Gary Hartshorn’s enthusiasm was only exceeded by the forest’s when he wrote in Costa Rican Natural History that “these forest are by far the most exuberant in Central America. In fact, the Corcovado forests are just as impressive in height as the best forests I have seen in the Amazon basin or the dipterocarp forests of Malaysia and Indonesia.”
He goes on to note “The Corcovado forests exemplify the popular conception of the tropical rain forest, with a multitude of species, very tall trees, spectacular buttresses, large woody lianas and abundant herbaceous vines. Daniel Janzen, the editor of the same volume speculated that the peninsula contained the complete tropical insect ecosystem from Mexico to Panama.
Ecosystems & Attractions
Corcovado National Park is the backpacking experience of a lifetime. It encompasses the only remaining old growth wet forests on the Pacific coast of Central America, and 13 major ecosystems including lowland rain forest, highland cloud forest, jolillo palm forest, and mangrove swamps, as well as coastal marine and beach habitats.
There is a good chance of spotting some of Costa Rica’s shyest and most endangered inhabitants here; Baird’s Tapirs, Jaguars, Scarlet Macaws, Harpy Eagles, Red-backed squirrel monkeys and White-lipped Peccaries. It is wet, remote and rugged, but the trails are relatively good, and the camping areas near the ranger stations are grassy and well drained.
If you have ever imagined yourself swimming up to a deserted golden sand beach lined with coconut palms, then rinsing off under a waterfall surrounded by the verdure of the rainforest. Then you’ll find Corcovado’s 23 miles (39 km) of beaches appealing. We walked 11 miles (18 km) of beach one day and saw one other person. Take care where you swim, there are areas where hammerhead sharks school (there has never been a reported attack), and crocodiles and bull sharks are common in Corcovado Lagoon and the estuaries of the Ríos Claro and Sirena.
Forests and Wildlife
Lowland rain forest, highland cloud forest, jolillo palm forest, and mangrove swamps, coastal marine, and beach habitats support a spectacular variety of wildlife.
All four of the monkey species (including the highly endangered Red-backed squirrel monkey), and all six of the feline species found in Costa Rica inhabit Corcovado. All four of the sea turtle species that nest in Costa Rica visit the beaches of Corcovado as well.
Over 40 species of frogs including red-eyed tree, rain, glass, dink, and poison arrow varieties, dozens of snakes including a variety of Boas and the dreaded bushmaster, as well as 28 species of lizards. More than 100 species of butterflies and at least 10,000 other insects call the Osa peninsula home (including a few you may wish were endangered).
More than 400 species of birds including 16 different hummingbirds and the largest number of scarlet macaws anywhere in Central America.
Trekking, Hiking and Camping
A certified guide is now required to enter or stay in Corcovado. Independent visitors are not permitted.
There are a total of six ranger stations for Corcovado. Five stations are inside the park and two have camping areas, potable water, and radio or telephone contact with the outside world. There is also sometimes space under a roof for your sleeping bag.
The Osa conservation area administrative headquarters just east of Puerto Jiménez next to the landing strip. Park contact information – Monday to Friday 7:30 a.m. to noon, and 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., phone 2735-5036 -or- 2735-5580, fax 2735-5276). Take a good look a the map because it’s probably the most detailed one you’ll see and they won’t let you take it.
There are several ways to enter Corcovado. Carate is 26 miles (43 km) southwest of Puerto Jiménez along a rocky muddy road that deteriorates from a reasonable gravel surface to a serious 4WD challenge as you round Cabo Matapalo. There are a pulpería for last minute supplies, a campsite with showers and restrooms, and several lodges in the area.
From Carate you can enter the park on foot at the La Leona Ranger station (camping sites with an outdoor shower) 1.2 miles (2 km) west along playa Madrigal. Camping sites with restrooms, a hand wash laundry area, and an outdoor shower are available.
Sirena ranger station is 9 miles (15 km ) west along the beach. At high tide there are several rock outcroppings that block the way. In addition to camping Sirena has a large old bunk house (being renovated in 2016) where you can set up your mosquito net, and roll out your sleeping bag under a roof (reservation required). The airstrip at Sirena is open to charter or private flights with advance notice.
