Corcovado National Park Trip Report, December 2009

May 7th, 2010, 07:14 PM
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Corcovado National Park Trip Report, December 2009

8 to 14 December 2009
Corcovado National Park and El Remanso Lodge/El Cafetal Inn

This is a very, very late trip report, but I figure late is better than never. Actually, since I'm leaving for my next trip to Costa Rica in two weeks, I thought I better get the report of the last one up!


First off, I have to give credit to the various online travel forums (ThornTree, Fodor's, Trip Advisor) -- including the many individuals who contribute to these forums -- and the guide books I consulted. I also need to give much credit to the portion of the website of Cafenet El Sol dedicated to Corcovado at Pretty much everything I needed to know about going into Corcovado was answered on that site. Honestly, you really don't need any other guide; it's so comprehensive. I realize it serves the ultimate purpose of making money, but the labor that has gone into this site is much appreciated (thank you, Paul Collar). I did end up using the park reservations service that he provides -- $30 -- and I feel it was a very worthwhile contribution. It was fast and efficient, and Paul or his staff always responded to my emails quickly.

Initially, I had planned on hiking to the Sirena ranger from the Los Patos ranger station. This entire hike, including getting to the Los Patos trailhead, was going to take about 10 hours or so. I was going to stay at Danta Corcovado Lodge the night before and leave early the next morning on horseback (rented from Danta Corcovado). Long story short, but I basically chickened out! I knew I was going to be hiking out via La Leona/Carate, but I was just afraid I'd be too tired after hiking in from Los Patos to really enjoy myself at Sirena (plus, I had scary visions of crossing murky rivers up to my waist -- probably all baseless fears). By this point, I had already purchased my plane ticket to Puerto Jimenez (a Nature Air locos fare), so I couldn't change it to Drake Bay (where I could have boated in for less money). So, my choices were to boat in or fly in from PJ -- both the same price basically -- or hike in via Carate. I didn't really give myself enough time to hike in, so I opted for chartering a flight (Alfa Romeo Air Charters). This was a very expensive decision (about $400), but I hoped I could find people to help split the cost of the flight. I tried and tried for several months, but no luck ultimately. So, getting to Sirena was a very expensive affair for me, but in the end, totally worth it.

Also, at the same time, I started looking for a guide. My plan was to stay at El Remanso lodge after the three days in Corcovado (I knew I'd want some rustic luxury after that), so I ended up asking my contact at ER about a guide. She enthusiastically recommended Dionisio "Nito" Paniagua. Nito worked for Lapa Rios Lodge as a guide for six years and is now helping his family (in San Vito) get their tour company started, Surcos Tours Nito actually lives in Puerto Jimenez now, so meeting up was going to be easy for him. We had some great email exchanges, and I felt very comfortable hiring him. We agreed on a very reasonable fee and that was that. For anyone else interested, Nito can be reached at [email protected]. He was an EXCELLENT guide, and I would hire him again in a minute.

Though I didn't find anyone to share my chartered plane, I did find two couples to help split Nito's fee; they contacted me from one of my postings at ThornTree. We met up with them at Sirena; they boated in from Drake Bay. Richard and Nan and Kim and Jenny were great to hike with, and I'm so glad they found me and vice versa. They were all older than me by close to 20 years, and they were so inspiring.

Getting there

I flew to Puerto Jimenez via Nature Air from Pavas. As we entered the Golfo Dulce, from the plane I saw a dolphin and a whale shark in the water. I was keeping my eyes peeled and had a feeling I would see something -- that was very cool. Since I was staying at El Remanso after the hike, I dropped off my bigger bag at the ER administrative offices right next to the airport in PJ. A few minutes later, Nito and his 14 year old nephew showed up to meet me (Nito was excited about bringing his nephew with us; he had never been on a plane and had never been to Corcovado). After a quick stop in PJ to buy rubber boots (which I'm VERY glad to have gotten) and a quick lunch at a soda, we went back to the airport for our 13-minute flight to Sirena. We walked across the runway to get to the hangar where the pilot kept his planes. The plane was a small six-seater, and I was very excited (and nervous) about getting in and taking off. I really couldn't wait, but I was also trying to slow down and take in every moment. It really felt like a crazy but special adventure for me, and I wanted to savor it.

