Corcovado National Park
|Written by Jared on June 03, 2012|
Start: May 22, Puerto Jimenez
We had one helluvan adventure this past weekend. The proverbial shit got real, and then hit the fan. In which order, I'm still not sure. It oscillated. Something about a jungle, an 11 mile hike and crossing a dozen or so rivers by car and on foot while experiencing biodiversity the likes of which only exists in a handful of places on earth.
I've been looking forward to this trip since the day I started reading about Central America. Corcovado. This was a once-in-a-lifetime (aka, I'll never do it again) hike. You may have heard of it from such shows as Planet Earth, or Life, or something you would have see on the National Geographic channel before they started with the ghost whispering.
The experts estimate that Corcovado National Park is home to 5% of all life on the planet. Five percent. This park is tiny, you can walk across it in three days. There are more crazy critters packed into this place than you can shake a stick at. And trust me, I shook my stick at plenty of 'em.
This adventure started rather peacefully. We were fresh off of three day camping trip on the other side of Osa. We spent two days without any sort of amenities. You want a shower? Grab the hose by the beach. You want to go to the bathroom? That palm tree looks nice. Needless to say, we needed to recharge a bit before heading back out into the jungle.
We stayed at Cabines Jimenez, a bit pricy by our standards but I can't recommend it enough. The shot above was the view from our balcony over Gulfo Dulce.
Recharging also involved a work day. Here's Jessica at her best. Cushy chair, AC blasting, laptop on the desk, taking her weekly conference call from the safe confines of our posh hotel room.
Our drive to Carate was delayed for several hours when we noticed that our two camp stoves, fuel bottles, a bunch of camp kitchen utensils and Kobus’ shorts were missing. The hotel owners were very helpful. They wasted no time installing a new security system, alerting friends and tour guides, and even drove through town looking for the goods.
A big thanks to the folks at Cabinas Jimenez and a huge shout out to Home on the Highway for loaning us their camp stove for our hike into Corcovado.
After the delay in Puerto Jimenez we headed out for the two hour bumpy ride down to Carate, where the road ends and the Corcovado begins. We setup camp on the beach under the shade of a couple almond trees.
I cooked a quick dinner and enjoyed the sunset while Jess and Kobus shared a few beers and stories with the Canadian expat who runs the store in Carate. Then it was off to an early night's sleep - our journey begins bright and early in the morning.
Our target was the Sirena ranger station, roughly 12 miles from Carate along a path that follows the coast. Half of the hike is in the jungle and the other half on the beach.
You have to time the hike based on the tides. There are two sections along the beach that you cannot pass at high tide, and one big river to cross towards the end that is much easier to manage when the tide is low. It takes four hours to get to the first crossing, and about six to get to the river, we planned to leave around 6:30 in the morning.
At roughly 5am the thunderstorms rolled in. We woke up to soaked tents, pouring rain and still needed to finish packing our bags and the car. The wet tents got balled up and thrown in the back, sure to add a bit of stank to the car in our absence.
Kobus parked Blue next to the store, for $5 a day the owner will watch your car giving you a bit of peace of mind while you're off adventuring in the jungle.
Not 50 feet from our campsite was this raging river. The night before it was little more than a trickle. After a couple hours of torrential downpour it turned into this beast, which actually proved to be the most difficult crossing we encountered on our way to Sirena. Not a great way to start the hike.
Within 15 minutes of waking up we were soaked through. Regardless, spirits were high. Bring on the Corcovado! 50 feet and one river down, 11 miles to go!
From Carate to the park entrance at the La Leona station is a mile and a half hike along the beach. Wet sand provided easy hiking and after a bit over an hour we were at the ranger station, checked-in and ready to head into the jungle.
The rain jackets came off after thirty minutes, you can't stay dry in a rainforest in the middle of the thunderstorm no matter what you do. Luckily we had a new waterproof camera (thanks Ruthann!) so we could snap a few shots while it dumped down rain.
Within five minutes of entering the Corcovado we had our first wildlife sighting. Unfortunately this would prove to be highlight of our hike to Sirena, the rain seemed to drive all but the most acquatic animals into hiding. This little guy is a poison dart frog, he'll stop your heart if you get too touchy-feely.
After two hours in the jungle it was back out to the beach. After four hours the rain was beginning to let up and the temperature started to climb.
The nice part of hiking in the rain: you don't have to worry about the sun or mosquitos, the two most immediate, if not the scariest threats of the Corcovado. Jungle cats, poisonous frogs, army ants, spiders the size of your hand, snakes that blind in 30 minutes and kill in two hours...well, you get the idea. Yay rain. Boo mosquitos.
After about six hours of hiking in water-logged boots we made it to Rio Claro, the big river. The name translates to Clear River, which certainly isn't the case after a day of hard rain.
Kobus contemplates our next move while I contemplate the crocodiles and bull sharks that are known to inhabit these waters.
Here's a panorama of the river where it meets the Pacific ocean. Click for the full shot. I'm the little dude standing on the left on shark lookout. At first glance it seemed worse than it was, spread out near the the surf it was little over knee deep.
Had we been here at high tide the story would be different. Instead of knee-deep we'd be over our waist. Given the quantity of man-eating animals, I'd say we timed our hike just about right.
Kobus and I push ahead, trusty jungle walking sticks in hand, while Jessica hangs back in shark/crocodile-infested waters to document the voyage. Talk about taking one for the team.
From the river crossing it was a short 45 minute walk to the Sirena station. I say short, but what I really mean is excruciatingly painful. We've been rolling around in a cushy Toyota 4Runner the past eight months. Sure, we've done plenty of day hikes, but I can't remember the last time I walked more than ten miles in a day.
