Southern Pacific / Osa Penninsula
Extending from the mangrove ecosystem of the Delta del Térraba down the Pacific coast to the border of Panama, the Southern Pacific is Costa Rica's last remote, wild and undeveloped region. Rain is almost a perpetual occurrence here, and the moist, humid climate creates an ideal environment for the nation's largest stand of old-growth rain forest.
Along the shores of the Pacific and Golfo Dulce, small, rustic fishing hamlets are big on Costa Rican charm and culture, and make excellent destinations for sport fishing, sea kayaking, and underwater exploration.
However, the region's most valuable asset and grandest tourist attraction is located within the borders of its national parks and reserves. Among the handful of preserves located in the Southern Pacific, Parque Nacional Corcovado is arguably the nation's preeminent natural environment. The lush and verdant rain forest makes the perfect playground for some of the world's most exotic, bizarre and highly-specialized creatures.
Major Cities of the Southern Pacific / Osa Peninsula Region
Costa Rica's former "banana capital" is now a well-liked tourist destination, especially for those looking to surf and sport fish in the Golfo Dulce. Established in 1938, Golfito was a makeshift town designed to be the center of the United Fruit Company's banana plantations. It became the foremost banana-shipping port city in the country until 1985, when United Fruit closed shop and pulled out of Costa Rica. To compensate for the city's economic demise, the government created a duty-free shopping district. Every six months, Ticos are allowed purchase up to US$500 worth of merchandise, free of tax. This shopping district, and the local airplane runway, known as the depósito libre, is located in the Zona Americana, the area of town that makes up the former United Fruit headquarters. On the east side of town, the Pueblo Civil is the main business district of town, and contains most restaurants and bars.
Located along the silt-covered lowlands of the Valle de Diquis, Palmar is the only notable town in the northern part of the region. Its airstrip receives domestic service from both Travelair and SANSA airlines, and water-taxis depart from here to Drake Bay and Sierpe, so Palmar makes a great launch-pad for exploration in this region.
The only town located on the Osa Peninsula is Puerto Jiménez, a small hamlet catering to outdoor adventurists and nouveau-hippies. A former gold mining village, the town still holds strong to traditions of gold prospecting, dating back to the pre-Columbian era. Today, the town is known more for surfing and sea kayaking than its gold, but a few oreros (gold panners) still search the streams for their big break.
A popular sport fishing springboard, Zancudo is accessed by an 11-mile water-taxi trip from Golfito. But sport fishing is not its only attraction. This rustic, little village makes a great base for exploration of the Coto river estuary and swamp by way of sea kayak or guided cruise. Beware of the lurking crocodiles, however, and always remember to keep your hands inside the boat!
Major Lakes, Rivers & Beaches
The beaches of Pavones, a small fishing village just inside the Golfo Dulce, offer what legend purports are the longest surf rides in the world. The waves here break far offshore, and maintain their momentum until they touch the mainland.
Further north, Playa Cacao is a small, quaint beach that can only be reached by water-taxi from Muelle de Golfito. Visitors to this remote destination are sure to enjoy their privacy.
Backed by the lush, green highlands of Piedras Blancas National Park, Playas Cativo and Josecito offer privacy and great views across the bay. There are several ecolodges here that offer fun and exciting ways of exploring the area.
Across the bay, near Puerto Jiménez, Playa Platanares is a beautiful white-sand beach which is relatively popular among tourists. On the southernmost tip of the Osa Peninsula, Playa Tamales and Playa Sombrero are hot-spots for surfers.
Within Corcovado National Park, there are a number of spectacular natural attractions. Laguna Corcovado, located in the heart of the territory, is one of the best spots in the park to observe wildlife. In fact, it is said that the lagoon is one of the few places in the country where spotting puma, jaguar, and other big cats is a common occurrence. Another highlight of the park is the Catarata La Llorona, a magnificent 100-foot waterfall, located between Sirena and San Pedrillo.
Parks and Reserves
Parque Nacional Corcovado
Considered Costa Rica's paramount wildlife reserve, Corcovado National Park protects over 108,000 acres of vital habitat for a host of flora and fauna. In fact, about one tenth of the mammal species of North and South America are represented in the park, and some sources hail Corcovado as the most perfect and immaculate tropical rain forest left in the world.
