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Straggling along either side of the Río Uvita, some 20km south of Dominical, the village of Uvita marks the beginning of the Costa Ballena. Here the famous “whale tail” — a giant sandbar shaped like a whale fin — juts into the ocean. Uvita’s centre lies inland, but the coastal district known as Bahía (1.5km off Hwy-34) abuts some of the most beautiful beaches in the country. Plan your trip to Uvita with our guide to Uvita — based on the The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your travel guide for Costa Rica.
Spotting humpback whales in Costa Rica
Aside from Playa Uvita that sweeps southeast of the sandbar, the offshore national park — Parque Nacional Marino Ballena — is a top reason to visit Uvita. In fact, it's the best place to see humpback whales in Costa Rica.
Uvita's other main natural attraction is the Catarata Uvita waterfall. It drops into a deep and thoroughly inviting pool in a pretty jungle setting. To get there, follow the signs from the Banco de Costa Rica in Uvita village centre, northeast of Hwy-34, for about 1.5km. It's open daily, 8am–4pm.
To enjoy all Uvita has to offer, check out our customisable Costa Rica's Wild South trip — it includes Uvita, along with unforgettable hikes and nature experiences around the region.
Best things to do in Uvita
Aside from the easily-accessed Catarata Uvita, Uvita has plenty of other natural attractions that afford opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors in exhilarating style.
From snorkelling and kayaking, to watching wildlife and hiking, Uvita is a place to get back to nature in peaceful surroundings. And, with top surf spot Domincal within reach, you don't have to go far to enjoy some of Costa Rica's best waves.
#1 Surf, snorkel and paddle board
While Dominical has a bigger reputation for the sport, Uvita is also a pretty great place to surf and enjoy a host of water-based activities.
If you fancy learning how to ride the waves, Uvita 360 (100m north of the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena entrance) offers a full range of surfing lessons.
The same operator also leads stand-up paddleboarding tours — a great way to see the coast. Already have some skills? You can rent surfboards, kayaks, and SUP boards from them, too.
Meanwhile, Bahía Aventuras offer friendly, professional water experiences, including a half-day snorkelling trip and sea-kayaking in the national park.
Prefer to let someone else to the hard work? Bahía Aventuras also offer a boat trip through the labyrinthine mangrove forests and wetlands of the Humedal Nacional Térraba-Sierpe to the south.
#2 Watch whales and dolphins in Parque Nacional Marino Ballena
Created in 1989, the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena protects a large area of ocean and coastline south of Uvita. It contains one of the biggest chunks of coral reef left on the Pacific coast.
On land, the beaches fronting the ocean are also protected, as is Punta Uvita – a former island connected to the mainland by a narrow sandbar At low tide, you can walk for 1km over the gently-shelving sand to the rocks, tide pools and reefs at the end, which stretch out into the sea and resembles a whale’s tail.
Talking of which, Parque Nacional Marino Ballena is also the habitat of dolphins, and humpback whales, who come here from the Arctic and Antarctica to breed. The best time to visit Uvita to see humpback whales is December through to April.
In addition, at certain times of the year (usually May–Oct), olive ridley and hawksbill turtles may come ashore to nest.
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, on a boat or in a kayak. The Uvita Information Center can book a wide assortment of tours, both on the water and further inland.
Traveller tip - make sure to read our article about tips for whale watching in Uvita
#3 Hike and horse-ride in Rancho La Merced National Wildlife Refuge
3km north of Uvita, the privately-operated Rancho La Merced National Wildlife Refuge protects a lush swathe of primary and secondary tropical wet forest. It also include mangroves along the Río Morete and the beach.
Laced with hiking trails, it’s a tranquil place to take in the local fauna and flora. You can wander the trails solo or arrange in advance for a guide, which will guarantee a lot more wildlife sightings. The birdlife is especially abundant, with 310 species reguarly sighted.
The night walk (7pm, two people minimum) is especially good. They also offer horseback cowboy experiences, and horse-riding tours to Playa Hermosa and a local waterfall.
#4 Watch birds in Reserva Biológica Oro Verde
Watch birds in Reserva Biológica Oro Verde Ornithologists should check out the Reserva Biológica Oro Verde. This smaller private reserve a few kilometres from Rancho La Merced is celebrated for its rich birdlife.
You’ll need a 4WD to drive up the dirt entrance road (the turning is on the other side of Hwy-34), and it’s open by appointment only (t278843 88338072), but well worth the effort.
You can book a 2-3 hour guided hikes an expert-led birdwatching tour, or a night tour. Expect to see tonnes of trogans, toucans, parrots and king vultures.
#5 Explore Nauyaca Waterfalls
8km north of Dominical, the gorgeous Nauyaca Waterfalls (Cataratas Nauyaca) are well worth visiting from Uvita.
