A Little Slice of Nice
A Little Slice of Nice
Perhaps there’s a point during every long overland trip when you really get into the flow of it. In our case, this happened in Costa Rica. For us, Costa Rica was a crescendo of months of amazing adventures in Mexico and northern Central America. These included exploring unexcavated Mayan ruins in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas to hiking through the indigenous communities in the mountains of the Ixil Triangle of Guatemala and everything in between. But they also involved intensity, including crazy roads and other real dangers like the risk of getting bit by poisonous snakes like Fer-de-lance pit vipers (which almost happened). This intensity was layered on top of the intensity of some of our regular activities like downhill mountain biking and surfing. When we got to southern Nicaragua we started taking deeper breaths. But it was only after we entered Costa Rica that we started to truly relax into our trip. And our relaxation flowed into a series of amazing once in-a-lifetime adventures.
To kick off our trip to Costa Rica we sped past the dry and relatively crowded Nicoya Peninsula (at least at this time of year) and headed to the cloud forests of the Tilarán and Southern Mountains. The Tilarán Mountains, which are in the north, are home to numerous private reserves including the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. By avoiding Monteverde and hiking in the mornings, we had the less popular reserves all to ourselves. In the Tilarán Mountains we also got our first glimpse of Costa Rica’s stunning biodiversity. It’s a bit hard to describe the biodiversity in the cloud forest. You really have to stay there for a few days to get a first hand glimpse of the amazing birds, insects, mammals and reptiles, never mind plant species.
In the Southern Mountains, we were able to take an even deeper dive into Costa Rica’s biodiversity. We chose Los Quetzales National Park as our base. Formed in 2005, Los Quetzales National Park is Costa Rica’s newest national park. We chose San Gerardo de Dota , which consists of a few lodges and restaurants in a magical river valley surrounded by the park, as our base. Los Quetzales National Park was named for the Resplendent Quetzal. And it is one of the best places in the world to see them. But the park is about more than Resplendent Quetzals. It’s 14 different ecosystems, including 3 types of rainforest, include an amazing range of birds, insects and plants, some of which you won’t see anywhere else in the world. Despite a bit of unusual rain, we spent days hiking through the park. One of the highlights was certainly seeing a pair of Resplendent Quetzals emerge from their nest, fly overhead and land in a nearby branch before continuing down the river to fish for their chicks. But there were many more, including a morning we spent with 14 species of hummingbirds and a hike to a remote waterfall over some seriously sketchy “bridges”. So while we loved the Tilarán Mountains, the Southern Mountains are in our opinion an equally good and perhaps even better place to explore the primary cloud forests of Costa Rica.
From the cloud forests of the Southern Mountains, we made our way to the coast of Costa Rica. Until gringos started arriving in Costa Rica to buy beachfront properties, most Costa Ricans lived in the central valley or in the mountains where it was easier to farm, including to grow coffee and bananas. The beaches and lowlands were considered less desirable, not only because they weren’t good for growing crops, but also because they were buggy with crocodile-infested rivers. The coast of Costa Rica is different today than it was 50 years ago. And for us the challenge was finding some amazing, relatively deserted beaches and uncrowded surf breaks. Fortunately, with help from a few old and new friends, we found just that.
Two experiences stand out. The first was camping in a primary rainforest on the banks of the Sevegre River, which is Costa Rica’s last major river without a dam. We found the campground by contacting Lotjke, a friend of a mountain biker we had met in northern Costa Rica. Lotjke, who is a South African expat, has an amazing story that is too long to tell here. But suffice to say, after years and years of challenges, he and his family have managed to protect the river and thousands of acres of primary rainforest surrounding it, not only against a dam, but also against locals who make a habit of hunting and logging in primary forests in Costa Rica. Lotjke let us stay in a remote campground in the rainforest, right on the banks of the Sevegre River. He built it for adventure racers. And a few adventure races do use it as an overnight camp. But as far as we could tell, it hadn’t been used by many, if any, overlanders. During the day, we lounged on the banks of the Sevegre River with Roseate Spoonbills, Yellow-throated Yellow-throated Toucans and all sorts of other amazing birds flying overhead. And in the evening, we hunkered down in the rainforest, sleeping as well as we could through crazy thunder, lightning and rain storms. On our third night in the campground, a big cat jumped on top of our camper and proceeded to growl. And no, it was not a Howler Monkey (whose roars we know well). To be honest, it was a bit scary. But reflecting on it now, it’s kind of cool that we knew it was a cat and didn’t completely lose it. The experience left us feeling like perhaps we were finally starting to plug into Costa Rica and its primary forests.
