Hiking the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Or how my wife saved me from hungry crabs

Puerto Jimenez

Bustling Puerto Jimenez.

Imagine a quiet, quintessential, 1950's-era Central American town -- a slow moving backwater where 90% of the people speak only one language and probably don't speak yours.  There's electricity, but it flickers on and off.   There's a quaint port with calm waters, jungle all around, and crocodiles in the swamp.  A few growing pains try to spoil the iconic image, but don't succeed -- like the recently paved main street, an airstrip, and a shiny new super market.  A tourist or two wander through the town, and a few expats look a little too burnt.  A resident glances our direction, and exclaims, "Blanco!", not in a derisive way but  as a remark on either Michelle's blonde hair or my distressing lack of tan.  Either one stands out like a sore thumb against the local Ticos.  I've just stepped off the small plane, there's a panaderia down the quiet dusty street, and I decide I'm in heaven.  Welcome to Puerto Jimenez.

Rowboat in Puerto Jimenez harbor

Rowboat in calm morning waters. Puerto Jimenez, Osa Peninsula.  (Click any photo for prices and sizes.)

Rowboat in Puerto Jimenez harbor

Sunrise over the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica.  (Click photo for prices and sizes.)

Dave with pack

Blanco Dave with 50 pound pack, tripod, and deet. (Photo: Michelle Miller)




Six inch tarantula on wall.

The Osa Peninsula remains one of the last untamed corners of Costa Rica with few amenities, fewer towns, and even fewer roads.  It's off the grid.  Beyond Puerto Jimenez there's no electricity, no running water, and no pavement.  There's one gas station covering 1,400 square kilometers.  The only road can be impassible for weeks (and weeks and weeks) in the wet season.  The Osa is not undiscovered and tourists are there, but in small numbers and at least half are of the grizzled backpacking or surf-bum variety.  Tourists just don't want this -- there's no hot water, no air conditioning, no fans, and no backup plan.  The Osa has not been sterilized and the adventures can be real rather than prepackaged into canned "zip-line" tours.  The surf bums seem ecstatic.  The more clean-cut tourists seem a little nervous.

I adore what I see and love the ambience, but I worry about the Osa Peninsula's soul.  Electricity and pavement will come eventually, and the upscale condos, tourists, and canopy tours will follow.  We will love it to death, and I can already see the precursors with a few all-inclusive resorts trying to charge too much for carefully manicured grounds, fishing excursions, and "daring adventures" into a sea kayak.  Too tame for me.  I want the real and uncut version of the cultural experience.  I want the rural and simple but not simplistic honesty that I've only seen in similar small towns in Greenland and Africa.  I want to navigate on my own, get lost, and find myself.  I'm such a granola...

Michelle, wet

A great adventure?  Michelle melts in the 90% humidity and intense jungle heat.

But the real deal is here now, and it's hard to get too worked up about the future in 90% humidity and 90 degree temperatures.  We wander through town and wait for the potentially non-existent local bus which is predictably crammed to standing room only.  The bus is sadly incomplete without the requisite chickens, but I'm sure it was just an off day.  Our ride grinds slowly away from the last of civilization, and it's time for the adventure.

Our plan?  An unguided 60km backpacking trek through Corcovado National Park and another 45km loop around the peninsula back to Puerto Jimenez.  No particular destinations, and just a faint hope that maybe we won't make it back in time for the plane.  We'll hike on some poorly marked paths and another 20km of coastal jungle and beaches without trails.  Everything we need for 10 days is on our backs, and that includes food, a tent, gallons of deet, and 20 pounds of tripod, camera, and lenses (yes several).  We earnestly hope that we don't run out of food.

Scanning for crocodiles

Awesome adventure?  Michelle scanning for crocodiles and taking it seriously.

Oh, right, the heavy lenses.  Well, I'm a photographer, and photos are my other goal of course.  I don't want to overstate the obvious, but for every nice wildlife shot or scenic beach landscape, it can take hours of travel, missteps, backtracking, tarantulas, vipers, conflicting directions provided in another language, surprise camera failures, broken shutter release cables, ticks, more ticks, and hours of waiting only to find that the light was better on the other side of the river which you can't cross because of the patrolling bull sharks which swim upstream from the ocean.  Hey, that's all part of the fun.  I wouldn't have it any other way, and for better or worse, the Osa Peninsula provides all of these challenges in great quantity.

