Friday, January 27, 2012

Corcovado National Park [day 3]

All good things must come to an end and so it was that we left Corcovado National Park. After two great days of exploring the jungle [see day 1 and day 2] we weren't quite ready to leave, but we had heard that the trail we were taking out of the park was one of the most beautiful others have ever seen. While beach hikes may not be my preferred, this was such a unique trail that its beauty cannot really be compared to any other trail. It left me in awe.

We broke camp and were on the trail sometime between 6 and 7. We weren't in a real rush; we knew that we had just under 20 kilometers of trail and beach walking to cover before arriving at the town where we would catch a ride into Puerto Jimenez, located on the other side of Osa Peninsula. But after our previous days' experiences we knew that we would be able tackle the distance without many problems. Indeed the day went rather smoothly, we only had a moment's pause at a couple of the rivers that we crossed throughout the journey.

Within the first kilometer of our trek we crossed Rio Claro, a shallow (at least when we crossed) mossy river that gently collides with the Pacific Ocean. We made it across without any problems, though there was the potential to fall at the one rapid we couldn't avoid at the end of our crossing. A narrow channel had formed and the water surged from ankle deep calmness to knee high "I don't want you to leave yet" force. We weren't quite ready for that, but managed to make it out unscathed.

Sea birds looking for breakfast in Rio Claro

The trail led us through the ocean-side jungle and then up to the boundary between the jungle and beach. We followed the narrow trail as it wove in and out of coconut trees. We spotted cat tracks in the sand and scarlet macaws in the trees overhead. The brilliant shades of primary colors that adorn the scarlet macaw left us staring in awe for a while - regardless of how many times we had already spotted them during the trip we couldn't peel our eyes away. They are truly gorgeous creatures.

Upon leaving the jungle
The cat never appeared, but we did follow it's tracks for quite some way. The trail wove in and out of the jungle some more before depositing us in a beautiful cove that had us playing on rocks jutting out of the sand and watching pelicans as they dove for their breakfast. After a quick attempt at baseball by the guys (using rocks and beached wood) we followed the shoreline for a couple of kilometers. We started to get hot and so tried moving further from the water and closer to the trees and to our pleasant surprise we stumbled upon some tapir tracks! Apparently they like to hang out on the beach too! We followed the tracks for a while and then took a mid morning break devoted to munching on sweet treats and taking photos.

Tapir track
Once we were good and rested and bellies content we moseyed on along the waters edge once more. The ocean is hypnotic and easy to follow and had it not been for the sighting on a coati hunting along the treeline we would have missed our turn back into the jungle. We paused and watched as the coati climbed a downed tree and pulled bark off of it in search of protein filled goodness. It didn't seem to care that we were watching it so we relaxed and enjoyed the moment. When the coati disappeared into the jungle so did we. 

Coati in search of food

As we continued along the trail we crossed a couple of more streams and enjoyed more beautiful views of the Pacific coastline. One stream left Kevin with wet feet after a day of successful dry crossings and at our final river crossing we all plunged into the narrow but deep crossing. After our final crossing we we delighted to find white faced monkeys hanging out right alongside of the trail. They were sprawled out on branches within arms reach. They were simply looking for an escape from the heat of the day. Stretched out along a branch with its legs and tail hanging below one caught a brief cat nap. Noon was quickly approaching and so we pushed a little harder knowing that the Leona ranger station wasn't far off. The number of people walking toward us was steadily increasing (including a group of nude hikers cleverly holding their shorts in front of their private parts - we really saw all sorts of wildlife during the trip!) and we were ready to be away from them.

White face monkey hanging out
We arrived at La Leona shortly after noon and claimed the station picnic table for our last meal of tortillas, peanut butter and jelly, dulce de leche, gumdrops (backpacking requires a lot of fuel!) and a lot of water. With our energy levels restored we took to the beach, sans shoes, and started the three-ish kilometer walk to Carate, the town (i.e. landing strip and visitor station/bar) where we would pick up the bus to Puerto Jimenez.

