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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Some 20km northeast of San Isidro, Parque Nacional Chirripó is named after the Cerro Chirripó, which lies at its centre – at 3819m the highest peak in Central America south of Guatemala. Ever since the conquest of the peak in 1904 by a missionary priest, Father Agustín Blessing (local indigenous peoples may of course have climbed it before), visitors have been flocking to Chirripó to do the same, finding accommodation in the nearby villages of San Gerardo de Rivas and Rivas.
The park’s terrain varies widely, according to altitude, from cloudforest to rocky mountaintops. Between the two lies the interesting alpine paramo – high moorland, punctuated by rocks, shrubs and hardy clump grasses more usually associated with Andean heights. The colours here are muted yellows and browns, with the occasional deep purple. Below the paramo lie areas of oak forest, now much depleted through continued charcoal-burning. Chirripó is also the only place in Costa Rica where you can observe vestiges of the glaciers that scraped across here about thirty thousand years ago: narrow, U-shaped valleys, moraines (heaps of rock and soil left behind by retreating glaciers) and glacial lakes, as well as the distinctive crestones, or heavily weathered fingers of rock, more reminiscent of Montana than Costa Rica. The land is generally waterlogged, with a few bogs – take care where you step, as sometimes it’s so chilly you won’t want to get your feet wet.
Many mammals live in the park, and you may see spider monkeys as you climb from the lower mountain to the montane rainforest. Your best bet for bird-spotting is in the lower elevations: along the oak and cloudforest sections of the trail you may spot hawks, trogons, woodpeckers and even quetzals, though in the cold and inhospitable terrain higher up, you’ll only see robins and hawks.
The weather in Chirripó is extremely variable and unpredictable. It can be hot, humid and rainy between May and December, but is clearer and drier between January and April (the peak season for climbing the mountain). Even then, clouds may roll in at the top and obscure the view, and rainstorms move in very fast. The only months you can be sure of a dry spell are March and April. Temperatures may drop to below 0°C at night and rise to 20°C during the day, though at the summit, it’s so cold that it’s hard to believe you’re just 9° north of the equator. Be advised that it’s not possible to climb Chirripó in October or the last two weeks in May, when the trail is closed for maintenance.
In the extreme south of the country, the Península de Osa is an area of immense biological diversity, somewhat separate from the mainland, and few will fail to be moved by its beauty. Whether you approach the peninsula by lancha from Sierpe or Golfito, on the Jiménez bus, driving in from the mainland, or – especially – by air, you’ll see what looks like a floating island – an intricate mesh of blue and green, with tall canopy trees sailing high and flat like elaborate floral hats. A surfeit of natural wonder awaits, from the sweeping arc of Bahía Drake in the northwest and the world-class diving and snorkelling spots of nearby Isla del Caño to one of the planet’s most biologically rich pockets, Parque Nacional Corcovado, which covers the bulk of the peninsula. In the early years of the twentieth century, Osa was something of a penal colony; a place to which men were either sent forcibly or went, machete in hand, to forget. Consequently, a violent, frontierlands folklore permeates the whole peninsula, and old-time residents of Puerto Jiménez are only too happy to regale you with hosts of gory tales. Some may be apocryphal, but they certainly add colour to the place.
You could feasibly explore the whole peninsula in four days, but this would be rushing it, especially if you want to spend time walking the trails and wildlife-spotting at Corcovado. Most people allow five to seven days for the area, taking it at a relaxed pace, and more if they want to stay in and explore Bahía Drake. Hikers and walkers who come to Osa without their own car tend to base themselves in Puerto Jiménez – a place where it’s easy to strike up a conversation, and people are relaxed, environmentally conscientious and not yet overwhelmed by tourism.
It was on the Península de Osa that the Diquis found gold in such abundant supply that they hardly had to pan or dig for it. Indeed, the precious metal can still be found today, as can the odd orero (goldminer/panner). When Parque Nacional Corcovado was established in the mid-1970s, substantial numbers of miners were panning within its boundaries, but the heaviest influx of oreros stemmed directly from the pull-out of the United Brands Company in 1985. Many were laid-off banana plantation workers with no other means of making a living. They resorted to panning for gold, an activity that posed a threat to the delicate ecosystem of the park – and a clear example of how the departure of a large-scale employer can lead to environmental destruction. In 1986 the oreros were forcibly deported from the park by the Costa Rican police. Today, several well-known international conservationist groups are involved in protecting and maintaining Osa’s ecological integrity.
