Explore The Zona Sur
Access to the lovely BAHÍA BALLENA, south of Dominical, is relatively easy, though the tiny hamlets of Bahía and Uvita are less visited that their northern neighbour, and not nearly as geared up for tourism. Visitors here will be amply rewarded with wide beaches washed by lazy breakers, palms swaying on the shore, and a hot, serene and very quiet atmosphere. This will no doubt change, as more people discover Bahía Ballena, but for the time being it’s unspoilt.
There’s not a lot to do here, but if you like hanging out on the beach, surfing, walking along rock ledges and spotting dolphins frolicking in the water, you’ll be happy. You can also take boat tours around the bay and to the Isla del Caño or, if you have your own equipment, you can snorkel to your heart’s content directly off the beaches.
From San Isidro, buses leave from the Transportes Blanco bus station, C 1, Av 4/6, twice daily at 9am and 4pm, heading for Uvita and Bahía via Dominical (1hr 30min).
Of the two villages on Bahía Ballena, Uvita, which winds inland at the crossroads just north of the Río Uvita, is more developed. The Uvita Information Center (Mon–Sat 9am–noon and 1–6pm; t 8843-7142), across from the Banco de Costa Rica on the highway at the northern edge of the village, should be your first stop. Its extremely helpful staff can book a wide assortment of tours, both on the water and further inland: its boat trips include snorkelling and sports-fishing, though make sure that the boat has a good outboard motor and lifejackets on board, as you’ll be out on the open Pacific.
There are a couple of decent accommodation options in the village, including the budget Tucan Hotel (t 2743-8140, w www.tucanhotel.com), with backpacker-style dormitories for $10 as well as spartan private rooms ($20–29): wi-fi is available throughout and they can arrange surfing lessons ($30; 2hr). Taking a left at the second road north from the bus stop will bring you to Cascada Verde (t 2743-8191, w www.cascadaverde.org; $30–39), a great place for the nature-loving budget traveller. Five minutes’ walk away from beautiful waterfalls and swimming holes, and only a few more minutes from Uvita’s coconut-laden beaches, it has rustic private rooms ($30–39) and a dormitory loft ($12). It also offers vegetarian food, organic gardens, a kitchen, an ocean-view yoga deck, body and mind workshops, tours, Spanish classes and work exchange.
In the centre of the village, the modern Rincón de Uvita development houses shops, a gym, an indoor football field, a small Saturday morning farmer’s market and a couple of restaurants. The better of the two is the moderately priced Que Pura Vida (t 2743-8387), with open-air seating: it serves home-made comida típica such as chicken with rice and beans as well as a few seafood dishes. Alternatively, the excellent Gecko restaurant at La Cusinga Lodge serves up the best meals in the area: dishes such as dorado with mango sauce are moderately priced and mostly made from locally grown or caught ingredients. Reservations are required for non-guests. The best place to stock up on groceries is La Carona, next to the Banco de Costa Rica at the northern edge of the village.
Just over a kilometre or so further south from Uvita and accessed via two dirt roads branching off from the highway, tiny Bahía has a better location, on the lovely beach next to the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, but a more limited tourist infrastructure. There are a few hotels to choose from, including the pleasant Cabinas Bahía Uvita (t 2743-8016; $55–74), to the right of the T-junction where the two dirt roads intersect: it has comfortable rooms with air conditioning, small huts ($19 and under) and places to camp ($4). Alternatively, the more worn Cabinas Punta Uvita (t 2743-8015; $19 and under), about 50m toward the beach from the T-junction, has basic, clean rooms and also permits camping in its grounds ($4). However, if you’re keen on exploring the area in depth, and have the funds to finance it, your best bet is to book a stay at La Cusinga Lodge (t 2770-2549, w www.lacusingalodge.com; $100–149), just past the Puente Uvita. One of the country’s best eco-lodges and one of the few owned and run by Ticos, it occupies a gorgeous rainforest setting overlooking the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena and is an excellent example of how the environment can be preserved for both the benefit of tourists and the local community. Its seven cabinas are all made of wood from the lodge’s sustainable teak plantation; all the electricity is provided by solar and hydro power; and there’s an education centre where local children can come and learn about the area. It has an excellent restaurant (see South of Dominical), as well as trails leading down from the lodge through rainforest (inhabited by howler and white-faced monkeys) to a beautiful stretch of quiet beach.
Parque Nacional Marino Ballena
Created in 1990, the PARQUE NACIONAL MARINO BALLENA ($10; t 2743-8236; w www.marinoballena.org) protects an area of ocean and coastline south of Uvita that contains one of the biggest chunks of coral reef left on the Pacific coast. It’s also the habitat of humpback whales, who come here from the Arctic and Antarctica to breed – although they are spotted very infrequently (Dec–April is best) – and dolphins. The main threats to the ecological survival of these waters is the disturbance caused by shrimp trawling, sedimentation as a result of deforestation (rivers bring silt and pollutants into the sea and kill the coral) and dragnet fishing, which often entraps whales and dolphins.
On land, the sandy and rocky beaches fronting the ocean are also protected, as is Punta Uvita – a former island connected to the mainland by a narrow land bridge. At low tide, you can walk from the point along the 1km Tómbolo of Punta Uvita trail, which stretches out into the sea and resembles a whale’s tail. At certain times of the year (usually May–Oct), olive ridley and hawksbill turtles may come ashore to nest, but in nowhere near the same numbers as at other turtle nesting grounds in the country. If you want to see the turtles, talk first to the rangers (see Playa Tortuga) and, whatever you do, remember the ground rules of turtle-watching: come at night with a torch, watch where you walk (partly for snakes), keep well back from the beach and don’t shine the light right on the turtles. Note that the coastline is patrolled by volunteers working for the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, who walk the beaches at night warning off poachers. Other than spotting nesting turtles or dolphins and whales frolicking from the shore, the best way to take in the park’s abundant marine life is either snorkelling (tours and prices vary), or in a kayak ($75; 5hr), both of which can be arranged at the Uvita information centre.
The park has four beach entrances, from north to south at playas Uvita, Colonia, Ballena and Pinuela, with ranger stations at each entrance. All the ranger stations provide information about the park, nearby picnic areas, as well as basic shower and toilet facilities, except at Uvita. It is possible to camp within the park, but only at spots well away from the high tide line; ask a ranger first.