Costa Rica contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity. That’s a stunning number, when you consider it’s only 51,100 square kilometres. To put that in perspective, the United States is 9.8 million square kilometres, and Australia is 7.7 million. Reflecting the number of Americans who visit, it’s often quoted that the entire country is smaller than the state of Virginia. For Aussie readers, the comparison is that it’s about three quarters of the size of Tasmania, which is about 68,500 square kilometres.
What’s even more astonishing is that 3% is contained within Corcovado National Park, which is a mere 425 square kilometres. Just think about that for a moment – 3% of the entire planet’s biodiversity packed into 425 square kilometres.
Corcovado is at the end of the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica, the only remaining old growth wet forest on the Pacific Coast of Central America. It’s remoteness guarantees it gets few visitors, but it’s absolutely worth the time and effort to get there.
From Manuel Antonio we hurtled a few hours in a bus to Sierpe, a small town on the Sierpe River, 30km from the Pacific coast. Scheduled colectivo (shared) boats leave from Sierpe twice a day for Drake Bay, the closest town to the Corcovado National Park. So we cooled our heels at the dock for another two and a half hours.
Leaving Sierpe, we motored an hour down to the mouth of the river and then sped along the coast for another hour to Drake Bay, described by Lonely Planet as ‘one of Costa Rica’s most isolated destinations’.
It’s a wet boat landing, but the ocean was flat and our guesthouse, which cost a princely $30, even had two young fellows waiting to carry our packs ashore and drive us the five minutes up the hill. With only two boats a day coming in, it probably wasn’t hard to guess when we’d arrive.
There’s not much to the village, population 1,000 people and a few dogs, but it’s pleasant enough and we stayed in a little cabin with a good view over the sea.
We even saw a huge green iguana in the top of a tree level with our balcony. They average 1.5 metres in length when fully grown, and this one looked to be about that.
You have to stay overnight in Drake Bay and then get another boat to Corcovado next morning, so really, wherever you are coming from, it takes two days to get there.
It isn’t permitted to visit Corcovado National Park without a certified professional guide, as the trails are not well mapped and getting lost means almost certain death, as happened to a young biologist here a few years ago. Operators in Drake Bay offer guided day trips and also overnight trips which include a guide plus arrangements to sleep and eat at Serena Ranger Station in the park. We booked an overnight trip and were lucky to be in a group of just four, us and a couple from Canada, with a fantastic guide who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the fauna and flora as well as great spotting skills.
We left Drake Bay early next morning on another speedboat for the trip to Corcovado. For two hours we followed a coast with dense rainforest coming right down to the sea. It looked exactly like the opening scene of the movie Jurassic Park, which you may recall was set on the fictional Isla Nublar, off the coast of Costa Rica. It really felt like a flock of pterodactyls might rise out of the trees at any moment.
The boat anchored offshore for another wet boat landing near a track in to the ranger station. The tide was out but the ocean was calm and we sloshed our way to the shore.
We headed up a path toward the ranger station but after just a few minutes our guide headed into the forest, beckoning us to follow. Here were some peccaries, which we’d seen previously at Arenal. They were well hidden and very quiet, and the guide said he knew they were there because he could smell them. They might be nicknamed skunk pigs but they don’t have a strong aroma. We were impressed.
We returned to the track and continued on to the ranger station to drop off our gear. It was much more amenable than we’d been expecting, with comfortable bunk beds, mosquito nets, (cold water) showers, even electricity until 8pm.
An info board had instructions about what to do if faced by a jaguar or puma. Oh, to be so lucky! We smiled at the bit that said don’t run because if someone is left behind the feline will attack the last person of the group. It’s the old joke – I don’t have to run faster than the big cat, I just have to run faster than you.
Our guide’s acute tracking skills in finding those peccaries was a sign of what was to come. Over the two days, we saw so much.
Let’s start with the animal lots of people come to Corcovado specifically hoping to see. The Baird’s tapir is Latin America’s largest land mammal. Weighing between 150 and 400kg, they are about 2 metres long and stand about 4 feet tall. Tapirs have a stubby but prehensile nose that they use to manipulate foliage in much the same way elephants do, but actually their closest relative is the rhino, with whom they share a common ancestor about 50 million years back.
Once found throughout Central America, they now survive only in isolated pockets of remaining habitat in the region. They are listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a result of poaching and habitat destruction. It is estimated there are only around 5,000 left in the wild.
