Visitors go south to heed the call of the wild. The jewels in the South Pacific crown are the idyllic Golfo Dulce and the wild Osa Peninsula, brimming with wildlife and natural adventures. There is no place like it, especially when you travel off the grid, far from the sounds of modern civilization. With miles of undulating Pacific coastline, there is rarely a crowded beach. Up in the highlands, the hiking and bird-watching are unsurpassed.
POINTS OF INTEREST
CHIRRIPÓ NATIONAL PARK
Chirripó National Park is all about hiking. The ascent up Mt. Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, is the most popular, challenging, and exclusive hike in the country. From the trailhead to the peak, you gain more than 8,000 feet of elevation, climbing through shaded highland forest, then out into the wide-open, windswept wilds of the páramo, scrubby moorland similar to the high Andes. It’s a 30-mile round-trip, and you need at least three days to climb to the base, explore the summits, and descend. The modern but chilly stone hostel is the only available accommodation, with small rooms of four bunks each, shared bathrooms, and a no-frills restaurant. A generator and solar panels provide some electricity, but the hostel is still bare-bones rustic. Trails from the hostel lead to the top of Chirripó and the nearby peak of Terbi, as well as half a dozen other peaks and glacier lakes.
WHALE MARINE NATIONAL PARK
Great snorkeling, whale-watching, and beachcombing draw visitors and locals to Whale Marine National Park, which protects four relatively tranquil beaches as well as a mangrove estuary, a remnant coral reef, and a vast swath of ocean.
Playa Uvita, fronting the small town of Bahía Ballena, is the longest, widest, and most visited beach, and the embarkation point for snorkeling, fishing, and whale watching tours. Restaurants and cabinas line the nearby main street of the town. Playa Colonia, the most easily accessible beach, has safe swimming and a view of rocky islands. Playa Ballena, south of Playa Colonia, is a lovely strand backed by lush vegetation. Finally, tiny Playa Piñuela is the prettiest of the park beaches, in a deep cove that serves as the local port. It’s also the narrowest beach, with a pebbled slope down to the sand. Along with the tropical fish you’ll see while snorkeling, you may be lucky enough to see humpback whales and dolphins.
CORCOVADO NATIONAL PARK
For those who crave untamed wilderness, Corcovado National Park is the experience of a lifetime. Covering one-third of the Osa Peninsula, the park is blanketed primarily by virgin rain forest and holds Central America’s largest remaining tract of lowland Pacific rain forest.
The remoteness of Corcovado and the difficult access to its interior make it one of the country’s most pristine parks—barely disturbed by human presence— where massive, vine-tangled primary-forest trees tower over the trails and birds and wildlife abound. Your chances of spotting endangered species are better here than anywhere else in the country, although it still takes a combination of luck and determination. The rarest and most sought-after sightings are the jaguar and Baird’s tapir. Corcovado also has the largest population of scarlet macaws in the country. Bordering the park are some of Costa Rica’s most luxurious eco-friendly jungle lodges and retreats.
ZONA DE LOS SANTOS
Empalme, at Km 51 of the Pan-American Highway, marks the turnoff for Santa María de Dota, the first of the picturesque coffee-growing towns named after saints that dot this mountainous area known as the Zona de Los Santos (Zone of the Saints). The route itself is about 15 miles long.
SAN GERARDO DE DOTA
Cloud forests, invigorating mountain air, well-maintained hiking trails, and excellent bird-watching make San Gerardo de Dota one of Costa Rica’s premier nature destinations. The tiny hamlet is in the narrow Savegre River valley, 5½ miles down a twisting, partially paved track that descends abruptly to the west from the Pan-American Highway. The peaceful surroundings look more like the Rocky Mountains than Central America but hike down the waterfall trail and the vegetation quickly turns tropical again. Beyond hiking and birdwatching, activities include horseback riding and trout fly-fishing.
