When I booked onto the Costa Rica conservation project; I was sent an email. Inside this email was information on a three-day hike to Corcovado National Park. The park is considered one of the world’s most biodiverse regions with wildlife that includes: Jaguar, Tapirs, Pumas, Coati’s, Crocodiles and more. The trail itself goes through several different terrains, from beaches, mangrove swamps to the floors of the rainforest. As soon as I read the email I knew I had to do it. For me, it would be a challenge and I wanted to challenge myself, to push my body pass its own boundaries. Along with the opportunity to potentially see some incredible wildlife.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, the morning of the hike I walked around camp with butterflies filling my stomach. I ate porridge; a food choice that felt like a good way to prepare myself for the long walk ahead. My nerves stemmed from fear; I wanted the challenge but I was half terrified that I wouldn’t be able to push my body all that way, that I would want to give in and quit. At this point, I had no idea of the difficulty level of the hike, for the last week and a half I has seen so many people embarking on the hike, people in all shapes and sizes, of all different ages. Promptly at 7am my guide arrived to pick me up, on a motorbike. I had heard so many stories which included accidents on motorbikes over the last week. I am not entirely sure what I was thinking when I took my first motorbike ride, wearing no helmet over a road littered with potholes and rocks. It was scary and exciting; I am still determined to do motorbike lessons one day!
The hike begins at the start of one of the trails which is used on the project, one that I had walked many times in the last week. There were many other people setting of from here, with their own guide, some in groups, couples or just them and a guide. To my relief, because I am quite shy and can be pretty horrific at keeping conversations flowing, we were joined by a friend of the guide, he didn’t speak much English (although it was a lot better than he let on) and I don’t speak any Spanish (although I did it in school for three years and tried to learn some before I went.) So, for me it was nice that they could talk to each other whilst I just focussed on walking! Since I had walked the first part of the hike a few times, we bypassed the usual animals such as the Capuchin, Howler monkeys and Spider monkeys. There are a few eco-lodges at the end of this trail, along with some homes, a dog was out playing along with a spider monkey! It was fascinating to watch these two species interact and engage with each other, by the time I had gotten closer and pulled out my camera to take a photo the monkey had gotten bored and decided to climb up a tree.
The start of Corcovado National Park is marked with a building, you go inside the building to register and to sign a ledger, stating your name, age, nationality and date of entrance. After reading books on the Pacific Crest trail and the Appalachian trail, I enjoyed the novelty of it and for a second I could trick myself that I was embarking on an epic long hike like the above two.Our first animal encounter happened around five minutes after entering the park, we were met with white-nosed Coatis. Before I had come to Costa Rica; I had no idea what a Coati was. When people spoke to me and said ‘Coati’ I nodded and smiled, acting like I had heard of it out from fear of feeling a little bit dumb. They are commonly mistaken for Raccoons; my favourite feature is their long tail which points towards the sky. Coatis are typically found in family groups which consist of females and young (which are adorable) the males leave the group when they get older and become territorial animals.
An interesting find in the forest was a skeleton of an humpback whale, not something I had expected to encounter, I've seen them in the wild but seeing a skeleton puts it into perspective how big these animals are.
Where do I even begin with the rest of the hike? The worst part for me was not knowing how much further there was to go, I was consistently being told it is not much further and an hour or so later we would still be walking. It was hot, I was sticky and slightly aggravated. It was so hard even paying attention to my surroundings (which were breathtakingly stunning) because I was too focussed on putting one foot in front of the other. My guide kept asking me if I wanted a break; my answer was always no. I didn’t want to stop, I didn’t want to sit down because I knew if I did it too often I would grow tired, my mind set was to keep walking until we had reached our destination. It was hard, I won’t lie. My backpack was rubbing against my shoulder, even though it is meant to be one of those bags designed for comfort, one with padded straps. The weight of my bag grew heavier with every step, I was kicking myself thinking of all the things I could have left behind. Before the hike I was given a list of things to take with me, half of which I could have easily gone without but I told myself ‘what if’ what if I needed it and had left it at camp so I popped it all in. Even worst, I was so thirsty. I had packed two 700ml bottles of water with me, I so badly wanted to drink them both, after finishing the first bottle off I savoured the second one, taking small sips every now and then. I didn’t want to waste it, the not knowing of how much I have left to walk stopped me from drinking it all. Honestly, I was so thirsty even the sea started to look tempting.
Due to the recent bad weather; it had caused a lot of landslides. There were large trees scattered across the beach, their roots no longer buried in the ground. Quite sad, that trees older than me by many years had been torn apart by the elements that help it survive. Nature is wonderful, but it is so unpredictable. Our path was blocked; this saw us climbing up the actual landslide which isn’t the easiest terrain to walk on. Misplacing my foot saw me slipping a few times, as little rocks tumbled down to the beach. Steep hills are my weak point, I get out of breath so quick, I thought this would have been the only little climb I would have to do but immediately afterwards I found myself climbing up a hill using roots to pull my body up onto the pathway.
