By Adam Williams | Special to The Tico Times
Most tourists who visit Sierpe don’t stay long. They zip down the town’s narrow main street in tourist vans, grab a quick bite to eat and hop on boats, which take them skipping atop the winding Sierpe River towards the Pacific Ocean.
Sierpe is a small town, and with a population of about 4,000, it’s also a quiet one. Children play in the streets as their mothers sit on shaded porches during warm days. Sinewy horses graze the pastureland along the central road. The muddy Sierpe River, for which the hamlet is named, runs along the eastern edge of town and flows west, eventually emptying into the Pacific, near the northern coast of the Osa Peninsula.
Many residents work in tourism, offering nature walks, waterfall excursions, night hikes, kayaking, and boat tours through the 22,000-hectare mangrove reserve and to more popular spots on the Osa Peninsula, such as Drake Bay, Corcovado National Park and Caño Island. Other locals work in nearby palm plantations, spending the morning hours removing massive spiny fruits from the towering trees to be exported as palm oil.
While the tiny village has remained a bastion of tranquility, tourism thrives in the Osa Peninsula, where about 8 percent of Costa Rica’s 2.2 million visitors went in 2011. Some see this as a missed opportunity.
“We of course see that there are hundreds of tourists that come to Sierpe each week,” said Jorge Uribe, owner of Las Vegas, the largest restaurant and most successful tour operator in town. “The potential is here, but little has been done to attract people to stay here.”
Uribe, a native of Colombia who moved to Sierpe nine years ago, said the town’s most glaring impediment to development is rooted in the idle nature of its inhabitants. Found buzzing around Las Vegas in a cap and white fishing shirt, Uribe said that “Sierpeños” lack the entrepreneurial vision to cash in on opportunity.
“People here think Sierpe is the world,” he said. “Some have never even been out of town. They know that there is money in tourism, but they do not know how to capitalize on it.”
An airport, a museum
About a 10-minute ride from town, near the fading wood-frame homes built for banana plantation employees by United Fruit company, a long, narrow strip of unkempt grass could forever alter life in Sierpe. The swath of land, which is government owned, is slated to become Costa Rica’s next international airport.
Like most large Costa Rican infrastructure projects, though, the airport is taking a while to develop (more than six years ago, The Tico Times ran story a story entitled, “Southern Zone Airport Advances”). An approval to break ground on the airport, which would welcome large Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 planes, is still waiting for the results of an environmental study by the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry. Until then, the airport remains a flattened patch of grass and weeds.
“For people like myself, and people who work in regional tourism, we are obviously hoping the airport becomes a reality soon,” said Warner Rojas, who recently opened small tourist cabinas in Sierpe next to the new massive Claro telecommunications tower. “Sierpe is the closest town to the airport and could become the place where people stay when they arrive in Costa Rica,” Rojas said. “It would be great news for us.”
Another tourism undertaking on the outskirts of town hosts a collection of Costa Rica’s famed stone spheres. The gated property, where guests can walk the grounds of a former United Fruit Company banana plantation, is also set to host a regional history museum. In May, President Laura Chinchilla asked the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to include Costa Rica’s stone spheres of Diquís, located east of Sierpe, on its World Heritage List.
Every day a different adventure
While tourists may not spend much time in Sierpe, a variety of day tours are accessible via the Sierpe River. Along the river, several tour operators, including Las Vegas, which always seems to draw a crowd, offer daily trips to Caño Island for snorkeling and hiking, treks into Corcovado National Park, rides to Drake Bay, and crocodile, wildlife and mangrove adventures.
With a smattering of cabinas and small, típico Costa Rican restaurants around, after a long day on the boat or in the sun, Sierpe’s silent nights make for a peaceful end to the day.
“For Sierpe to attract tourism, it needs to sell itself as a true Costa Rican cultural experience,” said Jannette MacKinnon, a 12-year resident and publisher of Costa Rica’s DIGITS PhoneBook. “Sierpe has a more authentic, small town Costa Rican feel to it. People looking for a more traditional Costa Rican place to stay might start to consider Sierpe as an option if it advertised itself as that.”
Currently, there are a handful of small cabinas and lodges in town, though no large hotels or eco-lodges catering to nature-lovers. Due to limited lodging options, Sierpe continues to be considered as more of a portal to Osa than a place to spend a vacation.
“We are working in the community and encouraging people to launch their own tourist operations and hotels,” Uribe said. “It takes time and people here move slow, but that’s exactly why it’s a wonderful place to visit. Here, you are immediately removed from anything resembling a fast pace, from the moment you arrive in town.”n
By Car: Take the Pacific coastal highway to Palmar. At Palmar, turn right after the big bridge that crosses the Río Grande. Drive through Palmar Sur and Sierpe is 15 minutes southeast.
By Bus: Take the Tracopa bus line to Golfito. Buses leave daily at 7 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Get off bus at Palmar and take a 25-minute taxi or bus to Sierpe. For more, visit www.cabinscostarica.com or www.sierpe-costa-rica.com.