Corcovado National Park
OSA PENINSULA, COSTA RICA
Location and Overview
Location and Introduction
Corcovado National Park is located on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica and is considered the crown jewel of the internationally renowned Costa Rica National Park System. Corcovado has 429 square kilometers under protection but also forms part of the larger Osa Conservation Area, which includes the contiguous Golfo Dulce Forestry Reserve, the Guaymi Indian Reservation, and the preserves of Isla del Cano, Piedras Blancas, and the Terraba wetlands preserve. Additional targeted lands for protection are intended to protect a biological corridor between Corcovado and the Talamanca wilderness to ensure gene pool diversity of the spectacular array of wildlife that calls Corcovado home.
Park Description and Access
Corcovado is one of Costa Rica's most remote parks. There is no road access to any portion of the park's perimeter. By foot and horseback the Park can be reached from Drake Bay, Carate, and La Palma. Boat access from Drake is supported at the San Pedrillo and Sirena ranger stations. The grass air strip at Sirena Ranger station supports air charter access by light aircraft.
Corcovado National Park is acquainted with a variety of descriptive sobriquets attesting to the splendor of its natural history and resident wildlife. National Geographic famously labeled it "the most biologically intense place on the planet," and this characterization is memorialized in nearly every abbreviated web description of the park in existence. The park contains the largest contiguous expanse of primary tropical rain forest north of the Amazon basin, it is frequently reported, and the park is widely known to contain within its boundaries 2.5% of the biodiversity of the entire planet. While this biodiversity is partly explained by Corcovado's geographic location along the land bridge connecting the North and South American continents, the diversity of forest types within Corcovado itself is a strong predictor of zoologic diversity as well. At least thirteen distinct vegetation types identified within the park boundaries provide habitat for a mind-numbing list of animal species.
Corcovado National Park is remarkable for a reason completely different from its biodiversity and ecologic splendor as well, one likely to bear on environmental protections in other Latin American nations now and in the near future. Corcovado has been at the crossroads for the past forty years of environmental conservation and resource exploitation. With attractive gold and timber reserves in great abundance, the conservation advocates that succeeded in establishing the park have had to battle a the dramatic apparent economic favor of rapacity over conservation. But timber and gold are short-lived if dramatic economic windfalls, and the protection of Corcovado promises long-term and stable returns. Sustainable development has enabled ecotourism to provide an alternative to subsistence farming, logging, and mining, and the testament to the success is in the evolving public pride in the environmental protection of public lands in this country. But the implications are planetary as most of the world's vital remaining unspoiled habitat is contained by societies struggling with economic issues not unlike those that Costa Rica has and continues to overcome through diligence and national discipline.
History of the area and of the formation of the park
Economics, politics, and natural history have found the Osa Peninsula to be a robust battleground since the recognition of wide-spread and rich alluvial gold deposits first emerged from the jungles and into the imaginations of prospectors and miners in the early thirties. At first restricted to the prodigiously rich gold deposits on the beach sands of Madrigal and offshore Carate, as prospectors and miners struck inland, wealthy and relatively accessible deposits of river-run placer gold turned the Osa Peninsula into a wild-west gold rush during the 1980's. During that time, five short years after the formation of Corcovado National Park by presidential decree and not yet ratified by the legislature, the peninsula swelled by five times to a population of perhaps twenty thousand, and the mountains crawled with a new class of homespun entrepreneur and fortune seeker, often content to be far from the scrutiny of the law, and the societal strata that supported their efforts, the merchants, middle men, drug peddlers, bootleggers, poachers, hired guns, prostitutes, and bar owners. In fact, that's the period of time when I first waded ashore myself.
At the outbreak of World War II, Carate was the site of one of only two offshore gold dredges in the entire world. Gold was re-discovered on the Rio Claro in the 1930's, and nearby Madrigal Beach was so rich it clouds the imagination. By the mid eighties, relatively large placer mining operations were underway in both the Tigre and Carate Rivers, both of which have headwaters within Corcovado National Park. An extensive network of mountain trails provided passage from Puerto Jimenez and Dos Brazos over steep and muddy mountain trails too steep for horses and across gentle burbling streams that swelled from torrential rains into raging red torrents. As placers were tapped, the unyielding gold pioneers struck after colluvial concentrations still deeply buried by tunneling into the soil in crude passages that claimed many lives through cave-ins. The reward was high with occasional shovels of ore yielding as much as fifty grams and people still do it. The park remains the prime target for big gold.
Before the gold rush, the entire region was poised to be tapped by an international logging consortium. Conservationists poured out of the woodworks and lobbied the government to protect the area, and five years after a landmark 1970 law that set aside national territory for formation of a model national park system, Corcovado National Park was formed by executive decree on October 24, 1975 by then president of the Republic, Daniel Oduber, later awarded the Albert Schweitzer Award from the Animal Welfare Institute for his action on behalf of conservation.
It was not until the mid eighties, however, that the federal government forbad further hand mining within the boundaries of the park and mounted a costly eviction program that engendered years of ill will and conflict between the government and its arguably most vulnerable and indigent group of citizens. Years later, the lawsuits are settled, the protests stilled, the evicted scoring handsome cash settlements. And Corcovado National Park is no longer the firebrand of social unrest that it came to symbolize in the late eighties. As conservationists push to capitalize land buys that will complete a protected corridor to the Talamancas, the ecotourism that has grown has provided economic incentives for preservation.
Administration and Management
Costa Rica's National Park system falls bureaucratically under the control of the Ministry of Environment and Energy (Ministerio de Ambiente y Energia MINAE). Four ranger stations inside Corcovado Park provide housing and facilities for rangers and support for park visitors and academic researchers. Skeleton crews are maintained at the camping-only stations along the park boundaries, San Pedrillo, Los Patos, and La Leona. The park headquarters of Sirena Ranger Station is well staffed and offers year round dorm housing and hot meals. The Park Service has an office in Puerto Jimenez that manages reservations.
One-day visits do not require advance reservations. For all camping and overnight dorm lodging, reservations must be made and paid in advance of arrival. Reservations can be made no more than one month in advance of arrival. For reservations assistance inquire here. For information on guided expeditions, click here.
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