At the Casa el Descanso, on the northern end of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, the working day begins in the half-light of dawn. Seated atop his favourite horse, Fredi Rosales Mendes heads off toward the nearby jungle, from which a chorus of squawks, hoots and the deep, booming calls of male howler monkeys has been emanating since before sunrise.
Still groggy with sleep, I wander out onto Fredi’s spotless verandah. A diaphanous carpet of mist hovers above the surrounding grassland, an expanse of tussocks and saplings that Fredi has cleared for grazing. I can just make out the exotic colours of a chestnut-mandibled toucan in the top of a giant kapok tree, its haunting calls uttered with a characteristic toss of the head. Among the grass, a pair of coatis (a type of raccoon) forage for fallen fruit, their two-tone tails dancing above the vegetation.
Here in the Costa Rican countryside life clearly moves at a very different pace. My phone is dead and my inbox already forgotten. Less than 36 hours since leaving London, I’ve gone from grey to green in one transatlantic journey.
Situated on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, close to the Panamanian border, the Osa Peninsula is touted as the most biologically dense place on Earth; it shoehorns an astounding 2.5% of the planet’s biodiversity into an area half the size of Kent. Over three-quarters of it is protected, mostly by the Corcovado National Park.
The world-famous Corcovado is a financial boon for Costa Rica. However, tourism has inadvertently left behind the rural communities surrounding it, with most of the money going to tour operators, hotels and restaurants owned by outsiders. The Caminos de Osa (Trails of Osa), a community tourism initiative started in 2015, aims to redistribute the wealth.
“On the three trails of the Caminos de Osa, visitors get to see the same amazing wildlife as in Corcovado,” says Julieta Chan, the initiative’s executive director. “But they also get to experience traditional culture and ways of life, and feel that they’ve given something back to people committed to protecting local nature.”
Today, my second day on the Camino del Oro (Trail of Gold), will see me hike seven miles to Rancho Quemado, a small, 200-strong rural community of farmers and artisans. A little after 7am Rosa and I head off into the jungle, accompanied by Fredi, now back from his morning ride. Blue morpho butterflies dance above us on iridescent, azure wings, while a trailside sign declares this to be the ‘path of felines’.
According to Fredi, we’re unlikely to see a jaguar, but I clutch my camera a little tighter. With or without big cats, I can sense a golden day coming on.
Published in the Costa Rica 2017 guide, distributed with the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)