Venturing off road: Wild adventures in Costa Rica

March 2016 Posted in Travel
Costa Rica

Costa Rica

By Steve Ritchie

Driving to the remote Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica would not be easy, I suspected, but I tend to be an optimist when it comes to travel.

My wife, Susan, and I had a 4-wheel drive vehicle – a Hyundai Tucson to be precise – and a road map. The map showed that Carate, a tiny community close to our destination, was less than 30 miles from Puerto Jimenez. So what’s the problem?

Well, one of the lessons we learned on this trip was that anytime you leave a major highway in Costa Rica it can be an adventure. Secondary roads there can be quite a bit different from secondary roads in the U.S., to put it mildly.

We arrived in Puerto Jimenez at noon, after an easy two-hour drive from Sierpe, where we spent a swelteringly humid, damp night in a fascinating, rustic B&B run by an Italian-Tico couple. We lunched on pancakes and picked up a few supplies in Puerto Jimenez before heading out of town on a washboard gravel road.

The road to Carate was bad from the start and only got worse. It was nearly impossible to go more than 10 mph in our Hyundai, and, even at that speed, we were bouncing around like pinballs from the huge potholes. About 10 miles in, the road got much hillier and curvier and became mostly dirt. Though we encountered a few other cars during the first hour, after that we were pretty much alone on the “road,” if you can call it that.

Then we started to hit the streams. The information I read when planning our trip mentioned one stream crossing, but we ended up fording six streams before arriving at our destination. Lucky that we visited during the dry season, as the deepest sections of water were just above the knees. Susan was charged with checking the depth of the water by walking through the stream, after checking for crocodiles first, of course.

We finally got to the speck of a place that is Carate and breathed a sigh of relief, but there were no signs for Luna Lodge, where we had reservations, so we kept going. Unbelievably, the road got even worse, so we were now crawling along at 5 mph. After more stream crossings, we started going up some very steep inclines.

On the steepest hill, I was in first gear and had the pedal to the floor, but couldn’t get to the top. I snuck a quick glance at my ever-tolerant spouse, who was silent but had a white-knuckled grip on the door. Watching the sheer drop-off on my side as we started to go backwards, I coasted all the way back down the hill to try again.

With a little more momentum, we reached the top of the hill on the second try and saw a small sign: The worst is over. Luna Lodge this way.

We reached the lodge after going 28 miles in nearly three hours. Three staff members came out to greet us, and handed us ice-cold glasses of water. We were immediately impressed with the amazing open-air dining room and the inviting swimming pool. But another surprise was waiting for us.

Luna Lodge sits near the top of long, steep canyon near the southern boundary of Corcovado Park. The lodge offers three types of lodging: a standard hotel-type room; a bungalow with a deck and an outdoor garden shower in the back; and a tent, with two small beds, a wood floor and a tiny bathroom and shower.

We had reserved a tent for four nights, and a staff member was showing us to our tent. Carrying packs and sweating profusely, we followed him up steep stone steps past the bungalows, past the incredibly lush landscape, past the wildly colorful toucans perched in the trees. We took a short rest after climbing 100 steps, then another break after 200 steps, and kept going, past the massage studio, past the yoga platform, still climbing.

For me, it was like hiking the Great Wall all over again. While the view from the tent was terrific, we started to think about making this exhausting climb several times a day and in the pitch dark, and wimped out. We moved to a different tent that was only about 75 giant steps up from the lodge. (That tent was great except for the two scorpions we discovered and had to carefully remove.)

Corcovado National Park has been described by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on earth.” It covers a huge swath of the remote and largely undeveloped Osa Peninsula, and there are no roads through it, only trails. Due to problems with poachers, visitors to Corcovado must enter the park with a guide. We made our hike with Jose, one of the guides employed by the Lodge, and it was just the three of us.

Almost immediately, we came across several bands of different species of monkeys. First, we saw the elusive Central American squirrel monkeys, the most endangered monkey species in Costa Rica. Later we had close encounters with the aptly-named spider monkeys, who swing rather than scamper on the branches, the mantled howler monkeys, who woke us up each morning around 4 a.m. with their infernal racket, and the white-faced capuchin monkeys, whose faces and expressions are so eerily like our own.

It’s such a thrill to see these creatures uncaged, and we were treated to some amazing monkey scenes: napping in the branches above the trail; grooming, petting and even getting intimate with each other; and finding and eating various kinds of food.

In the wild there is a sense of unpredictability, and even a bit of danger in these encounters. On a previous trip our guide had coaxed a capuchin monkey to sit on my head, stroke my hair and take bits of banana from me (which I learned later was against the rules but at the time had no idea). On this hike, we came across a family of capuchins, and one sleepy monkey seemed very friendly, yawning and preening for photos, until he suddenly changed expressions and bared his teeth while coming at me menacingly. I thought this guy would not be so friendly if he jumped on my head, so I made a quick get-away while he glared at me.

As we hiked through the park, we came across many other mammals, including a giant anteater, a poison dart tree frog, a large band of white-nosed coatis, a two-toed sloth, and “Jesus Christ lizards,” which get their name from their remarkable ability to run across the water without submerging.

Our expert, young guide helped us spot and identify dozens of species of stunning tropical birds in the park and while kayaking in a nearby lagoon. The largest population of scarlet macaws in Costa Rica is found in Corcovado, and watching their mating rituals was fascinating. We also saw many species of herons, hawks, tanagers, parrots, hummingbirds and various seabirds.

Corcovado and Luna Lodge attract visitors from all over the world, and it was cool to exchange stories with other travelers over the exceptional, communal meals prepared by the lodge. Lana, the Coloradan woman who built and owns the lodge, is legendary for her commitment to sustainable practices. Her dog, Osa, is also a bit of a legend for taking guests on guided tours around the paths and stream beds on the expansive property.

Leaving Corcovado we had a long drive nearly the length of the country to Liberia to catch our flight back home. Stopping overnight in Quepos, we discovered an unusual expat bar called Wacky Wanda’s, which was filled with characters just as strange to us as some of the creatures we encountered in Corcovado. But Wacky Wanda’s is a story for another time.

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