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Exploring Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula

By Andrew McCarthy, Travel + Leisure
updated 2:31 PM EST, Thu November 17, 2011
Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula offers a serene escape.
Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula offers a serene escape.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Costa Rica has become "overdeveloped" with tourists, but the Osa Peninsula offers relief
  • The Osa Peninsula is still a primitive paradise of rain forests, empty beaches and backwater settlements
  • Visit between November and April to avoid Costa Rica's rainy season

(Travel + Leisure) -- "Randal was supposed to be your guide into the rain forest today, but a tree fell on his house," the woman behind the counter tells me. "He's fine," she goes on, seeing my concern, "but his house isn't."

Later, I meet a woman who slipped during a heavy rain and was swept into a drainage pipe, sucked under a road, and flushed out the other side, unharmed. And then, a man tells me about the jeep he was driving that was carried away and out to sea while he was trying to ford a river.

It's not so much that these stories are crazy -- which they are -- it's the offhand acceptance with which they're related that's so alarming.

"My best friend was hit by lightning," recalls Juan Pinto, another Tico (as Costa Ricans refer to themselves). "Don't worry, he's fine now. Here, nature is totally in charge. The Osa is a wild place." That wild side of Costa Rica is exactly what I'm here to experience.

Tiny Costa Rica, sitting at the heart of Central America, became an outdoor adventurer's playground after emerging as an ecotourism poster child in the early 1990s. Since then, tales of overdevelopment have been well documented.

There's a well-trodden circuit here: Hit the cloud forest of Monteverde, check out the Arenal volcano and end up at the beach in Guanacaste. Ziplines, lava and surf school. It's a great vacation, but I was looking for the unscarred Costa Rica of years ago. Then I heard about the Osa Peninsula.

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Jutting off Costa Rica's southern Pacific coast, the Osa Peninsula is still a primitive paradise of rain forests, empty beaches and backwater settlements. The rough-and-ready town of Puerto Jiménez, on the banks of the Golfo Dulce, is the area's main hub. It's an unglamorous burg of a few thousand where dogs wander free, scarlet macaws squawk from trees, and Ticos pedal bikes slowly up and down the unnamed main street.

"This place does me a lot of good," John Podson, a sandy-haired transplant from Cape May, New Jersey, tells me. "And if you're into nature...." He spreads his arms wide. "Otherwise, there's not a lot going on here." That wasn't always the case. In the mid 20th century, gold-rush fever ran deep in the Osa.

At Pulpería el Tucán, a wood-and-cement general store a few miles outside of town, I watch a young girl walk in, plunk down a pinky-nail-size chunk of gold that was mined from the nearby Río Tigre, and walk out with a chicken, a few potatoes and some celery. Behind the counter, Sandra Campos pulls out her small digital scale and weighs the raw nugget. "To pay in gold, that's just life here," she says.

Outside, I come upon a sturdy man, known to me only as Edwin, who agrees to take me a short way up the Río Tigre to try my luck at gold panning. Knee-deep in the rushing water, Edwin pries large rocks free to create a small eddy and lays down a metal trough through which the water funnels.

It begins to rain -- hard. Edwin doesn't seem to notice.

Using a circular tin pan, he begins to sift the larger stones away. His thick hands work with delicate precision. It stops raining as quickly as it began, and eventually the grain of soil in the pan is fine. The sediment swirls. Edwin's fingers dance over the tray. And suddenly, as if by magic, a dusting of gold settles at the bottom of the pan. My pockets a little heavier, I head back to town.

I'm told the man I'm looking for lives near the cemetery, beside the landing strip. And that's just where I find John Lewis. A small man with thick glasses, he still looks very much like the insurance lawyer he was 25 years ago. Lewis and his then wife came here in the late 1980s, looking to change their lives. They bought a thousand acres of remote rain forest about 12 miles south of Puerto Jiménez and built Lapa Rios, one of the first eco-lodges in the Osa Peninsula.

"The only place people suggested we not go was here," Lewis says. "It was full of jaguars, snakes, crocodiles and no people. When we found that out, we came here as fast as we could."

Lapa Rios has 16 cabins set high up on the hillside with views out over the canopy and down to the ocean, where surfers ride one of the longest breaks in the Pacific. The lodge is environmentally sensitive and discreetly run -- a soft landing in a wild spot.

