Distance and “adventurous” roads make the Southern Zone the most pristine area of Costa Rica, but travelers who get there vow it’s worth the effort. With humid rain forests and trout jumping in cool mountain streams, along with gorgeous vistas, empty shorelines, quiet jungle retreats and some of the world’s best surfing, the Southern Zone offers something for everyone.
Though the highway between the coastal communities of Dominical and Uvita may be the best in the country, a four-wheel drive is recommended.
At the start of the journey, veer off theInter-American Highway
onto the “Route of the Saints,” which features pine trees, coffee farms and views, along with interesting places for fun and relaxation. Trout-fishing options abound, and most locations will cook your catch on the spot. In most of these small towns, you can buy local “high-grown” (the gourmet stuff) coffee, different kinds of honey, and honey-based beauty products (made with bee pollen and purportedly “most beneficial to the skin”).
Back on theInter-American Highway
, work your way up to its highest point at Cerro de la Muerte (the “Mountain of Death”), peaking at 3,491 meters (11,450 feet). The “highway” is a two-lane, unmarked road with no “cat’s eyes” or barriers on the sides. Don’t drive it at night. Even in daytime, fog can billow in and blot out the landscape.
Down from the mountain, through the crossroads town of San Isidro de El General and onto the beach, is Dominical, a sleepy, dusty-road town. Don’t be fooled. There’s loads to do here.
This world-famous surfing beach is not for swimmers, but if you’re not “catching tubes,” it’s great for sunbathing and long, lovely walks. For swimming, visit DominicalitoBeach, down the road about one kilometer south.
Stuff to do includes: horseback ride to beautiful Barú River/Nauyaca Falls; fascinating reptile-watching at Reptilandia reptile park (787-8007, email@example.com), with more than 300 different animals, including Amazonian turtles, anaconda and now a komodo dragon; hike in wildlife refuge Hacienda Barú (787-0003, www.haciendabaru.com), a 330-hectare reserve with 7 km of trails; fly screaming through the jungle heights on ziplines, also at Hacienda Barú; and more screaming when you go white-water rafting with Turbolencias del Sur (787-8328, firstname.lastname@example.org) on the Río General.
All sorts of tours are offered by CIPROTUR and Selva Mar (in San Isidro). Southern Expeditions (787-0100, www.southernexpeditionscr.com) offers extensive tours, kayaks, trails, crocodile tours and scuba diving. DominicalToursInfoCenter (www.dominicalinfo.com), inside the Ruta Maya Café, offers rappelling, canyoning, waterfall hikes, maps and bus schedules.
At the end of the day, eat al fresco and hang out later with surfers from around the world at a beachside bar.
And now head farther south. The road is perfect and the views are gorgeous. Uvita, more a loose cluster of homes and businesses than a town, is home to BallenaNationalMarinePark. Be sure to visit the park’s “Whale’s Tail,” where you can walk on a sand bar out to sea and watch waves crash to your left and right. Nearby Ojochal, with its many French Canadian residents, has a French bakery and some outstanding restaurants hidden along winding jungle roads, along with an incredible wine selection at area stores.
Stuff to do includes: see dolphins, which you can do pretty much year-round, with Delfín Tours (743-8169) and Dolphin Tour (743-8013); get a bird’s-eye view of Ballena National Marine Park and the Sierpe River with Skyline Nature Ultra-Flight (743-8037, www.flyultralight.com); kayak with Club Fred Adventures (786-5228, www.clubfredcr.com) on a “caves and waves” or river tour; be a “cowboy for a day” at La Merced National Wildlife Refuge (771-4582), a 500-hectare working cattle ranch; go hiking and birding at Oro Verde Biological Reserve (743-8072, www.costarica-birding-oroverde.com); try a night hike or mangrove tour with Lookout at Playa Tortuga (786-5074, www.hotelcostarica.com); whale-watch at Ballena National Marine Park, with the Pacific coast’s largest coral reef – humpback whale sightings are especially common at Ballena Island December to April; or go out at night from May to November to watch olive ridley and hawksbill turtles nest on the beach as they have since time out of mind.
Not had enough yet? Good, because maybe the best is yet to come.
Wonderful, tranquil DrakeBay is a home base for anyone ready to experience the beauty and marvels of nearby CorcovadoNational Park, on the OsaPeninsula. British pirate and explorer Sir Francis Drake landed here in 1579 and is rumored to have buried treasure along the coast; the area is named for him.
You get to DrakeBay hotels by boat from Sierpe, home to the river of the same name, which feeds 40,000 acres of mangrove forest – the largest in the country – or by plane. Sansa (290-4100, www.flysansa.com) and Nature Air (299-6000, www.natureair.com) make the 45-minute flight from San José to DrakeBay daily. Hotels and taxis offer transport from the landing strip to the bay. Flights also go to Palmar Sur, from which taxis transport guests to Sierpe for the one-hour boat trip to DrakeBay.
By car, take theInter-American Highway
seven hours south. Once in Palmar Norte, head to Chacarita. Then go 42 km southwest to Rincón on an unpaved road. From Rincón, drive the scenic, rough 32 km west along a dirt road and through nine rivers to tiny Agujitas (four-wheel drive a must; don’t even think of trying to drive here in rainy season and check the brakes first). Leave your car in Agujitas at Doña Emilse’s ($10/night). You need to get there in time to catch the 11:30 a.m. water taxi.
Busing? Then you must take the 5 a.m. bus (Tracopa, 223-7685) from San José to Palmar Norte, then taxi or bus to Sierpe to catch the water taxis, which leave at 11:30 a.m. only. By the way, water taxis to most hotels have wet landings.
