In leather stetson and rubber boots, Fredi Rosales Mendes sets off towards the nearest expanse of jungle on his russet mare. With the rising sun warming the treetops, a dawn chorus of squawks, croaks, hoots and the resonating booms of male howler monkeys is already in full voice. Here on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, human endeavour invariably unfolds in a vibrant natural theatre.
Around the Casa el Descanso, the modest farmstead where Mendes lives with his wife, Yansi, an ethereal mist hovers above the grassland. Perched at the top of a lone kapok tree, a chestnut-mandibled toucan utters its haunting cries with a characteristic toss of the head while, down below, a pair of coatimundis forage for fallen fruit, their tails dancing above the vegetation like two-tone feather dusters.
For families and farm hands, a working day in rural Costa Rica typically begins in the cool of dawn. In the kitchen of her single-storey wooden home, Yansi prepares a breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans), corn sweetbread, strong coffee and creamy milk, straight from the cow.
Yet change is in the air at the Casa el Descanso. Thanks to the Caminos de Osa (“trails of Osa”), a community tourism initiative that began operating in late 2015, today there are two extra mouths for Yansi to feed.
Situated on the Pacific coast, close to Costa Rica’s border with Panama, the Osa Peninsula should be on every nature lover’s bucket list. Touted as the most biologically intense place on Earth, it crams an astounding 2.5 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity into an area roughly twice the size of Hong Kong. More than three-quarters of it is protected, mostly by the Corcovado National Park, home to scarlet macaws, jaguars, tapirs and an astonishing array of other fauna and flora.
While this expanse of pristine rainforest is a financial godsend for Costa Rica, the communities living around Corcovado have yet to feel the benefits. Nearly 50,000 people entered the park in 2015, but most of the money they spent ended up in the pockets of tour operators and hotels and restaurants owned by outsiders.
The Caminos de Osa Association aims to alter the dynamic.
“Through the Caminos de Osa, visitors get to see the same amazing wildlife as in Corcovado,” says Vanessa Quiros, who runs Rancho Raices, a small-scale cocoa plantation that has recently opened to tourists in the town of Canaza. “But they also become immersed in local culture, and they get to financially help people, such as myself, who want to protect wildlife and nature.”
By developing three distinct hiking trails through the area around Corcovado, each one connecting locally owned accommodation and attractions, the association is able to promote destination packages, instead of individual businesses. The Camino de la Selva (“jungle trail”) focuses on Osa’s rich plant life, the Camino del Agua (“water trail”) traverses the picturesque Drake Bay coastline and the Camino del Oro (“gold trail”) passes through land with a long history of gold mining.
“More than 40 small-scale entrepreneurs based along these trails have now been specially trained,” says Lana Wedmore, an American who sits on the Caminos de Osa Association’s board of advisers. “People like Fredi and Yansi Mendes have been taught things like basic English and accounting. Of course, it helps when the people here are some of the kindest and friendliest in Central America.”
Those hiking the Caminos de Osa soon find that life in the remote Costa Rican campo (“countryside”) moves at a very different pace. The phone network is patchy, working Wi-fi an even rarer commodity.
Back at the Casa el Descanso, Aleksandar Ivetic and his guide, Angelica Ortega, sit down to Yansi’s hearty breakfast on a spotless verandah. Ivetic is already learning to switch off and tune in to Osa’s less frenetic, natural rhythm.
“There’s something about this place,” says the tourist from London, with a smile. “The longer you stay, the more alive you feel.”
Now on their second day on the Camino del Oro, Ivetic and Ortega will today hike 10km to Rancho Quemado, a small, 200-strong rural community of farmers and artisans.
Shortly after 7am, the pair bid farewell to Yansi and head off into the jungle, accompanied by Fredi Mendes, back from an early morning ride and now carrying Ivetic’s weighty rucksack. Blue morpho butterflies dance above the group on shimmering, azure wings, while a newly erected trailside sign declares this to be the “path of felines”.
“There are jaguars on the Osa Peninsula, but it’s incredibly rare to see one,” says Ortega. “A puma or ocelot is more likely. Either way, one thing you won’t be short of here is close encounters with wildlife.”
The trail is steep in places, but the pace relaxed. The trio stop from time to time, as Ortega points out a never-ending stream of brightly coloured tropical birds, long processions of leaf-cutter ants on the jungle floor and troops of curious white-headed capuchins and spider monkeys patrolling the canopy above.
By mid-morning the group have arrived on the outskirts of Rancho Quemado, and are met by Juan Cubillo Gomez, an artisanal orero (“gold miner”). The Osa Peninsula has been one of Costa Rica’s largest and most prolific gold-producing regions for nearly a century, and its gold, washed from myriad veins by rainforest streams and rivers, ranks as some of the world’s purest.
After a quick round of chilled tamarind juice, Gomez guides his visitors to a nearby jungle stream. Damming the flow, he pans for gold, before searching the stream for exposed nuggets using an ancient diving mask. His meagre harvest is worth only a few dollars.
“Being part of the Camino del Oro is a far better way for me to make a living,” says Cubillo Gomez, who has set up a small museum of gold-mining artefacts in his nearby house. “There are an estimated 250 oreros on the Osa Peninsula now. None of them are rich.”
After a lunch of chopped beef, garlic yucca and fried plantain, prepared by the prospector’s wife, Rosa, it’s a short walk to the Trapiche Don Carmen, where owner Victor Rodriguez is already hard at work, helped out by his elderly father.
Trapiches, or sugar mills, were used to make a series of sweet products from sugar cane. Yoked oxen rotated wooden rollers, between which the cane was fed to extract juice. Although Rodriguez is now using a horse, and the wooden rollers have become metal, hikers on the Camino del Oro can pay a small fee to witness the authentic Trapiche Don Carmen in operation.
Ivetic and Ortega are soon gorging themselves on sobado, a highly addictive sugar-cane candy made with peanuts and powdered milk, while freshly poured tapa de dulce (literally “sweet caps”), miniature mounds of compacted brown sugar, are left to solidify.
“It’s been a memorable and moving second day,” says Ivetic, as he bags up the rest of his sobado for the next day’s hike. “When I’ve finished this trail, I’m definitely coming back to Osa to do the other two.”
Getting there: from Hong Kong there are various flights to San José, the capital of Costa Rica, via cities in the United States and Canada (United Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Air Canada). From San José, the quickest way to the Osa Peninsula and the Caminos de Osa trails is to take a domestic flight to Palmar Sur or Drake Bay. See www.caminosdeosa.com for more details.