24 Best Sights in The Osa Peninsula and the South Pacific, Costa Rica

Ballena Marine National Park

Fodor's choice

Named for the whales who use this area as a nursery, the park has four separate Blue Flag beaches stretching for about 10 km (6 miles) and encompasses a mangrove estuary, a remnant coral reef, and more than 12,350 acres of ocean, home to tropical fish, dolphins, and humpback whales. Playa Uvita is the most popular sector of the park, with the longest stretch of beach and shallow waters calm enough for kids. Restaurants line the road to the Playa Uvita park entrance, but there are no food concessions within the park. Access to each of the four beaches—from north to south, Uvita, Colonia, Ballena, and Piñuela—is off the Costanera Highway. Although the official park offices are open 7 am to 6 pm, visitors can stay on longer, especially to view sunsets or camp.

Entrance at Playa Uvita, about 20 km (12 miles) south of Dominical, Uvita, 60504, Costa Rica
Sight Details
Rate Includes: $7

Corcovado National Park

Fodor's choice

This is the last and largest outpost of virgin lowland rain forest in Central America, and it's teeming with wildlife. Visitors who tread softly along the park's trails may glimpse howler, spider, and squirrel monkeys, coatimundis, peccaries (wild pigs), poison dart frogs, scarlet macaws, and, very rarely, jaguars and tapirs.

Most first-time visitors to Corcovado come on a daylong boat tour from Drake Bay or hike in from Carate, Los Patos, or Dos Brazos del Río Tigre. But to get to the most pristine, wildlife-rich areas, you need to walk, and that means a minimum of three days: one day to walk in, one day to walk out, and at least one day inside the park. Park policy requires every visitor to be accompanied by a certified naturalist guide. Whichever guide or tour company you hire can make the park reservation and pay the park entrance fees for you in Puerto Jiménez. All accommodation and food within the park are now provided by a local community consortium called ADI Corcovado ( [email protected]).

The daily limit on the number of overnight visitors at the Sirena station is 70, bunking down in platform tents with all meals and bedding provided. No outside food is allowed.There's also camping ($4) at the San Pedrillo sector, but without meals or bedding. Ranger stations are officially open from 7 am to 4 pm daily, but you can walk in almost any time with a certified guide, as long as you have reserved and paid in advance. For safety reasons, there is no longer any night walking permitted into or out of the park. For more information, see the highlighted listing in this chapter.

Hacienda Barú

Fodor's choice

This leading ecotourism and conservation wildlife refuge offers spectacular bird-watching tours and excellent naturalist-led hikes (starting at $36), a thrilling Flight of the Toucan canopy tour ($52), a chance to spend the night in the jungle ($158), or self-guided walks along forest and mangrove trails ($15). The refuge also manages a turtle-protection project and nature-education program in the local school. You can stay in basic cabins or in poolside rooms—or just come for the day.

Recommended Fodor's Video

Nauyaca Waterfalls

Fodor's choice

This massive double cascade, the longer one tumbling down 150 feet, is one of the most spectacular sights in Costa Rica. The falls (aka Barú River Falls) are on private property, so the only ways to reach them are on horseback, hiking, or riding in an open truck. Arrive before 1 pm as access to the waterfalls closes at 2 pm.

Playa Uvita

Fodor's choice

At the northern end of Ballena Marine National Park, wide, palm-fringed Playa Uvita stretches out along a tombolo (a long swath of sand) connecting a former island to the coast. At low tide, you can walk out to the famous "whale tail," where you'll get magnificent views of the hills and jungles of Uvita (and maybe spot a macaw). This is the most popular beach, especially on weekends, with shallow waters for swimming. On weekdays you may have it almost to yourself. It’s also the launching spot for boat tours and the favorite vantage point for spectacular sunsets. There is no parking at the beach, but there are private parking lots along the road leading to the park entrance, charging $4 a day. Amenities: food and drink; showers; toilets. Best for: sunset; swimming; walking.

American Zone

The northwestern end of town is the so-called American Zone, full of handsome wooden houses where the expatriate managers of United Fruit lived amid flowering trees imported from all over the world. Many of these vintage houses, built of durable Honduran hardwoods, are now being spruced up. Eccentric garden features, such as a restored railway car, make the neighborhood worth a stroll. If you're on foot, there's also excellent birding in and around the gardens.

