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The Top 5 Sloth Lies

Sure they’re cute and all the rage and everything (you’ve seen this footage of actress Kristen Bell totally losing it over sloths on the Ellen DeGeneres show, right?). But don’t be fooled! Sloths have been spinning an intricate web of lies for decades. Why so cunning? You’ll have to ask them. All we know is that during our nearly six months of travel in Costa Rica we saw dozens of sloths and these up-close observations revealed these Top 5 Sloth Lies. Let’s get started with this adorable baby sloth, then get down to some sloth facts.

Baby sloth Jaguar Rescue Center Puerto Viejo Costa Rica

Sure this baby three-toed sloth at the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica is cute as hell. But what’s he hiding?

Sloth Lie # 1: Sloths are slow

This is generally true. However, when a sloth wants to move a sloth can gain ground more quickly than you think. Check out this female two-toed sloth, with baby in tow, booking along the telephone lines in the Costa Rican town of Cahuita on her way to a nighttime snack.

Three toed sloth Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A male three-toed sloth on the move in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

 

Sloth Lie # 2: There are two-toed and three-toed sloths

No. ALL sloths have three toes. What varies are their fingers.  So-called two-toed sloths are blonder in color and nocturnal. So-called three-toed sloths are grayer, have an adorable bandit mask on and tend to be active during the daytime.

Two-toed v Three-toed sloth Costa Rica

All sloths have three toes. It’s the fingers that vary. Here’s a three-fingered sloth, above, and its two-fingered cousin, below.

 

Sloth Lie # 3: Sloths are rarely on the ground

Um, whatever. We saw sloths on the ground all over the place. Sure, they don’t like it down there since they’re more vulnerable to predators but the idea that sloths only come down to the ground every few weeks is silly in our experience.

Sloth on the ground

Yep. That’s a sloth on the ground, a supposedly rare occurence which we managed to see quite a few times in Costa Rica.

 

Sloth Lie # 4: Sloths are cuddly and adorable

Sure, if you like damp, moldy, stinky, bug-infested fur. Why do you think sloths spend so much time scratching? We wonder if Kristen Bell knows about this…

Three toed sloth Costa Rica Central America

Sloths spend quite a bit of time using their huge claws to scratch their skin which is pretty much always itchy since their fur is damp, moldy and bug infested.

 

Sloth Lie # 5: It’s hard to get a sloth’s attention

Want to get a sloth to look you in the eye? Whistle. One of the sloth’s few predators is the harpy eagle whose call is a sustained whistle. Let one rip and any sloth within ear shot will whip its head around to get the source of the sound (you) in view. Eric spent hours playing this trick on a male sloth that settled into a guaruma tree right off the patio of the home we were house sitting in the hills above Playa Matapalo. Never gets old.

sloth costa rica

A male two-toed sloth checking Eric out after he discovered the whistle trick.

Two toed sloth Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A two-toed sloth taking a nap in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

Mom & baby sloth - Costa Ballena, Costa Rica

A mother sloth with her baby on the Costa Ballena in Costa Rica.

For more slothy goodness, including a whacked out theory about sloths taking over the world and some truly disturbing sloth “art” (of them, not by them), check this out.

 

Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica

 

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Border Crossing 101 – Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica to Nicaragua

Crossing international borders in Latin American is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you cross from Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica to Nicaragua smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica
To: Nicaragua
Date: October 13, 2012

Lay of the land: You are leaving one of the richest countries in Central America (Costa Rica) and entering one of the poorest (Nicaragua) and the differences become apparent right at the border. The Costa Rican side has a brand new air conditioned immigration hall, working ATMs and an inviting cafeteria. The Nica side, though pleasant and orderly, is dusty and peppered with sandal sellers, money changers and stray dogs. And don’t expect to find anything to eat.

Big rigs can get backed up for miles on either side of this border. If you’re driving your own vehicle across you are allowed to cut the line in front of them.  But drive carefully. This is a two lane road so passing the parked big rigs means driving against traffic in the wrong lane. Go slow and always be ready with an escape plan that allows you to merge back in with the parked big rigs if a bus or other vehicle needs to get through in the oncoming lane.

On the Costa Rican side you need to cancel your vehicle importation papers at an office on your left about 200 yards (200 meters) after you pass through the gate into the border zone. Then you drive a short distance to the new immigration office where you get an exit stamp.

Penas Blancas Costa Rica to Nicaragua border crossing

On the Nica side things are a bit trickier. As you leave Costa Rica and enter Nicaragua you must pass through mandatory vehicle fumigation. You then pull up to the immigration and aduana (customs) building where you first to go to the immigration window to get your entry stamp. However, before you step up to the window you first need to pay US$1 to the municipality at the booth in front. Following this you need to go to the building across the parking lot and pay the tourist vehicle entry fee of US$5 in the tourism office. Then you need to buy mandatory liability insurance for your vehicle at one of the insurance desks in the room next door.