At Sirena the best times for hiking and birdwatching is in the morning and late afternoon, after the hordes of tourists leave by boat. We saw tons of macaws, parrots, and a pack of peccaries. Jungle pigs that got a bit fiesty when we walked up on their grazing path. A few waves of the trusty jungle stick and they were gone.
After spending a night at Sirena, Jessica and I took off in the afternoon to losten some stiff muscles. We saw a few monkeys and crazy giant woodpeckers, but this three-inch grasshopper was definitely the best find. Sitting right in the middle of the trail, I almost stepped on it.
The bugs in this place are nuts. This isn't even the biggest grasshopper we saw, a four-inch variety flew up Kobus' shorts and gave him a few nasty claw marks as a souvenir.
Walking around in the park was a trip like no other. You don't know whether to watch your feet for snakes, your face for spiders, the trees for monkeys or just stare off into the jungle in hopes of seeing something bigger and meaner. It was primevil sensory overload.
After two nights in Sirena, eating pasta and tuna, instant soup, tortillas and beans and more granola bars than I care to admit, we headed out on the trail back to Carate. Kobus and Jessica, our two intrepid aventureres, seem oh-so excited at the seven hour trek ahead of them.
The night before we left, Sirena was hit by some serious thunderstorms. Lightning struck the station, or very near it, and thunder louder than I've ever heard kept us from an easy sleep. I'm pretty sure Kobus sleep-punched Jessica in the face at least once.
As the rain fell the thought on all our minds was what it would do the rivers we'd have to cross by foot in the morning and by car on our way back to civilization.
The tide worked in our favor on the way in, but was a problem on the way out. High tide was at 6am, low tide at noon, we left Sirena at 7:30am and hit the river just after 8, a mere two hours after high tide. Add the night of torrential downpours and we found ourselves in a bad situation.
Above, Kobus tests the water and deems it a bit fiestier than our first crossing. Waves from the ocean rush up the river, and then back out, increasing the risk of being sucked out to sea.
Jessica makes the executive decision to sit tight for a half hour to observe the river and give the tide a chance to drop a bit. We notice that roughly every 90 seconds water would rush into the river, and then back out. We devise a plan to cross the river near the waves once the water starts to come in, in hopes that it would slow the river current.
The plan worked, we made it across the risky 20-foot stretch in waist-high waters without major incident. Our packs got a bit wet, but they've been went for three days now. No big deal.
Just before we crossed the Rio Claro Jessica headed upriver to find a secluded place for a bathroom break. On the riverbank, not 20 feet from where she stood, she encountered a six-foot crocodile. So much for going to the bathroom in the sand.
Fortunately for us the crocs aren't a problem for the river crossing. They aren't the saltwater variety and won't enter the fast-moving waters near the beach. At least that's what our "common sense" told us at the time.
Back on the beach trail we battled the relentless heat, sun and mosquitos, with a few stops to fill up on water, snacks and snap a some photos. This is one of the three coastal points crossed on the trail. We missed it on the way in, probably due to the grey skies and relentless rain.
Between the points on the coast is a stretch of beach about a mile and a half long. It was brutal. Sun, soft sand and wet boots made for a slow, sweaty slog.
On the up side, I've never been on a beach like this. Jungle on one side, crystal blue water on the other. Not a person to be found for miles around. I had just enought time to stop and enjoy the view before the mosquitos caught up to me.
We stopped for lunch after rounding the last point. Peanut butter and tortillas. Sticks to your mouth, and to your ribs. While we ate a coati came down for a visit, he smelled Jessica opening a snickers bar and had to take a closer look. What's up guys?
It was hot. Stupid hot. Walking in the sun in 90 degree heat with full-on humidity takes it out of you. When we spotted this natural spring running down the side of a cliff we had to stop. The water was a tepid 80 degrees and it felt like a refreshing cold shower.
Roughly two hours from home we walked through a small patch of banana trees that were crawling with monkeys. It turns out that monkeys really do eat bananas. This guy is double fisting. Greedy bastard.
We saw howler, capuchins and big spider monkeys all in the same area. The guy above is a spider monkey, the largest of the species, probably four feet tall.
We stood and watched the poo-flingers for 15 minutes or so while we caught our breath and re-applied the DEET. The star of the show was this mom and baby pair swinging through the trees.
A couple of the more agressive males approached us while we loitered taking photos. Once they came within ten feet we decided it was time to be on our way.
After six hours sweating on the trail we made it back to the La Leona station. From there it was a "short" hour and a half walk back to our car in Carate. That last mile felt like an eternity, but once we caught sight of the windsock at the airstrip we knew we were home free! Cold beers and mosquito-proof tents were waiting for us!
The sunset that night was a spectacular pink and purple. The point in the middle of the photo is about five miles away, less than half the distance from where we slept the night before.
We ended up crashing on the beach in Carate for another night. Our late start and slow hike back meant we'd be driving in the dark on less-than-ideal roads.
The next morning we packed up and headed out early. The going was easy until we got to a flooded creek, no more than a foot deep when we crossed three days before.
As we debated the crossing a big colectivo truck pulled up with a load of passengers. The driver got out, took one look and dutifully unloaded his cargo of tourists and told them to wade through the crossing and hike the remaining seven miles to Carate.
In the end we decided to cross, after asking the truck driver to stick around in case we got stuck. The water was a good six inches higher than anything we've been through before. I was scared shitless, the water was nearly up to my waist. But Blue and Kobus handled it like a champ.
Squeeky belts and wet brakes was the worst of it. I think a few of the tourists even clapped after we made it across. If only they knew how far they had to walk before they got to town. Suckers.
Up next: Panama! The end of Central America. We high-tail it the mountains for some refreshing temperatures, rejuviation and a bit of sight seeing in the "Napa Valley of Coffee".