Costa Rica 2012: Coastal hike to Corcovado



A scarlet macaw (Ara macao), eating fruits from a tree. This gorgeous parrot was fairly common around Puerto Jiménez. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Corcovado National Park is situated on the coast of the Osa Peninsula, south-eastern Costa Rica. From the north, no roads lead into the park, and if you cannot afford to fly in, you must walk c. 20 km along the beach and on trails through the forest to reach the park headquarters at Sirena – one of the few places in the park where you are allowed to overnight.

In the small town of Puerto Jiménez, my companion Lars Skipper and I book a room in a simple hotel, whereupon we seek out the national park office to get permits to enter the park. As it turns out, this is a rather difficult task. The entry fee must be paid in a particular bank, or at a local travel agency, before the permit can be issued. As it is a Saturday, the bank is closed, so we go to a travel agency. The owner informs us that he has to send an email to the bank, as well as to the park office, to confirm that he has received our payment. An answer to his emails may take some time, so he instructs us to return around 6 p.m. to collect our permits.

Our hike into the park is going to take place two days later. In the meantime, we explore the town and its surroundings. In the morning sun, many passerines are perched on electric wires, including wing-barred seedeater (Sporophila americana), southern house wren (Troglodytes musculus), and a beautiful male Cherrie’s tanager (Rhamphocelus costaricensis), displaying its scarlet rump. The ubiquitous black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are not exactly beautiful creatures, having ugly, naked heads full of wrinkles.



Our hotel in Puerto Jiménez. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Painted church wall in Puerto Jiménez, depicting St. Francis of Assisi with a white horse and a scarlet macaw (Ara macao) – the latter was hardly known in Italy in the 1200s! (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



A beautiful male Cherrie’s tanager, displaying its scarlet rump. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Black vultures are not exactly beautiful creatures! (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Lizards running on the water
In a small patch of mangrove near Puerto Jiménez, we notice several common basilisks (Basiliscus basiliscus). This lizard is unique, being able to run along the surface of the water at a terrific speed, their legs moving so fast that they almost look like a whisk. In the forest above the mangrove, we observe a black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura similis), which somewhat resembles the Old-World monitor lizards, besides many leaf-cutting ants (Atta cephalotes), which are busy transporting leaf segments to their nest, holding them high as banners.

Among a wealth of plants, we notice a reddish species of Tillandsia, of the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae), which grows as an epiphyte on a horizontal branch, and red ginger (Alpinia purpurata), whose bracts are bright red, whereas the small flowers are white. This species is native to Indonesia, New Guinea, and Polynesia, but has been introduced as an ornamental to most warm countries of the world.



My companion Lars in the small patch of mangrove near Puerto Jiménez. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Common basilisk, basking on a rock among mangrove trees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The black spiny-tailed iguana somewhat resembles Old-World monitor lizards. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Leaf-cutting ants, transporting leaf segments to their nest, holding them high as banners. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Among numerous flower species, we noticed red ginger (top) and a reddish Tillandsia. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Bird life around Puerto Jiménez
The gorgeous scarlet macaw (Ara macao) is declining in much of its native area, from southern Mexico southwards to northern Brazil and Bolivia. It seems to be fairly common around Puerto Jiménez, where small flocks fly about, making a tremendous racket.

We also observe two species of caracara, which belong to the falcon family (Falconidae). As opposed to true falcons, they often walk about on the ground. A yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima) is strolling down the road in front of our car. This bird is resident from Costa Rica southwards to northern Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, living in savanna, swamps and forest edges, and also often scavenging in cities. Later, a northern crested caracara (Caracara cheriway) is collecting nest material at the roadside. This bird is distributed from extreme south-eastern United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean southwards to northern Peru and Brazil. In southern South America, it is replaced by the quite similar southern crested caracara (Caracara plancus), and formerly the two birds were regarded as conspecific.

A beautiful Amazon kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona) is perched on a dead tree, and in a dense patch of grass we observe a male blue seedeater (Amaurospiza concolor), jumping vertically into the air, landing on the same spot – presumably part of its courtship display. A golden-crowned spadebill (Platyrinchus coronatus) is perched on an aerial root of a large fig tree, a peculiar bird with a flat bill, which belongs to the tyrant-flycatcher family (Tyrannidae).



Caracaras often walk on the ground. This picture shows a yellow-headed caracara. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This northern crested caracara takes off from a road with nesting material. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Wildlife along the beach
At two locations along the coastal route through the park to Sirena, vertical rocks block the beach trail, and hikers must wade through the sea water, as no trail leads through the forest above the rocks. This wading must take place during low tide, as the water level will be too high at other times.

On the day of our hike, low tide is around noon, which means that we must start our hike from the village of Karate around 6 a.m. We shall have to get up at 3 o’clock, as the drive along the horrible road to Karate will last at least two hours – a fact which we found out by personal experience the previous day.