Once the insurance is in hand you take these documents and receipts, along with the standard car documents with copies (title, registration, drivers license, passport), and go to the aduana office (DGI) adjoining the immigration area you first visited. There, your paper work is reviewed and entered into the computer and you are given the preliminary importation document. You then need to track down the police inspector and the aduana inspector who will each quickly inspect your vehicle and its contents before signing the paperwork.

Once those signatures are in hand you re-enter the aduana office and bring your papers to the uniformed officer sitting at a desk next to the agent who issued you your preliminary paperwork. The officer reviews your documents, staples some papers together and signs off on them. You then return to the same agent who issued the preliminary paperwork and he or she takes the documents and gives you your final importation permit.

Told you it was complicated. At this point you are free to go with just a quick check of your  documents by officials as you exit the border area.

Elapsed time: About half an hour on the Costa Rican side and another hour on the Nica side.

Fees: There are no fees to exit Costa Rica. On the Nica side we paid US$4 for mandatory fumigation, US$12 per person for our visa, $5 tourist vehicle entrance, $1 per person municipality fee and US$12 for 30 days of vehicle liability insurance. There was no fee at all for the temporary importation permit for our truck. That’s a grand total of US$47 for the two of us and our truck.

Number of days they gave us: We were issued 90 day visas and a 30 day temporary importation permit for our truck (see important CA-4 visa information below). The vehicle importation permit can be extended twice for 30 days each time at the DGI office in Managua shown on the map below.

Vehicle insurance requirements: You must buy insurance (US$12 for 30 days) at the border in order to drive in Nicaragua.

Where to fill up: Gas (and everything else) is cheaper in Nicaragua so wait to fill up there. Note, the nearest gas station on the Nicaraguan side is in Rivas about 22 miles (35 km) after the border.

Need to know:  In 2006 El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras joined together to create the so-called CA-4 (Central American 4) group of countries all honoring and enforcing one CA-4 visa governed by rules spelled out in the CA-4 Border Control Agreement. Tourists are allowed to spend up to 90 days in total in any combination of the four participating countries. The clock starts ticking on your CA-4 visa the moment you step foot in any of the CA-4 countries Though Costa Rica is in Central America it does not participate in the CA-4 Border Control Agreement so your time in Costa Rica does not count against the total allowed to you under CA-4 rules.

Also, our ATM cards did not work at most of the ATMs in Nicaragua. Consider stocking up on dollars in Costa Rica where dollars are dispensed from ATMs at no additional charge. There’s a BCR mobile ATM on the Costa Rica side of the border which does not charge a transaction fee and will dispense dollars.

Exchanging cash can be done safely and easily in Nicaragua at either the banks or with licensed money changers that are usually found on the street outside of banks. The licensed money changers offer a better rate than either the banks or the ATMs. Check what the official bank rate is then shop around among the money changers.

Duty free finds: There are no duty free shops on the Costa Rican side of this border. There are duty free shops on the Nicaragua side but alcohol, particularly the awesome local Flor de Cana rum, is cheaper at supermarkets inside Nicaragua.

Overall border rating: We’ve now crossed the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica at Peñas Blancas four times and it’s always been relatively efficient and free of corruption or bribery. Even the money changers and kids offering to help you with your paperwork on the Nica side aren’t too persistent.

NEW Costa Rica to Nicaragua border crossing (updated)

A new border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over the Rio San Juan, which forms part of the border between the two countries, is scheduled to be open in 2014. However, this is Central America and 2015 seems more likely especially since these two countries have ongoing border issues tainted by accusations of territorial expansionism.

We wouldn’t have believed this crossing was even real if we hadn’t seen a well-under-way “Santa Fé Bridge” over the Rio San Juan when we visited the area. This US$30 million Japanese-funded project began in 2012 and, when completed and opened, this new route will be a much more direct way of heading north or south, by-passing the coastal mountains of Costa Rica and the chaos of Managua, directly linking central Nicaragua with central Costa Rica.

This new crossing should also alleviate the truck backup and craziness at the overburdened Peñas Blancas border, currently the only land border connecting these two countries. In preparation for the opening of this border crossing the notoriously slow and rough 60+ mile (100 km) section of road heading into San Carlos, Nicaragua from Managua, which used to take several hours, has been upgraded into one of the best roads in Central America with perfect pavement, multi-lanes and (for the moment) very little traffic.

Rio San Juan Bridge - Costa Rica Nicaragia border

Construction of the “Santa Fé Bridge”, a US$30 million dollar Japanese-funded project that will span the Rio San Juan and create a new, easier border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. This is what it looked like when we were in the area in December of 2012. Officials say this crossing could be open in 2014.

 

Crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica? Get the details in this post

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How to Have a Costa Rican Road Trip

There are good reasons why so many people rent a car when they visit Costa Rica. As we discovered during our nearly six months and more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of driving in Costa Rica, the country really doesn’t have an adequate public transportation system and the best parks, activities and adventures require wheels. With that in mind, here are our top tips about how to have a Costa Rican road trip and how to rent a car in Costa Rica without getting ripped off.

Costa Rica animal crossing sign

The mind boggles at the number of hazards on the roads in Costa Rica.

