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Punta Rio Claro National Wildlife Refuge beach
Punta Rio Claro National Wildlife Refuge beach
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

From our boat, Punta Rio Claro National Wildlife Refuge (formerly Marenco Biological Reserve) looked like a South Pacific island. Tall palms lined the verdant shore and sprouted from black lava rocks in the surrounding water.

But the 600-hectare (2.3-square mile) wildlife refuge is not an island. It is located three kilometers (two miles) south of Drake Bay on the western tip of the Osa Peninsula on Costa Rica's Pacific coast, near Corcovado National Park. Getting here requires a long drive to Sierpe followed by a 1½-hour boat trip.

Tour guides

After our boat anchored below Marenco Beach & Rainforest Lodge, we waded through the warm water and walked up on shore. T-shirted staff hoisted our bags over their shoulders for the 125-step climb to the top. Lucia de la Ossa Pirie welcomed us and invited us into the breezy open-walled dining room for lunch.

A waiter served fresh salads made with tasty hearts of palm and red-skinned water apples, which grow wild in the jungle. As we ate, Lucia explained that she was a tropical biologist.

In 1993, she helped her partner, Pablo Riba-Hernandez, do research on bats at Marenco Biological Reserve. During the rainy season (May to November) they conducted their research. During the dry season (December through April) they guided tourists through the Punta Rio Claro National Wildlife Refuge.

Cabin accommodations

After we finished our chicken sandwiches made with homemade bread, the waiter brought plates of home-baked cookies, fresh papaya, pineapple and oranges. (Marenco Beach & Rainforest Lodge may be remote, but you wouldn't know it from its meals.)

Relaxing at Marenco Beach and Rainforest Lodge
Relaxing at Marenco Beach and Rainforest Lodge
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Lucia led us along a jungle path to our cabin, perched on stilts high on a hill. A wooden veranda, with two rocking chairs, overlooked the rainforest and a deserted Pacific coast beach. Outside our cabin, a lizard sunned itself on a tree trunk.

Inside, mosquito nets covered the beds below a high thatched roof. Screened windows let in cool breezes and the sounds of chirping cicadas and crashing surf.

We loved our rainforest cabin at first sight. It didn't matter that the shower only had cold water and that candles were needed after 9:30 pm when the generators stopped producing electricity.

Examining ancient stone ball from Osa Peninsula
Examining ancient stone ball from Osa Peninsula
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Ancient stone balls

After breakfast the next morning, Lucia showed us a small museum next to the dining room that displayed objects from the jungle. "This mysterious prehistoric stone ball is one of many found in Costa Rica," she said.

"Some are as high as adult humans. No one can explain their purpose or why they were made." In 2014, UNESCO added to its World Heritage List four locations in southern Costa Rica where these ancient stone spheres can still be found in their original positions.

Hiking trail

Lucia accompanied us on the Rainforest Trail. A "who-cooks-for-you" song greeted us almost immediately. "It's a short-billed pigeon," she explained.

Lifting a leaf, she pulled off the dry exoskeleton of a cicada. It looked like a live bug, but it was light and hollow. She touched it to her blouse and it stuck like a broach. "Jungle jewelry," she joked.

A peacock-colored giant blue morpho butterfly flitted by. "If you find a wing of a dead blue morpho and touch it, the blue comes off, like eye shadow," she added.

"All you need for jungle makeup is lip color from this plant." She pointed to an achiote. "People use it to color rice, potatoes, margarine and other foods."

Ramona and Lucia
Ramona and Lucia
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Hiking with a raccoon

Without warning, a small, masked animal ran through the jungle, pounced on Lucia's back and attacked her pink ponytail elastic. We stood motionless and wide-mouthed, uncertain what to do.

"Don't worry. It's just Ramona," laughed Lucia, lifting the raccoon off her back.

