Costa Rica’s South Pacific region is a wild tropical paradise teeming with wildlife and lush vegetation. From enchanting, secluded beaches to celebrated ecotourism destinations, Costa Rica’s South Pacific is an outdoor adventurer’s dream. The climate here is hot, tropical and rainy throughout the year, and the South Pacific’s forests are some of the most bountiful in the country.
The South Pacific stretches from Dominical south down the Pacific Coast and eastward across the rugged Talamanca Mountain Range to the Panamanian border. The region encompasses such famous sites as the Costa Ballena (Whale Coast), the Ballena National Marine Park, the Osa Peninsula, Corcovado National Park, Caño Island Biological Reserve, Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf), the La Amistad (Friendship) International Park and World Heritage Site, and Mt. Chirripo – Costa Rica’s highest peak. The beaches along the South Pacific Coast are some of the world’s most pristine, and include such legendary surfing spots as Pavones, Zancudo, Dominical, and Matapalo.
The remote and untouched Osa Peninsula is home to the vast Corcovado National Park, named by National Geographic Magazine as the most “biologically intense place on Earth.” Spanning 108,100 acres, nearly a third of the Osa Peninsula, Corcovado is an awe-inspiring destination for adventure travellers who come to experience the virgin lowland rainforest and diverse wildlife that resides within the park’s limits. Roughly 10 percent of all mammals found throughout the Americas live in Corcovado, and it is home to the largest gathering of Scarlet Macaws in the country.
The list of things to do in the South Pacific is extensive: hiking, multi-day trekking and camping, mountain climbing to the summit of Mt. Chirripó, cultural tours to indigenous reserves, whale and dolphin watching tours, exploring mangrove estuaries by boat or kayak, sportfishing, surfing, scuba diving and snorkelling, sea kayaking, swimming, and beach time.
You can reach the South Pacific by travelling along Highway 34, which runs down the scenic Pacific Coast, or by crossing the Talamanca Mountain Range from the Central Valley. There are domestic airports at Palmar Sur, Puerto Jimenez and Golfito for national flights.
South Pacific Major Attractions
Ballena National Marine Map
“Ballena” means “whale” in Spanish; the national marine park is named after the humpback whales that visit these shallow, warm coastal waters twice a year to reproduce and give birth to their calves. Humpback whales are an endangered species and are protected internationally. Both northern and southern hemisphere humpback whales migrate to Costa Rica’s tropical waters – from December to April coming from Alaska, and between August and November from Antarctica. Humpbacks are considered the “acrobats of the sea,” and since they swim slowly and live at the ocean’s surface, they are perfect stars for whale-watching tours. Located 13 km south of Dominical along the Costa Ballena (whale coast), the Ballena National Marine Park also protects the largest coral reef on the Pacific side of Central America. The park’s dark sand beaches are pristine, wide and unpopulated. Besides humpback whales, the park’s rich jade waters are home to large populations of dolphins, seabirds, and sea turtles. Scuba diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking and boating are very popular here.
Uvita Beach (Playa) is situated within the Ballena National Marine Park. One of its best features is its beautiful landscape with estuaries and mangrove swamps that are home to several species of marine birds, such as the Blue Heron, White Ibis and Osprey.
Ballena (Whale) Island
Located 3 km offshore in the Ballena National Marine Park, boat tours take you to the island for great diving, snorkelling and swimming.
Chirripó National Park
Remote, wild and scenic, the Chirripó National Park is home to the highest mountain in Costa Rica, and second highest in Central America – Mt. Chirripó – which stands a towering 3,820 meters high. From the top on a clear day, you can see both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Costa Rica. Trails throughout the 50,150-hectare (123,923 acres) park test the hiking abilities of the most adventurous. While no real technical climbing expertise is required to reach Mt. Chirripó’s summit, it is still a tough climb and test of endurance, keeping in mind the unpredictable weather you can encounter here. Often shrouded by clouds, Chirripó can be one of the coldest places in the country; the coldest temperature ever recorded in Costa Rica, -9° C, was here. The park’s rugged and fascinating landscape is comprised of primary rainforest and cloud forest up to about 2,740 meters, when it changes to windswept tropical alpine tundra. There is visual evidence that glaciers and volcanic activity carved out many of the U-shaped valleys, lakes and rock formations long ago. The most popular time to visit Chirripó is from December to May during dry season. Campsites are available at the Los Crestones summit base station, but must be reserved ahead of time. Trekkers must bring enough food and water, plus camping supplies, for their entire trip, which normally takes two to three days to complete. Porters are available for hire to bring your supplies to the base station. Much of the park’s terrain is unexplored, and it is not advisable to trek without a guide. Chirripó National Park only allows 60 visitors on the trail at one time, so reservations are imperative.