But our most amazing rainforest experience was on the Osa Peninsula. Over 30 years ago, I went to high school with a guy from Florida named Derek. In high school, Derek always dreamed big, and in many areas like music, he was years ahead of peers. After graduating from college, Derek became a hipster in New York City where he created a club and a recording studio. But over 25 years ago, Derek realized he wanted to pursue another vision. And that vision was to create a private coastal rainforest reserve on the remote Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. Derek bought 2 farms and an area of primary rainforest on both the Pacific and gulf (Golfo Dulce) coast of the Peninsula. He protected the primary rainforest, managed the environmental impact of his herd of Brahaman Cows and started to turn large areas of his fincas into secondary forests. He has also sponsored wildlife projects on his property, including protecting a critical turtle nesting ground on a 3 mile stretch of black sand beach on the Pacific coast of the peninsula. Derek has made a lasting positive impact on the Osa Peninsula despite plenty of intense challenges. And the cool thing about him is that he is still charging forward. His next goal is to create a corridor for animals, including jaguars to move south from Corcovado National Park (the largest coastal primary rainforest in the world) through his (and others’) land to the southeaster part of the Osa Peninsula.
One of Lotjke’s mountain biking trails on a ridge in the rainforest above his campground. I was the second person (after Lotjke) to ride it.
Derek and a monkey that he rehabilitated and released back into the wild. Now and then, the monkey still comes to visit him.
While on the Osa, Derek let us camp on his property. So we set up shop in the middle of a 7 mile stretch of deserted beach adjacent to the beaches of Corcovado National Park. Derek owns the beachfront property (and access) in front of 3 miles of this beach, which is a critical turtle nesting ground. During the day, we hiked along the beach and through the forest, including to an amazing, 1,000 year old Avatar tree. As we were walking, an incredible variety of birds soared overhead and watched us from the trees, including colorful egrets, falcons, hawks and parrots. On the first day, we started to develop a list of our top 10 bird sightings on the trip, including fly overs by pairs of Roseate Spoonbills and Scarlet McCaws on the beach. But after a few days on the Osa Peninsula, we gave up. There were just too many amazing experiences to limit ourselves to a list of the top 10.
I think we’ve given you a flavor of Costa Rica’s biodiversity and how, with a bit of effort, you can get right in the middle of it. But we have to mention one more or our favorite ecosystems in Costa Rica. Before heading to the tip of the Osa Peninsula, we stayed at a campground on the banks of the Rio Dulce and close to the mouth of a river which flows through magical mangroves. We had read that the Golfo Dulce was one of only two tropical fjords in the world as well as one of only two places in the world with resident dolphins superpods. We also knew it was an important breeding ground for humpback whales, whale sharks and all sorts of other amazing marine life. While at the campground, we ran into David, a local marine biologist who spends his day counting and observing dolphins and whales who took us on a tour of the fjord. About an hour into the trip, we were greeted by a small pod of curious Spotted Dolphins. Soon after, we found ourselves surrounded by a megapod of Bottlenose Dolphins doing flips on all sides of us. Oz was fascinated by them, and they were very curious about him. In the evenings, we borrowed kayaks and drifted through a magical mangroves full of amazing hawks and herons. Deserted and wild, the coastline and waters of Golfo Dulce are definately one of our favorite places in Costa Rica and should not be missed.
After a month in Costa Rica, it was time to move onto Panama. When we first arrived in Costa Rica, we were worried that the “Pura Vida” or pure life had become commercialized and that today’s Costa Rica would be a lot different than the Costa Rica I first visited 30 years ago But the Costa Rica we experienced wasn’t commercial at all. With a bit of advice from locals and careful planning, we were able to spend time in some of the most amazing cloud forests, rain forests and tropical fjords in the world and get up close and personal with many different ecosystems and the wildlife inside of them. We also spent time with Ticos in authentic Tico communities. But it was Costa Rica’s amazing wilderness that we will always remember and, more than likely, return to once again.