It was her first day in Ticolandia. She didn’t know about monkeys.My mom hadn’t yet learned that it wasn’t cool to gasp and gawk at the sight of them (she would later learn her lesson as a six-foot-tall, blonde Gringa parting a sea of smaller, gawking Ticos on San José’s Avenida Central).
Not unlike a reckless San Josétaxista dodging through traffic and potholes with little regard for life, our boat driver was charging full-speed through swaths of mangroves on chokingly narrow canals along the SierpeRiver, in the Southern Zone.
Which is about when Mom freaked. Not at the crazy boat conductor – at the monkey she (allegedly) saw.
Squinting and huffing, she informed me that she thought she might have seen a monkey up in the tree we had just passed at 40 miles per hour.
She didn’t know what she was in for. We were headed to the land of monkeys: CorcovadoNational Park.
The Guide of Guides
When I first saw José Huertas, I had my doubts about following him into the rain forest. A tall Tico with Coke-bottle glasses, a scope slung over his shoulder and a scar the length of a ruler straight across his neck, he galumphed around with what appeared to be a permanent wedgy.
But, he had character.
And the heady Guanacaste native had a knowledge of Costa Rican ecology and wildlife that would slaughter the flora and fauna section in any Lonely Planet guide.
Huertas, we later learned, had been clotheslined as a youngster. Not the innocuous kind of clothesline you see hanging in campesinos’ back yards, in World Wrestling Federation matches, or even on “Monday Night Football.” He was clotheslined with barbed wire, while riding full-speed-ahead on an ATV. And lived.
Though it sounds like the stuff of a Darwin Award, to the contrary, Huertas would probably be able to survive much longer than I if dropped off, “Survivor”-style, on a remote tropical island. So, we followed him into CorcovadoNational Park.
He taught us about how leafcutter ants have all different kinds of roles, from queen to warriors to the quality-control ants that inspect leaves other ants are carrying to make sure they can feed the fungus the ants harvest to eat. He taught us about how white-faced monkeys are attracted to menstruating women. He taught us how to listen to the forest.
As for monkeys, we had a run-in with a family of the white-faced variety swinging through the canopy. Later, we spent several minutes with a spider monkey that descended from the tree tops to perch on a branch just above our heads in an Indian-style squat.Motionlessly, the monkey stared down at us like a furry little Buddha, and we stared back until our necks hurt.
On our daylong guided trip, we saw Jesus Christ lizards, falcons, dart frogs (not poisonous) and lots of monkeys. The tour was a quick boat ride from DrakeBay, and the $65-per-person trip included a relaxing picnic in the shade at the beachfront, with a view of CañoIsland (area hotels coordinate tours for guests). We also bathed in the foot of a waterfall deep in primary forest before heading back to our cabin.
There, we fell asleep to raindrops on the roof and woke up to sunshine and tropical birds flying over our heads at the breakfast table. As we snapped photos of a toucan that had come to rest on a branch in front of us, Huertas continued eating breakfast quietly.
He wore the rain forest comfortably, like a pair of old, worn jeans.
By Plane: Sansa (221-9414, www.flysansa.com) and Nature Air (220-3054, www.natureair.com) make the 45-minute flight from San José to DrakeBay daily. Hotels/taxis offer transport from landing strip to bay. Flights also go to Palmar Sur, from which taxis and hotel vans transport guests 17 km south to Sierpe for the one-hour boat trip to DrakeBay.
By Bus: Take the 5 a.m. bus (Tracopa, 223-7685) from San José to Palmar Norte, then taxi or bus to Sierpe to reach the water taxis, which leave at 11:30 a.m. only. Warning: Water taxis in Agujitas (DrakeBay) also leave at 11:30 a.m. only. The Agujitas taxis and most hotels have wet landings.
A Selection of Area Hotels
Aguila de Osa Inn (296-2190; fax: 232-7722, aguiladeosainn.com), at mouth of Agujas River, 13 luxury cabins ($300 inc/meals), most for up to four, overhead fans, Internet, stunning views, gourmet buffetstyle restaurant, sportfishing, scuba, 24-hour electricity, horses, birding, whale/dolphin tours.
Campanario Biological Station (258-5778, fax: 256-0374, campanario.org), off-the-grid, self-sustaining, 150-acre primary forest preserve w/protected beach. Conservation, environmental ed., research. Allincl. multi-day eco-excursions, tropical ecology camps and courses (3-night min., start at $448/per person), group discounts. Private tent cabins w/bath, field-station bunk rooms, dining hall. Trails, swimming, snorkeling, scuba, hiking, volunteer/research and community service ops.
Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge (256-3181, fax: 256- 7409, casacorcovado.com), beyond San Josecito, closest lodging to park, very beautiful, 14 secluded, romantic luxury bungalows, four honeymoon suites, larger suites for families, tiled bathrooms, screened porches, fans, two pools, two restaurants, two bars; trails into Corcovado or through 170-acre reserve, tours, dolphin-watching, snorkeling, sportfishing, diving, kayaking, packages ($485-945/person, two-night min., inc/air transfer from San José, boat from Sierpe w/lifejackets, meals, one tour to Corcovado or CañoIsland).
Corcovado Adventures Tent Camp (384-1679, corcovado.com), across AgujasRiver, 16 platform tents ($65/per person, inc/meals); very basic, shared bathrooms; three-, four-day packages, tours, boat for fishing, snorkeling, tubing.
Drake Bay Wilderness Resort (tel/fax: 770-8012, 384-4107), drakebay.com), on headland just across Agujas River, 19 rooms ($100/person, inc/full breakfast, reserve for meals, laundry, kayaks), overhead/ table fans, ocean views, reading chairs, coffee maker, porches, solar-heated water, bar, int’l. restaurant, homemade chocolate chip cookies, open-air dining area, saltwater pool, Internet, jungle butterfly farm/waterfall tour, dolphin/whale tours, fishing, PADI diving, indigenous crafts in shop, charming owner.
Jinetes de Osa (236-5637, jinetesdeosa.com), at west end of Drake beach, 9 comfy rooms ($83-94/person, inc/meals), fan, hammocks, int’l restaurant, beautiful hardwood bar; overhead fans, coffee at your room at dawn; home to branch of Original Canopy Tour, seven platforms ($55); also Costa Rica Adventure Divers PADI center.
Marenco Beach and Rainforest Lodge (770-8002, fax: 222-5852, marencolodge.com), on hill, one-hour walk from Agujas River, 17 bungalows ($78), eight rooms ($53-68), cold water, meals/transport extra, fans, decks, bar, restaurant, beautiful views, 540-hectare private reserve w/trails (shared with Punta Marenco Lodge).
Punta Marenco Lodge (tel/fax: 297-0771, 241- 4678, corcovadozone.com), past Agujas River on hill overlooking ocean, 15 screened, thatched-roof rustic bungalows ($150 inc/meals, four-day, three-night package $500/person), w/porches, ocean views, cold water, ecofriendly.
Excerpted from The Tico Times’ “Exploring Costa Rica” guidebook.