SAN ISIDRO DE EL GENERAL
Although San Isidro de El General has no major attractions, the bustling market town is a good place to have lunch, get cash at one of the many ATMs (most accept Visa/Plus cards), or fill your tank—the main highway into town is lined with service stations, some operating 24 hours. Advice to map readers: there are other San Isidros in Costa Rica, but this is the only San Isidro de El General. Just to confuse matters more, this town also goes by the name Peréz Zeledón. The town is the jumping-off point for hiking the scenic highlands around San Gerardo de Rivas, and climbing the country’s highest peak, Chirripó. There’s also excellent bird-watching in nearby nature reserves, including the original homestead, now a museum, of famed ornithologist Alexander Skutch.
SAN GERARDO DE RIVAS
Chirripó National Park is the main reason to venture to San Gerardo de Rivas, but if you aren’t up for the physically challenging adventure of hiking up to Chirripó it’s still a wildly scenic place, reminiscent of the Himalayas, to spend a day or two. Spread over steep terrain at the end of the narrow valley of the boulder-strewn Río Chirripó, San Gerardo de Rivas has cool mountain air, excellent bird-watching, and spectacular views.
CHIRRIPÓ NATIONAL PARK
Chirripó National Park is the ultimate challenge for serious local and visiting hikers. But the rewards are worth it—from the visitors’ hut you can summit surrounding peaks and, on a clear day, see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It does, however, require top fitness and advance planning, since the number of hikers is limited each day, in order to preserve the sensitive ecosystems hikers traverse.
Except for the tropical greenery, the rolling hills around the bustling hilltop town of San Vito could be mistaken for a Tuscan landscape. The town actually owes its 1952 founding to 200 Italian families who converted forest into coffee, fruit, and cattle farms. A remnant of the Italian flavor lingers on in the statue dedicated to the pioneros standing proudly in the middle of town. San Vito today is a bustling agricultural market town, the center of the Coto Brus coffee region. Many coffee pickers are from the Guaymí indigenous group, who live in a large reserve nearby and also over the border in Panama. They’re easy to recognize by the women’s colorfully embroidered, long cotton dresses.
Sleepy fishing village–turned–surfer town, Dominical is changing again as luxury villas pop up all over the hillsides above the beaches, bringing new wealth that is boosting the economy. It’s still a major surfing destination, attracting surfers of all ages, with a lively restaurant and nightlife scene. Favorite local hangouts come and go, so don’t hesitate to try something new.
Dominical’s real magic lies beyond the somewhat scruffy town, in the surrounding terrestrial and marine wonders: the rain forest grows right up to the beach in some places, and the ocean offers world-class surfing. Much of the lush forest that covers the steep hillsides above the beaches is protected within private nature reserves. Several of these reserves, such as Hacienda Barú, protect significant tracts of the rain forest.
WHALE MARINE NATIONAL PARK
Named for the whales (ballenas, in Spanish) that seasonally migrate here, this park protects marine life in miles of ocean, as well as 6 miles of coastline, incorporating four separate beaches, each with its own character. Opportunities abound for fishing, whale-and dolphin-watching tours, kayaking, camping, beachcombing, and swimming. Sunsets here are unbeatable.
Overlooking a small gulf (hence its name) and hemmed in by a steep bank of forest, Golfito has a scenic location. Lodges supply kayaks for paddling the gulf’s warm, salty, and crystal-clear waters. When the sun sets behind the rolling silhouette of the Osa Peninsula, you can sometimes spot phosphorescent fish jumping. Fishing, both commercial and for sport, is the main activity here, with lively marinas providing slips to visiting yachts and charter fishing boats.
Golfito was once a thriving banana port—United Fruit arrived in 1938—with elegant housing and lush landscaping for its plantation managers. After United Fruit pulled out in 1985, Golfito slipped into a state of poverty and neglect. The town itself consists of a pleasant, lushly landscaped older residential section and a long strip of scruffy commercial buildings. Visiting U.S. Coast Guard ships dock here, and small cruise ships moor in the harbor. The Costa Rica Coast Guard Academy is also here.
Life here is laid-back and casual, centering on walking the beach, fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, and hanging out at the local bars and restaurants. Zancudo has a good surf break at the south end of the beach, but it pales in comparison with Playa Pavones a little to the south. Swimming is especially good two hours before or after high tide, especially at the calmer north end of the beach. The water is always warm.
