A true national treasure: that’s how to sum up in just one sentence the incredible value and natural beauty of Costa Rica’s Southern Pacific. Known for its biodiversity and given its unique characteristics, this region stands out for its geographical contrasts. Additionally, this area is considered Costa Rica’s top destination for nature lovers and those in search of extreme adventure.
The South Pacific boasts such abundant natural riches that National Geographic called it “the most biologically intense place on Earth.” The region’s terrain is peppered with natural reserves, protected refuges, and national parks – all aiming to preserve this biodiversity for future generations.
With regard to the Southern Pacific’s coastline, this region reaches 490 kilometers (303 miles) from the Barú River mouth to Burica Point at the Panama-Costa Rica border. Inland, the boundary travels east to the foothills of the Talamanca Mountain Range.
The following cantons (similar to counties) in the province of Puntarenas are encompassed by the Southern Pacific region: Golfito, Corredores, Osa and Coto Brus, as well as the canton of Perez Zeledon, which belongs to the province of San José. A town called San Isidro, which is the political seat of Perez Zeledon, is not only the gateway to the Southern Caribbean but also the region’s most urban area.
This zone stands out for its tourism offerings related to the sun and sand, nature, adventure, aquatic sports, archaeology, and rural and indigenous communities. Thanks to the Southern Pacific’s large area, it is home to a wide variety of ecosystems – from tropical rainforest at lower elevations to cool cloud forest at higher altitudes. The highest point in Costa Rica – Cerro Chirripó, at 3,820 meters (12,530 feet) above sea level – resides within the region’s domain. On a clear day, hikers at the mountain’s summit can see both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.
Cerro Chirripó is part of the Panama-Costa Rica Amistad (Friendship) International Park. In topographical prominence, it is the 38th highest peak in the world and figures among the highest 1,500 sites in the world. The park is home to páramo, cloud forest, and wet forest.
The best time to visit the Southern Pacific is between the months of January and April, when there is little rain. However, the fact that this region sees more rain than other parts of the country assures year-round greenery.
Corcovado National Park
This protected area is located on the Pacific coast’s Osa Peninsula, located in the province of Puntarenas. It spans almost 55,000 land hectares (136,000 acres) and 2,400 marine hectares (5,930 acres).
The park’s lands are home to 500 tree species that, according to scientific studies, equal one quarter of all tree species in Costa Rica. Corcovado’s tropical rainforest forms a major rainforest ecosystem that helps preserve the Pacific coastline and also accounts for the only region of its type in Central America.
With regard to resident fauna, the park shelters animals such as jaguars, pumas, ocelots, tapirs, giant anteaters, howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, spider monkeys, and squirrel monkeys, which is a species endemic to this part of Costa Rica. Among the species of birds that make their home at Corcovado, scarlet macaws, white hawks, African jacanas, white-winged guan, great tinamou, striated heron, various species of hummingbirds, the American black vulture, and the two-colored toucan are often spotted. This park also forms one of the most important sites in the region for the conservation and protection of lizards and crocodiles.
The tropical rainforests protected by Corcovado not only form the best of these ecosystems on the Pacific slope, but are also one of the last of such habitats in all of Central America. The park’s vegetation is made up of mainly very wet tropical forest, home to the following habitats: mountain forest, cloud forest, plains forest, swamp forest, the yolillal (a type of swamp forest), herb marshes, mangrove swamps, cliff vegetation and coastal vegetation.
Ballena National Marine Park
This park, which spans 110 land hectares (272 acres) and almost 6,000 marine hectares (14,825 acres), offer information services, marked trails, and other amenities for visitors. Its entire area was created with the purpose of maintaining habitats essential to the reproduction and spawning of many marine species, as well as to preserve productivity of the biological communities that inhabit the coastal zone.
As far as the coast is concerned, this is an ideal place for observing marine life – scuba diving is a favorite activity among visitors. Without a doubt, Ballena National Marine Park’s main attraction from April to December and August through November, when the park’s waters are inhabited by humpback whales. These massive marine mammals measure 15 to 16 meters (50 to 52.5 feet) and are an endangered species.