As it turns out, our morning drive is a marvellous experience. The Full Moon sets behind a mountain, while a blanket of fog is covering a field with grazing cattle. It is daylight, when we arrive at Karate. We have learned that we can park our car at a pulperia – a small grocery store, selling daily supplies and soft drinks. The owner gets grumpy, when we park our car in front of his ’fancy’ store. We must park behind it! How on Earth were we supposed to know?

However, he soon calms down, and we can commence our hike along the beach, where the vegetation is dominated by coconut palms (Cocos nucifera), beach almond (Terminalia catappa), and a few other trees. On numerous spots, lots of debris has been washed ashore, and many coconuts have sprouted here. The beach is alive with hermit crabs of all sizes, transporting their protective snail shells, which come in all sorts of shapes – round, oblong, spiraled. The tracks of the hermit crabs create fine patterns around pebbles on the beach.

A common black-hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus), which mainly feeds on crabs, is sitting in a palm tree, whereas a bare-throated tiger-heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum) is feeding in a rock-pool in an area of low coastal rocks. Long lines of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) glide effortlessly along the coast. Occasionally, several birds plunge headlong into the water from a great height, indicating a school of fish. For a long time, a white-nosed coati (Nasua narica) walks on the beach in front of us. Like their near relatives, the raccoons, these long-nosed creatures are omnivorous, often feeding along the coast.



Coconut palms are ubiquitous along the coast of Corcovado National Park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Washed-up coconuts, which have sprouted among debris. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Beach almond is another common tree along the coast. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tracks of hermit crabs create patterns around pebbles on the beach. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Washed-up dinosaur? – No, just driftwood, polished by sand and water. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Common black-hawk, feeding among coastal rocks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Bare-throated tiger-heron, searching for food in a tidal pool. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Coastal rock with resting brown pelicans. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This white-nosed coati was walking in front of us for a long time. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Into the rainforest
After about an hour’s walk, we arrive at the national park border, where we must show our entry permits in a tiny office. From here, a trail leads through the rainforest, which, due to the proximity of the sea, is low and stunted, in places dominated by dense thickets of spiny palm trees. Taller trees are scattered here and there, including a huge species with large, wavy buttresses.

We are lucky to be able to join company with a tourist group, who have hired a local guide. He has eyes like a hawk, pointing out various animals, which we might otherwise have missed. A northern tamandua (Tamandua mexicana) is sprawled along a branch, sleeping comfortably. This small anteater is distributed from southern Mexico southwards to western Venezuela, Columbia, and Ecuador. Elegant Central American spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) swing from one branch to another in a superior style. This species, and many other monkeys, are presented on the page Animals: Monkeys and apes. We often observe coatis and small, brown squirrels.

Birdlife is surprisingly scarce in the forest. Among other species, we observe chestnut-backed antbird (Myrmeciza exsul), red-crowned woodpecker (Melanerpes rubricapillus), and a woodcreeper, belonging to the family Dendrocolaptidae.



On several spots, the vegetation along the trail through the forest was dominated by dense growths of spiny palm trees, in this case black palm (Astrocaryum standleyanum). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Rainforest tree with buttresses. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This northern tamandua was sprawled along a branch, sleeping comfortably. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Around Sirena
Our hike is long and strenuous. We round the two vertical rocks during low tide without problems, but in the forest, we must cross several rivers, of which the last one, Rio Claro, is so deep that the water reaches our crotch.

Finally, when we arrive at Sirena, we are rather exhausted, and we rest for a while before going out on an evening stroll to the coast. Several nightjars are feeding over the tiny airstrip, and a chorus of golden-mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata ssp. palliata) can be heard from the forest, far away. Sunset over the Pacific Ocean is magnificent.

We retire early, as we intend to get up around 5 a.m. to experience morning life in the rainforest. At dawn, the howler monkeys are making a racket, and we observe several forest birds, including a great curassow (Crax rubra) and two great tinamous (Tinamus major). Tinamous resemble game birds, but constitute an ancient order of their own, Tinamiformes. On our way back towards the lodge, we have great luck, spotting an ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), which crosses the runway about 200 m away.



On our way, we had to cross several streams. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sunset and clouds over the Pacific Ocean. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Return trip
Unfortunately, we have only been able to book a single night in the park – all other days were fully booked. This means that we shall have to start early, walking back the way we came. On our return trip, we again observe a tamandua and spider monkeys, and also a troupe of feeding white-headed capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus), searching for edibles by biting off bark of lianas and branches.

We are indeed tired, when we arrive at Karate, but have yet to face a car ride of at least two hours back to Puerto Jiménez. At our hotel, we have a much-needed shower, before we go out to eat – and then to bed.



White-headed capuchin, biting off bark in search of food. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




(Uploaded February 2016)


(Latest revision September 2019)