It was a sunny, clear day, and we took off at about 1:15 PM. The pilot asked me if I wanted to fly in via the coast or over the rainforest. I ended up picking the rainforest since we were going to be walking out via the coast. Good choice! It was SO beautiful flying over the dense forest in Corcovado. Just miles of trees. I was surprised at how mountainous it was; I didn't expect that. And there were these tree-covered cliffs; didn't expect that either. As we approached the infamous grass airstrip at Sirena, I started to get really excited -- and, I admit, I was a little afraid of landing. Nito (who was in the front seat by the pilot) took my camera and started taking pictures of the runway as we approached. Landing was exhilarating! There's just this little airstrip cut out of the trees, leading to the ocean. Anyway, that 13-minute flight was worth every penny, and I would love to do it again one day.

At Sirena

After we landed, one of the volunteers at Sirena came out and greeted us, and we met up with the other two couples who would hike with us for the next three days. Literally five minutes after landing -- before I even made it to my room -- Nito came rushing up, yelling, "Anteater! Anteater! Tamandua!" So, I stopped where I was, turned around and rushed back to behind one of the smaller buildings where everyone had gathered to watch a tamandua walk around. It was amazing! This was one of the critters on my wish list, and there it was immediately.

After oohing and aahing and much picture taking, I made it to my dorm room I'd be sharing with Nito and his nephew for the next two nights. When making reservations for Sirena, I opted for a dorm room for both of us, and I also opted for all meals. The room was basically as I expected it. In our room there was one single bed, and two bunk beds (for a total of five beds). You get a mattress covered in hard plastic, and that's it. I brought a bottom and top sheet, and a small travel pillow with me (I never used the top sheet -- way too hot). There's no electricity (except for a couple hours at night, if you're lucky), so no fans. The room had screened windows along one wall. Nito told me to keep the door closed to help keep the mosquitoes out (though I only saw one or two the entire time). There are three blocks of about four or five rooms with a communal bathrooms at each end of each block. Though it's very basic, there was something quaint and cute about the place. It's very open and airy, and I liked it. The whole complex surrounds a small open courtyard with some kind of tree that attracted all kinds of birds.

Meals are served at set times, and you only have a small window of time in which to eat -- but the food was really good and substantial. I was so hungry at each mealtime that I think I could've eaten anything, so maybe my judgement is off, but I really do think the food was good. The idea is to eat as much as you can because you'll need the energy for the hiking -- and when the kitchen is closed, it's closed.

The bathrooms at Sirena leave a lot to be desired, but they're functional. I'm glad I had my flip flops to wear -- I saw people going in barefoot, and I wouldn't recommend it. But, it is what it is. Bring your own soap and toilet paper, just in case.

There's electricity at Sirena only from about 5:30 to 7 or 8 PM -- if I'm remembering correctly? After that everyone just walks around with their flashlights. On our second night, we didn't have electricity at all -- the generator wouldn't start. So, we ate dinner by candlelight, took showers with our flashlights. It was fun. Let's face it, there's not much to do after dark other than look for nocturnal critters and sit on the porch in total darkness -- so I headed to bed super early that night and got to sleep.

Speaking of sleeping. Okay, so there's no electricity, so no fans. You're in the middle of a very humid, hot rainforest; it's very uncomfortable. The air really doesn't move and as I said before you have to keep your dorm room closed to keep out mosquitoes. The first night, in spite of taking a sleeping pill, it seemed like I just tossed and turned and never really got to sleep. The second night, possibly from exhaustion, I did sleep pretty well. It had also "cooled" down a bit that second night and rained in the early evening -- so I'm sure that helped.

Hiking and wildlife

First off, I'll just say that within 15 minutes of landing at Sirena I had seen the tamandua, a troop of howlers, a troop of spider monkeys, an iguana and a toucan. It felt like -- bam! -- here it all is. And it didn't really stop for the next two days. We started hiking right after landing and made it back just in time for dinner. Nito, our guide, kept us hiking ALL the time! We went on a hike before breakfast, after breakfast/before lunch, after lunch/before dinner, and we always walked around the perimeter of the ranger station at night (okay, so the second night, I sort of took off). But, we were pretty much constantly out, searching. And it was tiring -- but worth it.