Road rules in Costa Rica

In October of 2012 a new schedule of driving violation fees was established in Costa Rica. Many of the violations seem to go unpunished. For example, there is a US$40 fine for littering from your vehicle in Costa Rica, though it’s unlcear how frequently that law is enforced given the amount of roadside trash we saw. Speeding and drunk driving rules, however, are strict and fees are expensive at US$568 per violation. That said, we saw very few cops on the road and only a handful of vehicles pulled over.

As in most Latin American countries you must carry a fire extinguisher and reflective triangles in your vehicle.

Costa Rican law requires a front and back license plate but we were never hassled about our missing front plate.

Ox cart Costa Rica roads

Costa Rican bus? Not quite, but close.

Navigating in Costa Rica

There really are almost no road signs in Costa Rica so don’t bother looking for signs on the highways telling you where and when to turn or signs in towns telling you what street you’re on. When we left Costa Rica there were rumors of a campaign to improve signage in the capital, San Jose, but that’s not gonna help you out on the highways and in the small towns.

Unlike most of its Central American neighbors, dependable GPS data for Costa Rica seems to actually exist. Sadly we didn’t have a GPS unit when we were there.

We managed to find our way around Costa Rica thanks to a combination of Eric’s genetic GPS, asking locals and our ITMB maps which are detailed, accurate and cover the entire country which is head and shoulders above any map you’ll find inside Costa Rica.

Estimated drive times are almost always much shorter than reality so if someone says it takes four hours to drive from there to there plan on six. Or seven. As we’ve mentioned, road quality is poor and even “highways” in Costa Rica are generally only two lanes (one in each direction with no passing lane) and they nearly always wind through mountains unless you’re driving along the coast. This adds up to slow going, especially once you get stuck behind a slow-moving 18 wheeler, and you will.

Costa rican driving yield sign - Ceda El Paso
Many bridges in Costa Rica are single lane so look before you leap. Specifically, look for triangular signs that say “Ceda el Paso” which means you need to yield to bridge traffic coming in the opposite direction.

 

The drainage ditches along many roads are 2-3 feet (1 meter) deep and there’s no shoulder on the roads. It’s best to think of them as moats.

Key Costa Rican road trip tips

We never found a car wash under US$10.

The whole country is the size of West Virginia yet we somehow managed to drive more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km).

All those intriguing peninsulas usually require taking the long way around so be prepared to put in more miles (and time) on the road than you think.

Cop shakedowns are not common in Costa Rica but police checkpoints are. However, we were rarely questioned at any of them and the officials just wanted to take a cursory glance at our paperwork.

Costa Ricans are the slowest drivers in Central America. Sometimes infuriatingly so. For example, the guy you get stuck behind as he crawls through the hills always seems to speed up just enough on the straight-aways so that you can’t pass him.

Gas prices are regulated by the government so all stations charge the same price. The price of diesel ranged from US$4.27 to US$4.85 when we were in Costa Rica and gas was even pricier.

Costa Rica's poor quality roads - Carratera en mal Estado

This sign is no lie: roads in Costa Rica really are in an unexpectedly bad state.

One of the first things representatives of the Institute of Costa Rican Tourism (ICT) did when we met with them was apologize for the shameful condition of the roads in Costa Rica. They are far worse than in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador with pot holes, buckling pavement, narrow sections and a chronic lack of street name signs, directional signs or street lights. Oh, and did we mention the unmarked topes (speed bumps)?

If you are driving your own vehicle keep your fingers crossed that nothing breaks. For the most part, only crappy Chinese-made replacement parts are available for the makes and models of vehicles that are commonly sold in Costa Rica. We learned this the hard way after needing to have a bunch of steering components replaced.

Related tip: If you do need to see a mechanic in Costa Rica don’t take your vehicle to a chain called AutoPits. Yes, the name should have tipped us off but it seemed like a modern chained and it’s owned by Grupo Q, a large vehicle dealer with a presence in several Central American countries. However, AutoPits sold us inferior parts not made for our truck and installed them incorrectly. No wonder the parts failed after just a few hundred miles, rendering our truck undriveable. After a lengthy battle between AutoPits and our credit card company we were left paying the full AutoPits bill (US$1,200) and needing to replace the parts with the good stuff (thanks Rare Parts).

Welcome-to-Costa-Rica

At the border with your vehicle

You and your vehicle with get a 90 day permit when you enter Costa Rica overland. However, even though tourists visas can be renewed for an additional 90 days by simply leaving Costa Rica for 72 hours then returning, foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180.  If you want to get a new 90 day temporary importation permit for your vehicle it has to be out of Costa Rica for at least 90 days.  Also be aware that you can “suspend” your temporary vehicle importation when you drive out of the country. This means that whatever time was left on your importation when you left the Costa Rica will be available to you when you drive back into Costa Rica.

It now costs 17,216 colones (US$35) for 90 days of mandatory vehicle liability insurance (Poliza Turista) which is a considerable increase from our 2012 crossings when the price was only 8,365 colones (about US$17).