"Pablo and I fed her milk from a bottle when she was a two-week-old orphan. We put her in a tub with water and pebbles and taught her how to search for crabs. At first, she was afraid to go into the jungle, so we brought her for long walks in the forest every day. It also tired her out so she'd let us sleep at night. Now she stays out in the jungle for a few days at a time."

Jaguars and poison dart frogs

"We had to train her to recognize and avoid poison dart frogs, so we covered a toy frog with hot pepper and let her taste it," said Lucia. "We also frightened her with pictures of jaguars and boas, so she would learn that they were dangerous."

Ramona wasn't exactly a model child. Once, she broke a jar of gentian violet and tracked purple footprints all over the cabin. Another time, she shattered a bottle containing a snake preserved in alcohol and ate the snake, fortunately, without ill effects.

She occasionally searched for Lucia and Pablo in Cabin 9, where they raised her — much to the chagrin of the occupants. (Although the cabins have no keys, Ramona entered through an opening in the thatched roof.)

Her manual dexterity improved considerably. "She can unzip suitcases and squeeze out tubes of toothpaste," noted Lucia, with the tone of a exasperated mother.

Shoemaker tree sign
Shoemaker tree sign
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tree identification signs

Ramona, now seven months old, joined us as we hiked. Like a curious youngster, she chased lizards and butterflies, climbed up the signs that Lucia and Pablo had painted to identify trees, and investigated the thumbnail-sized frogs jumping in the leaves.

As we hop-scotched across the stones in a brook, Ramona splashed alongside. When we paused to watch a tiny hummingbird take a bath, she searched under pebbles for shrimp, which she carefully cleaned between her paws before eating. Like us, Ramona stopped what she was doing when a Jesus Christ lizard dashed across the water on its hind feet.

Lucia opened our eyes to the wonders of the jungle. She showed us a plant with leaves that stick to clothing like Velcro patches and a poppy which hides inside red petals to attract pollinators.

She explained that the bark of the alligator-skinned lagartillo tree was a potent dental anesthetic. When she pointed out an undulating monkey ladder, a liana vine that is sold in the San José market as a diuretic, Ramona trotted up the little steps to the top.

Howler monkey

Lucia scanned the canopy with her binoculars. "Look, way up," she said. "You will see a howler monkey." We asked about the howler's call. Lucia made a deep-throated wail that climbed in pitch to a crescendo. Like an echo, the primate howled back, leaving us no doubt that this was his territory.

The monkey watched us from the leafy branch of a milk tree. "Bats eat its fruit," she said. Lucia pointed to a palm leaf which a bat had chewed so that the leaves bent, making a tent for shelter. A telltale pile of nibbled milk tree fruits beneath gave away its location.

Ramona digs for beetles in fallen log
Ramona digs for beetles in fallen log
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Wild berries

Handing us some tiny black berries to taste, Lucia explained that their name, melastoma, means "to color the mouth." Ramona, meanwhile, started digging with her claws into a fallen log, sending sawdust flying in all directions. Reaching down to her shoulder, she pulled out a shiny black beetle which she popped into her mouth and crunched between her teeth.

Lucia pointed to the vertically coiled leaf of a heliconia flower. "It's a perfect hiding place for bats," she said. We peeked inside and discovered only two fat grasshoppers. Above it, a long-tailed hermit hummingbird sipped nectar from a shockingly red passion flower.

A rodent-like agouti scampered across our path. Ramona didn't notice. She was too busy digging into an ant hill.

A yellow, black-and-red coral snake slithered across our path. Lucia tried to follow, but it disappeared into the leaves. "Coral snakes are poisonous," she explained, "but their mouths are too small to bite humans. When we trained Ramona, we painted a stick to look like a coral snake and tried to scare her with it, so she learned to be cautious.

"No tourist has ever been bitten by a snake at Marenco," said Lucia, "but just in case, I always carry an anti-venom kit." (The most-feared snake is the fer-de-lance, or velvet pit viper. Fortunately, the closest most visitors ever come to one is the preserved specimen in the small museum next to Marenco's dining room.)

