The Osa Peninsula is home to Corcovado National Park which you can access from Puerto Jimenez on the east side and from Drake Bay on the west side. We traveled to Puerto Jimenez first and soon found ourselves immersed in eco in critter-filled surroundings and one of the greenest lodges in Costa Rica.
Welcome to the wild side
Corcovado National Park, on the Osa Peninsula which is a largely untouched spit of land that was an island a mere two million years ago, is considered by some to be the most wild and unspoiled park in Costa Rica. The 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.
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.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.
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 trail head 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.
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.
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.
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 5 pounds (2.3 kilos) and was bigger than a softball.
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 which 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica
Here’s more about National Parks in the Americas