The Road to Carate, Costa Rica

One of several water crossings on the way to Carate from Puerto Jimenez

In a country, Costa Rica, renowned for terrible roads, this might be the worst of the lot. 42 kilometers is all that separates Puerto Jimenez from Carate, one of the 3 entrances to the spectacular Corcovado National Park, situated on the isolated Osa Peninsula. But it’s a hellish drive with 13 major water crossings, thousands of crater potholes and various other terrain problems capable of gutting any oil pan. Every article or report I’ve read in every guide book states that even with a high clearance 4wd vehicle, the potential for disaster looms large. The National Geographic Expedition catalog, while touting an excursion by boat, declared that the park was ‘unreachable by road’, certainly a misrepresentation of the facts. So, when the opportunity to try it with a 2wd Nissan sedan presented itself, there was no question.
We had to give it a go.

Make sure the windows are up

Leaving Puerto Jimenez, heading south, the dirt road is semi smooth, with multitudes of potholes and deep ruts, rolling through beautiful country and several ranches. About 5 k from town, the first water obstacle is reached, a small stream which is only troublesome during rainy season. The next crossing is much the same, shallow and flat, but the third presents a new degree in difficulty. This one is steep on both sides of the water, with an abrupt ridge that could stymie a tentative driver. But we didn’t have that problem, and kept on thrashing up and over a long muddy hill that climbs several hundred feet. Momentum is essential here, as a spinout could result in a stuck vehicle that would have no alternative but to back down , all the way to the water, to attempt it again. There are 3 large hills that need to be negotiated like this, so a slow truck could really get in the way at the wrong spot. Shortly, two more crossings are met, both of minimal difficulty, before another challenging spot of a wide river, flat but deeper than any before. Walking across before driving is highly advised at the worst of the crossings, both to find the shallowest line and to remove potentially problematic rocks. Number 7 is the most daunting of all, a deep river with steep banks up both sides and about 2 feet deep at it’s lowest. This is the one that requires careful study before committing, as any lack of momentum and you’re floating downstream. This crossing provides an alternative route, favored by motorcyclists, just upstream but the start is deep rutted mud, a very easy place to get stuck. If the river is running any higher than it was on that December day, the possible peril is accentuated, and we gave this barrier an 8.5. On the return trip, we had the great fortune of having a skip loader tractor scraping and then dumping gravel on the crossing to aid in underwater traction. Never the less, a couple of locals watching here were summarily amazed watching the Nissan emerge again.

Momentum is key

There are 6 more water crossings, none worse than 3.5 on the gruesome scale, but a thunderstorm can change everything. The Osa Peninsula received almost 400 inches of rain that season, the most ever recorded, so the condition of this road is variable at best. But besides mashing the plastic cowling underneath the front bumper on a couple of rough pitches, no damage was done to the rental, and even that was quickly re rigged manually. However, a lame driver could get a Hummer stuck in a number of places, so driving expertise and finesse trumps superior equipment. Due to rental car liability and possible repercussions, our driver shall remain anonymous, but his ability and experience driving challenging roads is prolific. High clearance is certainly useful, and 4wd will come in handy, but there are no guarantees here, and no insurance for poor judgement. One round trip here brings a new appreciation for roads, period, and just how bad some can get. There’s a heck of a payoff at the end of this one.
Go, and then make it back………



Corcovado National Park Costa Rica

As far as Costa goes, the souther the better

Yeah, I know Costa Rica’s not technically South America, but it’s actually further south than parts of Colombia, believe it or else. Besides that, it takes great care of its parks and reserves, hunting is illegal, and I love the place. Certainly, parts are being overdeveloped and some areas and towns are not so pretty, but the good places are great, and this article is about my favorite. For the most part, wild animals are treated with considerable care and respect, compared to many countries where they’re considered pests and nuisances to be eradicated. Here, they’re a big part of the family.

