Corcovado National Park – 3 days exploring what National Geographic once described as ‘the most biologically intense place on Earth.’
Travelling through Costa Rica was an absolute dream. Imagine pristine jungles, white sandy beaches, beautiful volcanoes, cloud forests, an abundance of wildlife, friendly people and reliable transport to help you see it all. The hardest part about visiting the country was deciding where to go and what to see! There was just so much to choose from. With wildlife encounters our main focus, where else to start but Corcovado National Park!
Pre-planning our visit to Corcovado National Park
As avid wildlife lovers, there was one place in Costa Rica that we had to visit – Corcovado National Park. Often bypassed by travellers as it’s slightly out the way (on the Osa Peninsula, located in the southwestern part of Costa Rica) and a quite expensive place to visit, it was somewhere that warranted a bit of pre-planning. In fact, it had been the only thing that we pre-booked prior to flying into Central America. We had spent hours looking into what the best way to see Corcovado National Park was. As the Park is now only accessible with a guide, doing a tour of some description was the only option. We just needed to decide which company to use and choose the best package for us.
After a lot of research, we chose Surcos Tours private ‘3-day 2-night ‘Carate-Sirena-Carate’ package, staying at the Sirena Ranger Station. There were also 1-day and 2-day group packages, but we wanted a private experience, spending as long in and around Sirena Ranger Station as possible. We had read and seen so much about the biodiversity and volume of wildlife there.
As we had travelled up through Panama, we used Puerto Jimenez as our initial base. From where we were able to store any gear we did not need for our time in the park. Our guide Oscar came to our hostel the night prior to our departure to explain the plan for our 3 days in Corcovado. And, we were excited!
Day 1: Hiking to Sirena Ranger Station – Corcovado National Park
The following day began with a very early start and a two-hour drive to Carate. From there it got hot and sweaty, with a 20km hike to the ranger station. The hike itself took us 4 km to La Leona were we signed in and from there, we hiked 16km to the station, which in our case was a race against the tide.
Being May, the climate was hot and sticky, but worth the sweat as the route took us along both beautiful beach, and lush jungle. We saw plenty of wildlife along the way, the sheer numbers of Scarlet McCaws alone was impressive enough. It wasn’t just up high, Oscar also easily picked out the cool stuff down low too. Due to the heavy rain the night previous the Green and Black Poison Dart Frogs were quite active.
Even our quick lunch stop yielded a plethora of wildlife photo ops. We saw a Lineated Woodpecker, our first Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey and a flamboyant Golfo-Dulce Anole. He was extravagantly defending his territory by bobbing his head and extending its bright orange dewlaps (erectile cartilage under his throat), which is also done to attract females. So, maybe he was just trying to woo Imbi!
The highlight was when our excellent guide Oscar, stopped at a particular swamp, a known favourite spot for the many Baird’s Tapir in the park. And, whilst Oscar and I were searching for the Tapir, Imbi discreetly popped around the corner to pee and frantically came running back to grab the camera. It turned out her chosen toilet spot was pretty much on top of a poor Tapir resting in the undergrowth on the edge of the swamp. I don’t know who was more shocked and surprised, Imbi or the Tapir!!
The last part of the trail to the Sirena Ranger Station was across a river, which involved wading up to our waists lofting our bags above our heads. We were later told that at times, the river has both caiman and bull sharks in it. Upon arriving at the station we did a quick tour of the impressive facilities (mozzie net covered bunks and spotlessly clean ablutions.) We had made with it there with only minutes to spare before the heavens opened. After a huge and delicious meal (included in our package) we had an early night, as the power went off at 9pm. We were exhausted, but both excited for the following couple of days.
Day 2: Exploring around Sirena Ranger Station – Corcovado National Park
Luckily we woke to dry weather for a day that consisted of 3 hikes/wildlife searching forays (pre-breakfast, mid-morning and afternoon). And they did not disappoint! Over the course of the day, we saw all sorts of creatures – mammals, birds and reptiles.
We had a great time monkeying around and found all four species in the park. The Central American Squirrel Monkey, the endangered Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey, the Mantled Howler Monkey and the White-faced Capuchin. Not to mention a few more Baird’s Tapirs wallowing in the mud!
And, it wasn’t just the mammals. Oscar knew so many birds by their calls and we picked out all sorts of beautiful species – several species of Hummingbird, all four species of Trogon, Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan, Roseate Spoonbill and many, many more!
There were plenty of reptiles around too, with the aforementioned Caiman, several species of snake, Spiny Tailed Iguana and the Common Basilisk. The latter is often referred to as the ‘Jesus’ Lizard or ‘Jesus Christ’ Lizard. The reason for this is that when this lizard is running from predators, they can travel fast enough to run on water for short distances. Hence the nickname arose due to the similarities with the biblical story of Jesus walking on water. Unfortunately we didn’t see any of them in the act, but we did see lots of them around the park.