Chirripó National Park

The main attraction of this national park is Mt. Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica and a mecca for both hikers and serious summiteers. It's a 48-km (30-mile) round-trip hike, with an elevation gain of 6,890 feet to reach the hostel, and another 1,000 feet to reach the summit. You need to be very fit and acclimatize before setting out. The round-trip usually takes three days: one day to climb to the hostel, one day to explore the surrounding summits, and one day to descend.

With the number of hikers limited to 52 per day on the San Gerardo route, and only 15 hikers per week from the San Jerónimo trail, it’s becoming an ever more exclusive experience to hike here. Lodging at the summit hut is set at $35 per night. Though the hostel is slightly more comfortable than it used to be, keep in mind that it is still fairly basic, with bunk beds and no hot water for showers. It’s chilly at the top, so be sure to pack lots of layers. The maximum stay at the hostel is three days, two nights. Lodging and food service in the simple restaurant are arranged by Consorcio Aguas Eternas, which also can provide all the gear you need, from pillows, towels, and sleeping bags to porters to haul them. Depending on which of the various meal packages and local lodging before and after the hike you choose, prices for a hike start at about $250 per person. Porter fees are set at about $4 per kilo, and charged each way. The easiest way to arrange a hike is through one of the hotels that belong to the consortium, such as Hotel de Montaña El Pelícano, which can arrange all the details, from park reservation to lodging, food, and gear.

Main street, south side of soccer field, San Gerardo, 11904, Costa Rica
Sight Details
Rate Includes: $18 per day park fee; $35 per day for lodging in park, plus food, Closed 2 wks in Nov.

Cloudbridge Private Nature Reserve

This private nature reserve staffed by volunteers and a senior biologist has an easy trail to a waterfall, plus almost 12 km (8 miles) of river and ridge trails, including one trail that utilizes 4 km (2½ miles) of the Chirripó National Park trail. It's a pleasant alternative for hikers who aren't up to the challenge of Chirripó or haven't reserved a spot far in advance. You can take a guided 3½-hour tour past two waterfalls and learn about the flora and fauna of the cloud forest for $35. There's also an art gallery featuring nature paintings by artist Linda Moskalyk, and accommodations in four fully equipped houses (starting at $70, two-night minimum). Volunteers often occupy the simple rental cabins, so check the website for availability. There's no admission fee to hike in the reserve, but donations are requested.

Finca 6 Museum of the Spheres

About an hour from Uvita, you can learn about the mystery of Costa Rica's pre-Columbian spheres—massive, perfectly round stones uncovered in the 1930s—in this archaeological museum, built on a recently designated UNESCO World Heritage site near Sierpe, the port for boats to Drake Bay. Dating from 800 to 1500 AD, these carefully arranged spheres of varying sizes cover acres of land, popping up miles from the source of the rock used to carve them. Anthropologists speculate they may have served as agricultural calendars or as ceremonial sites similar to Stonehenge. All of the theories are outlined, in English and Spanish, along with displays of period pottery, sculpture, and other artifacts in a light and airy new museum, a branch of San José's National Museum. Much of the museum is outdoors, to view archaeological sites and see the spheres in situ. The sun is hot, so come early and bring along a hat and a water bottle. Squirrel monkeys and birds inhabit the wooded areas along the trails, so it's a good idea to carry binoculars and cameras, too. If you are on your way to the Osa Peninsula, by car or boat, don't miss this opportunity to encounter a surviving vestige of indigenous culture.

8 km (5 miles) west of turnoff from Costanera to Palmar Sur, on road to Sierpe; look for Finca 6 sign on left, just before small bridge, Costa Rica
Sight Details
Rate Includes: $7, Closed Mon.

Oro Verde Private Nature Reserve

You'll find excellent bird-watching and hiking in this nature preserve, uphill from the Costanera. Family-run, the property has well-groomed trails through a majestic, primary forest reserve. Early-morning, three-hour birding tours start at 6 ($40 per person, two person minimum) and end with a hearty home-cooked breakfast. In the afternoon, you can set out for a three-hour birding walk. For a totally different perspective on wildlife, join the naturalist-guided night tour, from 6 to 9 pm. The best way to book is through the Uvita Information Center.

