Corcovado: Change is coming to a timeless place

Karl Kahler | May 15, 2017
Corvovado hikers pause to commune with a white-faced monkey who is totally ignoring them.

CORCOVADO NATIONAL PARK, Puntarenas — Walking into Corcovado is like entering a cathedral, a holy, ancient place with a tall ceiling where light filters down as if through stained glass and you feel like a tiny mortal in the midst.

There’s something primordial here, sanctified, far from the crowds, cars and bars. One of the nice things about a destination so hard to get to is you won’t have much company — except of course for all the animals.

Six of us recently walked from Carate to Quebrada Hedionda (“Stinky Creek”) and back in eight hours, and we saw anteaters, white-faced monkeys, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, white-noised coatis, red-tailed squirrels and a tent-making bat, and those were just the mammals.

A collared anteater, also known as an oso hormiguero.
A collared anteater, also known as an oso hormiguero. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

There were also lizards, frogs, spiders, insects and birds, and comic relief was provided on the way home by the thousands of purple and orange Halloween crabs, which despite their formidable defenses skittered cautiously sideways and into their holes every time we approached.

Corcovado National Park (424 sq. km, or 163 sq. mi.), is an old-growth tropical rain forest, most of it “bosque primario” untouched by humans, where the forest looks more or less like it looked thousands of years ago. It’s often called the “crown jewel” of the Costa Rican park system, and no write-up on Corcovado is complete without quoting the National Geographic as calling this “the most biologically intense place on Earth.”

Yet change is coming to Corcovado — not so much in the shady places where the tapirs sleep, but at Sirena Ranger Station, the heart of the park.

White-faced (capuchin) monkey.
White-faced (capuchin) monkey. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

For many years services at Sirena have been offered by public officials employed by SINAC, a conservation agency under the Costa Rican environment ministry, MINAE. But as of Jan. 15, 2017, so-called “nonessential services” — meaning food and lodging — have been turned over to the Asociación de Desarollo Integral (ADI) of Carate, a public, nonprofit entity consisting mostly of local hotel owners.

For many years, visitors to Sirena have been able to choose between camping in a tent or staying in a cabina, and between bringing their own food or buying the food prepared there. Under controversial new rules, visitors to Sirena are no longer allowed to bring their own food — if they want to eat, they have to eat the meals provided by Sirena, where breakfast costs $20, lunch is $25 and dinner is $25.

Camping is no longer allowed here either, but there are 70 new bunk beds with sheets and mosquito nets, and there are new, clean bathrooms and showers. A bed costs $30 a night.

Big mushrooms — inedible, I was told.
Big mushrooms — inedible, I was told. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

The food rules are a major change for many of the top tour operators, including boats from Drake Bay that disgorge dozens of tourists every day and are accustomed to feeding them sandwiches, fruit and other delicacies out of their colorful coolers. Under the new rules, those coolers are no longer allowed to leave the boat. It’s kind of like a movie theater: The popcorn here is expensive, but no, you can’t bring your own popcorn.


The park ranger

I talked to Ocduber Cruz, a guardaparques who has worked in Corcovado for 14 years, and he tried to explain the recent changes to me. All national parks are run by MINAE, the environment ministry, in consultation with its sub-ministry SINAC (National System of Conservation Areas), which employs Ocduber.

But some parks are harder to run than others, and in the case of Chirripó and Corcovado the national park service has opted to contract with third parties to provide food and lodging for visitors.

Priscilla holds a big hermit crab, which probes her fingers with its claws but can't reach them with its pinchers.
Priscilla holds a big hermit crab, which probes her fingers with its claws but can't reach them with its pinchers. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

Ocduber told me that it was declared illegal for representatives of SINAC to continue providing food or lodging in Corcovado, as it was a government agency. Governments are not supposed to be in the business of selling services to tourists.

There was a proposal from Café Britt, of all people, to run the food and lodging, but ultimately the job went to the ADI.

“For us as park officials, it’s been positive,” said Ocduber. The problem, he said, is that previously boats showed up at Sirena from Drake Bay every day carrying dozens of tourists, and each boat had a cooler full of food to feed them for lunch.

“Each hotel had its table,” he said. “They had their coolers, they threw the watermelon rind into the forest, the banana skins, the pineapple, and that attracted not only coatis but even the tapir. We have that problem — they show up to eat all the waste. Now that doesn’t exist.”