La Amistad (Friendship) National Park
Declared by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the La Amistad International Park is a shared reserve protecting territories belonging to both Costa Rica and Panama. The park covers 400,900 hectares between the two countries of mountainous territory, and is considered the most extensive tropical forest in Costa Rica. With an impressive variety of ecosystems, including cloud forest, tropical lowland rainforest, glacial lakes, alpine grasslands and oak forest, the La Amistad National Park hosts extremely diverse flora and fauna. It is estimated that two thirds of all the wildlife species that resides in Costa Rica can be found here, including more than 500 types of birds.
Térraba-Sierpe National Wetlands
The Térraba-Sierpe Wetlands are home to some of the biggest mangrove trees in the world in the largest mangrove reserve in Latin America. Hailed for its rich biodiversity, the 27,066 hectare reserve protects a substantial array of wildlife, including turtles, Roseate spoonbills, crocodiles, monkeys, herons, kingfishers, caimans and frogs. A unique project in Costa Rica is the sustainable use of 200 hectares of the forest, using traditional and modern techniques to generate revenues from the mangroves, while ensuring the survival of the ecosystem.
Located along the wide, meandering Sierpe River, the backwater town of Sierpe is roughly 15 km south of Palmar Sur. Sierpe is the main access point to get to Drake Bay, Caño Island, and the northern end of the Corcovado National Park and Osa Peninsula. A picturesque settlement on the tidal river, Sierpe has many commercial services, luxury and budget hotels and eco-lodges. It also is the entrance to the Térraba-Sierpe National Wetlands.
Caño Island Biological Reserve
Lying in the beautiful blue Pacific Ocean, 20 km offshore from the Osa Peninsula at Drake Bay, the 300-hectare Caño Island is an amazing marine biological reserve in Costa Rica. It is best known for its spectacular offshore diving and snorkelling. The island’s pristine azure waters offer fantastic underwater visibility, allowing you to clearly see sea turtles, dolphins, stingrays, manta rays, moray eels, barracudas, large schools of fish, a variety sharks, and humpback and pilot whales during migration season. Caño Island also is an important archaeological site – several hand-carved, perfectly spherical stones have been found on the island that could be grave markers of an indigenous tribe from Pre-Columbian times. Pirates used the island as a safe harbour throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
Corcovado National Park
Exotic and wild, and mostly untouched due to its isolation and inaccessibility, the Corcovado National Park protects 43,735 hectares on the Osa Peninsula of shallow lagoons, swamps, mangroves, rivers, rainforests and low-altitude cloud forests, as well as 46 km of sandy coastline. It is one of the most unique ecosystems in Central America, receiving naturalists from all over the world who come to study in its vast territory. In Corcovado, you can experience the biological diversity of one of the last virgin natural areas, and the largest remaining tract of Pacific Tropical Wet Forest, in Central America. Its trees are comparable in grandeur to those in the Amazon Basin. In the park coexist 140 kinds of mammals, 400 bird species, 117 reptile and amphibian species, 40 kinds of freshwater fish, 6,000 different insects, 220 types of butterflies, and 750 tree species. Some of the most commonly viewed wildlife includes jaguars, tapirs, many species of snakes, four types of sea turtles, anteaters, sloths, crocodiles, poison-arrow frogs, and all four species of monkeys. Besides Manuel Antonio, the Corcovado National Park is one of the only other areas in Costa Rica where you can find the endangered squirrel monkey. It also has the largest concentration of Scarlet Macaws in the country. The park’s trail system is extensive, and it takes hikers usually two to three days to trek from one side to another; Corcovado allows camping.
Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve
Serving as a biological corridor between the Corcovado and the Piedras Blancas national parks, the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve is an amazing place to observe nature at its most pristine. Its 70,000 hectares protect forests, rivers, mangrove estuaries, and sandy strips along the spectacular Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf).
