Corcovado National Park and Isla del Cano Biological Reserve
Corcovado National Park and Isla del Cano Biological Reserve is part of the Tentative list of Costa Rica in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
Corcovado National Park conserves the largest primary forest on the American Pacific coastline and one of the few remaining sizable areas of lowland tropical forests in the world. It covers about a third of the Osa Peninsula. Corcovado is home to a sizable population of the endangered Baird's tapir, big cats (jaguar, ocelot, margay, jaguarundi, and puma), all Costa Rican monkey species, and sloths, collared peccaries, northern tamanduas and silky anteaters.
Caño Island is a marine biological reserve with coral reef habitats northeast of Corcovado. The island also has a burial ground dating back to the pre-Columbian era.
Map of Corcovado National Park and Isla del Cano Biological ReserveLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
Corcovado currently is the only entry on the Tentative List of Costa Rica. There seem to be no plans to bring it forward (again), after the 2004 withdrawal caused by a negative IUCN advice. At the time it was dismissed with not much further explanation than “too small”, too small even for its mammals to survive in the near future. It could not match similar sites (Darien, Talamanca) that were already inscribed. Although I can see the point, I still found it the most worthwhile destination of my Costa Rica trip.
I based myself for 3 nights in Drake Bay, the most common access point on the Osa Peninsula. It is off the beaten tourist track, but not that remote. The area around Drake Bay itself is already really nice, I did a late afternoon birding tour there and hiked part of the Drake Bay Trail (a 20km long coastal path) on my own. I could have easily stayed one or two nights longer, tying in a trip to Isla del Cano for example.
For my Corcovado visit I booked a day tour to the Sirena station of the National Park at the cost of 85 USD. You may only visit the park accompanied by an official guide. At 6 a.m. two boats with some 25 tourists each set from the coast of Drake Bay, already a minor adventure in itself as the place has no jetty. So you have to wade from and to the boats. I shared a guide with a couple from Alaska and a guy from Spain, so it was a pleasantly small group. We hardly met the other groups while in the park, we only did so at the centrally located ranger station which has a small shop, a place to refill your waterbottle and toilets.
After an hour’s boat ride we landed at low tide at Corcovado. There is a very large tidal difference and we had to walk 200 meters over pebbles and the remains of molten lava to get on shore. We had to report to the ranger post first. What now is the park used to be inhabited and it was agricultural land. It only became a protected area in 1975.
Corcovado is best known for the presence of a large number of mammal species that are easy to spot. In the bushes right next to the beach we quickly discovered a small deer, a Red brocket. We left the beach for the forest at the mouth of a river, an idyllic spot. This is where the guide found us the flagship species of Corcovado: the Bairds tapir. These animals are most active early in the morning, now around 8 o'clock they were resting. We found two: a mother with a 6 months old calf. They were in the undergrowth and we tried to find an angle to take good pictures without disturbing them.
That effort proved to be unnecessary in the end, as after a few minutes they started walking out into the open on their own. They ate some leaves, peed in the river and then disappeared from sight. Although we were only 5 meters away, they went about their business undisturbed. While we were waiting for the tapirs to move, one of the tour mates suddenly spotted another creature walking over a tree trunk. I immediately recognized it as a tayra, a marten-like species. The guide was also completely perplexed that we saw it in broad daylight. These were certainly the 15 best mammalwatching minutes of this trip!
We spent 4.5 hours in Corcovado and walked a couple of the trails around Sirena. Monkeys are easily seen here, but I had already covered all four Costa Rican species without much effort in the days before. Only the Geoffroy's spider monkey can be observed here better than elsewhere. We found a group relaxing on the tree branches. Furthermore we saw three more tapirs resting in a mud bath, an agouti, mantled howler monkeys, Central American squirrel monkeys and some birds including a spectacular woodpecker. And a group of white-nosed coatis ran down the path. Our efforts to spot a sloth were unsuccesful. We did see a boa constrictor though, sleeping in a tree. It did not show its head, but its fat body alone already was impressive.
So mammalwise it was a succesful tour. It may be because of the park’s relatively small size and island-like biological isolation that the animals can’t move away from the park trails and are accustomed to the presence of people.
Read more from Els Slots here.
Site visited on my December-January vacations, for a whole week, a trip that I had been wishing to do since my childhood’s readings about the Costa Rican National Park System, that helped me highlight the importance of the Osa peninsula conservation complex.
