South of San Isidro

A slow descent on the Pan-American Highway from San Isidro meanders gently through the broad valley - this is possibly the best bit of road in Costa Rica, permanently dominated by fine views of the Cordillera de Talamanca. Coffee plantations merge with eucalyptus groves giving way, close to Buenos Aires, to the distinct sweetness and aroma of pineapples that cover vast fields as far as the eye can see. If driving, there are plenty of side roads to explore.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, owes its prominence to the huge Del Monte cannery that sits at the junction of the town and the Pan-American Highway. The town itself is a few kilometres off the main highway. It's the main place to stay if heading for the Durika Biological Reserve further east in the Talamanca mountains, seeking a bus to the Boruca Indian Reserve to the southwest, or changing for a bus south to San Vito.

Reserva Biológica Durika

www.durika.org.

One of the few places where you can spend time in the depths of the Talamanca mountains
is in the Durika Biological Reserve, a private reserve of almost 800 ha. The community aims to encourage conservation and reforestation of the region and ecotourism plays a part in that process. Good trails through the area and to the nearby Cerro Durika (3280 m) give an insight into this rarely visited part of Costa Rica. Don't expect pristine wilderness - deforestation has led to serious erosion in the rainy months. But according to the Durika Foundation the environmental education programmes are beginning to reap rewards.


Boruca

The small community of Boruca is the focal point of the Boruca people. For much of the year, the small village of several hundred people is almost lifeless - a loose collection of simple homes scattered around dusty lanes that twist and wind around the elevated and rather scruffy church. The steady erosion of the traditional culture in the region began in earnest with the arrival of the Jesuits in 1649. Today a simple cultural museum, sitting in the shadow of the church, is a sad (and true) reflection of the value placed on indigenous people in the country. Black and white photographs with peeling edges, desiccated by the wind blowing through the dilapidated structure, show of a steady decline in traditional life.

But each year on the last day of December and the first two days of January the hardships of agricultural life are discarded in the colourful celebrations of
La Danza de los Diablitos
- the Dance of the Devils. Dressed in fine masks and colourful costumes an elaborate game of tag sees the bull destroy the devils. On the third day, the devils rise again to stalk and eventually kill the bull. The bull symbolizes the colonization and persecution of the lands and indigenous people at the hands of the Spanish, offering the hope that, one day, the indigenous communities will be victorious. The festival sees the continuation of a tradition that has lasted for centuries, and is the culmination of months of quiet, behind-the-scenes preparation. If you can time your visit to coincide with the festival, visitors are welcome. If not, a visit is still worthwhile. There are waterfalls nearby and several villagers still carve masks, bows and arrows which you can buy.

Palmar Norte and Palmar Sur

At a major junction on the Pan-American Highway, Palmar Norte is of particular interest to people fascinated by big trucks. The whole town, tucked in the elbow behind a right-angled sweep in the highway, is one big truck stop. Roads lead southeast to Golfito and the Panama border, south to Sierpe - for boats to Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula - northwest to follow the Pacific coast and east to head inland, eventually reaching San José. Such convenient access makes this an important transport hub and it should be used accordingly. If passing, one regional curiosity is the impressive, mysterious and perfectly spherical
stone carvings
left by the Diquis culture . The region is littered with these curious objects which you can see most easily from outside the
Instituto
Agropecuario
in the Palmar Norte or in the central square of Palmar Sur - on the opposite bank of the Térraba river, a couple of kilometres to the south.

As with much of Costa Rican archaeology, the construction and purpose of the
esferas piedras
, believed to be around 2000 years old, is still very much open to debate. Significant detail relating to the Diquis culture is lacking and the subject is desperately in need of detailed and dedicated study. If you want to visit, the gravel track leaves the Pan-American Highway opposite the entrance to Palmar Sur. After about 4 km, just before the second concrete bridge, an overgrown path leads for a hundred metres to the sphere. If you get lost, ask in the local smallholdings - no one knows where it is, but you'll make some good friends along the way and get there eventually.