Walking to Carate

The remaining distance kept us in awe. We watched as white face monkeys jumped from tree to tree and others as they dug their hands into a hollowed out coconut to pull its fleshy innards out for lunch. A pair of scarlet macaws took flight and swooped out over the ocean much to our delight. Flocks of pelicans flew overhead. Crabs scurried out from under our footfalls. The warm ocean water washed over our tired feet. As we started to wonder where Carate might be we spotted a horse drawn wagon crossing a small stream. We asked the driver if we were in Carate and he said yes. We crossed that stream and walked to the visitor station where we played some dice and talked to other park visitors. 

White face monkey grabbing coconut meat

The "bus", a cattle truck with some benches, showed up a couple of hours later and we climbed aboard for the hour trip to Puerto Jimenez. The time estimate was severely wrong (as is usual in Costa Rica) and after about two and a half hours we arrived at our destination. We then went in search of a place to stay. Pablo (the guide we had met) directed us to the hotel where his group would be staying. We stopped in and started talking to the owner. She informed us that she didn't have space but we continued talking anyway as she had called around to find us space elsewhere. When we told her we were volunteers she said, "but you aren't from Peace Corps, are you?" we were able to make her evening by answering yes. She had hosted a volunteer back in the 60s when Peace Corps first came to Costa Rica! The place that she had called for us never got back to her and with rumbling bellies we took our leave and found space at Oro Verde. It was clean and that was all we were asking for. We dropped our packs and went in search of food, not worrying about the fact that we smelled.

We ate delicious veggie pizza in an open air pizzeria located at the end of the downtown stretch. We got our fill of veggies after a sugar filled couple of days, paid our bill and went to clean up before crawling into bed for the night.

The night was short and the following day long. We arrived at the Puerto Jimenez bus terminal shortly after 4:30 to find that all of the seats for the 5am bus were sold out. Needing to get back to our sites we took the only option, we agreed to stand for the eight hour ride back to San Jose. It was tiring, but we all made it back to our sites that evening. 

Operation Parque Nacional Corcovado = success! We highly recommend that you take a stab at the park if you find yourself in Costa Rica and have the time to travel to its southern-most reaches!

For more photos of our adventure, visit here or here (photos from our friend Kevin - he's a much better photographer!).

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Corcovado National Park [day 2]

After a long day on the trails, we decided to take it easy on day two of our trip to Corcovado National Park (if you missed day one, look here). We rose with the sun and hung out around the biological station, enjoying the sounds of the jungle. We chatted with the guide we had met the day before and finally discovered that his name is Pablo. He helped us to identify some of the birds that we had seen the day before and pointed out some of the critters that were hanging out in the trees in front of us.

The peaceful morning sounds were soon interrupted by the buzzing of a small plane approaching to make landfall right before our eyes. No worries though, it wasn't crashing, just dropping off a load of park visitors that decided to take the easy way in. This routine continued well into the morning and started up again in the afternoon to pick up other visitors. 

In between the comings and goings of the morning flights we enjoyed listening to the excited (or perhaps aggravated) grunting and shouting of the howler monkeys occupying one of the trees alongside the landing strip. We also laid eyes on more squirrel and spider monkeys and some toucans and parrots that were flitting about the runway. We ate some granola bars and raisins, watched a coati make a playful appearance and then went on our way.

We walked across the airstrip and were immediately engulfed in the jungle. The trail was well maintained, yet it swallowed us in a blanket of green as we made our way along the log cookies that were placed to help hikers out during muddier times. Butterflies and birds bounced gracefully from branch to branch as we passed them. We stopped to adore the monstrous trees that grew around us, their bark ranging from pure while to rich red. Occasionally the howler monkeys would make their presence in the jungle known, grunting off in the distance. We arrived at a fork in the path and took the option that would lead us to Rio Sirena.

The trail popped us out onto the beach. The Pacific Ocean greeted us with a wave and we tracked hermit crabs and little sideways running crabs along the shore until we reached the mouth of the river. We had been warned that this river is frequented by bull sharks at high tide, we did not have the pleasure of seeing one of their fins, but we did see a crocodile sunning itself on the opposite shore. We talked to Pablo a little bit and then took our leave, ready to see what the other trail had to offer.