After visiting both protected areas, I think they fully live up to Corcovado’s name as “the most biologically diverse point on Earth”. During my visits to 2 different ranger stations (closer San Pedrillo and farther away and more pristine Sirena), I saw many more different species than I had ever seen in any national park in my country, and in different life stages, daytimes, and habitats than I had seen them before.
Among the species that I saw are: both crocodiles (one of them swimming in the sea in San Pedrillo station) and caimans (even baby caimans on a pond), the amazing and deadly Bothriechis schlegelii camouflaging on a trunk, many types of amphibians like poison dart frogs, and crystal frogs mating (which are best appreciated during a night tour in the forest around Drake Bay), and several bird’s species, like pelicans, hummingbirds, hawks, toucans and a crazy number of scarlet macaws, that are best seen flying along the extensive beaches. Naturally, I saw different types of insects and arachnids, including several species of butterflies and a couple of spiders, particularly the venomous Phoneutria.
However, what impressed me most is the number of mammals that I saw: all four species of monkeys in the country (Squirrel, Howler, Capuchin, and Geoffrey’s spider) were either in Sirena or in San Pedrillo, both living and cannibalized by other monkey’s species. I also saw many three-toed sloths, both on trees and moving on the ground between trees. I saw an enormous 20-30 members group of coatis (which we call pizotes in Costa Rica) moving along a trail and interestingly uninterested in us humans, which is great but infrequent, as in many other parts of the country they are too much used to be fed. Not as easily seen, but just as common were the very shy agoutis and peccaries that moved fast on the forest floor. Even harder to see, we managed to see a tamandua and an anteater through our guide’s binoculars. Nevertheless, the luckiest encounter on those two days in Corcovado was seeing a family of Baird’s Tapirs, the biggest mammal in the country, pleasantly sleeping at noon on both sides of a mangrove: on one of the sides were a mother and its cub, on the other side was the male…we very extremely lucky to see them from 3-5 meters, which is very close. What we did not see at all were felines, but our guide and the rangers told us that jaguars are not a strange occurrence on the road from the Sirena station to La Leona station; pumas can only be rarely seen on the most mountainous parts of the park, far inland from where we were.
The marine life is impressive and can be mostly appreciated in the 30-km trip from the coast to Caño island. Even when we were not in one of the tours specifically directed to see whales or dolphins, and some of those tours are unlucky even in the right season (we were told), we were able to see a moderately animated pod of dolphins that were circled by our boat, after seeing a large group of marine birds, the best indication that the dolphins and their fish preys are around. After arriving at Isla del Caño, we snorkeled twice (before and after seeing the terrestrial part of the island) and there, we saw an amazing number of different and colorful fish, sponges, etc. in the coral reefs. On the island there is not too much to see except seascapes, but there are thousands of crabs and some interesting trees that were introduced by the Indians, that considered the island as sacred. To my understanding, the stone spheres are no longer on the island, but have been taken by the National Museum. I must however warn that there is also a lot of ‘hilo de oro’, a type of golden-colored, elongated medusa that floats abundantly around the island, making the swimming time not as pleasant as one may have wanted.
I did not see whales, but as Corcovado and the island are located next to the main route of the humpback whales (which mate between these places and Ballena marine national park), they can be viewed on season (being September and October the best months to see them). I did not see turtles either, but it is said that 4 species (green, Pacific Ridley, hawksbill, and leatherback) nest on the park’s beaches. Lastly, swimming in the sea at Corcovado is forbidden, as, additionally from the occasional swimming crocodile, the area is full of bull sharks and strong rip currents.
As my camera died on just my second day there and I didn’t have either my cell phone for a couple of days, I depended on the kindly provided pictures by other tourists, at least for Corcovado. One of them was even a journalist for the Tico Times and here you can see his photo article on that visit.
As most tourists, I took the beach town of Bahía Drake (Agujitas) as my base and from there, I participated in several tours, which are quite costly (of all them except the night tour around Bahía Drake above $50) but very worthwhile. It is impossible to visit Corcovado or Caño island without a guide, and there is a defined number of visitors per day, so you better book your tours in advance through your hotel. The use of a guide not only makes the visit safer, but also allows you to take a bigger gain from the whole experience, as they are well equipped, extremely informative and have the knowledge of the different species, where to find them, their characteristics and how they fit in their ecosystem.
