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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Tracking Tapirs in Corcovado National Park

COSTA RICA | Monday, 10 December 2012 | Views [2053]

We awoke at 5am(!) finished packing, wolfed down breakfast and went to meet our guide.  As we were walking down the track, a pair of toucans landed in a nearby tree - the best and closest viewing to date.  We’d opted to reach the ranger’s station by boat, a journey of 1hr 20mins along the Pacific coastline followed by a 20min walk to the ranger’s station.  In actual fact this walk could take longer it all depends on what wildlife pops up along the way.  We could hear and see loads of birds and the most significant sighting was a great currasow; a big, wild chicken type thing.  As we turned around to continue a coati crossed our path – a great start and all new species for us.

The ranger’s station has beds available in one wing but we were in the budget end which involves indoor camping.  Literally with the tents being erected in open-sided wooden huts and the facilities as basic as you’d expect but just fine for a couple of nights.  To be honest the place could be a bit better organised and could certainly do with being cleaned more frequently.  But, it’s worth queuing for a shower and putting up with a bit of muck when there are loads of wonderful animals and birds to find.  A section of the forest has been cleared leading down to the ocean and acts as a landing strip – the expensive way to reach the park.  The verandah over-looking is a good place to while away the quiet hours in the middle of the day.  We weren’t there to sit around so on being shown our tent plonked our bag down and immediately set off to see if we could find any animals.

I made a point of saying that Steve’s greatest (well, most realistic) wish was to see a tapir.  The guides know their favourite day time resting places but we didn’t find one in residence that morning.  However, our guide Alan seemed pretty confident that we would see one before we left the park as they are regularly sighted.  We soon spotted some spider monkeys swinging through the trees displaying their agility and amazing strength of their prehensile tails.  These monkeys had been high on my wish list (sloth was top) but we didn’t hang around as Alan promised us we’d easily see many more of Costa Rica’s biggest monkey.  Down on the beach we looked for tapir tracks but again without luck.  We continued down the beach to where the Rio Claro meets the sea and an estuary that bull sharks are known to swim up.  We didn’t see any big fish but we did spy a couple of large crocodiles who were patiently waiting for their shark snacks to arrive.

The trails are clear and wide enough that you don’t have to crash and stumble your way through the jungle and obviously the quieter you are better.  In fact you don’t need to have a guide but we couldn’t see the point of being there and not maximising your chances of seeing as many different animals as possible.  Not only are the guides very good at spotting things moving through the foliage, they can tell you all about the animal, bird, insect or plant you’re looking at.  The tracks are quite muddy in places but not over the top of wellies deep like Cuyabeno National Park in Ecuador.  Most of the time you don’t need to concentrate on where you’re putting your feet giving you time to look around.  Plus the vegetation isn’t too dense so when something does happen along you tend to get more than a fleeting glimpse.

After a while we could hear howler monkeys and they didn’t sound too far away but as with gibbons in Asia their calls carry for some distance.  Luckily our paths crossed and we got to watch the whole troop moving through the trees.  In fact we were very lucky as they weren’t in their preferred habitat of the canopy roof and our guide had never seen them so low or so close.  On returning to the ranger’s station we broke for lunch and sat watching spider monkeys as we munched our butties.  We then went for a short walk behind the huts as some capuchin monkeys had been spotted.   They’d moved on by the time we got there but we got the added bonus of an agouti and a tayra.  The latter we’d never even heard of and it reminded us of the Palawan bear cat and is a member of the otter/weasel family.

During the hottest midday hours its rest time for animals, birds and people.  The verandah proved to be a great place to sit and wait to see if anything showed itself.  Several birds flew over the airstrip and in the trees opposite we could see squirrel and spider monkeys.  The morning was a fantastic start as we’d already seen loads of different animals and could only wonder what we’d see that afternoon.  In fact following lunch we changed guides and were introduced to Kenneth who we’d be with until the end of the trip.  Initially it looked like we’d found another twitcher but it soon became apparent that he was interested in all the rainforest’s flora and fauna.

Whenever we went out on the trail Kenneth brought along his telescope and it was great to be able to see the details on the birds clearly.  Well, those that have the decency to sit still for more than 10 seconds!  We soon saw plenty more spider monkeys and an agouti before some coatis put in an appearance.  There was a huge family group of at least 30 who were so intent on snuffling in the undergrowth for snacks that they weren’t at all perturbed by our presence.  As we carried on towards the river we could see a whole host of fresh foot prints in the mud including tapir.  Unfortunately that animal was still proving elusive but we did spy a couple of peccaries.  The highlight of the afternoon was seeing a fer-de-lance coiled up under a branch in the leaf litter. 

I would like to say that the jungle’s dawn chorus woke us up but humans beat to the first sounds of the day.  The birds tried to out-do them once awake but the howler monkeys that had been sleeping in the trees behind the huts drowned everyone out.  Today looked like it was going to be as promising as the previous as even before we’d left the ranger’s station we’d seen spider monkeys and toucans.  Our first port of call was the beach to meet the boats and extra members for our group.  We were amazed at how many boats landed but it soon became apparent that the vast majority disembarking were day-trippers.  We’d thoroughly enjoyed yesterday’s walks as we’d had a private guide but we were now a group of 6.  Luckily the other 4 were very interested in all the rainforest had to offer, were respectful towards and knowledgeable of this environment and were happy to walk along quietly observing.

