Q TRAVEL (NYTimes.com) Early morning is the best time to be awake in Costa Rica. In the soft, bluish light and amid calm, cool breezes, the previous day’s heat and humidity are just a memory.
This particular morning, though, there was a problem. I walked over to the Land Cruiser owned by my host, Edu, and joined him in considering a flat rear tire. I was scheduled to go on a tour of Corcovado National Park in 30 minutes, and Edu was supposed to take me to the pickup point.
“It’s no problem,” he said, and he pulled out a cellphone to make a call. “Pura vida.” Pura vida, an unofficial motto that means “pure life,” is rarely used in a literal sense in Costa Rica. Instead, it’s an all-purpose saying that can be applied to any number of situations: greetings, farewells or, in this case, “don’t worry about it.”
Ten minutes later, a distant buzzing could be heard from down the dirt path that leads up to Rio Drake Farm, a small hotel that Edu oversees with his wife, Sabrina. It was a small motorbike coughing gray smoke. He slipped the rider a few bills and told me to hop on the back. Then we were off, dipping and diving through the forest on the sputtering bike as the sun rose higher in the sky, rushing to make the boat to Corcovado.
In the Central American wilderness, it’s easy to lose yourself: Gamboling through European capitals is always fine and worthwhile, but you never really forget about the emails, voice mail messages and bills that await you at home. In Drake Bay, on the richly biodiverse southwestern coast of Costa Rica, it’s possible to truly disconnect. Better yet, I was able to relish this thoroughly enjoyable tropical getaway, full of hiking, snorkeling and wildlife encounters, for a very reasonable sum.
Costa Rica has no standing military, choosing to focus on other issues like environmental conservation. Its efforts (about 25 percent of the country is protected) have paid off: While Costa Rica occupies a mere 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface, it has almost 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity. It’s the ideal place for an ecologically conscious vacation.
Documents in order (you may not be allowed on the plane to Costa Rica unless you’ve had the yellow fever vaccination and are carrying proof), I chose the Osa over the more developed Nicoya Peninsula in the northwest precisely because it was more remote and difficult to reach and therefore more likely, I reasoned, to have an experience dominated more by nature than by other visiting tourists.
Your best bets to reach Drake Bay are Nature Air and Sansa Airlines; I flew Sansa. Expect to pay around $80 to $120 each way. (American dollars are widely accepted, though I recommend getting some colones, the local currency.) A few essential tips: Sansa doesn’t leave from the main airline terminal in San José. It’s in a separate building nearby, so make sure to double check where you’re going. Your boarding pass is simply a reusable laminated card with the name of your destination airport on it — it doesn’t have your name or any other personal information on it, so don’t misplace it.
And while most airports usually have a decent selection of small stores to buy food, supplies, and various other sundries, it’s sorely lacking in San José’s. Searching for sunscreen, I found a store in the terminal selling a small tube of 50 SPF lotion for 9,500 colones, or a little under $17. A similarly sized container of SPF 70 was going for 13,000 colones. When I inquired as to the difference in price, the man at the counter shrugged and pointed at the number 70. “Bigger number,” he said. I recommend bringing your own sunscreen — and bug spray (though the restrictions on liquids for carry-ons can make this onerous).
After a 45-minute flight on a small Cessna propeller plane, I was in Drake Bay. Edu, wearing cargo shorts and a lime-green ball cap, found me immediately among the dozen passengers and we climbed into his Land Cruiser, then made one of the briefest airport transfers I’ve ever experienced. The drive to Rio Drake Farm took about a minute.
In the heat and humidity of the afternoon, Edu walked me past a hand-painted sign that read “Bienvenidos a Rio Drake Farm,” papaya and marañón (cashew fruit) trees, and showed me my modest room. For $54 a night, I had my own room with a private bathroom. You can pay less, at nearby Cabinas Manolo, for example ($40 per night, but you’ll have to pay for transportation from the airport) and also much, much more: At high-end eco-tourism spots like the Luna Lodge, also on the Osa Peninsula, you can pay over $200 a night for a private bungalow.
