INTO THE JUNGLE
Never have I walked as far, sweated as much, or had more bug bites, then during my five days in the jungles of Corcovada. That being said, I have never seen more wildlife (aside from under the sea) or felt such a sense of relief and accomplishment. Things like Jesus lizards running on water and parrots squawking overhead become commonplace in the Osa Peninsula. Massive Tapirs lumber down the beach seeming to not even notice the land monkeys snapping photos at them. Monos play in treetops just overhead, and serpents silently glide over the leafy forest floor.
We began our expedition from the small pueblo of La Palma, one hour North of Puerto Jimenez. From here you can walk the 13 km (8 miles) to the entrance of the park, or pay for a taxi for the first 11 km. On arrival in La Palma, a taxi driver instantly approached us to offer a ride for $35. After refusing, he dropped the price to $30, then $25. Finally, we agreed to pay $10 for a ride to the first river crossing, about 7 km in, cutting the walk in half. This was perfect, as that stretch of road was muddy and wound between houses and farms, nothing special. From there we got our packs, listened to the driver speak Spanish to us and pretended to understand, then began the hike.
There are 21 river crossings on the way to Los Patos Ranger Station. In the rainy season, this can be very treacherous, but because it had been dry lately, the rivers were only knee-high and we made the walk, in flip-flops. Thousands of small black tadpoles and many species of cichlid and other small fish darted away as we sloshed through the streams. This was also where we first saw the magnificent Jesus lizards defy physics as they scamper across the water on their hind legs, their wide toes never breaking the surface tension. After crossing the last river there was a small and barely noticeable sign pointing the way to Los Patos. It was then another two km hike through the jungle to the first ranger station.
Los Patos Ranger Station is absolutely amazing. The entire structure is made of beautiful wood, and there is even television and a gas/battery-powered generator. The shower is clean and made of beautiful tile, and the rooms have soft beds and clean sheets. Not what you would expect for a remote rainforest station. We were the only people at the station when we arrived, and we soon became friends with the on-duty ranger, Marvin.
The rangers here work 20 days on and 10 days off. Marvin´s family lives in Puerto Jimenez, but I have a feeling his true family are the monkeys and snakes and sloths that he has lived and worked among for the past five and a half years. Soon more travelers wandered into the station, a family of six Germans, three of which snored like a tractor, two French Canadians, and two more Germans, Nicholi and Mona, with whom we became instant friends. Marvin, who must have enjoyed our company, us a delicious spaghetti dinner with peppers, onions, garlic, squash, jalapenos, and other delicious treats. We all sat together at the table and attempted to communicate, which was possible with all of our Spanish and English combined. After dinner we drank beer that the Germans had hiked in, and Marvin spotted two snakes in the walkway that we wen and checked out. Finally, we returned to our tent, bellies full and excited to begin our hike in the morning.
Ants in My Pants or the Never Ending Journey
After a night of nearly no sleep due to a hot tent and loud snoring neighbors, we unzipped our door at 5 am and packed up. Marvin, the ranger whom we had befriended, made us some coffee that we haply gulped before setting off on the 24 km (15 miles) hike to Sirena, the next ranger station. Two km from Los Patos is a sign for Cataratas, or waterfalls, fairly close to the trail. We decided to leave our packs and bring a small breakfast to eat at the falls. We set our packs against a tree and hiked 1.5 km down a very steep trail to the falls. On the way to the falls, we came suddenly upon a solitary peccary. Peccaries look like the evil hogs in Willow, smell like onions, and have a fierce reputation of occasionally attacking hikers. We froze. So did it. Luckily it was not in any kind of fighting mood, it slowly and loudly wandered back into the forest.
Eventually we set up our tent in the grass next to the station, and fell into a hot and frightening slumber.
Tapirs, Pigelephants of the Jungle
As I slept that night I had horrible dreams of giant spiders and swarms of ants, rushing into the tent and brutalizing us. I was in a state most similar to hallucinations, I was eventually convinced that there were spider webs in every corner of the tent, but if I stayed very still they would leave me alone. Many other people that I talked with had similar dreams while in Corcovado. The combination of exhaustion, heat, and itchy bites must be to blame. Nicholi, my German friend, said that while he was in the park every time he closed his eyes he would see a black-green jungle moving slowly by, as though the hike was now permanent. Even with my hallucinations, I awoke at 4:30 am, somehow energized and amped to search for tapirs or cougars on the beach.