Though we tried and tried and tried, we never saw a tapir -- or a big cat. I was really counting on the tapir sighting, but we did see fresh tracks a couple of times -- so that will have to do for now. I have a reason to go back! And, I really didn't expect to see a big cat, but I was hopeful. Two guys left a couple of hours before we did on our hike out to Carate on our last day. We caught up with them at Carate, and they had photos of a puma sitting in the middle of the trail -- yawning! I hated them so much! We passed a couple troops of spider monkeys screaming, and our guide said that particular scream was a warning that a big cat was in the area, but we didn't see one. Another reason to go back, right?

But, we did see A LOT, so I left feeling quite satisfied. I don't know how I feel about those long lists of sightings, but I'm going to do it anyway (I'm running out of energy here!). Before that, I'll just say my most exciting sightings (in addition to the regular monkey sightings -- I never tire of those) were this very strange, very interesting caterpillar that camouflages itself as a dried, broken branch (see my photos). I just couldn't stop looking at it. Coincidentally, I had just seen this exact type of caterpillar in a book of rainforest animals about two weeks before, so I was super excited. I was also really excited by our sighting of two herds of the two species of peccaries -- a herd of white-lipped and a herd of collared -- both on the same morning, our last. The white-lipped, I believe a bit rarer?, were making these clacking noises with their teeth (I guess), and I thought we were going to be ambushed!

Oh, also, we stumbled upon a coati and some vultures raiding a turtle egg nest. After rudely interrupting them, the coati and an iguana got into a little situation -- that was funny (and I caught that on video -- see a link from my photos). Oh, and then there's the crocodile! Okay, there was a lot to see.

Here's my boring list (sorry I don't have the proper names for some things):

*this very cool camouflaged caterpillar (see my photos)
*great currasows (a male and two females)
*several chestnut mandibled toucans
*all four species of monkeys EVERY day: spider, howler, squirrel, and white-face capuchin
*several cane toads
*several Bolivian toads (this is what my guide called them)
*cat-eye snake
*bare-throated tiger herons
*great kiskadee
*golden orb spiders
*wandering spider
*red-eyed green leaf/tree frog
*summer tanagers
*Cherrie's tanagers
*crested guans
*common basilisks
*a herd(?) of coatis -- about 30 of them!
*other small lizards
*other small snake -- don't remember the name
*great tinamous
*blue morpho butterflies -- every day
*owl eye butterfly
*tent-making bats
*some kind of woodpecker
*black hawk
*another kind of hawk (sorry!)
*herd of white-lipped peccaries
*herd of collared peccaries

I'm sure there were more. In fact, there were of course many, many other kinds of birds, but I couldn't keep up with them all. I'm trying to get better though -- finally bought a copy of The Birds of Costa Rica, which I will be taking on my next trip (Jill, you should be impressed!).


The hike out of Corcovado on the last day was more grueling in some ways than I expected but also not as utterly exhausting as I was expecting. It took us close to 8 hours. The norm is about 7 or so, I think. We had to go a little slower, but it still felt like we were really on the go-go-go. One of our group, Richard, didn't join us on the hike out. The day before he had started having heart problems. Luckily, another couple was leaving via boat that same morning, so Richard left with them and met up with his group later that evening in Puerto Jimenez.

The more grueling aspect of the hike out was the climbing around of some jagged rocks at a certain point. This area is called Salsipuedes -- which means something like "get out if you can" or "leave if you can" (or "escape if you can"?). In any case, it was getting to be high tide, and this part was a little scary. Between the waves crashing against them and the fact that they were slippery, navigating around these rocky crags was a little unnerving. Also, for some reason I thought all of the hike out would be flat, but there were a surprising number of steep/slippery areas. Nothing too bad really, but just more than I expected. Of the 8 hours, I would say maybe 2 to 2 1/2 of them were on the beach, in the sun -- but no more than 45 minutes at a time. Every time we would get ready for a beach period, we'd stop and slather ourselves with sunblock, put on hats and drink water. I somehow managed to come out of it all with only very minor redness.

Lastly, about two weeks before I got there, there was a large landslide along the beach. My guide kept mentioning it to me, but I didn't really understand the concern. When we finally reached it, I thought, "How in the hell are we going to get over that?!" Really, it was just this HUGE mountain of big, broken, jagged rocks jutting all the way out into the ocean. There was no going around it. So, we just went over it, and it ended up being fine, but it was a very Zen task -- just putting one foot in front of the other, testing the rock for stability, and then putting the next one in front. We did this till we were over it. It was definitely a sense of accomplishment, but I sort of ran the next several yards because I did not want to be in the path of another landslide -- and it was in this area of a soft, crumbly rock!

