The Last Best Peninsula

The Costa Rica of legend still exists. But you have to crash through breakers and fight off pigs to find it.

    Photo: Corel

At dawn, after pushing to the back of your mind images of the snake the locals call Silent Death, you start hiking. All day, as you head toward that evening's campsite, you follow a trail that leads through rainforest where big cats hide. Later it moves out onto wave-pummeled beaches where, if you haven't read the tide tables, you'll find yourself pinned against a cliff by incoming water. Finally, if your luck has held, you hoist your pack above your head and wade across the mouth of a muddy, swirling jungle river, keeping a lookout for crocodiles cruising downstream and sharks cruising up. And this, you remind yourself as something bangs against your submerged leg—a snake? a croc? a harmless branch?—is in Costa Rica, the country that is supposed to have become tame and civilized.

Of course, parts of Costa Rica have become overdomesticated. Large sections of the country now cater to mainstream tourists searching for packaged "adventure" travel. In some areas, new hotel rooms outnumber insect species, and the crush of visitors at the most popular national parks is so great that wildlife sightings have become rare. If you want a photo of a quetzal, you may have to settle for those in the visitor center postcard display.
But the old Costa Rica, a country of unspoiled rainforest, abundant wildlife, rustic facilities, and bracing physical discomfort, does still exist. It lies only 90 miles southwest of San José on the Pacific coast's rugged Osa Peninsula.

The Osa, much of which is occupied by the 160-square-mile Corcovado National Park, is a more biologically rich area than even Times Square on New Year's Eve. Known for jaguars and other big cats, the peninsula is home to hundreds of species of birds as well, including one of the largest populations of scarlet macaws in Central America. It also sports a variety of reptiles and thousands of kinds of insects, many available for viewing in your bathroom at night. What the Osa lacks are legions of other tourists: The hard travel necessary to reach the area discourages all but the hardy and self-sufficient.

The Osa does have some basic comforts, of course. A few rutted dirt roads crisscross the area (a four-wheel-drive vehicle is essential), and pleasant lodges dot the landscape. Pitching your own tent is necessary only if you've arrived with a circus. As a bonus, the owners of these lodges can usually arrange horseback rides, guided hikes, sea kayaking, sport fishing, or scuba dives. Most important, they know when the tides come in and where the snakes gather. Listen to them.

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