Lost in Costa Rica: How to Hike Corcovado National Park

Adventure Travel, Costa Rica, Couples Travel, Fitness & Workouts, Tours & Attractions, Walking, Wildlife & Animals — By on September 22, 2009 at 8:00 am

Last month, I traveled to Costa Rica for a long-overdue Pressner family vacation-and I recently wrote about that experience for our good friends at Jaunted.com. I’ve also been sharing those adventures on Lost Girls World-read on, or visit Jaunted for the full series.


While the list of natural wonders in Costa Rica is practically endless, few are more revered by the locals (and industrious tourists) than the Osa Peninsula. Located in the far Southwestern portion of the country, the Osa is the home of Corcovado National Park, a dense swathe of jungle that National Geographic once dubbed “the most biologically intense place on earth.” The place is absolutely teaming with wildlife of all shapes and varieties, and contains a greater variety of birds, insects, trees and mammals per square kilometer than almost anywhere else in the world.

Thanks to Costa Rica’s commitment to protecting its most valuable natural resources, primary rainforests once slashed and burned in Osa to make way for pastureland and farming back in the 70s have almost completely returned as secondary forest-and so have a multitude of species that were headed for extinction.

Getting There
In part because it’s difficult to reach, and in part because the commercial development has been so severely restricted, the vast majority of tourists skip the Osa and Corcovado in favor of more accessible parks (ie, Manuel Antonio, Tortugero, etc) flanked by luxury eco-lodges. If you’re one of the few who make it down this way (it’s just an hour from San Jose on Nature Air or Sansa) you can pretty much have the trail and the rainforest all to yourself.

Although my guy Jeff and I deemed it out of our backpacker budget to fly to the frontier town Puerto Jimenez and hire a private guide to take us on a three-day trek through Corcovado, we decided to suck it up and do it anyway. Based on the local’s glowing descriptions (and the fear that one day this place would be overrun, despite conservationists’ best efforts) we rationed that it was now or never and hoped it would be worth every penny.

And so, at the last minute, Jeff and I hoped a $75 flight to Puerto Jimenez. We ended up lucking out by securing two of the 40 passes issued daily to hikers who intend to stay overnight in the Park at the Sirena ranger’s station. This intra-jungle facility plays base-camp for hiking, camping and animal watching, and is located a full-day’s hike from each of the three entrances to the park. If you want to see critters, this is the place to be.

Booking Your Spots

Note to those planning to spend more than a half-day inside Corcovado: Even if you haven’t booked a guide, it is STRONGLY recommended that you secure your spots to camp or bunk at Sirena well in advance ($4 and $8 per night), as the station often fills up with school groups and other hikers. Once the spots are taken, you’re essentially out of luck.

If you happen to be a last-minute planner, you can do as Jeff and I did: Head to the Parks and Recreations office (located just outside the local airstrip in Puerto Jimenez) directly after landing to book your spot at Sirena, then head into town to start interviewing guides. Many of the travel agencies, internet cafes and restaurants in town will be more than happy to connect you with one, but take care to meet and chat with the person first!

Since your guide will be entirely responsible for making sure you make through three days in the jungle in once piece (there are no cell phones, first aid stops or anti-venom in case you’re nabbed by a snake) it’s critical that he or she have an decent command of English and at least a few years experience traversing the park.

Go With a Guide
Our guide Felix, 29, grew up in Puerto Jimenez and knew Corcovado National Park better than I know the New York City subway system. He moved quickly, but knew precisely when and where to look to spot anteaters, tapirs, wild turkeys, scarlet macaws, sloths, agouties, three different varieties of monkeys-and both panther and jaguar tracks. I was truly mind-boggled over the sheer number of animals we saw, and how incredibly close we were able to get to them.

It’s a Hike; Not a Stroll
Word to the slightly less than fit: The three-day hike through Corcovado is no stroll through the park! Jeff, Felix and I covered about 23-25 kilometers our first day (roughly 14 miles) over hilly terrain traversed by rivers. Unless you plan to have meals prepared for you at Sirena (an expensive option that must be arranged a month in advance) you’ll need to carry everything you want to eat with you-and that’s in addition to the basic toiletries, a change of clothes, a camera and a charger or batteries weighing down your pack. Another tip: Don’t even think about carrying all that stuff unless it’s in a backpack with hip support.

After less strenuous hiking on the “rest day” in Sirena, we walked an additional 16 kilometers over beach sand to Los Patos, where we caught collectivo bus ride back to Puerto Jimenez.

Because It’s Worth It
Despite the difficulties, hiking through Corcovado is absolutely worth the effort-we felt as if we’d been tranported back thousands of years in time, long before mankind showed up and started paving over the jungle paradise. This is one of those experiences that you should put on-and eventually check off-your traveling life list.

As I discovered, the hike and the guide were indeed worth every penny-and the experience itself, priceless.

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  • sara says:

    how much did you actually end up spending? No doubt that it's worth it, the Osa penninsula is something I have wondered about in the past.

  • Schmanders says:

    The flights to Corcovado were $75 one-way including taxes, the first hostel where we stayed was about $10 each. After our hike (approx $275 apiece for three days) we splurged on a $50 per night room. We needed the hot showers and air con after two sweaty, sandy nights in the jungle!

  • rhonalala says:

    I love hiking so this is something that has gone on my list. I am kind of afraid of the jungle (snickering) but still I would love to explore this natural wonder one day. Thanks for inviting us into this wonderful world.

  • Lyn says:

    for an excellent guide who speaks fluent english, cares for your safety and has amazing stories to share about the flora and fauna, choose Ballardo Diaz, a marine biologist and jungle guide who was born on the Peninsula on the edge of Corcovado. Reach him personally at jaguardman@hotmail.com

  • OSA TRAVEL says:

    Dear Amanda,
    Greetings from the Jungle of Corcovado!
    I so happy that you and Jeff, enjoyed so much the Rainforest of Corcovado, thanks for your possitive reaction about my services/tour guide, always you are very welcome to my Jungle Lodge as well!
    Best regards.
    Pura Vida!

  • Cindi says:

    I went to Corcovado in the spring of 2003. It was amazing and I'm happy to hear it remains untouched – as I returned to Costa Rica in 2008 and couldn't believe how much tourism had built up in just 5 years. We went through Sierpe (after a long bus ride from Manuel Antonio) and paid about $40 for a round trip ride to the park with a full day of hiking/exploring. Wish we could have stayed longer! Absolutely the most pristine and beautiful place I visited in Costa Rica and well worth the long, hard haul to get there!