Venture beyond Costa Rica’s mainland to discover wildlife wonders, underwater worlds, and hidden treasures that lie an island hop offshore…
Costa Rica is best known for its towering volcanic landscapes, pristine Caribbean beaches, and extraordinary wildlife on its mainland. But take a boat trip to its lesser-known islands and travellers will be in awe of the diverse nature that grows on their secret shores. Whether you’re after world-class diving, spectacular wildlife encounters, or up-beat adventure, experience crowd-free Costa Rica on these uncharted islands.
1. Discover hidden treasures on Cocos Island
Rich in natural wonders, marine wildlife, and buried golden treasures, Isla del Coco is Costa Rica’s far-flung hidden gem, located 550km from its mainland. The diverse landscapes of thick coniferous forests, plummeting waterfalls, and pristine Pacific waters are well-preserved by its uninhabited status and few hundred visitors that set sail on the 36-hour long journey from Puntarenas each year.
Visitors will feel a rare sense of seclusion as they hike around its volcanic carved cliffs and valleys, or magnificent waterfall trails. For added adventure, seek out century-old treasures that are believed to be buried on the island, including 350 tons of gold bars worth an incredible $16 billion.
The highlights of the national park extend off-shore with a snorkel, dip, or dive in the surrounding waters, where a whole spectrum of sea-life thrives. Large schools of hammerhead sharks, dolphin pods, majestic manta rays, and humpback whales are among the many species that are spotted off-shore between July-November and December-March.
Make sure to drop by the Genius River Bridge, made from materials confiscated from shark poachers – and a unique tribute to the conservation efforts by the local rangers.
With its far-flung location and protected nature, there are often limited places available to visit the island, therefore planning a trip well in advance is advised.
2. Spot turtles nesting in Tortuguero National Park
Though not technically an island, Tortuguero is a sandbar to the north-east of Costa Rica’s mainland that visitors can only access by boat.
Watching green turtles nest their eggs on the beaches of Tortuguero National Park is one of the greatest wildlife experiences to encounter in Costa Rica, second only to observing several hundred hatchlings race to the ocean. The beach Playa Tortuguero spans 35km along the north-east coast of Costa Rica and remains the go-to place during the nesting season of July to early October, to observe this natural phenomenon under a starlit night sky.
The four key species that can be spotted nesting in Tortuguero NP include the green turtle (commonly spotted nesting in April and August), the leatherback sea turtle (best seen in February and July), the hawksbill sea turtle (frequently seen in April and October) and finally the loggerhead sea turtle (seen nesting in April-May).
Navigating Tortuguero’s maze of waterways by kayak or canoe allows travellers to explore the depths of the freshwater canals and wetlands that would otherwise be missed out. Catch a glimpse of caiman rising to the water’s surface, and anticipate manatees swimming by. Keep your eyes peeled on the edges of the riverbanks to see jaguars and tapirs emerging from the rainforest depths to feed from the water. Meanwhile kinkajous can be spotted in treetops and are an equally delightful animal to encounter as its ‘honey bear’ nickname.
Search the skies overhead for the bright beaks of toucans that are among more than 900 species of Costa Rica’s birdlife, as well as the elegant teal shaded feathers of Green Honeycreepers.
3. Explore San Lucas Island Wildlife Refuge
Formerly an isolated prison to Costa Rica’s most undesirable politicians and most violent criminals, Isla San Lucas has since transformed into a national wildlife refuge after the prison’s closure in 1991. 100 years of confinement were lived out by criminals that were banished to the island in the Gulf of Nicoya. Their stories live on in the form of graffiti and hand-written messages on the cell walls that are still visible to today’s visitors – a stark, if not slightly fascinating insight to the history of the island.
But natural beauty has blossomed in replacement and the new residents, including howler monkeys and eight species of bat, can be spotted among the overgrown vines and treetops.
As one of only two islands in the Gulf of Nicoya blessed with natural water, it is no wonder that getting up-close with marine life is one of the highlights of visiting San Lucas. Its surrounding waters are teeming with tropical fish, sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, and dolphins, who don’t shy away from travellers.
As if that wasn’t enough to explore already, eight pre-Colombian dated archaeological sites have been discovered that were once inhabited by indigenous tribes. Day trips are available from Paquera, taking 25 minutes to access by boat, as well as 40 minute boat rides from Puntarenas port. Tour guided trips are also available and recommended for a more in-depth experience on the island.
4. Dive with manta rays off Isla del Caño
Located 20km offshore from Drake Bay, Caño Island Biological Reserve serves to protect some of Costa Rica’s most precious elements, including artefacts that date back to pre-Colombian times. But its real beauty can be found in the pristine ocean, where crystal visibility allows swimmers to explore magnificent underwater worlds in both the shallows and depths.
The coral reefs vary in a whole spectrum of green, red and purple-blue hues, indicating their good health as a reflection of the immaculate waters they flourish in.
Head 2km beyond the shore to El Bajo del Diablo (Devil’s Rock) – Isla del Caño’s premier diving spot – where large rock pinnacles reach as far as the ocean floor ad create an incredible underwater landscape of varied crevices and peaks.
Watch majestic manta rays with wingspans of up to 20ft glide below, or share these world-class waters alongside pods of dolphins and pilot whales with a dive down under.
For those wanting to stay dry, take a whale-watching trip between December and April for the best chances of spotting 40-ton humpback whales return from their feeding grounds in Alaska.
5. Take it slow on Chira Island
With a ‘pura vida’ approach, life in Costa Rica can be as slow-paced or action-packed as you want, and Isla de Chira is no exception. Its rich biodiversity and spectacular array of flora and fauna makes it an ecotourism gem and is a great opportunity to get up-close with Costa Rica’s wild nature.
The eco-systems of Chira Island are as varied as its wildlife and natural habitats that are connected by the Tempisque River, known for being Costa Rica’s largest waterway. Travellers can meander through salt pans and mangrove swamps at their own leisure by boat, which are also within close enough proximity to explore in one day if you find yourself tight for time.
Located in the upper end of the Gulf of Nicoya and 33km from San Lucas Island, Isla del Chira is easily accessible. Simply head to Puntarenas and hitch a ride on the daily boat from the fish market; within 15 minutes you’ll have swapped city streets for sun-kissed sands and the friendly charms of island life.
Thanks to: Ellie Kinsella