The falls are comprised of two cascades. The upper falls are 43m high, while the lower, tiered falls are 18m, with a smattering of refreshing swimming holes at the base.
While can hike from the entrance (which is the office of Don Lulo, the company that owns the property), it’s a 12km, often muddy, return trip. So, the best way to visit is as part of a horseback-riding tour.
The tour begins with a 1hr horse ride to Don Lulo’s home, where you have breakfast and visit his small private zoo. From here, you continue through lush rainforest on horseback to the two cascades, with knowledgeable guides on hand to point out notable flora and fauna.
Best areas to stay in Uvita
Given that most visitors come to Uvita for natural attractions, and to enjoy the beauty and wildlife of Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, it’ll come as no surprise that accommodation is well geared towards eco-minded travellers.
In fact, the area is home to one of Costa Rica’s best eco-lodges — La Cusinga Lodge. 5km south of Uvita, this occupies a gorgeous rainforest setting overlooking the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena.
With seven cabinas made of wood from the lodge’s sustainable teak plantation, and electricity provided by solar and hydro power, the grounds have trails that lead through the rainforest to a beautiful stretch of quiet beach, Playa Arco. Expect to see lots of howler and white-faced monkeys.
Travelling on a budget? The area around Playa Uvita also has a couple of eco-friendly hostels, with dorms and cabin-like treehouses to bed down in.
It’s also possible to camp at the Colonia, Ballena and Piñuelas sectors in Parque Nacional Marino Ballena. These have potable water, toilets and showers. Note that you can only set up camp at spots well away from the high-tide line, and you need to ask a ranger first.
Browse places to stay in Uvita, Costa Rica.
Where to eat?
Much like its accommodation offerings, Uvita’s food scene has something of a natural focus — think fresh locally-grown produce, typically served in stunning surroundings.
Several restaurants offer epic ocean views and serve fish dishes like shrimp tacos and seafood pasta. Vegans and vegetarians are typically well-catered for, too, as are foodies who want to eat like a Tico and enjoy the likes of gallo pinto.
Uvita also has top coffee shops, bakeries, and a great pizzeria. If you’re self-catering, or want to stock up on snacks before heading off on a hike, Supermercado BM is across the street from Uvita’s Banco Nacional on Hwy-34.
- Los Laureles: this first-rate family-owned restaurant serves the most satisfying meals in the area.
- Pura Vida, Cristal Ballena Hotel: this classy joint serves international and local cuisine “with an Austrian touch” – think curry chicken with pineapple and Wiener schnitzel.
Find out more about eating and drinking in Costa Rica.
How many days do you need in Uvita?
Though it’s a laidback, back-to-nature kind of place, you’ll need at least 4-5 days in Uvita, especially if you love ocean activities and exploring the outdoors.
As a sample itinerary, you could spend a morning learning to surf or paddle board, then hire your own board for the afternoon.
You’ll also want to allow at least half a day to explore Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, whether that’s on a boat or whale-watching trip, or snorkelling. Chances are, you’ll want to come back a second time.
Beyond the water, wildlife-lovers and hikers could devote a day to visiting Reserva Biológica Oro Verde, and another day to hiking or horse-riding in Rancho La Merced National Wildlife Refuge.
You could also consider visiting Dominical from Uvita, or even decamping to Dominical as part of a bigger trip around Costa Rica. It’s a top surf spot that offer easy access to the likes of wildlife sanctuaries, epic waterfalls and canopy tours.
What is the best time to visit Uvita?
If you’re planning to hike, ride horses, or kayak, the best time to visit Uvita is during the dry season. This runs from December to April.
In good news for wildlife-lovers, December to April is also the best time to come for humpbacked whales.
That said, May to October is the best time to visit Uvita to see olive ridley and hawksbill turtles come ashore to nest. Note, though, that you won’t see nearly as many here as in other turtle nesting grounds in Costa Rica.
if you're coming to surf, neighouring Dominical is one of the few places in Costa Rica that always has waves, though wet season storms can make conditions tricky.
For more on the best time to visit different destinations in Costa Rica, read our guide to when to go to Costa Rica.
How to get here?
If you're not hiring a car, Uvita can be reached by bus from several destinations around the country. The service also makes it easy to travel around the area and spend time in the likes of Dominical, San Isidro, and Quepos, gateway to Manuel Antonio National Park.
From San Isidro de El General, buses leave from the Transportes Blanco bus station, C 1, Av 4/6, daily at 7am, 11.30am and 3.30pm, heading for Uvita via Dominical.
From San José, direct Tracopa buses for Uvita depart daily at 6am and 3pm.
- Ciudad Neily, for Panama: 3 daily; 3hr
- Dominical: 9 daily; 20min
- Quepos: 2 daily; 3hr
- San Isidro: 3 daily; 1hr 50min
- San José: 2 daily; 7hr
For more transportation tips, read our guide to getting around Costa Rica.
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