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Costa Rica’s southern zone is an area of jaw-dropping beauty, with vast expanses of virgin lowland rainforest, loads of wildlife, tons of adventure opportunities, and few cities, towns, or settlements. Lush, forested mountains tumble into the sea, streams run clear and clean, scarlet macaws squawk raucously in the treetops, and dolphins frolic in the Golfo Dulce. The Osa Peninsula is the most popular attraction in this region and one of the premier ecotourism destinations in the world. It’s home to Corcovado National Park ★★★, the largest single expanse of lowland tropical rainforest in Central America, and its neighbor, Piedras Blancas National Park ★★, both connected by the Golfo Dulce Forestry Reserve. Scattered around the edges of these national treasures and along the shores of the Golfo Dulce are some of the country’s finest nature lodges. These remote inns offer comfortable to luxurious lodgings, attentive service, informed guides, and a wide range of activities and tours, all close to the area’s many natural wonders.

The Southern Zone’s remoteness is often emphasized, and perhaps exaggerated. You can fly into any of four airstrips here from San José in less than an hour, or you can drive here in about six hours on good, paved roads. Beyond the population centers, though, the roads get rough and four-wheel drive is often a must. Some places can be reached only by boat, and the prime attraction, Corcovado National Park, has no roads. However, you can fly into the heart of the park, take a boat, or undertake some of the most scenic (if grueling) hiking in the country to get there. You may find that even the most luxurious lodges here are rustic and lacking in amenities like air-conditioning, TVs, and telephones, but their stunning settings more than make up for it.

In many ways, the Southern Zone is Costa Rica’s final frontier, and the towns of Golfito and Puerto Jiménez remain a bit rough around the edges. (In either place, you may detect the aroma of sewage in the air while you’re trying to enjoy dinner at a restaurant or drinks at a bar.) Tourism is still underdeveloped here, with no large resorts, though a marina, a controversial Hilton hotel and condominium project are coming to Puerto Jiménez, and a big condo project is under construction in Pavones. It’s best to put some planning into a vacation here, book your rooms and transport in advance, and be prepared for heat, humidity, rain, and bugs.