A few feet outside the main entrance, I watch a 15-foot boa constrictor coil itself around a fig tree. Just off the deck outside my room, a toucan with a long rainbow beak lands on a branch, and spider monkeys scamper across the railing in front of me.

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Down the hill from Lapa Rios, in a lushly forested area known as Matapalo, the expat crowd convenes each Friday evening in an open-air bar named Buena Esperanza, which everyone knows simply as Martina's. Martina Hoffmann, a blond, heavily tattooed earth mother/surfer chick, came to the Osa from Düsseldorf, Germany, 18 years ago, "By pure luck," she explains. "And I thought this place needed a bar."

Colored Chinese lamps hang beside a disco ball. Surfboards and Tibetan prayer flags adorn the area by the kitchen. "Everyone's welcome here," Hoffmann says. "Kids, grandmothers, Ticos, expats, tourists -- although we don't get too many of those. But they're coming." Hoffmann locks eyes with me, leans in close, and winks. "There's magic in the Osa."

It's a sentiment I hear often, and one shared by Seattle native Kurt Kutay. Kutay runs Wildland Adventures, and he's been leading tours down to the Osa Peninsula for 25 years.

"There are very few places like it," he says. "We're way off the grid, in the middle of the rain forest, and I'm sipping a nice cold beer." Kutay's in the Osa now to do a little surfing and take stock of the changes. "It's still very pristine here, the way it was when we first came."

But all that may be changing. A proposed hydroelectric dam just across the Golfo Dulce from the Osa is in an advanced stage of development. The El Diquís project, backed by the national electrical utility, would provide power for more than a million households, with the potential to employ thousands. But it would also flood almost 17,500 acres of land, including parts of the Térraba and China Kichá indigenous reserves. An international airport is also being considered for the area.

"Can the ecosystem take that?" longtime Osa resident Nichole DuPont asks from a bar in Drake Bay, on the Osa's northern shore. She shrugs and answers her own question: "Check back in ten years."

There's strong local support here for keeping things wild. "There's no resort tourism on the Osa," says Mike Boston, who has lived in the region since 1996. "If anybody paves that road, there will be people out there at night digging it up."

For now at least, the road remains pretty raw, and beyond Lapa Rios, it gets rougher. Years ago, patches of the rain forest along here were cleared for cattle; lean cows, hip bones protruding, nibble grass or lie in the shade. Acacia and palms line the road.

It hasn't rained in some time and the Río Oro is low. I ford it without managing to lose my jeep. Coming out of a bend in the unpaved road I see a barefoot man on horseback moving toward me. A two-foot machete hangs from his hip. I slow to a stop. The horse settles beside me, and a man with a black moustache and dark eyes stares down.

"Hola," I chirp.

The cowboy nods once. His dark skin is weathered from a life lived out of doors. His bare feet are deeply calloused.

"Vive aquí?" Do you live here?

Again he nods. His eyes never leave me.

This conversation is going nowhere. "Me gusta su caballo," I say -- when in doubt, compliment a man's horse.

A broad smile breaks across the vaquero's face.

Miguel Sánchez runs 15 horses on land his family has owned for generations, and he agrees to take a stranger for a ride. Beside a simple house with a tin roof, he leads me to my brown-and-white mount. "Take care," he says. "This is Indio. He's a little crazy."

We ride down into the Río Pico, crossing into dense rain forest, past porcupine palm and fig. From the saddle, Sánchez hacks at hanging vines that block our path. He reaches out and pulls a leaf from a tree.

"Taste." The leaf is bitter. "For high fever, or bad stomach." He rides on. He slices open a vine and tosses it back to me. "Good for cooking, like garlic."

A white-faced monkey leaps from tree to tree, shadowing our path. We pass through a stand of almond trees and emerge onto a deserted beach. We let the horses run along the pounding surf. Three dozen pelicans fly in formation above. Sánchez slows to a stop and points down to where sea turtles have come ashore to lay their eggs.

"Good," he says, nodding his head, still staring down. "The Osa's changed a lot in the last ten years. The nature is going. So many people now." The two-mile stretch of beach we're on is deserted. I saw no one on the road for miles before I met Sánchez -- if this is crowded, I'd love to have seen it before.