Another photographer, Jim Goldstein, was awake as well, and we strolled together down the beach. Suddenly only 10 meters in front of us a massive tapir lumbered out of the jungle and started walking right at us, its small trunk swaying back and forth. Shocked, we took what photos we could, then had to retreat before the beast walked right into us. We fell back, got refocused, and shot some more pics. Just as soon as it had appeared in front of us it found another small trail and returned to the forest. We waited a minute, then followed her down a trail near her own. When she had walked maybe 10 meters into the brush, she found a nice comfy spot and had laid down for a bit of a nap. She lay there, just 4 meters from the trail casually drifting off. She would awaken for a moment, check out what that bright flashing was, then try and drift off again. Eventually, she got up, yawned, and stumbled deeper into the jungle.
I continued alone down the beach to El Rio de Sirena, perhaps two kilometers north of the main station. The river is infamous for the high concentration of predators it holds. Two giant predators, both man-eaters, share an uneasy truce in the River Sirena. Giant American crocodiles, three or four meters long, the battle for space with ferocious and ill-tempered bull sharks. The sharks swim up the river during high tide to hunt. Probably not the best place to take a swim. I returned to Sirena to make breakfast, and spent the rest of the day around the station, taking cat naps and watching for wildlife.
Sirena does have some perks to make up for its many faults. The station has a huge wooden deck in the front looking out onto a giant blot of grass, used as the airport. On this deck people sit during the day, combing the trees with binoculars. At night everyone sits here and shares stories of what they saw during the day. Sitting on the front patio people see parrots, tapirs, monkeys, coaties, sloths, and more. However, it doesn´t say much about the station if its best quality is a porch. In addition to the inhospitable staff, toilet paper and soap are not provided, and you are supposed to pack out anything you bring in; no trashcans. People with a bit of money and a short amount of time fly directly to Sirena from Puerto Jimenez. The flight is $80 each way, not bad considering a regular taxi from Carate (southern end of park) is $80 as well.
It was a perfect day to recuperate, as it rained most of the day anyways. I went for a few more small hikes in the forest, but the rain kept most of the wildlife hiding. We ended up going to bed by 8 pm, still exhausted from yesterday’s hike.
We awoke at 4:15 am and began breaking camp. The night was cool from so much rain the previous day, and I had slept very well, with no dreams of spiders. It took a while to finish everything and we began hiking again a little after 5 am. The howler monkeys began screaming just as we were finished packing, this was the first time I was up before them.
The hike from Sirena to La Leona Ranger Station is not nearly as brutal as the one from Los Patos, but it is not exactly simple either. Around half of the 13 km hike is on the beach, meaning no tree cover from sunlight or rain, and soft footing that sucks your toes in like quicksand.
In the Rio Serina, American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) like this one battle for space with bull sharks that swim and out of the river systems from the Pacific.
Our hike on the beach was perfect; a nice cloud cover prevented burning and we made the walk quickly. Slicing through the beach are two streams, each with a large sign reading aqua potable. I dropped my pack and drank from the stream like a dog from his bowl. It felt great, like I was a part of the jungle. Ashley soon stopped me, telling me to stop acting like an animal.
Afterward I began thinking of how many animals – tapirs, jaguars, deer, rats, coaties, and many more – take a shit in that stream every day. Even so, I never did get sick.
Eventually after a couple more river crossings, some with nearby crocodiles, we reached La Leona. We were the first ones to arrive from Sirena, and I made a victory lunch of Cup ‘O Noodles to celebrate. Ashley took a shower, and I set up camp.
Soon other travelers began to trickle in. First were two Israelis whom we had met the day before. Both had just finished serving in the military back home. Immediately after arriving, to our amazement, the Israelis stripped down naked and began swimming in the ocean, just down the beach. We giggled, a couple with three children looked angry, and the rangers shook their heads, looking disappointed.
Next came our German friends, one at a time. Mona was chipper and in great shape, saying the hike was simple. Ten minutes later her brother arrived, looking like a shell of his former self. He had massive bags under his eyes, and his backpack was huge. Slowly and with many mistakes, he told us in English how he had accidentally spilled a big bag of powdered milk into his pack. Now everything he had smelled like curdled milk, and every time he took a breath he could smell i
Most of the travelers continued another 3 km to Carate, to catch a bus back to civilization. We opted to spend one final night at La Leona.
Just past La Leona is an eco-lodge where they sell cold beer. We set up camp, then stumbled down to the lodge. Here we drank three beers each, at a cost of $20 for the six-pack, but it was well worth it. Never have I enjoyed a beer so much. We laid in big comfy hammocks and drank the ice-cold beers with huge smiles on our faces. We had done it. We had hiked the Osa Peninsula. We didn’t get tusked by any angry peccaries, or mauled by a silent jaguar. We had crossed the rivers and stayed away from the crocodiles and the bull sharks. We didn’t get bit by any bushmasters or stung by any scorpions. We had blisters on our toes and bug bites everywhere else, but we had arrived.
We drank our beers slowly as the sun dipped behind the Pacific.