Southern costanera

Matapalo

Matapalo, about 24 km south of Quepos - look out for the sign on the main highway, is a small, mainly Swiss, community that has seized on the beauty of this almost uninhabited stretch of fine sandy beaches, all of which are good for swimming. It's a great place to stop for truly quiet relaxation, yet it's close enough to visit attractions near Manuel Antonio to the north and Dominical to the south, albeit on a pretty painful road.

Dominical

A small town of no more than a few hundred people just south of the mouth of the Río Barú, Dominical owes its success to the fine surf that pounds the coastline. If you want to surf, or learn, it's a great spot with classes available. Nearby breaks add a touch of variety and there are several locals who will happily offer advice and suggestions on places to go.

Beyond surfing, the beaches in the area are quite pleasant. There are also tours and trips to
Hacienda Barú
private reserve, complete with canopy tours and nature trails, nearby waterfalls, trails through the forest on foot or horseback and to the south at
Marino Ballena Parque Nacional
.

Hacienda Barú

www.haciendabaru.com.

Hacienda Barú is an eco-friendly adventure park set in a privately owned national wildlife refuge. The owner Jack Ewing and his wife arrived in the area in 1972 at a time when Costa Rican conservation was in its infancy. By the end of the 1980s, the cattle-man turned conservationist - a reasonably common conversion - had the opportunity and foresight to buy and formally protect the remarkably diverse property. In an area of just 3.3 sq km, 318 species of bird have been recorded - the whole of the United States has 996.

A sense of personal discovery is created by the use of interpretive pamphlets that allow you to wander through the trails alone. Going as slow as you like you can soak up the complexities of the rainforest at your own speed. Guides are also available if you prefer. A range of trails cover a total of 7 km leading through primary and secondary forest, to the mangroves along the beach and to an observation tower where you may see three-toed sloths, white-faced capuchin monkeys and peccaries.

Beyond the trails activities include tree climbing, trussed up in harness and safety gear, a full day guided nature walk through primary forest or a night spent in the jungle - an eerie experience under a dark moonless sky. The beach is also used by solitary nesting Olive Ridley, and increasingly rare hawksbill, turtles that arrive from July through to October.

There is a volunteer work programme run by the local conservation group
Asociación
de Amigos de la Naturaleza del Pacífico Central y Sur
(ASANA), which is working to develop the Tapir Biological Corridor between Manuel Antonio and the Osa Peninsula.

Waterfalls

www.cataratasnauyaca.com.

Ten kilometres along the road to San Isidro, a road leads to a couple of waterfalls, the largest being the 50-m high Nauyaca Waterfalls reached by horse riding tours through the rainforest.

South of Dominical

Newly paved road stretches south to Uvita and beyond to Palmar opening up a number of comfortable roadside options and secluded hideaways to the privileged few who get this far south by road. The main appeal of the area is slowing down - venturing out to the few beaches found down the coastline when the mood takes you or to the undeveloped Parque Nacional Marino Ballena. As is true for much of Costa Rica's west coast, the sunsets are simply beyond words. Public transport is available to Uvita. Outside of this immediate area most - though not all - hotels are away from the main road making private transport a necessity. New hotels are opening so look out for any new and pleasant surprises.

On the east side of the road, 3.5 km south of Dominical, hills give way to a small, grassy area and a dirt road that climbs steeply to
Escaleras
. The road winds through good forests, ideal for a bit of independent exploring if you've got the confidence to strike out alone. While the gradient is challenging, 4WD will get through, and the road leads to a number of isolated rental properties.

Around the town of
Uvita
, a few small communities including
Bahía
provide simple budget accommodation popular with people seeking quiet and solitude on the Pacific coast. It's also a good base for exploring Parque Nacional Marino Ballena if you want to see whales and dolphins.

South of Uvita,
Rancho La Merced
, www.wildlifecostarica.com, is a national wildlife refuge adjacent to the Marino Ballena National Park, with over 500 ha of primary and secondary tropical rainforest as well as mangrove estuary. The area can be explored easily, ideally on horseback, with trips going down the beach, to the mangroves or around the ranch as you get to be cowboy for a day, driving and roping cattle and checking calves and cows.

Parque Nacional Marino Ballena

The vast majority of Ballena Marine National Park is coastal waters - 5161 ha against 172 ha of protected land - which may go some way to explaining why there isn't a lot to see on land at this, one of Costa Rica's least-developed national parks.

The underwater world is home to coral reefs and abundant marine life that includes common and bottle-nosed dolphins as well as humpback whales (
ballenas
), which at times you can see with their calves. The best time to see them is from December to April, and from August to October. Contact Chumi or ask at your hotel for details.

Offshore,
Las Tres Hermanas
and
Isla Ballena
mark the southernmost boundary of the park providing nesting sights for frigate birds, white ibis and brown pelicans. To the north, at
Punta Uvita
, sandy deposits have created a tombolo linking the former island with the mainland.

Although there is a rarely staffed ranger's station in
Bahía
, and signposts line the
costanera
, the infrastructure in the park is non-existent. There is a nominal entrance fee which is rarely collected. Along the beach at Bahía is a
turtle nesting
project administered by the local community. As with the park itself, the organization is very ad hoc - visitors and volunteers are welcome.
Beachcombing
is good, as is
snorkelling
when the tides are favourable.
Boat trips
to the island can be arranged from Bahía, and
diving
is starting up; the most recommended local being Máximo Vásquez, or Chumi as he is known.

Ojochal and around

The beaches continue south, sprinkled with the ornate shapes of bleached white driftwood. Currents are strong and ever changing due to tides and the influence of the Río Térraba with its main outlet to the south. The area around the town of Ojochal and Playa Tortuga has sprouted a modest harvest of comfortable hotel and dining options - many of them with French-Canadian owners. North of Posada Playa Tortuga a road heads inland to Ojochal, which by planning or default is overwhelmingly French-Canadian.

The
costanera
then continues south to join the Pan-American Highway at Palmar Norte. If you're feeling brave enough and suitably inclined, stop at
Playa Piñuela
, and taste some of the best
ceviche
in the country. You can't miss the place as cars and lorries are always parked up along the otherwise empty roadside.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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