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Campanario Biological Station: An Underappreciated Nature Tourism and Conservation Gem on the Border of Costa Rica’s Most Important National Park

It’s hard to say anything about the natural magnificence of Costa Rica that doesn’t seem a little banal, given how well-established its reputation is as a natural wonder. 

This makes sense, considering that Costa Rica, while constituting just 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface area, contains 6 percent of its total biodiversity, placing it among the select few Megadiverse Countries. A country that was comparatively quick to recognize, protect and commodify its natural capital, Costa Rica has maintained a robust and profitable conservation policy since the 1980s. 

It is little wonder that the country of pura vida, together with Panama, produces over five times more biodiversity research than any of its regional neighbours.

Both because of and thanks to this, Costa Rica has one of the largest percentages of protected land out of any country in the world, attracting researchers and documentarians for decades. 

It was one of the first places that, for me, as a kid living in the comparatively cold and lifeless northern hemisphere, was always synonymous with the abundance of the tropics. I saw the Red-eyed Tree Frog in my Eyewitness books as the embodiment of Costa Rica. 

The Campanario Biological Station (aka La Estación Biologica Campanario) on the Osa Peninsula’s northwest coast, abutting the iconic Corcovado National Park, is a wonderful microcosm of that magnificence–both marine and terrestrial. 


Campanario

Source: Google Maps

The Campanario Biological Station is situated in Pacific lowland tropical rainforest on the isolated northwest tip of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula–a place National Geographic described as “one of the most biologically intense places on earth.” With over 50 percent of the country’s recorded flora and fauna species found on this small strip of land, that description seems apt. 

Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

The area is home to iconic mammals like Jaguars and Tapir–one of the most reliable places in Central America to see both–as well as an incredible reptile, amphibian, bird, insect, mammal, marine fauna, and neotropical freshwater fish diversity. The backdrop is the ruggedly beautiful Pacific coast of Central America, where black sand, mangroves and rocky coastline meet lush green jungle and coastal streams and rivers.

“Campanario,” the biological station’s website contends, “is not for everyone.” The area is remote and accessible only by boat. Movement around the reserve is purely on foot.  There are no TVs, phones, aircon or internet connection, and your movement is often constrained by the whims of the tide. 

What you will get, Campanario boasts, are “warm weather, warm rain, and warm surf on a secluded tropical beach, cool waterfalls, cool showers, and cool nights,” as well as access to the surrounding and very well-preserved Pacific lowland rainforest of Corcovado National Park and its innumerable wildlife watching opportunities.

What’s more, the coastal waters just off the station, in addition to forming part of one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world, are also uncharacteristically calm for Latin America’s Pacific coast, meaning that, when conditions are good, there is excellent snorkelling to be done right from the beach. The station can also organize dive and snorkel trips further afield to the wonderful Isla Caño Marine Protected Area. 

Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

The mangroves and rocky tide-pooled covered shoreline make for excellent shorebird observation, as well as beachcombing and macrophotography opportunities for anyone interested in nudibranchs, molluscs, anemones, and crustaceans. 

Activities include kayaking through well-preserved mangrove ecosystems, birdwatching, guided day and night hikes, bat cave observation, and dolphin and whale watching. 

Accommodations at Campanario are simple but comfortable–dormitory-style bunk beds or more private cabins. 

Photos courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

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The Campanario Ecoregion: Isthmian Pacific Moist Forest

Source: https://ecoregions.appspot.com/

The Isthmian Pacific Moist Forest ecoregion covers the Pacific lowlands and foothills of southern Costa Rica and Panama. 

Characterized by seasonally and permanently flooded lagoons, marsh, palm swamp and swamp forest, gallery forests along rivers and streams, and large swathes of terra firme lowland forest, the topography, climate and seasonality of this ecoregion harbour both higher species richness and greater endemism than the Atlantic forests of Mesoamerica. 

The Golfo Dulce region, of which Corcovado is a part, together with far western Panama, constitutes the majority of what is known as the South Central American Pacific Slope Endemic Bird Area.

A unique peninsular formation that was once an island in the Pacific Ocean–until only just 2 million years ago–it is one of the most biodiverse pieces of land on earth relative to its size. 

Sadly, only 17 percent of this ecoregion is protected (just 1,600 square kilometres), a quarter of which belong to Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula.

This is the largest single tract of Pacific lowland forest left in Mesoamerica–one of the few places along the Pacific coast that still supports large mammals like Jaguars, Baird’s Tapir and White-lipped Peccaries and birds like the Scarlet Macaw (home to the largest population in Central America). 

There may even be a pair of Harpy Eagles in the park, though it has been many years since one has been sighted. 

It is, without exaggeration, one of the most important protected areas in the world. 

