In a small plane we head to the next destination, the Gulfo Dulce area across from the Osa Peninsula. This is the most unspoiled, wildlife–rich area of the country that doesn't require hiking and camping deep into a nature reserve. Unlike overrun areas on the main tour bus circuit though, here it's easy to find real seclusion. We fly down the coast at prop plane speed, seeing hidden beaches and ocean cliffs below us, palm oil plantations backing up to vast stretches of wild jungle. The further south we get, the bigger the green spaces get until we descend into Golfito and see just a few houses and farms surrounded by lands teeming with unseen monkeys and elusive big cats.
After a short tour of Golfito—once a major outpost for the United Fruit Company banana powerhouse—we board a small boat to head out to Playa Cativo, an eco–lodge on its own spot of land facing the water. It's a pleasant ride of about 20 minutes before we disembark on a rocky beach and make our way across the lawn to the lodge building.
Playa Cativo is a "sustainable travel" resort for people who want to do the right thing, but don't want to give up their high–thread–count sheets and their internet connection. Despite being one of the greenest resorts in a country full of eco–friendly resorts, here we still feel like we're being pampered in a luxury boutique hotel. Sure the power is coming from solar and hydro and there's no air conditioning, but the chef does a great job with the fresh fish and on–site organic garden produce and the public spaces here invite lounging in well–designed rooms.
I take a nature hike with a well–credentialed guide in the morning after a hearty breakfast with some good Costa Rican coffee. Within ten minutes of walking into the forest we spot howler monkeys, an osprey, several agoutis, a golden naped woodpecker, and several ant birds. (They follow the army ants and eat the bugs that have emerged from the chaos.) A bit later there's a whole pack of collared peccaries—wild pigs. This protected area that extends around the Osa Peninsula is home to five of the six big cats that live in Costa Rica and occasionally an ocelot will be spotted near the lodge.
As we loop back on a trail by the water, we walk by eerie looking sangregado trees that are called "swamp blood" or "dragon's blood" trees from the red sap they produce. We see a wild peacock and my guide tells me there are sometimes Scarlet Macaws munching on wild almonds in a specific tree.
I take a stand–up paddleboard out on the water and get some exercise while exploring the bay. With just the sound of the water lapping against the board as the sweat beads up on my arm, the water breaks a few meters in front of me and I see a small head poke up and look around. It's a sea turtle coming to the surface. He looks my way, surveys the scene in the other direction, then submerges again and is gone.
During the day I take advantage of the chance to unwind in these calm surroundings, lounging by the pool, taking a siesta, and reading a book. When sunset draws close I take a kayak out on the placid water and paddle around the bend to where the sun will set. As the sky changes colors and becomes more dramatic every few minutes, I realize it has been way too long since I've seen a scene like this with no buildings around it.
Back to the Tourist Zone
The next day we fly back to Quepos, going close to the Corcovado National Park, established in 1975 and extending over 164 square miles. Called by some "the most biodiverse spot on Earth," from up here we can only imagine what's lurking below under the canopy.
Our final destination is not so wild though as we're wrapping up our trip in the Manuel Antonio area, with one of Costa Rica's best known beaches and most popular nature parks. We stay at Karahe Resort, one of the originals in this area, the original hillside section dating back to 1980. It's not the fanciest place in the area, but it's right on the beach—a rarity here—and is close to the main strips of bars and restaurants. Despite this being such a popular tourist spot, the animals don't pay much attention to boundaries. I hear capuchin monkeys running across the metal roof above my top-floor room and when I walk down the beach, there's a crocodile warning sign where a small river empties into the sea.
We have lunch at the El Gusto restaurant of Shana Hotel, then dinner at the Quepos Marina while looking at the fancy fishing boats and yachts bobbing in the water. No partying at one of the many local nightclubs though: there's an early flight from the airport the next morning.
The trip back to San Jose is an easy one though, with little traffic in the morning and good roads these days that get wider as we get closer to the international airport. I'm ending my third tour of Costa Rica at a time when the country is struggling with myriad problems and competing interests, from political scandals to inflation to the never–ending attempt to keep business interests from trampling all over the country's progressive environmental reputation. Meanwhile the luxury travel options continue to improve and as long as upscale visitors align with the properties and companies that do it right, A Costa Rican travel experience can continue to outshine those from competing destinations in Central America.
If You Go:
We R CR can set up a custom bespoke itinerary for a luxury villa tour in Costa Rica, or help find a permanent vacation home. The most comfortable airline for getting to the country, especially in business class, is Copa Airlines, part of the Star Alliance and with multiple connections through nearby Panama City.
Story and photos by Timothy Scott.