If you get tired of playing in the surf and sand, you can arrange a boat trip to the nearby mangrove estuary to see birds and crocodiles. Zancudo is also home to one of the area’s best sportfishing operations, headquartered at the Zancudo Lodge.
Surfing is the main draw here, especially from April to September when the waves are most reliable. But the dramatic scenery, looking across the Golfo Dulce to the Osa Peninsula, along with a very laid-back vibe, make it a popular destination year-round. The area is not heavily developed but there are some excellent restaurants in town, and nearby Tiskita Jungle Lodge is a birder’s paradise.
You might not guess it from the rickety bicycles and ancient pickup trucks parked on the main street, but Puerto Jiménez is the largest town on the Osa Peninsula and the main gateway to the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park. This one-iguana town has a certain frontier charm, with an interesting, funky edge provided by eco-lodge owners and backpacking nature lovers. A bay-side promenade has added a touch of civility, with benches where you can sit and admire the gulf views. At night, elegant street lamps light your way to the restaurants along the waterfront.
This is the last civilized outpost on the peninsula. Heading south, you fall off the grid. That means no public electricity or telephones. So make your phone calls, send your email, get cash, and stock up on supplies here. Be prepared for the humidity and mosquitoes—Puerto Jiménez has plenty of both.
If you need a refreshing dip, head southeast of the airport to Playa Platanares, where there is a long stretch of beach with swimmable, warm water. At low tide, you can also walk out onto a narrow, pebbly beach beside the town dock.
The main reason to come to Puerto Jiménez is to spend a night before or after visiting Corcovado National Park since the town has the best access to the park’s two main trailheads and an airstrip with flights from San José. It’s also the base for the colectivo (public transport via pickup truck) to Carate.
CORCOVADO NATIONAL PARK
The crown jewel of the country’s national park system, Corcovado is the ultimate in off-the-grid adventure. The only way to see it is on foot, with a certified naturalist guide to interpret the incredible biodiversity that has made this park the most rewarding and challenging natural experience in the country.
The southern tip of the Osa Peninsula, where virgin rain forest meets the sea at a rocky point, retains the kind of natural beauty that people travel halfway across the world to experience. From its ridges, you can look out on the blue Golfo Dulce and the Pacific Ocean, sometimes spotting whales in the distance. The forest is tall and dense, with the highest and most diverse tree species in the country, usually draped with thick lianas.
The name Matapalo refers to the strangler fig, which germinates in the branches of other trees and extends its roots downward, eventually smothering the supporting tree by blocking the sunlight. Flocks of brilliant scarlet macaws and troops of monkeys are the other draws here.
Carate is literally the end of the road. The black volcanic-sand beach stretches for more than 2 miles, with dramatically high surf that’s perfect for boogie boarding and body surfing. Swimming is best and safest around low tides. The main entertainment at the beach is watching the noisy but magnificent scarlet macaws feasting on nuts in the beach almond trees that edge the shore. Though remote, lodges now have Wi-Fi and some cell-phone coverage.
This is castaway country, a real tropical adventure, with plenty of hiking and some rough but thrilling boat rides to get here. The rugged coast that stretches south from the mouth of the Río Sierpe to Corcovado probably doesn’t look much different from what it did in Sir Francis Drake’s day (1540–96), when, as legend has it, the British explorer anchored here. Small, picture-perfect beaches with surf crashing against dark volcanic rocks are backed by steaming, thick jungle. Nature lodges scattered along the coast are hemmed in by the rain forest, which is home to troops of monkeys, sloths, scarlet macaws, and hundreds of other bird species.
The cheapest accommodations in the area can be found in the town of Drake, which is spread out around the bay. A trio of upscale nature lodges—Drake Bay Wilderness Resort, Aguila de Osa Inn, and La Paloma Lodge—are clumped near the Río Agujitas on the bay’s southern end. They all offer comprehensive packages, including trips to Corcovado and Caño Island. Lodges farther south, such as Copa del Arbol, Punta Marenco Lodge, and Casa Corcovado, run excursions from even wilder settings.