So just to recap.  The goal -- a great hike with photos of the jungle.  And then, the adventure reality?  Melting in the heat.  Oh my god, the heat, the heat, the heat...  We have to push through a nearly physical wall of humidity while scanning for crocodiles because your life can depend on it.  And then, the reward?  Photographs of great antediluvian beasts devouring bloody meat and eyeing you warily because (a) you clearly want to steal their meal, and (b) you might just make a nice after-dinner snack.  Hmm, ok, I don't know.  It gets all mixed up out there, and I'm not sure anymore which part is the adventure and which part is the photography.

A crocodile devours a meal

But the reward... Watching a crocodile devour a meal and then consider the photographer as a snack.

So with these vague goals in mind, the last of our transportation is a "taxi" that stumbles over the end of the road and into the park.  Road?  Umm, let's get honest.  It's a river.  Taxi?  Hah!  It's a rusty pickup with wooden board seats and a blue plastic tarp cover.  We're bouncing around so hard that I'm hanging on with both hands and all ten toes.  Did I mention that this is not a top tourist destination?  Perfect.  Bruising and sweltering, but perfect.

taxi on the river

View over the cab of our "taxi" on the "road" through the jungle.

The park ranger at the entrance doesn't speak English, but kindly provides directions in rapid-fire Spanish involving "left, right, steep up, right, right, straight, left" with frequent interruptions from the taxi driver who disagrees entirely.  I look hopefully at Michelle whose Spanish is better.  No dice.  So we nod politely until the ranger and driver both give up and shrug.

Ten feet into the poorly marked trail and we're already drowning in sweat.  The camera is getting soaked by my own wet shirt and has to be put away.  Our first of dozens of river crossings is immediate and vaguely exciting, but angry leafcutter ants crisscross the banks, and Michelle struggles to find a safe way out of the water.  The jungle noises are deafening, but intoxicatingly exotic (download audio clip); for the first of many times I think that this jungle adventure is as much about sound as it is sight.  Within an hour we are far past any directions associated with the ranger's shrug.

Michelle crossing river

Michelle crossing one of many, many jungle rivers.

We're alone.

Except we're not.  An anteater rips apart a termite nest high in a tree and another snuffles past on the ground.  A troop of spider monkeys swing over head, and a pair of noisy scarlet macaws argue in the distance.  Something unseen runs across our path, and I accidentally kick an unidentified viper.  Oops.  No point in getting closer for a better look.  Michelle stands on one bank of a river while I cross to find an opening on the other side and scare a dozen Jesus Christ Lizards into their canonical walk on water.  We lose the trail, not for the last time.  We backtrack, I check the sun through the thick canopy, and I figure that a faint path heads west.  Well, at least that's toward the coast.  Whatever.  I'm confident that we'll get somewhere or nowhere, and I'm not really worried.  Just hot.

The next few days involve herds of ornery peccaries, coati, agouti, caimans, improbable tapirs constructed from the leftover parts of elephants and cows, single leaves over ten feet long and five feet across, and remote jungle beaches that I only dreamed could exist on rare uninhabited South Seas islands.  Oh my, oh my.  An emerald green lagoon shaded by palm trees and verdant cliffs completes the image of paradise. 

We see few people except at Sirena Ranger Station, a clearing in the middle of the jungle where scientists do research and pampered San Jose tourists can charter a rough landing into the rainforest to see the wildlife.  One such couple complains that they saw nothing at all.  We walk quietly and see everything.  This is the healthiest and least disturbed ecosystem that I have ever visited.  The biodiversity is stunning.  Brown pelicans gather on the coast, not in flocks but in floating cities of tens of thousands while nearby a crocodile surfs in the ocean waves, hoping to score.  Surfing crocs?  Wonders never cease.

Deserted jungle beach

A postcard-perfect deserted beach deep in the wilds of Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica.

Capuchin monkey

A white-faced capuchin monkey stops to break off a small branch while running

Ceiba tree roots

The elegant trunk of a jungle ceiba tree. Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica.

Soul of a crocodile

Looking into the soul of a crocodile. Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve, Costa Rica.

Kissing scarlet macaws

A scarlet macaw reaches around a branch for a surprise smooch with its mate. Macaws are highly affectionate and partner for life. Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve, Costa Rica.

Spider monkey

A curious spider monkey pauses from its trek through the jungle canopy. Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve, Costa Rica.