Guiselle puts on her shoes again after crossing the knee-high Río Madrigal.
Guiselle puts on her shoes again after crossing the knee-high Río Madrigal. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

The president

Lana Wedmore, owner of Luna Lodge and president of the ADI of Carate, said that under the administration of MINAE few services were offered to visitors at Sirena.

“Guides had to carry food, carry tents and sheets. Now guides can be guides,” she said. “The food is there and it’s hot. What we’re offering is service. It’s like a little hotel. There’s bunk beds with mosquito nets, there’s incredible, nice bathrooms, there’s hot meals.”

Lana acknowledged that some people were unhappy about the new food rules.

Jim and Shannon take a breather in the sun next to the Río Madrigal, putting their shoes back on.
Jim and Shannon take a breather in the sun next to the Río Madrigal, putting their shoes back on. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

“A lot of people are upset because the prices are a little bit more expensive,” she said. “Well, MINAE put those prices, we didn’t.” She pointed out that to ship an egg to Sirena costs four times as much as the egg.

“If people were really worried about the biodiversity and the animals and the protection of all this, conservation is managing people’s behavior, it’s not the animals,” she said. “And if we go into Sirena and bring our own food, like they did before, and food scraps are everywhere, then the vultures come, and the coatis, all these animals come, that’s why they just closed Manuel Antonio.”

To be clear, you can still bring your own food into Corcovado if you’re not going to Sirena — for example, if you do a one-day hike like we did from La Leona.

Welcome to Corcovado National Park.
Welcome to Corcovado National Park. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

Little hungry?

We each had two PB&J sandwiches, a banana and a pack of cookies prepared for us by the Lookout Inn. By the time we walked to La Leona, the bananas were destroyed beyond repair and Guiselle and I had to throw them into the bushes on the beach and then clean the banana scum out of the inside of our backpack.

This is human impact — if every visitor to La Leona would throw two black bananas on the beach before entering the park, pretty soon La Leona would be teeming with creatures that like black bananas. In Sirena, the impact is greatly magnified by the tour boats; even if all their waste is biodegradable, it’s also edible, and it changes animal behavior.

“So people can’t bring their own food anymore if they go to Sirena,” Lana said. “We have paid a lot of money to get all those supplies in there to make really incredible, hot food, and it is really good food. We have put ourself on the line to give good service, and also have this biodiversity there.”

Guide meets girl at La Leona Ranger Station.
Guide meets girl at La Leona Ranger Station. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

Ocduber, however, believes the new prices will pose a problem for nacionales from Costa Rica who just want to take a vacation.

“Now let’s talk about national tourism,” he said. “If you come from outside, from all over, maybe it’s not so hard to come in and pay what they want you to pay. But for the national tourist, they’re not going to come.”

I asked him exactly how much Sirena now charges.

“Foreigners pay $15 for a permit to enter the park,” he said. “They pay $30 for a bunk bed, a bed with a mosquito net, with sheets and pillows. And we’re talking about foreigners, right? Then they have to pay their guide. They have to pay $20 for breakfast, $25 for lunch and $25 for dinner. For the foreign tourist, diay, it’s not hard. But the Ticos, they can’t afford it.”

A very strange insect with feet that looked like orange-and-black flower petals.
A very strange insect with feet that looked like orange-and-black flower petals. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

The guide

Our Corcovado guide was a 29-year-old man named MaiKol Salas Sanchez who had been doing this for two years and had very positive things to say about the new services at Sirena.

“I think it’s very well organized,” MaiKol said. “You walk from here eight hours to the station, and when you get there, you find everything clean, there are beds to sleep in, there’s a mosquito net, and the food is really good.”

He said things were getting ugly in Sirena before the ADI came in. “Before there was a lot of disorder, everyone had to prepare their own stuff, everything disordered and dirty,” he said. “It’s a little more expensive now, but it’s worth the money.”

MaiKol, our guide, talking about the "naked Indian" tree.
MaiKol, our guide, talking about the "naked Indian" tree. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

The tour operator

I asked Ifigenia Garita Canet, proprietor of the Osa Wild tour operator in Puerto Jiménez, about the new rules.

“That is super-complicated, especially for those of us who sell the tour and we have to tell tourists that they can’t take food,” she said. “In truth, I don’t think it’s good, there should be a lot more flexibility.”

