Costa Rica is not short of visitors, and with so many other travelers coming on, it is sometimes hard to get out of the tourist area. But think about it for a moment; Costa Rica is home to 6% of the world’s biodiversity, and scientists believe there are still more endemic species to be discovered. So, if you cannot discover hidden corners in this country, you are wrong about something.
Of Costa Rica’s dream destinations, many are remote, in more hidden places in the country, protected by national parks or difficult to access due to challenging dirt roads. But the same effort and time make the trip worthwhile. So put these destinations on your itinerary and discover these hidden places full of wonders.
1. Cabo Blanco / Cabuya Island
The first on your list: Cabo Blanco Island. Located a few kilometers from the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, this island consists of a huge rock jutting out of the Pacific. Although this rugged little island is almost devoid of vegetation, it is home to the largest white booby population in the country. The name Cabo Blanco comes from the guano that covers parts of this outcrop. You can hire a local fisherman to take you to this ultra-remote island to dive, fish or whale watch.
The Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve protects the island, as well as a small section of the coastline, which, on the other hand, contains all the vegetation that is missing on the island -and all the animals as well. It is home to the tufted magpie, morpho butterflies, the catana parrot, armadillos, coatis, and various species of wild cats. Perhaps you will miss some of these species, but surely you will not be able to avoid the congos, who scream so loudly as they swing among the trees that they can be heard from distances of kilometers.
Unlike Manuel Antonio National Park, located further south on the Pacific coast, which has visitors all year round, this nature reserve is quieter and more peaceful. You can stay in the small town of Cabuya or go to Malpaís. The latter is a relaxed town where surfing predominates, which the Costa Ricans love so much that there is a very famous musical group in the country whichbears the name of the town. You will have to take a bus back to Cabuya to get to the park, but the lonely, scenic route is worth it.
2. San Gerardo de Dota
Less than 3 hours south of the capital city, this rural town in the Talamanca mountains is almost devoid of tourists and tourist infrastructure, apart from some eco-friendly hotels and sodas (typical restaurants). But San Gerardo de Dota is one of the few places in Costa Rica where you can sight the quetzal. To give you an idea, another of its habitats is in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, which welcomes more than 250,000 tourists each year. Although it is becoming increasingly famous among bird watchers, San Gerardo de Dota remains off the map for most international visitors.
In addition to having an amazing birdlife (with more than 200 species apart from the quetzal!), The Los Santos Forest Reserve offers you endless green trails that are often covered in mist. Reaching heights of 3,600 meters above sea level, the ecosystems of these mountains are organized in layers, one on top of the other, with thick oak forests on the heights and the rainforest below. You could spot peccaries running through the lowlands, while the Savegre River offers you spectacular possibilities for trout fishing.
3. Punta Manzanillo
The Caribbean side of Costa Rica is unique in the country. Here you will not find the typical gallo pinto on the table, since this region has a special charm for the Afro-Caribbean culture. There, you can taste the spiciest food, listen to the loudest music, and enjoy the hottest water.
You will start by heading south until the road ends. At the southern end of the Costa Rican Caribbean coast, you will find a quiet beach located inside the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. It’s called Punta Manzanillo and it will make your heart beat faster with its sapphire-colored waters, its almond-bordered sands and its wildlife with sloths, monkeys, toucans, and tropical fish.
Within the reserve, wetland palms protect tapirs, a threatened species, as well as a host of wildlife. It is like an Eden, but more exotic. When you finish exploring the refuge, sit down in one of the sodas for fried yucca or rondón, a local soup.
4. Ostional National Wildlife Reserve
Near the striking Las Baulas National Marine Park is located the Ostional Wildlife Reserve, the most important place for the annual arrival of Kemp’s ridley turtles. This phenomenon consists of the arrival of hundreds of female sea turtles, known locally as the olive ridley turtle, which come up to the coast during a season of several months.
Their arrival takes place in groups, usually a few days before the new moon, when the night is darkest. Hundreds of turtles congregate for days in coastal waters, thus increasing their numbers. And then at the same time, as if by a secret signal, they start coming ashore to lay their eggs. The first group always arrives during the night -hundreds at a time- then the others rise in a steady wave over the next few days.
Although there are tours that pass through the place, it is not saturated with tourists, probably because the show takes place in the dark. There can be an arrival at any time between July and December. However, the high season is between August and November.
Note: The environment where the turtles lay their eggs is extremely fragile, so it is essential that you go with an experienced tour guide. Not only might you get in trouble if you walk in alone; you might risk crushing the eggs or damaging the fragile ecosystem. Remember to be smart and respectful with regard to nature!
5. Matapalo Beach
Located at the southern tip of the wild Osa Peninsula, Playa Matapalo is a laid-back and windy surf beach almost at the end of the road. It is a 6 to 7 hour drive from San José, which avoids the beach crowds, as most prefer to visit Tamarindo or Jacó.
There is not much to do in Matapalo, and that is what makes it so special. It is a place where you do not have the need to book a tour or join group activities -it feels far from the rest of the world. It is a place to read a book on the beach or just watch the tide rise and fall. It is close to Corcovado National Park without being within the park boundaries, so you can enjoy the splendor of the area without having to pay a park entrance fee. If you want to take a day trip to the park, you are half an hour from the park office.
You should always take this tip into account: sometimes, the best places in Costa Rica are hidden in plain sight.