Free Camping in Osa Peninsula
After spending our first three Costa Rica days in El Golfito visiting Stanimira and Angel and relaxing in the House at The Bottom of The Jungle, we prepare our backpacks and head for Puerto Jimenez- one of the main cities on Osa Peninsula and the gateway to Corcovado National Park. We get there by a small ferry that leaves every hour from El Golfito, costs $6 per person and the trip is about 40 minutes.
Puerto Jimenez turns out to be more of a small village with only one main paved street, full with hostels and tourist agencies offering guides and tours in Corcovado and the surrounding areas. As soon as we set foot on the main street, cars start stopping next to us offering taxi rides with hush voices. Illegal taxi rides, as these are not taxis but regular cars. It looks like every car in Puerto Jimenez is a taxi. At first, we refuse politely, then we refuse firmly, then we simply ignore them and just wish they would stop bothering us. We are here not to ride taxis or go on guided tours but to walk and to camp for free in the footsteps of two other Bulgarian adventurers before us- Tery and Ivan.
Tery and Ivan are hitchhiking around the world and have been in hundreds of countries on most continents. Their adventures and misadventures are described in Terry’s blog Hitchhiking Around The World. Tery contacted us through our blog and we hoped to meet her and her friend somewhere in Central America, but the timing was not good and they were long gone by the time we got in Costa Rica. Nevertheless, we kept in touch and Tery gave us tons of good info and advice where to go, what to expect and how to enjoy some of the country’s natural wonders for free, which is our main objective. Thank you Tery!
The Greenest Country on Earth
Even though Costa Rica is small in territory (50 000 square kilometers), it is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet with lush rainforests, tropical beaches and mountains, containing 4% of the total world animal species. Costa Rica enjoys the status of “The Greenest Country on Earth” and has the reputation of being eco-friendly, carbon neutral, using non-polluting hydroelectricity, and leaving one of the smallest ecological footprints in the world. This is because there is not much industry and the main income for the country is tourism.
All this is true and sounds very beautiful; we fell in love with the healthy green nature here, and the abundance of wildlife is truly overwhelming, but tourism being the main money-thing means that tourists are regarded as walking ATM machines, and we didn’t enjoy this at all. Unfortunately, “green” is all most Costa Ricans are about; the green of the dollar. Costa Rica, with its greedy National Park and Foreign Tourist policies has already become one extremely expensive tourist resort reserved for the rich and the privileged only. The backpacker of limited means who cannot afford to spend money for guides, for expensive Eco-lodge accommodations or illogical entrance fees, cannot survive long here and is not welcome. Nature in Costa Rica has been transformed into an expensive often private commodity and is being sold and prostituted to those who can afford it only. A bright example is Park Corcovado on the Osa Peninsula- one of the most bio-diverse spots on the planet with a variety of climates and ecosystems, ranging from lowland rainforests, to highland cloud forests, mangrove swamps, coastal marine, and beach habitats. But getting in Corcovado is complicated and ridiculously expensive. You can only enter the park if you have registered at least 1 month (31 days) in advance or more, and paid the fees by bank transfer. No cash or credit cards accepted. If you simply show up at the park’s entrance without a guide, with no registration, reservation and bank transfers in hand you will not enter, no matter what. The bank transfer itself costs between $30-60 and there are two separate transfers to be done- one for the entrance and accommodation fees and another for food reservation. Since November 2014, you can enter the park ONLY with a guide. A guide costs $80-90 per day. (Why only one year ago tourists had the option to enter the park without a guide, but today there is no longer such an option, I am asking, what changed?)
Corcovado Park fees:
Park Daily Use Fee: $15 (per person, per day)
Dorm sleeping per night: $8 (per person, per night)
Camping: $4 (per person, per night)
Breakfast: $20 (per person)
Lunch: $25 (per person)
Dinner: $25 (per person)
Guide: $90 (per day)
Bank transfer: $60
Here is a math problem for you to solve: How much it will cost a family of three to visit park Corcovado for three days, planning to camp for two nights and eat two or three meals per person per day?
I calculate an amount of over $600, even though it is still not clear to me if a guide is needed for each day and if the guide fee is per person or for the group. And even if we haul on our backs all the food that we will eat for three days, we will still spend hundreds of dollars for just two nights camping in our own tent. Oh, and getting to the park’s entrance is another big $$$ story.
But there is an alternative, as Tery told us, and we are urging every traveler of limited means to follow in our footsteps and experience the nature around park Corcovado, which is essentially similar to the nature inside the park, and meet the animals, absolutely free! Here is what we did, a few months after Tery and Ivan have passed through these same places.
In The Footsteps of Tery and Ivan
From Puerto Jimenez, we start walking on a flat gravel road direction- Park Corcovado- some 40 kilometers away. It’s December- dry season, the sky is blue, the sun is shining. Temperature is over 40 degrees Celsius, the humidity is high. On both sides of the road there are fenced pastures where cows and horses are gazing in the company of small white egrets.
Here, we spot the Scarlet (Ara) Macaws for the first time and it’s a miracle! They are like large flowers in the green of the branches, or like an unreal kid’s painting against the blue of the sky- bright red birds decorated with yellow and blue feathers.
It’s noon and the thin shade of the few trees along the road is not helping much. After an hour, we hitchhike. There is not much traffic on this road but we get lucky pretty quickly and a guy from the United States who owns property here lets us ride in the back of his pickup truck for a while. Then a local couple picks us up (what a surprise!) and we get to our first destination way earlier than we expected.
