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Oh, the Osa: Puerto Jiménez to Cabo Matapalo

By the time we got to the Osa Peninsula, jutting off the Pacific Coast just above Panama, we have crisscrossed the entire expanse of this country. We have seen so much beautiful wildlife in the national parks, but driving slow and meandering around, I see this country differently than I did before. Much of what we see out the window is not rainforest and monkeys - its pineapples fields, banana plantations, miles of palm oil plantations, patches of bald mountains…and cows.

This drive took us over 5 hours. The road was sloooow going - a few river crossings and mucho potholes.

Reflecting on the view out my window...

Costa Rica has a reputation for being ecologically conscious and progressive, yet it has suffered from one of the worst deforestation rates in Central America for decades - in large part due to the growing international demand for fast food. (A good, short article explaining the connection is "Would You Like a Side of Forests with That?") Reforestation policies are in place now and forests are recovering, although it takes 25 years for a forest to regenerate. Serious threats are still a part of everyday life though, including a boom in pineapple farming that gives landowners an incentive to cut down recovering forest plots.

As we drove along the Pacific Coast on the way to Osa, what we saw was worlds apart from the forests we just visited. Here the economy is principally based on palm oil production, found in thousands of products from ice cream and french fries to lubricants and cosmetics. We saw row upon row of identical palm trees, with very little growing underneath, and no animal life in sight.

Aerial view of palm plantations on the Pacific Coast. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

We saw miles and miles of palm oil plantations.

We think these were the palms killed with a deadly herbacide to make way for shorter hybrid palms.

Most of hikes we do in the rainforest all have perimeters clear-cut for pastureland. Many of the huge rivers we cross are a muddy brown from the sedimentation created from topsoil erosion. The sediment flows into the ocean choking the reefs to death. We also heard chainsaws while camped in the Quetzal National Park, which we can only assume is the result of illegal logging...and there is little enforcement in the parks against it.

Gentle Giant: Ancient tree in the Quetzal National Park

I really believe destroying the rain forests and the biodiversity they hold is a threat to life worldwide, with a profound effect on the global climate. We were told while at the animal sanctuary in Puerto Viejo that several Swiss and German pharmaceutical companies were in the area to study venom from a snake found only in Costa Rica that might help cure a certain type of cancer. If the forests die, so too might our cures. I also know though, that these are complex issues and poverty is interconnected with every tree that falls. But these forests are the lungs of our world and the home of indigenous populations. No matter what we are interested in, we all need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and a diverse ecosystem. The rainforest gives us all of this.

So we had high hopes for pristine wilderness when we made our way to the Osa Peninsula. The Osa is one of the largest expanses of virgin tropical forest left in Central America. This tiny peninsula reportedly holds 2.5% of all global biodiversity. It is also Costa Rica's poorest, most remote region. We made our way slowly toward Puerto Jimenez, on the Golfo Dulce side. It surprised us that here too, we saw so much pastureland and palm oil plantations. It wasn’t until we drove for over two hours on potholed rough roads, well past Puerto Jimenez, that the cattle ranches gave way to rain forest. The logging and slash-and-burn agriculture in this area prompted the formation of the 160-square-mile Corcovado National Park in 1975, which we hoped to visit.

Rainforest competes with cattle in the Osa Peninsula.:Costa Ricans were paid to cut down and burn their forests in favor of producing cheap beef for export to foreign markets, particularly the United States.

We ventured all the way to the southern most point, Cabo Matapalo, and checked out the beaches. With no facilities and fearing the humid heat again, we checked into an eco lodge called Bosque del Cabo. There was only one other couple staying here and so we had an ocean view with a last minute, low season discounted rate. Finally we discovered the Osa we had heard so much about. As we checked in, we saw wildlife all over the property. Our new neighbors here were coati, agouti, toucans, scarlet macaws, monkeys, and amazingly, two baby armadillos. The Bosque Lodge sits on 750 acres that encompass some primary-growth rain forest and large swaths of “jungle,” rain forest that has grown back on land that had once been cleared for cattle grazing. It felt good to take a hot shower and enjoy the view from our casita, set high on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean. It felt special to finally be here and experience this particular rain forest.

In the evenings, the toucans and scarlet macaws shrieked and called loudly to one another above our heads. Giant, massive bamboo plants that dwarfed our rig and towering teak trees line the dirt roads. With no power lines or cell service, the area feels cut off from the rest of the country.

Costa Rican teak tree in the rainforest.

To see these in flight, right in front of takes your beath away.

They always travel in pairs. I told John "...just like us".

I was a little annoyed that in the morning, the only coffee available was in the lodge restaurant, starting at 5:30 am. But one bleary-eyed morning at 5:45 am, as I headed over to get us coffee, I encountered what seemed like a dozen animals roaming around the property. A saw a family of capuchin monkeys, 4 toucans, a pair of Crested Guam birds (they look like turkeys) high in a tree and I realized, oh…this is why you get your butt out of bed early and get your own coffee.

Morning coffee run...

Crested Guam

I have no idea what this is...Lang, Mary?

Some kind of hawk.

These guys were everywhere..Costa Rican racoon.

John got an afternoon of surfing in at Playa Pan Dulce and I made friends with a curious scarlet macaw. We hiked on one the most remote beautiful beach I have ever seen, accessible only by a steep trail of 500 steps. And early one morning we hiked through the rain forest in search of a puma (who never did show itself) on the nearby trails and found more monkeys including a family of squirrel monkeys, the last species of monkey we hadn’t yet seen.

In a tree above my chair at the beach, as I talked to him (her?) for over an hour, he came close and closer...

Another succesful outing.

Playa Pan Dulce

Early morning Puma search. We were told the trails around the area were as beautiful as the park.

Walking tree

Pacific beach...accesible only by a steep trail down

Our plan was to drive back around to the Drake Bay side, camp for a few days, and hike into Corcovado National Park. But it was October and the trails we wanted to explore, at the Sirena entrance, are closed for maintenance in October (damn you, October!). We would not be able to see Corcovado on this trip. Some day we’ll come back to explore the park. I just hope that when we do, the world’s insatiable demand for a hamburger hasn’t destroyed this rainforest too.

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