Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Hiking Costa Rica's Corcovado Park & Osa Peninsula

Hiking out on the Osa Peninsula beach after a three-day trip through the jungle.
   Midway across a jungle river, my horse catapulted head-first into a pothole, her face plunging into the water.
 Damn! -- she's broken both her legs! was my first thought, imagining the worst for my crippled mare.
   But Cauliflower scrambled up from the water and lurched toward the shore as if nothing had happened.  They're tough, these lean, small Costa Rican horses, even while bearing up under the weight of a 200-lb. yanqui and his pack.
   For nearly three hours we rode west from the village of La Palma along a maze of rocky trails that wandered back and forth across some 20 river crossings.  My wife Jeannette and I picked our way across riverbeds of rocks the size of softballs in the company of a sullen Tico wrangler named Victor.  How these horses keep from breaking their legs on every trip, I can't imagine.
   Far out in the back of nowhere, a four-wheel-drive sedan lurched into view, lumbering across a shallow river like a jungle hallucination.  Surely, this was the $70 taxi we'd been warned about by a travel agent at the Toucan Travel agency in Puerto Jimenez, the jump-off point for adventure on the Osa Peninsula.
   "Oh, you don't want to try walking through the jungle, especially without a guide," she warned when we asked about the feasibility of hiking across the Corcovado National Park. "It's a 12-hour hike and the taxi costs $70 just to get to the park entrance; and the old park station there has been closed.  
   "And you can't always find the trail," she continued. "Sometimes it goes in two directions, and there's no way to know which is the right way to go.  There are also many river crossings and the trail gets lost on the other side.  Many people have gotten lost in the jungle..."
   That seemed like a lot of piling on.  But I had read of other hikers who'd make the trip without a guide.  Hundreds each year, apparently; and we refused to be scared off from experiencing the wildest rain forest north of Brazil.  

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Corcovado National Park, Sirena Station, Los Patos, Planet Backpacker, Robert Downes, Costa Rica
Hiking the rainforest trail from Los Patos to Sirena Station.
    The Corcovado National Park is renowned as being one of the most biologically diverse regions on earth.  With more than 100,000 acres, the park is home to more than 400 bird species, including some 1,200 scarlet macaws, which are easily seen (and heard squawking) throughout the park.  You'll also find peccaries, tapirs, coatimundis, pumas, jaguars, crocodiles, caymans... even sharks, which are easily seen hunting fish in the river mouths at high tide.  Humpback whales can be spotted just offshore, heading to and from their favorite calving spot in Golfito Bay. Monkeys? You bet, including the howler family, which you can frequently hear roaring in the trees.  Most of the animals are easily seen -- walk 100 yards, stop, look, and listen -- some critter will present itself.
  Victor pulled up our horses at a cut in the forest and indicated it was time to dismount.  I assumed we were stopping for lunch, since there was no sign of a trail or a park entrance -- just a cavernous black mouth of shadows yawning amidst the green of the forest.
   "Esta aqui?" I motioned.  "Esta Los Patos?
   Victor indicated that this was indeed the start of the trail, but my Spanish wasn't up to understanding what he had to say about Los Patos Station at the northern entrance to the park. I gathered that it was off somewhere -- closed.
   So we strapped on our packs, extended our hiking poles, and plunged in. Sure enough, the trail quickly revealed itself, and although it was a rough hike up and down a series of hills, the sendero was fairly broad and easy to follow. Within three kilometers we found the abandoned Los Patos station -- a desolate place that was home now only to a hive of what appeared to be killer bees.   A sign outside the jungle clearing indicted that it was 17 kilometers to Sirena Station, our destination on the Pacific coast.  Given the three that we had already hiked, that meant a 20k hike, or a little over 12 miles.  Piece a' cake for a couple of veteran hikers such as Jeannette and myself, even carrying backpacks and a several liters of water.
   We'd been warned to purchase knee-high rubber boots to make the hike, since the Osa Peninsula is the rainiest section of Costa Rica, receiving between 12-24 feet of annual rainfall.  Also, Corcovado National Park is the home of many poisonous snakes == 17 of Costa Rica's 120 snake species are among the most deadly on earth.  Then there's the lethal poison arrowhead frog, so named because the Indians used to dip their arrow tips in its fatal juices.  The knee-high boots are supposed to protect you from snake-strikes.
  But January is the driest month in the Osa and we opted for plain old high-top hiking boots with quick-dry mesh tops.  It seemed absurd to do a 12-mile hike in rubber boots, and I imagined we'd be lucky to even see a snake, much less get  bit by one.
    Sure enough, the only other persons we saw on the trail that day soon materialized:  a Costa Rican park ranger wearing flip=flops, who was guiding a woman backpacker out of the park.  So much for the dreaded snakes.
   We plunged on, hiking hour after hour beneath the rain forest canopy which  soared 100 feet or more overhead. Periodically, we heard the roar of howler monkeys or the squawk of macaws flying overhead.
   Although the trail was easy to follow for 98 percent of the route, there is that irksome two percent where you can get turned around. And of course, it's that two percent that can get you killed if luck goes the wrong way.
    For instance, periodically, the route is obstructed by mammoth trees which have fallen across the trail. Often, you can climb over (or under) these deadfalls, but on occasion you'd have to wander all the way around the tree and the trail can be hard to find on the other side.  Similarly, the trail if often difficult to pick up on the other side of rivers, owing to the fact that there seemed to be multiple faint tracks through the forest; some, perhaps, were animal trails.  Which was the right path?
    Experienced jungle guides claim you should never wander more than 15 feet off a trail. For one thing, there are things that bite out in those leaves, and the foliage itself can be dripping with the sheen of oily irritants, like poison ivy on steroids.

