Book! Pack! Go Travel! by Robbie Mamo

Pavones, Costa Rica and the Golfo Dulce

Pavones, Costa Rica and the Golfo Dulce

Having had to visit Santa Teresa for old times sake and wanting to spend more than a few days in Playa Guiones I decided I’d skip the rest of the country and go straight down South to Pavones which is located on the tip of the Osa peninsula which is a similar layout to the Osa peninsula and any glance at a map of Costa Rica will show this. This is considered to be in some of the densest tropical rainforest this country has to offer and that is saying a lot. Located near the Corcovado National Park you are guaranteed to see about as much wildlife as anyone could imagine by venturing to this area of the country.

Pavones isn’t built up at all and isn’t an easy trip even if you fly to the nearest large town of Golfito which is the hub for the area. Getting here without a vehicle means first travelling to Golfito by either a small aircraft with Nature Air or Sansa or much more slowly by bus. I was going to go the bus route and that meant going to San Jose first, spending the night there and catching the morning bus to Golfito and one of the infrequent buses that venture into the jungle en route to Pavones.

After spending the day on the bus to San Jose I took a taxi from the Coca Cola bus station first to the Tracopa bus station so I could buy a ticket for the early morning bus just in case I got there a bit late. The ticket costed 3500Col/$7 and this was going to be a 7 hour trip. I once considered staying near this bus terminal but it’s not a safe area especially at night. If I am arriving to this bus station I get the first taxi I see and get out of there as soon as possible.

Overnight in San Jose…

After that was done I knew I didn’t want to stay in that area of town even if it meant a taxi away from there to my hotel for the night. I stay at Hotel Vesuvio located in the Barrio Otoyo neighbourhood in San Jose. They rent single rooms for 110 000Col/$55 per night and they have secure clean rooms with hot water and AC. I like this area of San Jose for overnighting because it is away from an area that is known as the Gringo Gulch located by the Holiday Inn downtown which is Costa Ricas sin city!

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Although I always tell people to be cautious walking around any major city at night this area is still a relatively calm part of town near bank towers, other office buildings, cafes and a few casinos which in my opinion are usually places where you should use extra caution. It is also close to the Parque Simon Bolivar which is a really nice park worth visiting as well as lots of museums and cultural oriented attractions. They have an Italian restaurant as part of the hotel and although I didn’t eat there, they had a good menu and it was quite busy for a Monday night.

I wasn’t in the mood for Italian so I went for a walk down the road to the Sportsmen’s Lodge which is quite a scene in itself. I go here for the food and they have the best burgers in San Jose using imported Peruvian beef made into 1/2 lb patties. I went for Monday Night Football and for a sports bar most of the patrons didn’t seem all that interested in who won. If you hang around here long enough you quickly realize that it’s about as close to a brothel as I’ve ever seen for a sports bar. I guess that explains the rooms available upstairs and this is a popular place for single men to stay at for obvious reasons. If you can get past the fact that there are hookers hanging out there it’s a great place to watch sports, have some drinks and eat some different food than what is usually on offer down here . Rooms here start at 50 000C/$100 per night and go up to 137 500Col/$275 for their best rooms.

The best value in the area and a place I have also stayed while being in San Jose is the Hotel Castillo and their rooms start at 25 000Col/$50 and I also highly recommend it.

On the move…San Jose, CR to Pavones, CR via Golfito

I would need to be up early the next day and take a taxi to the Tracopa bus station which serves the Southern provinces of Costa Rica. There are two daily buses making this run and you can find information on their website www.tracopacr.com for times and other Southern towns they service. If driving from San Jose you can shave an hour off of the total time of the trip but the roads are slow going most of the time no matter what type of vehicle you are in. For information on travelling to other locations in the area information can be found at www.golfito.info.