Lucia examines preserved fer-de-lance
Lucia examines preserved fer-de-lance
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Like a bored youngster, Ramona was impatient. She wanted us to stop chatting and start walking. When untying our shoelaces didn't work, she pounced on Lucia's ponytail again, making muddy red footprints up her legs and back. We decided to move on, talking as we hiked.

Garlic tree

Lucia picked up a fallen yellow blossom and held it up for us to sniff. We wrinkled our noses. "It's from a garlic tree," she said. "In the Amazon, indigenous people hollow out its large trunk to make boats."

A giant sangrillo tree stopped us in our tracks. It was as round as a garage and so high that we could barely make out its top above the forest canopy.

We admired a gauzy blue dragon fly on its trunk, but only momentarily. Hot and sweaty, we were as eager as Ramona to move on.

Looking up at giant sangrillo tree
Looking up at giant sangrillo tree
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The sound of the surf and a palm-lined oasis provided welcome relief after another hour of hiking. Coming out of the dark jungle, we blinked our eyes in the bright sun. We quickly changed into bathing suits for a refreshing dip in the jade lagoon where the Rio Claro meets the sea. Ramona hunted for crabs.

During the short walk along the sandy beach to the lodge, Lucia spotted some partly eaten almonds under a tree. Looking up with our binoculars, we focused on a half dozen red, yellow and blue macaws feasting on the nuts.

Before we reached the lodge, Ramona climbed into a tree and fell asleep. "When we're sure she can look after herself, Pablo and I will bring her by boat to Corcovado National Park, so she can't find her way back," said Lucia. "It will be difficult for us, but it's best for Ramona."

Swimming in the Rio Claro

Just a week before our visit, someone brought Lucia a brown booby with a broken wing. "We named her Monjita, which means 'little nun', because her dark brown and white feathers looked like a nun's habit," she explained.

"Every day, I took fresh fish from the kitchen to feed her. Once, Pablo and I brought her to the Rio Claro for a swim. She was so happy that she swam all the way out to the ocean. We had to go out in a boat to bring her in."

Bat research

That night, Lucia and Pablo invited us to join them stringing a net in the jungle to catch bats. Our flashlights pierced the inky blackness of the forest, while overhead, giant fireflies played among the trees like shooting stars.

"Bats don't deserve their bad reputations," said Lucia. "There are 205 mammals in Costa Rica and half are bats. Most eat insects or fruit. Some eat fish. A few eat meat and only three are vampire bats. They like blood from horses and cows. I caught one only once."

Pablo and Lucia collect bat for research
Pablo and Lucia collect bat for research
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We went back to the restaurant to wait for the results. Dining on consommé and steak with mushroom sauce at candlelit linen-covered tables jarred us back to civilization. Our feet, however, were bare and our muddy hiking boots sat on the steps, awaiting our return to the jungle.

An hour later, we found a tiny fruit bat in the net. Pablo and Lucia gently disentangled it, placing it in a cloth bag to bring back to the lab. There, they documented its weight, wingspan and gender, before setting it free.

On the way back to our cabin, we heard rustling in the jungle. Our flashlight beams pinpointed three foraging coatimundi, raccoon-like creatures with long, striped tails.

Inside our room, the moonlight illuminated a little green gecko that was quickly eliminating any mosquitoes that dared to enter.

The following morning, we regretfully left Marenco Beach & Rainforest Lodge, Lucia de la Ossa Pirie, Pablo Riba-Hernandez, and our rustic little cabin in the Costa Rica jungle.

And Ramona? During the night, she climbed down from her tree, scouted out cabin 9, and snuggled underneath for a well-earned rest.


Costa Rica Tourism Board

More things to see and do in Costa Rica:

Costa Rica Trips for Nature Lovers

Costa Rica Zipline Adventure Tour

Savegre Hotel Birdwatching Tour

Manuel Antonio National Park - Hiking, Beaches and Wildlife

San Jose Day Trips to Canas, Carara National Park and Sarchi