OSA PENINSULA WILDLAND ADVENTURE
Written by Costa Rica Program Director Grettel Calderon after her April 2012 trip
As a native Costa Rican who has traveled all over every corner of my country, I can say with conviction that Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula it is the most remote, wild and spectacular region of Costa Rica, with the greatest amount of biodiversity in an already very diverse country. The diminutive Osa Peninsula is host to almost half of Costa Rica's 860+ species of birds (that is almost 5% of the world's species!), 140 species of mammals, and 117 species of reptiles and amphibians. Almost 750 species of trees have been catalogued in the area, more trees than in all of the North temperate regions of the world combined.
My recent inspection trip followed our Osa Peninsula Wildland Adventure itinerary and after I experienced it first hand, it quickly became one of my favorite Wildland journeys in Costa Rica. I can’t recommend it enough as a trip for nature and wildlife lovers. From the moment you touch down at the Drake Bay airstrip you are immersed in nature, completely surrounded by and stimulated by the plants and animals of the forest. On the very first day at La Paloma Lodge we were welcomed by white-faced capuchin monkeys and a three-toe sloth that stayed for three days in the same tree.
An easy kayaking trip on the Agujitas River, which we took on our own the first afternoon we arrived, gave us the opportunity to see troops of more white-faced monkeys and also spider monkeys. The white faced capuchin monkeys were pretty aggressive and frequently drove the spider monkeys (which offered no resistance) away from their territory. Some of the white-faced even came down to the ground to drink from the river, granting us the opportunity to observe and photograph them up close.
The bug lady!
Later that night went on a nocturnal nature walk with biologist/entomologist Tracie Stice, known as the ‘Lady Bug.’ I’ve spent time with Tracie before but I never tire of hearing all the fun and fascinating stories that she shares about insects, from trapdoor spiders to the incredible camouflage of the walking sticks – this is a night walk that neither children nor adults want to miss. We were lucky to be with Tracie as she had just returned from a week in Sirena working for the BBC on a special documentary.
Caño Island – an 800-acre biological marine preserve just an hour from the coast – was simply astounding. Unlike shallow coral reefs, the deeper water allows snorkelers to discover large migratory fish such as sharks, tuna, jacks, marlin, sailfish and dorado. We were able to see white tipped reef sharks that swam near us for over fifteen minutes. I also saw the largest school of mackerel fish I’ve even seen and several schools of brilliantly colored tropical fish. It was nice to linger among some of the biggest schools of fish while the sun was shining through the water. Bottlenose and spotted dolphins joined us on our boat trip to the island as well as a manta ray that leapt repeatedly from the water and a quiet olive ridley turtle that observed us from the surface. Cano Island is also an excellent place to observe whale sharks. The season for viewing had ended by the time I traveled but just a few weeks prior several whale sharks were spotted near the island and our snorkeling guide, a local marine biologist, had been able to dive with them and observe them.
The waters are also incredibly rich with marine mammals with orcas, pilot whales, humpbacks and false orcas along with large pods of dolphins easily being spotted during what is typically considered the ‘low season’ when many lodges are offering reduced rates. Uniquely, the Pacific and Gulf waters around the Osa Peninsula as far North as Uvita and Dominical represent the only marine zone in the world where humpback whales from both Northern and Southern Hemispheres co-exist, creating a mecca for whale watching enthusiasts. The Osa Peninsula’s Drake Bay has the longest humpback whale watching season in the world. South American humpback populations migrate north during Antarctica’s winter season – their 11,500-mile journey ends in Costa Rica, where they spend the months of August through October breeding and calving in the warm waters. North American populations, making an equally lengthy journey south from the Arctic, winter here from December through April. Together, these humpback whale populations spend eight months in Costa Rica each year!
Adventure travel in Costa Rica means a trip to Corcovado is a must and once here you will find that the Sierpe mangrove forests are so captivating, you’ll want the full day to explore them. Officially known as the Terraba-Sierpe National Wetlands, it is here where the Sierpe River merges with the Terraba River and creates the largest mangrove forest in Central America and one of the largest in the world. It is hard to describe the mystery that involves the intricate network of the mangrove forest; the trees look as if they grow on stilts, which are in fact their specialized aerial roots that hold the trunk and leaves above the water line. These amazing trees live where others can’t and it is fascinating to learn how they act as ahabitat for hundreds and hundreds of creatures including the magnificent scarlet macaws, parrots, turtles, sloth and even crocodiles among lots of other wildlife. One feels privileged to be surrounded by such an incredible ecosystem…
The following day at Sirena was one of the most memorable of the trip, which began with an exciting and bumpy (but short) boat ride. Once we arrived our guide led us on a nature walk, but reversed the order to avoid another group of visitors so that the family of four and myself saw an incredible amount of wildlife in just one morning and virtually no people! We observed two tapir (mom and calf) drinking from a small creek, an active anteater digging through a falling tree looking for termites, a family of collared peccary, three species of monkeys, a three toe sloth, lots of colorful birds, lizards, and we just missed seeing a puma and her cub! Sirena is definitely my favorite place to see big mammals and the day we spent here was a great introduction to the wildlife you can see in the heart of the Corcovado rainforest, accurately deemed by National Geographic magazine to be the ‘most biologically intense place on Earth”!
