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[Maps of Central Pacific] [Text only version.]
The traditional vacation destination for Ticos, Costa Rica's central Pacific coast is where many foreign visitors first discover this country's allurePacific Playground
 text and photos by
Michael L. Smith

Costa Rica's central Pacific coast is a tropical playground, year-round. Its evergreen forests meet warm Pacific surf on sandy beaches to provide a unique setting for unforgettable vacation experiences.

The Pacific port town of Puntarenas sits on a narrow finger of sand jutting into the mouth of the Gulf of Nicoya. An ancient fishing port, the dark beaches of this sleepy town attract many Costa Rican tourists escaping the rigors of city life. From Puntarenas one can explore several gulf islands, charter fishing trips, and catch ferries to the resorts and attractions on the southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula.

A few miles south of Puntarenas is the port of Caldera. The Pacific cruise ships dock here to release their passengers on an idyllic jaunt through Costa Rica. Although tours to all parts of the country are available, most visitors stay in the area to take advantage of the well-developed infrastructure and multitude of activities available along this coast.

The coastal road southward from Puntarenas crosses rolling terrain as it wanders part way up the mountainside to Orotina. This is a good place for a short break before heading back down to the central Pacific beaches. The intersection on the main road has several restaurants and shops where the parched traveler can find drinks, snacks and fresh tropical fruits.

Toucan in tree
As you cross the railroad tracks when leaving Orotina take the right fork at the "Y". There is a large service station a few miles south on this road--good place for a fill up. A short distance past here is the turnoff to the coastal road. This is where driving conditions change dramatically. You'll have to pay close attention to the road surface and the traffic. From here almost until you reach Parrita, the road is riddled with nasty potholes and rough spots, and you'll find traffic and yourself weaving wildly trying to dodge them.


There's a lot to do along this part of Costa Rica's Pacific coast, and not all of it has to do with beaches and water. Surely, some of Costa Rica's best beaches are here, but the rivers and mountains behind the beaches hold a wealth of activities for the adventurer.

The first stop along the coastal road is the bridge over the Grande de Tárcoles River. You can't miss it. It is very long, there are shops at the approach, and you are likely to see cars stopped and people afoot wandering back and forth on the bridge, looking down toward the river. They are trying to spot a few of the resident crocodiles. If you just can't seem to get close enough for a good look, drive on past the bridge and take the right turn to the village of Tárcoles. Here you can catch a pontoon boat ride with Jungle Crocodile Safari up the Grande de Tárcoles River and into the heart of Croc Country. This is a very interesting ride, great for birders and for taking "close up" photos of some very large reptiles. Even Florida residents, used to finding alligators in their back yards, should be at least mildly impressed by these denizens.

the nature of it

The central Pacific has many important national and private protected areas. These pristine green zones provide sanctuary for many endangered species. The two most well-known areas, Carara Biological Reserve and Manuel Antonio National Park, are readily accessible natural laboratories that nature lovers will enjoy immensely.

Carara Biological Reserve borders the Tárcoles River. This transitional zone encompasses several ecosystems and harbors an incredible variety of wildlife including the largest population of scarlet macaws in Costa Rica. These brilliantly colored birds are in great danger of extinction due primarily to nest poaching (the young are highly prized on the international market) and habitat loss. Two entrances along the highway provide access to two hiking trails penetrating very different areas. The river trail passes through marshlands and past a lagoon formed from an abandoned river meander. This is an exceptional area for spotting waterfowl. The second, shorter trail is a good introduction to transitional evergreen forests. Along with the more than 750 plant species identified here some representative animals include white-tailed deer, the rare two-toed sloth, margay cat, kinkajou, ocelot and spider monkey. Other spectacular avian species include the collared aracari, tri-colored heron, king vulture, roseate spoonbill, jacana and pied-bellied greb.

Waterfall LA CATARATA near Carara Biological Reserve

Just past Carara on the left is a road leading up the mountain to Villa Lapas. Following this road another 8 kilometers (be sure to go the full 8 kilometers) through rich forest and past breathtaking views brings you to a small tourist complex called La Catarata. Here you can take a four-hour trek on horseback through a private, reforested cattle ranch to a magnificent waterfall. Along the way you'll see several expansive vistas and you're likely to spot scarlet macaws, toucans and monkeys.

Near the top of the waterfall you can hike down a picturesque trail to stand in the spray of this 500-foot catarata. The horses will then carry you to natural pools at the top, where you can take a refreshing dip before heading back to the complex for a cooling drink and a delightful country lunch. The gift shop features hand-made and hand-painted crafts by locals.

Costa Rica's Pacific Playground continues on page 2