BeautifulBallenaNationalMarinePark on the southern Pacific coast has an isolated, pristine beauty to it that makes it seem much more secluded and hard to reach than it is. The park, which first opened in 1990, is about 190 kilometers southwest of San José and includes 110 hectares of coast and 5,400 hectares of protected ocean territory. Its beaches stretch for 10 kilometers, providing a rich variety of coastline for sun worshippers and surfers alike.
The park is packed with unique natural formations that make its beaches out of the ordinary, even for a place as geographically diverse as Costa Rica. Its waters overlooked by the lush green mountains of the Fila Costeña range, the park also contains a mangrove estuary. Admission is $6 for foreign tourists and ¢1,000 ($1.80) for Costa Ricans and residents.
Playa Ventanas (WindowsBeach) is surrounded by stunning tunnels in the cliffs that look like impressive windows into the surrounding landscape – hence the beach’s name.
At low tide, visitors can walk through the tunnels. At high tide, the beach all but disappears. To the north of Playa Ventanas are pretty
Playa Ballena, where surfers ride the waves, and expansive, tranquil Playa Arco. A little farther north, Playa Uvita, near one of the park’s entrances, is the site of the stunning tombolo and Moses’ Pass.
Here, at low tide, the ocean parts, leaving dry a long stretch of sand that reaches far into what is usually covered by the sea. Walking along this stretch of sand, called Moses’ Pass after the Biblical Hebrew leader’s feat of parting the Red Sea, feels a little unreal. The large expanse of beach dwarfs visitors and makes it seem as if one were walking straight into the ocean. At the very end of the pass sits a rectangular structure made of stone, possibly the foundation of an old lighthouse.
Climbing on top of it for an even better view of the mountainous shore is an exhilarating way to experience the beach. Ask the park guards for a schedule of the tides so as not to miss the tombolo.
Wildlife and How to See It
One of the advantages of the area around the park is the quantity of wildlife one can see in just a single day. I saw spotted dolphins, frigate birds, a host of tropical fish and a scarlet macaw in the space of only a few hours. Humpback and pilot whales can best be seen from January to March, and bottlenose dolphins, toucans, turtles and white-faced monkeys also make appearances, among other animals.
If you want to get up close and personal with the marine wildlife, approximately six companies offer boat tours of the park’s waters. I went with the family-owned Dolphin Tour (8825-4031), which charges $65 per person for a four-hour spin around the park, including snorkeling on the coral reefs and a trip through one of the cliff-windows at Playa Ventanas. The company also provides sportfishing and kayaking tours. The guides provide fresh fruit and a refreshing lack of ceremony. They let the stunning mountainous scenery speak for itself, but are quick to answer any questions (see sidebar for other area tour companies).
My tour guide, Ronald Monge, 21, has been working boat tours since he was 12 years old. He found dolphins for us through a series of rapid cell phone conversations with fellow boaters, who call each other when they spot whales or dolphins. The group of six sleek creatures seemed to enjoy our company, sticking close to the boat for at least 15 minutes before swimming off into the distance.
Those invested in the tourism trade worry that fewer tourists have been arriving in the region lately, although the area never gets as many visitors as big-name destinations such as the northwestern Guanacaste province’s beaches. Manuel Valverde, owner of the local Hotel Nido del Halcón, said he fell in love with the area when he first visited and decided to build a hotel here.
“Ten years ago, I came for the first time to this beach, and it struck me as a totally different beach from anything I had seen,” he said.
Valverde and tour guide Monge said Guanacaste is overrated and that people don’t really know of Ballena park and its surroundings
as a tourist destination.
Monge blames the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) for charging foreigners $6 to enter the park, yet not providing basic services such as bathrooms.
“In Manuel Antonio (on the central Pacific coast), they pay $10, but you’re getting something in return,” he said.
Though the region around the park is underdeveloped, Valverde said Uvita, the town closest to the park, is booming with construction projects and already has several supermarkets and banks.
Where to Stay and Eat
Uvita offers simple but good food and lodging. I stayed at Hotel Nido del Halcón (2743-8373, www.hotelnidodelhalcon.com), a no-fuss hotel just a hundred meters from the entrance to Playa Uvita. In high season (December to May, minus the week of Christmas), a double room costs about $55, breakfast and taxes included. Rooms come with cable television, air conditioning and hot water. The attached restaurant serves up simple and affordable fare, including fresh lobster, fish and shrimp. The hotel is covered with framed photos of falcons, as owner Valverde is a professed bird aficionado.
La Fogata restaurant (2743-8224), 200 meters southeast of the Río Uvita bridge in the town of Uvita, serves delicious oven-baked pizzas made with fresh ingredients. I tried the Pizza Margarita, tomatoes, basil and melted cheese on a crispy crust (¢5,000/$9 for a medium). The restaurant’s oven-roasted chicken is also known to be tasty.
Dominical, 16 km north of Uvita, has more options for dining and lodging, especially on the high end (see sidebar for suggestions on more places to stay and snack in both towns).
More Restaurants, Hotels, Tours
Other Uvita restaurants that come recommended are the Restaurant Marino Ballena (2743-8104), across from Banco Nacional in Uvita, and the fancier The Chef’s Table (8838-3378), attached to the Villas de las Aves hotel, which boasts gourmet pizza and six-course menus on special nights, by reservation only.
Places to stay in Uvita include Villas de las Aves (8838-3378, www.villasdelasaves.com), a luxury hotel with great views for about $85 per night, and Finca Bavaria (8355 4465, www.finca-bavaria.de), bed-and-breakfast bungalows that go for about $60 for two people.
North of Uvita in Dominical, dozens of hotels are yours for the choosing. The beachfront Coconut Grove (2787-0130, www.coconutgrovecr.com) offers $75-a-day cabinas during high season. Hotel Cuna del Angel (2787-8012, www.cunadelangel.com) is a pricier option offering “jungle rooms” within the hotel grounds where guests can animal-watch. At Pacific Edge (2787-8010, www.pacificedge.info), enjoy sweeping and affordable views of the beach from 600 feet up. Standard cabins cost about $58 with taxes.
Also in Dominical, ConFusione (2787-0244) offers sophisticated Italian food right on the beach, La Parcela (2787-0241) serves up inexpensive seafood with a view, and the San Clemente Mexican-American Grill (2787-0055) is a surfer hangout offering tacos and other cheap eats.
Other area tour operators include Southern Expeditions (2787-0100), offering whale- and dolphin-watching tours as well as expeditions to Isla del Caño, an island biological reserve southwest of Ballena, off the OsaPeninsula. Caverna Tours (8894-9952) also offers tours and snorkeling. Pacific Whales and Kayak Tours(8827-8705) has traditional boat and kayak tours available.
By car, head south from San José on theInter-American Highway
about 135 km to the crossroads town of San Isidro de El General, from where you will head southwest to Dominical. Once in Dominical, turn south and go 16 km to Uvita. The center of Uvita is about 3 km from the main park entrance. The trip takes about four and a half hours.
By bus, Musoc (2222-2422, Ca. Ctrl., Av. 22/24) has hourly departures from San José to San Isidro de El General. From there, Transportes Blanco (2771-2550) makes the trip to Dominical and Uvita several times a day. The trip takes about five and a half hours total. Call for current schedules and fares.