From Sirena you can continue mostly along the beach (again only at low tide) to the San Pedrillo ranger station (14 miles, 23 km). Bunks and showers are available in addition to camping (reservation required). Lodges at Drake bay 11 miles (18 km) to the north often arrange entry to the park at San Pedrillo.
From Sirena you can also turn north and inland past Laguna Corcovado and climb towards the cloud forest and Los Patos ranger station (10 miles, 16 km) where there are camp sites, and 12 bunks that are not occupied by rangers (although they are almost always reserved by researchers).
From Los Patos it’s 8 miles (13 km) through National Park and a strip of Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve to the main road at La Palma. The trail between Los Patos and La Palma winds in and out of the Río Rincón so many times you may start feeling a little amphibious.
The 7 km long trail from the El Tigre station at the end of the Dos Brazos road on the southeast corner of the park was opened to public access late in 2014. Reservations and guide services are required and available from local lodges.
The Los Planes Station and trail are currently closed.
Precautions for Trekking the Osa Peninsula Wilderness & Corcovado
If you are not a seasoned back country traveler & familiar with tropical trekking it’s best to use a professional guide for your own safety.
- Beach hiking in Corcovado is exposed and hot. The tropical sun will put you in the hospital if you don’t respect it.
- There are numerous river crossings on the hikes in Corcovado. Inland, the greatest danger is losing the trail on the other side, or during the rainy season being upended and bruised on the rocks (the water can be waist deep). Along the coast most fords must be at low tide (tide tables are posted at the ranger stations and most lodgings in Puerto Jiménez). Both crocodiles and hammerhead sharks patrol the waters of the estuaries of the Ríos Claro and Sirena. Cross at the shallowest point, as far upstream as possible.
- Riptides are common, Check with rangers before swimming in unknown waters. If you are caught and being towed out to sea, swim parallel to the beach until you are free of the current, then head to shore.
- Corcovado has the largest population of collard and white-lipped peccaries in Costa Rica, they are both endangered and dangerous. They travel in extended family groups of up to 30, and sharp teeth that are normally used to tear through rocky soil and roots while foraging, and will cut through flesh and bone effortlessly. They are not particularly interested in attacking humans, but their eyesight is weak, and they can be very aggressive when startled or if they think you are challenging them. Back off and if you have to climb a tree and wait for them to leave.
- Numerous snakes call Corcovado home, including venomous and constricting varieties. It’s unlikely you’ll be fortunate enough to see them unless you are looking hard, but be careful reaching where you can’t see.
- Mosquitoes and horseflies are constant pests, and spiders rebuild their webs across the trails at an absolutely astonishing rate. Purrujas (no-see-ums) are mosquito’s super evil microscopic twins (not biologically accurate, but the sentiment is valid) that come out on beaches and in marshy areas around dusk. They consider DEET a treat, but thanks go out to C. Baker’s Moon handbook for tipping us off to Avon’s skin so soft. It’s like magic..
- Africanized bees are common. We saw a miniature stampede down the main street of Puerto Jiménez when a group of horses being prepared for a tour group disturbed a hive. Dodging back and forth while running is better than running in a straight line (but don’t trip) and there’s always that Warner Brothers standby of diving in the pond and breathing through a reed until the bees move on, but be warned they are very patient.
In the Region
As a ferry terminal and the end of the bus line, the town of Puerto Jimenez serves as an unofficial gateway to Corcovado. It has developed into a budget travelers haven, with a large number of inexpensive cabinas, restaurants, travel services and rental outlets. You can easily arrange for transportation into the park, as well as guide service, or a tour if you desire one. Bicycles, sea kayaks and horses are also available for rent or as part of a tour.
When to Visit
Use the drop down menu to select any month of the year for a summary of the typical rainfall and weather patterns. You will probably get wet whenever you visit Corcovado, but a drenching is guaranteed August through November.
If you will be camping, you probably want to try for the drier months of January through April. If you have the fortitude to withstand afternoon showers and a really good drenching or two, a visit during the rainy season may be rewarded (if you can get to the park…) with empty trails and better wildlife viewing in the absence of the crowds.
There are a number of access points for Corcovado, but Puerto Jiménez is generally considered the gateway to the area. If you don’t have a 4WD vehicle transportation to the park boundary is available by private or collectivo taxi from there. If you’ve got a reservation with a lodge they’ll be happy to help you with travel arrangements and suggested routes.