Get complete details about procedures and customs requirements for driving a foreign vehicle into Costa Rica in our Border Crossing 101 post about traveling overland from Nicaragua to Costa Rica.

How to rent a car in Costa Rica (without getting ripped off)

Rental car companies can be super aggressive about buying very expensive in-country insurance when you pick up the car you’ve reserved. They will insist that it is mandatory. They will NOT let you off the hook by simply saying that your credit card company provides rental car insurance. Do yourself a favor and get a letter from your credit card company on letterhead stating the details of the rental car insurance coverage your card provides. Also get the appropriate toll free phone number you can use to call your credit card company from the rental car company desk in Costa Rica should the agent in front of you still insist that you need to buy expensive additional insurance.

It’s worth splurging on a GPS unit for your rental car (offered by most rental companies for a daily rate) and be sure to reserve a 4X4 vehicle. As we’ve noted, the roads in Costa Rica suck and you’re going to want the extra clearance, power and durability even if you’re not planning on doing any off-roading.

When we left Costa Rica we heard that some car rental companies were considering adding more environmentally friendly rental cars to their fleets.

Monkey crossing Costa Rica

A hand made monkey crossing sign in Costa Rica.

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Rear View Mirror: Costa Rica Travel Tips After 170 Days in the Country

Like most travelers, we had high expectations for Costa Rica which has been in the eco tourism game for decades now. Many of the “usual suspect” destinations, including superstars Arenal and Monteverde, disappointed. However, we persisted and here are our top Costa Rica travel tips for this Central American country. After nearly six months of traveling in Costa Rica we managed to find some remarkable beaches, parks, bird watching and more just off the beaten path. Don’t miss Tenorio Volcano National Park, the Rincon de la Vieja National Park area, the Southern Caribbean Coast, San Gerardo de Dota and SCUBA diving with hammerhead sharks in Cocos Island.

Costa Rica travel tips

The tap water is drinkable almost everywhere in Costa Rica but there’s also a growing craft brew industry, including Witch’s Rock Brews on tap in Tamarindo (below), that you won’t want to miss out on either so save up some thirst.

Volcano Brewing Company Witch's Rock Pale Ale Tamarindo Costa Rica

The Costa Rican government recently announced that it will close its national zoo and release as many animals as possible as part of a “no cages” policy, though animal experts have expressed doubts about the likelihood of release for many of the animals.

Terror-cleaning-product

 

Eighty percent of Costa Rican hotels have 20 rooms or less.

The capital, San Jose, was one of the first five cities in the world to have electricity.

Supermarkets sell a cleaning liquid called Terror (left).

Pura vida (pure life) is the official slogan of Costa Rica and Ticos, as citizens call themselves, really do say it all day long–usually instead of goodbye. Somehow it’s charming, not hippie dippie.

 

 

It’s illegal to plant Robusto coffee in Costa Rica because it’s considered inferior to Arabica and growers are afraid Robusto plants could cross-pollinate with existing Arabica plants and affect the quality of Costa Rican beans.

Coffee growing

In January of 2013 the Costa Rican government also banned “sport hunting.” The country is not a major sport hunting destination nor is it full of recreational hunters (though they exist) and it’s unclear whether or not this new ban, which allows subsistence hunting by indigenous groups and culls to control overpopulation, will help reduce poaching in parks and other protected areas.

The-city-of-witches-1_newsfull_v
The official seal of the city of Escazu (a swanky suburb of the capital that is sometimes called the city of witches) features a black witch on a broomstick.

Costa Rica really did abolish its military in 1948.

Banco de Costa Rica (BCR) ATMs don’t charge a transaction fee.

 

US dollars are accepted throughout Costa Rica almost as commonly as Costa Rican colones and dollars are dispensed right from the ATMs at no additional charge.

Costa Rican money colones

Smoking is not common but we were surprised that in Costa Rica until May 2012 you could still light up on buses, at work, in restaurants, etc. though all neighboring Central American countries had long since banned all indoor smoking.

Chifrijo Costa Rica

Costa Rica is not known for its cuisine but chifrijo (left) is a delicious stand out. Created in San Jose, chifrijo is a bowl of white rice with red beans, a bit of tangy broth, chopped onion and tomoto, cubed pork, a squeeze of lemon and chicharon (fried pork skin) sprinkled on top.  up on top. We had excellent chifrijo near Playa Jacó and in Cahuita.

Costa Rica has better radio stations than neighboring Central American countries. We heard LCD Soundsystem, Mumford & Sons and classics like Nirvana and Pearl Jam on a regular basis.

 

The Costa Rican President until 2014 was a woman. Her last name is Chinchila.

Foreigners pay US$10 per person to enter Costa Rican national parks. If you’re planning on visiting a few parks consider getting an Amigos de los Parques Nacionales pass which is good at 12 national parks including Poás (pictured below), Tortuguero and Corcovado (check the list to make sure the parks you want to visit are covered). Choose from passes that are valid for up to 14 days (US$40) or for 14 days or more (US$100). Card holders also get 20-50% discounts at select hotels and attractions.