On and off-shore, the marine ecosystems of the Osa Peninsula are also uniquely special. They include rocky outcrops scattered along the coast, submerged pinnacles, the largest mangrove ecosystem in the country, expansive soft sediment beaches where Olive Ridley, Leatherback and Green Sea Turtles breed, and a range of hard and soft bottom habitats–home to a high diversity of marine mammals (particularly Humpback Whales), sharks (Scalloped Hammerheads, White-tip Reef Sharks and Bull Sharks) and seabirds. 

Just 15km offshore from the Osa Peninsula, the Isla del Caño Marine Protected Area and its surrounding rock spires have the highest species richness of corals in Costa Rica and some of the most extensive coral reefs along the relatively coral-sparse Mesoamerican Pacific coast. 

In short, places like the Campanario Biological Station, offer some of the best access to the most beautiful tract of wild land left along the Pacific coast of Central America. 

Herpetofauna

If Costa Rica is Central America’s fieldherping Mecca, then the Osa Peninsula is the epicentre, home to a recorded 145 species of reptiles and amphibians.

OF those, 41 species of reptiles, 28 species of frogs and 3 salamanders have been registered at Campanario. 

Snakes

19 species of snakes have been recorded at the Campanario Biological Station, including one sea snake:

Clockwise (top to bottom): Eyelash Viper (Bothriechis schlegelii), Northern Cat-eyed Snake (Leptodeira septentrionalis), Yellow-bellied Sea Snake (Hydrophis platurus), Slender Snail-eater (Sibon dimidiatus), Black-headed Bushmaster (Lachesis melanocephala)

Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

This is just a small selection of not just the snakes that have been recorded at Campanario, but of the total number of possible species in the Pacific Lowland forests that cover the Golfo Dulce/Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica–fifty-five species from 39 genera in five families (SAVAGE 2002, SOLÓRZANO 2004). 

Amphibians

28 species of frogs and three salamanders have been recorded at Campanario. 

These include (clockwise top to bottom): Dusty Glass Frog (Hyalinobatrachium pulveratum), Cascade Glass Frog (Sachatamia albomaculata), Granular Glass Frog (Cochranella granulosa), Green and Black Poison Frog (Dendrobates auratus), Golfo Dulce Poison Frog (Phyllobates Vittatus), Masked Tree Frog (Smilisca phaeota), Gladiator Tree Frog (Hypsiboas rosenbergi)

Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

Lizards

Thirty-one species of lizards from 23 genera in 9 families occur in the Golfo Dulce Region (SAVAGE 2002). 

21 of these have been recorded at Campanario, including the Iconic Green Basilisk, an emblematic animal of Costa Rica’s Isthmian Pacific Moist Forests.

Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

Crocodilians and Turtles

Both species of crocodilians found in Costa Rica occur in Corcovado–the American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) and the Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus), the latter of which is far more common around the station. 

Spectacled Caiman (Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station)

Birds 

The Isthmian Pacific Forests of Costa Rica are part of the South Central American Pacific Slope Endemic Bird Area, home to some 463 species (including the largest population of Scarlet Macaws in Central America), 227 of which have been registered at Campanario. 

Clockwise (top to bottom): American Oyster Catcher, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Collared Forest Falcon, Blue-crowned Manakin, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

Mammals

Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

The national parks and private reserves throughout the Osa Peninsula and Golfo Dulce are a mammal watcher’s dream. 

A jaguar around Campanario Biological Station (Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

143 species of mammals–81 of which are bats–have been recorded by Campanario, including all 6 of Central America’s feline species, four species of monkeys, two anteaters, the Northern Tamandua, both three-toed and two-toed sloths, and a litany of other small mammals. 

Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

Marine mammals are also part of the draw at a place like Campanario

A pod of false orcas (Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station)
A Humpback Whale breaches near Isla Caño, just off of the Campanario station (Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station)

A Humpback Whale breaches near Isla Caño, just off of the Campanario station (Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station)

Marine life

Campanario offers a unique opportunity not only in Costa Rica, but the entirety of Mesoamerica, to experience two of the most prolific marine and terrestrial ecosystems at the same time. 

You would have to travel much further south, to places like Bahia Solano or Nuqui on the Pacific coast of Colombia, to find such phenomenal marine and terrestrial wildlife observation opportunities in close proximity. 

Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

Depending on the tides, day and time of year, the waters just off Campanario’s beach can be exceptionally calm for the typically quite turbulent Pacific coast of Central America, with great tropical Eastern Pacific snorkeling and seascape. 

The coastline along Campanario is also a great place for macro photographers interested in marine life, particularly nudibranchs. 

Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

Including the stunning Blue Dragon (Glaucus atlanticus)

Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

A bit further offshore and you have access to the Isla del Caño Biological Reserve, a Marine Protected Area that hosts the most significant and well-developed coral reefs on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. 

Source: anasacuta; inaturalist

The limited research done in this understudied area has recorded 129 different fish taxa from 49 families (Friedlander et al., 2022).

