Drake Bay – Osa Peninsula – Costa Rica
The Osa Peninsula is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Such claims can be hard to believe, but in this instant there is no room to dispute it once you have visited. There is sustainable tourism and eco tourism, and then there is Osa. There’s no need for fancy nouns. Since when did the norm become abnormal and why are we so obsessed with creating labels for it? Where we stayed, in Drake Bay, was simply a little village fully supported by tourism whose needs were met by the locals. No big tourist hotels or fancy holiday parks, no huge airport, no cruise ships, no corporate restaurants, no shops selling tat. Ironically, flying here is very easy, only a 50 minute flight from the capital in a 12 seater Cessna (and not too pricey) which is an adventure in itself. I think the two key reasons why Drake Bay hasn’t developed into a crappy, generic, tourist town is because of the lack of paved roads and because it has been kept strictly locally owned. And yet there is nothing uncomfortable about staying here. The beaches are some of the best in the world, and empty, there’s a few mighty fine restaurants, and the cabins we stayed in offered some of the best views I’ve ever seen from my bedroom window, and in good comfort. But comfort shouldn’t been an issue when travelling to such places, not when you can sit out on the deck and immediately see a humming bird at work or a pair of incredibly bright coloured macaws flying overhead, bats swooping through the evening air, monkeys bouncing through the treetops, and lizards running up trees. We were sad not to see a toucan after six days yet sure enough, on the morning we were preparing to leave, a toucan landed in a tree right outside our window. Sat upstairs in an open-sided restaurant, we counted no less than four large iguanas sunning themselves in the trees among a haggle of vultures. All of this was around town, never-mind inside the national park itself. We don’t need to relabel tourism, we need to fundamentally change it and reset the narrative on what travel means.
The national park – Corcovado NP – is a protected area of primary and secondary rainforest that requires visitors to take a 30-60 minute speedboat trip to get there from Drake Bay. Not that this is a problem as it appears that it’s almost certain you will see whales on the way. Granted, it was the season to see humpback whales in the area which is well suited for them to rear their young, but never have I seen so many and so effortlessly. Whale watching tours usually involve groups of ridiculously excited tourists having paid overpriced tickets to sit on a large boat getting sea sick for hours on end and may only end up seeing a tail of a whale or a puff of air before it dives for another hour. Not so in Costa Rica. Our first time on the water was to get somewhere, not hunt for whales, but within 20 minutes a mother humpback and her baby were casually swimming past not far from the boat. And because of the youngster, there was no diving and so the pair were regularly breaking the surface. The boat slowed and followed them for a while for all to enjoy before heading on to the national park. The main area of the park is secondary rainforest and well visited by tourists, usually just on a day visit. The beauty of secondary forest is that it is more open and so more diverse in both plants and wildlife. The usual assortment of insects, butterflies, birds and frogs were everywhere we looked and these were accompanied by spider monkeys, snakes, squirrel monkeys and a very large tapia hiding in the bush. The forest is also full of pumas and jaguars but the closest we got was fresh puma prints on the beach that were following the direction of a bush pig’s paw prints back into the forest. Now, I love falling over wildlife, but I’m not one to get too interested about it and after spending all morning stopping to look at stuff I was getting anxious to open up the gas and do some proper trekking. Lunch time didn’t disappoint as we left the main tourist area and headed off to the primary rainforest where our first stop was to refresh in a waterfall and eat a picnic. Over the following 24 hours we would walk for 30 kilometres through dense, muggy jungle, along muddy trails free from people, and through numerous rivers that required boots to be removed and slippy, aggressive rocks to be navigated. I won’t lie, while the good lady galloped the last couple of kilometres in a random burst of youthful energy, I panted away up the never ending muddy banks until finally turning up at our remote lodge just as the daily thunderstorm took hold around 5.30pm, thankfully a little later than usual. As the storm sent vibrations through the simple wooden lodge, I freshened up under a cold shower and settled in with a cold beer. All was well until I went for a pee and looked out of the glass-free window to see a house of horrors; a dense web of cobwebs with huge spiders sat in the middle of them. Not tarantulas (amusingly I never saw a single one for the whole trip), but skinnier and more mean looking. Like an inmate on death row. As blood left my arteries, I realised the same scene was outside my bedroom and only centimetres from where my head would be lying very soon, yet spiders turned out not to be the immediate concern. Just above my pillow, on a wooden beam, a scorpion lay in wait and was rather displeased when I repeatedly shone a torch in her eyes to get a half decent photo. Upon showing the guide he didn’t seem concerned and on turning myself into bed at the dizzying hour of 8.30pm, the beast had fled, but I still took the decision to sleep with my head as far away from the windows as possible and made sure that it was the Mrs sleeping next to the wall and not me!
