Heat-stunned Puntarenas, a thin, island-like finger of sand pointing out into the Gulf of Nicoya 115km west of San José, has the look of raffish abandonment that haunts so many tropical port cities. What isn’t rusting has long ago been bleached to a generic pastel. Old wooden buildings painted in faded tutti-frutti colours line the town’s cracked, potholed streets and mop-headed mango trees provide the only shade from the relentless sun. It’s hard to believe now, but in the seventeenth century this was a prosperous port – the export point for much of Costa Rica’s coffee to England – and a popular resort for holidaying Ticos.
Today, most vacationing Costa Ricans have abandoned its dodgy beaches and somewhat tawdry charms in favour of the ocean playgrounds of Manuel Antonio and Guanacaste, and foreign tourists, who never spent much time here anyway, come only to catch a ferry across to southern Nicoya. In recent years, the town’s tourist trade has been somewhat revived by daily visits from the giant cruise ships that call at the site of the old docks. More importantly, this working port remains a jumping-off point for boats to pristine Isla Tortuga and for trips to two of Costa Rica’s least-explored islands: Isla de Chira, a sleepy community a short boat ride away that is slowly opening up to tourism; and Isla del Coco, one of the world’s most exclusive diving destinations that lies 535km southwest of the mainland.
Rising dramatically out of the Pacific Ocean 535km southwest of the Costa Rican mainland, Parque Nacional Isla del Coco is revered among divers, biologists and treasure-hunters. Gigantic waterfalls plunge off jungle-strewn cliffs straight into an underwater world that has made this national park a veritable “Costa Rican Galapagos”. It’s the only island in this part of the Pacific that receives enough rain to support the growth of rainforest and is home to 150 endemic species that are found nowhere else in the world, including the Cocos flycatcher and the Cocos gecko. In addition, more than 250 species of fish – including one of the world’s largest concentrations of hammerhead and white-tipped reef sharks – patrol the surrounding waters. The rugged, mist-shrouded volcanic island itself appeared as “Dinosaur Island” in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park: in the opening frames of the film, a helicopter swoops over azure seas to a remote, emerald-green isle – that’s Coco.
Nearly 25 square kilometres in size, Isla del Coco is one of the world’s largest uninhabited islands, yet few would be able to locate it on a map. Perhaps that’s why pirates found it such a perfect hideout during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Legend has it the golden spoils from fruitful church-looting expeditions to Lima were buried here; known as the “Lima Booty”, the stories sparked a frenzy of treasure-seeking missions. More than 500 tried their luck (and failed) before Isla del Coco was declared a national park in 1978, ending all gold-digging expeditions. Though evidence suggests that the island was known by pre-Columbian seagoing peoples from Ecuador and Colombia, in the modern age it was “discovered” by the navigator and sea captain Joan Cabezas in 1526. Attempts were made to establish a colony here in the early twentieth century, and nowadays wild descendants of the would-be settlers’ pigs and coffee plants have upset the island’s ecosystem.
Today, however, conservation is the order of the day on this UNESCO World Heritage Site, although illegal fishing, shark-finning in particular, within the 15km restriction zone is rife, and park rangers and marine organizations lack the resources to bring it under control. Despite this, Isla del Coco remains an increasingly coveted destination for experienced scuba divers. More than a thousand a year brave the gut-wrenching 32-hour boat journey from Puntarenas to spend a week or so moored in the island’s sheltered harbour on live-aboard boats. The subterranean treasures range from underwater caves and technicolour coral reefs to schools of manta rays and, off the northeastern side of the island, the occasional whale shark. The real danger here, however, is not sharks but strong currents, and divers often wear gloves to grip onto rocks to stop themselves from drifting away. Water temperatures are a balmy 22–26°C and the best time of year for seeing sharks is the rainy season (May–Nov). Two sheltered bays provide access to the island itself, and during the day visitors can venture onshore to hike the steaming tropical forests.
For more information on the island, contact the Fundación Amigos de La Isla del Coco, which was founded in 1994 to help preserve the unique terrestrial and marine biodiversity of Coco.
The easiest way to get to Isla de Chira is from Puntarenas: a lancha leaves daily from the dock near the mercado at 1.30pm ($7.50; 2hr), and is met by a public bus, which can stop on request at La Amistad Lodge, 10km east; the lancha returns at 6am. You can also catch a ferry from Costa de Pájoros, 33km northwest of Puntarenas (daily 5.45am, 7.30am & 2.30pm; $7.50; 45min), reached by taking any bus heading towards Cañas and transferring in Chomes; the ferry returns at 7am, 12.30pm and 3.30pm.
Tours can be arranged through ACTUAR, whose overnight package includes accommodation at La Amistad Lodge with three delicious home-cooked meals, bike trips, a birdwatching tour and a boat ride through the mangroves, plus the ferry from Costa de Pájaros; they also offer a day-trip departing from San Pablo, southwest of the Río Tempisque Bridge. ACTUAR can arrange direct transfers from Isla de Chira to the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Reserva Karen Mogensen on the southern Nicoya Peninsula.
On the mainland south of Puntarenas, the coast road (sometimes signposted as the Costanera Sur) leads down to Quepos and continues, in various states of paving, south to Dominical. At first, the landscape is sparse and hilly, with the coast coming into view only intermittently, but things improve considerably once you’re past the huge trucks heading to the container port and refineries at hideous Puerto Caldera, the terminus of the new toll road linking San José and the Pacific. About 30km southeast of Puerto Caldera, just across the wide crocodile-ridden mouth of the Río Tárcoles, Parque Nacional Carara encompasses a range of habitats and is known for its rich birdlife. Beyond Carara, and a different beast altogether is the resort of Jacó, which thanks to its relative proximity to San José is more popular than it might otherwise be. Better beaches (and an expanding surf scene) lie further south, particularly at Playa Hermosa and Playas Esterillos. From here, it’s an uneventful 45km to Quepos and Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, the last stretch along the coast from the hamlet of Parrita comprising a long corridor of African oil-palm plantations, a moody landscape of stout, brooding tree sentinels.
Top image: Puntarenas city, Costa Rica © Ulises Gonzalez/Shutterstock