Backpacking Corcovado National Park

It had been far to long since we did some backpacking and Lauren and I were getting very excited to visit Costa Rica’s Corcovado National park. Corcovado is located on the isolated and undeveloped Osa peninsula. It is considered the crown jewel of the Costa Rican park system. Corcovado contains the largest primary rainforest on the entire Pacific coastline and the largest lowland tropical rainforest in the world. National Geographic called it “the most biologically intense place on EARTH”. We were stoked.

We signed up for a 2-day permit at the park office located in Puerto Jimenez and picked up a trail-map. The cost was $10 per person/per day plus $3 per day for camping. There are also meals available at the Sirena Ranger station. However, meals must be scheduled far in advance and are very costly due to the necessity of all supplies to be packed/flown/boated into the remote ranger station.

The next morning we loaded up our backpacks with food and gear, parked our truck at a crotchety old ex-pats tienda near the trailhead and started off down the beach.

The ranger informed us when we signed up for the hike that it was around 20 Km (12.5 miles) or so total to the Sirena ranger station where we would be camping. The hike is a mix of beach hiking and rain forest trail. Trudging along through the wet sand, Lauren and I were immediately reminded of our backpacking trip on California’s Lost Coast.

The scenery was breath-taking. Tropical rainforest butted right up to the pristine beach. Similar to the Lost Coast, we had to be wary of the tides. There are 2 stretches of beach that could only be crossed during low-tide. Get stuck in the middle when the ocean comes up and you are shark food.

Within 2-minutes of hitting the trail we started to see our first wildlife.

A Coati (sort of like a tropical raccoon) is feeding on the beach.

They say hermit crabs are signs of a healthy beach. I would say this one is in pretty good shape…

Continuing along the beach we crossed a few small rivers and streams leading out of the jungle into the ocean.

We continued hiking through the sand and made it to our first beach pass. Tide coming up on us already? We are going to have to boogie if we want to get through the second pass before the tide is too high.

Making it through our first stretch of beach hiking we cut up into the rain forest. Immediately the temperature drops 15F and the intense sounds of jungle replace the sound of waves crashing the shore.

The forest is full of thousands of “Halloween Crabs” who make their burrows in the soft soils of the rainforest. They scatter as we approach filling the forest with the noise of claws scratching on the trees, branches, and deadfall of the woods.

We are deep in gigantic old growth rainforest.

We are peacefully walking along taking in the sights and smells of the woods when suddenly Lauren screams and stops dead in her tracks.

I run up to see what the hell is going on, She stops me and whispers. “I think I just saw a jaguar” Nonsense, I think. Jaguars are extremely rare and a nocturnal creature.

She points through the trees. Sure enough I see a black cat with long tail and piercing eyes staring back at us. DAMN! It is a jaguar!

The cat stares back at us nonchalantly then takes a few steps into a clearing. I see now that it is certainly not big enough to be a jaguar but definitely some sort of large black feline. Lauren steps back to safety behind a tree. I on the other hand grab the camera and inch closer as she whispers “What the hell are you doing!?”

The cat is just sitting there staring back at us… in perfect view for a picture. I ready the camera, aim, focus, fire. *BEEP BEEP BEEP*. The serine silence of the forest is broken by a mysterious foreign sound. The cat bolts into the jungle. I look down at the camera which reads MEMORY CARD FULL. The forested mountainside echos with the sounds of me cursing at the top of my lungs.

We later learn that what we encountered was not a jaguar but actually a “Jaguarundi”. Someone with a larger memory card than us snapped this photo of one.

We have encountered small bobcats before in the wild but certainly nothing as strange, exotic, and possibly man-eating as this. Our senses are on high-alert now. I grab a stick for protection, Lauren huddles behind me, and we press further into the jungle. The fact that we are the strangers in a strange land fully sinks in. This part of the world is still extremely wild and we are the intruders. We suddenly get the feeling we are being watched as we traipse through the woods.