The next morning I arranged for an early taxi to come pick me up at the hotel and take me to the Tracopa bus terminal. I usually like to have the hotel arrange for me to have a taxi pick me up as there is a better chance of getting a reputable driver even if you have to pay slightly more. This drive took around 10 minutes and I paid the driver 2500Col/$5. There are lots of people operating unlicensed taxi services so it’s a good idea to pay attention to who your driver is and what the car looks like. When in the city compared to the beach towns don’t expect too many SUV’s to be operating but instead small compact cars. This is important if you are travelling with boards.

The bus left on time at 6:30 and this would be my home for the next 7 hours en route to Golfito where I would then get another bus to the jungle surfing paradise of Pavones! I’ve never seen a bus get more packed but there are lots of stops and the locals in certain areas will hop this bus to go a short distance down the road and they rely on this service to get around from one remote town to another. This being said there were people standing most of the way and this is a fact of life here. You don’t get turned away from getting on a bus because there are no seats available but you have to stand and depending on the length of the journey this isn’t always my favourite thing to do! This bus passes through Jaco, Quepos and Dominical before reaching Golfito and all points in between.

In the last few years major highway improvements have made travel easier especially between the southern zone and the construction of two new bridges between Jaco and Quepos allow the rivers to be crossed even in rainy season which sometimes made this impossible and the road had to be closed.

This bus had no AC but since we were close to the coast, so for most of the drive it wasn’t too bad because of the cross breeze from the sea and the mountains. Costa Rica has some of the best views I’ve ever seen while driving around. It also has some of the biggest cliffs I’ve seen any roads built on and depending on where I’m sitting and how crazy the driver is it still gives me butterflies when looking over the edge. Also, expect the drivers to be passing up and down hills and around corners and when a local gets scared then you know you had a really close call!

I managed to have a quick nap on the bus for a bit and woke up about an hour outside of Golfito. This was like waking up in another world! It’s nothing but the lushest rainforest in the mountains leading inland to the coast. Even though we were travelling on the main highway it was still very rugged and literally a road cut out of the jungle overlooking the coast at times. We also passed over and near many rivers and waterfalls and the humidity here was extreme which shows an abundance of natural water and springs especially considering it was the dry season.

Golfito…

After arriving in Golfito I got off the bus at the last stop which is located near an open market. Here there are a few small stands selling anything from electronics, phone cards to clothing. If you follow the inlet around you will see where the commercial and sport fishing boats are docked and there are also large ships that transfer cargo here and use the bay as a safe haven in bad weather.

The city of Golfito is the capital city of the county of Golfito in the Puntarenus region. This whole province has under 40 000 inhabitants and is largely undeveloped. The county of Golfito has land on either side of the Golfo Dulce(Sweet Gulf) and all of the Southern Osa Peninsula.

Some photos I took while in Golfito

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I knew I had to find the bus station or stop where I would need to catch my bus to Pavones. I asked a local and he told me to go and wait over by the hospital and this made it easy to find because there are signs for the hospital as you walk down the road. I walked over there from the market and this took about 15 minutes. It seemed longer though because even with Costa Rica being an already humid country I have never experienced anything like being in this area of the world! That being said I also couldn’t believe how fresh and amazingly rich the air was. It is literally a town in the middle of the rainforest that meets mangroves and a large estuary and anywhere down here is rich with fish, birds and other wildlife. All around town the trees and tropical plants blanket the sheer cliffs and it is like being surrounded by a wall of green.

My view from the bus stop in front of the hospital.

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It was a little over an hour wait for my next bus which would eventually take me Pavones which was once again the last stop on the bus! The whole time I waited I didn’t see one other traveller or any gringo’s in the area which in a country as tourism friendly as Costa Rica that was surprising. While I was waiting I asked the price of a taxi to Pavones and it ranged from 35000C/$70 to 50 000C/$100 which in both cases are fairly reasonable depending on how many people are travelling and knowing that you are going to be riding in some degree of comfort.

At the bus stop there was an old guy with a stand made from a converted bicycle selling shaved ice similar to the kind I had on the beach in El Salvador This was the classic recipe for Costa Rica and it had ice, condensed milk, powdered coconut milk, red fresco and some other syrup that came from an unmarked squeeze bottle. This guy went all out and put a marshmallow on top. Definitely the best I’ve ever had!