A revealing picture of precarista (squatter) life on the country’s extreme geographical margins persists in the peninsula. Since the 1980s, when the road between Jiménez and Rincón was improved, many families have arrived here seeking land. Most have built simple shacks and cultivated a little roadside plot, burning away the forest to do so. They plant a few vegetables and a banana patch and may keep a few cattle. Soil here is classically tropical, with few nutrients, poor absorption and minimal regenerative capacity. In a few years it will have exhausted itself and the smallholders will have to cultivate new areas or move on.
Bahía Drake (pronounced “Dra-kay”) is named after Sir Francis Drake, who anchored here in 1579. Today a favourite spot for sailors, the calm waters of the bay are dotted with flotillas of swish-looking yachts. This is one of the most stunning areas in Costa Rica, with the blue wedge of Isla del Caño floating just off the coast, and fiery-orange Pacific sunsets. The bay is rich in marine life, and a number of boat trips offer opportunities for spotting manta rays, marine turtles, porpoises and even whales. The bay’s lone settlement of any size is the sprawling village of Aguijitas, which acts as the area’s main transport hub.
Jiménez’s hotels are reasonably priced, clean and basic. Though in the dry season it’s best to reserve a bed in advance, this may not always be possible, as phone and fax lines sometimes go down. There are a few comfort-in-the-wilderness places between Jiménez and Carate around the lower hump of the peninsula, a couple of which make great retreats or honeymoon spots. These tend to be quite upmarket; backpackers usually stay in Jiménez.
Escondido Trex, with an office in the Restaurante Carolina, offers a wide range of tours, including hikes into Corcovado. For a more unique excursion, biologist Andy Pruter of Everyday Adventures takes people on high adrenaline “psycho” tours that include climbing 45-metre fig trees, rappelling waterfalls and ocean kayaking. They also lead short hikes into the rainforest.
If you’re planning a trip to Corcovado, the Oficina de Area de Conservación Osa, facing the airstrip, is staffed by friendly rangers who can answer questions and arrange accommodation and meals at Sirena (though you’re advised to sort this out well before you arrive).
A good place to relax after a strenuous hike out of Corcovado is Playa Platanares, a pleasant beach with plenty of empty sand about 5km east of Puerto Jiménez.
Three buses arrive daily from San José (C 12, Av 7/9), one of which is direct, while the other two arrive via San Isidro. One daily bus leaves Jiménez for San Jose at noon from the bus station one block west of the football field where you can also buy tickets. A lancha departs Golfito for Puerto Jiménez daily at 11am (1hr 30min), returning to Golfito daily at 6am. You can fly in from San José with Sansa or NatureAir, or from Quepos with NatureAir.
The best source of tourist information is CafeNet el Sol, one block south of the football field on the main street.
The main form of local public transport, the colectivo, departs one block south of the bus station in Jiménez to Carate, twice daily (except Sundays in the dry season) at about 6am and 1.30pm. Note that it’s an achingly bumpy drive and involves the careful negotiation of at least half a dozen small (and in the rainy season not so small) rivers. The colectivo will drop you off at any of the lodges between Jiménez and Carate, and will also pick you up on its way back to town if you arrange this in advance – ask the driver. If you don’t get a place on the truck, a number of local taxi drivers have 4WDs. The colectivo also heads to Bahía Drake on Mondays and Fridays at noon (less frequently in the wet season) but confirm the times at CafeNet el Sol or at the El Tigre supermarket. Note that Puerto Jiménez has the only petrol station on the entire Península de Osa, so be sure to fill up before you leave.
The former banana port of Golfito, 33km north of the Panamanian border, straggles for 2.5km along the water of the same name (golfito means “little gulf”). The town’s setting is spectacular, backed up against steep, thickly forested hills to the east, and with the glorious Golfo Dulce – one of the deepest gulfs of its size in the world – to the west. The low shadow of the Península de Osa shimmers in the distance, and everywhere the vegetation has the soft, muted look of the undisturbed tropics. It is also very rainy; even if you speak no Spanish, you’ll certainly pick up the local expression va a caer baldazos – “it’s gonna pour”.