Poas-Pano_01-04-06

Adult prostitution is legal but that doesn’t mean the industry is without exploitation.

They call flaky puff pastry filled with potatoes or chicken or beef enchiladas. They’re delicious, but not even vaguely similar to Mexican enchiladas.

A comedor (a local cheap restaurantis called a soda in Costa Rica.

They call pico de gallo (chopped tomatoes, onions and spices) chimichuri in Costa Rica.

Zip Line - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is much more expensive than any other country in Central America. For example, you’ll pay around  US$20 for a dorm bed in a hostel. Meals average US$6 in the cheapest sodas or market stalls. We paid nearly US$5 per gallon for diesel and gas is even pricier.

You can actually get a passable slice of pizza in San Jose.

There are at least 70 different zip lines in Costa Rica.

The whole country is the size of West Virginia.

 

Costa Rica has announced that it is aiming to be a carbon neutral country by 2021. Nobody we talked to was really sure exactly what that means or how such a goal would be achieved but we think getting the belching buses off the streets would be a good start.

Start planning! Get your bearings in Costa Rica and see where some of the best surfing, whale and dolphin watching and turtle nesting spots are located with these handy maps.

Get our top tips for planning a Costa Rican Road Trip

Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica

 

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The Other Half – Corcovado National Park, Osa Peninsula, Drake Bay, Costa Rica

You can explore the Osa Peninsula in Southern Costa Rica from two main gateways: Puerto Jimenez on the east side and Drake Bay on the west side. Both gateways give you access to Corcovado National Park, but in very different ways. We first traveled to Puerto Jimenez and explored this wild peninsula from that side. Then we headed for Drake Bay to see how the other half lives.

Drake Bay, with its bustling fishing village, hotels and guesthouses, sport fishing operations, even a 13 platform zip line, felt busier and more built-up than the Puerto Jimenez side of the peninsula. however, Drake Bay is still one of the least visited areas of Costa Rica and the wildlife that the Osa Peninsula is famous for is all around you–you just have to get out of Drake Bay to see it. Luckily, that’s easy.

Osa Peninsula beaches Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

Pristine beach just down the coast from Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Corcovado National Park by boat

From Puerto Jimenez our explorations of the Osa had been on foot and we never really entered Corcovado National Park at all. On the Drake Bay side of the peninsula it was all about water access and we finally got into the park itself on a day trip to the San Pedrillo Ranger Station entrance of Corcovado National Park which started off with a 30 minute boat ride (US$85 per person including boat, guide, lunch and US$10 per person entry fee).

Rough coastline and beaches  in Corcavado National Park

Rugged coastline within the boundaries of Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

From there we waded through water to reach a hump of high ground covered in secondary forest and primary forest which we walked through for about an hour and a half spotting spider monkeys, tree frogs, agoutis and lots of birds–including squirrel cuckoos and mangrove cuckoos–along the way.

We were hoping, as we always do, for a glimpse of a tapir as well. They’re known to live in Corcovado but they’re most common at the La Sirena entrance which is more difficult and more expensive to get to from Drake Bay.

The flat, shaded, slightly muddy trail ultimately spit us out on the beach which we walked along before heading back to the San Pedrillo Ranger Station for a picnic lunch with ocean views.

White-nosed-coati-Corcavado

A white-nosed coati roamed around as we ate lunch on the grassy picnic area in front of the San Pedrillo Ranger Station entrance of Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

After chowing down and watching the antics of a disturbingly tame white-nosed coati looking for handouts we hiked up a different trail for about 20 minutes to reach a lovely waterfall and swimming hole. However, we were almost stopped in our tracks by soldiers.

Monkey skull Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

A monkey skull along the trail in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

When army ants attack

About midway up the trail to the waterfall we noticed that the ground appeared to be moving. It only took a split second to realize that millions of army ants were swarming all around us. We didn’t need to wait for our guide to tell us to run and we all sprinted through the seething mass. Miraculously, only a few of us got bit.

San Pedrillo River Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

The San Pedrillo River in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

San Pedrillo waterfall Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

We braved swarming army ants to reach San Pedrillo waterfall in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

On our way back down the trail, after a refreshing dip in the swimming hole below San Pedrillo waterfall, we found that the army ants were still swarming over the trail right where we’d left them. This time we conceded defeat and bush whacked our way through the undergrowth off the trail, giving the ants a very wide berth.

Tree butress Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

In the shallow soil of Corcovado National Parks trees need buttressed roots like this to help keep them upright.

Great Curassow Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

A great curassow in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

Way too close for comfort

Our encounter with the army ants was nothing, however, compared to Eric’s stand-off with a pack of wild peccaries.

It all started when Eric headed out on a trail to explore more of the bays and beaches around Drake Bay. He rounded a bend and saw some white-lipped peccaries on the trail in front of him. We’ve seen (and smelled) peccaries in the wild before but this time was different. Instead of giving Eric a cranky glare then going about their business, these peccaries, which look like boars or wild pigs but aren’t, quickly closed the ground between them and Eric causing a face off between man and a whole mess of beasts.

