Monday, 7 April 2014

Adventures in Corcovado

Where do I even start? I've been intending for a couple of weeks now to sit down and write about my trip to Puerto Jimenez and Corcovado National Park. After a week spent in San Gerado de Rivas, I found myself with just over a week to kill, so I decided to head down to the Osa peninsula. Remember in the early 90's when rainforest destruction was the number one topic of environmental concern and statistics such as 'every second an area of rainforest the size of a football pitch is destroyed' were heard on a daily basis? Well this is what was being referred to and as a result Costa Rica became one of the top eco-tourism destinations in the world, and in terms of primary rainforest, you don't get much better than Corcovado. Described by National Geographic as 'possibly the most biodiverse place on earth' they're not kidding. This is the rainforest of those Athena prints that everyone had on their wall, primary forest with a thick canopy and a mind blowing abundance of wildlife.

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I started my trip in Puerto Jimenez, a ramshackle little town with dirt roads and a certain wild-west style charm, not dissimilar to some of the smaller villages on the coast of Belize, a cross between Caye Caulker and Hopkins I guess. Picture a nice black sand beach edged with almond trees full of scarlet macaws, a few places to eat, a handful of cabinas and a ton of agencies offering tours to Corcovado and other surrounding natural areas and you have Puerto Jimenez. I decided to stay at Cabinas el Perezoso (perezoso is 'sloth' in Spanish), a sweet little place run by an Italian guy called Omar, right at the furthest end of the main road where all the accommodation is. Tucked away under some cashew trees, it was basic, but a great little spot to chill out for a few nights.

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Accessing national parks in Costa Rica is an art. Or a lottery. Most require an entry permit that, in order to acquire one, involves jumping through some hoops and Corcovado is no exception. Since February this year rules have also been changed for Corcovado and it is now compulsory to hire a guide in order to visit the forest, which adds another organisational element to the game. When I arrived in Puerto Jimenez I had no real plans, so I asked around and spoke to a few people and it immediately became clear that guides varied greatly in their knowledge. I spoke to a couple that I wasn't particularly impressed with before I received a recommendation from someone I met who had just come back from the jungle. She introduced me to Rodolfo, a guy the same age as me who has been working as a guide there for 14 years and really knows his stuff.

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In order to make a reservation to enter the park and to stay overnight at Sirena ranger station in the heart of the forest it is necessary to visit the park office in Puerto Jimenez. Providing space is available you then have to take your reservation to the bank in town and pay your fees. You then take your receipt back to the park office and you're issued with your permit. Luckily Rodolfo did this for me, but I spoke to many people who had to figure out the process for themselves. Information and straight answers I've found are not very forthcoming in Costa Rica so I'm grateful this is an element I didn't have to trouble myself with. I also spoke to many people who struggled to make a reservation because Sirena was full for the following few nights.

After a few nights in Puerto Jimenez waiting to find a few more people to join me and thus reduce the cost of the trip, we finally set off for Corcovado. An early start and a drive to Carate, the starting point for the trek, gave us the chance to see both spider and squirrel monkeys, American crocodiles swimming in the river, black bellied ducks, a green heron and many other birds. From Carate we walked along the coast, zig zagging in and out of secondary forest. A couple of kilometres past La Leona ranger office we were lucky enough to stumble across the holy grail of Corcovado sightings...a puma, laying behind some driftwood on the edge of the beach. Very few people are lucky enough to actually see one of the big cats, although there are plenty of tracks if you look carefully.

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The walk from Carate to Sirena is a shade under 20km, much of it along a sandy beach so the going is a little tough at times. Overall though, not a difficult hike, fairly level and we had plenty of time to stop and see things and to take photos. It was also low tide when we set off so walking on the firmer damp sand helped too. As well as the puma we saw coatis, all four of Costa Rica's native monkeys and a multitude of birds, reptiles and insects including beautiful blue morpho butterflies (which are virtually impossible to get a good photos of!) We arrived at Sirena around 5pm, a very basic but comfortable research station with a number of dorm beds, a camping deck and basic kitchen facilities. There is only generator power available there from 6-8pm so after a simple dinner an early night followed, ready for a 4.30am start the next day.

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On day two we got to walk through primary forest and to see the strangler figs, balsa trees and the thick forest canopy. It was then that I really realised how important it is to have a good guide. Unlike many of the other guides we met along the way, Rodolfo had not just binoculars, but a spotting scope. At intervals he'd suddenly stop, set it down and we'd get to see many things I'd never have seen if I was on my own. How he spotted some of the things he did I'll never know. On day two we added peccaries, chestnut mandibilled toucans, tapirs, white faced capuchins and too many birds to remember to our list. It was also a full moon that night and seeing it up close through a telescope was a rare experience too.

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On day three, due to a mix up with other bookings, we ended up returning to Carate with another guide. Unfortunately, although a nice enough guy, he spoke no English and appeared to know very little about the forest. We saw virtually nothing on the way back and arrived back in Carate in record time. Still, it was a nice walk and surprisingly easy even with the heat and humidity. A cold beer was very welcome upon arrival back at Carate though!

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It's hard to describe how incredible it was to be able to visit Corcovado. Lots of people seem to complain about the heat, humidity, the long trek and the bugs, but none of these things could have taken away from the sheer majesty of the place. Yes there were ticks to pull off each evening and no, they really weren't a problem. Bug spray and sunscreen took care of the other main irritations. This was one of those rare untouched places, a place that lingers in your thoughts for a long time after you leave. It makes you think about how important these forests are and about the impact that our actions have on their survival.

I'm not sure where else I'll visit in Costa Rica yet, but my experience in Corcovado will be hard to beat and if I leave here having seen nothing else then my time spent there will have made this unexpected side trip to Costa Rica worth every penny.

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