SANSA flys out of Juan Santamaría (where the International Carriers arrive) several times a day to Puerto Jiménez ($78), Golfito ($78), and Drake Bay ($80).
Travelair/Natureair operates out of Tobías Bolaños Airport in Pavas (about 10km from Juan Santamaría where the International Carriers arrive) and offers flights from there to Puerto Jiménez ($87 – $158), and Drake Bay ($87 – $158) and also serves Puerto Jiménez (via Tobías Bolaños) from Quepos ($99 – $209) and Bocas del Toro Panamá ($140).
Prices are each way and there is no discount for round trip ticketing on either airline. Be sure to note the 25 lb baggage restrictions and other recommendations, especially if you are traveling with surfing or scuba equipment.
Flying directly into the park on a charter is also possible at Carate east of the park boundary at Madrigal or into the heart of the park at Sirena.
Taking of from Carate headed to Sirena and Drake Bay after a trek across the peninsula following the south east boundary of the park on the Sendero de Oro.
Take the Pan American Highway East out of San José, the road curves South and changes designation from Highway 1 to Highway 2, although it’s still the Pan American Highway. About 30 miles (50 km) past Cartago you climb over Cerro de la Muerte, and you will reach San Isidro el General after a total of 92 miles (153 km) (approx. 3 1/2 hours). Continue south on the Pan American Highway to Chacarita/Piedras Blancas to where you turn right (southwest) on 245 towards Puerto Jiménez.
Alternatively head west on the “new” Caldera road (Hwy 27) from San José towards Jacó and follow the Coastal route (Hwy 34) to Palmar where it intersects the Pan American and you can pick up the instructions above.
Three access routes for the park branch off of the road to Puerto Jiménez. The first is the turnoff (right) for Drake Bay (4WD, typically impassable in rainy season) at Rincón 44 km from the Pan American Highway. The right turn for the track (seriously 4WD, typically impassable in rainy season) towards the Los Patos station is 9 km further along at La Palma and towards Dos Brazos and the Tigre station 18 km past that.
Total distance from San José to Puerto Jiménez is 240 miles (395 km, approx. 9 hours driving time). The final road access to Corcovado is past Puerto Jiménez to the south and 43 km around Cabo Matapalo to Carate (4WD recommended).
(Get a current detailed roadmap printed on waterproof tear resistant synthetic. Highly recommended of course since we publish it)
Relatively current and typically correct bus schedule information is available at thebusschedule.com/cr/
For a rough idea the last time we checked we found the possibilities below
699 Puerto Jiménez-Express departures daily from San José, outside Terminal Atlántico Norte, 6:00 a.m., 12:00 noon, 378 km, 10 hours, Atlántico Norte, Telephone (506) 2256-8963
612 Golfito-Express departures daily from San José, Terminal Alfaro / TRACOPA, 7:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m., 339 km, 8 hours, TRACOPA, Telephone (506) 2222-2666, then take the ferry to Puerto Jiménez
Passenger ferry to Puerto Jiménez from Golfito, Departures every day from the Municipal Dock in Golfito (Muelle) at 11:00 a.m., Returns 6:00 a.m., 1/2 hour
Lanchas or boat taxis depart from Sierpe for the trip downriver to Drake Bay (local bus service available from Palmar Sur) either by reservation through your lodge or by arrangement on the dock at the end of the road.
Advanced Reservations & Certified Guide
“Through the administrative decision number; R-SINAC-ACOSA-D-011-2013 it is official that as of February 1st of 2014, all visitors to Corcovado National Park will be required to be accompanied by a local tour guide”
The only legal way to enter Corcovado is on a group or private tour purchased from a certified operator and accompanied by local guide who has registered in advance with the park service. Freelance guides are not permitted (even if they have ICT certification).
Purchase tours in advance through a travel service, the lodge where you have reservations or in person from a local tour office.
Despite the ominous sounding declaration that violations will be “sanctioned by Article 307 of the Penal Code of Costa Rica which stipulates prison of up to one year.” we spoke with visitors inside the park early in 2016 who were unaccompanied. We were told by these affable scofflaws that it is still possible to purchase permits and camping reservations at the main station in Jiménez in person without producing an accompanying guide or guide permit.