Wildlife lovers enjoy the family-friendly destination’s most remote region.
By Judith Gottesman | Photos Courtesy Judith Gottesman and Scott Wolland
National Geographic named Peninsula de Osa one of the most “biologically intense” places on the planet, with 2.5% of all biodiversity in the world found there. That was enough to peak my interest when planning my first trip to Costa Rica, as I’m all about wildlife. The more nature the better —and you can’t do better than Osa.
I’ve been to Costa Rica three times and now I make the Osa Peninsula my main destination whenever I visit. It has quickly become one of my favorite places to travel and when you read on and follow my itinerary, I’m guessing it becomes your family’s, as well.
While an impressive 30% of Costa Rica is nationally protected lands, Osa’s 700 square miles is home to half of all Costa Rican wildlife. The peninsula lies in the far southwestern part of the country, along the Pacific Ocean to the west and Golfo Dulce to the east.
Osa is a water lover’s paradise. Drake Bay is home to dolphins and even whale sharks pass through certain times of year. Corcovado National Park is on the southern end. Caño Island is a short boat ride away, where you can snorkel for the day.
Thanks to the human population remaining remarkably small, Osa remains mostly virgin rainforest with 700 types of trees. It has the largest population of the endangered scarlet macaws in Central America and 463 species of birds, overall. There are 140 mammals and 10,000 types of insects. Several species of monkeys are found throughout and you’ll see sloths, too. Four of the seven species of the world’s sea turtles are found here, and 25 types of whales and dolphins. Osa is truly a nature paradise.
Costa Rica is a relatively small country but it is tough getting around as outside the main cities, there are no street lights for nighttime driving and many areas have dirt roads or flood out. So, if you rent a car, you may want to make it a 4×4 jeep or SUV-type vehicle and stick to driving during daylight. This makes traveling take longer so you have to plan accordingly and keep in mind each separate part of the country may take a full day to get to.
If you’re short on time or just don’t want to take on driving, you can either take a bus or small plane with Sansa Air. There’s a good public bus system but only the longer trips and first-class tickets (still very inexpensive by U.S. standards) have air conditioning.
Landing in San Jose
We began our Costa Rica adventure in a relatively quiet suburb of San Jose, away from the busy downtown. It is a quiet neighborhood and not a touristy area at all. Colours Oasis describes itself as “gay inclusive, hetero-friendly” hotel. Flying in as a hetero-couple from the gay capital of San Francisco, we felt right at home. The room was comfortable and they provided transportation from the airport. We were near a pub and strip mall we enjoyed exploring even in the rain. We ate palmitas (a cooked hearts of palm) with rice and beans from a locals food bar for dinner and checked out a little health food stand in the strip mall.
The hotel pool was ice cold so we skipped our usual daily swim and spent some time checking out the scene in San Jose before our flight to Peninsula de Osa.
The hotel made us a delicious Tican (typical Costa Rican-style) breakfast which features black beans and rice with carrots, chayote squash, and fried plantains. Eating vegan is very easy in Costa Rica. And, it is a huge plus that you can safely drink the water so you won’t get sick from fresh fruits and vegetables. I can’t get enough of the wide variety of tropical fruit!
Down to Osa
We flew in to Osa from a small airport in Alajuela, about a 45-minute drive from our hotel outside San Jose, to the tiny airstrip in the main town of Osa, Puerto Jimenez.
We left San Jose where it was raining and mild temperatures in the 60s and 70s, and arrived to sunny skies. It is very hot and muggy in Osa, year-round. And, oh how it rains in Osa! We were there in the “drier” season, yet one of our guided tours was cancelled due to the rain storm. There is no dry season, really, in Osa, just wet and wetter. Our night walk was cancelled due to heavy rain so we said we’ll have to save that special walk to see frogs which only come out at night for the next trip.
We began our stay at Lapa Rios, named the best hotel in Central America by Travel & Leisure. It has also won numerous awards as the best eco-resort over the years. They picked us up with a super refreshing ice-cold coconut water adorned with hibiscus flowers, and transported us in an air-conditioned car to the resort. Upon our arrival, they served us tropical fruit juice and featured a different flavor drink each day. The VIP transport and greeting reminded me of the opening of “Fantasy Island” from the 1980s.
While Lapa Rios is perfect for a honeymoon, it’s also family-friendly with very comfortable private bungalows and even more luxurious villas. It has a nice infinity pool which we swam in daily.
It was started by an American couple who first stayed there in the Peace Corps and later bought 1000 acres in order to preserve the land for wildlife, as well as provide jobs for the locals. They also help fundraise for the small public school. After 30 years of owning it, they recently retired and sold it to a hotel group that is making sure it stays true to its mission.
We had a private deck with hammocks, overlooking the ocean. Being truly eco, the water is solar-heated, so showers may not be as hot as people are used to at other high-end resorts and there is no AC. With the average temperature in the high 80s and super muggy, you don’t mind the showers, even when they’re a little cool. The ceiling fan is enough and there is usually a nice breeze being atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific.
