I’ve travelled to Costa Rica a few times during my jaunts up and down Latin America and I have to say it’s never been my favourite country. The abundance of wildlife is what keeps drawing me back but up until this year, I hadn’t found a spot that really captured my heart. All that changed when I visited the Osa Peninsula and Drake Bay.
The Osa is everything I wanted Costa Rica to be. Still relatively untouched by mass tourism, remote, and easy to find real grassroots local experiences. The Osa Peninsula offers a variety of experiences including wildlife spotting, water sports, and cultural activities that allow you to see the heart of the area.
The region isn’t for everyone, the remote and basic accommodations dotted around Drake Bay, Costa Rica doesn’t usually cater to the uber-luxury traveler. If you’re not a fan of bugs, spiders or sharing your shower with local bats then you should consider staying in a more upscale rainforest eco-lodge. If you enjoy being surrounded by nature, steps away from rivers and beaches and waking up to the sounds of monkeys rustling in the treetops, then I definitely recommend giving the Osa a try.
What to do in the Osa Peninsula
The biggest draw of the Osa is that you are quite literally surrounded by nature. This is one the most remote places you can visit in the country and some of the must-do activities involve either a hike or boat ride to access it. My best advice is to just relax, switch off your phone and let your jungle side come out.
There are a few options where you can base yourself while exploring the Osa Peninsula but I definitely recommend Drake Bay. From Drake, you’ll be close to Cano Island, and Corcovado National Park is a short boat ride away. It’s more rustic than the larger Puerto Jimenez and has no ATM in town but you’ll feel more like you’ve gotten away from it all. It’s almost an attraction in itself as there are several remote beaches to swim in and plenty of trails to get lost on.
Corcovado National Park
Corcovado packs a punch with 164 square miles of primary and secondary rainforests, 39 kilometers of beaches and 13 major ecosystems. It is Costa Rica's largest national park, making up close to a third of the Osa Peninsula. On a hike through the park, you might encounter bull sharks and crocodiles swimming in the waters, and tapirs, jaguars, four species of monkeys, sloths, peccary, anteater, scarlet macaws, woodpecker, and coati on land.
There is a station where you can spend the night in some basic accommodation or you can visit for the day and hike through one of the trails. You are technically not allowed to bring food into the park so if staying overnight be mindful that you will need to budget from $20 per meal at the station.
A tour to Corcovado generally involves a boat ride to San Pedrillo Park Ranger Station's entrance and includes a guided hike with lunch. Most people opt for this tour so wildlife viewing, while still abundant, is not as spectacular as the further away Sirena Station. I still saw a lot of animals but my group bumped into other groups a handful of times which makes the experience less “middle-of-nowhere” and more “run-of-the-mill”.
Cano Island (Isla del Caño) is a small 300-hectare island off the northern coast of the Osa Peninsula ringed by a great number of coral reefs.
Cano Island is considered the premier spot to snorkel and scuba dive in Costa Rica. Year-round warm water makes it worth the 45-minute boat trip from Drake Bay as is the chance to spot whales and dolphins along the way. The clear waters are home to dolphins, rays, all kinds of fish, eels, turtles, sharks, and whales.
Horseback ride or hike to San Josecito beach
Playa San Josecito is a white-sand, crescent-shaped beach located 6 km south of Drake Bay. A really unique activity is to get to the beach on horseback. While lounging on the beach keep an eye out for sloths and monkeys resting in the trees overhead.
You can also hike to San Josecito via a 2.5-hour long trail. You will have to cross Rio Claro along the way which could involve wadding through calf deep water or taking a short ferry ride across when the water is at its highest. Make sure to take plenty of water and keep your eye out for wildlife along the way. For a full day option take a boat to Rincon Beach which is a bit further along and hike back to Drake Bay, stopping at San Josecito along the way.
Costa Rica is the home of canopying and the Osa isn’t going to be left out when it comes to the exhilarating activity of zip lining. Your adventure usually begins high up in the hills reached by ATV or horseback.
The canopy tour consists of 9 platforms, 6 traverse cables, one over 100 meters long (300 ft), a 9 meter suspended observation walkway and a 25-meter rappel down to the edge of a stream for wildlife spotting.
Dolphin and Whale Watching Tours
There are two main whale seasons, December to April and July to October and the area is known for having the longest humpback whale season in the world. If you keep an eye out it’s entirely possible to spot whales breaching from the mainland but if you want to make sure to see these magnificent creatures then you can easily organise a tour in town. My top tip is to plan your visit to Cano Island first, as I was lucky to spot two whales and several dolphins just crossing over to the island.
There are really not many places in the world where you casually bump into the founder of the village while attending a town-wide meeting to greet visitors. Actually, this is the first time I’ve ever experienced this level of unplanned local interaction. In just a few days I got invited to tea at the home of a local elder, played games with the kids of the village in their central meeting place - the football field-cum-stadium, and had dinner with the family who runs Rancho Verde de Osa.
Rancho Quemado is a small 300-person village located 15 km east of Drake Bay in the heart of the Osa Peninsula. If you’re up for a rural experience with the chance to actually get to know the locals then I really suggest you give Rancho Quemado a try. I could have spent my whole trip here and you could easily base yourself here instead of Drake Bay and do some day trips to the bigger sites like Corcovado and Cano Island.
I learnt from several of the elders about their life growing up in such a remote location and the unique struggles and situations that arise when raising a raising a family in a small village. My favourite story was about the local battery-operated tv that was used to watch the nightly showing of a telenovela. Residents took it in turn to make the full day trek to the nearest village with power to recharge the battery and head back to watch the next episode. This involved an overnight so they would always miss at least one episode.