Golfito extends for ages without any clear centre, through stretches where the main road is hemmed in by hills on one side and the lapping waters of the golfito on the other. The town is effectively split in two – by a division in wealth as well as architecture. In the north is the Zona Americana, where the banana company executives used to live and where better-off residents still reside in beautiful wooden houses shaded by dignified palms. Here you’ll find the tax-free Depósito Libre, an unaesthetic outdoor mall ringed by a circular concrete wall. Some two kilometres to the south of the Depósito, the Pueblo Civil (civilian town), is a very small, tight nest of streets – hotter, noisier and more crowded than the zona. It’s here you’ll find the lancha across the Golfo Dulce to Puerto Jiménez and the Península de Osa. Although the Pueblo Civil is perfectly civil in the daytime, be careful at night. Be wary of entering any bar with a sign positioned outside so that you can’t see in – these are for professional transactions only.
Golfito’s history is inextricably intertwined with the giant transnational United Brands – known locally as “La Yunai” – which first set up in the area in 1938, twenty years before the Interamericana hit town. The company built schools, recruited doctors and police and brought prosperity to the area, though “problems” with labour union organizers began soon afterwards, and came to characterize the relationship between company and town. What with fluctuating banana prices, a three-month strike by workers and local social unrest, the company eventually decided Golfito was too much trouble and pulled out in a hurry in 1985. The town declined and, in the public eye, became synonymous with rampant unemployment, alcoholism, abandoned children, prostitution and general unruliness.
Today, at the big old muelle bananero (banana dock) container ships are still loaded up with bananas to be processed further up towards Palmar. This residual traffic, along with tourism, has combined to help revive the local economy. Many visitors come to Golfito because it’s a good base for getting to the Parque Nacional Corcovado by lancha or plane, and also a major sports-fishing centre. The real rescue, though, came from the Costa Rican government, who in the early 1990s established a Depósito Libre – or tax-free zone – in the town, where Costa Ricans can buy manufactured goods imported from Panamá without the 100 percent tax normally levied. Ticos who come to shop here have to buy their tickets for the Depósito 24 hours in advance, obliging them to spend at least one night, and therefore colones, in the town.
At Palmar, travellers heading south face a choice: most people intent on the quickest route to Panamá stick to the Interamericana, which heads south for the final 100km to Panamá. This section of the trip down to the Paso Canoas border crossing is through an empty featureless, frontier region, with the refuelling point of Ciudad Neily the only point of minor interest.
The alternative route is to head east along the Interamericana, which switchbacks its way to the small, sleepy town of Paso Real, 20km away, following the wide and fast-running Río Grande de Térraba as it cuts a giant path through the almost unbearably hot lowland landscape, its banks coloured red with tropical soils. Rainstorms seem to steamroller in with the express purpose of washing everything away, and you can almost see the river rise with each fresh torrent. This stretch is prone to landslides in the rainy season, when you can find yourself stranded by a sea of mud.
At Paso Real, you can pick up the paved Hwy-237, which takes you south through some spectacularly scenic country. Steep and winding, with beautiful views, it is little used by tourists except those few heading to the pretty mountain town of San Vito, the jumping-off point for the Wilson Botanical Gardens, Parque Internacional La Amistad and the Río Serena border crossing.
Many indigenous peoples throughout the isthmus, and all the way north to Mexico, enact the Fiesta de los Diablitos, a resonant spectacle that is both disturbing and humorous. In Costa Rica the Borucas use it to celebrate New Year and to re-enact the Spanish invasion, with Columbus, Cortez and his men reborn every year. The fiesta takes place over three days and is a village affair: foreigners and tourists are not encouraged to come as spectators.
On the first day a village man is appointed to play the bull; others disguise themselves as little devils (diablitos), with burlap sacks and masks carved from balsa wood. The diablitos taunt the bull, teasing him with sticks, while the bull responds in kind. At midnight on December 30 the diablitos congregate on the top of a hill, joined by musicians playing simple flutes and horns fashioned from conch shells. During the whole night and over the next three days, the group proceeds from house to house, visiting everyone in the village and enjoying a drink or two of homebrew (chicha). On the third day, the “bull” is ritually killed. The symbolism is indirect, but the bull, of course, represents the Spaniard(s), and the diablitos the indigenous people. The bull is always vanquished and the diablitos always win – which of course is not quite how it turned out, in the end.
Created in 1982 as a biosphere reserve, the Parque Internacional La Amistad is a joint venture by the governments of Panamá and Costa Rica to protect the Talamancan mountain areas on both sides of their shared border. Amistad also encompasses several indigenous reserves, the most geographically isolated in the country, where Bribrí and Cabécar peoples are able to live with minimal interference from the Valle Central. It is the largest park in the country, covering 2070 square kilometres of Costa Rican territory.