He was calling his treats “Copa’s” whereas in El Salvador they were called “Minutos.” No matter what you call them after a 15 minute walk in 35+ weather, full sun and inane humidity with all my gear and a surfboard, it was a welcome treat! What made this wait at the bus stop so interesting was watching this guy singing and repeating the same spiel over and over to anyone just arriving at the bus stop. Some of the locals seemed as entertained by this guy as we did. After a while he got bored with us and packed his bicycle stand into a minivan and drove off.

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Golfito is the last chance to get cash from an ATM and I made sure I brought enough cash with me to get me through my stay. Sometimes if you are in a bind a local business will run your credit card through the machine and charge you a percentage for cash back. I don’t rely on this and it isn’t something to count on.

The bus from Golfito to Pavones…

Once the bus arrived I got on and took my gear to the cargo area in the back where other people were loading whatever they were travelling with and in a lot of cases there were people that were probably making trips between Golfito and their homes in the remote areas beyond since this is the only major town in the area before reaching Panama. The toll was 1000Col/$2 which was half for me and half for my board. You first travel to Cuidad Neily and then Conte where you can choose to travel to Playa Zancudo on another bus or continue on through to Pavones.

This only runs twice daily, once in the morning and once in the afternoon so it’s good to plan ahead. Once again being a bus that services a remote area you can expect it to stop to pick up anyone and everyone waiting on the side of the road.

This bus is pretty much the jungle express! I’ve never been that far into any jungle and didn’t know it was possible using a retired school bus. The seats were made from vinyl covered wood and fixed to a steel frame. The noise of the engine, combined with the rattling of the interior, exhaust fumes and the whole bus sounding as if it is going to fall apart made for an interesting ride! If you have problems with being car sick then you might have to take an extra pill before this trip!

This road was literally cut out of the jungle and barely one lane wide. We had to cross a few rivers and also cross some rickety bridges and at one point the bus didn’t make the right approach on the bridge and had to back up and try it again depending on how much traction we were getting to go up the hill on the other side.

Lush jungle in the South of Costa Rica!

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Every so often along the drive there were huge palm tree plantations and this area has been used to farm palms for generations. To either side of the road as we passed through the jungle were more tropical plants than I have ever seen before and the ones I had seen in the past were never with leaves this big and filled out so much. It’s always cool to see some of the same indoor plants you are used to seeing for sale at the grocery store except they are in their wild habitat and 10x bigger!

There was some other farms area being used for corn, fruit, bananas and livestock but these were few and far between. The amount of manpower to clear land for farming in this rugged area would be extremely time consuming.

At a few points along the drive there were small settlements usually with a small church, general store and a few homes. All of the homes were simple and what you would expect of a country home in Central America. They were all small single floor homes made from cinder block, rebar and cement, most painted with very bright coloured paint!  These all have large patios and steel rooftops with no eaves troughs. Water is supplied to the home by way of gravity from raised tanks. Everyone had chickens running around but I didn’t see any horses or pigs like was the case in Nicaragua.

You could tell the locals were taking advantage of the tropical plants available to them and most had beautifully landscaped yards. Quite a few of the plants and trees were blooming with flowers at the time we passed through and it was quite a site.

A typical home with all the choices in the world for landscaping!

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Part way through the bus ride we made a stop in Conte for a few minutes. This town has nothing more than a large supermarket/general store, a soccer field and a church. It felt great to have a bit of a break from this bus and I grabbed a few beers and some snacks. We waited for a bit for the other bus to show up for those who wanted to transfer to Playa Zancudo which is in the other direction than Pavones.

Conte is a small town in the middle of the jungle. Surprisingly this store had a wide selection of items for how remote it was. This was the only full size Super for quite a distance.

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Once we were back off and running it was more river crossings, dirt roads and sketchy bridges later that I was finally at my destination of Pavones! The total distance of this trip was  50 km but with all the stops, rough roads and a bus that was way past its prime this took 3 hours to accomplish! I was glad I didn’t drive this road myself for the first time and appreciate knowing the way the next time I return. I wouldn’t suggest making this drive at night on any occasion whether you know the road or not.