The best part came the following day when we took the boat back to Sirena again to do the long walk from the Sirena Station to La Leona Station/Carate airstrip (13 miles total). At the beginning I was a bit afraid it would be too much for me. I’m not an avid hiker and recently I hurt my knee climbing the Chirripo mountain but I really wanted to experience it as I know many parts of the park well, but it had been quite a while since I went on this particular walk through Corcovado National Park. Since the hike was long, we decided not to do too many stops to see wildlife, but despite walking at a good pace with only a few stops to rest, drink water and have snacks, we still saw an abundance of wildlife without really looking for it; families of coati and agouti, another anteater, spider, white-faced and squirrel monkeys and lots of birds.
Around half way through the walk, at Salsipuedes point, we had to take the little forest trail to get to the other side of the beach as it is not possible to cross the beach rocks at high tide. Once we entered the forest we noticed that the wildlife was VERY uneasy (monkeys hollowing and screaming, birds squawking all at the same time, etc.) Our guide, Royer, who grew up hunting in the forest and was familiar with its ways of communicating, was positive there was a wild cat around and went to take a look while we waited. He returned after five minutes without finding anything so we set off again. Almost immediately I saw shadowy forms moving through the undergrowth and I pointed out to Royer what I thought was a family of agouti because there were several. Excitedly, he told us they were probably puma because of all the uneasiness in the jungle and in seconds we could make out the forms of three puma, the mother and her two cubs! The little ones where about 6 months old and paused for a few seconds to give us a curious stare. When they kept walking we followed from a respectful distance but soon lost track of them with how fast they moved. Needless to say I kept walking with a huge smile on my face as in over 17 years of working in the tourism industry and going on countless jungle wildlife walks I had never sighted a puma in the wild. It was very memorable and something I will never forget!
The elusive puma
Once we arrived to Carate we were met by Jose, our driver and an ex-gold miner who learned the importance of protecting the forest after he joined the Lapa Rios Ecolodge family over 15 years ago. Upon arrival at Lapa Rios lodge, there were several staff members waiting with welcome drinks in hand though I honestly only wanted a hot shower and some rest as I was exhausted. The following days at Lapa Rios were more relaxing still filled with lots of activities to choose from, including waterfall rappelling, horseback riding, zip lining, fishing, or just exploring the beautiful forested grounds. The wildlife is amazing here and just from the swimming pool I was able to get great shots of a giant iguana, the chestnut-mandible toucan, the fiery-billed aracari, white-faced monkeys, scarlet macaws, a hawk and bats napping on a hut.
One of the reasons to revisit Lapa
Rios was also to learn more about Yaguara, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes bio-diversity conservation in Costa Rica and Panama to preserve and enhance the habitats and ecosystems for endangered species such as jaguar and white lipped peccaries. Yaguara, the native word for jaguar, educates the local communities and many travelers on the value of our natural environment, leading visitors on walks to view their field projects. I took the Wildcat Research walk and it was pretty wild! Aida, one of the founders, checks the camera traps at different spots in the Peninsula every couple months. She changes batteries, views and analyzes the camera photos and educated local communities about why the cameras are there. Without clear trails to get to where the cameras are located, it is indeed a very tough job. During our walk we collected cat scat samples to study food preference, viewed the images on the camera cards and found several peccaries, one margay, one ocelot, and several other types of mammals. It was fun and surprising to look at the pictures as you never know what animal had its picture suddenly snapped. Overall it was fun to share the job Aida does and be ‘at her office’ all morning learning and collaborating.
These cameras also help them monitor diversity and abundance of wildcat prey and keep track of specific individuals. A lot is required to keep the program going and it basically works with donations. We were so inspired by Yaguara’s very well done and professional presentation at Lapa Rios that my sister and I decided to donate a $250 camera trap to support the project.
Until recently, the hilly terrain of dense, continuous forest has protected Corcovado’s natural resources by limiting accessibility. However, with the recent construction of roads, the area has been invaded by farmers, loggers and miners. Deforestation for agriculture and timber poses the greatest threat to Corcovado. It is a very extensive piece of land (54,539 land hectares and 2,400 marine hectares and 29 miles of sandy coast) with very few park rangers to control it. During the Wildcat walk we saw an area where miners had been excavating by hand. With rising gold prices, gold mining keeps escalating and leading to soil erosion and water pollution. Hopefully through the educational programs Yaguara offers, donations and efforts to promote profitable employment in tourism and conservation, positive change will be achieved.
Overall, this is a fascinating trip that can be part of any Costa Rica vacation. I highly recommend it for everyone who is willing to get deep into the one of the world’s most stunning jungles.
Want to see more? Check out the facebook album from Kurt's trip to the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park for a Travel + Leisure story. Or contact Grettel to see it for yourself!