Km 159, Costanera Hwy., Uvita, 60504, Costa Rica

Parque Reptilandia

With more than 300 specimens, this impressive collection includes snakes, lizards, frogs, turtles, and other reptilian creatures, housed in visitor-friendly terrariums and large enclosures. Stars of the exhibit are a Komodo dragon, Gila monsters, and a 150-pound African spur-thighed tortoise that likes to be petted. Kids love the maternity ward showcasing newborn snakes. More mature snakes live under a retractable roof that lets in sun and rain. Although snakes are generally more active in sunlight, this is still a great rainy-day activity. Guided night tours can also be arranged to watch nocturnal animals. If you're not squeamish, snake-feeding day is Friday, spread out from 10 am to 3 pm.

Piedras Blancas National Park

There is some good birding in the dense forest here, which is also an important wildlife corridor connecting to Corcovado National Park. Follow the main road northwest through the American Zone and past the airstrip and a housing project. The place where a dirt road heads into the rain forest is great for bird-watching. There are marked trails from the entrance near the marina, but the park is best explored with a guide; the best birding is along the road.

Adjacent to Golfito National Wildlife Refuge, Golfito, 60505, Costa Rica
Sight Details
Rate Includes: $11 (cash only), Closed Sun.

Playa Ballena

This lovely strand is backed by lush vegetation and is fairly easy to get to from the main highway, along a short, bumpy dirt road. There's free parking close to the beach. Amenities: showers; toilets. Best for: swimming; walking.

4 km (2½ miles) south of Playa Colonia access road, off Costanera Hwy., Ojochal, Costa Rica
Sight Details
Rate Includes: $7

Playa Colonia

This beach is safe for swimming and has a view of rocky islands, which you can visit by kayak. The access road is a well-graded dirt road. There is a sandy break for surfing, with gentle waves for beginners. In high season, vendors sell cold drinks and souvenirs at the beach entrance. It’s the only beach where cars can park practically on the beach. Amenities: food and drink; showers; toilets. Best for: swimming.

2 km (1¼ miles) south of Playa Uvita along Costanera Hwy., Ballena Marine National Park, Costa Rica
Sight Details
Rate Includes: $7

Playa Dominical

Long and flat, Playa Dominical is good for beachcombing among all the flotsam and jetsam that the surf washes up onto the brown sand. There's shade and parking under palm trees along the new brick-paved road that parallels the beach. The water is relatively clean and local businesses make sure things look tidy. Photo opportunities abound here, with buff surfers riding the waves and vendors' clotheslines of colorful sarongs flapping in the sea breeze. Tortilla Flats restaurant is practically on the beach. Huge waves and dangerous rip currents make it primarily a surfing beach. In high season, flags mark off a relatively safe area for swimming, under the watchful gaze of a professional lifeguard. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking (no fee). Best for: surfing; walking.

Dominical, 11909, Costa Rica

Playa Dominicalito

This wide beach is usually calmer and more suited to boogie boarding and beginner surfers. There are hidden rocks near the shore, so the best time to swim is at low tide. This is one of the best walking beaches, with lots of shade under tall palms and beach almond trees early in the morning. The sun sets behind a huge rocky outcropping topped with tiny palm trees, an ideal shot for photographers. There is an unofficial campground running parallel to the beach, which is popular with locals, especially during Easter, Christmas, and school holidays. Amenities: parking (no fee). Best for: solitude; sunset; walking.

Playa Pavones

Driving along remote Playa Pavones, one of the most scenic beaches in Costa Rica, you catch glimpses through the palms of brilliant blue water, white surf crashing against black rocks, and the soft silhouette of the Osa Peninsula. This area at the southern edge of the mouth of Golfo Dulce attracts serious surfers, as one of the world's longest left-hand waves in the world. The pristine black-sand beaches and virgin rain forest lure beach goers watching the show. The coast is very rocky, so it's important to ask locals before surfing or swimming. One of the best places to swim is in the Río Claro, under the bridge or at the river mouth (dry season only). The town of Pavones itself is a helter-skelter collection of guesthouses and sodas a few blocks from the beach. Amenities: food and drink. Best for: surfing; swimming; walking.