Following our two days in the NP, we took to the sea again and headed out to Isla del Cano, a small, extremely protected forest-covered island, that sits approximately one hour speedboat ride away from Drake Bay. We were not allowed on the island but snorkelling was a go. The trip over had been nice but as soon as the boat stopped in the bay where we would swim, the majority of us soon felt a little sea sick. This usually subsides once in the water but not on this occasion and although I pulled through not too badly, a couple of others were dragged back into the boat and left to nauseate in a heap on the deck. The reef wasn’t spectacular yet it was in healthy shape with a good number of fish, although it were the turtles that stole the show. Being the Osa Peninsula one turtle wasn’t enough and we saw a total of four with one diving right in front of my camera. I’m usually one to try and give wildlife space as opposed to trying to get the perfect shot but as already discussed, it’s impossible to avoid or distance yourself from nature around these parts. The morning complete, we jumped back on the boat, negotiated past several more humpback whales casually enjoying the waters, and headed to a secluded, palm fringed beach for a cheeky cold beer. Canyoning followed the next day where we drove back into the rainforest and hiked a trail following a river up into the mountains. The fun of course, rappelling down into the river and following it back downstream and negotiating numerous waterfalls of varying sizes along the way. It won’t go down as an extreme outing but being in the water, surrounded by tropical forest with no one else around is always going to be a great experience. A moment of amusement came about when we caught sight of an otter casually making his was along some rocks until, in disgust, he noticed us and ran back to where he had come from. Our guides were most pleased as apparently they are not so easily seen.
It was difficult to get motivated on our sixth and penultimate day in Drake Bay. We had been moved into a lodge high up on a hill that had stunning views of the bay and what’s more, we could enjoy the view from our very own pool out on the deck. Nonetheless we dragged ourselves down to breakfast at 6.30am and met a boat that would be taking us over to the mangrove forests. Our guide for the morning said we would be back at 1pm and I doubted that would be the case for there are only so many mangrove trees one can see. Sipping away on fresh, homemade lemonade, we were treated to a wonderful morning out on the water. First along the coast where dramatic, rocky outcrops catered for thousands of birds and the occasional intrepid tree, and miles of empty, sandy beaches were met by thick jungle that rapidly rose into the mountains. We then took a right turn into the estuary, through the mangroves and upriver to the town of Sierpe. All the while our excellent guide would be stopping to point out wildlife; mudflats full of crabs, turtles basking on a log, bats sleeping under a bridge, snakes in trees overhanging the river, baby crocodiles, massive crocodiles, monkeys, kingfishers, herons, iguanas and even a couple of sloths. In a final act of awesomeness, back out at sea and on our way home, the guide suddenly swung the boat around and pulled out a huge fish from the sea in some kind of Crocodile Dundee feat of hunting. By the time I looked around to see the commotion, the fish was dead. Whether it was dead before or after it was caught I will never know, but I’ve been assured by a witness that it was very much alive. And so yet again – as we pulled up to the beach at exactly 1pm – we waded ashore in complete awe of what we had just experienced, a feeling that never got tiring.
I can safely say the Osa Peninsula is one of the very few places I’ve been to in the world – if not the only place – where nature flourishes over man. Never have I been anywhere where there is no need to look for wildlife. Here, it just hops, slithers, crawls, flies, swims, walks, buzzes right on past. Partly because they don’t feel threatened, but largely because there’s so much. In a world that we are intent on destroying, the Osa Peninsula must be one of the final glimpses into a much more beautiful past, and as such, I departed with a wee tear in my eye; in part because I was so angry that we allow such destruction elsewhere, but largely because I felt so f***ing lucky to have experienced this secluded, protected, diverse and, simply perfect paradise. A paradise may I add, where the local’s dogs are known to deliberately get high by licking a toad that secrets toxins from its skin.