The Last Best Peninsula
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Destinations: News for Adventurous Travelers, November 1996
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.
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
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
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 Jos‹ 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
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
Corcovado National Park
Corcovado’s main trail, and its most scenic, is the 25-mile coastal walk. For part of its length it hugs the beach, where you’ll see turtle tracks in the sand, monkeys in the trees, and great gaudy flocks of scarlet macaws winging overhead. Before setting out, be sure to check the tide tables (every lodge has a set) so you don’t get trapped when a beach covers or a river
The coast walk has two trailheads, depending on whether you access it from the north end of Corcovado or the south. San Pedrillo, just south of Drake Bay, is at the northernmost end; La Leona is at the southern starting point. You must check in with the ranger station at either trailhead, and you need a reservation, which can be made in advance through the national park
From either starting point, you’ll spend the night at Sirena, a ranger station halfway along the trail. Pitch a tent ($2) or sleep beneath the eaves of the station’s roof ($4). With advance notice, the rangers can feed you rice and beans ($16 per day). If your Spanish is passable, stick around for an extra day. You’ll hear some good stories about hikers getting treed by wild
At the end of the coastal walk, plan a few days of R&R at Costa Rica Expeditions’s Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp on Playa Carate. The camp’s beachfront setting is one of the most isolated and beautiful in all of Costa Rica (doubles, $67.85 per person, including three meals; phone 257-0766, fax 257-1665). It also has a tree-canopy platform, and if you are absolutely sure you
Bivouac on the gulf at Puerto Jim‹nez, a former gold-rush boomtown now filled with laid-back Americans who all seem to have headed south without leaving a forwarding address. Find them–and information about local adventuring–at Restaurante Carolina, where the cold beer starts flowing well before noon. Don’t be concerned by the appearance of intrigue: If a woman leans
Escondido Trex, which has an office near the bar in the Carolina, runs single- and multiday kayak camping trips in the Golfo Dulce. Bring your snorkeling gear and hope for waters calm enough to allow you to shoot through the Matapalo Arch, a curving rock at the southern tip of the peninsula ($85 for an overnight trip, including all meals and gear; phone/fax 735-5210).
San Jos‹-based RŒos TropŒcales, Costa Rica’s major paddle-sport operator, also offers a Golfo Dulce sea kayaking trip ($1,370 for nine days; 233-6455). North Carolina’s Nantahala Outdoor Center began leading trips to the area two years ago; its ten-day tours mix sea kayaking and inland hiking ($1,475; 704-488-2175).
Not far south of Puerto Jim‹nez, the Osa Peninsula comes to an end. If you’ve come this far, treat yourself to a night or two at Lapa RŒos, 45 minutes south of Jim‹nez, one of the most upscale lodges anywhere in the Costa Rican rainforest (doubles, $146 per person; 735-5130, fax 735-5179). After some excellent sea kayaking right off the beach or a horseback
To get to the bay, begin at the inland city of Palmar Sur, the inevitable jumping-off point for all tours of the Osa Peninsula. Pause in town long enough to look at the large, pre-Columbian stone spheres in the plaza on the south side of the river. Perfectly round, they are among thousands found all over southwest Costa Rica. Scientists have never determined their origin,
The tiny village of Sierpe, a slow, bumpy, $15 taxi ride from Palmar Sur, is the staging point for the boat trip to Drake Bay. The trip begins as a scenic ride (about $20), complete with iguanas in the trees and crocodiles along the shore. But 15 miles downriver, just as you’re feeling complacent, you’ll look up and realize you are headed straight into huge, boat-chewing
At Drake Bay itself, the most haute-jungle accommodations are at the Aguila de Osa Inn, where the high-peaked rooms and open-air dining area give you a skybox view of comings and goings on the bay (doubles, $100 per person, including meals; phone/fax, 232-7722).
Farther afield, the Mapache Wilderness Camp and Fishing Lodge lies several miles upriver on the Sierpe. Recently built by an Italian couple with a pledge to invest part of the profits in land preservation, the lodge is proudly rustic; its owners seem to be boasting as well as warning when they tell visitors, “Do not forget that many kinds of dangerous snakes and crocodile
Fun in and around Drake Bay often involves a saddle. Guided horseback rides along the beach can be arranged through most lodges. Be aware, though, that while many horses here are gentle, some answer, appropriately, to names such as Volcano and Stormy.
Once you and your mount have bonded, leave the beach and head up into the rainforest. The clay paths lead to gorgeous lookouts, but canter with caution: The gullies are deep enough to swallow a cavalry.
End a day at Drake Bay with the most high-flying adventure of all: a canopy tour offered by…Canopy Tours. High in the trees, where you’ll share space with monkeys, scarlet macaws, and blue morpho butterflies, you propel your swing chair via a pulley-and-cable arrangement between three penthouse-level viewing platforms ($40 per person; 257-5149).
Outside the Osa
Fishermen, too, will want to cross to Golfito, since most of the gulf’s sportfishing boats are based there. Try hooking up with Captain Steve Lino at Golfito Sportfishing. His boats actually run out of Zancudo, a beach town just south of Golfito where gringos have built a series of vacation dream shacks. The fishing, for sailfish, marlin, and other game fish, costs $350-$400
Accommodations in Pavones tend toward the primitive, but at least they’re cheap, rarely rising above $20 per night. The Oficina de Servicios Turisticos de Golfito (phone 775-0131, fax 775-0631) can make reservations. For more luxury, check into the Tiskita Jungle Lodge (and fruit farm), four miles south of Pavones (doubles, $75 per person; phone 233-6890, fax 255-4410). It’s so
Bob Payne first visited Costa Rica 30 years ago and has returned a dozen times since.