We leave Sirena and follow the remote Pacific coast, headed for another bull shark and crocodile infested river, the Rio Clara.  It's only safe at low tide, and we pull out a chart.  Midnight.  Seriously?  How cool will that be!  I sleep fitfully and Michelle not at all.  At 12:30 I shine my light across the dark black expanse and see an unblinking yellow eye move slowly, smoothly, primitively up the river.  "You've got to be kidding me," I mutter, and briefly consider the dishonest approach of not mentioning to Michelle that crocodiles don't blink and have yellow eyes.  Before we have time to let the panic sink in, I grab Michelle's hand and start the 100 yard crossing.  Steady but fast.  Looking everywhere, getting worried as the water rises deeper, then pushing quickly up onto the opposite bank and crashing away from the water.  Fully awake and adrenalized, we hug, and I think, "tourist zip-line, my ass".  This is the real adventure.

Hours and miles later with howler monkeys screeching overhead, we lay out a ground cloth, and I take a 3:00am power-nap fueled by burnt-out adrenaline.  It's one of the best nights of my life.  I hear the huge crashing surf, smell the salt and the earthy decay of the jungle, and still sleep like a baby with all my senses in overdrive.  I wake to Michelle gently touching my hair.  No wait, scratch that.  It's a giant one-foot crab.  "Back off dude, I'm not dead yet."  And then I'm instantly back asleep meaning to wake long before dawn, but instead rising to find Michelle crouched in a guarded position by the early morning light.  "Sleep well?" she asks cheerfully, as she pushes away another of the thousands of crabs that had attacked all night long.  Wow, I love my wife...  I mean, how many people are married to a woman who will hike kilometers through the jungle in the dark, cross shark-infested waters, and then protect her husband from a crab army while he sleeps?  Awesome.

We leave the park with regret and make our way around the coast on the only road, bouncing about in the dust-churning, gut-busting "collectivo."   We get off at Cabo Matapalo and the driver seems concerned that we have nowhere to go, no plans at all.  But we find an expat a mile down the road with a primitive canvas tent on a platform that he'll let us have for a couple of nights.  Luxury, but it seems so incongruous after the last week of "la pura vida."  Nevertheless, a beautiful waterfall cascades through the jungle, dozens of scarlet macaws fly overhead, and a large cat (puma?  jaguar?) growls at us from somewhere nearby as the hairs on my neck stand up.  Ok, there may be people in Cabo Matapalo, but we're still way off the grid.  I walk fifty feet to the deserted beach and photograph some sloths in the almond trees.

Snowy egret and fish

A snowy egret captures a struggling fish. Rio Sirena, Corcovado National Park.

King Louis Falls

The rich jungle setting of the 100 foot King Louis Falls near Cabo Matapalo, Costa Rica.

Ceiba roots

Beautiful ceiba tree roots fanning out from the trunk. These trees dominate the rainforest landscape.

Jungle ivy flower

An ivy flower growing wild in the jungle.

Puerto Jimenez doesn't seem so small and quaint when we return.  It's too busy, there's too much traffic, and too many choices.  Power lines are overhead, and there's a cell phone tower.  Having run perilously low on food, we choose from among a half dozen small cafes and devour a huge meal of beans, rice and plantains.  I have a welcome but all-too-civilized ice cream cone from the super market after dinner.  But the civilization is only an illusion and all things are relative.  The town wakes up before dawn to avoid the heat because there's still no air conditioning, and the power still flickers on and off.  Indeed, I think that the ice cream might be endangered.  This small town remains a relic of the past.

Two rowboats at low tide in Puerto Jimenez harbor

Two rowboats stranded by low tide in Puerto Jimenez.

Our plane leaves in an hour, and I see the pilot reading the owner's manual while a few people walk the pier and board a boat to cross the Golfo Dulce.  I'm insanely jealous of what they might and more importantly might not find on the other side of the gulf.  I want to stay.  I can't go yet.  My inner voice wants to call someone, anyone, and tell them to put the dog on the next flight down because I'm staying a while.

Rowboat and jungle

A rowboat and jungle on the Golfo Dulce. Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica.

Sunrise over Panama

Sunrise over the mountains of Panama and the Golfo Dulce, as seen from a deserted beach on the far southern tip of the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica.


Postscript: I get lots of inquiries about this trip, and sadly, as of 2014, it is no longer legal to hike Corcovado without a guide. This will remove much of the adventure from one of the last bastions of undeveloped Costa Rica. What a shame.