CABO BLANCO, Puntarenas — Howls from distant monkeys echo through the jungle in symphony with a chorus of chirping hummingbirds. The tall trees sing along with the wind and reverberating sound of waves as the forest opens up to a golden, desolate beach that looks like something out of a dream.
At Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve on the southernmost point of the Nicoya Peninsula, isolation and beauty collide to maintain Costa Rica’s first major nature preserve as one of the country’s most spectacular gems.
Still, the grandfather of Tico parks gets bypassed for Nicoya’s famous beach towns and surf hot spots. Founded in October of 1963, Cabo Blanco was designated as a national preserve after a pair of foreigners came across the area’s incredible wildlife and knew it needed to be protected.
European couple Nicolas and Karen Wessberg set up home on a nearby Montezuma farm in 1960 wanting to plant local trees on their plot of land. When they stumbled on Cabo Blanco while looking for native seeds, they found an area overflowing with diverse species of trees. But back then, traders would clear the trees and sell their wood, spurred on by deals arranged by the federal government. The state would compensate those who cleared forests in Nicoya with their own piece of land.
Intent on making sure the rich forest on the peninsula’s southern tip wasn’t cleared out, the Wessbergs fought with the government to have officials declare Cabo Blanco a protected area. The work they were doing was so controversial that Nicolas Wessberg was actually assassinated a decade later when campaigning to make a public reserve out of what is now Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula.
But his legacy lives on as the remarkable vegetation in Cabo Blanco still thrives, while playing host to hundreds of bird species, as well as reptiles, felines, monkeys and marine life. Some 95 percent of the park remains off limits for visitors in order to provide ample room for wildlife to live and reproduce without interruption.
Though the area is currently in the middle of tourism’s “low season,” I was still surprised to see only 10 other travelers during a recent visit to the park. But then again, the park reports just 8,000 visitors per year. By comparison, Manuel Antonio National Park sees about 150,000 tourists annually.
There are certain destinations people talk about when mentioning the western peninsula, and Cabo Blanco is rarely one of them. Next to the charming locales of Mal País, Santa Teresa or Montezuma, the preserve remains something of a secret.
While touring the Nicoya area recently I walked the five-kilometer Swedish Trail, Sendero El Sueco, to finally see the park I’ve only heard whispers about.
The front desk lists the Swiss Trail as the hardest of the three trail options, but it’s a relatively easy hike that most people should be able to complete in 90 minutes. I did it in flip-flops and a bathing suit without any issue, though I should have brought water and bug spray. And when I entered the park wearing sunglasses and holding a coffee in one hand and my cellphone in another, I must have looked like what they’d call a “gaper” in Colorado.
“So is there like a zipline I can take straight to the beach?” I should have asked.
Honestly, I walked in a bit clueless as to what Cabo Blanco was, even mixing it up with the neighboring fishing village Cabuya in a conversation a few days earlier. When I started asking the park guard a few questions about the reserve in Spanish, he squinted at me and pointed to the large signs that give the park’s basic statistics and background information.
The tranquil stroll through the park jungle was highlighted by a few close encounters with wildlife. I found a baby turtle struggling to make his way along the path. Large birds like osprey flew way over my head while hummingbirds shot from tree to tree. Lizards ran into the brush as my feet invaded their space.
Ending at a patch of bamboo, the trail opens up past the trees to a rocky, white-sand beach that makes you feel as if you’ve been dropped onto a desert island. Even with a few other visitors on the long-running stretch of coastline, I still felt alone. But between the stubborn waves and the crescent-shaped line of trees and hills, the solitude was energizing, almost meditative.
Not only were there no honking horn or screaming neighbors to be heard, those everyday noises felt unimaginable amidst Cabo Blanco’s seclusion. I was thinking about the cosmic privilege of being tucked far beyond the reach of roads and jobs, while being able to swim in unpolluted water and see remarkable animals up close in the jungle.
Then my phone buzzed and the thought was lost. Somehow it had grabbed enough network service to allow a message to come through that reminded me of a scheduled interview.
As I trudged back into the jungle to return to my car, the sound of the waves receded and the moment faded to a memory.
Getting there: Leaving from Montezuma, I took the notoriously bad Route 160 (which winds around the peninsula to connect Paquera with Samara) and it was probably the best option. The shortcut road is just as bad and often impassable in the rainy season.
Cost: Entrance is $12 for foreigners.
What to bring: Bug spray, hiking sandals and a lunch.
For more info: http://www.sinac.go.cr/AC/ACT/RNACaboBlanco/Paginas/default.aspx
Contact Michael Krumholtz at firstname.lastname@example.org.