Nerding Out in Costa Rica - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Nerding Out in Costa Rica

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


This rain forest playground for scientists could be your next nerdy destination. 

The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.

When is the last time you peered through a set of binoculars at a scarlet macaw? Or played detective to study the social castes of leaf-cutting ants marching at your feet? Whether your answer is “never” or “last year,” you should try plunging into the Corcovado National Park. It’s a nature nerd’s paradise. 

With thriving tropical flora, thousands of species and 12 different ecosystems, southern Costa Rica’s untouched rain forests are an easy gateway to scientific tourism in Central America. The Corcovado National Park, in particular, is quickly evolving into a mini Amazon — minus the Avatar-like hostilities and dayslong trek into the thick jungle. Cordoned off by the Pacific Ocean, Corcovado is the most “biologically intense” place on Earth, according to National Geographic, playing host to 2.5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. For bird watchers, there are 400 species of colorful fowl to spot. For marine biologists, the shores teem with bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, manta rays and sea turtles. It’s even a solid springboard for science novices like me who just want to skip volcanic pebbles on the cobalt sea or cure their severe arachnophobia with the golden orb spiders that build 3-D webs across the peninsula. 

I had the thrilling firsthand experience of examining spider monkeys as they swung toward me.

Fundación Santuario Silvestre de Osa, a wildlife sanctuary nestled on an empty sliver of beach called Golfito. A stunning 30-minute boat ride can be arranged in Puerto Jiménez, the nearest city to Corcovado. And don’t fret if you’re a rookie with microscopes and specimens. At Silvestre, I had the thrilling firsthand experience of examining spider monkeys as they swung toward me and waking up gargantuan two-toed sloths from their deep slumber — all while owner Carol Crews spewed biostats and animal morphologies at me. 

But to get there, you’ll need to take a six-hour drive (or one-hour flight) from San José. Lodging is available at one of the nearby hotel and hostel accommodations in Puerto Jiménez ($15 to $80 a night), or you can even go au naturel and pitch a tent right in the rain forest. When you get hungry, you can eat anything you pick or catch in the jungle. But you can also find typical Costa Rican fare — rice, beans and sizzling plantains — anywhere on the streets or in open-air restaurants. 


Unlike its well-exploited cousin to the south, Corcovado isn’t plagued with the indigenous-industrial tug-of-war that has threatened the Amazonand scourged its wildlife. Instead, Corcovado is the “final frontier” of Costa Rica, says local wildlife tracker Felipe Arias. It’s the world’s largest tract of low-lying rain forest, he explains, which makes it one of the lushest scholarly playgrounds around for botanists, zoologists and geologists.

However, this rugged destination isn’t ideal for the tech-dependent. Much of the area is off the grid. As Brian Strehlow, a naturalist guide based in Puerto Jiménez, explains: Corcovado isn’t meant for “people [who] prefer sitting in cruise ships.” Yet leaving the phone at home and diving into the wilderness also means no traffic jams, smog or the hustle and bustle of modern life. For those who want to get above the fray, skip Costa Rica’s crowded beaches and touristy San José. Corcovado is a lush and quiet getaway — well, except for the howler monkeys that screech to warn when the rain is coming. 

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