Costa Rica-Panama La Amistad (Friendship) International Park
Created in 1982, this park spans almost 194,000 hectares (480,000 acres) in Costa Rica and another 207,000 hectares (512,000 acres) on the Panamanian side. Given its exceptional value to the world, from both a scientific point of view as well as a standpoint of conservation and natural beauty, UNESCO declared it La Amistad Biosphere Reserve in 1982; in 1983 the park was upgraded to a UNESCO World Heritage site.
La Amistad’s land area includes very humid, rainy, and cloudy forests, as well as regions crowned with peaks and rocky plateaus, where cold swamps are restricted to small areas at high altitudes. Costa Rica acts as part of a natural biological bridge between North and South America, and this park is an incredibly important part of that role – within La Amistad, Costa Rica is home to seven life zones and six transition zones. This characteristic represents the park’s amazing value and great biodiversity. Here, an extraordinary number of habitats are found, each a product of differences in height, soil, climate and topography. For example, the park is home to high plateaus, swamps, woods, madroñal, fern forests and mixed forests.
Las Tablas Forest Reserve
Covering an area of 19,602 hectares (48,500 acres) and boasting uneven topography and a wide climatic variety, this reserve features bio-climates such as very humid forest, low mountain forest, and low mountain rainforest. Las Tablas is covered by 70% forest; the remaining 30% is reserved for ranching and agricultural use.
To get to the island, it is necessary to rent a boat or a canoe and paddle 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) off the coast. In addition to possessing an extraordinary natural beauty, the island is ideal for scuba diving and wildlife watching, especially for a variety of marine species.
Here, the beach has a unique composition: the coastline’s rocky sections and small bays create and area of great scenic beauty. Drake Bay is home to a tropical humid forest that is very rich in biodiversity. The forest is a very appealing destination for nature lovers, wildlife photographers, and outdoor aficionados. Horseback rides to secluded areas offer some of the best views in the area. Every year during the month of February, the pirate Drake’s arrival to the region is celebrated with official and local celebrations.
Isla del Caño
This biological reserve is doubly important, as it serves to not only enclose a rich natural habitat (terrestrial and marine), but also because it is historically important from an archeological point of view. Anthropological discoveries show that this island was used as a pre-Columbian cemetery. Furthermore, the presence of ceramic remnants from Guanacaste’s mid-polychrome period suggests that the island was also a key point for commercial exchange along the Pacific Coast.
Isla del Caño protects several important marine environments. Its coral reefs make the island a favorite for those who enjoy snorkeling and scuba diving. The island is also a prime destination for dolphin and humpback whale watching. Isla del Caño’s interior boasts as many trails as there are archeological sites of interest.
Whales and Dolphins
Since the region forms part of an important marine migratory route, the Southern Pacific is ideal for observing four species of whales and five species of dolphins. Several local companies offer boat excursions and whale watching and dolphin tours, as well as diving day trips for those who want to observe the magnificent animals from under the sea.
In parts of the Southern Pacific, archeological samples have been found that reveal the region’s pre-Columbian past. Without a doubt, the region’s stone spheres are the most characteristic, distinctive and enigmatic of the artifacts discovered. Spheres of all sizes have been found, ranging from very small (3 centimeters or 1.2 inches) to others measuring 3 meters (almost 10 feet) in diameter and weighing 15 tons.
Archeological studies reveal that indigenous groups that inhabited the region between 400 and 1400 AD left behind the mysterious spheres. Regarding their significance, a number of possibilities have been hypothesized, among them that the stone balls were used to mark territory or that they had some sort of spiritual symbolism. Without a doubt, the biggest mystery is how the region’s ancient residents managed to give the stones such a perfect spherical shape.
Grande River of Terraba
Next to the Sierpe River, this river is one of the region’s principal waterways. It stretches for 160 kilometers (almost 100 miles) and boasts the largest hydrographic basin in Costa Rica. A good part of it is navigable. Due to its numerous estuaries and deltas, the river also houses the most important wetland habitat in all of Central America.
