Covering over fifty square kilometres of land and a similar area of sea, the little-visited but fascinating REFUGIO NACIONAL DE VIDA SILVESTRE GANDOCA-MANZANILLO sits in the southeast corner of the country, with its ranger station 200 metres south of Manzanillo village. The refuge, which includes the small hamlets of Gandoca and Manzanillo, borders Río Sixaola and the frontier with Panamá. It was established to protect some of Costa Rica’s last few coral reefs, of which Punta Uva is the most accessible and offers great snorkelling. There’s also a protected turtle-nesting beach south of the village of Manzanillo, along with tracts of mangrove forests and the last orey swamp in the country. More than 358 bird species have been identified, many of them rare – ten years ago there were sightings of the endangered harpy eagle, believed to be extinct in the rest of the country due to deforestation. Other species found in the refuge include the manatí, tapir and American crocodile, who hang out along the river estuary, though you’re unlikely to see them.
Four kilometres from Manzanillo down a rough track, Gandoca provides access to the estuary of the Río Gandoca, a bird-spotter’s delight with boat trips organized from the village. You can get here by walking from Manzanillo, or there’s access from the Sixaola Road – if you have a 4WD – via the banana fincas of Daytonia, Virginia and Finca 96.