One factor that has produced this remarkable diversity and abundance of life is the isolation Corcovado has enjoyed from developed human civilizations. Almost totally surrounded by the sea, and consisting of dense and formidable jungle, the Osa Peninsula has long been the nation's most remote region. Deemed a biological treasure for its importance in scientific research and its protection of endangered species, it was made a national park in 1975. Unfortunately, this title has not kept logging out of the Osa, and even today, the area is threatened by new legislation pushing to chip away at this great resource.
Another reason for the peninsula's greatness is the variety of habitats that are present. From marshlands and mangrove to montane rain forests, the region provides refuge to a multitude of critters. In fact, the peninsula supports a total of thirteen distinct habitats, each characterized by the presence of particular plants, insects, and animals.
Still, the most significant quality that bolsters the Osa's biological preeminence is the amount of precipitation that falls on this region - up to 25 feet annually in some areas. Almost perpetually humid and soggy, this large-scale "petri dish" provides the most ideal setting for organisms to thrive. Over 500 species of trees and 300 species of birds are present in Corcovado National Park. In addition, there are an astounding 10,000 insect species of the most exotic and bizarre varieties. Visitors to the park are certain to see capuchin and howler monkeys, anteaters, tapirs, agouti, and, if lucky, a prowling jaguar or the endangered spider monkey.
The only way to explore Corcovado National Park is by hiking its poorly-maintained, and often muddy, trails. Hiking shoes are a very good idea, though you will see guides and other Ticos ambling around wearing rubber boots and flip-flops. Also, be prepared to cross streams as footbridges are uncommon. In fact, some of the longer hikes require careful planning so that stream crosses are coordinated with the low-tide. Other essential items to bring include insect repellent, plenty of water, any medication you might need, and, if exploring on your own, a topographical map and compass.
Entrance to the park is permitted through ranger stations at San Pedrillo in the northwest, La Leona in the southeast, and Los Patos in the northeast. Camping is allowed at these stations, or there are modest accommodations at the park headquarters and research center in Sirena, located on the Pacific shore within the park boundaries. Visitors can also enter through one of the several ecolodges that surround the park. These accommodations, ranging from moderate to upscale, can arrange guided tours, usually providing refreshments and lunch along the way.
Parque Nacional Piedras Blancas (Corcovado Esquinas Sector)
Located across the bay and north of Golfito, this is a rough and rocky mountainous section of Corcovado National Park. Protected by the Austrian government, it is also known as "the rain forest of the Austrians".
Reserva Biológica Isla del Caño
Located about 9 miles directly west of Drake Bay, Isla de Caño is a 750-acre island paradise open to visitors only for day trips. Acres of coral reef surround the island, making it a magnificent destination for scuba-divers and snorkelers. The park also possesses an important archaeological significance. The pre-Colombian tribes of the Bruncas Indians used it as a burial ground, and there is also evidence that pirates sought refuge there in the 17th century. In fact, from its well-groomed trails, a pre-Colombian presence is evident through, most notably, giant bolas (almost perfectly designed monolithic spheres).
Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Golfito
This 3,200-acre national reserve, located a short uphill jaunt from Golfito proper, boasts a host of creatures, from sloth and coatis to scarlet macaws, toucans and all four monkey species.
Located high on the coastal ridge of southern Punta Banco, this 370-acre private reserve is part of a fruit farm and bucolic ecolodge. Well-groomed trails and access to waterfalls make this a magnificent destination for outdoor exploration.
Specific Plants and Animals of the Region
Corcovado, Costa Rica's most pristine and well-preserved national park is located in the Southern Pacific region, not to mention a number of other parks and reserves. Therefore, wildlife observation is arguably at its best here. Most notably, big cats, including jaguars and pumas, as well as the endangered spider monkey, are commonly seen.
How to Get There
SANSA and Travelair provide domestic service to Golfito, Palmar and Puerto Jiménez. From these towns, the region can be accessed by boat, bus and car.