White Lipped Pecary Osa Peninsula Corcavado National Park

Just one of the white-lipped peccaries that menaced Eric on a trail near Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

We later learned that run-ins with packs of peccaries 50 or more strong are not unheard of in these parts. We’re not sure how many were in the pack that Eric encountered but they were clacking their self-sharpening tusks alarmingly and a few came to within five feet of him.

We only have one or two pictures of this pig/man face off because Eric was actually swinging his camera around as a form of defense. Yeah, that’s how serious it was. Though the most common advice in a situation like this is to climb a tree, Eric sought higher ground by walking uphill and the groundskeeper of a nearby hotel the showed him a trail that dropped back down onto the main trail beyond where the peccaries were located.

Scarlet Macaws Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

Scarlet macaws near Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

Making your Drake Bay entrance

You can drive right to Drake Bay or even fly in. We chose to make our Drake Bay entrance by boat from Sierpe and what an entrance it was. After parking our truck in the guarded lot at the boat dock in Sierpe we headed down the Sierpe River in a open-sided boat.

Boat from Sierpa to Drake Bay Costa Rica

Leaving the town of Sierpe in our boat, headed for Drake Bay.

We sped past huge crocodiles and trees full of birds along mangrove-lined waterways. Eventually the river started widening as we approached the mouth of the river where it flows directly into the Pacific Ocean.

Crocodile River river Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

Massive crocs like this were a common sight during our boat ride up the Sierpe River to Drake Bay.

At this point the captain told us to put on our life vests. It can be a rough ride when rivers meet oceans but we made it through without even getting splashed. We scanned the surface for signs of dolphins and soon the calm arc of Drake Bay came into view.

Spotted dolphins Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Spotted dolphins paying in the Pacific near Drake Bay, Costa Rica.

Hotels in Drake Bay

Our boat dropped us off at Aguila de Osa Inn, which we’d chosen because the hotel is part of the Greentique Collection of sustainable hotels and because we simply had to meet owner Bradd Johnson. Bradd opened the lodge 20 years ago making him a card-carrying member of the Costa Rican Eco-Tourism Early Adopters Club. Okay, we just made that club up, but it really should exist.

Bradd, a super gregarious US native, originally bought property on the mainland of Costa Rica before realizing that Drake Bay was poised for an eco-tourism boom and could use a decent hotel. The eco part evolved along with Bradd’s awareness and is now a major focus.

Of course they recycle, but with a twist. Recycleables are given to local school children who collect the money for the items and use it to improve their schools. All guests get a corn-based, totally biodegradable and reuseable water bottle. All staff members are from the local community.

Gladiator Tree Frog Osa Peninsula Corcavado National Park

A gladiator tree frog spotted on the grounds of the Aguila de Osa Inn in Drake Bay, Costa Rica.

Aguila de Osa’s 11 rooms and two suites have gorgeous floors and handmade furniture in woods that are no longer available but were plentiful during construction and much of the hotel was built by hand. Though Bradd brought in a full arsenal of power tools his local workforce preferred their own traditional tools.

Many of those original construction workers went on to full-time jobs at the hotel and some of the staff have been with Bradd since day one, which is part of the reason the service at Aguila de Osa is so natural and polished.

The same can be said for the food. Rates are all-inclusive and you will not go hungry. Meals are huge, delicious and varied. Beware of the never-empty cookie jar!.

Another reason we chose Aguila de Osa is its private location and surrounding jungle which gives it a great feeling of remoteness from Drake Bay even though the village can be reached on foot in less than 10 minutes. We saw frogs, sloths and scarlet macaws in the trees and landscaping near our room. And speaking of rooms…be aware that the rooms at Aguila de Osa are reached via a series of fairly steep ramps and staircases.

Giant brown Callipogon lemoinei long-horned Beetle

This long-horned beetle was nearly five inches long.

In his spare time (ha!) Bradd helped form the Corcovado Foundation which works with Costa Rica’s national park service and local communities to stop illegal logging and hunting which still threatens the area.

When we weren’t in Corcovado National Park or being menaced by peccaries we took advantage of Aguila de Osa’s free kayaks and paddled the languid waterways right off the hotel’s dock where we had the natural wonders of this area all to ourselves.

Drake Bay Osa Peninsula,  Costa Rica

The calm waters and arcing beach of Drake Bay.

Osa Peninsula and Drake BayTravel Tips

You may read accounts of the horrors of the roads on the Osa Peninsula. We sure did. However, we drove nearly the entire peninsula and found 99% of the roads to be paved and in perfectly acceptable shape. Even the shortcut road that bisects the peninsula between Puerto Jimenez and Drake Bay is said to be good these days. We chose to drive the long way between Puerto Jimenez and Sierpe (roughly three hours) because we wanted to take the boat from Sierpe to Drake Bay, and we’re glad we did.

Be aware that small cruise ships (60 passengers or so) do sometimes stop at Drake Bay and the trails and picnic areas at the San Pedrillo entrance of Corcovado National Park can get very, very crowded when there’s a ship in port.