Piedras Blancas National Park
Together with the Corcovado National Park and the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve, the Piedras Blancas National Park forms an important biological corridor that protects a vast array of species of flora and fauna along the Golfo Dulce. The park’s 14,000 hectares are home to rugged mountains, the Esquinas and Piedras Blancas rivers, and the remaining lowland tropical rainforest of the Golfo Dulce area, which provides a habitat for the increasingly rare jaguar.
Golfito National Wildlife Refuge
The 1,309 hectares of the Golfito National Wildlife Refuge nearly surround the town of Golfito and protect the community’s water supply. It borders the Piedras Blancas National Park to the north, and is part of the Osa Conservation Area.
Golfito is the only town in Costa Rica that is located in the middle of a protected area. Set on a small cove on Golfo Dulce, the port town of Golfito runs in a long strip along the water and features the architectural highlight of the tropical wooden houses of the United Fruit banana company. In the 1950s, 90 percent of Costa Rica’s bananas came from Golfito. The town has commercial and tourist services, a hospital, domestic airport, boat dock, and government services. Various tourist companies provide lodging and tours in the area. Another town highlight is the Duty-Free Commercial Shopping Centre, where you can buy various products exempted from taxes. Golfito is the gateway to visit other coastal communities such as Puerto Jiménez, Zancudo and Pavones, and to tour the Golfo Dulce and its beaches.
Las Tablas Protected Zone
As part of La Amistad National Park, the Las Tablas Protected Zone is also part of the UNESCO declared area of the La Amistad Biosphere. Located near the town of San Vito, its 19,602 hectares cover the upper basins of the Cotón, Coto Brus and Negro rivers. Six species of felines identified in Costa Rica, howler monkeys, spider and white-faced monkeys, as well as coatis and sloths are protected here.
Las Cruces Biological Station
The main attraction of the Las Cruces Biological Station is the Wilson Botanical Garden, comprising about 8 hectares of beautiful tropical and subtropical ornamental plants, and little-known and endangered plant species of Costa Rica and other locales. It is a place specially equipped for research and science education.
Stone Spheres of the South Pacific
The mysterious stone spheres of Costa Rica are only located in the South Pacific region of the country, and are unique in the world. Indigenous relics dating to Pre-Columbian times, their size varies from a few centimetres to 2.5 meters in diameter; some present figures of humans or animals from the area.
Costa Rica’s South Pacific is home to several indigenous groups, including the Cabécars, Guaymies and Borucas. You may visit several reservations; however, few of them have kept their traditions. An exception is the Borucas, an indigenous tribe that successfully fought off the Spanish conquistadors of the 15th century. Their large reservation is near the town of Buenos Aires, extending into the foothills of the Talamanca Mountains above the Térraba River. The crafts of the Borucas are famous in Costa Rica, and include fantastic masks made of balsa or cedar wood, expertly woven textiles, and musical instruments such as drums, maracas and flutes. In the indigenous villages of Boruca and Rey Curre, you can buy such traditional handicrafts. These villages maintain their native language and host traditional ceremonies, such as the annual “Festival de los Diablitos” (Festival of the Devils) at the New Year.
Piedra del Indio (Indian Stone) Archaeological Site
This site reveals a petroglyph depicting a “rock map” detailing the Talamanca Mountain Range with its diverse landforms; it is a national historical heritage site, located at the town of Piedra del Indio.
General River (Río General)
Beginning in the Chirripó National Park, and flowing into the Pacific Ocean, the General River becomes the Grand Térraba River and is the longest (196 km) and one of the largest rivers of Costa Rica. In some areas, whitewater rafting trips are offered on the river’s rapids.
Principal South Pacific Beaches
Known for its strong waves ideal for surfing and exotic dark sand beaches, Dominical also is popular for camping. The town has a variety of tourism and commercial services.
Just south of Dominical, Playa Dominicalito is a small beach with moderate swell, making it suitable for swimming and other aquatic activities. Toward its southern end lies Punta (Point) Dominical which is covered with lush rainforest. The beach is known for its spectacular sunsets.
This beach and neighbouring Uvita Beach are joined at the V-shaped Uvita Point, forming a long, narrow sandy isthmus in the form of an anchor or whale’s tail. Playa Hermosa is a good surfing beach.
This is one of the most beautiful beaches of the South Pacific Coast. Its waves are moderate and safe for swimming. Playa Uvita has wetlands and mangroves at its northern end, and is an ideal beach for walking and horseback riding. Playa Uvita is located within the Ballena National Marine Park.