Stuff to do:
Most hotels offer a daily roster of activities. They’ll ask you the night before what you would like to do, and the options are many. Year-round, you can watch humpbacks or dolphins, scuba dive or snorkel, or go horseback riding or birding. Scarlet macaws are all over the place and a breathtaking sight, but first of all you will want to visit the jewel of the OsaPeninsula, CorcovadoNational Park (735-5580).
With its 54,540 hectares on land, 2,400 on sea, stunning waterfalls, and the country’s largest tract of primary forest, it is widely regarded as one of world’s most biologically diverse regions, home to myriad species of birds, 140 kinds of mammals, 116 amphibian and reptile species, 500 kinds of trees and 6,000 types of insects. Here, six distinct ecosystems shelter scarlet macaws, jaguars, pumas, tapirs, poison-dart frogs and other endangered species. Much wildlife is nocturnal, so the experience is even better after dark.
Interested in weird history? Then a must is a visit to the Caño Island Biological Reserve. An hour’s boat ride from Drake, the island is also a renowned diving spot, and the site of a pre-Columbian cemetery with trails leading to those fascinating stone spheres, found in Costa Rica only. Shrouded in mystery, they are considered by some to be ancient navigational markers.
And now for getting even farther south. From Rincón, head south down to Puerto Jiménez and Carate. Here’s where you head for some fabulous sportfishing and extraordinary wildlife viewing. Along the way, be sure to stop at Finca Köbö (351-8576, www.fincakobo.com), a family-run, 50-hectare chocolate and sustainable agriculture farm in a primary forest.
Take the bilingual tour and learn all about chocolate. Then buy some unsweetened chocolate along with a paper bag full of homegrown peanuts.
Rather shop? Then, from theInter- American Highway
, keep going south until you reach Golfito. You can also fly in from San José and other places.
The United Fruit Company had its headquarters in Golfito for nearly 50 years until it pulled out in the 1980s. The distinctive architecture – homes, schools and the impressive hospital, all raised above the ground on stilts – marks the town, though the Depósito Libre, or duty-free zone, has given the town a new reason for being.
Stuff to do:
Visit the Golfito National Wildlife Refuge, which protects primary forest and sea life. Go with a guide or inquire about entrances. Smell the roses – OK, the orchids – at Casa de Orquídeas, inside Golfo Dulce, a private, six-acre botanical garden surrounded by primary rain forest.
On the way out, get a wealth of info about beautiful tropical plants and taste exotic fruits at Paradise Tropical Garden (789-8746), a family-run botanical garden offering free tours led by former United Fruit Company engineer Robert Beatham (TT, March 23). The tour focuses on medicinal plants, palm oil, remedies and fascinating stories about the history and future of region. One day’s notice required.
Go fish. Golfito is on the “SweetGulf,” the 10th deepest gulf in the world and one of only four tropical fjords on the planet. This gulf is a sailor’s haven. Sportfishers can fish to their hearts’ content in the gulf, and snorkelers get to see open-ocean fish such as tuna, dorado and swordfish along with coral reefs that attract myriad other species.
Beaches range from the popular Playa Cacao near Golfito to secluded, quiet stretches farther north. Hotels arrange kayaking, boat tours and transfer to Casa de Orquídeas.
To reach nearby Playa Cacao, take the five-minute boat ride from Golfito at the town dock or in front of HotelGolfitoBay, just north of the town center.
Also nearby is Zancudo, one of Costa Rica’s gems, where no swarms of tourists distract visitors from one of the best swimming beaches in the country. The peaceful strip of dark sand is dotted with good restaurants, hotels and sportfishing outfits.
Water taxis from Golfito take 15 minutes, or drive south from Golfito about 10 km to the turnoff at Salón El Rodeo, then another 10 km to the car cable ferry, soon to be replaced by a bridge. Follow signs for 25 km on improved road. The bus leaves Golfito at 2 p.m., via Conte, and arrives about 5 p.m.
About 10 km south of Zancudo, Pavones is famous among surfers for one of the longest left-hand wave breaks in the world, May to September. Non-surfers stay busy with spectacular scenery and great birding, especially to the south toward Punta Burica.
The fun isn’t over when it’s time to leave the Southern Zone; if you’re driving, there’s plenty of stuff to do on your way back to San José:
Visit the mountaintop Dúrika Foundation and Biological Reserve (730-0657, www.durika.org), 18 km north of Buenos Aires up a rough, steep road. This self-sufficient community shares its living experience with organic gardens, goat-husbandry tours, massage and water therapy, vegetarian restaurant, hikes and bird-watching. Ecotourism revenue goes toward buying land for a biological corridor.
Learn about the few remaining indigenous peoples in Costa Rica. South of Buenos Aires, a small Boruca museum in Térraba showcases culture and is the site of the annual, year-end Baile de los Diablitos (Dance of the Little Devils). The turnoff to the Boruca Reserve is 10 km south of Buenos Aires and up a steep, four-wheel drive-only road.
Visit Las Cruces Biological Station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies, which has fascinating research and nature programs and is home to the well-organized, world-renowned WilsonBotanical Garden (773-4004, www.ots.ac.cr). Six km south of San Vito, the lush, 10-hectare bromeliad, heliconia and palm garden is also a birder’s delight.
Just a little farther afield is La Amistad Biosphere Reserve/International Friendship Park (200-5353), a UNESCO World Heritage Site that spans the border with Panama. This is the largest protected area in Central America, with eight biological zones. To get to the Altamira Ranger Station, go 31 km west of San Vito, then 20 km uphill on a rough road. Easiest access to the park is via Las Tablas. You can also get there by bus from Buenos Aires or San Vito.