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Poison arrow frogs and peccaries: spotting Costa Rica's rare wildlife in the Osa Peninsula

The jewel in the crown of Costa Rica’s lesser-explored south is Corcovado National Park, a wilderness of rainforest and rare species.

By Jamie Lafferty
Published 20 Feb 2022, 06:00 GMT, Updated 24 Feb 2022, 15:17 GMT
A white-faced capuchin appears astonished by what it’s found inside a coconut.

A white-faced capuchin appears astonished by what it’s found inside a coconut.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

My guide hears something. For a heartbeat, he panics. In that electric moment, Jeffrey's all mammal, engaging none of his rational brain. But then he realises there’s nothing to worry about; he hasn’t been attacked by the pack of coatis surrounding us — his anorak has just fallen from his backpack.

Animal attacks are exceptionally rare in Costa Rica and never likely to happen with coatis — racoon-like animals that shamble through the forest and sometimes out onto the wild beaches of the Corcovado National Park. There are creatures to cause much more concern in these forests.

Of all Costa Rica’s wild places, the national park and the wider Osa Peninsula are perhaps the most untamed. Before arriving, each person I spoke to about them used words like ‘magical’ and ‘paradise’ when describing this sliver of largely inaccessible land on the country’s southwest coast.

I’m staying at Lapa Rios Lodge, one of Costa Rica’s pioneering eco-lodges, just outside of the park boundary. It’s a hotel with a luxury price tag, but one that animals frequently visit for free. At various times, while walking from the restaurant to my room, I have encounters with pig-like peccaries, yellow-throated toucans, and Golfoducean poison-arrow frogs. There are many birds of prey, too; this is a place where the eagles can leave any time they like, but never check in.

Walking in the park proper — a bumpy, hour-long ride from the lodge — the number and variety of animals has thrillingly increased. When we reach the rangers’ station, a troop of white-faced capuchins is going through the meticulous business of selecting ripe coconuts from a tree, then opening them on sharp rocks. A short time later, we watch spider monkeys with fur the colour of ground cinnamon selecting seeds as though shopping at a delicatessen. The orkish calls of howler monkeys frequently swirl around the jungle.

“We’ve got squirrel monkeys here, too,” says Jeffrey, much calmer now. “But they’re the smallest of the four species we have in Costa Rica and difficult to spot.”

Deluxe Bungalow, Lapa Rios Lodge.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

In a bid to get a clearer view of the trees, we break out onto Corcovado’s vast, grey-sand beach, which stretches into a mid-morning mist as far as the eye can see. From here, we spot turkey vultures, black hawks and northern caracaras. The primates remain unseen, but compensation comes in the boisterous form of red macaws, which we often glimpse traversing the sky in pairs, their ghastly calls perhaps some kind of curse for being blessed with such extraordinarily beautiful plumage. 

“It’s a shame they don’t sound as pretty as they look,” I say to Jeffrey. “In nature, I think you have to choose one or the other,” he replies, sounding a little more profound than he perhaps intended.

The beach rolls on, and before long we find its flawless sand interrupted by the tracks of what’s obviously a huge animal. “Baird’s tapir,” says my guide, as though inspecting a crime scene. 

The tapir is at the centre of an evolutionary Venn diagram — where the circles represent an elephant, a cow and horse — drawn by a child who’s no great artist. They may look fundamentally ridiculous, but they can weigh as much as 880lbs and are occasionally violent when angry or disturbed during the day, when they’re often asleep. 

“Let’s follow it,” says Jeffrey.

The tapir’s tracks carry on for hundreds of yards, looping around the beach before finally disappearing back into the jungle. We continue tracking, looking for signs of broken twigs and footprints in the mud. The air seems to hold its breath for us. We move through the undergrowth and then hear a rustling. We turn, our senses as heightened now as they were with the coatis.

And there, confused and in no mood to talk to us, is a northern tamandua. This tree-climbing anteater takes one look at us and lollops off into the green of Corcovado, unwilling to give any clues on the whereabouts of the tapir.

A red-tailed squirrel takes a seat in Corcovado National Park.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

Four more national parks to visit

1. San Lucas Island
A notorious prison until 1991, San Lucas Island was declared Costa Rica’s 30th national park in 2020. Learn about the jail and the stories of some of its most infamous inmates, and peer inside their now bat-filled former cells. Entry $12 (£9).

2. Tortuguero
The Caribbean coast’s most spectacular park lies near the Nicaraguan border. There’s no shortage of turtles nesting on the beaches — and an equally plentiful number of predators looking to snatch their eggs. Follow the estuary inland to find crocodiles and caimans, plus almost half of Costa Rica’s known bird species. Entry $15 (£11.35). 

3. Los Quetzales
Set in Costa Rica’s misty highlands, this park gets its name from the outrageously gorgeous — and rare — quetzal birds that call it home. Entry $10 (£7.50). 

4. Manuel Antonio 
Located just outside the town of Quepos, this is the smallest Costa Rican national park but is remarkably biodiverse. Within its borders visitors can find red-eyed tree frogs, two types of sloth, all four of Costa Rica’s monkey species and much more besides. Plus, some of the Pacific coast’s best hotels are walking distance away. Entry $16 (£12). 

How to do it: Journey Latin America has nine nights in Costa Rica with four at Lapa Rios Lodge from £4,222 per person. Includes flights, transfers, excursions and accommodation.

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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