In all, I took one tour on my second day there, to Isla del Caño and from the beach of San Josecito, where we had lunch, I walked the maybe 15 km stretch of coast between there and Bahía Drake, which traverses some rivers (e advised to take enough Ziploc bags with you to protect your valuable camera and cell phone) and the most serene and beautiful beaches, also one biological refuge and an incredible amount of birds and marine life.
On the third day, we went to San Pedrillo ranger station and there, we visited several trails to see the coastal wildlife and some to the interior to swim in a refreshing waterfall. On the fourth day, my tour to Sirena ranger station was canceled and, among other things, I walked around town and I did some stand up paddle in the big bay which gives its name to the town, and where supposedly sir Francis Drake used to anchor.
On the fifth day, the costliest and furthest away tour was to Sirena station, that is the one station most centrally located on the park and where I saw the biggest amount of species, and the most untamed nature, there we took several hiking trails, that allowed us to see different habitats: from mangroves to coastal forest.
On the sixth day there, I walked all the way between Bahía Drake and San Josecito again, and then to the calm beach town of Rincón, from where the trail reaches San Pedrillo station after 5-10km. Having departed relatively late in the morning, I decided rather to walk back from Rincón to Bahía Drake through the inland gravel road, and reached the town before 5 pm. On that night, I also did the highly recommendable (and cheapest of all) tour around the forest near Bahía Drake, that was most illustrative about the flora and the nocturnal fauna of all the trips, showing me a lot of what I could see if I had stayed overnight at Sirena station.
For almost all the tours, you will be picked up on your hotel by a van, and you will be taken to the beach around 6 am, then you will take a boat, as there are no roads in the national park and the distances, specially to Sirena station, are quite far. Many of these tours will also visit the picnic area at San Josecito beach and the food provided is healthy and abundant, for those tours you’ll be in Bahía Drake around 3-5 pm.
Apart from the tours that I took, there are also some interesting ones to the Térraba-Sierpe mangroves, to watch whales and to see the phenomenon of bioluminescence. The area around Bahía Drake is also interesting: you can go kayaking, stand-up paddling or hiking. Or if you do not want to spend the night in a hotel, and want a more natural experience, I was told that you can also spend the night in a very rustic cabin, which is accessed from the town of Los Planes.
The list of tours that were offered in my hotel are in the following link.
How to get there:
One of the reasons for which I selected Cabinas Manolo was that they have a very informative webpage, indicating how to get to Bahía Drake through different means. This is essential when one visits one of the most isolated and distant districts of the country.
Basically, there are the following ways to get to Bahía Drake:
-By plane, from the airport in San José, which is fast and will let you right outside Bahía Drake, from where you can call a cab. It was however, for me, a little prohibitive since I was at peak season and the prices were accordingly expensive.
-By car, from San José, taking the Interamerican or the “Costanera” highways to the town of Chacarita de Osa, then taking the road towards Puerto Jiménez (another base to enter the park) and then, taking a detour at Rincón de Osa. The road then becomes a VERY basic dirt road that traverses the peninsula to Bahía Drake.
-By car, taking a similar way, but taking the detour before, at Palmar Sur, to finish in Sierpe. This may be more of interest to WHS enthusiasts, since you will pass the interesting plantation era buildings and heritage church at Palmar Sur, and you will also pass right in front of the entrance of Finca 6 WH archaeological park. In Sierpe, you can park your car at the price of $6 the day and then, you will have to take the $20 boat ride to Bahía Drake.
-By public transportation, which is the one I took, for obvious economic reasons. You will have to take a 5:00 am bus from San José to Palmar Norte bus station (TRACOPA is the provider company, very good service) and at Sierpe you should take a rushed approximately $20 cab ride to Sierpe to be in time for the 12:00 pm boat departures. As I understand, there are also boat rides departing from Sierpe at 3:30 pm that could enable you to visit Finca 6, and/or use the bus from Palmar Norte to Sierpe, but you must keep in mind that, even so, you will not have plenty of time. As I had already visited Finca 6, I simply rushed to Sierpe.