Oh, and Drake Bay was named after Sir Francis Drake but some locals give his last name a Spanish pronunciation so don’t be surprised if you hear it referred to as “Drah-kay” Bay.

Costa Rica mainland & Chirripo the highest mountain in Costa Rica

The Costa Rican mainland seen from Drake Bay, with Cerro Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, in the distance.

 

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Immersed in Eco – Corcovado National Park, Osa Peninsula, Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

Southern Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula is accessed via two main gateways: Puerto Jimenez on the east side and Drake Bay on the west side. Both give you access to Corcovado National Park, but in very different ways. We, of course, explored both sides of this largely untouched spit of land that was actually an island a mere two million years ago. We traveled to Puerto Jimenez first and soon found ourselves immersed in eco, from our critter-filled surroundings to our remarkably green lodging.

Sunrise Osa Peninsuala Costa Rica

Costa Rican sunrise as seen from Lapa Rios Lodge on the Osa Peninsula.

Welcome to the wild side

Corcovado National Park is considered by some to be the most wild and unspoiled park in Costa Rica. This 263 square mile (425 square km) park boasts 13 different vegetation types which means there’s enough habitat diversity to support an incredible array of species including endangered Baird’s tapirs, massive and rare harpy eagles and all four of Costa Rica’s monkey species.

Capuchin Monkey Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

A white-faced capuchin monkey navigates a palm frond on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Squirrel Monkey Mono Titi Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

Squirrel monkeys are the most rarely spotted monkey species in Costa Rica but we saw plenty of them in the Osa Peninsula.

Spider Monkey Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

This spider monkey mom didn’t even stop eating when we showed up but her baby seemed as curious about us as we were about them.

Trails through the park can take days to complete and require river crossing and other moments of seriousness. During the wet months (July to November) parts of the park may be closed altogether.

Corcovado is actually just a part of the vast Osa Conservation Area which covers the entire Osa Peninsula and part of the lower Pacific Coast. According to Osa Conservation, a non-profit group applying scientific principles to preserve and sustain the peninsula, this part of Costa Rica is home to the most significant wetland ecosystem and mangrove forests of Central America.

This includes the largest remaining tract of lowland rainforest in Pacific Mesoamerica, more than 700 species of trees and more than 10,000 types of insects. It’s a mind-boggling place even if you don’t have a PhD.

Once we left Puerto Jimenez, a surprisingly enticing mid-size fishing village with more than enough accommodation, eating and activity options to keep you busy for a couple of days, we entered a world of cattle farms, untouched jungle and nearly deserted coastline. Whether we were technically within the boundaries of Corcovado National Park or simply in the Osa Conservation Area a feeling of wildness soon took hold.

Iguana Corcovado National Park Costa Rica

They grow them big in the Osa. This bad boy iguana was more than three feet (1 meter) long from nose to tail.

Hiking in the Osa Peninsula

While on this side of the Osa we stayed at Lapa Rios Eco Lodge (much more about that later) which operates its own 1,000 acre (4,000 hectare) Lapa Rios Reserve. Guests have access to guides, rubber boots and walking sticks to enjoy a network of private trails through the reserve.

One morning we drove up to the trailhead of the lodge’s Osa Trail then hiked gently downhill for about three hours. Along the way we saw king vultures (one of the largest birds in Latin America) soaring in the distance, green and black poison dart frogs right on the side of the trail and we heard (but never saw) troops of monkeys in the trees.

Lapa Rios beaches Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

The forest gives way to sand along one of the many beaches of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

The next morning we walked to a nearby beach and strolled along it for hours. A black hawk was gorging on small creatures trapped in a tidal pool in a rock formation and was so intent on eating that it let us get remarkably close. We kept inching forward, amazed that the bird did not fly off.

Further down the virtually deserted coastline we came across a section of beach that was blanketed in rock that looked like dense wet sand but was actually solid sandstone sculpted into sand-like ripples and lumpy piles by the tides.

Black Hawk Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

This black hawk let us get incredibly close, unwilling to fly away from its lunch of small animals stranded in tide pools along an Osa Peninsula beach.

That afternoon we went on a guided bird watching walk along the dirt road and put the bird check list every Lapa Rios guest receives to the test. By the time we returned to the lodge we’d seen more than 20 different species of birds plus a three-toed sloth and a two-toed sloth.

Scarlet Macaws flying Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

The Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica has the highest population of endangered scarlet macaws in Central America and the ridge top patio of the Lapa Rios Lodge is the perfect vantage point to watch them from.

Face to face with a fer-de-lance

In case you didn’t get enough wildlife during the daylight hours Lapa Rios guides lead a night walk every evening as well. It was raining the night we went but that meant a bonanza of frogs taking advantage of the wet conditions they love. We saw red-eyed tree frogs, masked tree frogs and the largest smoky jungle frog we’ve ever seen. That sucker must have weighed five pounds (2.3 kilos) and was bigger than a softball. Scary stuff.

Red eyed tree frog Corcovado National ParkCosta Rica

Night time is the right time to see red eyed tree frogs on the property of the Lapa Rios Lodge on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Red eyed tree frogs Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

We will leave the caption for this one up to you…

Smokey Jungle Frog Spider Monkey Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

Is the softball-sized smokey jungle frog the most imposing amphibian you’ve ever seen?