She acknowledged that waste management was a problem in the past, and that there was a kitchen where guides could cook and it was “super-dirty.” But she thinks the new rules are an overreach.

“Going to the park now is like looking for a place to hide and eat,” she said.

A pause at Quebrada Hedionda, "Stinky Creek."
A pause at Quebrada Hedionda, "Stinky Creek." Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

When the ADI came in, she said, it was thought that the park rangers could spend more time on the management of natural resources — protecting the park, looking for gold miners and hunters.

“Now the park rangers are running around chasing the guides to take away their food,” she said.

The price of prepared food at Sirena has always been high, but the lodging is another issue, she said.

“The camping we used to do with tourists was $4, and now it’s $30 and there’s no camping. Rooms at Sirena were $8 a night, and now they’re $30. It’s too much of a one-time increase.”

Although Costa Rican nationals gets a significant break on the permit to enter the park — ₡1,600 for nationals, $30 for foreigners — the prices for food and lodging are the same for both.


The monkeys don’t care

We saw three monkey species in a single day — white-faced, spider and squirrel — and we heard the howlers too. They appeared to be blissfully unaware of any changes coming to the place they call home.

Guiselle, Priscilla and MaiKol head home on the long beach between La Leona and Carate.
Guiselle, Priscilla and MaiKol head home on the long beach between La Leona and Carate. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

I don’t think they have much to worry about, as these monkeys are abundant here, and they live in one of the most protected places on earth.

But I think the monkeys’ closest cousins here — that’s us — will continue to debate how much human impact is acceptable in one of the world’s wildest places.

I’m betting the forest will look much the same long after people have stopped debating.

Contact Karl Kahler at


  1. How about teaching people to be responsible with their refuse? Pack out what you pack in. All things organic or inorganic. Have the guides and park rangers emphasize the importance of not leaving scraps in the park. And also have the option of eating and staying in the park provided facilities.

    Comment by David Carazo — May 15, 2017 @ 10:08 am

  2. This is so sad….Costa Rican land and parks that can’t be enjoyed by Costar Ricans because prices are prohibitive to them. There is no way a Costa Rican will pay $20 for breakfast and $25 for lunch and dinner. Even $30 for a bunk bed is outrageous. So, the CR government will continue to cater to foreigners while Costa Rica can eat their gallo pinto at home and wish they can go on vacation to Corcovado someday.

    Comment by Julieta — May 15, 2017 @ 10:55 am

  3. hey karl,
    good article.
    the bug on the papaya is a flag footed bug in the genus Anisocelis. i think the changes will be positive for the forest and its inhabitants. i would hope there could be some adjustments in the costs of lodging and food.

    Comment by Henry Kantrowitz — May 15, 2017 @ 11:23 am

  4. I agree that this is sad news. I just don’t think that there was no other way to find a solution for the problem.
    I guess there are a lot of responsible people who will understand that the have to take ALL the waist out that they took in but unfortunately there are always people who wouldn´t care. But that is what guides are for, to educate the people about the environment they are going to visit.
    What I don´t understand is that, according to the article, the people coming in with boats left all the food scraps at the Sirena station. So the ones that would have the easiest way (coolers, boat) to carry out the garbage would leave it there anyway? That is just a lack of communication and organisation between the station and the hotels or tour operators. I mean, it can´t be that hard to educate people, working in this environment to take the garbage back out again.

    The result of all that is, that Ticos will now not have the possibility to visit one of the most beautiful places of their own country. Even a lot of low budget tourists and backpackers will now stay away from Corcovado.

    Comment by Gabi — May 15, 2017 @ 11:38 am

  5. Totally second this. This is so sad….Costa Rican parks that can’t be enjoyed by Costar Ricans because prices are prohibitive to them. There is no way a Costa Rican will pay $20 for breakfast and $25 for lunch and dinner. Even $30 for a bunk bed is outrageous. So, the CR government will continue to cater to foreigners while Costa Rica can eat their gallo pinto at home and wish they can go on vacation to Corcovado

    Comment by Juan José — May 15, 2017 @ 12:44 pm

  6. The US has proved that no matter how many signs you post or fines you threaten with, people will still leave garbage and dump their trash. I guess as long as it is easier and cheaper to not be responsible people will do so.
    No witness no crime is the philosophy.
    The Ticos should have an affordable rate for amenities. So sad that this is not the case.

