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Costa Rica's Pacific Playground

by Michael L. Smith

The traditional vacation destination for Ticos, Costa Rica's central Pacific coast is where many foreign visitors first discover this country's allure

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.

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.

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.

neverending beaches

Herradura Beach is a small, quiet, protected cove with just enough infrastructure to make it comfortable. Sportfishing charters, visits to Tortuga Island and romantic sunset tours round out a full fare of water related activities including snorkeling, water trikes, windsurfing and water skiing. SCUBA diving trips are also available in this area from JD's Watersports at Punta Leona.

Jacó Beach is what Herradura isn't. This is where Ticos traditionally come to play in the sun. There's plenty of infrastructure, shopping, nightlife and accommodations to provide anything one might want in a beach vacation. A plethora of activities abound and tours can be arranged to most other parts of the country as well as the broad selection available in the surrounding area. The tour desk at the Best Western Jacó Beach (formerly Jacó Beach Resort) can help you bicycle your way through town, book passage on a white water river, or choose any of myriad activities in between.

The road follows the coast out of Jacó providing spectacular scenery along the beaches. At the top of the hill is a great spot for a final look back on Jacó. A little further is a perfect view looking down on the long, black expanse of Playa Hermosa. There is a lot of uncrowded beach along this stretch. Many gravel roads provide easy access to these oases with names like Esterillos Oeste, Bejuco and Palma. They are characterized by grand expanses of empty beach and minimal established infrastructure--a few local families, a small restaurant or two, a couple of seaside cabins.

Parrita is a traditional gas and rest stop on the way to Quepos--a place to brush off the dust of the kilometers traversing the African Oil Palm groves. With the improvement of the road in this area, stopping in Parrita is not so common. However, it is a good central location to explore the region and its many attractions. Jacó and Quepos are an easy drive from here and those 42 kilometers of lovely beaches in between are on Parrita's doorstep. One of the most compelling reasons to consider stopping here is that prices are significantly lower than in the higher-traffic areas nearby.

There is easy access from Parrita to all the attractions in the area which include Class III white water rafting, jungle hiking, cruises through the mangrove estuaries of Damas Island, horseback riding, tours of the oil palm plantations, as well as the usual assortment of beach and water activities. Check with the two Yolanda's at Café Yoli at the entrance to the city. Between them they speak five languages and have the scoop on what's available in this area. If you're in the mood for pizza, the best to be found on the central Pacific is here at Café Yoli.

The roadway between Parrita and Quepos is wide and smooth with only a few small potholes. However, most of the bridges have not yet been improved--they are still one car wide and without guard rails. Heed the warnings of the big yellow signs proclaiming despacio puente angosto and slow down. The approaches are very rough as well and require negotiating the crossings at a snail's pace.

Quepos is well known by sportfishing enthusiasts. The blue water off this coast provides exceptional challenge and excitement for seasoned, as well as occasional, anglers. International billfishing tournaments in these waters routinely tie and break world records.

This small fishing village turned resort has a variety of accommodations and restaurants making it a good alternative to the higher prices and crowded conditions often found closer to the national park. Several tour companies operate out of the city, offering jaunts into the jungle, up various rivers and through the estuaries. Mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking complement the various water activities that include sea kayaking, jet skis, waterskiing, parasailing and snorkeling.

Steve Wofford at Taximar runs SCUBA dives all along this section of the coast, but says the best is at Caño Island where you can expect clear water and eventful dives 250 days out of the year. The underwater topography along the coast includes a fifteen-mile long ridge with a few caves and many good spots from Dominical to Uvita. He also operates very successful dolphin watch cruises that give you the opportunity to swim with the dolphins. Steve says his whale watch cruises at Ballena National Marine Park are 90% successful at spotting the giant Orcas migrating from the Antarctic.

everybody's favorite

Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the country and the most popular, with locals and foreigners alike. Two gorgeous white sand beaches sloping to the gentle surf are lined by the hilly evergreen forest providing natural shade from the tropical sun. Several trails lead through dense jungle growth to hidden sandy coves and magnificent lookouts over the ocean and beaches.

Despite its small size and great popularity, Manuel Antonio has managed to remain one of the premiere nature spots in the country. The mountains literally meet the sea here and the ecosystem is teeming with land, sea and air species. If there is one place to visit in this country and be assured of seeing animals in the wild, this is it. Just a couple hours walking the park's trails are likely to present various colorful and majestic birds, white-faced monkeys, two- and three-toed sloths, coatis, pacas, brilliantly colored land crabs, a variety of multi-hued butterflies, and interesting insects. The endangered squirrel monkey and a subspecies of the squirrel monkey endemic to Costa Rica are also frequently seen. In all, over 100 species of animals and nearly 200 species of birds have been identified in this park.

The area between Quepos and Manuel Antonio has been commercialized with dozens of hotels and restaurants offering the visitor a wide variety of accommodations and dining choices. Camping is available in some areas near the park and dozens of roadside vendors offer all manner of foods, drinks and souvenirs.

Near Manuel Antonio is Jardin Gaia. Named as Costa Rica's first official Wildlife Rescue Center in 1995, it receives injured and confiscated animals and attempts to rehabilitate them for return to the wild. In the six years since its inception, Jardin Gaia has received over 400 birds and 100 animals, many being species on the endangered list. The Center has several ongoing research and education projects in operation in the local area and manned by international volunteers who come to work for a couple of weeks to several months. For a five dollar donation visitors to the center receive a guided tour of the facilities, explanations of the ecological projects, and are introduced to the current animal residents.

The region south along the coast from Quepos to Dominical is sparsely populated. Miles of deserted beaches and a few farms and ranches occupying the narrow flatlands between the mountains and the sea are characteristic of the very picturesque drive.

The infrastructure of Costa Rica's central Pacific coast has developed to provide everything anyone could possibly want while enjoying the gifts of nature "at the beach." Vacationers looking for an encounter with nature, a leisurely rest on the beach or an activity-laden adventure in the tropics are sure to find what they are looking for on Costa Rica's central Pacific coast.

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