Still, my accommodations were satisfactory. The bed was basic but serviceable, and the room came with a weak fan that provided some relief on sweltering nights (and helped keep mosquitoes at bay). A slow Wi-Fi connection is available to guests for a couple of hours every night. But any lack of creature comforts was compensated by other amenities: breathtaking sunsets from the open dining area, the ability to ride a kayak in the Rio Drake and proximity to a nearly deserted beach and nature trails.
One day I trekked across a rope bridge to reach the gorgeous beach, which I had almost completely to myself. Another morning I went hiking along the monkey trail on Rio Drake’s property and saw a couple of capuchins moving through the branches above me. Other activities, like a fishing trip ($125) or seeing poisonous dart frogs ($50), can be arranged.
I chose snorkeling ($89) and a tour of Corcovado National Park ($99). With these, Edu simply arranges the tour and acts as a middleman. If you want to save a few dollars, you can book directly with the tour operator (Manolo Tours, in this case), but you may just find it easier to book it all through Edu.
At 6:30 a.m., after a night of driving rain, I headed out to snorkel. A group of us (roughly a dozen, mostly Europeans) gathered and greeted our tour guide, Gustavo, and his son, both with matching curly hair. We took a 45-minute boat ride out to Isla del Caño, a small island due west of Drake Bay. During the journey, we spotted a pod of spotted dolphins playing in the spectacularly blue water and red-footed boobies and brown boobies flying alongside our boat.
We arrived, donned our provided flippers and snorkeling gear and plunged into the water. The colors were spectacular. Despite the previous night’s rain, the fish and coral were bright and clear. Immediately Gustavo said, “There’s a shark.” I froze. Gustavo was unperturbed. He took his Go-Pro and went to move closer to the whitetip reef shark floating not far below the surface. He did that frequently during our outing, demonstrating superhuman lung capacity and disappearing minutes at a time to get a better look.
And there was plenty to see. No sooner had we moved past the shark than a black sea turtle swam by, plunging deep into the dark blue ocean below. After that, it was a symphony of crackling coral and a parade of bright yellows, metallic greens and deep, shiny blacks. Parrotfish swam alongside us, followed by a few clown fish. We encountered a school of horse-eyed jacks, hundreds of small, silvery fish swirling and flashing brightly like lures in the water.
The tour of Corcovado National Park the next day provides just as much excitement for those who wish to remain on solid ground. For the most part, anyway. We had something of an amphibious landing upon arriving near Sirena Beach (pack flip-flops or water shoes, as well as water and sunblock). After my exhilarating motorbike ride from Rio Drake, I boarded the boat to Corcovado with just minutes to spare. It’s a lengthy ride down the peninsula to the park — nearly 90 minutes each way.
Our guide, Julián, was no-nonsense. “Be careful,” he told the group of us. “We have some of the most poisonous snakes in the world.” I pulled my socks up slightly. “This is the land of the jaguar, the puma and the tapir,” he said. There were also 22,000 butterfly species in this forest alone, he said. With sharp eyes, he pointed out a cute little coati-mundi poking around in the dirt, then a crested caracara bird.
“We must be quiet,” he said, leading us to a small clearing where a huge tapir at least six feet long was lying with her baby. We walked past majestic ceibas and thick, ropy ficus trees, all while gazing up at playful spider monkeys, a couple of dozing howlers and the odd black-mandible toucan (Julián helpfully brought a small telescope so we could get a closer look).
Some of the sightings were clearly semiplanned by the guides. There was one particular tree where Julián seemed to know a three-toed sloth would be hiding with her baby. But at one point halfway through our roughly four-hour hike, Julián’s face lit up. “There’s something I haven’t seen before,” he explained, after having talked excitedly to another tour guide.
After another 10 minutes of walking, he set down his telescope and looked into it. “That’s it!” he said, and motioned to us to take a peek. There were two silky anteaters, or pygmy anteaters, high in the branches of a nearby tree, their fuzzy, pinkish-brown tails intertwined. It was hard not to feel enthusiasm along with Julián, who looked positively gobsmacked. “I’ve never seen this,” he said, beaming. Pretty soon, I had a smile on my face as big as Julián’s.
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