I know that for regular adventure travelers my little "grueling" experiences are probably laughable, but I had never done anything like this before, so it really was a challenge for me. I decided to do this trip into Corcovado for myself, and I got so much more out of it. I proved to myself that I could do it, and the sense of accomplishment was amazing.

Our trek out via the coastal trail was peppered with other wildlife sightings and refreshing dips in the rivers and streams -- as well as the constant jaw-dropping rugged beauty of the coast -- and by the time we dragged our tired butts to the pulperia in Carate, we were happy to see the end. We piled into the back of a pickup truck, and 30 minutes later, I was being dropped off at the entrance to El Remanso Lodge where I would spend the next two nights. I said my very quick goodbyes to everyone, and they drove off. It was sad leaving them. You really do bond with this kind of experience, and though we haven't really kept in touch since (with the exception of Nito, my guide), I think I will always remember the people I spent those three days with.

Here's a link to my photos of this part of the trip:

El Remanso Lodge

After my hike in Corcovado, I spent two nights at El Remanso Lodge. Since I already wrote a review of El Remanso on Trip Advisor, I'm going to take a shortcut here and link to the review:

All in all, I really liked ER, and I would definitely stay there again.

El Cafetal Inn

After flying back to the San Jose area, I spent the last night at El Cafetal Inn in Atenas. Again, since I've already written a review on TA, I'm going to cheat and just link to it:

Though I only gave it 3 stars, I would actually give it another shot. I do think I was just there on an off-night or something. It's a nice place to spend the first or last night, though maybe a bit further from the airport for some.

Here's a link to my photos of El Remanso and El Cafetal:

plumboy is offline  
May 7th, 2010, 09:30 PM
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What a great report plum. And what an impressive list of wildlife you saw. You have my respect for doing all of that. I know what you mean about the landslide, the sense of accomplishment. Speaking of which where was it? Wondering if I will come across it near La Leona?
tully is offline  
May 8th, 2010, 03:45 AM
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Good for you, plum - you should be really proud of yourself. I'm off to check out your pics!
volcanogirl is offline  
May 8th, 2010, 06:16 AM
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So glad you posted your report - what an adventure you had, and you should feel a big sense of accomplishment. Heck, just sleeping in those beds is an accomplishment! You saw some serious wildlife. The caterpillar is unbelievable. How big was it?
janenicole is offline  
May 8th, 2010, 08:16 AM
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tully, don't worry about the landslide -- it's pretty far in. I don't remember exactly, but definitely several hours. You won't encounter it -- unless you just keep walking! You should definitely try to make it to the Rio Madrigal, about 30 minutes past La Leona, if I'm remembering correctly. It's a wonderful soaking place.

The caterpillar was probably about 5 inches long. It was big. The funny thing is that it was in the same spot the next day -- it hadn't moved at all (well, except that the second day it was curved). I guess they stay put for a while.

There's another similar caterpillar that can make itself look like a snake. It's on the website of the Bug Lady in Drake Bay. I don't think the one I saw can do that, but it's so amazing!
plumboy is offline  
May 8th, 2010, 11:13 AM
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Loved your trip report. What an adventure. It is wonderful to be able to experience things vicariously - it's almost like living more than one life.

Tell, me, how are you able to make some things in bold type.
traveler2005 is offline  
May 8th, 2010, 12:49 PM
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I did a search on bold and found a note that explained how to do it - so no need to respond to that
traveler2005 is offline  
May 11th, 2010, 06:19 AM
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Wonderful report, plum. So descriptive and detailed--right down my alley!

Great wildlife viewing for you--isn't that awesome? And hey, I AM impressed with your book purchase! Next you'll be buying the CD with the bird sounds. . . .

Also, you may want to pick up the Garrigues book as it is smaller and easier to pack around. Less info, the photos a bit off regarding color, but an excellent resource nevertheless.

You know, we had to go over a rock slide as well-big one. I'm wondering if it was the same one, as I'm remembering how treacherous it seemed and slow going for sure.

You are so lucky not to have had mosquito problems at Sirena. We were there end of June and, had we not sprayed before bed, would have been eaten alive. Even so, got a few bites during the night. Yeah, bathrooms leave something to be desired, but they work, and I thought it added to the experience. I didn't linger in there. Bet you didn't either! And like you, so glad to have flip flops!