The dining room has an individual table for every casita and a menu that changed for every meal. The food was incredibly delicious and they tailored everything vegan for us. There were wild monkeys in trees alongside the dining room (adorable babies with their mothers) and bats flying high up in the ceiling area to keep us company while we ate. You definitely feel IN nature the whole time, high up on the cliffs. It is a long and steep walk down to the beach. They gladly provide you a ride down in a large golf cart-type shuttle, if you prefer.
The beach was empty of people with the wild waves which make Costa Rica a popular surfing destination. The trees on the beach were full of scarlet macaws. A breathtaking and unusual sight for any bird-watcher like myself, but special for anyone since the parrot is endangered and, as mentioned above, Osa is one of the few places in the world to see them in the wild.
They also provide boots for guided day or night hikes. We went on a very steep and muddy night hike so I was happy to use their boots and keep my shoes relatively clean. A super venomous snake known as the fer-de-lance viper quickly slithered right by us in the plants along the trail of our night hike. The guide said they are common in the Osa and won’t bother us if we don’t bother them!
A tiny baby wooly opossum was found without his mother, on one of the guest’s decks. The staff named him Figo. They let us hold him and feed him watermelon. Then they brought him to the local wildlife rescue center where he would be cared for until big enough to be released. The rescue center needs volunteers to help care for the wildlife.
Aguila De Osa eco lodge is right on the ocean and, like Lapa Rios, has a large organic garden used in the meals. We travelled first by car on a long bumpy dirt road, with some parts completely flooded, then were met by the resort’s boat “taxi”.
The rooms were a lot more basic and connected to your neighbors, compared to the Lapa Rios which is entirely private individual accommodations. There is a private and fancier suite for those who want to splurge.
There are hammocks outside your door and monkeys hang out and play right outside. One of the monkeys enjoyed banging on the metal roof and taunting the resident dog. It was quite amusing (for us and I’m guessing for the monkey) —and provided a good close-up photo opportunity of the monkey.
The vegan meals they made us were delicious. Food is included and served family style, so we shared a table and the food with other guests. Kayaks are free for guests to take at their leisure and a variety of day excursions are optional.
We took advantage of the kayaks one morning. I was especially nervous about being dumped in the water since there is a resident crocodile who lives nearby. They say he is friendly but I didn’t really want to test it out! Luckily my expert kayaking companion guided me safely through the waves and we stayed upright and dry.
Osa by Sea and Land
We did a snorkeling boat trip to Caño Island one day. We were on a tiny boat with our guide and a family of four who hadn’t snorkeled before and weren’t wearing sunsuits or wetsuits, as we were.
The guide said she heard humpbacks were in the area. I’ve been on my share of whale-watching rides but this was one for the books! Due to protection laws, we had to stay back 300 feet from any whale we came upon, but out of nowhere, a humpback came right up to us! We quietly looked at this beautiful marine mammal. All of a sudden, the giant whale lifted up, out of the water, as if to say “good bye” and then swam away. We were in total disbelief from our once-in-a-lifetime encounter.
Another day we took a guided hike in Corcovado National Park, also a short boat ride away. We saw fewer animals than in the dense area surrounding Lapa Rios. A highlight of that guided hike was swimming by a waterfall and then resting on an isolated beach.
There are so many water-centered activities to do in Osa. And, plentiful hiking opportunities, as well. But, maybe my favorite part, is when you’re stuck inside, listening to the heavy rain and the birds, or just lazing around the grounds of your resort, and get to watch wild monkeys go by, or spot on a sloth.
Local Wildlife Nonprofits
There are two important nonprofits working near Corcovado that deserve more attention. The owner of Aguila De Osa, an American, helped found a local charity that has an environmental education program for the locals and helps save wildlife, especially sea turtles and their eggs.
The Corcovado Foundation also helps locals with food and other basic needs, especially during the pandemic. since it’s a very impoverished area, in general. With tourism being the main industry of Osa, the locals are having an especially difficult time making ends meet with so little travel and many resorts were temporarily shut down due to COVID-19. They need volunteers to stay during nesting months to help protect the sea turtle nests on the beaches.
On our way back home, we visited Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center (formerly Zoo Ave) in Alajuela. It’s a special place that educates the public on wildlife conservation, rescues and releases injured wildlife, and provides a permanent home for those who can’t be returned to the wild. During COVID-19, the group struggled financially since they had to close to visitors and school groups, losing those entrance fees, which accounted for most of their income. And, they have had difficulties getting international volunteers needed to care for the animals. Additionally, many other smaller rescues went out of business due to COVID and sent their animals to Rescate, the only remaining center in the area. Consider a visit when in the area or supporting these hard-working organizations from afar.
Judith Gottesman – September 2023
Judith Gottesman specializes in writing about romantic getaways, families with children, dog-friendly and vegan-friendly travel, best snorkel and nature destinations, eco-resorts and volunteer vacations.
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