As we’d approached the coast Kenneth said he would try his best to find the tapir that day.  Things looked very promising when we found fresh foot prints in the sand which we followed until they disappeared into the undergrowth.  Tapirs like to find a cool sheltered spot in which to sleep and rest during the heat of the day.  They don’t really have any natural predators, other than extremely hungry crocodiles, pumas and jaguars, but like hippos their skin is sensitive.  Anyway, our guide dived into the shrubbery to see if he could locate the beast we’d been tracking.  Within 10mins he came dashing back down the beach saying he’d found the tapir.  We followed as quickly yet as quietly as we could and sure enough there was a Baird’s tapir snoozing a matter of meters away.  Even an animal as large as this can be tricky to spot as it looked just like a log until its ears twitched.

Kenneth allowed Steve and I to approach even nearer and we could see it much more clearly.  Luckily for us the tapir stood up to sniff the air so we got an excellent view of it.  Unfortunately for the others this indicated that we’d disturbed it so we backed away and left it in peace as they can get stressed quite easily.  Finally, after a decade of traipsing through jungles and spending nights in hides we’d found a tapir.

Since there were quite a number of people in the park we moved on to an area generally only used for people who over-night in the park.  This involved wading across the river we’d just been watching a crocodile cruising around in.  During this section of the trails we saw many of the same birds and animals again, particularly the monkeys, but they’re always entertaining to watch.  Obviously adding tapir to the creatures spotted list was a huge highlight and we still had that afternoon and the following morning to find more.  Following lunch we went to an area similar to that we’d be in during the morning as another tapir and a sloth had been seen earlier in the day.  Unbelievably the latter had dashed off before we could track it down so my number one wish remained unticked.  However, the tapir was exactly where Kenneth had expected to find it and this time we got even closer.  It was amazing watching it; snoozing in its muddy puddle, looking very contented and barely flicking an ear in acknowledgement of our presence.  We were overjoyed and Steve was grinning like the cat that got the cream!

As with the morning’s walk we weren’t constantly spotting new species but we felt like there was constantly something to look at.  I was going to say, even if it was only birds, but many of them were very pretty and we got to see loads of different raptors.  We’d hoped to see toucans and macaws and both of them put in an appearance displaying their impressive beaks and colourful feathers respectively.  Another highlight was getting very, very close to a large basking crocodile that I’m happy to say didn’t fancy doing much.  I’d just said to Steve that I had no new animals to add to my list when a red brocket deer popped up.  This really is an amazing place for wildlife viewing.

Our last day in the park and we were up at 4am to take a peek at the nocturnal beasties.  This pre-breakfast walk threw up the usual spiders, frogs and insects and of course for us they were all new species.  We also saw caiman’s eyes reflected in the torch light, so went down to the river to see if any were emerging and making their way to their daytime hide-out.  No!  But as crocodile slunk past we could hear a commotion on the opposite bank and Steve got his hat-trick.  Yep – another tapir.  This one came trundling down the beach at quite a lick, making a racket and it wasn’t a sound you’d associate with this animal.  She was being pursued by a juvenile male and was obviously not impressed with his attention.  After a short while a baby tapir emerged from the reeds looking bewildered.  We could only assume that the young male had forced mum and baby apart and she was frantically calling it.  The rumble in the jungle died down so we can only hope that mum and baby were reunited.

The post breakfast and final walk didn’t result in any new animals popping up but we did see some interesting birds, including; a pair of sleeping owls and a particularly colourful toucan.  We (& especially me) were disappointed that we’d not found a sloth as we thought this national park had been our best chance.  Obviously it would have been fantastic to say we saw puma, ocelot, anteater and all the other creatures in the park but that would be plain greedy.  We saw loads of amazing animals and beautiful birds with 95% of them being new species for us.  Not only did we see lots but we enjoyed being in the park and tramping through the rainforest – the perfect antidote to our more recent frustrating jungle adventures.

On listening to others who had hiked through the forest to reach the ranger’s station we were extremely glad and felt justified in going for the boat option.  If you want the challenge of hiking through a hot, humid, muddy environment with little chance of spotting wildlife then it’s perfect.  Zipping over the ocean to reach the park and maximising the time looking for wildlife on the trails was definitely the right choice for us.  Our guide was excellent and from what we could gather you’d be hard pushed to be allocated a below par wildlife spotter.  All the guides excelled in being able to spot creatures plus they have an in-depth knowledge of the park’s flora and fauna.  A fantastic trip – worth the cash outlay.


Great tinamou, great currasow, brown booby, tiger heron, snowy egret, black vulture, plumbeous kite, laughing falcon, whimbrel, black backed antshrike, black throated trogon, yellow headed caracara,  grey headed kite, great black hawk,  white hawk, squirrel cuckoo, white ibis, little blue heron, blue capped motmot, golden naped woodpecker, common black hawk, crested currasow, Baird’s trogon, chestnut mandible toucan, brown pelican, great blue heron, great egret, scarlet macaw, roadside hawk, woodcreeper, crested guan, blue crowned manakin, parrots, scarlet rumped cacique, white throated shrike tanager, crested owl, pale billed woodpecker, fiery billed aracari (toucan), long billed hermit, magnificent frigate bird, slaty tailed trogon and a few more I can’t remember the names of!


Mantled howler monkey, spider monkey, squirrel (titi) monkey, coati, agouti, tayra, anole lizards, skinks, crocodile, racer snake, broad headed rain frog, fer-de-lance, white throated capuchin monkey, peccary, black iguana,, variegated squirrel, Costa Rica’s biggest frog species, leaf litter frog, red brocket deer, hermit crabs, cane toad, bink frog, leafcutter ants among others, butterflies galore, spiders, katydid and Baird’s TAPIR.


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