South from Palmar Norte

At
Chacarita
the only access road to the Osa Peninsula heads southwest. Ten kilometres further on, at
Briceño
a barely noticeable junction leads to Esquinas Rainforest Lodge in
Parque Nacional Piedras Blancas.
One of the few remaining areas of moist tropical forest on the Pacific, the park was created in 1991 by presidential decree. As with many parks, legal protection did little to stop the reality of private landowners selectively logging the area - so the land needed to be purchased. As the local communities realized the newly created park challenged their way of life, the growth in interest in the region's preservation saw the Austrian government, with particular support from the well known classical violinist Michael Schnitzler, a part-time resident of Costa Rica, begin to purchase land, creating the 'Rainforest of the Austrians'. By 2007, Austrian individuals had donated more than US$4.2 m, enabling the purchase of over 146 sq km of rainforest. The property, most of which had exploitation permits for logging, has been donated to the Costa Rican government and become part of new Piedras Blancas National Park. Sixteen park rangers now patrol the park and scarlet macaws, spider monkeys, peccaries and even jaguar have returned to the area. The park can be explored along a 10-km network of paths that lead from the

Esquinas Rainforest Lodge

About 15 km from Río Claro and the turning for Golfito, and 16 km from Paso Canoas on the Panama border, the town of Ciudad Neily sits in a broad valley created by the River Corredor. Easily missed from the Pan-American Highway, the small-town agricultural feel of the place, supporting the banana and African oil palm plantations to the south, belies a district population of almost 22,000. Close to sea level, the town is uncomfortably hot and humid in the wet season. Bus travellers will be more likely to see Neily, as it's an important transport hub for bus services linking all points on the compass.


Valle de Coto Brus

The sharp bend in the Pan-American Highway back up at Paso Real marks the confluence of the El General river to the north and the Coto Brus river to the south, to form the Río Térraba which turns west to join the Pacific near Sierpe. Highway 237 crosses the Térraba and climbs slowly towards San Vito . If driving towards the southernmost point of the country with a little time to spare, this route - as opposed to the Pan-American Highway - is considerably more enjoyable. The journey takes longer even though the distance is shorter, but the views of the Talamanca mountains are impressive, particularly in the early morning, and the dramatic descent from San Vito to Ciudad Neily is nothing short of spectacular with fine views across the southern lowlands to the Osa Peninsula.

The good road south towards San Vito is dotted with the occasional hamlet - often little more than a few houses and sometimes a simple café. This is probably one of the few main roads in Costa Rica no tourism presence. There are some serious pot holes - some even have plants growing out of them - so keep the speed low and enjoy the views.


San Vito

Climbing close to a vertical kilometre from Paso Real or Ciudad Neily, San Vito has a distinctly comfortable climate compared to the lowlands to the south - one of the reasons Italian settlers founded the town in the 1950s. Today, it's a regional commercial and agricultural centre of limited interest to the casual visitor (aside from some craftwork). The main centre of the town is a two-block long street running downhill from the triangular plaza. South of town towards Cuidad Neily, are the world-renowned Wilson Botanical Gardens. A good gravel road, paved in places, also runs east via Sabalito to the Panama border at
Río Sereno
.

Wilson Botanical Gardens

www.esintro.co.cr.

In 1961 Robert and Catherine Wilson moved here from their botanical gardens in Miami with the aim of setting up a botanical garden and a commercial nursery. Almost 50 years later, the legacy of that vision has created the Wilson Botanical Gardens - one of the world's premier collections of tropical plants open for day visits, overnight stays and research.

The 10-ha gardens have a network of trails and paths designed by the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. The success of the gardens lies in their location. At an altitude of 1100 m, they receive around 4000 mm of rain a year from May to December when the area can be shrouded in heavy fog and is regularly watered by afternoon clouds.

A number of self-guided tours lasting from 20 minutes to 2½ hours provide snippets of information allowing you to wander aimlessly at your own pace. Alternatively you can use a guide on a two-hour tour who will point out some of the 700 species of palms found in the garden - there are a total of 1000 in the neotropics. Resident birds species total 331 and mammals are also found in the gardens.

The Wilson Gardens are part of the Las Cruces Biological Station, owned and operated by the Organisation for Tropical Studies. As with La Selva and Palo Verde, the station is a focus for biologists, students, birders and naturalists keen to take advantage of the phenomenal diversity of the region.

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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