Even whilst resting between hikes there were still plenty of photo opportunities. Just sitting on the veranda of the Sirena Ranger Station there was lots of wildlife in sight. Collared Peccary, Agouti, White-nosed Coati and Common Black Hawk loved the grassy area out front.
Day 3: Hiking out of Corcovado National Park to Carate
The final day was really just the hike back out to Carate. With the tides being slightly more favourable, we also had time to search for more wildlife. The elusive Puma, Jaguarundi, Northern Tamandua and of course more Tapir heading the wishlist. Thankfully, as the tides were low the river crossing, which had been waist-deep on our way in, was now only shin-deep. A relief after hearing of those Bull Sharks! Along the water’s edge, we also came across two different species of Heron – a Green Heron and a Bare-throated Tiger Heron as well as another Roseate Spoonbill.
It didn’t take long for one of our four target animals to be found. At the same swamp area we had sighted one on day 1, Oscar found two Tapirs deep in the vegetation. As he knew we were keen to get some nice clear shots, we waited patiently in the hope they would come out into the clearing. In the meantime, we were distracted by butterflies and a nearby Central American Paper Wasp colony.
Patience did pay off, as after about 45 minutes both Tapir casually strolled out into the clearing and we had them all to ourselves. It really was a magical experience.
Not long after, another of the ‘wishlist’ animals was found. A colleague of Oscars who was hiking into the park had spotted a Northern Tamandua (Anteater) sleeping in the branches high above. Having seen the Southern Tamandua (Collared/Lesser Anteater) in the Pantanal Wetlands of Brazil, it was great to find its northern cousin here.
After several minutes of photographing it, it arose from its slumber and came right down to the ground level for a few moments before going off in search of more food in the branches above. Another amazing Corcovado moment.
Although we didn’t get really lucky and see a Puma or Jaguarundi we did get to see Tayra scuttling by, along with another Northern Tamandua, a little further along the path.
Carate – Puerto Jimenez
Once back at Carate, after a quick rest we were driven back to Puerto Jimenenz for a night to rest and relax and try to take in all that we had seen. Corcovado National Park really had lived up to our expectations. No, in fact, it had surpassed them! This was also the same with Surcos Tours, everything from start to finish was so professionally run. From the beginning, our enquiries with Kathya about selecting the correct package, dietary requirements and target animals, right through to the follow up after our tour had finished.
Whilst in the park we also met Nito, Oscar’s boss. He had come out into the park as he had a couple of free days prior to the start of a trip and was voluntarily collecting litter along the beach. I think that sums up the company’s values and qualities. Our guide Oscar deserves a special mention. If he couldn’t see it, he could hear it and failing these he could smell it, we’re not even joking! But best of all, he was so passionate about his work.
After a brief nights rest we were up very early again with a 5am bus to Palma Norte. This was followed by a bus to Sierpe, before finally catching the 11:30am boat from Sierpe to Jungla Del Jaguar (The Jaguars Jungle Lodge). Located a few kilometres past Drake Bay this was our planned location for our last couple of days in the Osa Peninsula. This remote lodge, which backed onto Corcovado is apparently surrounded by wildlife and looked like the perfect place to base ourselves for some independent wildlife viewing. It’s ‘a little off track’ location sounded like just our cup of tea.
Long story short, all was going smoothly until minutes after the boat left Sierpe a storm moved in and conditions got very wet and windy. Despite knowing exactly where we were heading and agreeing to take us there, the captain of the boat suddenly refused to drop us off at our destination. We don’t know if it was the stormy conditions, or it was just that we were the only two going that far, but whatever the reason, he forced us and everyone else to get off the boat in the pouring rain at Drake Bay.
After some initial panic and clarification that there was absolutely no other way we could make it to our destination that night, we assessed our options. As we already had ongoing accommodation booked in Manuel Antonio, which wasn’t flexible, we decided to spend the couple of nights in Drake Bay instead.
We found the perfect spot to chill at Mohagine Hotel. They were actually closed for renovations but kindly took pity on two sodden backpackers. We ended up booking one of their open-air huts, which was a bit of fun and a great way enjoy the surrounding beauty and the resident wildlife. If you’re in Drake Bay this is a really nice place to stay!
Sadly, the weather really wasn’t great for the 2 days in Drake, it rained a lot, especially in the afternoons! However, Mohagine backed onto over 76,000m² of privately owned jungle, so we were able to head out on some short explorations. There was plenty of wildlife around, some of which Imbi wasn’t so keen on.
A local guide who was assisting with the renovations also gave us a tip on the best areas to search for frogs. So in between the rain, plenty of time was spent searching down by the creek for amphibians.
These tiny Granular Poison Frogs, despite their bright colours were a lot harder to spot than you’d imagine. You definitely had to listen for them rather than look for them. But it was definitely worth putting in the effort and braving the rain, these little frogs were stunners!
Overall, Mohagine Hotel. was a beautiful place to stay and certainly a lovely spot to relax. In the end, despite our disappointment at not getting out to Jungla Del Jaguar, an awesome alternative.