Corcovado, Costa Rica, Osa Peninsula, Planet Backpacker, Los Patos
There are about 30 river crossings between the park entrance and Los Patos.
   In the Corcovado, the Costa Rican park service thoughtfully omitted placing any signs of any kind on the trail. None, nada, ixnay... Don't expect mile markers or arrows pointing the way.  At a river crossing, we found a board nailed to a tree with a smear of faded yellow paint. Peering closer, we made out the word "SIRENA" on a sign that looked to be 30 years old.
   We had heard that there are three small shelters along the way and that there's a side trail to a large lagoon, but saw no sign of any of these; again, possibly because there are virtually no signs along the route.
   But the trail is not entirely unmarked. Periodically, you find streamers of orange and white surveyor's plastic tied to the branches of trees.  When you get lost at a river crossing, or find multiple trails, you simply stop long enough to suss out a ribbon marking the main trail.  Whatever you do, don't wander far from the point where you got lost without spotting a marker.
    This is important because people do get lost in the Corcovado, and it's not  like the park rangers are going to do much more than shrug if you don't turn up for your reservation.  For all they know, you changed your plans.
   We heard of one Costa Rican politician who made the  hike to play up the country's commitment to all things "eco."  Spying a tapir (which sort of like a cross between an anteater and a very large pig), he stepped off the trail to take a photo.
   But it turned out that mamma tapir had offspring with her, and charged the interloper to protect her young.  He was driven deeper into the jungle and couldn't find his way back to the trail.  It took a large contingent of park rangers two days to find him; undoubtably a terrifying experience, spending two nights lost in the jungle.
   We had a touch of anxiety ourselves, because after eight hours of steady hiking with barely a rest, we still hadn't found Sirena Station and night was approaching.  Since we normally walk more than three miles per hour, it seemed impossible that we hadn't covered 12 miles in eight hours.
   I began taking stock of what it would mean to camp out.  True, we had headlamps, but terrain shifts to black & white under the beam of a flashlight at night and I didn't relish the idea of wandering off the trail in the dark.
   Otherwise, we had mosquito netting for two, some ponchos to serve as a tent, and some lightweight sleeping bags. A doable situation if we had to camp out, though hammocks are preferable for sleeping in the jungle.
   But we trudged on as the sun went down, hungry, tired -- and in my case -- stinking like a sweaty pig, until at last Sirena Station presented itself in the gathering gloom. With 15 minutes to spare, we dashed to the cold water camp showers and made it just in time for the conch shell to announce dinner.

