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There it is in a muddy part of the path passing through the banana grove, clear as a bell, and I stop and crouch to take it in. Indentations in the mud from four round toe pads and a larger round palm pad. I’m no game tracker, but what else could it be but the footprint of a mountain lion? With mountain lion tracks on the trail, I must be getting closer to La Leona Lodge.
The La Leona Ranger station is the southernmost entrance to the world-renowned Corcovado National Park. La Leona Lodge is an all-inclusive tent-camp eco-lodge located just 300 meters from that entrance. It has been in operation since the year 2000 and for full disclosure is one of my favorite places in all of Costa Rica. Unlike most facilities that welcome visitors, however, you can’t get here by car, boat, plane nor by any mechanized conveyance. You have to hike the three kilometers from the end of the road at Carate along either the beach itself or in the understory trail I am walking along.
The lodge has a horse-drawn cart to ferry in supplies and guests’ luggage, but if you want to stay there the rule is you have to hike it in and out; you can’t ride in the cart. That would be cheating! In a world of increasing conveniences and market competition, I have to chuckle at the chutzpah of an eco-resort that is so remote that you have to walk to get there. However, thousands of people a year sign up and hire tour guides to hike much further to get to and from the heart of Corcovado at Sirena itself. And all of those hikers can’t all be misguided . . .
Seated a half hour later at the open-air bar quaffing an ice-cold passion-fruit welcome fresco as the offshore breeze dries the perspiration from my brow, Felipe Morales, the manager and youngest son of Morales-Polanco family that owns and operates the lodge, fills me in on the latest gossip about the Corcovado remodeling just completed, the new operational system to be run by the Carate Development Association, the frequency of turtle arrivals at that early November date. We joke a bit over the numbers of ONGs that compete with one another to protect these reptiles, and as we sit and chat, a group of hikers arrives from the opposite direction, chattering eagerly in Dutch-accented English with La Leona’s resident guide—all smiles—back from a guided exploration of the La Leona sector of the park.
The guide, Milton, stops at the bar to shake hands with me and introduce himself. “Right now,” he tosses his head in the direction they have come from, “the tapir is at the Madrigal River with her calf, very easy to observe.”
The term “tent lodge” surely conjures for some second-class images, somewhere south of the expectations of a top-shelf destination. At La Leona, the tents are mounted on wood platforms and distributed along a manicured beach terrace right above the beach sand and pounding surf, each with its own private bathroom plus its own deck and lounging chairs facing the ocean. The interiors are immaculate, my “room” replete with a double bed and wardrobe, all protected with mosquito netting but with flaps that fold back to admit the caressing sea breeze.
I have stayed here many times across the years and stopped in after the arduous hike from Sirena for a cold drink before the final push to Carate on many other occasions, and it is one of my favorite places, always a beacon of civilization, either the final outpost on the way into the park, or the first sign of civilization on the way out. Corcovado National Park is considered the crown jewel of Costa Rica’s vaunted national park system and is a World Heritage Site and perhaps the largest single tourism draw for the Osa Peninsula. Yet, it is a destination that is remote, physically challenging, and bereft of the creature comforts that many travelers prefer. Beyond these factors, entry into Corcovado is by permit only, and these are limited and must be secured in advance to ensure availability. Long story short many folks that aspire to see Corcovado are not able to for one or more of these reasons, and for these travelers, La Leona Lodge is a perfect consolation prize. For those of us that have seen Corcovado before, for whom it is no longer a bucket-list destination, La Leona Lodge is less a consolation that a prime destination. For here you can reach a nature-filled wonderland tickled by offshore breezes in one of the most remote places imaginable and enjoy your stay in the lap of luxury with hot meals, cold drinks, and comfortable, dry lodging.
After a casado lunch featuring pork chop, picadillo, rice, beans, palmito salad, patacones and fresco, I don my soccer socks and rubber boots and floppy hat and mull the walking sticks to pick one out to head off to explore the internal trails. From experience I know that tomorrow’s tour of the La Leona Corcovado sector is restricted to the near beach environment. And while that is an ecosystem rich with bountiful wildlife, it is not the deep forest proper. I have never hiked La Leona’s internal trails before and set off to explore them. They are touted as self-guided, and sure enough there are trail markers, signs, and wooden steps and clear trails. Towering primary trees are identified and beneath the canopy it is shaded and cool, the smell of musk pervasive. It’s a steep climb to a clutch of cabins looking out over the ocean that they call the Monkey Camp, and I smile at the thought of hiking back and forth to the main lodge for meals and activities. It is very humid and still inside the forest, and I break a sweat quickly as I leave the raucous sound of scarlet macaws behind and stray deeper and higher into a towering forest with trees six feet and more in diameter that surely are as old as the nation itself.
