Finding a rain forest in Costa Rica is not hard. They have plenty of those. It’s finding a rain forest which isn’t filled with tourists—dressed head-to-toe in REI gear—that proves to be more challenging. Costa Rica’s reputation as a nature-lover’s nirvana has led to an influx of travelers seeking out its natural beauty, making the well-preserved national parks more crowded. However, that’s not the case in every part of the country. There are still many lesser-known regions where you can be alone in a paradise of trees, birds, and animals, and experience a Costa Rican rain forest how it’s meant to be seen: untouched and uncrowded. The Osa Peninsula is that paradise.
“This is the real Costa Rica,” says Rob Harper of Namu Travel Group, a local travel company which organizes specialized trips around the country (it is recommended that you book a guide). Situated between the Golfo Dulce to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Osa Peninsula is a strip of land bursting with unspoiled beaches, waterfalls, protected rain forests, and wildlife (at least half of all the species in Costa Rica can be found here). There’s so much untouched nature to explore, but the real clincher is the Corcovado National Park.
The park is staggeringly beautiful: lush, wild jungle meets the Pacific Ocean. When you step out of the dense tropical forest onto the dark volcanic beach sand, it feels as though you’ve arrived at the end of the world. The plant life is otherworldly: Delicious Monsters climb tall trees, air plants hang from branches, Heliconias grow leaves the size of ceiling fans, and the ferns look like they’ve been yanked out of the Jurassic Park set. It is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world and is home to an astounding array of species, including sloths, tapirs, jaguars, monkeys and macaws. Spend long enough under the dense canopy of trees, with only the sound of monkeys cackling and birds calling, and you might think you’re the only person on Earth. Being so remote, the park does come with its challenges. Simply getting there is tricky. Visitors can charter a small plane from Puerto Jimenez, but there’s only one pilot in the area who can land on the thin airstrip, which runs through the rain forest. It’s a sketchy touch down and on a day with bad visibility, the pilot won’t attempt it. If you can cough up the money, soaring over the jagged coastline and viewing the swampy mangroves and bright yellow Guayacon trees from above is an enchanting experience. But for those who can’t afford the luxury of a charter plane, traveling 1.5 hours by boat is the other option.
However grueling the boat ride or precarious the plane landing, the journey is worth it. Many people stay just outside the park (there is a very basic camping station), but the opportunity to experience an eco-lodge should not be overlooked. Costa Rica is one of the most sustainable countries in the world, with the government committed to becoming carbon neutral by the year 2020. It is on the forefront of sustainable tourism and is changing the way the world sees eco-travel, with many luxe lodges proving that you don’t have to trade your high standards for sustainability. “Costa Rica has been doing this for many years. It’s way ahead of so many first-world countries,” says Rob Harper. One of the most luxurious eco-lodges on the Golfo Dulce is Lapa Rios. Set on a hilltop in a private rain forest reserve, the lodge is completely secluded, with views of the ocean and forest that seem to go on forever. It is an oasis in the wild, where you fall asleep to the sounds of the jungle and wake up to the calls of howler monkeys. The lodge has a back-to-basics approach without skimping on luxury—so there’s no need to expect scratchy linen or power cuts. The closest airstrip is a bumpy 12 mile journey away (Puerto Jimenez), there are no phones or TVs in the rooms and there is no access to wifi. When people say ‘going off-the-grid,’ this is what they mean.
Exploring the Osa Peninsula does not begin and end here. There are so many wondrous things to discover: secluded beaches, hidden waterfalls and rich botanical gardens. The access to nature is endless. If you want to experience “the real Costa Rica”, the Osa Peninsula is the place to do it.
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Mary Holland Mary Holland is South African writer based in New York. She has written for WSJ Magazine, the Financial Times, HTSI, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, and W Magazine. She is the New York correspondent for Monocle Magazine.