By the end of our fourth day on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, we had seen, according to the tally kept by my 9-year-old, Sasha, dozens of species of animals. We had peered at leafcutter ants, army ants and zombie ants. We had been deafened by howler monkeys, beguiled by squirrel monkeys and strangely stirred by capuchin monkeys, whose feet bear an eerie resemblance to human hands. That afternoon, in the national park that covers a third of the peninsula, we had even spied two tapirs, endangered mammals that look like hornless rhinoceroses with long snouts.
To sample this extravaganza of biodiversity, we had risen early each morning of our vacation. So when our guide informed us that he would be taking us out at 4:30 a.m. to witness the rain forest waking up, I — the motivating force behind, and thus bearer of responsibility for, this trip — glanced apprehensively at my family and swallowed hard.
“We’ll be up!” I said brightly.
I had shepherded Sasha and my husband, Scott, to Osa in hopes of a tropical wildlife experience that was, in fact, wild. But as we crawled into our tent that night, the beaten path from which I had so resolutely steered clear was starting to look more inviting.
Costa Rica, home to large tracts of untouched yet accessible rain forest, had seemed the obvious place to immerse ourselves in nature for a week in February. On Facebook, people responded with the Costa Rican phrase “pura vida!” (“pure life”) at the mere mention of the country. We had admired photographs of bright-colored birds, frogs and butterflies from the preserves near the capital, San José, which could be reached by direct flight from New York. The ubiquitous “canopy tours” through the treetops seemed a great way to indulge Sasha’s love of zip lining.
But as I researched where to go in the West Virginia-size country, I began to suspect that its popular ecotourist destinations might not quench my yearning for the untamed. On TripAdvisor, phrases like “well-developed” and the less-charitable “Disneyfied” arose in regard to the storied Monteverde Cloud Forest in the central highlands. Manuel Antonio National Park on the central Pacific Coast, widely loved for its beaches and restaurants, was reportedly better for night life than wildlife.
The more people who can enjoy the rain forest without destroying it the better, of course: The 70,000 or so who visit a sliver of Monteverde each year help pay to preserve the rest of it. But the remote Osa Peninsula, which juts into the Pacific Ocean from Costa Rica’s southwestern corner, seemed to hold an increasingly rare chance to observe the rain forest in all its fecund, carbon-storing, oxygen-producing glory, without quite so much human company.
Mostly mentioned in travel guides as an alternative for those who had hit the other highlights, Osa did not rank on Lonely Planet’s list of “Top 10 Costa Rica Spots for First-Timers.” To get there requires a second flight or a seven-hour drive from San José. And while the draw is the 160-square-mile Corcovado National Park, accommodations there are limited to a few dozen bunks and a tent platform at the Sirena Ranger Station.
I mapped a tentative itinerary that would bring us to each of two jumping-off points to the park, Puerto Jiménez to the southeast, and Drake Bay to the northwest, both of which have several excellent lodging options. In between, we would stay one night in the park, perhaps the last refuge in the country, I read, of the sweet-looking Baird’s tapirs Sasha and I had fallen for while searching online for “Costa Rica animals.”
An email from a well-traveled friend sealed the deal: “Costa Rica is very touristy,” he wrote. “Osa is not.”
Our first stop, Bosque del Cabo, was a 40-minute ride by taxi from Puerto Jiménez, the biggest town on the peninsula with a population of 1,780. I had chosen one of the two cabins at Bosque just steps from the rain forest, at the edge of a large clearing planted with native trees and plants. A half-mile away from the main lodge area, these “garden cabinas” are reached by a trail through the forest that crosses high above a river over a suspension bridge.
“We ask that only guests that feel they will be comfortable with the walk and the increased isolation of these accommodations book into them,” the lodge’s website warns.
Any pangs I might have had about passing up the dozen or so bungalows with ocean views disappeared as soon as we found ourselves in the company of spider monkeys, swinging from branch to branch at eye level on our first pass over the bridge. The lodge staff member escorting us waited patiently, albeit with the amusement of a New Yorker watching tourists marvel at pigeons.
“Do you feed them?” I couldn’t help asking. He assured me they did not.
A few steps off the bridge, we stopped short with the odd sensation that the earth was shifting under our feet. The highway of leafcutter ants hauling their leaf-bits toward the entrance to their underground caverns was our first inkling, repeatedly confirmed over the next few days, that they were in charge there. (“Are there more ants in Costa Rica than there are humans in the world?” Sasha would ask. Answer: many more).
Bosque itself sits on 750 acres that encompass some primary-growth rain forest and large swaths of “jungle,” rain forest that has grown back on land that had once been cleared — in Bosque’s case, for cattle grazing. We would have virtually no chance of seeing a tapir on the hotel’s trails, the staff told us candidly (even in Corcovado, we were told, our chances were 50-50). But we spotted poison dart frogs, lizards and monkeys dozing in the sun. A wild pig called a peccary often visited the lodge’s modest pool, where we cooled off and sipped ginger lemonades.
The hotel also offered nature-oriented activities: One morning we rappelled 70 feet down a strangler fig tree, another we hiked down the empty beach to a waterfall, splashing in the tide pools that form in the reef formations along the way. On an evening wildlife tour, the hotel naturalist taught us the trick of holding our flashlights against our temples, revealing the reflection of thousands of spider eyes shining in the grass.
Dinner, served buffet-style with a bounty of delicious choices (panko-crusted eggplant, roasted hearts of palm, crispy chicken with figs) was eaten at communal tables. And if I needed validation on my destination choice, we found ourselves dining more than once with others who had firsthand knowledge of Costa Rica’s well-traveled spots.