    Comment by Judie — May 15, 2017 @ 2:24 pm

  7. Compared to Disney, this is a walk in the park. No pun.
    Many people who live in Central FL can’t afford the theme parks even with the discounts. I really think locals could get better rates

    Comment by Ginger — May 16, 2017 @ 4:29 am

  8. So sad to see the changes that the CR government is making to this awesome place. I have gone and camped in Corcovado with no issues and always packed in and out what we brought. The CR government seems to always over react when it comes to changes they have to make to correct problems…. I have to say that my next trip to Corcovado might be changed due to these changes they have made and I am sure other foreign tourist might feel the same which will only impact things in a bad way… I wonder what the reason or basis is for such high cost placed on the meals.. I wish only the best for Corcovado…PuraVida!!

    Comment by Steve Lozano — May 16, 2017 @ 7:47 am

  9. The foreign tourists have an obligation to protect these places. Our use has created these problems. Hurray for the CR government to make these changes. I agree the Ticos should get a break on the food and lodging also. I imagine their salaries don’t compare to those of foreign visitor’s.

    Comment by Kathy — May 16, 2017 @ 8:20 am

  10. This is a tough question, but I think the new solution will not work as presented in this article. It’s simply too expensive, and I agree that is morally wrong to provide such financial barriers to local Costa Ricans.

    I took a guided trip whitewater rafting in a highly protected area Australia a number of years back. The guides were very well trained and were anal about any impact to the flora or fauna. Absolutely everything we brought in, we brought out – everything…

    I’m curious why it would not be possible to expect the same could be done here in this situation? The guides or guide companies could be trained and licensed by SINAC and monitored as needed. Now the prices could be more reasonable, restrictions would be enforced by the guides who would stand to lose their license if they didn’t maintain control, and the money would now go more directly to locals who need it, rather than corporate entities.

    I’m sure there are other more practical solutions equally as viable if explored. I do not believe the one currently offered will withstand the test of time.

    Comment by Dave Towner — May 16, 2017 @ 10:48 am

  11. Just seems like a money-making scam.
    If the CR government really wanted to make a difference, they would enforce litter laws and fine people for littering. The truth is, it’s the ticos that litter, not the foreign tourists. I’ve seen it time and time again: entire tico families and groups that eat on the beach and when they’re done, they just get up and walk away, leaving every single bag, bottles, tuna cans and other pieces of trash. The most horrifying thing I ever saw was what Playa Dominical looked like on New Year’s Day. Furthermore, they could employ just two people walking up and down the beach at the entrance to La Sirena picking up trash, which at any given time has a piece of plastic trash every few steps, that has been washed up on shore. They could do that for under $40 a day! I also love how they turned the very entrance to La Sirena into a municipal waste dump site as they were remodeling the station to initiate this racket last year in the name of saving the environment. Nothing they do seems to make sense though.

    Comment by D — May 16, 2017 @ 11:12 am

  12. $115 a day to basically camp + money for guide and transportation.

    The hotels already charge something like $150 to go on the day trip, so now it’s another $25 for lunch on top of that..

    This sounds like somebody in the government is getting a kickback.

    Enforce pack in/out policy and ban operators who don’t conform.

    I love the park, but I can see most of the same things on the path to San Josecito from Drake Bay.

    Comment by Mike Willis — May 16, 2017 @ 4:47 pm

  13. This is a pure rip off. ONE company is getting the right to RAPE the tourists, and “yes” the park guards are now in fact running around trying to catch people eating their own food. Unbelievable! One family is making a killing off this, and the government lets it happen. How corrupt is that?! What a rip off. I am just telling people not to go, period. How does ONE private business/family get to make a ridiculous amount of money. The tour operators out of Drake are disgusted by this, as are the tourists who they have to explain this unfair system to. DONT GO is the only alternative. So unfair to the rest of the tour operators. So unfair to Costa Ricans that this park has been hijacked by ONE family. I will never send people to Drake to go to Corcovado knowing they will be “explained” the ridiculous new rules, and rip-off pricing of the national park. Forget it. How does ADI sleep at night knowing how bad they are ripping off every one they supposedly “serve”, and how bad they are ripping off all of the other tour operators too. Privatization of the park to the detriment of nationals, tourists, and other tour operators. Corruption at it’s finest!

    Comment by Thomas — May 22, 2017 @ 10:11 am

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