Riding back, Sánchez reaches down to scratch his bare foot.

"Do you always ride barefoot?"

"Sí."

"You ever wear shoes?"

"No."

"Never?"

"Nunca."

"Have you ever worn shoes?"

"No."

"Never in your life?"

"Nunca."

I'm still trying to comprehend this when I leave Sánchez and drive deeper into the Osa. The dirt track continues to narrow. Strangler figs form a canopy over the road. At the Río Carate, once prime gold-mining terrain, a few hard-core hopefuls continue to work the river. But anyone else -- and I see no one -- still heading this way on the increasingly ridiculous road can be going only one place.

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Back in 1994, Lana Wedmore bought 60 acres at the end of the road, high above the sea. It took her eight years to create her hydro- and solar-powered Luna Lodge.

"Everyone said I was crazy. We had to bring everything in, everything. But it was my dream," she says.

A blond-haired native of Colorado with piercing blue eyes, Wedmore first came to the Osa Peninsula in 1991. "The first time I walked into the primary rain forest, I knew. But the Osa will test you. I broke my leg in four places and my nose in two, hauling things here, making this happen."

Standing on the edge of the open-air yoga deck jutting out over the canopy, we watch clouds quickly descend and engulf us. In seconds, rain pelts down, creating a riot of sound. "It's a self-selecting crowd that make it to the Osa," she says. "We get people who know what they want."

And with just eight bungalows, five permanent tents, three hacienda rooms, and a dreamy spa clinging to the side of the mountain, Luna Lodge is very close to a private oasis in the jungle.

Just down from where the road quits by Luna Lodge, a trail crosses the boundary into Corcovado National Park. It leads into dense vegetation, under mango trees and through strands of bamboo. It thrusts me out onto long stretches of deserted beach under sweltering sun. Just offshore, a bull shark patrols, its dorsal fin clearly visible.

When the trail pushes me back into the jungle, a red-crowned woodpecker raps out a tune. Hummingbirds whiz past. I grab a fallen coconut, hack it open, and drink its sweet milk. I ford, waist deep, through the Río Claro and am stopped in my tracks by the sight of a Baird's tapir -- a huge mammal looking like a cross between a horse and an anteater. Corcovado has been called the "most ecologically intense place on earth," and I understand why.

Eventually I arrive at the Sirena Biological Station, in the heart of the park. Simple bunks are offered in dormitory-style accommodations, and communal meals bond hikers from Spain, Brazil and Canada. Before dawn the next morning, the barking of the howler monkeys wakes me.

From an Adirondack chair on the deck, I watch the sky turn to purple, then turquoise, and listen as the rain forest roars back to life. A tiger heron parades across the lawn -- and then freezes. His head turns. I follow his gaze. Coming through the trees and into the clearing, a large puma struts slowly, languidly. Lifting each paw with the deliberate ease of a predator with no equal, he glides across the open expanse. Nothing else moves.

When he vanishes back into the rain forest I realize I've stopped breathing and begin to laugh. I came down to the Osa Peninsula looking for the wild Costa Rica. I found it.

Guide to the Osa Peninsula

When To Go

November to late April is the dry season in Costa Rica and the ideal time to visit the Osa Peninsula, which doesn't draw the mainland's high-season crowds.

Getting There

From Tobías Bolaños international airport in San José, Nature Air offers daily, one-hour flights to Puerto Jiménez, the gateway to the Osa and Corcovado National Park.

Stay

Lapa Rios 506/2735-5130; laparios.com; doubles from $720, including meals and activities.

Luna Lodge 888/762-4069; lunalodge.com; doubles from $300.

See and Do

Buena Esperanza Carbonera, one mile from Cape Matapalo; no phone; drinks for two $13.

Corcovado National Park Osa Conservation Area; 506/2735-5036; admission $10, reservations required.

Trip Planning

Big Five Tours & Expeditions T+L A-List Agent Rachael Bockoven Colbert specializes in Costa Rica. 800/244-3483.

Wildland Adventures The veteran adventure outfitter leads multiple trips to Costa Rica, some tailored to families and honeymooners. 800/345-4453; wildland.com; nine-day itineraries from $2,875.

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