Next up more Costa Rican wildlife from Manuel Antonio National Park.
Getting to/from and around
The most popular and cheapest way to travel anywhere in Costa Rica is by public bus. This was the approach that we took and this is how we did it:
Boquete (Panama) – Puerto Jimenez
We took an early morning bus from Boquete to David. The journey took 1-1.5hrs and cost US$1.75. We then took a minibus from David to Paso Canoas (border) which took and 1hr and cost US$2.20. Once at the border, we walked to immigration and got stamped out of Panama. After leaving Panama, we walked straight ahead to Costa Rica immigration (on your right) and got stamped into Costa Rica.
Once in Costa Rica, we walk back towards Panama to a bus station on the right side of the road. After an hour or so wait, we took the next bus to the ferry port in Golfito. The bus can stop right at the ferry, you will need to buzz to get off. The journey took 2 hours and cost ₡1500.
We crossed the road and walked to the ferry port and took the next ferry to Puerto Jimenez. This took 30mins and cost ₡3000. The ferry departs every 2-3 hours, with the last ferry being around 5pm. The timetable does change, so don’t rely this.
Our tour started and finished in Puerto Jimenez. So we were picked up and dropped off at our accommodation by our tour company.
Puerto Jimenez – Drake Bay
We caught a 5am bus from Puerto Jimenez to Palma Norte which took 2 hours and cost ₡3932. The bus terminates in San Jose. Despite getting off early, we had to pay the entire fair to San Jose!
From Palma Norte, we took a chicken bus to Sierpe which took about 45 minutes and cost ₡300. The bus stop is on a street in the town (ask around where to head to catch it). Bus times were 5am, 6.30am, 8am, 9.30am, 11.30am, 2.30pm, 5.15pm, of course these times are subject to change.
From Sierpe, we walked a few minutes to Don Jorge Restaurant by the river. The pier is in front of the restaurant. We had breakfast, used the wifi before catching the 11.30am water taxi from to Drake Bay. This cost ₡8000 one way.
Drake Bay – Manuel Antionio
From Drake bay, we caught the 7am water taxi to Sierpe which took 1-1.5 hours and cost ₡8000. We got our accommodation to book this for us the night before, which you’ll need to do also. From Sierpe, we got a lift to Palma Norte. But you can catch a chicken bus from which takes around 45 minutes and costs ₡300. Alternatively, grab a taxi for around US$10 negotiable.
From the bus station, we took a 9.45am local bus from Palma Norte to Dominical. The journey took 1.5hrs and cost ₡2095. We then connected to buses from the same stop in Dominical to Quepos. This journey took just under 2 hours (buses depart every 20-30 minutes). For some reason, we weren’t charged for this journey, so not sure of the cost.
Finally, we caught the Manuel Antonio shuttle from the same bus station in Quepos – 25mins ₡325.
Corcovado National Park essential packing list
- Camera, charger, spare batteries & tripod
- Waterproof (dry) bag
- Waterproof jacket, trousers, poncho
- Hiking boots + spare shoes to change into when not hiking.
- Flip flops or shoes that can be worn in the water
- Sunscreen, bug repellent, hat, sunglasses
- Spare clothes in case you get wet.
- A couple of pairs of spare socks
- Decent torch for early mornings and nights (power goes off at 9pm)
- Small first aid kit including plasters
- Biodegradable toilet paper (for hike in and out)
- Electrolytes/Rehydration salts etc
- Snacks (depending on what is included in your package)
- When entering Costa Rica by land, you must provide proof of onward travel to immigration. If you don’t, you may be refused entry. We had an email with a flight from Mexico to Cuba which satisfied immigration enough. Had we not had that, we literally would have been turned away
- There is an ATM at the border
- We stayed in Puerto Jimenez for one night before our Corcovado trip and left our big bags in storage at a hostel there, only taking a day bag with us
- If hiking into Corcovado NP, keep your bag light as you have to carry it 20kms in and 20kms out!
- The 20 km hike in and out was incredibly hot and tiring. Hiking on sand is brutal, whatever your fitness! The heat at times was overwhelming
- Consider visiting Corcovado in the low season. There will be less people at staying Sirena Ranger Station and less people deep in the park. It is also a cooler time to visit (if that’s at all possible). The downside – more rain
- If you want to visit Sirena Ranger Station with Surcos Tours, but don’t want to hike, there’s alternatives. Check out their website for options.
- If you really want to see a good amount of wildlife, DON’T just do a day trip. You might get lucky on a day trip and have a great experience, but if you’re making the effort to get all the way to there, why not stay a night or two. The majority of wildlife is around the Ranger Station and day trips from Puerto Jimenez don’t get out that far. It’s totally worth it spending a few nights at the Ranger Station!!
- For some people just seeing wildlife is enough. But, if like us you have a passion for wildlife photography, we highly recommend taking a decent zoom lens. We shoot the majority of our wildlife pics with a Canon 100-400mm.
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