Thanks for taking the time to write. Will check your links later.
shillmac is offline  
May 11th, 2010, 09:12 AM
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Posts: 3,750's about time! Hee. ;-) You know I'm joking. Love, love the report. I think it's fantastic that you are digging into the heart of Costa Rica and going solo even. Thanks for doing so much research and report writing...this will make is much easier for me when I make this trip. As always you have some gorgeous photos and memories. Thanks for the list of wildlife too. I know my day hike into Corcovado in July won't be nearly as intense, but your report and tips help me get all the more excited anyway!
hipvirgochick is offline  
May 11th, 2010, 09:24 AM
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Mosquitoes don't tend to like me, so I'm not sure I'm a good judge, but no one else seemed to be complaining. I still put on the repellent before going to bed, and it made sleeping that much more comfortable ;-) Seems like the mosquito issue is so hit or miss.
plumboy is offline  
May 11th, 2010, 11:42 AM
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hip, I bet you'll see a tapir or a big cat - and then I'll have to hate you. Yeah, this report took me a long time to get around to -- and I feel like I left out a lot. There was a part of me that wanted to keep this one to myself, know what I mean? But, I do like to give back, so I thought I better get *something* out.
plumboy is offline  
May 11th, 2010, 12:03 PM
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Oh, also, I forgot to add my YouTube page -- it has all the little videos I took:
plumboy is offline  
May 11th, 2010, 01:02 PM
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plum, I really like the way you set this up with all the photos and videos. That caterpillar is really cool - I've never seen anything like that.
volcanogirl is offline  
May 11th, 2010, 05:13 PM
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Thanks vgirl -- yeah, that caterpillar was special. I never would've seen it without a guide. I don't know how they do it.

Also, shillmac, the book I have *is* the Garrigues one. What's the other one?
plumboy is offline  
May 11th, 2010, 08:32 PM
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Oh, okay. I thought you meant the big field guide by Skutch. It's excellent, but heavy to lug around. More information. I'm going to get an ap for my IPhone for Birds of North America; it should come in pretty handy. I'm always needing to research something I've seen here or there, most recently in my back yard this morning!
shillmac is offline  
May 12th, 2010, 06:53 AM
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plum, you mentioned to hip that you weren't sure that you wanted to post a report. I remembered that you were going on your adventure from some of your posts prior to leaving, so when I didn't see a report, I thought, "Oh dear, he must not have had a good trip." I'm happy that wasn't the case! And it IS a helpful report, so thanks. I missed your second set of photos the first time around - all really good stuff!
janenicole is offline  
May 12th, 2010, 09:10 AM
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Oh, no, I definitely had a great adventure! For the Corcovado portion of the trip, I was really, really glad my partner wasn't with me. I know he would've been very uncomfortable -- and it was nice not having to worry about someone else, feeling responsible. If that makes any sense.

But, I started feeling a bit lonely at El Remanso. There was only one other guest at the lodge -- someone from this board -- so I did have some company, but, I don't know, it just didn't feel the same. I was trying to just enjoy it for myself, take it in -- and I did, but I think it was a letdown after being with my hiking group for three days.

Also, and I don't know how this will sound on here, but when I got to Orquideas Inn on my first night (gosh, I totally forgot to mention that I stayed there in my report!), I found out that the driver back to the airport we had had on our previous trip in March 2009 (who we really liked) had committed suicide shortly after we left. And, my driver from Orquideas who took me to the Pavas airport told me his son had also killed himself around the same time. This was all very disturbing and upsetting -- welcome to CR! -- and it was sort of in the back of my mind for the rest of the time I was there. Though I forgot about it while inside Corcovado, I just felt sort of off for the rest of the trip. Okay, enough -- this is starting to feel like group therapy! But, that's what happened.
plumboy is offline  
May 12th, 2010, 11:40 AM
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Group therapy - lol. I totally "get" why you had a mixed bag of emotions on your trip.

How sad about the driver from Orquideas. We've had a few different drivers from there. Sad to think of anyone getting to the point that they've lost all hope. As vacationers/travelers, it's easy for many of us view Costa Rica as being the land of "Pura Vida," and forget that it's not that way for everyone living there.
janenicole is offline  
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