Looking for pumas in the year of the snake

March 2013

Wildlife photographer at La Leona ranger station hiking to La Sirena, Corcovado National Park, Osa Peninsula, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

“Bilbo realized that the adventure was something different than pony rides in May sunshine” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

I’m about to go on a short holiday, photographing wildlife in Corcovado NP on the Osa Peninsula in southwest Costa Rica. My main aim is to spot pumas, though I would be very lucky to actually see one, let alone take pictures of.

It will be my tenth visit of the park. Of these, two were short treks and once I hiked out the 17 plus 3 kilometers after being dropped of by boat and a two-night stay at La Sirena, a ranger station in the middle of Corcovado.

There are three ways to get to La Sirena: by airplane, by boat, or over land. The latter option is the least expensive and for that reason the one I go by.

Costa Rica measures only 51,000 square kilometers, or roughly one and a quarter the size of the Netherlands or one two-thirds the size of Belgium. Considering its small size, it takes surprisingly long to get to Corcovado from the capital. It involves an 8-hour bus ride to Puerto Jimenez (Port Jim as gringos say), where I’ll spend the night in a comfortable hotel. The next day you sit in the back of a lorry/truck for three hours to reach Carate, the last settlement near the southern perimeter of the park. From there, it’s a 3-km hike to very basic accommodation a few hundred yards away from the southern park gate, which is aptly named Las Leonas, or mountain lions in Spanish. From there, to get to the heart of Corcovado involves a full day of hiking. In short, it takes me three days to reach my base, La Sirena. (I try to do the return trip in two days, taking the afternoon lorry back to Port Jim.)

I go alone, as I didn’t expect friends wanting to join me on this short, basic and hard trip.

Take for example the weight of the luggage I’ll carry on my back for some of the days: 15 kgs of camera equipment, 5 kgs of food, 4 kgs of clothing (shoes weigh most), 4 kgs of camping equipment, two books and the backpack itself that weighs over 3 kgs. As a backpack, I’ve taken my largest, a 110-liter Lowe Alpine. I don’t like it very much as it will no doubt rip open the skin around my hips.

(The last time I carried a similar load was in 2010 during a solo trekking on the island of Tasmania. I happened to be vacationing in the mainland of Australia and being near, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to do one of the world’s classic treks, The Overland Track. The walk was also my way to prepare physically for a mountaineering trip one month later. Due to slippery trails that were partly covered in snow and ice, I tripped 6 times. My pack was so heavy that each time I had fallen, I had to position myself first on hands and knees before I could stand up. I also had to pace myself and take a break from walking every hour to recuperate.)

The climate in Corcovado won’t be agreeable either. It’s hot, humid and showers are to be reckoned with. Even without rain, my clothes will be soaked in sweat within 15 minutes. (I carry 10 sachets of detergent to wash my clothes.) The heat and humidity also increase chances of heat rash on your skin, respiratory problems, heart failure, overheating and funghi between your toes (as happened during my last private sojourn in Corcovado).

Other things need to be taken into account as well. Rumors have it that the park is sometimes visited by drug smugglers and poachers, people you don’t want to run into. Not to mention illegal gold prospectors, though they are mostly found on the eastern side of the national park.

Finally, there are all kinds of potentially dangerous animals. I’m not particularly afraid of the few big wild cats or the peccaries, though cases have been reported of people being attacked by pumas and wild pigs in Corcovado. The mosquitoes, ticks and scorpions probably won’t be more than a nuisance. (While working in Costa Rica in January I found a scorpion in two of my hotel rooms, one of the rooms being on the Osa Penisula. And after my last day visit of Corcovado I found two ticks on my legs.) Neither it’s very likely to be attacked by the bull sharks – known to have the strongest bite of all investigated cartilaginous fishes - or American crocodiles that inhabit some of the rivers I have to wade through. What I fear most - animal wise – are venomous snakes, especially the ones I’ll no doubt overlook. (Less than 20 species of more than 130 species found in Costa Rica are venomous.) For this reason I’ll wear high plastic boots for most of the trip.

The dangers won’t deter me. In my view, most of nature isn’t about intentionally hurting people. Nature is basically indifferent. The weight of the backpack will only make me stronger. I feel privileged to be physically able to discover nature this way and look forward to the adventure. It will be a thrill both to talk to people on the peninsula and to vanish in this wild place; to have plenty of time to find and photograph wildlife.

Fingers crossed for dry weather and plenty of animal sightings!