THE TONIC OF WILD­NESS

Costa Rica is fa­mous for its na­tional parks, and is turn­ing its at­ten­tion to the peo­ple who live in them. Johnny Lan­gen­heim joins a com­mu­nity-led tour of ‘the most bi­o­log­i­cally in­tense place on earth’ – the Osa penin­sula

Friday - - Con­tents -

It’s dusk and Don Felix is sit­ting on the porch of his cabin. Two white horses graze in a meadow and be­yond them, evening mist spills over a ridge thick with jun­gle. Fire­flies flicker in the gath­er­ing dark­ness. I let out a long breath and feel tight­ness re­lease in my belly. Henry David Thoreau had it right when he said, ‘We need the tonic of wild­ness.’

And what wild­ness. Costa Rica’s Osa penin­sula, a for­mer is­land that now makes up the south­ern­most reach of the coun­try’s Pa­cific coast, was called ‘the most bi­o­log­i­cally in­tense place on Earth’ by Na­tional Geo­graphic. It crams 2.5 per cent of the planet’s bio­di­ver­sity into just 0.001 per cent of its sur­face area. And, this be­ing Costa Rica, 80 per cent of it is pro­tected, mostly by the Cor­co­v­ado na­tional park.

‘We’re good at con­serv­ing na­ture here,’ says Daniel Vil­lafranca of the re­cently launched Caminos de Osa com­mu­nity tourism ini­tia­tive. Our group of 10 ex­plor­ers is sit­ting down to a feast of gallo pinto (rice and black beans), salsa and fried plan­tain pre­pared by Don Felix’s wife, Do-a Yentsy.

‘A quar­ter of our coun­try is na­tional park. But we need new ap­proaches that sup­port peo­ple, too. That’s what Caminos de Osa is try­ing to do.’

Don Felix is a case in point. He used to prospect for gold and hunt wild an­i­mals in re­mote parts of Osa, both il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties that dam­age this area’s frag­ile ecosys­tem. Now he and his wife have joined a net­work of lo­cal en­trepreneurs host­ing groups like ours on im­mer­sive tours.

Daniel helps pull all the var­i­ous stake­hold­ers to­gether and mar­ket the four- to six-day itin­er­ar­ies – as well as tai­lored trips that com­bine trekking, kayak­ing, horse rid­ing, div­ing and snorkelling with vis­its to in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties.

We’re a day into our four-day tour – a vari­a­tion on the group’s Camino del Agua (Wa­ter Trail). There’s a core of Costa Ri­cans plus my­self and a cou­ple of Cana­dian con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gists.

Al­ready we’ve chugged down the Sierpe river via man­grove la­goons into the penin­sula proper, spot­ting croc­o­diles, tou­cans, ringed king­fish­ers, and trekked to a wa­ter­fall for an in­vig­o­rat­ing dip.

By 9pm, full of beans, we re­tire to our bed­rooms in an ex­ten­sion Don Felix has re­cently added to his home to ac­com­mo­date guests.

At mid-morn­ing the next day, my horse trots up a steep sec­tion of track and through a break in the trees: be­yond

the mouth of the Agu­ji­tas river, I see the Pa­cific Ocean for the first time.

Once your but­tocks ad­just, horse­back is def­i­nitely the way to travel this land­scape. My horse clops steadily along, al­low­ing me to take in at my leisure enor­mous hard­woods with but­tressed roots, scar­let macaws (Osa has the largest pop­u­la­tion in Cen­tral Amer­ica) and even a troop of howler mon­keys, whose gut­tural bel­lows be­lie their diminu­tive size.

These trails were orig­i­nally blazed by hunters and gold prospec­tors. To­day the more chal­leng­ing Camino del Oro (Gold Trail)

Af­ter our FOUR-HOUR ride, lunch at Don Al­berto’s res­tau­rant is a wel­come in­ter­val. After­wards, he takes us for a walk around his gar­den, which is a BIO­DI­VER­SITY HOT SPOT in its own right

takes vis­i­tors on treks deep into Osa’s rain­for­est in­te­rior. But we’re tak­ing the less stren­u­ous coastal route and our next stop is Drake Bay, named af­ter Eng­land’s most fa­mous pri­va­teer, who is said to have left a trove of trea­sure here in the 16th cen­tury.