Sirena Station, Corcovado, Costa Rica, Osa Peninsula, Planet Backpacker
Be sure to start early on the trail. Exhausted, we arrived near dark at Sirena Station.
   Located on the ocean midway through the park, Sirena Station offers a blend of campers and dorm-mates from many lands, about 25-30 percent of whom are Americans, with the rest balanced out by Europeans, Canadians and Ticos (Costa Ricans).  The Netherlands, France, Germany and Britain were well represented on the guest book, with visitors from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
   There are several well-marked trails around Sirena Station, and what we missed by way of wildlife on our forced march through the jungle was amply rewarded the next day by wandering slowly down the side trails and observing many animals and birds. At the Sirena River we stopped to watch several sharks gliding through the shallows at high tide in search of fish.
   Two days later we set off down the beach toward La Leona Station at the southern end of the park. I had read several warnings that this is a brutally hot slog through the sand, but found that at least 60 percent of the trail was off the beach and shaded by trees. The beach stretch isn't nearly as bad as it's made out to be; but it's also true that we were blessed with cloud cover.
   About 11 miles down the trail we came to the southernmost park  entrance, completing our traverse of the awesome Corcovado jungle. Overall, it's no big deal hiking across the park -- just don't get lost and die and you'll be fine.
   But Jeannette and I did agree that it was one of the finest hiking adventures we'd ever had, and ultimately, one of our most enjoyable trips.
  We stayed another two days at the La Leona Eco Lodge -- a place that gets slagged in the guidebooks, but which we thought was a regular little paradise.  With its cabin tents raised on platforms, it looked a lot more inviting than the Corcovado Tent Camp next door, a place that is praised to the skies by the travel writers, but looked a bit hoity-toity to us.
   From there, it was a two mile hike out to the bend in the road known as Carate -- a neighborhood of jungle lodges with a single cafe for a 'downtown'. A jitney cab-truck shows up at 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day and you're outta' there, bouncing 30 miles down a bone-jarring road on a wooden bench, fording rivers and eating dust all the way back to Puerto Jimenez.  Lovely.

DETAILS:

  Getting There: You can fly to Puerto Jimenez from San Jose for about $100 via Sansa airlines; otherwise it's a 10-hour trip by bus for around $7 or an 8-hour trip by private van for around $45.  The trailhead to the north end of the park is about six miles from the village of La Palma.
   If you don't wish to hike across the park, simply take the local jeepney truck to the crossroads of Carate (30 miles - $7) and hike two miles northwest along the beach to La Leona station and/or the many jungle lodges in the area.

   Reservations:
It's wise to get your park reservations in advance, since a limited number of backpackers are allowed to stay at Sirena Station. You can't reserve much more than a month in advance, and it's a huge hassle involving a lot of to-and-from rigamarole is you try to make arrangements at the park headquarters in Puerto Jimenez (which may not even be open if you arrive on a weekend).  Solution?  Contact Paul Collar at www.soldeosa.com, who also runs the Cafenet El Sol internet cafe in Puerto Jimenez.  For $30, he will make the reservations for you and also arrange your hotel prior to the hike (best bet: Cabinas Jimenez).

  Horses: You can hire a cab for $70 to take you to the trailhead, or you can ride in on horses from the town of La Palma for $30 per horse.  Again, Paul Collar can arrange your transportation for a fee.  Note:  prices may have risen since we hiked the trail.

   In the Park: Meals are served at Sirena Station, and at the jungle lodges outside the park entrance at La Leona.  They're quite expensive (ie: $12 for a simple breakfast, $17 for dinner), but considering that all of the food has to be hauled in by either a boat or via a horsedrawn cart, one can't complain. At  Sirena Station, you can either stay in a bunkhouse dorm room, camp under a roof, or camp out on the grounds. Bear in mind that you run the risk of getting soaked whenever camping in the tropics.  In any case, bring mosquito netting and bug spray.

   Getting Out:
Leaving the park is simple.  Just take the aforementioned jeepney from Carate (8 am and 3 pm) back to Puerto Jimenez.  Consider a day or two in the rainforest/surfing area of Cabo Matapalo. We enjoyed a night at the Ojo del Mar B&B -- a collection of palapa huts just off the beach with morning yoga classes and an international clientele.

   Problems, hazards, dangers, crime, warnings: Watch your back in San Jose at night -- we've been warned  about the capital before, but there was an extra emphasis when the warning came from a shopkeeper as we stumbled around looking for our hotel after the sun went down.  Otherwise, the usual problems to beware of: pickpockets and crazy drivers.  In the park, beware of ticks -- search every inch of your body before going to bed. Also be careful of touching any plants in the rain forest: the ones with the oily, shiny leaves can bring you grief. And of course, don't be foolish enough to stand under a monkey...

   For more backpacking adventures, buy the book, 'Planet Backpacker,' by Robert Downes @ planetbackpacker.net, amazon.com, or order from your local bookstore.

Carate, Corcovado, Costa Rica, Osa Peninsula, Planet Backpacker
The jeepney taxi at Carate gets you back to civilization.
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