It's not often that we consider the economic impact of travel- and it's even more rare that we realize we have a choice when it comes to how our travel budgets are spent. The travel industry is saturated with major corporate players- who often care more about the bottom line than about sustaining the areas they offer access to. Recently I had the opportunity to travel with Lokal Travel to the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, and I was able to explore a superior travel experience. Lokal works directly with local communities to ensure that tourism to the areas they work in is focused on sustainability, authenticity, and true cultural connections. For more, visit them on Instagram at @lokaltravels. For more from me, @dave.krugman.
The Osa is relatively remote, but easily accessible via a short hop on a plane from San Jose. As we flew over the vast expanse of rainforest below, the sight of winding rivers beckoned us through gaps in the cloud cover. After a gentle touchdown on a landing strip amongst the trees, we transferred ourselves to a jeep which took us straight to our first destination.
We didn't know exactly what to expect from the trip- but after arriving at Xiña's bed and breakfast, La Pizote, we began to realize what a special experience this would be. We were welcomed with open arms, and a cup of coffee that wiped the weariness of travel from our eyes- before we sat down to feast on home cooked local food, painstakingly prepared from ingredients grown in the garden. Rice, beans, plantains and fresh chicken, with fruit picked from the trees outside for a light dessert.
Our appetites sated, we set off for our first true adventure- hiking up a rushing riverbed to Xiña's cabin on top of the mountain. It was on this hike that we had our first exposure to the incomparable lushness of the Osa Peninsula- shades of green in infinite variety, life bursting from every crevice, a nose full of chlorophyll with every breath. Our memories of city life faded with every step, our worries washed away with the cold, crisp water.
At the top of our climb sat Xiña's mountain cabin- beautifully isolated and surrounded by the dense growth of the rainforest. We set our bags down, hung our clothing up to dry, and lit candles for light as the sun went down. Xiña lit a wood fire and prepared another delicious meal- fresh vegetables, eggs, and handmade tortillas. With nothing to distract us, we sat on the porch to eat, while the forest came alive with the sounds of the life that surrounded us.
The next morning, we woke before dawn and rushed up the short trail to the summit for sunrise. The views were well worth the early climb, and we stood in awe as the mist rose from the canopy to meet the birds that soared above. A golden light filtered through the spiderwebs as flowers opened their petals to bask in the glow. A whole ecosystem came alive as the sun spilled over the horizon.
After we climbed back down from the mountain top, some new members of the family rushed out to greet us, tripping over their own paws in excitement.
The Osa Peninsula is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet- pristine forests hold tens of thousands of different species of life. We set out for the next leg of our adventure- an 8 mile hike through the protected Corcovado National Rainforest. All of our expectations were exceeded- the forest swarmed with life, every tree held its own ecosystem, lizards leapt from leaf to leave while butterflies floated towards the canopy. The trees rose to impossible heights, and vines wound their way up the sturdy trunks, headed towards their own turn in the sunshine.
One of the many gorgeous properties we stayed at in the Osa was this open air gem, set up on top of a winding staircase. With sustainability in mind, the owners built this place using naturally fallen hardwood from the surrounding forest. We settled in for dinner, massages, and then headed back to this room to catch up on some much needed sleep. As we drifted off, fireflies began to blink all around the room, landing on our netting and giving us a private light show. It was as if the stars themselves had fallen, and we were embraced by a fallen galaxy.
One of the more fascinating (and aggressive) plants we encountered was the Ficus Tree. This tree starts as a small vine, and takes advantage of the work done by other species of trees to reach the light of the canopy. It winds itself around sturdy trunks, and constricts as it grows. As the vine gains its own structural strength, it kills the host tree, and stands on its own twisted structure. This particular specimen was the largest in the area, easily stretching 30 feet across, with enough room to walk around within the hollowed out interior.
We explored deeper into the jungle, while the rain fell and the plants around us drank it all in. This stream was once used by gold miners, and the evidence still lingers- though the pristine nature is quickly reclaiming this crevice. To make the path more navigable, locals have pushed fallen trees into the path, and cut stairs into them. This hike was one of the most beautiful experiences I've had, fully immersed in the green expanse of the forest.
The life has such variety here- at times it can almost seem alien. These neon mushrooms caught my eye, splashes of bright orange against the monotone greens and browns that surrounded them.
Our next journey was another amazing experience. First we stopped at a local farm, where we packed up our gear as the sun rose above the horizon. Smoke from a cooking fire wafted through the trees, and the beams cut through in sharp relief. Another dreamscape we got to play around in before loading up on horses to head to the lagoon for a boat ride.
The hand-paddled boats were the perfect method for exploring this natural oasis. We slipped silently past the animals that call this area their home, our guides pointing out the carefully camouflaged creatures. It was a meditative experience to drift slowly through the greenery, listening for the rustles of animals that stayed on the edges of our vision.
Next, we were welcomed with open arms and cacao beans into the family home of these gold miners- who traditionally would mine the river on their property for gold flakes and nuggets. Today, they offer tours and preserve the traditional methods to show people like us this particular way of life. After introductions and some photographs for the family, we walked up the river to see the mining process.
Walking up the river, our hosts stopped us when we saw the skeleton of an armadillo. Nearby, they showed us a paw print in the mud- A jaguar had just made a kill. We heightened our guard and got straight to business, looking for areas on the riverbed that held the promise of gold. It was so interesting to see the painstaking work that goes into mining gold by hand, and how much effort goes into finding even the smallest flakes of this precious metal.
What I love so much about Lokal is their attention to sustainability and preservation in the areas they operate in. A great example of this was our mangrove tour, where we actually planted fresh mangrove seeds to help shore up the area against erosion. Cruising through the river, we saw all sorts of creatures that call this place home, and it felt so fulfilling to know we were helping to make sure their environment would be preserved by some of Lokal's efforts to give back to the community.
On our last morning, I woke up at sunrise and saw that a thick fog was rising from the wetness of the trees. We rushed outside to make images, and bask in the beauty of the silent morning. We made portraits and wandered down the dirt roads, walking through this waking dream, our hearts full from our journey.
Though we did go to the Osa in the rainy season, on one night, the clouds cleared up long enough to see the galaxy above us. Far from any lights or pollution from the cities, the Milky Way stretched above us, and I set up my camera for a long exposure. Sitting under this blanket of stars was the perfect time to think about what a special experience this was. I can't wait to get back, and when I go, I'll return with Lokal Travel- I can't imagine any other way to see this area.