*CRASH* The sound of breaking limbs, branches fall from the sky, and the forest fills with screeches and screams. We jump 5ft backwards then stare into the tree-tops. We find an entire troop of 15 white-faced capuchin monkeys swinging and playing around. We spot one lazily munching on bananas. My mind was blown as we stared at the stereotypical “monkey eating a banana” scene play out in front of us. I thought this stuff only happened in cartoons!

Eventually we break out of the woods and back onto the beach. The beaming sun was a warm-welcome after our harrowing time in the dark jungle. Unfortunately, We had taken far to long lollygagging around getting attacked by Jaguarundis and staring at monkeys in the rainforest. The tides had risen quite a bit and we found ourselves at the beginning of the second stretch of beach that was impassable during high-tide. By the looks of it we had maybe 30-minutes before high-tide was in full swing.

We had 2 choices.
Number one. Make a run for it and hope to cross the mile-long strech of beach before the tides reach the cliff-walls and drag us out to sea.
Number Two. Wait out the tide for hours and possibly end up spending the night in the man-eating jaguar infested jungle.

We looked at the beach, We looked at the jungle. We looked at each other. Then started running.

We sprinted as fast as we could with our 30Lb backpacks down the beach as the waves crashed inches from our heels. As we advanced we were pressed further and further towards the cliff-wall. Eventually the ocean was too high, we could not go any further. To our right was a semi-dried up waterfall to the left was the ocean bearing down on us. We scrambed up the dry waterfall and bushwacked it through the jungle.

Eventually we found a faint trail. Exhausted we through down our backpacks and enjoyed a victory meal of crackers and tuna fish. We had made it through the second pass.

The trail wound through the woods a bit then came right back down the beach but further in the trees away from the tide.

Palm tree being born from a coconut

We continued our trek until we come to our third and final obstacle. The Rio Claro.

The ranger had mentioned the river contained crocodiles and BULL sharks. But what he failed to mention was that it was over waist-deep and over 50ft wide during high-tide which was of course… when we got there.

We walked up and down the river bank trying to determine the best area to cross. Further into the forest the river was slow but very deep and wide. We figured our chances were high to be eaten by crocs or sharks before we made it to the other side.

Closer towards the ocean, the river was not as deep or wide, however when the ocean tide crashed into the river mouth it ripped the current so fast the banks were eroding and we watched 400LB fallen trees trunks being drug out into the ocean.

We knew the Sirena ranger station was less than 1/2 mile past this damn river. If we did not make it across we would have to sleep in the jungle, which at this point was not an option.

I threw down my pack, grabbed a stick, and stood on the river bank watching the tide come into the river mouth. If we timed it right we would be able to cross when the river was low, the tide was slow, and the crossing would be simple. If we timed it wrong and the tide crashed into the mouth while we were crossing there was a high probability we would be pulled out to sea.

I waited for the tide to slow and stepped off the bank into the river, I slowly picked my way across the river with the water coming up about waist-high. As I was half-way across I looked up and yelled to Lauren “Hey, A crocodile!” and pointed towards a large croc resting about 40ft in front of me near the river bank. No big deal…

I made it safely across with no drama aside from the croc sighting. OK, Well now we know its possible. I waited for the tide to recede again and crossed back.

We hitched our packs up as high as possible on our backs, waited for the tide to calm, looked around for the croc who had since vanished, and stepped in.

We were slowly picking our way across when all of the sudden, ROUGE WAVE. The river mouth started to flood with ocean water and the current began ripping the sandy river bottom from beneath our feet. I abandoned my crossing stick and turned to see Lauren stumbling and about to go face first into the ripping river. I grabbed her by the pack as she fell forward and drug her along as we clamored up the opposite river bank.

We made it! We sat on the bank for a while catching our breath and checking out our packs. The bottoms had gotten wet a bit but overall were surprisingly fairly dry. Luckily Lauren fell forward instead of backwards, she got her clothes soaked but her bag stayed dry.

