doubts that we would actually make it to Drake Bay, on the Osa Peninsula, a popular launching spot for day trips to Corcovado. On top of all that, the two years of Spanish I took in high school has not been as helpful as I had hoped with communication. At least I have finally mastered using the phrase “no entiendo” (“I don’t understand”).

The buses work fairly well in Costa Rica, and they’re very cheap… about $1 got us to Palmar Norte and another 50 cents got us to Sierpe. People are nice, and helpful, and even with my broken Spanish, I could ask where to go, and how much it costs, etc. So somehow, against all odds, we managed to make it to the ferry terminal at Sierpe. Each step of the way, more and more white people (“gringos”) appeared. We were obviously headed into a tourist trap – but happily so, because sometimes touristy areas are touristy for good reason.

At the ferry terminal, which was really just a restaurant next to a wooden dock, a bunch of Costa Rican’s started bugging us, seemingly asking for our hotel reservation. I thought these guys were just trying to sell us something, but after a few minutes of miscommunication, we figured out that they actually decide who goes in what boat based on that information. Eventually we made our way onto a small boat with a dozen or more other people.

The boat ride takes an hour, and what I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that they drive this thing like a speed boat (it probably IS a speed boat), sometimes doing amazing maneuvers to avoid the waves once the boat makes its way out of the estuary into oceanic waters. At one point the boat driver was racing a breaking wave all the way to a gigantic rock at full speed. I held my breath as I knew if the wave hit us, the whole boat would surely tip over. The driver acted like this was an every day occurrence as he chatted with his amigo onboard, and stared at his cell phone every few minutes – looking up once in a while to swerve this way or that.

We then landed at Drake’s Bay, and without a dock, we all took our shoes off and got off the back of the boat directly into the water. We slowly made our way up the beach, and someone again asked us for our hotel reservation. This time, I didn’t resist, and showed him the name of the place. “You’re with me!” Our Airbnb host said with a smile. This was the same guy who didn’t answer any of our messages for the past 4 days. How on earth did he know we were showing up on this ferry?

He drove us about a minute and a half up the road, and checked us in. It turns out this Airbnb was actually a hotel with many rooms, a shared bathroom and a shared kitchen. The owner probably just met every single ferry – just a quick drive down the road.

We spent the afternoon figuring out where our day tour was the next morning, and trying hopelessly to avoid drowning in sweat. It felt about 5 degrees hotter, maybe more, than where we’ve been staying the past two week. Our hotel room had a fan that despite spinning in a normal fan-like fashion, did not seem to produce any air.

The next morning, we got up just before 5AM to make it to our 5:30AM breakfast, included in our tour.

We made it to our tour operator, and we were the only ones there. We were surprised. Our host offered us pancakes, fresh fruit and coffee, and then explained to us that he had to put us on a tour with a different tour operator, because of the permits, and yadi yada, and we just needed to walk a few minutes down the beach.

Based on his poor directions, we found our group, which seemed to consist of dozens of tourists, and we paid the remaining balance for the tour ($95 per person) in cash, as requested.

From there, we boarded another boat, which would take us another hour around the Osa Peninsula, right into the heart of Corcovado National Park, near Sirena Ranger Station. The boat ride was similar to the one we took before – a speed boat, bouncing around on the waves as we occasionally got splashed with salt water. Every time the boat hit a wave and crashed back down into the water, I felt my spine compress slightly. I don’t know how these tour guides do this every day.

Then we landed, along with about a half dozen or more other boats, all full of tourists visiting the park for a guided hike (you’re not allowed to visit without a guide). I wondered if we would actually see anything with this many people traipsing through the jungle together – probably more than a hundred people, divided up into groups of 10 or so, each with a guide chatting away in at least two languages. Once we got our hiking boots on, the hike began.