18 kilometers from Puerto Jimenez, there is an exit from the main road leading to Matapalo. Just before Matapalo, we reach a beautiful beach invaded by tiny hermit crabs- Pan Dulce (Sweet Bread).
This is the place Tery was telling me about. This is our spot. And it’s truly phenomenal. We set our tent near the sand strip in a small coconut palm grove, away from the beach, as the tides here are so big, you can wake up floating in your tent towards Australia if you camp too near to the sea.
At low tide, the receding waters of the Pacific Ocean reveal a floor of large flat rocks wet and shining under a spectacular pink-and-purple sunset. We walk around, we bathe in the sea, we eat our canned food while watching a couple of spider-monkeys eating the white flowers of the trees above us, and the red squirrels drilling holes in the coconuts, and the tiny hermit crabs scavenging bellow for whatever falls down from the trees. Howler monkeys are suffering in the distance; we sleep disturbed only by the sudden thud of coconuts falling next to our tent.
In the morning, we watch the sunrise in the company of Scarlet Macaws.
I actually don’t pay much attention to the sunrise, as I cannot stop taking pictures of the birds that let me get so close to them, I can almost touch them. Their presence, since we arrived on the peninsula, has been almost constant; they are so abundant here- almost like the seagulls in other parts of the world, yet we cannot get used to them and every time we see them, we celebrate. They say, there are more Scarlet Macaws on Osa Peninsula than in the rest of the world combined. I keep thinking how lucky we are to experience such moments together as a family. I observe Maya observing the parrots, and her eyes are shining, and my heart is melting. It seems unreal to me that Maya is watching macaws in Costa Rica…
This brilliantly colored, medium-sized macaw is the only macaw found on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. Macaws are the largest parrots in the Americas, and the Scarlet Macaw is distinct both in color and shape.
With strong wings, the scarlet macaw noisily flies high over the canopy. Their loud, resonant, boisterous calls can often be heard as they fly, but they are usually quiet while feeding. Pairs, trios, or small family groups are often seen, but these may sometimes merge into flocks of 25 or even 50 individuals at large roosts in tall trees or mangroves.
The Scarlet Macaw nests in large holes in tall living or dead trees; they do not dig these holes, but rely on finding cavities that are high off the ground and have vertical entrances. A macaw pair will lay 1-2 eggs per season in such a nest and raise them together. These macaws are serially monogamous, but they may change mates after several seasons.
In 1900, these parrots could still be seen in forests throughout Costa Rica; by 1950, however, due to habitat destruction, they were absent from the Caribbean slope except in the Northwest. They have also suffered from the pet trade; fortunately, today they are protected in every country in which they live. However, in Costa Rica, their populations still have been reduced by the destruction of their habitat. They are now constrained to the forests of the upper Golfo de Nicoya, such as in Palo Verde National Park, and the forests of the Osa Peninsula, such as at Corcovado National Park.
Source: Anywhere Costa Rica
After breakfast- my favorite breakfast is fresh coconuts that fell last night, we start walking again.
This time, the terrain is no longer flat pastures but forested steep hills and it’s up-hill through the jungle for the next 10 kilometers, almost all the way to Rio Piro. The heat is intense; the humidity is 100%. This time, we have no luck hitchhiking. Only a few cars pass in the next 5 hours and none is interested in picking us up. But that’s fine. We came here to walk and be in the forest.
The large blue morpho butterflies are another masterpiece of nature we cannot get used to, even though they are everywhere. We spot squirrel-monkeys and howler-monkeys and even an anteater up in a tree, using it’s tale as a hand to grab on branches while scratching the bark for termites.
By noon, we reach a wide shallow river- Rio Piro. A narrow path through the forest just before the river leads us to another spectacular beach- the same one Terry and Ivan got hit by a tropical storm at and their tent almost floated away in the flooded river. They were here during rainy season. We are here in the beginning of dry season and instead of rain we experience the intense burning heat of the tropics. The beach is huge, absolutely deserted, and scorching hot. The only sign of humans here are the numerous sticks marking sea turtle nests.
The waves are monstrous and violent, braking against the steep beach, and it is impossible to go in the water. We are tired but cannot sit in the shadow of the mangrove trees on the edge of the forest, because of some nasty ants that want to eat us, nor in the forest all covered with mud. And sitting on the beach would be suicidal; the sun will kill us for sure in less than five minutes. Even walking on the burning sand with no shoes on is impossible.
Luckily, there is the river. Where the jungle ends and the sand dunes begin, a slow stream of crystal clear waters gently floats. We dump the tent and backpacks and jump in the cool fresh delicious waters of the river complete with a tree leaning over it for shade and a spectacular view.
This is the perfect spot- a piece of paradise just for us; our swimming pool, shower and laundry room. We spend here the rest of the day, cooling down, playing with the tiny fishes, relaxing, and washing our dirty clothes and bodies. Squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, eagles, herons and macaws come out again in the late afternoon, noisy and busy with their usual business.
As the sun sets, the temperature drops and we can now go inside the tent, play some dominoes, have some more canned food, and sleep among sea turtle nests.
And this is how we walked, camped and experienced the unique nature of Osa Peninsula, and saw all the animals you might see in park Corcovado without a guide, with no reservations, and absolutely free!
In the next posts, you will find out how to enjoy some more of Costa Rica’s best nature destinations cheaply or for free.