Artisanal gold mining tour
Finca Las Minas was one of the highlights of my time in Rancho Quemado. The tour allows you to get to know the work of artisanal gold miner and the history of gold in Costa Rica including getting some hands-on experience with gold mining techniques. I got to try my hand at panning for gold for the very first time and actually found some! After the tour, I got to try some traditional snacks and have a chat with the family which was probably my favourite part.
Laguna Chocuaco Canoe Trip
Canoe into a private lagoon located in primary rainforest. You get to hike one mile to the lagoon with your local guide helping you spot wildlife and pointing out the interesting local plants used in the area. The canoe trip allows you to see some amazing bird life and it is a serene experience quietly paddling down the lagoon.
Osa Peninsula Hotels
There are different levels of accommodation to choose from and most are comfortable, if a bit basic, but you can still find a luxury rainforest eco-lodge if that suits your tastes. While there are big resorts dotted around the peninsula, most accommodation is rustic and takes advantage of its surroundings to provide a unique experience.
I recommend Lapa Rios Rainforest Eco Lodge. Lapa Rios offers high-end accommodation, full board and packaged tours leaving right from their own dock and has been named one of National Geographic’s “Unique Lodges of the World”. They are a model in ecotourism and have won awards worldwide for social and environmental excellence. If you’re considering a bit of a splurge during your time in Costa Rica then this is definitely the place to do it.
Check out their reviews on Trip Advisor.
Alternatively, El Remanso Lodge provides options for most budgets including a deluxe villa with your own private plunge pool, classic bungalows and houses to fit the whole family.
Naguala Jungle Lodge
Naguala is a lovely spot right smack in the middle of the jungle. Even getting there is an adventure involving a short hike from the main road to get to the heart of the property. Due to its location, you will get a chance to see lots of wildlife including some creepy crawlies and resident bats. The cabins are private and roomy and the recent addition of a yoga pavilion overlooking a waterfall is a huge plus. Your day can be taken up with hiking, bathing in pools beneath one of the many falls or just swinging in a hammock.
Read their reviews on Trip Advisor.
Run by a local family and located on the last rural beach village before Corcovado National Park begins, Bella Vista is a cosy spot to base yourself. You’ll be spoilt by Willie’s family and made to feel completely at home. Views from the attached restaurant allow you to do some whale watching and you can also participate in cooking classes and night hikes in the nearby jungles. The best part is you will pretty much have the local beach all to yourself.
Have a look at their reviews on Trip Advisor.
Mohagine Hotel & Finca is a 7-hectare farm close to the beach and the centre of Drake Bay. Cabins are dotted around their large tropical garden with a communal sitting area and kitchen located in the centre.
Check out their reviews on Trip Advisor.
The easiest way to get in is by plane. You can change in the capital, San Jose and fly to either Drake Bay or Palma Sur airports (45 mins). Alternatively, you can go via land by shuttle, public bus or renting a car and catching a boat from Sierpe. It takes about six hours by car.
Depending on your arrival into Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) you might have to spend a night in San Jose or Alajuela before you head down to the Osa.
Flying to Drake Bay
Both Sansa and Nature Airlines have short flights to Drake Bay. Make sure you arrange ground transfer with your accommodation in advance as this is a really small airport and taxis aren’t really going to be lining up to take you into town.
Keep in mind that depending on where you’re staying on the peninsula you might need to arrive at your hotel via boat transfer. I’d suggest wearing shoes you can remove so they don’t get wet getting on and off the boats.
Drake Bay Overland
If coming by land, the best option is to take the bus (5-6 hours) from the TRACOPA station in San Jose to Palmar Norte. Then you’ll need to take a short taxi or bus ride to Sierpe. From Sierpe it’s a 2-hour boat ride to Drake Bay.
Getting around Drake Bay
Most places are either accessed by public transport, shuttle or by boat. If you’re renting a car make sure you get a 4-wheel drive as the roads can get quite muddy and there may be some small rivers you need to cross. #adventure!
The team behind Lokal Travel personalised my time in Osa to help me see some of these unique experiences. I would highly recommend you check out their website for fully organised tours or hand-picked local experiences. They have over 50 activities and lodging options in Costa Rica for a range of budgets.
The best thing about Lokal Travel is that they are supporting the local community by putting money directly in the hands of locals. You won’t find any chain hotels or bus tours packed with other tourists, just truly local experiences. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you’ve probably picked up on the fact that Costa Rica is one of my least favourite countries because of how damn easy it is to travel around most of the country. There’s no challenge to it! Due to this amazing tourist infrastructure, I'm often surrounded by eager first-time travellers and families. Two demographics I do not fit in with at all.
Thankfully, Lokal Travel really opened my eyes to the still remote and relatively untouched parts of the country that I have since fallen in love with. Check out how they handpick experiences based on an extensive selection process, including in-person vetting and browse their adventures online.
With all the hiking you’ll be doing make sure you have a quality daypack with some waterproofing to protect you from the main part of the rainforest.
Make sure you’ve packed enough sunscreen and bug spray as well as a decent water bottle.
Think about how you’re going to keep your camera and other electronics dry. Be mindful when moving between your cooler hotel room into the more humid outdoors as your lenses will likely fog up. Use a dry bag to prevent condensation.
Make sure you’ve worn in your hiking boots well before your trip and pack moisture wicking pants and socks to avoid that icky damp feeling.
Consider some rubber boots for the more remote areas like Rancho Quemado or even to replace your liking boots altogether.
There is no ATM in Drake Bay and most places accept only cash so make sure to bring enough to last you. If you need money in an emergency, there are a couple of places in town that will allow you to take a cash advance out of your card for a hefty fee.