A SEAFARING ADVENTURE
The Nature of the Pacific Revealed
By Susan Zimmerman
“I wanted freedom, open air and adventure. I found it on the sea.” Alaine Gerbault, French sailor
Costa Rica’s narrow Pacific coastline, which stretches 630 miles between its borders with Nicaragua and Panama, is awash with verdant rainforests, sandy beaches fading from volcanic charcoals to bright whites, and hundreds of exotic bird and animal species. While some prefer to stay ashore, pondering the lapping waves and Pacific sunsets, I find it most fitting to soak in the coastal beauty of this region by venturing off to sea.
Gazing at a distant stretch of lush coastline from a ship’s deck sends an adventurous surge through me. I wonder if Christopher Columbus felt this way when he discovered Central America back in 1502. Whatever went through the veteran voyager’s mind on his fourth journey to the New World, one thing’s for sure – the tropical landscape beckons you to come explore. Columbus named the region the “rich coast” referencing gold bands worn by the Carib Indians, but Costa Rica‘s true wealth is its biodiversity, which extends from coast to coast.
I’m ready for a seafaring adventure, however with my bad sense of direction I‘m happy to leave the navigating to someone else – Christopher Columbus I’m not. Whether charting a course of your own or boarding a ship with an itinerary, cruising across the Pacific’s inshore waters is the ideal way to discover the coastline’s true nature.
Short-term travelers may opt to get their feet wet wading out to a dinghy along the beach, or setting sail from one of Costa Rica’s large vessel harbors like Banana Bay Marina in Golfito, Pez Vela Marina in Quepos, or Puerto Caldera in Puntarenas. My own journey steered me along the well-worn wake from the Los Suenos Marina in Herradura south to several favorite ports-of-call.
MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK
It’s smooth sailing to the smallest of Costa Rica’s national parks -- Manuel Antonio. This 1,700-acre luscious rainforest, once traversed by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, is the country’s most popular because it’s as easy to get to as it is to see the wildlife. A quick 20-minute flight from San Jose will get you to the port town of Quepos, steps away from the rocking motion of a boat, which is all it takes to put me in the explorer frame-of-mind.
The Park’s gorgeous white-sand beaches are a main attraction as are the park‘s denizens -- 109 mammals and 184 bird species. The open-forest trails, which make it easy-to-spot wildlife, attract some 150,000 annual visitors. Although it takes a trained-eye and spotting scope to see the sloths camouflaged in the trees, the capuchin monkeys hanging out at the beach are almost too close for comfort. This stop just skims the surface of the biodiversity that endows Costa Rica with the greatest density of animal and plant species in the world.
CORCOVADO NATIONAL PARK
A short sail down the coast to the Osa Peninsula is Corcovado, a 100,000-acre nature sanctuary that’s considered the crown jewel of Costa Rica’s national parks. The species tally here says it all -- 400 birds, 140 mammals, and 500 trees, along with Costa Rica’s 200 remaining jaguars. We docked at Caletas Beach, one of two park entrances accessible by boat, to hike this pristine rainforest.
Entering the cathedral-like beauty of this dense tangle of old growth trees is reminiscent of stepping into a secret portal. I hear but don’t see the scarlet macaws flying overhead. A single roar of a howler monkey echoes through the forest. I catch a glimpse of a solitary blue morpho butterfly as it flutters past. A snake slithers by my feet in fast pursuit of a lizard. Being privy to nature’s flashes of candor fills me with deference. I wish I could etch every moment here in stone.
CASA ORQUIDEAS BOTANICAL GARDENS
Just around the bend at Golfo Dulce, the Sweet Gulf, is a botanical paradise that's only accessible by sea. Casa Orquideas, the Orchid House, is filled with tropical fruit trees, ornamentals and over 100 species of orchids that’s a haven for birds and naturalists. This one-acre labor of love that's been three decades in the making, and the home of self-taught gardeners Ron and Trudy McAllister, is a dream garden.
Getting a tour through their "backyard" is a sensory delight. Besides taste-testing the fruits of their trees from cacao to sour pickle, the guide demonstrates how to open a coconut, get a fern tattoo, pollinate an orchid, grow bromeliads, wash with the shampoo ginger plant, and even apply annatto seed lipstick. Resting on a bench enjoying a tree-ripened home grown organic banana sure makes me wish this was my home.
GOING THE EXTRA NAUTICAL MILE
The Costa Rican coastline ends all too soon so sailing on to Panama or charting a course to Nicaragua is worth every extra-nautical mile.
SAN JUAN DEL SUR, NICARAGUA
For the northern-bound wanderer, Nicaragua’s southernmost port-of-call beckons with a perfect horseshoe-shaped cove and rows of oceanfront eateries. Just a one-hour sail from the Costa Rican border, the humble fishing pueblo that first gained fame as a stop along the gold route to California, now thrives as a surf Mecca and off-the-beaten-path tourist hotspot. The bustling seaboard adds a dose of color and flavor to any nature seeker’s journey and the hospitality of the locals is so sincere, it injects you with a tinge of nostalgia for this tropical oceanfront home you never knew. The laidback vibe provides just the refueling you’ll need to continue on your way, refreshed and alive.
COIBA NATIONAL PARK, PANAMA
My explorer spirit is soaring as I find myself 121 nautical miles south of Costa Rica sailing across the Gulf of Chiriqui to Isla de Coiba National Park. This 500-square kilometer island that’s 30 miles off Panama’s Pacific coast, is the largest uninhabited tropical forest in the Americas, the second largest coral reef in the Eastern Pacific, and considered one of the top ten diving spots in the world. (There are also 38 smaller islands in the Park.)
Isla de Coiba is amazing -- some 80% of its forests are astoundingly still primary thanks to the island's 85-year reign as a notorious penal colony. As a result, it became a refuge for birds, mammals and marine life found nowhere else on earth. After snorkeling around the peaceful islet of Granito de Oro, I sink onto a mattress of sun-drenched white sand that’s blanketed by hundreds of hermit crabs and dream about getting stuck here.
DARIEN JUNGLE, PANAMA
The long haul now gets even longer -- it’s 230 nautical miles across the Gulf of Panama from Coiba to the edge of the Darien Jungle to visit an Embera Indian village at Playa de Muertos. This remote community of about 200 is rarely visited, but gradually the villagers have started to open up their “doorless” thatched homes to those lucky enough to make port. Coming ashore to be greeted by men, women and children dressed in loin cloths and sarongs with their bodies fully tattooed is a breathtakingly beautiful moment.
My few hours pass way too quickly in this village that time seems to have forgotten -- the Embera still follow their traditional way of life, hunting and growing what they need to survive. Touring their thatched homes and watching a dance performance by the women and girls is all so surreal, but the tattoo painted on my leg by one of the women is proof it's no dream. Although these ink marks (from the local jagua fruit) will soon fade, the memories of this cultural encounter will stay with me forever.