Beaches, forests, wildlife, and solitude are the main reasons to visit Drake Bay. Although Corcovado National Park is the area’s star attraction, there are plenty of other nearby options. The Osa Peninsula is home to an unbelievable variety of plants and animals: more than 140 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, and 130 species of amphibians and reptiles. You can expect to see coatimundis, scarlet macaws, parrots, hummingbirds, and as many as four species of monkeys. Other inhabitants include jaguars, tapirs, peccaries, sloths, anteaters, and crocodiles.
Around Drake Bay and within the park are miles of trails through rainforests and swamps, down beaches, and around rocky headlands. All of the lodges listed offer guided excursions into the park, but since the park service closed the trail between the San Pedrillo and Sirena ranger stations, it is no longer possible to hike around the peninsula from Drake Bay.
All lodges in the area have their own in-house tour operations and offer a host of half- and full-day tours and activities, including hikes in Corcovado, snorkeling trips to Caño Island, horseback rides, and wildlife-viewing treks. In some cases, tours are included in your room rate or package; in others, they must be bought a la carte. Other options include mountain biking and sea kayaking. Most of these tours run between $65 and $120; scuba diving costs about $150 for a two-tank dive with equipment, and sportfishing runs $900 to $2,000, depending on the size of the boat and other amenities.
Canopy Tour: If you want to try a zip-line canopy adventure, the Drake Bay Canopy Tour (tel. 8314-5454; www.canopytour.com/drakebay.html) has six cable runs, several “Tarzan swings,” and a hanging bridge, all set in lush forests just outside of Drake Bay. The 2-hour tour costs $55.
Isla del Caño: One of the most popular excursions from Drake Bay is a trip to Isla del Caño and the Caño Island Biological Reserve ★★ for snorkeling or scuba diving or hiking on the island. Caño Island, about 19km (12 miles) offshore from Drake Bay, was once home to a pre-Columbian culture about which little is known. Few animals or birds live on the island, but the coral reefs just offshore teem with life, making this one of Costa Rica’s prime scuba diving sites ★★. Visibility is often quite good, especially during the dry season, and the beach has easily accessible snorkeling. All of the lodges listed below offer trips to Isla del Caño. The Costa Rican National Park service severely restricts access to the island, and visiting groups are no longer allowed to picnic there. Typically, tours arrive in the morning, conduct their snorkel and scuba excursions, and then head back to the mainland for a picnic lunch and some beach time.
Night Tour: One of the most compelling tour options in Drake Bay is a 2-hour night tour ★★★ (tel. 8701-7356; www.thenighttour.com; $40 per person) offered by Tracie Stice, who is affectionately known as the “Bug Lady,” and her partner Gianfranco Gómez. Equipped with headlamps, participants get a bug’s-eye view of the forest at night. You might see some larger forest dwellers, but most of the tour is a fascinating exploration of the nocturnal world of insects, arachnids, frogs, toads, and snakes. Among the highlights is watching Tracie pry open the portal of a trapdoor spider, and you might see an orange-kneed tarantula. Any hotel in Drake Bay can book the tour for you. However, the travel distance makes it impossible for those staying at hotels outside of walking distance of the town.
Whale-Watching: Drake Bay is one of the best places in Costa Rica for whale-watching; Northern Pacific humpback whales are commonly spotted in the area from March through April, and Southern Pacific populations September through October. All the hotels listed can arrange whale-watching and dolphin-spotting trips. Two resident marine biologists, Shawn Larkin and Roy Sancho, are often hired by the better hotels, but depending on demand and availability, the hotels may send you out with one of their own captains.
If you want more information on the local whale-watching scene, or to contact Shawn Larkin directly, head to the website www.costacetacea.com. They offer deep-water free diving and snorkel tours aimed at providing the chance to swim in close proximity to the large pelagic fish, mammals, and reptiles.
Those Mysterious Stone Spheres
Although Costa Rica lacks the great cities, giant temples, and bas-relief carvings of the Maya, Aztec, and Olmec civilizations of northern Mesoamerica, its pre-Columbian inhabitants left a unique legacy that has archaeologists and anthropologists still scratching their heads. Over a period of several centuries, hundreds of painstakingly carved and carefully positioned stone spheres were left by the peoples who lived throughout the Diquís Delta, which flanks the Térraba River in southern Costa Rica. The orbs, which range from grapefruit size to more than 2m (6 1/2 ft.) in diameter, can weigh up to 15 tons, and all are nearly perfect spheres.
Archaeologists believe that the spheres were created during two defined cultural periods. The first, called the Aguas Buenas period, dates from around A.D. 100 to 500. Few spheres survive from this time. The second phase, during which spheres were created in apparently greater numbers, is called the Chiriquí period and lasted from approximately A.D. 800 to 1500. The “balls” believed to have been carved during this time frame are widely dispersed along the entire length of the lower section of the Térraba River. To date, only one known quarry for the spheres has been discovered, in the mountains above the Diquís Delta, which points to a difficult and lengthy transportation process.
Some archaeologists believe that the spheres were hand-carved in a very time-consuming process, using stone tools, perhaps aided by some sort of firing process. However, another theory holds that granite blocks were placed at the bases of powerful waterfalls, and the hydraulic beating of the water eventually turned and carved the rock into these near-perfect spheres. And more than a few proponents have credited extraterrestrial intervention for the creation of the stone balls.
Most of the stone balls have been found at the archaeological remains of defined settlements and are associated with either central plazas or known burial sites. Their size and placement have been interpreted to have both social and celestial importance, although their exact significance remains a mystery. Unfortunately, many of the stone balls have been plundered and are currently used as lawn ornaments in the fancier neighborhoods of San José. Some have even been shipped out of the country. The Museo Nacional de Costa Rica has a nice collection, including one massive sphere in its center courtyard. It’s a never-fail photo op. You can also see the stone balls near the small airports in Palmar Sur and Drake Bay, and on Isla del Caño (which is 19km/12 miles off the Pacific coast near Drake Bay).
The best place to see the spheres is the Finca 6 Archaeological Museum ★★ (tel. 2100-6000; daily 8am–4pm; $6), located between Palmar Sur and Sierpe. (The blue sign saying “FINCA 6,” right next to a one-lane bridge, is easy to miss.) It’s estimated that nearly 10% of all stone spheres produced in Costa Rica can be found on the 10 or so acres that comprise Finca 6. A small museum provides background and displays of some smaller spheres and other artifacts. From here, trails lead out to several excavations of archaeological finds where a range of large stone spheres and other relics are displayed in their original positioning. Finca 6 is located 6km south of Palmar Sur. This unique archaeological site is easily visited by anyone arriving or departing Drake Bay via Sierpe.
Where’s the Beach?
If you’re staying at La Paloma Lodge, there’s a popular patch of sand known as Cocalito beach, about a 10-minute hike away. The nicest beaches around involve taking a day trip to Isla del Caño or San Josesito. The latter is a stunning beach farther south on the peninsula with excellent snorkeling possibilities.
If you want to help local efforts in protecting the fragile rainforests and wild areas of the Osa Peninsula, contact the Corcovado Foundation (tel. 2297-3013; www.corcovadofoundation.org) or Osa Conservation (tel. 2735-5756; www.osaconservation.org).
Moreover, if you’re looking to really lend a hand, both of the aforementioned groups have volunteer programs ranging from trail maintenance to environmental and English-language education to sea-turtle protection programs.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.