Nestled in the heart of Central America, between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, is the tourist hotspot of Costa Rica. Famous for surf spots, curious creatures, and a laidback “Pura Vida” lifestyle, we spent six weeks sailing the bays and beaches of the west coast of Costa Rica and found out that the “Rich Coast” – certainly lives up to its name.
After a long, slow 10 day passage from Mexico, our first anchorage was in a remote northern bay. The sun was fading as we dropped the anchor and the tall hills that surround Bahia Santa Elena wore a delicate shawl of wispy, pink clouds. The air was heavy with the smell of jungle, damp from the afternoon rains, and rang with of the unnerving barks of unseen howler monkeys. Costa Rica seemed untamed, maybe even untamable.
After a good night’s rest, we meandered a few miles down the coast and cleared in at Playa del Cocos. The overall vibe in town was pretty chill, so it was no surprise that it took a couple hours to track the Port Captain and get all our paperwork out of the way. It was, after all, a hot afternoon at the beach. Only 30 minutes from the international airport in Liberia, Playa del Cocos is also popular with the backpacker crowd. As the afternoon wore on, and perhaps last night’s festivities wore off, the streets filled with young, tanned travelers, some of whom looked as wild as the monkeys that played in the trees that lined the streets.
Long beaches, big tides, the exposure to the Pacific Ocean westerly swell are what make Costa Rica famous for its incredible surf spots. But great surf spots do not often mean good anchorages. If you ask people about their time on board in Costa Rica, you’ll often hear words like: “rolly, washing machine, uncomfortable and sleepless.”
Those conditions can also make for some challenging beach landings and departures. Trying to navigate even small breaking waves in an inflatable dinghy takes a little practice and a lot of finesse. On trips to the shore, we adopted the ritual of sitting under the palm trees and watching the surf when we were ready to go home. Sipping a cold beer to bolster our confidence we counted wave sets, watched for a flat spot to appear and waited for the perfect moment to launch the dinghy.
Our strategy worked all but once when we tried to get off the beach at Playa Flamingo in front of an audience of sunburnt tourist. The outboard didn’t start on the first, or second pull, and we got caught in the breaking waves and capsized the dinghy. Thankfully, we had the forethought to have our belongings in waterproof bags, so it was only our pride that got damaged, and that was mostly just water-logged.
It is estimated that Costa Rice is home to 5% of the Earth’s biodiversity and getting to see some of the amazing creatures that live there is as easy as stepping ashore. From a quiet anchorage just south of the town of Quepos, we walked to Manual Antonio National Park, a well-publicized tourist attraction but still well worth the visit. We hired a guide at the gate and, with his telescope, immediately found an assortment of small lizards and a well-camouflaged sloth. He quickly won us over with his vast knowledge of the flora and fauna, his witty sense of humour and his obvious deep affection for the animals.
Our last stop for fun was Bahia Drake, a protected bay tucked into the northwest corner of the Osa Peninsula. Touted as one of Costa Rica’s most isolated destinations, it was quickly named a favourite spot by all the yachties we spoke to. Every morning, we would pack a thermos of tea and a light breakfast and head out on our own private jungle dinghy tour. We navigated a small river that snaked into the jungle until it became too shallow. We then turned off the outboard and drifted back downstream. As we enjoyed our breakfast picnic flocks of red macaws soared overhead and toucans called back and forth amongst the tree.
Costa Rica might be famous for its laidback “Pura Vida” attitude, but it is also infamous for its petty theft. Although we did not experience any problems first hand, we did hear of a boat who had their outboard stolen off the rails in the middle of the night, and incidents where fuel hoses disappearing from dinghies on shore. It remains the only place in 10 years that we regularly chained the dinghy up when leaving it on the beach.
We cleared customs at Bahia Gofilto, the most southern official port. The rainy season was now in full swing and distant thunder rang through the air like a howler monkeys in the forest when we first arrived. It was time to sail on. With the boat stowed for sea, we hoisted the sails and pointed the bow south. We left Costa Rica with heavy hearts and enriched spirits.
Are you ready to start planning your trip to Costa Rica? Check out our list of boats in the Caribbean to start planning your next boat holiday.
About the author: Heather Francis is originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, and wrote this article for our Zizoo sailing magazine. For over a decade she has travelled the world living and working on the boats. In 2008 she and her Aussie partner Steve bought their Newport 41’, Kate, and have been sailing her full time since. They are currently looking for wind in the Philippines, you can follow their adventures at www.yachtkate.com.