We didn’t walk 5 feet before our guide pointed out a three-toed sloth up in a tree. He took out his industrial sized scope, and let everybody take a look. I decided at that point that if I saw nothing else on today’s hike, I could go home happy. But, we were only 5 minutes into the tour…

At that point I noticed a really loud, and horrible noise coming from deep in the jungle. I couldn’t imagine what it could possibly be except for maybe jaguars fighting for territory. It sounded like loud and persistent growling or roaring…

“Howler monkeys.” The guide said, in a bored tone of voice, and wandered down the trail. (You should definitely go to youtube and find a few clips of howler monkeys making noise).

The tour guides tried their best to spread out, but we continuously ran into other groups as we walked up and down the well groomed trails. I should have realized that with this many tourists visiting on a daily basis, all of the park’s wildlife would be accustomed to people. It really didn’t matter that there were 100 or more people, the hike quickly turned into a safari.

We saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys and squirrel monkeys. They swung through the trees and jumped from tree to tree without fear, sometimes hanging from their tail. Although perhaps a close relative of ours, I felt as though we had definitely made a big evolutionary mistake by losing our tail.

We also saw some amazing birds, including the black throated trogon, which we found out was trying to distract us from the fact that he (yes, ‘he’) had a nest nearby. Apparently the male and the female black throated trogon share the responsibilities of nest guarding.

We also were practically walked on by a coati. These are very common animals in Costa Rica, and resemble a racoon with a long snout. The coatis at the tree house community were shy and we never saw more than a long tail darting away, but this coati could have cared less that there were 100 or more gigantic hairless monkeys in his way, snapping pictures of him on their iphones.

By 11AM I was starving. It had been more than 5 hours since breakfast. We walked up to the Sirena Ranger Station for a water and bathroom break, and I pulled out some cookies I had stashed in my backpack. Without them, I probably would have been tempted to try to climb a coconut tree in desperation, although they also had some overpriced snacks available at the ranger station.

The tour guide gathered us up again and said “let’s go find a tapir.” A month ago I didn’t know what a tapir was, but before we left the States for Costa Rica, I had read up on the wildlife of Costa Rica, and found out that one of the most amazing things you could possibly see there was a tapir. It’s sort of a weird combination of a pig, an elephant, and a hippo, but apparently they’re more closely related to a horse or a rhinoceros, and there are are only 800 of this particular species left. All other species are found either in Asia or South America. Really, our best bet for seeing a tapir in Costa Rica was going to Corcovado National Park on a guided hike, and now here we were.

Moments later, the tour guide was pointing out a tapir, who was trying hard to sleep in a muddy pit. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to think when you see one of the last of several hundred of an almost extinct animal, but I’ve had this experience before. When we were in New Zealand, we saw several Takahe, a large blue flightless bird, of which there are maybe 350 left. I think my thoughts go from grief to feeling like I want to wrap the creature in bubble wrap. I feel privileged for having the opportunity to see this animal before it’s gone, but at the same time, immensely guilty to find myself stomping around its habitat with hundreds of other curious and entitled humans.

We carry on and find a much less endangered caiman, which is like an alligator or a crocodile, but somehow neither one of these things.

By the time we got back on the boat, I was legitimately starving. Luckily, after a boat-ride to a nearby beach, we were served an amazing buffet of Costa Rican food. We heaped our plates full of beans, rice, chicken, salad and fruit and inhaled our food as if we hadn’t eaten in days. Stray dogs picked through the trash bag left on the sand next to the buffet, and I sat near to them on some driftwood and half an hour later, even John, who at this point had polished off four plates of food, felt quite content.

We got back into the boat for a quick ride back to Drake’s Bay, where we found a couple of beach chairs to lay in, and promptly fell asleep. Being a tourist is hard work.

One thought on “Corcovado National Park

  1. I’m so glad you got to see so, so many animals. A tapir . . . wow! It took us ages to find a sloth when we were last in CR (this when I was doing teaching for my TESOL certification, so we were in a modestly populated area). Sometimes guides who find things for you beforehand and know where to look are well worth the price. And such great photos. Thanks!


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