As I near the ridgeline I hear monkeys and step off the trail in their direction to discover a troop of the deep-forest spider monkeys. They seem to be mostly napping and lounging and pay little attention to me as I snap bad pictures through the tangle of branches and canopy. A raptor is perched in a nearby tree, a small hawk that I have seen often inside the forest, vigilantly appraising the undergrowth for birds and small mammals. Farther on I spy a much larger black hawk that swoops from his perch as I approach. At the highest point of the trail I follow the loop around to take in a sweeping view to the southeast of the Leona and Carate beachline and imagine the farthest point of land that I see is either the Piro shoreline or perhaps even Cape Matapalo. Looking straight out into the ocean perpendicular to the land my gaze, if it could bend around the horizon, would pass closer to Antarctica than to New Zealand and and then emerge from the frigid Southern Ocean into the Indian to hit Ceylon or perhaps even the Persian Gulf. It’s a lot of water to look out over, the origin, I am told by Matapalo pals, of this part of the world’s epic surf.
It never ceases to amaze how the circadian rhythms conform quickly to the location. After a cocktail and a three-course meal with a glass of wine, my yawns push me back out onto the lawn barefoot amid the lit candles bound for my bed, and it’s only eight o’clock. At the foot of the steps I gaze upward and in the cloudless sky the Milky Way is a giant belt of light cinching the girdle of the universe across an imponderable vastness that I can reach out and touch.
Morning comes just a little later than usual to La Leona. It is nestled at the base of steep mountains, so the sun does not peak over the top until nearly seven a.m. I am up by five and stroll the beach at low tide and then wander back for coffee at six. Breakfast is large and hearty: a bowl of fruit accompanied with a bit of granola and yogurt, then an omelet with toast from home-baked bread, and I am well fed by the time Milton draws up smiling with his spotting scope dangling from his neck and tripod slung over his shoulder, and I recover my favored walking stick, and we head off with two other guests and cross the La Leona River a few minutes later and into Corcovado itself.
There are coatis, a pair of toucans, the sound of howlers, the incessant squabbling of awful scarlet macaws fattening on sea almonds, white-faced capuchins that observe us warily, a cassowary with its great crown bobbing its head through the undergrowth unconcerned about us, hawks that watch us pass, iguanas scampering in front of us, a building offshore breeze, a line of pelicans hugging the glassy curl of rising breakers to contest the jacks and snook for the schools of anchovies and ballyhoo, a timid paca scurrying its comically thick body through the undergrowth and beyond our view all along the coast tiny baby turtles slick with amniotic fluid pushing aside the final few centimeters of crusty sand to waddle their little bodies in the direction of the roaring surf. At the majestic Madrigal River, where the discovery of placer gold in the beach sand ninety years ago ushered in a new Osa dawn that transformed the culture and society of this peninsula and still bears strong effects today, the tapir mother and her speckled calf are nowhere in sight. “Surely up in the forest,” Milton points out, “feeding on the aguacatillo fruit that is now in season.”
“And the puma?” I ask. “I saw her tracks yesterday.”
“With the tapir, we come to the forest to observe them. With the puma and jaguar it is the other way around: we come to the forest to be observed by them.”
To Get Here: Make reservations for La Leona Lodge at www.laleonalodge.com or by telephone at their town office in Puerto Jimenez at 2735-5705. Travel to Carate by personal car, public colectivo or charter flight. Park your car at the La Leona staging area for free (follow the signs) or pay $5 per night for secure parking at the beach trailhead. Be sure to deliver luggage at the staging area to have it delivered by horse cart.
What to do: Guided activities from La Leona Lodge include the world famous La Leona Sector guided Corcovado tour, horseback tours of the Carate region, night-time wildlife hikes, night-time turtle viewing hikes (in laying season), recreational gold mining, self-guiding hiking trails on La Leona property, waterfall viewing, hammock training, and novel reading.
Beware: the surf is large and currents are dangerous. For your own safety please do not plan to swim in the ocean.