At this point, we must have been four hours in to the hike, I was starting to feel slightly disappointed. I know you can’t really rely on animals to be there when you are, but since entering the park we had seen nothing but the Coati’s. I had seen more animals at camp. Walking all this way so far seemed meaningless. I wasn’t entirely sure at this point, if I was even enjoying it. I felt like I was torturing myself. Thankfully, a shimmer of hope occurred. I briefly looked up and saw a Crocodile swimming in the ocean, it was gone as soon as it appeared but it was enough to put a smile on my face, to re-instore my motivation and to remind me that this wasn’t a waste of time. It would be worth it.
Eventually, we arrived at a river. Now my guide had told me about the river, how it comes up to peoples necks, he had said it with a nervous laughter. I had assumed he was joking but in front of me laid a wide, muddy river. We waited, we waited for over an hour for the tide to go down. I laid on the jungle floor, falling asleep but half in a panic worrying about things such as my camera and phone. If the water was so high, how was I going to get it across the water without it getting wet? When the time came to cross, I was told to hoist the bag onto my shoulder and try my best to hold it above my head. My weak little arms were not impressed. I walked into the water, cautiously making sure not to trip on any logs or rocks in the water. Water that was cold and slowly filled the inside of my wellingtons, soggy boots, something I will not miss. The water kept rising, finally settling just below my breasts. On the other side I came out dripping and heavy with water but I loved every moment of it, I could also pretend I was a real explorer for a while too. On the other side we only had a little bit of rainforest to walk through before we had reached the rangers station. In that tiny bit of forest, we managed to spot Great Curassows which are magnificent birds and Toucans.
Through the trees I could see a clearing of bright green grass, after six hours we had reached the Rangers station. I was so relieved, after finding a place to sleep I torn of my wet clothes and had a shower. I might as well have been stood under a hose of water, but at the least I was out of wet clothes and I could have food and relax for the night.
The reality of this hike was a lot different than I had pictured, going of little information I had imagined us to be walking and setting up camp for three days. I was grateful we weren’t; I love camping but I was happy to be sleeping at the Rangers station, which was a raised wooden platform with tents inside. My first night of sleep wasn’t great though, I woke up in the middle of the night to a noise. The next thing I know is that my tent is being pushed up from underneath, I have no idea if I was in a dream state mode but I fought to push it back down. I had an eaten apple in my tent, I assumed this might have been attracting whatever animal it was outside, if I hadn’t imagined it so I chucked the apple outside, in the morning it was gone. Many people were leaving early in the morning, to do their first walk of the day. My guide had told me 530am was the perfect time to leave, I would have enjoyed being able to have slept to at least 5am but people walking around made the loudest noise, and so many inconsiderate people were waving their flashlights around, several of which blinded me in the face. It was easy to see without one, or at least in a red light mode.
The way the day worked was by doing a morning hike, returning to base for lunch, doing another hike, returning and then one before dinner. We left for the morning hike at 5:30 am. I’ve mentioned that animals are unpredictable, so I really didn’t want to get my hopes up but there was one animal I really wanted to see, a tapir. When the guide pointed out a bird, my stomach briefly fluttered thinking he said a tapir and I slowly became disappointed, which isn’t what I wanted. However, about five minutes later he said the words ‘tapir’ my body went into a momentary panic, did he really just say tapir?Away from the path, on a gentle slope towards a pool of water lay a Tapir with her calf. I had seen footage of these particular two on the Frontier facebook page, after the storm and floods in this areas they had crossed my mind frequently due to hearing about a number of Tapir dying during the bad weather. Now I knew they were both safe. The mother lay half submerged in the pool of water, remaining calm as we approached closer. The calf was stood up using its trunk to play with a branch. It was an incredible moment and I could have stayed for ages, watching mother and calf relaxing in the cool morning air. A lot of people had left earlier than us and we ended up bumping into a few groups on the beach, they had been looking for Tapirs as well, missing the ones we had just come across, so we pointed them in the right direction. Here, fresh water meets salt and a fish which I can’t recall the name of makes its way up the lake that forms with the sea during low tide to feed on other marine life. We sat on a log, watching the occasional fin appear quickly out of the water. It was here, that we spotted another Tapir. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Across the stream in front of me a male tapir had appeared from the forest. I watched it feeding on some branches before it slowly started to get closer, before I knew it, it was in the stream. It came out of the water about 6 feet in front of me and walked past us before getting spooked and breaking into a run. I genuinely could not believe how close it came. About five minutes later, we decided to follow the path he had taken to find him lying on the floor getting groomed by a bird. Gradually, the other groups emerged back onto the beach and we left so they could enjoy seeing the tapir. We went in the direction this male had appeared from, through the stream and into the forest. My guide said there was another good place to spot tapir so he went to check it out to see if there was one there, and there was. Another, larger male was casually making his way through the jungle before disappearing out of eyesight. I was incredibly happy, I had not only managed to see the animal I wanted to encounter but I got to see four of them! All of the heat, sweat and pain from the day before was instantly worth it. I knew this was a moment I would remember for the rest of my life. On the morning hike we also spotted a sloth, the second animal I wanted to see. These are so well camouflaged that I could have walked past a hundred of them and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have noticed. This one was fast asleep, sticking to his name, curled up in a little ball. Later on, on another walk we came back to see if he was awake and he was very quickly, much quicker than I expected making his way down part of the tree.
