In the extreme south of the country, the Península de Osa is an area of immense biological diversity, somewhat separate from the mainland, and few will fail to be moved by its beauty. Whether you approach the peninsula by lancha from Sierpe or Golfito, on the Jiménez bus, driving in from the mainland, or – especially – by air, you’ll see what looks like a floating island – an intricate mesh of blue and green, with tall canopy trees sailing high and flat like elaborate floral hats. A surfeit of natural wonder awaits, from the sweeping arc of Bahía Drake in the northwest and the world-class diving and snorkelling spots of nearby Isla del Caño to one of the planet’s most biologically rich pockets, Parque Nacional Corcovado, which covers the bulk of the peninsula. In the early years of the twentieth century, Osa was something of a penal colony; a place to which men were either sent forcibly or went, machete in hand, to forget. Consequently, a violent, frontierlands folklore permeates the whole peninsula, and old-time residents of Puerto Jiménez are only too happy to regale you with hosts of gory tales. Some may be apocryphal, but they certainly add colour to the place.
You could feasibly explore the whole peninsula in four days, but this would be rushing it, especially if you want to spend time walking the trails and wildlife-spotting at Corcovado. Most people allot five to seven days for the area, taking it at a relaxed pace, and more if they want to stay in and explore Bahía Drake. Hikers and walkers who come to Osa without their own car tend to base themselves in Puerto Jiménez – a place where it’s easy to strike up a conversation, and people are relaxed, environmentally conscientious and not yet overwhelmed by tourism.
It was on the Península de Osa that the Diquis found gold in such abundant supply that they hardly had to pan or dig for it. Indeed, the precious metal can still be found today, as can the odd orero (goldminer/panner). When Parque Nacional Corcovado was established in the mid-1970s, substantial numbers of miners were panning within its boundaries, but the heaviest influx of oreros stemmed directly from the pull-out of the United Brands Company in 1985. Many were laid-off banana plantation workers with no other means of making a living. They resorted to panning for gold, an activity that posed a threat to the delicate ecosystem of the park – and a clear example of how the departure of a large-scale employer can lead to environmental destruction. In 1986 the oreros were forcibly deported from the park by the Costa Rican police. Today, several well-known international conservationist groups are involved in protecting and maintaining Osa’s ecological integrity.
A revealing picture of precarista (squatter) life on the country’s extreme geographical margins persists in the peninsula. Since the 1980s, when the road between Jiménez and Rincón was improved, many families have arrived here seeking land. Most have built simple shacks and cultivated a little roadside plot, burning away the forest to do so. They plant a few vegetables and a banana patch and may keep a few cattle. Soil here is classically tropical, with few nutrients, poor absorption and minimal regenerative capacity. In a few years it will have exhausted itself and the smallholders will have to cultivate new areas or move on.