-The boat ride from Sierpe to Bahía Drake is simply amazing. You will go through the enormous 30.654 ha Térraba-Sierpe wetland and Ramsar site, the biggest and most complex net of wetlands in the country, with incredible wildlife and vistas. As you get to the sea, you will see many islands and the unspoiled nature of this part of the country. On the last day of my trip, on the way back to Sierpe, I was on the 6 am ride and the light was ideal for photography, you will see amazing reflections.
-As I said, from Bahía Drake: Isla del Caño, San Pedrillo and Sirena stations can be only accessed by boat, on an organized tour.
-There are some other chances to visit Corcovado, without using Bahía Drake as the base. They are described here. On the whole other side of the Osa peninsula lies Puerto Jiménez, which belongs to the canton of Golfito and has the administrative offices of the National Park. This town is much more developed than Bahía Drake and there are many beaches overlooking the pleasant Golfo Dulce.
To my understanding, from Puerto Jiménez you can access Corcovado on three spots: driving to the Los Patos ranger station (there are rustic hotels nearby) through the town of Guadalupe de La Palma; taking the colectivo from Puerto Jiménez to Cárate and then walk to La Leona ranger station; or the recent addition of taking a tour with the local ecotourism association at Dos Brazos de Río Tigre. You have to remember that with any of these options, you will also require a guide.
The map of this national park is here.
That WH list:
This TL site was evaluated in the early 2000s and in the review, IUCN panned it, regarding issues like the uniqueness of its ecosystems (similarity to Darién NP), the ecological connectivity of the site (which may reduce the high biodiversity of the site) and the threats from illegal gold mining. At least this last issue has however been reduced with the years, as the communities around the park are engaged with its management and take part in lucrative services inside the park (for example, the services at the Sirena station and the already mentioned tours provided at Dos Brazos de Río Tigre and Rancho Quemado ).
With regards to the uniqueness, I have the feeling that while there is this other pristine conservation complex in Panama, Corcovado stands for its concentration of different ecosystems in a smaller area, from montane forests to lowlands, mangroves, freshwater, marine, reefs at Isla del Caño, open seas, etc. And there are already many duplicated life zones in the list, so another complex like Corcovado may still be an interesting addition. Especially considering its biodiversity.
With regards to its biodiversity, as I said, I have never seen so much wildlife, even after having visiting dozens other conservation areas in the country. When compared to the dry forests of Guanacaste Conservation Area (where is much easier to see wildlife in the open, than in a wet forest), chances are that you will see plenty of wildlife.
With regards to the connectivity, I have the idea that this site could gain inscription, however under a different scope. Corcovado and Isla del Caño share a large portion of wildlife rich seas and therefore, this connection should be emphasized. On the other hand, Corcovado has become more connected with time through biological corridors (the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve) to Peñas Blancas National Park and the extremely important Térraba-Sierpe wetlands. All of these areas are a part of ACOSA, the Osa Conservation Area. Therefore, it would be possible to inscribe a site containing Corcovado and Caño Island, if they are inscribed together with part or a totality of Osa Conservation Area.
Last Thoughts and Warnings:
I definitely got the feeling that, to grasp the richness of this national park, in the future I’ll stay near Los Patos station and then take a long hike from there to Sirena station, traversing the whole park and its different ecosystems and altitudinal zones. This is a really demanding hike, and a guide is absolutely vital. Then, I would spend the night at Sirena station to take in some of the other hiking trails and then I would hike from Sirena to La Leona station along the coast (only doable at low tide when passing the Salsipuedes area), maybe having chances to see jaguars. Lastly, I would then leave the national park and hike to Cárate beach, where I would take the colectivo to Puerto Jiménez.
Three warnings. First: remember that the park has limited the number of visitors per day and you should better book your tours in advance. Second: from 2017 on, you can again stay at Sirena station, but to do so, you MUST BOOK with the national park offices (through e-mail or through hotel) with at least ONE MONTH in advance. For this, see this link.
Lastly, remember that you will be in the wettest side of the Pacific Coast, where it rains a lot from April to November. During part of this rainy season, mostly September and October, it is impossible to visit the national park or at least, Sirena and San Pedrillo stations.
With all this information in mind, I hope that you have a great time and visit this site which for me, was a deep and expansive experience.
Read more from Esteban Cervantes Jiménez here.
2004 Requested by State Party to not be examined
Withdrawn by Costa Rica
2003 Added to Tentative List
The site has 2 locations