National Geographic once referred to Costa Rica’s first established national park as “the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity.” From our previous station at Los Quetzales, we were headed down the Cordillera mountain range toward the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. Since 1975, the 164 square miles of Corcovado National Park has been considered a crown jewel of the country’s extensive system of parks and biological reserves, and we had been looking forward to the big adventure now for months.
We knew that the journey to this remote Pacific wonderland would be a challenge for the average traveler but rewarding if undertaken safely. Corcovado’s 13 major ecosystems beckoned with possibilities, encompassing the last virginal old-growth forest to be found along Central America’s Pacific coast. Corcovado contains 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity, astonishingly enough. It contains more than 500 species of trees, for example, and (as I would learn) about 5% of all the planet’s animal species.
With visions of monkeys, jaguars, and scarlet macaws dancing in my head, we secured our vehicle in the village of Sierpe, busy with arriving hikers and with giant crocodiles lounging near its central restaurant. An hour boat ride down the Rio Sierpe took us quickly through the vast Terrab-Sierpe National Wetlands, a mangrove wilderness where apprentice shamans once began incredible journeys in search of a special fungus to be used in hallucinogenic tea for guidance through seven days of fasting and drinking. Boating past the mangroves was no way to gain a shaman’s knowledge of self and place, but a sense of magic could be felt through this river journey, almost as if “being watched by lives unseen.”
Our small boat blasted into the Pacific and soon encountered a warm torrential rain that had us hunkering behind our ponchos. This was a wild West I had never experienced before. We arrived at Bahia Drake, a wet landing in the broken surf and climbed the frontier village for our reserved rooms in a quiet “eco-lodge.” Next morning, after an early breakfast courtesy of our hosts, we assembled on the beach and met our guide for Corcovado, a young Costa Rican named Daevid, who would prove to be the best birder I have ever met, an excellent, enthusiastic teacher of the Costa Rican wilds.
Because Corcovado is secured against unwarranted human impact on its pristine territory and because of the potential danger to inexperienced hikers on its system of trails, entry to the park (other than for research purposes) requires the accompaniment of a certified guide. Approaching the park on our ocean ride, we paused for a voyeuristic study (yes) of two Olive Ridley Turtles mating on the calming surface, then continued toward the shore for yet another wet landing in the surf.
To minimize human impact on the national park, only about 150 visitors are allowed each day, so we felt lucky to merge with the monkeys (all four species), Fig and Fica trees, coatis, anteaters, sloths, tapirs, wild cats, butterflies, leaf cutter ants, and birds (more than 400 species, including the rare Harpy Eagle) that morning. You can bet that our senses were alert, our bodies easing through the awe-struck hours.
Back in Bahia Drake, we enjoyed a dinner with our park guide, Daevid, and the five other travelers who had been with us throughout the morning and afternoon. I thanked Daevid for sharing his expertise on Corcovado’s natural history. It began to rain as he mounted his motorcycle for a long ride home, and his last words of advice to me were “Never stop birding!” As if I ever doubted.