Pavones, Costa Rica

Where to stay…

Once I finally arrived in Pavones I checked into Hotel Caza Olas which had dorm rooms for 5500C/$11 per night, single rooms for 8500Col/$17 per night with a shared bathroom and cold water showers.  They also had double rooms with AC and hot water for 22 500C/$45 per night and up. This area is considered to be one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world and is a hot spot for biological and other scientific research. Costa Rica is known for its nature reserves and Pavones lies in the heart of the inner bay of the Golfo Dulce where the local river creates an estuary at the entrance to the bay. This mix of water and currents makes this area abundant with marine and other sorts of plants and animals.

Caza Olas

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The short walk to the beach from my hotel

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The lounge area at the hotel

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The world class wave…

Pavones is home to the famous left hand wave that is considered one of the longest in the world. This is because the wave breaks from the tip of the bay and peels all the way inside of it.  It has a rocky bottom and there is a lot of current because of the river mouth leading into the main section of the wave. This is where the wave sucks back the most and the takeoff is the most critical.

It’s not considered to be a very consistent wave by any means because it relies on very certain conditions to work which are usually more prevalent in rainy season. When it is forecasted to be on you can get some medium crowds in the water but in general it isn’t very crowded due to what is involved in getting here.

There are also peaks all the way further inside the bay and depending on conditions these can be close to as good as Pavones. With the location of the bay and the shape of the Peninsula makes it the type of spot that needs conditions to line up before it will work as well as it is famous for. We visited a few breaks further inside the bay and they weren’t really firing at the time but you could see the potential just based on comparing the shape of those waves to what was happening at Pavones.

The river mouth where the main peak of the wave breaks in front of.

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Further into the bay at a break called Sawmills which is named after the sawmill nearby.

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Lots of secluded little beaches here to keep anyone happy!

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A local rides on horseback along the beach.

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Wetlands areas are common here.

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A trail through majestic palms.

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There were decent waves the few days I was there and there weren’t many people out either so that made it easier to get a feel for this wave. One of the things about coming to Pavones is that even if you get the best waves of your life or you get skunked, just being in this part of the country is amazing in itself. There is so much wildlife everywhere and I saw quite a few animals that I have never seen before down here.

The town…

The town of Pavones isn’t much of a town at all in the traditional sense. It only has a few hotels, restaurants, mini supers and a few random shops. You won’t have a lot of choices for where to eat out and pizza is a popular offering here as it seemed as if every restaurant had this on their menu. It isn’t a party town at all and most places close at 9:00pm or earlier and all that you are left with at night is the sounds of the jungle and the waves to fall asleep to. It is definitely the type of place where you need to come prepared to some extent and as mentioned before there is no ATM in any of these towns outside of Golfito. The small supers they did had really good selections and I was impressed with what was available there.

What to eat…

I mostly ate at the fish casado at the bar and restaurant near the beach. I also had the seafood rice a few times and this place had the best food for the best prices. It was 3000Col/$6 for the casado and the seafood rice was 4500Col/$9. On another occasion I had pizza but again I don’t remember the restaurant name or even if it had a name as it looked like it was an extension to the ladies home and all they had that night was pizza.

Fish casado. My staple down here!

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Seafood rice.

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Things to do…

The best swimming beach in the area is Playa Zancudo and it is a pristine, crystal clear white sand beach that could make the cover of any travel magazine! There isn’t a lot there and even less than Pavones so if night life is your thing this whole area in general probably wasn’t your best choice. However, there are restaurant choices and stores to shop for the basics.

There are also lots of options for going swimming in freshwater and I found a few great spots for taking a dip in the river. There is nothing more refreshing than swimming in fresh water and especially a mountain fed river leading out to the ocean. There is also an abundance of saltwater and freshwater fish in the area and either were easy to come by. You can buy fish from the building on the beach where the fisherman keep their boats and as always this is best done in the early morning.

The beach where you can buy the fresh fish.

