Costa Rica’s Zona Sur (southern zone) is the country’s least-known region, both for Ticos and for visitors, though tourism has increased significantly in recent years. The geographically diverse Zona Sur encompasses the high mountain peaks of the Cordillera de Talamanca at its northern edge, the agricultural heartland of the Valle de El General, the river-cut lowlands of the Valle de Diquis around Palmar and the coffee-growing Valle de Coto Brus, near the border with Panamá. The region is particularly popular with hikers, many of whom come to climb Cerro Chirripó in the Talamancas – one of the highest peaks in Central America – set in the chilly, rugged terrain of the Parque Nacional Chirripó. Experienced walkers also venture into the giant neighbouring Parque Internacional La Amistad, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site that protects an enormous tract of land along Costa Rica’s southern border.
Halfway down the region’s Pacific coast, the Playa Dominical area was originally a surfing destination, but its tropical beauty now draws an ever-increasing number of visitors (not to mention property developers), especially since road improvements have made it accessible without a 4WD. Further south down the coast, the Península de Osa is the site of the Parque Nacional Corcovado, one of the country’s prime rainforest hiking destinations, whose soaring canopy trees constitute the last chunk of tropical wet forest on the entire Pacific side of the Central American isthmus. The Península de Osa is also home to the remote and picturesque Bahía Drake, from where tours depart to the nearby Reserva Biológica Isla del Caño, still home to a few lithic spheres fashioned by the local Diquis. On the opposite side of the Golfo Dulce from the Península de Osa, near the border with Panamá, is Golfito, the only town of any size in the region, and one that suffered from an unsavoury reputation for years after the pull-out of the United Brands fruit company’s banana operations in 1985. It has been attracting more visitors of late since being made a tax-free zone for manufactured goods from Panamá, though for foreign visitors it’s more useful as a base from which to move on to the Península de Osa and Corcovado.
Despite the region’s profusion of basic, inexpensive accommodation, you may find yourself spending more money than you bargained for simply because of the time, distance and planning involved in getting to many of the region’s more beautiful spots – this is particularly true if you stay in one of the very comfortable private rainforest lodges in the Osa, Golfito and Bahía Drake areas. Many people prefer to take a package rather than travel independently, and travellers who stay at the rainforest lodges often choose to fly in. Bear in mind, too, that many of the region’s communities are not used to seeing strangers – certainly women travelling alone will attract some curiosity.
Climatically the Zona Sur has two distinct regions. The first comprises the Pacific lowlands, from south of Quepos (covered in chapter 00) roughly to the Río Sierpe Delta at the top of the Península de Osa, and the upland Valle de El General and the Talamancas, both of which experience a dry season from December to April. The second region – the Península de Osa, Golfito and Golfo Dulce – does not have so marked a dry season (although the months from December to April are less wet) and, due to localized wind patterns from the Pacific, gets very wet at other times, receiving up to 5000mm of rain a year, with spectacular seasonal thunder and lightning storms cantering in across the Pacific from around October to December. In the rainy season, some parts of Parque Nacional Corcovado become more or less unwalkable, local roads can’t be crossed and everything gets more difficult. This makes it a good time to come if you want to avoid the crowds, but you’ll need a 4WD.
The earliest inhabitants of the Zona Sur were the Diquis, who lived around modern-day Palmar and Bahía Drake, on the shoulder of the Península de Osa – a region still called Valle de Diquis. They are best known for goldsmithing (see the Museo de Oro Precolombino in San José,) and for their crafting of almost perfectly round lithic spheres. Less is known of the early history of the Diquis than of any other group in Costa Rica, chiefly because their burial sites have been plundered by huaqueros (grave-robbers/treasure hunters), who in some cases dynamited tombs in their zeal to get at buried gold. These days the only indigenous group of any size in the area is the Borucas – sometimes called the Bruncas – a subgroup of the Diquis. (, for details of their Fiesta de los Diablitos.)
The modern history of the Zona Sur has been defined by its isolation. Before the building of the Interamericana in the 1950s, transport across the Cerro de la Muerte was by mule only. Charcoal-burning was until very recently the main economic activity up in these heights, using the majestic local oaks, but campesinos in the area are now being discouraged from charcoal-burning, due to its deforesting effects. For a glimpse of how the charcoal-burners lived before the building of the Interamericana, read the short story “The Carbonero” by Costa Rican writer Carlos Salazar Herera, translated into English and anthologized in Costa Rica: A Traveller’s Literary Companion.Read More
Very little is known about the history of the Diquis region before 1000 BC, though culturally it appears to have formed part of the Greater Chiriquí region, which takes its name from the province in southwestern Panamá. Archeologists date the famous lithic spheres from sometime between 1000 BC and 500 AD; between around 700 and 1600 AD the Diquis began fashioning gold pendants, breastplates, headbands and chains, becoming master goldsmiths within a hundred years or so. Between 500 and 800 AD drastic changes occurred in the culture of the Diquis. Archeologists attribute them to the impact of the arrival of seagoing peoples from Colombia or possibly the Andes – a theory borne out by their metates and pottery, which show llama or guanaco figures, animals that would have been unknown on the isthmus. In the Diquis’s own artisanry, both the ingenious – often cheeky – goldwork and the voluptuous pottery display a unique humour as well as superlative attention to detail.
The Diquis were in a state of constant warfare among themselves and with foreign groups. Like the Chorotegas to the north in Greater Nicoya, they seem to have engaged in sacrifice, ritually beheading war captives. Huge metates unearthed at Barilles in Panamá show images of these rituals, while smaller crucible-like dishes – in which coca leaves, yucca or maize may have been crushed and fermented – suggest ritual inebriation.
The indigenous peoples of Zona Sur first met the Spaniards in 1522 when the cacique of the Térraba group graciously hosted Captain Gil González for a fortnight. González was on his way from near the present-day Panamá border, where his ship had run aground, to Nicaragua. Despite infirmity (he was in his fifties), he was walking all the way. The Diquis seem to have declined abruptly after this initial contact, most likely felled by influenza, smallpox, the plague and other diseases brought by Spanish settlers.