“Osa is — crunchier,” said one civil rights lawyer from Washington, D.C., as Sasha and another girl her age excused themselves to look at the bats hanging from the bamboo light fixtures.
His wife, a judge, concurred about their desire for a less-processed experience.
“More what we had in mind when we thought about Costa Rica,” she said.
In our cabin, open on three sides, we felt less like observers than residents of the forest, along with monkeys playing in the trees directly above us and the leafcutter ants below. One late afternoon, a rainbow of toucans and scarlet macaws flew by a few feet away, on their way to the fruit trees in the clearing behind us.
Yet knowing that the trees had been planted to attract the birds undercut, just a bit, the pleasure of their proximity. Perhaps it was our own fault, too, for being diverted by rappelling adventures and poolside lemonades. But when we landed the next morning at the ranger station, the headquarters of Corcovado park, it quickly became apparent that there would be no distractions from the natural world. Other than lounging on the shaded porch of the low-slung ranger station, there was really was nothing to do but be in it.
Our guide, Nito Paniagua, who met us in Puerto Jiménez for the 15-minute charter flight, lost no time snagging us a spot on the tent platform at the station and heading out on a trail to the river.
The park has just started requiring tourists to be accompanied by a guide, but in any case we would have been lost without Nito’s six senses. He caught lizards and hung them from our ears, trained his scope on resplendent birds no one else could see and produced bats from furled-up leaves.
“Look at the two species playing together,” he said at the trail’s entrance, pointing his viewing scope so we could see the howler and spider monkeys teasing each other in the branches above. “That’s so nice to see.”
Unlike the many hardy backpacker types who had walked 12 miles or more to camp at Sirena, we were not big hikers. But the walk down to the river where we ate lunch was not so much strenuous as it was intense. It took two hours only because we stopped every few steps for a new creature: the bird with the small heart, the carnivorous cricket, bright blue butterflies, the notorious fer-de-lance snake.
And because Nito had quickly divined that we were keen to see tapirs, he brought us to a spot where they are known to nap.
That we were lucky enough to see two of them through the trees from perhaps 50 feet away was one reason for the collective groan that night when Nito announced the 4:30 a.m. wake-up call.
What else, we wondered, did we have to see that couldn’t wait until dawn?
In my grogginess I left the tent without my glasses and had to run back to get them while Scott, Sasha and Nito waited for me on the grass beyond the porch of the ranger station. We stopped to admire a spider web at the start of the dirt trail, then traipsed on toward the beach where Nito wanted us to watch the sky grow light.
That was when the tapir came crashing out of the forest right in front of us. My heart beating hard, I held my breath, wishing I could freeze the moment. Scott and Sasha, too, stood transfixed. For just a split second, the large, strange animal seemed to register our presence. Then the tapir lumbered away from us, down the trail, toward the river as we followed, until it veered off into the darkness.
I didn’t know it until then, but this, more than anything, was what I had hoped we would find on the Osa Peninsula. It wasn’t like seeing an animal lured to a spot by human guile, or to where all the guides know it’s likely to go on its own. If I hadn’t forgotten my glasses, we might well have missed it.
It felt wild.
There was no shortage of moments like that in our short time at Sirena. Sasha’s favorite siting may have been the anteater carrying a baby on her back all the way up to the top of a tree, spied that morning after a breakfast of eggs and ham that was, like our dinner there the night before, plain but tasty. We all oohed over the baby hummingbirds in the nest Nito found, and the baby hawks the ranger showed us through his scope in between his other chores at the understaffed station.
Before we left, we walked one more trail, cooler and less dense than the one we had taken the previous day because the soaring tree canopies blocked the light others might use to grow. The logging and slash-and-burn agriculture that had prompted the formation of the park in 1975, Nito told us, had never reached here. As we stumbled into a clearing where one tree, an espavel, or wild cashew, towered some 150 feet above us, we stood again in silent awe. That tens of thousands of acres of such forest are destroyed each day worldwide seemed inconceivable.
Most life in the rain forest, Nito reminded us, lives in the canopy, and never descends to the forest floor. Speaking of untamed, no one even knows entirely what’s up there.
We might have been happy staying longer at Sirena had our tent been pitched on the lawn, rather than the platform, which was hot and crowded at night. (Nito was scheming to go in with other guides on tents with rain flaps that could be used on the lawn.) The ticks, albeit not disease carrying, were also not a plus, especially for Sasha, who pried five off her legs.
As it was, we were happy to get to our final Osa destination, La Paloma Lodge on Drake Bay, after an hourlong boat ride from Corcovado that afternoon. It felt good to take a hot shower and to enjoy the rain forest as a view from the hotel’s elegant dining room, set high on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean.
At night, Tracie Stice, a local naturalist universally known as the “bug lady,” showed us a scorpion (“Don’t sit down,” she suggested as we leaned against the stone wall) and gently pried open the well-camouflaged home of a “trap-door” spider so that we could see the creature promptly slam it shut again.
On our last day, we went on a decidedly human-manufactured, 13-zip-line canopy tour arranged for us, a highlight of the trip for Sasha. But when Scott asked her which leg of the trip she would eliminate, if she had to lose one, she couldn’t choose. Like her parents, she could have happily lived for decades in our first cabin. She wouldn’t give up zip lining.
“And I can’t take out Sirena,” she said. “Because that’s where we saw everything.”
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