I took this moment to remind Lauren this is the 2nd time I have saved her from dying in a river. She was almost swept away once before while hiking the Rae Lakes loop back in the Sierra mountains of California. Yes, I am a pretty awesome boyfriend.

We collected ourselves and trudged on as the sun was setting, 1/2 a mile later we came upon a clearing in the woods.

We had never been so happy to see a clap-boarded weathered station! Sirena Station, How we loved you!

We sat for a while taking in the whole experience and resting our bones in the old reclining chairs on the front porch of the station.

Set up our tent on the elevated covered platforms, stripped out of our wet and stinky clothes, and had one of the best sleeps of the entire trip.

The sounds of howler monkeys and squawking macaws woke us in the morning. We made some coffee and suited up to trek around the various trails found around the station.

We read this sign on our way out to the trails… I guess running towards the feline and trying to snap photos is not the correct procedure.

Lauren and I are avid hikers and backpackers. We have visited tons of parks, reserves, wildlife areas, etc all across the U.S. and in Central America. Never in our life have we seen anywhere close to the amount of wildlife that we saw in Corcovado. It is literal zoo without cages out here. You are constantly stumbling across natures creatures just going about their business in the wild. It is an amazing place.

Spider monkeys crawling in the trees.

More Coatis running across the trail.

And my favorite sighting of the trip. A wild Tapir munching away in the jungle. We were less than 5ft away from him. He did not have a care in the world and just kept on grazing as we snapped photos.

That night we were visited by all kinds of weird, giant and interesting bugs I have never seen before.

A gigantic grasshopper.

This crazy flying leaf looking bug

HUGE flying cockroach

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and the next morning we packed up from the platform as we prepared to set off.

We made some new friends at the station and we all decided to set off back to Carina together.

Back down the beach we go. This time we timed it perfectly and all the beach/river crossings were easy.

Not done with the wildlife yet! We saw an ant-eater plodding along through the forest.

Stopped for some beach-side fresh coconuts.

Not a bad view for a break.

Also spotted some poison dart frogs along the trail

We passed the final ranger station on the way back to Carina where we stopped for a break.

While resting we spotted a weird bird. Upon closer inspection, it was actually not a bird but a GIGANTIC moth. This moth is called the “White Witch Moth” and has the largest wing-span of any insect in the world.

We hiked the last stretch of beach in silence. Taking in the jungle, the beach, and the last few days experience. If you are a biology/nature lover you need to get your butt down to Corcovado National Park. I guarantee you will not come away disappointed. The hike out to Sirena station is challenging but worth every step.

Back to the truck, we loaded our stinky gear and headed to Puerto Jimenez where we got a cheap motel and enjoyed a long hot shower.

The next day we hit the road, Destination: PANAMA.

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  • greg roemer

    james, great story. I live in dallas texas and want to take this hike with my 24 year old son. we are both fit and with to hike 3 days and camp 2 nights. hiking 20-30 miles on the trip is doable for us. we will fly into SJO and catch a commuter from there. I guess we can fly from San Jose to Drake or Puerto Jimenez. We wish to arrive around december 16, 2013. can you help me out with some tips?? i can be reached at,

  • Amy

    Okay, I think I should have researched the area more before committing. I will be having nightmares of sharks, pumas and croc’s before our trip in a few months! In all seriousness, might not be in our best interest to bring a 6 & 8 year old to Corcovado?! We’ve been to Costa Rica but not this particular region…so I hope we end up liking it and aren’t too scared of exploring. : )

  • Carlos G

    Your trip sounds amazing. My wife and I are traveling down to Corcovado in a few weeks, but unfortunately I am finding out that by law you need a guide to access the park. Not only you need a guide, but the guides are stupidly expensive. The cheapest ones I have found so far charge 55 USD per day/per person, which is 220 USD for 2 days. Does anybody know cheaper guides around here? We are also planning to drive up to the Arenal region. Do you have any recommendations on which activities can we do by ourselves without having to hire a guide? Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated, my email is
    Thank you so much

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