In 1983 Amistad was designated a World Heritage Site, thanks to its immense scientific resources. The Central American isthmus is often described as being a crossroads or filter for the meeting of the North and South American eco-communities; the Amistad area is itself a “biological bridge” within the isthmus, where an extraordinary number of habitats, life zones, topographical features, soils, terrains and types of animal and plant life can be found. Its terrain, while mainly mountainous, is extremely varied on account of shifting altitudes, and ranges from wet tropical forest to high peaks where the temperature can drop below freezing at night. According to the classification system devised by L.R. Holdridge, Amistad has at least seven (some say eight or nine) life zones, along with six transition zones. Even more important is Amistad’s function as the last bastion of some of the species most in danger of extinction in both Costa Rica and the isthmus. Within its boundaries roam the jaguar and the puma, the ocelot and the tapir. Along with Corcovado on the Península de Osa, Amistad may also be the last holdout of the harpy eagle, feared extinct in Costa Rica.
Its rugged terrain limits access to much of the park, but there are two trails that depart from the Altamira ranger station. If you’re hiking solo, your only option is the Gigantes del Bosque trail, a 3km-long round-route that meanders through mostly primary rainforest. There are two towers along the way, the first of which is ideal for birdwatching, particularly just after daybreak which is the best time to see some of the 400 species that live in the park. The path is reasonably well marked, but not always maintained, and tall grass often grows over parts of the latter half of the trail: allow between 2–3hr to make the loop.
Much longer and far more exhausting is the Valle del Silencio trail, which is 20km long and provides an excellent introduction to the varied habitats found in La Amistad. The trail climbs steadily to a campsite on a flat ridge near the base of Cerro Kamuk, offering stunning vistas of the park and further afield en route. There’s a good chance of spotting wildlife along the way, possibly including quetzals and Baird’s tapirs, which are thought to have larger populations here than anywhere else in the country. The trail takes about eight to ten-hour round-trip and you cannot hike it without a guide; the park ranger at the Altamira station can make arrangements.
Heading south on the coastal road, Highway 34 (also known as the Costanera Sur), you’ll come to Playa Tortuga, about halfway between Dominical and Palmar. The beach here is one of the cleanest in Costa Rica, and it’s an idyllic, sleepy place that sees few foreigner visitors. You’ll find a couple of very good hotels close to the beach: Posada Playa Tortuga has comfortable rooms, a large swimming pool with Jacuzzi and an amazing view, while Villas Gaia offers twelve brightly coloured cabinas – some with air conditioning – a pool and an attractive restaurant. It also runs a range of tours including snorkelling at Isla del Caño and boat trips around the local mangrove swamps.
Some 30km south of Playa Tortuga, where Highway 34 joins the Interamericana, and about 100km north of the Panamá border, the small, prefab town of Palmar serves as the hub for the area’s banana plantations. This is a good place to see lithic spheres, which are scattered on the lands of several nearby plantations and on the way to Sierpe, 15km south on the Río Sierpe. Ask politely for the “esferas de piedra”; if the banana workers are not too busy they may be able to show you where to look. Palmar also makes a useful jumping-off point for visiting the nearby Reserva Indígena Boruca, where you can buy local crafts from the indigenous population.
Aside from goldworking, the Diquis are known for their precise fashioning of large stone spheres, most of them exactly spherical to within a centimetre or two – an astounding feat for a culture without technology. Thousands have been found in southwestern Costa Rica and a few in northern Panamá. Some are located in sites of obvious significance, like burial mounds, while others are found in the middle of nowhere; they range in size from that of a tennis ball up to about two metres in diameter.
The spheres’ original function and meaning remain obscure, although they sometimes seem to have been arranged in positions mirroring those of the constellations. In many cases the Diquis transported them a considerable distance, rafting them across rivers or the open sea (the only explanation for their presence on Isla del Caño), indicating that their placement was deliberate and significant. (Ironically, some of the posher Valle Central residences now have stone spheres – purchased at a great price – sitting in their front gardens as lawn sculpture.)
You can see lithic spheres in and around Palmar (there are a few sizeable ones in the park across from the airport) and also on Isla del Caño, which is mostly easily accessed on a tour run by one of the lodges in Bahía Drake.