The coasts vary greatly. All Costa Rican beaches from San Jose are anywhere from two to seven hours drive. They can be reached by public bus, private bus, rented cars, or a scenic white knuckle plane ride. Along most of the Pacific coast, surfing and deep sea fishing are quite popular.
The Guanacaste area with its open regions and cattle ranches surprises many tourists when they think of Costa Rica. The beaches here and the Nicoya Peninsula are wide open and windblown, with driftwood and some refuse strewn along at the high water mark. Several large resort projects have been built and others are slated for construction in the region, particularly around scenic Golfo de Papagayo. The money and politics play an important roll. Hopefully they will concern themselves with the kinds of jobs that will be created for the local people, and ensure that the supplies are bought and profits reinvested within Costa Rica. The new international airport near Liberia saves visitors a five hour drive from San Jose.
As you cross back over to the ‘mainland’, the Port of Puntarenas, meaning sandy point, occupies a spit of land projecting into the Golfo de Nicoya. Once it was Costa Rica’s main port where oxcarts of coffee were unloaded onto ships with destinations as far as Europe via Cape Horn. In 1890 the Atlantic Railroad was completed (costing four thousand lives) and Puerto Limon on the Caribbean took the honor. Puntarenas turned into a dungy, sleazy little fishing port, catering to the needs of sailors, and weekenders from San Jose, and eventually offering a car ferry service to the Nicoya Peninsula. With the first advent of international tourism coming to Costa Rica in the 1970s, other more unspoiled locations were developed. Puntarenas was all but forgotten, and barely kept alive by world traveling back packers reaching it by train from San Jose. In 1993 an attempt was made to shake its tenuous reputation. The city cleaned up the beach and put in a sidewalk along the waterfront, planted trees and gardens, established a cultural center, and an artisans market, and recently extended a long concrete pier for large cruise ships to dock. However, shaking its prior reputation has been difficult.
Thirty miles south of Puntarenas is Jaco, Costa Rica’s most popular beach. It is the closest sizeable beach to the populous Mesita Central. Built from the ocean back about four or five blocks and stretching three kilometers along a curved beach, there are dozens of small and medium sized hotels, cabinas, restaurants, bars, casinos, t-shirt and souvenir shops, surf shops, liquor stores, beach bums and recently a smattering of prostitutes. The town is quite flat and there seems to be more bicycles than cars. Pleasant, and surrounded by green mountains, always growing, Jaco lacks the lush natural jungle and beach that most visitors envision for Costa Rica. The beach needs constant cleaning, and the water quality is often rated among the worst in Costa Rica because of the lack of sewage treatment in the area.
Much more scenically pleasing about an hour south of Jaco is the popular Quepos/Manuel Antonio area. Quepos itself is a rather grimy little deep-sea fishing port, but nevertheless it has character, and probably the best known Costa Rica deep sea fishing hub. When you continue from Quepos over the lushly vegetated rolling Punta Quepos headland and down the other side to Manuel Antonio, you will pass a number of gorgeous hotels and villas, each with spectacular views overlooking the blue-green Pacific. The beaches of Manuel Antonio are far cleaner and less windblown than most others on the Pacific and the atmosphere around the open-air restaurants and bars is relaxing, feeling almost Caribbean. There is a fee to walk into the beautiful Manuel Antonio National Park and beaches. Many decide against it because of the crowds, and just enjoy the activities centered along the village beach. Though the area appears very pristine to tourists because of a small population base, sewage treatment should be eventually implemented.
Vegetation in the mountains increases as you continue south to the Dominical area, the Costa Rica surfing capital. Several swimmers drown each year because of riptides. There are guided rainforest tours, some on horseback to observe the wildlife. A four hour drive from San Jose, Dominical is popular with a young tattooed rag-tag gringo (North American) surfing crowd, and weekend Costa Ricans.
Farther south you approach the most remote Costa Rican tourism region because of the distance from San Jose and its historically muddy, treacherous roads. A new coastal highway was completed a few years back extending south from Dominical opening part of the region to potentially massive future development. Erosion and sediment run off from the highway construction was said to have damaged part of Central Americas largest Pacific coral reef in Parque Nacional Marine Ballena (National Whale Park). Humpback whales, and common and bottlenose dolphins, and a variety of water fowl are often sighted. Snorkeling and island cave exploring are good at low tide.
Past the massive mangrove swamps fed by the Rio Grande de Terraba, one enters the Osa Peninsula, a mountainous backwater region dominated by the sparsely explored Corcovado National Park. It is the largest primary forest reserve on the Pacific coast of Latin America, with its primitive serenity, sheer natural beauty and unusual wildlife observing opportunities. Hiking trails permit half day to several day excursions. The most popular ones run along the ocean’s edge, where high tides, hammerhead sharks and crocodiles can slow one’s progress. Hundreds of species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, many endemic, live within its confines. In particular there are scarlet macaws, anteaters, transparent glass frogs, cats such as ocelots, jaguars, pumas and margays, four species of sea turtles, and squirrel monkeys. Plant eating Tapirs, hunted to near extinction, the largest indigenous land mammal in Central America are a combination of elephant, rhinoceros, pig and horse. Herds of a dozen or more peccaries; aggressive, wild pigs have been known to attack hikers, who sometimes have been forced to climb a tree and wait it out.
Archaeologists have discovered an assortment of hundreds of perfectly round granite spheres, called bolas, from only seven centimeters across to fifteen tons. They were found scattered randomly throughout the Osa Peninsula, in linear formation along the Rio Terraba, and on Isla de Cana. They have sparked much inconclusive scholarly discussion. They were possibly once of religious significance to the indigenous Diquis, boundary markers or even celestial references. Though no one knows for sure how they were made, one theory suggests because Osa receives from five to seven meters of rainfall annually, they were carved by hydraulic forces as they tumbled and spun over and over at the base of a strong waterfall.
An uphill battle is constantly being fought by under-funded and understaffed park rangers against illegal logging and poaching within the park. The gold rush of the 1980’s resulted in some three thousand gold prospectors (oreros) being ousted from the park in 1986 because of the damage they were causing dynamiting riverbeds, and felling trees, with the resulting erosion and pollution. The government eventually compensated them, and many now are making a living from ecotourism. Some illegal gold panning still takes place however, though the damage is insignificant compared to the past. Lodges around the Osa Peninsula generally offer full meal plan packages because they are so isolated.