Af­ter our four-hour ride, lunch at Don Al­berto’s res­tau­rant is a wel­come in­ter­val. After­wards, he takes us for a walk around his ‘gar­den’, which is a bio­di­ver­sity hot spot in its own right. He shows us a cam­phor tree that emits a flammable sap like eu­ca­lyp­tus, wild co­rian­der and gar­lic, and a tree that smells like a corpse. When I brush past an aca­cia bush, sym­bi­otic ants swarm out of seed­pod hiding places and at­tack me with kamikaze fer­vour. Al­berto has an en­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge of all the plants.

Costa Rica de­vel­oped its na­tional parks sys­tem in the 1970s, tak­ing its cue from the great North Amer­i­can parks. It has been hailed as an out­stand­ing con­ser­va­tion suc­cess, but com­mu­nity eco­tourism ini­tia­tives are still brand new.

‘The re­al­ity is the peo­ple who live in the parks need to earn a liveli­hood, but reg­u­la­tions make that very dif­fi­cult,’ says Vil­lafranca. ‘This ap­proach turns poach­ers and gold prospec­tors into nat­u­ral cus­to­di­ans, who are di­rect­ing the tourism nar­ra­tive.’

Af­ter lunch, we head down to the beach. Osa’s coast­line is wild – even around the re­sort en­clave of Drake Bay the beaches feel pri­mor­dial, fringed by jun­gle on one side and thrashed by Pa­cific rollers on the other.

Crocs and bull sharks pop­u­late these wa­ters and rip cur­rents abound, so go­ing for a dip can be dicey. But scuba div­ing is on the agenda the next morn­ing, and sharks are ex­actly what we will be look­ing for.

We find them 16km off­shore in the Caño Is­land bi­o­log­i­cal re­serve. As I dive to the bot­tom, 20m deep, a green tur­tle cruises past, while a cou­ple of white-tip reef sharks lie in the sand a few me­tres away, un­per­turbed by our pres­ence. Our guide, Quique, taps on his tank and points out a big stingray rest­ing on a rock ‘clean­ing sta­tion’, where tiny fish nib­ble par­a­sites from its skin.

That night we camp on re­mote San Pedrillo beach, the jun­gle loom­ing above us. The rangers have cor­doned off a sec­tion of sand for a turkey vul­ture whose nest has fallen out of a tree. She am­bles over to her eggs and set­tles down on it as the sun dips spec­tac­u­larly over the Pa­cific and I try out a lit­tle sun­set body surf­ing.

The next morn­ing we wake to find a gag­gle of campers and rangers on the beach, star­ing out at the break­ing waves. Turns out a croc that hangs out in the nearby river mouth had de­cided to do a spot of body­surf­ing her­self – she’s clearly vis­i­ble, rolling around in the same break­ers I’d surfed the night be­fore, with a snag­gle-toothed grin that makes me feel a bit queasy.

Our last day takes us on our first a real trek through the jun­gle and it is mag­i­cal. It is rel­a­tively cool in the dap­pled sun­light be­neath the canopy. There are jaguar and tapir in these parts and our guide Neyer points out signs of both – deep prints in the mud and a musky, live­stock smell on the breeze that sug­gest a tapir is close.

Be­sides myr­iad bird species, we glimpse SPI­DER MON­KEYS high in the canopy –all limbs and PRE­HEN­SILE TAIL – and spot a ju­ve­nile ANTEATER cling­ing to a branch with dirt all over its snout

Like all the guides, Neyer has a spot­ting scope that brings abun­dant wildlife into sharp re­lief. Be­sides myr­iad bird species, we glimpse spi­der mon­keys high in the canopy – all limbs and pre­hen­sile tail – and spot a ju­ve­nile anteater cling­ing to a branch with dirt all over its snout, pre­sum­ably from a re­cent for­age for ants.

‘You’re lucky,’ says Neyer. ‘It’s very rare to see them in the wild like this.’

Though we’ve hugged the coast and barely skimmed the edges of the na­tional park, the whole four-day trip has felt like an im­mer­sion (though harder, tai­lored treks deep into the jun­gle are also pos­si­ble).

As we reach our fi­nal stop, fam­ily-run Bella Vista lodge, on a ridge above Drake Bay, I gaze out at the Pa­cific, thor­oughly con­tent. This jour­ney has been tonic enough.

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