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Corcovado National Park: Sirena

Destination: Drake Bay

Today's voyage to Corcovado's Sirena ranger station yielded so many opportunities to see rare and exquisite animals that it even trumped yesterday's excursion.

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I saw more species during the first twenty minutes at this remote location than I did in all of the previous day; although locals have assured me that this may be attributed to plain luck.

After an hour-long boat ride from Drake Bay, our group of eight arrived at Corcovado's Sirena headquarters. The ranger station was a half-mile walk from the beach, and within minutes we had seen a furry three-toed sloth high up in the trees. Every time I see a sloth I have to smile at its Spanish name: oso perezoso, or "lazy bear."

Amazingly enough, these creatures eat just one meal every three days, and descend from the canopy only once per week. Our guide, Javier, informed us that while sloths may appear slow and cumbersome, they are surprisingly great swimmers.

A few feet farther down the path, a beautiful male black-throated trogon sat on a branch. We snapped photos through the guide's telescope until we were distracted by a family of spider monkeys, the most common species of monkey in Corcovado.

These animals are almost non-existent in my home province of Guanacaste, and I was pleased to see them in the wild. They swung about the treetops with their long, elegant limbs, and hung from branches with strong prehensile tails -- which serve as convenient fifth arms.

Before we had the chance to store our cameras, a family of squirrel monkeys began to cross over a sunny branch leading to another section of forest. Roughly thirty monkeys passed through, including three with tiny babies clinging to their backs, often posing for the camera en route. As omnivores, these creatures feast on both fruit and the thousands of insect species inhabiting the park.

Squirrel monkeys are, in my opinion, the cutest of the four species found in Costa Rica -- with their long bushy tails, endearing gestures, and overwhelming curiosity. Unfortunately, their attractiveness is their curse, as one of the biggest detriments to the squirrel monkey is the household pet trade.

When we arrived at the station, a pair of chestnut-billed toucans was watching us from the top of a ficus. Departing on the two hour hike, we heard a family of howler monkeys grumbling in the distance -- and at this point Javier paused, sniffed the air, and announced that he smelled cat urine.

Everyone was a bit taken aback by the comment, but I think that it was meant to let us know that there were pumas in the proximity.

Although we didn't see any, it was exciting to know that they were nearby. While the phrase "teeming with wildlife" is grossly overused, Corcovado National Park undoubtedly deserves the privilege.

Another rare and elusive animal living in the vicinity is the Baird's tapir: of Corcovado's 166 square miles, it is estimated that there are between 21 and 66 tapir in total.

Tapirs are large mammals weighing between 300 and 500 pounds -- and look like a cross between a rhinoceros, a horse, and an elephant. The animals have a lengthy gestation period, longer than those of humans (13 months), and newborns stay close to the mother for their first 4-6 years of life. Sadly, they have a low survival rate -- even in such a remote place as Corcovado -- and I was not overly optimistic about coming across one on the trail.

A few months ago, I had learned all about these gentle giants in a textbook (while researching Tapir Lake in Tenorio National Park). Since the moment I became aware of their existence, I made it my life's mission to encounter one in the wild.

After explaining this to Javier, he in turn made it his mission to help me. Because they are nocturnal animals, most active between the hours of 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., tapirs are difficult to find during the day. We searched under branches, in boggy swamps, and through hidden sections of the jungle, but came up empty-handed.

Finally, Javier signaled us to peek through a mess of brambles and thorns. There was my tapir, a mere five feet away. It looked at me with soulful, human eyes, and I immediately fell in love. Amazingly, this animal had no fear of humans, and had it not been unethical to do so I am fairly certain that we could have reached out and touched it -- and probably even ridden it with a saddle. Instead, we snapped a few photographs and continued on.

By the end of the day, everyone agreed that the trip had been a great success. My only concern was that a group of eight people is far too large to truly enjoy the abundant wildlife at Corcovado National Park. By the time everyone had a turn looking through the telescope, whatever animal was under observation had likely changed positions or left the area completely.

Also, toward the end, certain members began talking and laughing loudly, scaring away any animals that may have been farther along the trail. Thankfully, we saw a massive amount of wildlife despite these factors, and I could not have been more pleased with our informative guide.

Collapsing as soon as I returned to Aguila de Osa, I was barely able to drag myself up for dinner. When six o'clock came, I played a round of gin rummy with a newlywed couple from Michigan -- over drinks and delicious appetizers like bean dip, guacamole, and fresh chips.

Dinner each night was served in three courses: soup with homemade bread, entree (meat and vegetables), and dessert. Dessert had been delicious these last few days, and tonight's chocolate mousse was no exception. I went to bed with a full stomach, and drifted off to sleep with thoughts of returning someday to hike the entire park.

Corcovado National Park: Sirena in Pictures

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