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Most nights there were also fisherman using cast nets to catch fish out of the river and some casts were netting 5 fish or more.

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Wildlife…

The wildlife in the area is amazing! The first day I was there I saw a sloth, scarlet macaws, tropical butterflies, lizards, frogs a large snake and all sorts of exotic insects like giant beetles and leaf insects. The noises at night coming from the wetlands sounded like a video game. Just being around so much wildlife is surreal and there were always sounds coming from the trees above.

A large beetle that was stranded in my room.

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A leaf insect.

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Scarlet Macaws hanging out in a tree and flying overhead.

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A lizard proudly basks in the hot sun!

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Ecotourism is the main draw for this area and there are quite a few nature reserves nearby. For those who are into day tours or want to stay at a jungle lodge there is Tiskita Jungle Lodge and Conservatory which boasts an 800 acre private nature reserve and a fruit tree collection of over 125 varieties of both Cost Rican species and others from around the world.

Pavones has some of the best mountain and ocean views in Costa Rica and if you have the opportunity to see them either by atv, horseback or have accommodation in this part of the area you will be blessed by great views, abundant wildlife and raw nature!

The jungle mountains of the peninsula.

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The Golfo Dulce from the hills above!

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I spent 3 days in Pavones and it was a magical place that I’d like to spend more time in the future. I had pretty good surf considering it wasn’t the ideal time of year to be there and get the best waves. What made my stay in this area even more enjoyable was the wildlife and after the better part of two days to get all the way down here it was well worth it just to be in such an untouched part of any country, especially Costa Rica where you don’t think there are still places that haven’t been over popularized and still have that backwoods feel.

La Pura Vida…

Having been coming to Costa Rica for so many years it is one of those places that if you can accept the changes and understand that you aren’t the only person that likes to come here and enjoy the natural setting and the waves you will have a good time. Those on a very tight budget in their travels will find lots to do here but won’t want to stay so long because it is by far the most expensive country south of the US. The thing with Costa Rica is that for surfing you won’t find a country with more consistent warm water waves than any other country in Central America and that is why I keep coming back.

When I come here I already know the prices vary greatly depending on what town you are in, how close to the beach you are and how established the town is. It isn’t always easy to find a truly cheap option for a place to stay and food can also vary quite a bit in price but depending where you are, how you spend your money. It mostly comes down to how simple you choose to live while you are here it can be done having a reasonably modest budget especially if travelling with a few others.

If you know you are staying for a few months like I used to do when I worked on the boats it makes sense to bring a hot plate to cook on, a blender, some basic pots and pans, utensils and if you can swing it any exotic ingredients, foods and sauces etc that you will pay dearly for otherwise.

I know lots of people that stay here all winter and rent their own place near the beach for $400/month and this can usually be split in at least 2 ways depending on the setup. As you move away from the beach you will always pay less and usually all you need is a bicycle to get around and most of the locals in the beach towns are riding around on motorbikes, quads or side by sides. Most people if they can afford it will drive a 4×4 and if they can afford it this will usually be a Toyota Landcruiser of any year or a similar SUV.

I think for people wanting a country to hang out in for 90 days or more and can commit to a decent duration here will find their price per day going down by half or more depending on how much they drink, eat out and party.  A lot of people have chosen Costa Rica as a new home and you can become a temporary non working resident by proving ability to have a monthly budget of $2500 over the course of two years and agree to withdraw this amount of money and also exchange it into Colones each month. This bank account doesn’t have to be in a Costa Rican account but it helps the process along to do so. Once approved you have to commit to live in Costa Rica at least one day per year which is hard to believe but true!  Once you have been a temporary resident for three years you can apply for permanent residency.

This is the same rule for people who have become temporary residents from making an investment in Costa Rica which includes a place of residence or business with a value of $200 000 or more. This will forego having to make a currency exchange or prove funds because the assets are held within a local investment and this shows a commitment. As with anything like this do your own research if you are intent of finding a new place to live and if you are that serious about any purchase in this country talk to a reputable lawyer.

Gone on a whim…