Costa Rica is putting out the welcome mat to encourage visitors to explore its lesser traveled southwest – extending from Manuel Antonio National Park in Puntarenas province to the Panama border, encompassing the region known as the South Pacific.
Recent infrastructure investments and an expanding schedule of internal flights to Golfito and Puerto Jiménez, combined with a growing network of rainforest lodges, hotels, and eco-attractions, make the South Pacific—one of the greenest, most ecologically diverse parts of the country—inviting and accessible. The coastal road, now fully paved, provides easy access from San José, enabling visitors to bypass the slower mountainous route.
Consider making the DiuWalk Hotel & Beach Resort in Dominical your base for an initial exploration of the region. It offers 36 air-conditioned rooms, a roofed, open air dining area offering fresh fish and other tasty local fare, swimming pool, lounge area, and even its own surfing school.
Then head out to Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge just north of Dominical. Formerly a cattle ranch employing three people, the 815-acre site is living proof that, when done the right way, ecotourism works. In danger of becoming deforested, a decision was made three decades ago to convert the area to a wildlife refuge. Today, the cattle are gone, the land has been replanted, and 40 employees help tourists discover a cornucopia of wildlife – from three-toed sloths, capuchin monkeys, and nine-banded armadillos to more than 350 species of birds and abundant native plants.
Costa Ballena – or the Whale Coast – runs about 20 miles from Dominical to Ojochal, and offers a full range of water sports, including surfing, scuba diving, and snorkeling. Because the area is unspoiled, many of its beaches can be reached only by boat. Incorporating Marino Ballena National Park, a coral reserve, Costa Ballena is ideal for watching dolphins and humpback whales. Migration patterns from the north and south Pacific Ocean create two whale watching seasons each year – January through April and August through November.
Not to be missed are Nauyaca Waterfalls on the Rio Barú. And the recommended way to get there is by horseback. Expert guides will match you to a horse and lead you or your group through forest trails. Five-inch Blue Morpho butterflies, among the world’s largest, will escort you as macaws herald your way through lush vegetation.
Breakfast at Don Lulo’s house halfway to the falls—bananas pineapple, papaya, and cornbread, with freshly squeezed fruit juice and coffee—will fortify you for the rest of the ride. On the way back, you’ll dine like a local on a lunch of succulent, baked chicken, white rice, black beans, papas (potatoes), mixed green vegetable salad, and fresh pineapple juice.
The real destination, however, is the double-cascade Nauyaca falls, the higher one dropping 45 meters and the lower tumbling 20 meters. Having made the five-kilometer trek, be sure to reward yourself with a swim in the pool at the bottom of the falls and sit under the falls to get a natural back massage.
A key element of Costa Rican archeology is a collection of mysterious stone spheres, dating back to 200 B.C., the meaning and purpose of which have yet to be deciphered. About 300 of the spheres (which inspired the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) have been found, mostly in the Diquis Delta region south of Costa Ballena. They range in diameter from a few inches to eight feet. The best place to view them is at the actively worked archaeological site of the Boruca people at Finca 6 (Villa 6) near the Rio Sierpe.
Continuing south to the Osa Peninsula, Golfito can serve as another base to further discover of the South Pacific. Formerly the main banana exporting center of the South Pacific, the city fell on hard times after the United Fruit Company left in the 1980s. To help the area rebound, the government declared Golfito a duty-free zone. While it may be more rustic than other parts of the country, the Osa Peninsula accommodates all types and levels of tourists.
If you stay in Golfito, Casa Roland with its wide hallways and wooden accents throughout provides an old world feel with all the modern amenities; every room is air conditioning and features original Costa Rican art. Alternatively, the Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge on nearby Golfo Dulce, one of only three tropical fjords in the world, and the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge in Piedras Blancas National Park let you relax in insect-proof cabins that bring you, literally, face to face with nature.
Why Golfito? Because it provides access to national parks, mangrove and gallery forests, rainforests, ecological sanctuaries, wildlife refuges, bird watching, waterfalls, beaches, sport fishing, and, in Pavones, some of the world’s best surfing.
Costa Rica is actively seeking to connect visitors with the cultural life of the country – from the bustle of San José’s Central Market to the Bribri people, who welcome visitors at the Salitre Bribri Indigenous Terriotory near Buenos Aires northwest of Golfito.
The slogan of Costa Rica is “No artificial ingredients.” It also aptly describes the South Pacific.
Costa Rica Tourism, www.visitcostarica.com