Pavones, Costa Rica

Playa Piñuela

Nestled in a deep cove with views of small islands, tiny Playa Piñuela is the prettiest, and many times the most private, of the Ballena Marine National Park beaches. It’s not always the best beach for swimming at high tide, however, since the shore is strewn with large stones and the waves can be a little rough. At low tide, the smooth, sandy beach emerges. The access road is very bumpy but also short. Amenities: showers; toilets. Best for: walking.

3 km (2 miles) south of Playa Colonia, off Costanera Hwy., Ojochal, Costa Rica
Sight Details
Rate Includes: $7

Playa Ventanas

This scenic beach has interesting tidal caves, popular for sea kayaking. Coconut palms edge the beach, which is sometimes pebbly, with quite a dramatic surf, especially at high tide when the waves break against huge offshore rock formations. The ocean views are rivaled by the vistas of green, forested mountains rising up behind the beach. You can camp here and use very basic toilets and cold-water showers. There's a new access road to the beach and a guarded parking area ($3 for the day). But it is advisable to not leave anything of value in your car. Amenities: parking (fee); showers; toilets. Best for: walking.

1½ km (1 mile) south of Playa Piñuela, off Costanera Hwy., Ojochal, Costa Rica

Playa Zancudo

For laid-back beaching involving hammocks strung between palms and nothing more demanding than watching the sunset, you can't beat Playa Zancudo, with its miles of wide, flat beach and romantic views of the Osa Peninsula across the Golfo Dulce. The water is amazingly warm for swimming and except for local holiday times, this beach is pretty much deserted. It isn't picture-perfect: the 10 km (6 miles) of dark, volcanic sand is sometimes strewn with flotsam and jetsam. But there's a constant breeze — often too windy — and a thick cushion of palm and almond trees between the beach and the dirt road running parallel. Away from the beach breezes, be prepared for biting zancudos (no-see-ums). Amenities: food and drink. Best for: sunset; swimming; walking.

Zancudo, Costa Rica

Poza Azul

Hidden in a forest above Dominicalito Beach, this waterfall is considerably smaller than Nauyaca Waterfalls, but it has a lovely swimming hole at its base. The pool is often populated by local kids when school is out and by surfers late in the afternoon. Pay strict attention to the posted sign that warns not to leave anything of value in your parked car. Avoid holiday times and weekends, when there are often large crowds. The best time to visit is during rainy season between the months of June and December.

Rancho La Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Ride the range on a 1,250-acre property combining forest and pasture ($55) or gallop along the beach at sunset on horseback ($60). Riding tours also include a guide and helmets, and kid-size saddles are available. All tours begin at the pleasant reception center, where you can freshen up in clean, modern restrooms. For $8 you can explore the 10 km (6 miles) of hiking trails on your own with a trail map that includes a wildlife picture guide. 

Ruta de Los Santos

The scenic road that winds through the high-altitude valleys from Empalme to San Pablo de León is appropriately called the Ruta de Los Santos---the towns it passes are named after saints. It's nicely paved to facilitate shipping the coffee produced in the region. On the 30-minute drive from Empalme to San Pablo de León Cortés, you travel through misty valleys ringed by precipitous mountain slopes terraced with lush, green coffee plants. The 24-km (15-mile) route also captures the essence of a fast-disappearing traditional tico way of life built around agriculture. Stately churches anchor bustling towns full of prosperous, neat houses with pretty gardens and a few vintage 1970s Toyota Land Cruiser trucks parked in the driveways.

Uvita Waterfall

It doesn’t get much better than waterfalls, butterflies, and waterslides all in one. There’s a short hike to reach the reward of several cascades that drop into freshwater swimming holes. As you jump—or slide—from the platform, monkeys often swing overhead from tree to tree, making this a surreal jungle experience. Secure pathways with metal railings guide the way. There are restrooms (with showers), a snack bar, and a butterfly garden with blue morphos fluttering about. Bring water shoes if you have them, as rocks can be slippery. To have the place to yourself, come early or arrive later in the day.

Calle Bejuco, Uvita, Costa Rica
Sight Details
Rate Includes: $4