They live in the Corcovado National Park but sightings are by no means guaranteed. They are few in number and generally nocturnal, spending their days sleeping in dense forest or shallow mud areas.
So we were immensely privileged in the experience we had. Our guide located one in the forest, moving slowly through thick vegetation. We couldn’t see more than the leaves moving and a blur of grey. But we moved along quietly on a path that was close enough to track his direction and eventually he emerged onto the beach.
He stayed in plain sight for about 30 minutes, munching his way resolutely through an entire palm tree while we watched, before strolling back into the forest, probably for a post-lunch snooze.
We left the beach and headed back into the forest feeling quite stoked by our tapir experience, and then … something even more fantastic. Well, less rare then the tapir but simply gorgeous – a northern tamandua.
This handsome creature is a medium sized anteater with a prehensile tail, a long snout and pale yellow fur with a black pattern on the torso and over the shoulders which looks like they are wearing a vest. They, too, are generally nocturnal, although can also be active during the day. This one was having a marvellous feast of ants living in the bark of the trees and didn’t seem at all perturbed by our presence.
There are four species of monkeys native to Costa Rica – Central American squirrel monkeys, Panamanian white faced capuchins, mantled howler monkeys and Geoffroy’s spider monkeys. We’d bagged the first three at Manuel Antonio, and saw loads of howler and squirrel monkeys again here, but it was really great to complete the quartet by also seeing lots of spider monkeys.
When we first arrived, our guide asked if there was anything we specifically wanted to see. Still disappointed at not seeing coatis at Iguazu Falls years ago, where they are supposed to be ‘everywhere’, Julie said “coatis”.
Our guide looked unimpressed. We think it might have been the Central American forest equivalent of coming to Australia and saying you’d like to see seagulls. Indeed, we later saw a news article about coatis becoming a problem in some urban areas where they come scavenging from bins. Nevertheless, he dutifully tracked some down for us.
We saw a few groups foraging in the undergrowth at different times. With their ringed tails, they looked a bit like raccoons.
We saw agoutis as well, but they were fast and camera-shy.
Our guide may not have been enthusiastic about the common mammals, but he had a real talent for finding interesting tiny creatures like this water spider.
And these native stingless bees. Honey from them has been used as a traditional medicine throughout Central and parts of South America since pre-Colombian times. There are more than 60 species in Costa Rica alone.
This one produces a honey called Mariola, which is beginning to attract international recognition, for its reputed medicinal value. It is said to have strong antioxidant and antimicrobial qualities making it useful for the treatment of wounds, burns, cataracts, gastrointestinal disorders, respiratory conditions, colds, flu and even insomnia.
And lots of scaly creatures. He was really disappointed that he couldn’t find a boa constrictor for us, but we saw lots of iguanas and lizards.
He convinced us to climb into this hollow tree root and crawl along into the trunk of the tree which was also hollow. These trees are not dead, they grow this way.
It was big enough for three of us to stand around comfortably in the trunk. What’s inside? Scorpions, bats and spiders.
We’d been hoping to see caiman on our kayak through the mangroves in the Damas Estuary but had no luck, so we were pleased to find this gleaming specimen, a rainbow caiman, sunning himself on the edge of a stream.
The caiman was cute. We can’t say the same for his cousins. Sitting on a log on the beach eating lunch, we were looking directly across at an American crocodile. A few minutes later, another one came cruising by. Not a good place for a swim.
In the late afternoon, the beach was covered in hermit crabs.
It was a classic tropical paradise.
On the second day, we left the ranger station on dawn to look for birds which are active along the seashore at first light. We were rewarded with a good sighting of wading birds including roseate spoonbills, little blue herons and a snowy egret.
There were many other birds as well over the two days. Here’s just a few. The first one is a juvenile black hawk that likes to perch on the antenna at the ranger station.
It was a two day wildlife fest. As we headed out to the boat at the end of the second day we were very happy with what we’d seen. Near the beach, a solo coati came wandering by, rummaging in the dirt for insects, totally unfazed by people walking past. Ok, they might be common but they’re really cute.
And a final treat on the way back. The boat driver took a little detour into the mouth of a river near Drake Bay where we saw another enormous crocodile.
It really was one of the best wildlife experiences we’ve ever had, and a brilliant finish to our time in Costa Rica.