Exploring Corcovado National Park is not something to be undertaken lightly, but neither is it the expedition that some people make it out to be. The weather is the biggest obstacle to overnight backpacking trips through the park. The heat and humidity are often extreme, and frequent rainstorms can make trails fairly muddy. Within a couple of hours of Puerto Jiménez (by 4WD vehicle) are two entrances to the park, at La Leona and Los Patos; however, the park has no roads, so before you reach the entrances, you’ll have to start hiking. All Corcovado visitors must be accompanied by licensed, professional guides.
The park is amazingly rich in biodiversity. It is one of the only places in Costa Rica that is home to all four of the country's monkey species—howler, white-faced, squirrel, and spider. Its large size makes it an ideal habitat for wildcat species, including the endangered jaguar, as well as other large mammals, like the Baird's tapir. Apart from the jaguar, other cat species found here include the ocelot, margay, jaguarundi, and puma. Nearly 400 species of birds have been recorded inside the park. Scarlet macaws are commonly sighted here. Other common bird species include any number of antbirds, manakins, toucans, tanagers, hummingbirds, and puffbirds. Once thought extinct in Costa Rica, the harpy eagle has been spotted here as well in recent years. Most rivers in Corcovado are home to crocodiles and at high tide are frequented by bull sharks. For this reason, river crossings must be coordinated with low tides. Your guide will know the ropes.
Because of its size and remoteness, Corcovado National Park is best explored over 2 to 3 days; no more than 5 days are permitted at one time. Still, it is possible to enter and hike the park on a day trip. The best way to do this is to book a tour with your lodge on the Osa Peninsula, from a tour company in Puerto Jiménez, or through a lodge in Drake Bay.
Getting There & Entry Points: The park has four primary ranger stations, two of which serve as entry and exit points for multiday expeditions. You can drive all the way to Los Patos Ranger Station, but La Leona is still a 3km hike past the end of the road. Perhaps the easiest way to reach the La Leona Ranger Station from Puerto Jiménez is a 3km (1.75-mile) hike, which should take about 20 minutes, from Carate, which is accessible by car, taxi, or the twice-daily colectivo truck. A new visitor center is under construction there.
To travel there by “public transportation” from Puerto Jiménez, pick up one of the collective buses (actually, a 4WD pickup truck with a tarpaulin cover and slat seats in the back) that leave Puerto Jiménez for Carate daily at 6am and 1:30pm, returning at 8am and 4pm. The one-way fare is about $10. A small fleet of these trucks leaves one block south of the bus terminal, and will stop to pick up anyone who flags them down along the way. Your other option is to hire a taxi, which will charge about $80 to or from Carate.
En route to Carate, you will pass several campgrounds and small lodges. If you are unable to get a spot at one of the campsites in the park, you can stay at one of these and hike the park during the day.
You can also travel to El Tigre, about 14km (8 3/4 miles) by dirt road from Puerto Jiménez, site of another ranger station. But note that trails from El Tigre go only a short distance into the park and do not connect to the heart of Corcovado, where most of the wildlife is.
Another entrance is in Los Patos, which is reached from the town of La Palma, northwest of Puerto Jiménez. From here, a 19km (12-mile) trail runs through the center of the park to Sirena, a ranger station and research facility. Sirena has a landing strip used by charter flights.
The northern entrance to the park is San Pedrillo, which you can reach by hiking from Sirena or by taking a boat from Drake Bay or Sierpe. It’s 14km (8 3/4 miles) from Drake Bay.
For an aerial view you can charter a plane in Puerto Jiménez to take you to Carate ($180) or Sirena ($360). Contact Alfa Romeo Air Charters (www.alfaromeoair.com; tel. 8632-8150).
Fees & Regulations: Park admission is $15 per person per day. Only the Sirena station is equipped with dormitory-style lodgings and camping platforms with bathrooms and showers and cafeteria-style meal service. Meals are costly ($20–$25), so you might consider packing your own breakfast and lunch and perhaps splurging on dinner. Sirena is the only place in Corcovado where camping and overnight dorm lodging are allowed. All must be reserved in advance by contacting the ACOSA (Area de Conservacion de Osa) in Puerto Jiménez (tel. 2735-5036; email@example.com). However, its offices, adjacent to the airstrip, are notoriously poor at answering e-mails and attending to reservations. Only a limited number of people are allowed to camp or to enter on day trips and all must be accompanied by a certified guide, so make your reservations well in advance. Your best bet is to go with a lodge or to contact full-service outfitters Osa Corcovado Tour & Travel (www.corcovadoguide.com; tel. 8632-8150) or Osa Aventura (www.osaaventura.com; tel. 2735-5758 or 8372-6135).
Beach Treks & Rainforest Hikes: Corcovado has some of the best hiking trails in the world, with animals so acclimated to humans that they barely glance at you, much less run away (most aren’t a threat to humans, but keep your distance from the peccaries). The most popular trail starts at La Leona, near Carate, and leads to Sirena. Between any two ranger stations, the hiking is arduous and takes all or most of a day. In 2006, the environment minister of Costa Rica was lost in Corcovado for three days after a mother tapir attacked him. Today, nobody is allowed into the park without a licensed guide, and for good reason. This is a wild place without neat trails or clear signage. At times you have to cross rivers inhabited by crocodiles, with bull sharks drifting in at high tide looking for dinner.
The Sirena ranger station is a fascinating destination. As a research facility, it attracts scientists studying the rainforest, but most visitors are hardcore ecotourists and backpackers, who can be a surprisingly cheerless lot. If you’re looking for a big party, you’ve come to the wrong place. But for a wild, buggy, snaky, hot, wet adventure, Corcovado is unsurpassable.
Trail Distances in Corcovado National Park: It’s 14km (8.7 miles) from La Leona to Sirena, and 3km (1.9 miles) farther from Carate. From San Pedrillo, it’s 20km (13 miles) to Drake Bay. It’s 19km (12 miles) between Sirena and Los Patos.
Important Corcovado Tips: If you plan to hike the beach trails from La Leona or San Pedrillo, be sure to pick up a tide table at the park headquarters’ office in Puerto Jiménez, or check with your guide. The tide changes rapidly; when it’s high, the trails and river crossings can be dangerous or impassable.
If you plan to spend a night or more in the park, you’ll want to stock up on food, water, and other essentials in Puerto Jiménez, or else pre-arrange food service at Sirena for $20 to $25 per meal.
Where to Stay & Eat in the Park: Reservations are essential at the various ranger stations if you plan to eat or sleep inside the park. Sirena has dormitory-style accommodations for 28 people, as well as a campground, cafeteria, and landing strip for charter flights. Camping inside Corcovado is currently available only at Sirena. Every ranger station has potable water, but it’s advisable to pack in your own. You should never drink from a river. Campsites in the park are $5 per person per night. A dorm bed at the Sirena station runs $12, but you must bring your own sheets, and a mosquito net is also a good idea. Meals here are $20 for breakfast and $25 for lunch and dinner. Everything must be reserved in advance.