As we made our way back to the fork we had earlier encountered we spotted spider monkeys dancing overhead. As we were watching them we crossed paths with a guide who asked if we had seen the peccaries yet. We told him that we had not and he let us know that they were just 100 meters down the trail. We proceeded with caution, Pablo's tale of attacking peccaries still fresh in our minds. As we approached the herd we kept an eye out for trees to climb and then watched the animals graze the jungle floor. Just our luck, they were getting ready to cross the trail that we were walking down. We tried to inch forward, but when one large peccary started grunting we were quick to give it all of the space it could have dreamed of. It stood ground as its family passed in front of us and then moved on its way.

We moved forward and a few meters later we safely arrived at the fork in the road and took the remaining path. This led us back to the Sirena, though a little further down river. There we could see the crocodile sunning itself as well as an additional one swimming through the river. We watched it for a minute and then continued on our way. As we made progress down the trail we heard one of the most beautiful bird songs I have ever heard before. We crossed some muddy streams and bypassed large tour groups. 

As we continued on our projected loop that would have us returning at the biological station in time for lunch we stumbled across a family of coati. They were sniffing out their own lunch and sneaking through the underbrush. Our presence was of no concern to them, they were intent on completing their mission. We watched in awe for several minutes and then decided to go find our own food.

After quick PB&J tortillas we headed back into the jungle. This time our ventures took us up, and up, and up. Every time that we thought we might start heading down another hill would present itself. As we journeyed uphill we discovered many lizards, frogs and toads hanging out alongside the trail. We arrived at a point where we were above the sounds of spider monkeys screaming below. It was the most prolific monkey sound any of us had ever heard. The imagined argument was "stay away, she's mine." These were some pretty impassioned creatures.

As the sounds of those spider monkeys died off we continued on our way. Not too much time had passed when we discovered a family of spider monkeys hanging out overhead. They were dancing in the treetops and enjoying life to the fullest. Then one noticed that we had paused to watch them. It wasn't too happy about it and growled at us. It wasn't exactly the sound one expects to hear from a monkey. We moved a little further down the trail, but continued to watch. When it growled again we took our leave.

The day was growing long and we wanted to make it back to the beach in time for sunset. We picked up the pace (just as we were going downhill - my least favorite part of any hike) and before we knew it we had arrived at the mouth of Rio Claro, the river we would need to cross the next day. Chris and I ventured off trail at that point and walked along the river; however, not knowing if it would safely get us to where we wanted to be for sunset Kevin ran down the remaining bit of trail and we all met up later on the beach.

The sunset was a magnificent way to end the day. The clouds were pretty much perfect, the sound of the crashing waves and the glowing orb that descended into them reminded us just how wonderful nature is (in case we hadn't been reminded enough throughout the days adventures!). A family of coati snuck through the jungle behind us and made a presence on the beach. The end of day bird calls got us moving so that we would return to the station by dark.

We ate some cold bean burritos for dinner followed by Christmas cookies drenched in dulce de leche. Then we crashed. What a day!

Stay tuned for day three!

[note: linked photos were those taken by our friend Kevin, photos appearing in the blog were taken by us]

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Corcovado National Park [day 1]

Another year, another adventure. We were fortunate to be able to spend the first week of 2012 with our friend Kevin at Corcovado National Park in the southern-most region of Costa Rica. We all met up in San Jose on New Year's Day and caught up over homemade veggie tamales (thanks to our host mom, Maria) and a couple of rounds of Amish Dice

On Monday morning we got up bright and early and caught a taxi to the Puerto Jimenez bus stop in the northern part of the city and ate some pinto (traditional rice and bean breakfast) while waiting for the bus terminal to open. Shortly after 8am the bus was headed south and we enjoyed some more conversation when we weren't enjoying the view, trying to keep the seat springs from puncturing our bodies, listening to podcasts or sleeping. Roughly eight hours later we arrived at our destination, La Palma, the former home of several previous Peace Corps Volunteers. We stayed at Cabina Baljay (owned by the host family of said volunteers), a cozy little place in town and enjoyed a wonderful dinner at a seafood place a couple of blocks away. The day of travel had tired us out and so we called it an early night, knowing that we would have an early morning.