This is unusual for the Corcovado coastal region, where coral growth is limited by constant strong wave action and proximity to large rivers depositing sediment and freshwater. 

Significant stretches of healthy coral cover and large pinnacles connected to coastal habitats attract White-tip Reef Sharks, Bigeye Trevally and other pelagics (Friedlander et al., 2022).

Courtesy of Campanario Biological Station

According to one of the few research initiatives to survey the Isla del Caño marine protected area to date: 

“The submerged pinnacles just outside the Isla del Caño Biological Reserve harbored… high fish biomass, taxonomic richness, and abundance comparable to iconic highly protected offshore MPAs in the region like Cocos Island National Park and Malpelo, as well as remote unfished reefs in the Pacific and Indian oceans” (Friedlander et al., 2022). 

While most visitors come to the Osa Peninsula and places like Camapanario for its terrestrial ecosystems, a visit to a place like this would be incomplete without experiencing the specialness of the Isla Caño MPA, and particularly the pinnacles that lie just outside the reserve. 

This is one of the few places along the Pacific Coast of Central America where the best shots of your trip might be captured with an underwater camera.

Freshwater fish

Despite Corcovado lying within the Isthmian faunal province of Miller (1966) and Bussing (1976)–the region of Central America with by far the richest freshwater-exclusive fish species diversity (Myers, 1966; Miller, 1966; Bussing, 1967), conditions on the peninsula are not especially suitable for high livebearer, tetra and cichlid species richness. 

Much of this has to do with the geological features of the Osa Peninsula and the resulting tropical rainforest headwater streams that characterize Corcovado (Myers, 1947; Roberts, 1972; Bishop, 1973; lowe-McConnell, 1975).

These streams are quite nutrient-poor, contain little primary production (i.e., there are hardly any in-situ aquatic plants providing the energy necessary for a large and diverse biotic community to thrive), are often entirely shaded by dense foliage, exhibit low thermal variability, and are subject to seasonal patterns of rainfall. All of this combines to produce, among other unfavourable conditions, a notable dearth of zooplankton and aquatic insects (Winemiller, 1983). 

The peninsula effect (which posits that species diversity declines the further you move away from the base of a peninsular landmass), is an additional factor. 

Add to that the fact that the Rio Claro and Rio Sirena lack extensive stretches of lowland floodplains and extensive estuaries prior to their discharge into the Pacific Ocean, and the geological conditions on the Osa Peninsula are not ideal for high freshwater fish diversity. 

While there are many species with marine affinities present in the park, including two pipefish species–the Yellowbelly Pipefish (Pseudophallus starksii) and Pseudophallus elcapitanensis–, pufferfish, mullet, a variety of gobies, etc., true freshwater fish species diversity in the park is lacking. 

Despite that, there should still be enough to satisfy anyone visiting a place like Campanario who is interested in neotropical freshwater fish, including an endemic and a couple of range-restricted species. What’s more, the rocky clear water streams make for easy viewing and filming. 

Species include:

  • Savage Tetra (Hyphessobrycon savagei)–a Costa Rican endemic
  • Costa Rican Tetra (Astyanax orstedii)
  • Diquis Cichlid (Cribroheros diquis)
  • Shortfinned Molly (Poecilia sphenops)
  • Barred Livebearer (Poeciliopsis turrubarensis)
  • Brachyrhaphis rhabdophora
  • White-eye (Oxyzygonectes dovii)–found only in the Pacific drainages of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama
  • Mexican Tetra (Astyanax fasciatus)
  • T-Bar Cichlid (Amatitlania sajica)

Invertebrates 

I won’t go too in-depth when it comes to the invertebrate species found in places like the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado because there are thousands upon thousands, many not described, and undoubtedly many more yet to be discovered. 

All you can really say about the largest tract of Isthmian Pacific Moist Forest left in Mesoamerica is that it is guaranteed to be a macro photographer’s dream.

Why Campanario

You could spend time at a place like Campanario Biological Station and Corcovado National Park and forget that what you are experiencing is essentially an island in a sea of agriculture. 

Logging, slash-and-burn farming and the conversion of forest along the Pacific slope of Central America to cow pasture, have decimated most of the ecoregion. 

The majority of the species that are restricted to these forests are, therefore, threatened with extinction. 

Places like Campanario, which form important private buffer zones between protected areas and provide important conservation education, research and nature and wildlife tourism opportunities, help fortify protected areas against further agricultural and commercial encroachment. 

And, while there is no shortage of nature and wildlife tourism options in Costa Rica, especially in its, arguably, most important national park, there are few places like the Campanario Biological Station which are as committed to conservation and environmental education. 

Those looking for hotel comforts and amenities in the jungle, by Campanario’s own admission, will probably be left wanting by the isolation and simplicity of the station.

Those whose primary objective is access to and immersion in the full marine and terrestrial biodiversity of the last large tract of Isthmian Pacific Rainforest in the Americas will find what they’re looking for.