Punta (Point) Uvita
Uvita Point forms a long, narrow sandy isthmus in the shape of a “whale’s tail” that is the beginning of the Ballena National Marine Park. It is very popular to walk at low tide; however, it completely disappears at high tide, so be aware of the tidal times. The end of the “tail” is volcanic rock reef, and you can observe different kinds of crabs, fish, molluscs and algae in the rocky tide pool area. The protected waters in the isthmus’ curve are excellent for swimming at low tide, especially for children.
Set on a small and beautiful cove, Playa Piñuela’s waves are moderate and safe for swimming, especially at its southern end.
Located in the protected bay of the Ballena National Marine Park, Playa Ballena has small waves and fine sand. The coastal landscape here is very scenic; Ballena Island can be seen just offshore. The waters of the national park are frequented by humpback whales in the months from August to October and from December to April each year.
Playa Ventanas (Windows Beach)
This beach is small, but features a very nice landscape. It is named “Windows” because at its north end is a rocky promontory with caves and arched openings through which the sea passes like a window; the area can be explored at low tide. Sea kayaking tours are very popular here.
Located south of Boca Brava, Playa Garza’s waves are excellent for expert surfing. This beach is not suitable for general swimming.
Drake Bay - Playa San Josecito
Composed of rocky areas and coves of great scenic beauty, Drake Bay features very wet tropical forest due to its frequent rainfall, and rich biodiversity. Drake Bay is the starting point for sportfishing tours, diving/snorkelling trips to Caño Island, and boats to get to Corcovado National Park. Long beach walks and horseback riding are popular here, especially at Playa San Josecito at the bay’s southern end. Every year in February, the community celebrates the arrival of famous British explorer Sir Francis Drake, after whom the bay is named.
Located at the tip of the Osa Peninsula, Cabo (Cape) Matapalo is one of the most remote and beautiful areas in Costa Rica. Beaches like Matapalo and “Backwash” are famous for surfing its large swells. Some of the stronger and larger waves roll into point breaks over a rocky bottom, and should only be attempted by experienced surfers. Another beach known as Pan Dulce (“sweet bread” in Spanish) has much smaller and gentler waves that break onto the beach, providing beginning surfers a safe place to learn. With its close proximity to the Corcovado National Park, the area is fantastically beautiful with a wet tropical rainforest ecosystem that is home to birds, monkeys and other animals. Waterfalls are plentiful.
This wide and pleasant beach features coastal vegetation and mangroves at the mouth of the Platanares River, near the town of Puerto Jimenez. It is an excellent site to soak up the sun and enjoy the sea.
This beach is located on the inside of the Golfo Dulce, surrounded by mountains with evergreen forests. With moderate waves, Playa Blanca is a gentle place of great scenic beauty.
This Little beach is located 2 km from Golfito and the most convenient way to get there is by small boat (called a “panga” in Spanish). Playa Cacao has very little waves, making it safe for swimming, and lush vegetation. You can hike from here on trails to observe flora and fauna. From this beach, you can see the town of Golfito.
Playa Zancudo is a gorgeous black sand beach located 20 km south of Golfito that is famous with surfers. It is the perfect location for a relaxing holiday, with unspoiled scenery and totally natural surroundings. A 6-kilometre-long beach with fine sand and moderate waves, it features a lovely mangrove estuary, and tropical vegetation with rows of swaying coconut palm trees. Here, the Pacific Ocean is your playground for water sports, including surfing, scuba diving, snorkelling, sportfishing, kayaking, whale and dolphin watching tours, or boat excursions of the mangrove estuary. For land lovers, you can ride horses along the beach or hike trails close to the estuary and river. Because of Playa Zancudo’s popularity with surfers, accommodations are cheap and the atmosphere is very casual with friendly locals. The best way to get to Playa Zancudo is by taxi boat from Golfito.
A quaint 1.5-kilometre-long beach, Pavones lies around 15 km south of Playa Zancudo. Pavones is the perfect destination for surfers who want to catch some of the best longest waves in the world. Pavones is famous for its long left break, especially during Costa Rica’s rainy season (April to October) when waves hit their peak. The swells here allow a serious surfer on a good day to ride the waves for over three minutes at a time. Located at the mouth of the Golfo Dulce, Pavones is the last sizable town along the Pacific before the Panamanian border.
Recommended Partners in the South Pacific