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Rare and beautiful: See Costa Rica’s wildlife while you can

Baird’s tapirs are not cute. Their barrel bellies run on ridiculously short legs with thick knees and strangely dainty four-pronged hooves. Even their faces are stumpy, with half-snouts for noses, like elephants with their trunks cut short, framed by improbably pointy ears. Tapirs are not one of nature’s charmers. They are not pandas or polar bears. No one is suggesting Baird’s tapirs for the posters of conservationist organizations. Nonetheless they are endangered, with only about 5,000 left in the wild in Central America. And so any trip to the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica inevitably involves a trip to see the tapirs; if you bring kids – and you should – it’s practically a requirement.

Baird's tapir, only about 5,000 are left in the wild in Central America. (Sean Crane/Corbis)

I travelled with my nine-year-old son to the Osa Peninsula because it is one of those rare and happy places that combines pristine jungle, and all the richness of life that implies, with enough safety and comfort that it’s easy to bring the family. The tapirs provide one of the classic experiences of ecotourism in our time: exposing your children to the world that’s falling apart, showing them the beautiful animals that are vanishing.

Osa lies in the southwestern corner of Costa Rica, nestled between Panama and the Pacific Ocean. Its main attractions are Corcovado Park and Cano Island – both protected parks, both treasuries of the natural world. It is the lushest, densest corner of the lushest, densest country in the world. Famously, Costa Rica contains 5 per cent of the world’s biodiversity in 0.03 per cent of its land surface. But even that impressive stat doesn’t convey the sheer magnitude of natural delights it offers.

Eighteen per cent of the world’s butterflies pass through Costa Rica. Other glories are more unique: The resplendent quetzal, a bird with a 1.2-metre-long iridescent tail, now survives on the wild avocados of Costa Rica’s central valleys.

Paddling the Sirena river in Corcovado National Park. (AFP/Getty Images)

Corcovado and Cano Island both offer a series of tours that are perfect for children. A night tour with an entomologist exposes us to a fascinating collection of creatures revealed by the glowing of their eyes in the glare of the flashlights: tarantulas peek out from their nest-holes; cockroaches the size of a hand will crawl up your arm if incited; the curious eyes of kinkajous and ocelots look down from the tops of trees.

It’s not just the biodiversity that makes Costa Rica one of the most obvious places to take children on nature trips. It’s the sheer convenience of it.

The Osa Peninsula is a short flight from San Jose, in a tiny 12-seat plane, but it provides that rare and wonderful combination of wilderness adventure and luxury. An hour’s boat ride from Corcovado, my son and I slept in the Tranquilo Lodge, which not only organized the tours of the natural wonders for us but also possessed that one luxury that really makes travelling with children bearable: a pool. I got to drag the boy wherever I liked in the morning and in the afternoon he cooled himself in the water overlooking the ocean while I knocked back rum and fruit punch. This arrangement is what you call a win-win.

A baby Ocelot in Costa Rica. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Ironically, it is in the lush paradise of places such as the Osa Peninsula that the troubled joy of pursuing endangered animals is most obvious. How quickly one becomes used to even the most gorgeous animals – scarlet macaws filled the trees around the hotels; their red feathers appeared to glow as if lit by some inside illumination. But they’re common. Instead of looking at the macaws or the toucans, we spent a whole morning in the mangroves searching for, and then finding, the yellow-billed cotinga. Which is a small white bird with – you guessed it – a bright yellow bill. The yellow-billed cotinga doesn’t take your breath away, but it’s endemic to the mangroves of Osa, and it’s going extinct. And therefore it’s worth seeing.

The rarity of animals, I don’t think there’s any point denying, is a source of their beauty. In a certain, bizarre sense, the rarity of an animal is nearly identical to its beauty. That effect is entirely psychological. If we were to look merely at the physical reality of birds, I suppose we would just look at the starlings or raccoons that fill our backyards. They’re highly beautiful in themselves. But who can stand them?

Children, tragically, understand this valuation of species perfectly. Sharing the experience of nature with kids is a joy, but in our current moment, an essential part of that joy is the awareness of the deep fragility of what we’re seeing. A few generations ago, I guess I would have taken my son into the jungle to kill things. Now I take him to the jungle to see the beauty of the world before it’s destroyed. Ecotourism is inherently melancholy.

Even with so few tapirs in the area, they are nonetheless easy to find if you’re with a guide who knows how.

A three-toed Anteater of Tamandua in Corcovado National Park. (AFP/Getty Images)

The sloths high in the trees, looped in knots of their own limbs, were much harder to spot. Tapirs’ huge stubby hooves leave large, unmistakable tracks, and they are nocturnal, spending the day sleeping with their families in knots of underbrush. Being huge and grey and funny-looking makes camouflage a null option.

For a big animal, it was unusually amenable to inspection. The guides led me and my son right up to a small group wallowing in delicious mud in the shade, snoring away.

We stood there, watching in rapt attention. They were amusing and beautiful and totally weird. We took a good, long look.

As we walked back to the boat for the ride back to the hotel, the melancholy crept in.

Time in nature is loss. If we ever came back, would they still be there?

Keel-billed Toucan in the Costa Rica rain forest. (iStockphoto)


Air Canada rouge flies non-stop return Toronto to San Jose – but only on Fridays. For other days of the week numerous carriers can you get there, but you will have to make at least one connection. (Triple check that you are not booking a flight to San Jose, Calif.)

From San Jose Juan Santamaria International Airport, Nature Air offers daily flights to Puerto Jimenez, the gateway to the Osa Peninsula, or weekly flights to Drake Bay.

Tranquilo Lodge on Drake Bay mixes lush jungle with stunning ocean views. The 11-room property offers horseback riding, snorkelling and diving, dolphin-watching tours and a rainforest canopy tour. Four new “exclusive deluxe” cabins include access to an infinity pool and a dining palapa. Rates start at $110 (U.S.) a person and include three meals a day and free transfers from Drake Bay airport or the beach landing point.

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