Among its characteristics, this beach distinguishes itself with strong waves that make it an ideal site for surfing. On the other hand, campers who wish to fall asleep next to lapping waves also frequent Dominical.
Dominical is another distribution center for the Southern Pacific region, since tours leave from the town and head to nearby points of interest and places of great scenic beauty including Nauyaca waterfalls and nearby hills from which the majestic coastal landscape can be seen from above. Dominical boasts a wide range of visitor and commercial services.
This is considered one of the most beautiful beaches on the Southern Pacific coast. Its mild waves make it safe for swimming, while the tranquility of its waters allows for the observation of diverse sea life while snorkeling or scuba diving. In addition, Uvita’s estuaries and mangrove forests, among the beach’s other attractions, make this site the perfect place to take long walks or go horseback riding.
This beach, whose name means “whale,” boasts enormous scenic beauty and is characterized by its gentle waves and fine sand. Ballena Beach, as well as Ballena Island and the Tres Hermanas (Three Brothers) rocks, are a part of Ballena National Marine Park, which extends from Punta Uvita to Punta Piñuela. Humpback whales frequent the park’s ocean waters.
Considered one of the most biologically intense locations on the planet, the Osa Peninsula is located in the southern part of the province of Puntarenas. Its political seat is Ciudad Cortés. The Osa area is characterized by its rich variety of species and endemic animals, which make its rainforests some of the richest in species in Central America – a veritable Pacific forest fortress. This area is home to some of the greatest number of large felines, including pumas, jaguars and ocelots.
In addition to San Isidro del General – one of the Southern Pacific’s main points of distribution – there are several other important villages. For example, Sierpe is a jumping-off point for many tourists on their way to an unforgettable experience. Boats depart from Sierpe, traveling along the Sierpe River and later by sea, finally arriving at Drake Bay, Corcovado National Park, or Isla del Caño.
This community, which represents the easiest point of access to Corcovado National Park, can be reached by land: begin on the Interamerican Highway and then take the road up to Chacarita, where the road winds around the Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf). This drive is incredibly scenic. Another way to reach Puerto Jiménez is by boat from Golfito.
For many years, a large banana company occupied this land; the long-term effect is that that U.S.-style construction predominates in the area.
A few years ago, Golfito became a duty-free zone. The purpose was to attract national tourism, since Costa Ricans can purchase tax-free big-ticket items such as appliances and car parts. Given its proximity to other sites of interest, Golfito is also frequented by international tourists.
In 1951, the Italian Agricultural Colonization Society signed an agreement with the Costa Rican government to found an Italian colony. The purpose of the new community was to encourage development in this region, which is located in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountains. This is how the town of San Vito was born – a direct product of the combination of Italian and Costa Rican cultures.
Using San Vito de Coto Brus as a reference, the following are examples of nearby places to visit:
- Las Tablas Forest Reserve: Covering an area of 19,602 hectares (48,500 acres) and boasting uneven topography and a wide climatic variety, this reserve features bio-climates such as very humid forest, low mountain forest, and low mountain rainforest. Las Tablas is covered by 70% forest; the remaining 30% is reserved for ranching and agricultural use.
- Wilson Botanical Garden: Located in the secondary foothills of the Talamanca Mountains and covered in advanced secondary growth vegetation, Wilson Botanical Garden is a beautiful example of the Southern Pacific’s rugged topography. The garden is located in a medium-elevation tropical rainforest; it protects and conserves 304 species of birds, 80 mammal species, 71 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 3,000 species of diurnal and nocturnal butterflies.
- La Amistad International Park: Constituting the area’s most biologically diverse park, La Amistad is home to various types of ecosystems. Among the biodiverse mélange are mixed forests, high plateaus, swamps, high altitude and very humid cloud forests. This topographical diversity is a result of variations in the environment, climate and slope.
- Caves: Caverns are found along the route that connects Coto Brus to Cuidad Neilly, at the highest part of the site known as Fila del Cal. The caves can be explored with the help of guides; note that this excursion requires a hike through mountain terrain and along the shores of the Corredores River.
The Coto Brus region is also know for the quality of coffee produced on its lands.