The local croc here is known as ‘El Guencho’

Costa Rica boasts 18 national parks, asylum for thousands of species and the conservation model of the third world. One of these refuges, Corcovado, is managed as a place where the wildlife rules supreme. Man is the visitor, with only slight concessions offered for our convenience, so the effort and endurance required to fully, or even partially experience the wonders there is substantial. This is how the CR government likes it, difficult for people, and low impact on the wildlife that abounds here.

Pizotes in the park

Some of the wildlife is not only wild, but downright dangerous, like the Bull Sharks and crocodiles that inhabit the bays and rivers in the park, some of which need to be crossed on foot, ideally at low tide, for obvious reasons. The only camping allowed in the entire park is on the grass at the 3 ranger stations, all situated on the Pacific coast- San Pedrillo, Sirena, and La Leona, from north to south. Besides short loops around the stations, there are only 2 actual trails, one running from north to south from San Pedrillo to La Leona, and another west to east from Sirena across the interior to Las Patos, which has no ranger station. Each of the stations is about 20 kilometers from the other, so serious stamina and wilderness savvy is compulsory. Ideally, a 4 or 5 day backpack across the park and back should be enough to get the jungle fever out of the system, and wildlife opportunities promise to be off the charts.

In this part of the country, you’re on your own

Another possible feat would be to get dropped off by a vehicle at the Los Patos entrance, then covering the 20 k to La Sirena, and spending the night there. Then another 20  k ramble southward, crossing both the Rio Sirena and Rio Claro rivers, and exiting the park at La Leona. The Rio Claro holds crocodiles, and the Sirena Bull Sharks, so timing the tides will be critical. This trek entails 40 jungle kilometers in two days, so maybe two nights camping at the Sirena station would be more practical.

Eyes up to the trees to spot these guys

I have stayed at the Corcovado Tent Camp, on Drake Bay and accessible from the north via the airports at Palmar Sur and Drake Bay. They offer economical packages including transportation from either airport, accommodations, meals, and guided park tours, and it’s a good value. The roads are funky and rough on the Osa peninsula, but the place can probably be accessed on the ground as well. At the time I went, it was definitely the best deal to get into the northern section of the park. The setting is idyllic.

There is no travel permitted off the trails whatsoever, as any venture off the beaten path is foolishly dangerous, poisonous snakes like the Fer De Lance and Bushmaster are numerous, and crocodiles inhabit virtually every river and stream. Lago Corcovado is a large inland lake that the ranger reported is absolutely packed with crocs and completely off limits to non reptiles, probably the closest this hemisphere gets to sub tropical Africa.

Guides are recommended for visitors, but anybody with minimal observation skills will see enough wildlife to keep scanning the bush nonstop. All four types of Costa Rican monkeys, Capuchin, Spider, Howler, and Squirrel, reside in large numbers here, along with sloths, anteaters, pizotes and lots more usually seen only in zoos. There are enough exotic birds to keep a fanatic binoculared for years, and reptile populations found elsewhere only in the Amazon basin. Because of Corcovado’s limited access points and resulting minimal human impact, the animals in the park have flourished, and that’s the key. The vibe of a primitive, primal, somewhat ominous jungle is obvious to all, and anybody looking for convenience and ease is dreaming.

Get used to this

But this is one of the great independent adventures still possible, and getting to the Osa very straight forward and uncomplicated. Fly or drive to Puerto Jimenez, and then take the bus or drive the sketchy 42 kilometer road to Carate, adjacent and just south of the park entrance at La Leona. Although two tent camps are slightly closer, the finest and best value accommodations are at the Lookout Inn, with luxurious open air cabinas built on the slope above the road. Outstanding meals are included, served in the main building, which sports two tremendous patios frequented by dozens of local birds. This is the place to stay before and after the jungle trek of a lifetime, and is also close enough to take day hikes into the park and make it back for a hot shower, a great meal, and a soft bed. The staff is endlessly friendly and helpful, and park passes are available, which otherwise have to be purchased on line, or in person, at the Bank of Costa Rica. Park visitors can no longer just show up at the entrance and pay the fee, passes must be procured in advance. All of this hullabaloo further insures that the human visitors will never intrude on the residents, and from all present indications, this is a place that will last.