We were on the road by 6am as we chose to walk to Los Patos, the ranger station located on the north east side of the park. We enjoyed several parrot and toucan sightings as we left town and then entered the more rural communities outside of La Palma. We passed a taxi driver on our way and he asked us if we were going to Los Patos. When we said yes his response was "es muy duro." We shrugged it off as we had heard that the station was about a 4 kilometer hike. Now I'm not so sure where that number came from as it ended up being 14 kilometers, most of which were spent crossing back and forth over the same river. But, that's how adventure happens, right? I think if we had known better we too would have opted for the taxi ride to the station, but we enjoyed the cool water on our feet and as an added bonus we met a guy who was walking to the park to pan for gold [note: this is illegal]. So, for those of you planning your own trip to Corcovado, you can walk to Los Patos from La Palma, but it is 14 kilometers of river crossings, but you just might meet some interesting characters along the way. Or, you can take the taxi and save your legs (and feet!) for the actual 20 kilometer trek into La Sirena, the ranger station that lodges visitors.

We parted ways with our gold-seeking friend and checked in at Los Patos. We ate some dried cherries and granola bars and then went on our way. With one more crossing of that same river we finally entered the jungle. The trail started with a steep climb up some stairs and surprisingly kept going up! For a peninsula this place has quite the elevation gain! We stopped occasionally when our ears caught the sound of some creature or another making its way through the surrounding tangle of greenery but did not have much luck spotting anything until we passed under a tree in which three pair of scarlet macaws were having a mid-morning snack, their nut shells hitting the ground around us as they fell from above. The rest of our morning consisted of random sightings of lizards, frogs and a variety of smaller birds.

We crossed yet another river and settled in for lunch along side a German family that was being led through the park with a guide (they had passed us earlier in the morning in the back of a taxi, so we were pretty happy to see them). We chatted a little bit about animals that we had seen (or not seen) and were told that they had spotted a peccary, which was most likely what we heard but didn't see as we are pretty sure that we smelled it (they smell like urine, or as the guide told us, they smell like urine that has been sitting for a couple of weeks). We received advice that if we came across a pack of them that looked like they were going to charge we should drop our bags, climb a tree and save our lives. Then they said good-bye and left us to fend for ourselves.

With our bellies full we left the banks of the river to what we were sure was a peccary-infested jungle and kept an eye out for trees that would be easy to climb. In observing these trees we spotted a monkey new to us, the spider monkey. We watched them swing overhead for a while, enjoying the differences in their motion from white-face and howler monkeys. While enjoying the animals above we almost missed the sighting of one below, an agouti that raced across our path, almost taking the guys out by the ankles! It was like a stray bullet crossing our path and a reminder that we should always be aware of our surroundings in the jungle!

We continued on our way and saw some wild turkey-type birds and a couple of grouse-type birds. At one point blue morpho butterflies magically appeared on the trail, shocking us with their bright blue wings as they took flight out of the decaying brown leaves that covered the trail. It was one of those moments when you almost laugh out of pure joy. After about four of them took their leave we were once again amazed by the appearance of Costa Rica's rarest monkey, the squirrel monkey. These little guys seemed to float among the branches overhead, barely making them sway with their weight. They appeared and almost as quickly disappeared leaving one to wonder if they were ever really there.

The rest of the day consisted of more stream and river crossings and more sightings of the same types of animals. We could hear the howler monkeys in the distance, but could not spot them. The wild turkeys cried out in fright, worried that we would cause them harm and the grouse were occasionally flushed out, startling all. We were glad to arrive at La Sirena Biological Station, remove our wet shoes and stake our claim for tent space on one of the platforms. With dusk quickly approaching we walked down to the beach with hopes of catching the sunset. We missed sunset, but we did have beautiful views and then headed back to set up our tent, eat some dinner and take (unexpected) showers.

We had an enjoyable time talking to a nice Canadian family that has traveled all over the world and a gentleman that was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Congo in the 90s. We were ready to settle in for the night when someone spotted a tapir hanging out near the tent platform. It was moseying along eating some leaves and tree bark. We tried to capture it on film, but you can only do so much in the dark when someone bumps your elbow as you're patiently holding the camera still (the handy tripod we carried with us on the trip was sitting patiently in the tent for us to come and grab it, but we forgot all about it in the excitement of the moment!). It moved along and so did the crowd. The area quickly became quiet as everyone climbed back into their tents and sleep overtook the days adventures.

Check back soon for Day 2 in the park!