I saw many other animals, mainly birds. Don’t get me wrong birds are fascinating but for me I don’t feel excited by seeing them, I guess coming from the UK I wanted to see bigger animals seeming as there are few to be found here. A few birds included the pale-beaked woodpecker, a rufous-winged woodpecker (which I feel appreciated to have seen, this was the first one my guide had ever seen and he was Costa Rican!) and a blue-crowned Mannequin, whose crown was literally the shiniest blue. Ants. To say they are tiny ants are quite scary, we came across an army of ants which we had to jump over, these things devour pretty much any living thing in their path. We saw golden ants, and you can see where they got their name from, they look like tiny golden figurines and lastly fire ants, something I would not like to get bitten by.
I saw an Agouti, a rodent like animal delicately making his/her way across the forest floor, looking for food whilst staying alert. My last big animal encounter came on the last walk, when we came across two group of peccaries which are pig like mammals. Now I was casually taking photos and filming videos, then two peccaries starting to run around in a circle. Here I was thinking it was all sweet and innocent and that they were playing, I was wrong they broke out into a fight right in front of me. Their very sharp teeth on show. Tracks are also an indicator of the animals that live here, we came across Jaguar print and Tapir prints very close together, Tapir being one of their main prey.
It was not only amazing to see so many species of animals but I also got to learn a little bit about a few trees and plants. One tree which my guide referred to as the naked Indian tree, a tree which has many properties, the sticky resin has been used as glue and varnish whilst the bark can be made into a tea to be used as a natural remedy for many causes, it also meant to be packed full of iron. There was another given the name of the milk tree, which you may have guessed produces a milky substance if you cut into the bark. I was a little wary of tasting it but quite unsurprisingly it tasted just like milk. Its healing properties are said to help cure stomach ulcers. In Costa Rica, they have the Fer-de-lance snake an extremely venomous pit piper, there is a plant named after the snake which when drank as a tea can cure the toxins from a snake, however drinking the plant without being bit makes it just as venomous as the snake. It sounds really pleasant, the vine has a distinctive scent to it, other than that I did not want to go near it.
Back at the rangers station, we watched a thunderstorm forming before quickly disappearing.
We decided to leave after 6am, this is when the river would be at low tide. I packed by bags and had breakfast, grateful for my short time here. Before we got to the river, we spotted an all-black Tayra such beautiful and majestic animals. When we got to the river, I knew it was going to be lower than it was coming here but I didn’t know how low. Nobody said anything, so I put my bag above my head and waded in wearing my wellies. Turns out it came just below my knees. I must admit I was a little annoyed no one told me to take my shoes of and save getting the insides wet. Now, I had a long walk ahead of me wearing wet wellies with socks. Thankfully, since I had already completed the journey once the trip back seemed a lot quicker. That doesn’t mean it didn’t have the same annoyances as the journey in. It was a lot hotter, which made walking on the beach even harder. It is incredibly hard walking on sand wearing wellingtons, it felt like I was taking one step forward and two steps backward; I felt like I was going nowhere. I was once more blessed with back pain provided by my backpack, it felt heavier than it did coming in, at one point I took it off and I could still feel the weight of it on my back even though my bag laid on the floor.There were a few animal encounters on the way back, I saw a lone Coati digging for crabs in the sand, a male who looked injured and wasn’t aware he was being watched. Speaking of crabs, I have gained a strange fascination with hermit crabs, they are in every direction, in every place you can look. All of them scurrying in the same direction, or curling away safely in their shell when someone approaches.
Lastly, we went off track and I was taken to see some poison dart frogs, this area is meant to be restricted. They were tiny, terrifying animals which were thankfully not jumping around. Being scared of frogs I didn’t want to get too close but I did manage to get my camera in a good position. This particular frog is known as a Golfodulcean dart frog.
It wasn’t long before we came to the station we registered in, then the trail I had already grown to know. I finished the hike as I started, on the back of a motorbike. Back at camp I couldn’t wait to have a shower, to wash away the sweat and dirt, to put clean clothes on and climb into bed.
From what I wanted from the start, a challenge, for me this most certainly was one, one that pushed not only body but my mind too. I feel extremely lucky to have explored a rainforest, to have seen the wonder of nature from teeny tiny ants to towering tapirs. The rainforest is a magical place, full of secrets and hidden gems.
If you have any questions about my time in Costa Rica, ask in the comment box below. I will either reply in the comments or with an FAQ at the end.