The popular surfing town of Dominical, 44km southeast of Quepos and 25km southwest of San Isidro, may represent the face of things to come along this stretch of the Pacific coast. Previously a secluded fishing village, it has, since the paving of the coastal road and the laying down of electricity and phone lines, begun to expand dramatically. A glut of new hotels, shops and restaurants have opened in town, while the coastal areas to the south, still largely made up of unspoilt stretches of beach and rainforest, are rapidly being bought up by hungry property developers and hotel chains. It is, however, a good place to chill out by the beach and visit the nearby Hacienda Barú rainforest reserve, while the newly paved road to Quepos, which was finally completed in 2009, makes for easy access to the laidback village of Matapalo, 15km north.
The stretch of coast that runs south from Dominical to the lovely shallow bay at Playa Tortuga is one of the most pristine in Costa Rica. As a consequence, it’s continually under siege from real-estate agents, who buy and sell plots of land as fast as they can persuade local fishermen and farmers to part with them. For the moment, though, this area encompasses a string of gloriously empty beaches as well as Parque Nacional Marino Ballena – fifty-six square kilometres of water around Uvita and Bahía created to safeguard the ecological integrity of the local marine life.
Completely off the beaten track, the isolated Reserva Biológica Dúrika is a compelling mix of an agricultural-based community and private reserve where you can go on hikes and explore a working farm. Nestled within 21,000 acres of largely untouched and unexplored wilderness, it consists of only thirty or so permanent members (though it also is home to over twice as many semi-permanent residents and visitors). The community’s farm has enabled them to be entirely self-sufficient, and they offer tours where you can learn firsthand about their organic approach to farming. Members also lead guided hikes to nearby Bribrí and Cabécar villages and into the wildlife-rich reserve, where a variety of habitats are home to several endangered species, including Baird’s tapir. Guides also lead multi-day treks up one of Costa Rica’s highest peaks, Cerro Dúrika (3280m), part of the Cordillera Talamanca that cuts through the reserve.
The nearest town of any size to the reserve is Buenos Aires, about 50km south of Chirripó, and signposted a few kilometres north off the Interamericana on a paved road. In town the foundation’s office, just south of the Banco Nacional, can make reservations and provide information on the various tours and extended stay possibilities (call well in advance if you’re considering the latter).
Access to the lovely Bahía Ballena, south of Dominical, is relatively easy, though the tiny hamlets of Bahía and Uvita are less visited than 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, 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, with backpacker-style dormitories, as well as spartan private rooms: wi-fi is available throughout and they can arrange surfing lessons. Taking a left at the second road north from the bus stop will bring you to Cascada Verde, 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 and a dormitory loft. 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, with open-air seating: it serves home-made comidatípica 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, to the right of the T-junction where the two dirt roads intersect: it has comfortable rooms with air conditioning, small huts and places to camp. Alternatively, the more worn Cabinas Punta Uvita, about 50m toward the beach from the T-junction, has basic, clean rooms and also permits camping in its grounds. 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, 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 hydropower, and there’s an education centre where local children can come and learn about the area. It has an excellent restaurant, 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.
Created in 1990, the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena 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 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, 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.
Top image: Costa Rica, playa Uvita © Judith Lienert/Shutterstock