The rain kept a few of the night walk stars in hiding so we missed out on seeing a kinkajou or an owl. We did, however, see one of the deadliest snakes in the world and well within striking distance.

Ever since we entered Central America we’ve heard about the fer-de-lance (warning: there is a very gruesome photo of the type of damage inflicted by fer-de-lance poison near the bottom of that link). The fer-de-lance is a legend among poisonous snakes and a real killer in Latin America. We’ve seen a fer-de-lance behind glass but never in real life, despite the fact that its reputation as a super-camouflaged and aggressive snake keeps our eyes glued to the trail every time we go for a walk.

Fer de Lance snake Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

Ladies and gentlemen, we present one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, the fer-de-lance. Best hope this is the closest you ever get.

Not 20 minutes into our night walk at Lapa Rios our guide stopped the group and trained his flashlight on a section of a rocky embankment right on the edge of the path which winds between bungalows on the property. Coiled up in a niche between rocks was a fer-de-lance. Our guide seemed nonchalant and asked us all to walk slowly past but the trail was only a few feet wide so it was impossible to avoid close proximity to the snake.

Once we were all safely on the other side of the fer-de-lance we realized that we’d have to walk right past it again at the end of the night walk. As nerve wracking as that was we’re glad we’ve now seen a fer-de-lance in the wild. This will hopefully make it easier for us to spot one on the trail.

Yellow-headed Gecko Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

We consulted the species geeks at projectnoah.org to confirm that this colorful specimen is a yellow-headed gecko.

How green is Lapa Rios Eco Lodge?

Though Lapa Rios Eco Lodge, part of the Cayuga Collection of sustainable hotels, has earned and maintained its eco reputation over the past two decades we still arrived with eyebrows raised. However, over the course of our stay we learned how Lapa Rios goes beyond the usual “green” measures. Here are just a few examples:

  • the gorgeous pool is totally chemical free, kept clean by 100% water purifying bacteria instead
  • there are no soda cans or straws on the property
  • no insecticides or herbicides are used on the property
  • more than 90% of employees live locally and if they own a motorcycle to commute it must have a cleaner-burning four stroke engine
  • though some of the original construction was done using fallen wood collected in the Lapa Rios Preserve the owners have since realized that fallen trees provide essential nutrients to the soil so now building is done almost exclusively with bamboo
  • waste from pigs is turned into fuel used to run the employee kitchen
  • housekeeping staff really adhere to the posted policies about re-using sheets and towels
  • natural palm roofing is being replaced with synthetic palm to avoid cutting palm trees down when roofing needs to be replaced or repaired
Cabo Matapalo Osa Peninsuala Costa Rica

Cabo Mataplo seen from the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

One warning: Lapa Rios is built on the slopes of a ridge and most of the 16 bungalows require a fairly steep walk up and down, particularly bungalows 9-14 which require more than a hundred steps in each direction to and from the main lodge and restaurant (don’t miss the chef’s gourmet take on chifrijo, by the way).

There are two bungalows located off the driveway near the lodge which require just a few steps but they lack the ambiance of the rooms lower down the slope and you really do want that ambiance.

We stayed in room #15 and felt completely surrounded by nature. Turkey-sized crested guans hopped around in the trees at eye level off our huge patio. Chestnut mandibled toucans seemed to be everywhere. Troops of monkeys passed through the canopy. Even endangered scarlet macaws made an appearance, though they are best photographed in the early morning from the spectacular deck off the main lodge up on the ridge top where you can watch them fly in the sunlight below you.

Chestnut Mandibled Toucan Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

A chestnut mandibled toucan snacking on palm fruit on the grounds of Lapa Rios Lodge on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Lapa Rios is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and the property is for sale. But don’t worry. The creators of Lapa Rios have included a clause that the lodge’s eco focus must remain and that the reserve must continue to be protected by any new owner.

Iguana eating Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

Lunch time for an iguana on the Osa Peninsula.

Osa Peninsula Travel Tips

You may read accounts of the horrors of the road off the Costantera Highway down the Osa Peninsula to  Puerto Jimenez. We sure did. However, the road is now fully paved–beautifully so in many stretches–all the way to Puerto Jimenez. We made the drive from Ojochal on the southern Pacific Coast to Puerto Jimenez in 2.5 hours. Then we hopped into the transport provided by Lapa Rios and someone else drove the last 45 minutes to the lodge itself. This last bit, we admit, was in pretty dreadful washed out condition but the road was in fine shape as far as Puerto Jimenez.

Oh, and bring high knee socks to wear with the rubber boots you will probably need to borrow if you’re hiking here. Trails can be muddy and slippery almost any time of year and rubber boots are often the best choice. If you wear short socks with tall rubber boots the top edge will rub your skin raw by the time the hike is over.

Surf junk Osa Peninsuala Costa Rica

An Osa Peninsula garbage truck hauling away someone’s broken surf board.

 

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