I’ve been itching for a Costa Rican stamp in my passport for a long time. Travelers and environmentalists universally laud this eco-conscious country for its pristine natural environment, and rightly so. Just over 26 percent of the nation’s land is protected in some form. There are 28 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, 15 wetland areas/mangroves, 11 forest reserves and eight biological reserves.
These protected areas feature an almost mind-boggling biodiversity. There are 10,000 species of plants and trees, 850 indigenous and migrant birds, 205 species of mammals, over 35,000 species of insects, 160 species of amphibians, 220 species of reptiles, and around 1,013 species of fresh and saltwater fish. But as impressive as the topside temptations were, my dive buddy Mario and I were there to check out the treasures awaiting underwater. Our introduction to scuba diving in Costa Rica was waiting just offshore in Playas del Coco, Guanacaste.
Scuba Diving in Costa Rica
“We came on vacation,” said Brenda van Gestel, owner of Rich Coast Diving on Playas del Coco’s main street. “Our first dive was Bat Islands and we had 16 bull sharks. We never left.”
Two of the area’s biggest draws are seasonal, she tells me: bull sharks (as mentioned), and manta rays. The seasons are opposite, however. Manta rays visit cleaning stations at the Catalina Islands from November to May, and bull sharks visit the Islas Murcielagos (Bat Islands) from May to November. Local dive operators refer to the pair as “the Bats and the Cats,” and we were there in prime time to see the bulls at the Bats.
But first, we spent two fantastic days in the capable hands of van Gestel’s staff at Rich Coast. It just so happened that our first dive day was also PADI Women’s Dive Day. We took the opportunity to get our feet wet (so to speak) at some on-shore dive sites. The shop regularly visits around 14 sites, not including the ones at Catalina Island and the Bat Islands. We splashed in first at Tortugas. Immediately, we saw golden spotted eels, whitetip sharks, schooling snappers, and more pufferfish than I’ve ever seen on every cumulative dive, let alone on one dive. Our second dive at Corridas, another onshore site. Here we spotted some of the biggest stingrays I’ve ever seen, yet more pufferfish (if anyone knows what they’re all doing, please let me know), and a busy octopus engaged in a home renovation project under a rocky ledge.
Although it was off-season, we spent our second day with Rich Coast out at Catalina Island, hoping against hope that we’d spot some seasonally-challenged manta rays. It takes about an hour to get out there, and though we didn’t get lucky when it came to mantas, we did have spectacular visibility, whitetip sharks, free-swimming eels, giant schools of jacks and grunts, and a few more busy octopuses. So, we considered it a win. Back at the shop, I marveled at the diversity we’ve seen so far with van Gestel.
“We have a little of everything,” she said. “It’s always a surprise. That’s what makes the diving so great here.”
The Big Scare
For our third and fourth dive days, we moved over to Deep Blue Diving, up the road and around the corner from Rich Coast. German owner Oliver Blomeke tells a similar story to van Gestel’s, “We came back six times on vacation,” he says. “On the seventh time, we bought a boat and a few tanks and stayed.”
We met the other divers and small crew on the beach at 7 a.m. After introductions, we hopped onboard the boat for the hour-long ride out to the Bat Islands, a national park and seasonal home to what we hoped would be the main event: diving with bull sharks. Although we’d heard that dive boats hadn’t had much luck in the last few weeks, we were hopeful. We dropped into the water and settled in at around 70 feet over the rocky substrate. There was a slight surge, rocking us back and forth as we waited — but not for long.
Five divers, including the guide, spread out over an area of about 150 square feet, much like manning the corners of a perimeter. Each of us looked in different directions, squinting into the hazy near-distance and hoping an outline would appear. When it did, after only two or three minutes, it was just a hint of a suggestion, a big, moving silhouette in the murky water. We excitedly motioned to each other and I squealed into my regulator with delight: jackpot, the bull sharks had arrived.
The sharks remained just on the edge of our sight line for a time, right where the water began to get murky. They circled around us, clearly curious, but only once did one come closer than 20 feet or so.
They were traveling at least in pairs; we saw five or six, including one pregnant female. These are no lithe underwater torpedoes like blue sharks — bulls are like underwater tanks: beefy, burly animals, with big, broad faces and thick, wide bodies. Our visitors were at least eight feet long — far bigger than me, and far bigger than a typical reef shark.
One shark, just teasing us on the edge of our vision, suddenly made a quick turn and came right at me, swerving just to my left and coming within a few feet. My heart leapt into my chest, and I was equal parts thrilled and terrified. The Big Scare did not disappoint.
Our second site of the day, Black Rock, was just as impressive for different reasons. With just a bit of rock poking out above water, this half-moon shaped underwater bowl shelters all manner of marine life in its embrace, hiding from the current and surge just on the other side of the rock. We dropped in to about 80 feet again and a school of striped snappers surrounded us immediately. Because all the marine life congregates in such a confined area, we saw huge schools of fish. We saw octopus, stingrays, and a fleet of at least eight eagle rays. Often skittish at other dive sites, here the rays lazily circled us time and again, allowing us to come almost within arm’s length before winging away. For sheer diversity, Black Rock was impossible to beat.
Topside in Guanacaste
When most people dream of Costa Rica, they picture a landscape of impossibly green volcanic slopes, covered in rainforest and alive with birdsong and chirping frogs. With that in mind, we couldn’t leave without seeing Arenal National Park, the most famous of the country’s five active volcanoes. It rises like a giant emerald parking cone out of the surrounding landscape, its peak often encircled in clouds. To get a better view, we took the tram up at Sky Adventures. We took our time walking down through cool, green rainforest, stopping along the way to spot a yellow-eared toucanet — our guide Henry’s first-ever sighting. Although we tried later that day to visit Arenal itself, the weather had other plans and a torrential downpour shooed us back to the van.
On my last day in Costa Rica (sniff) and with some time to kill, Henry and I visited Hacienda El Viejo. This former sugarcane plantation is now a private wildlife refuge and historical park. We spent a leisurely hour wildlife spotting via a guided boat tour on the Tempisque River. Afterward, lunch was served in the breezy former plantation house — my last casado, or traditional Costa Rican meal of rice, beans, white cheese and salad. Afterward, we headed down to the old farmhouse for a cane-sugar making demonstration, courtesy of the resident ox, who grinds the cane into sweet, unrefined juice. Finally, we tried our hands at tortilla making — Henry swore I was a natural.
On the way to the airport, I thought how our time in Costa Rica sped by far too quickly. There’s so much left yet to discover in the land of Pura Vida. I’ve no doubt we’ll be back, though — there’s plenty of room in that passport for a second Costa Rican stamp.
The Daniel Oduber Quiros Airport in Liberia added a sparkling new terminal in 2012 and welcomes numerous international flights. The airport is about a 30-minute drive to Playa Hermosa or Playas del Coco; you can arrange transportation with your hotel.
Where to Stay
In Guanacaste, we stayed at the cozy Villa del Sueno. At this tidy property, lush gardens give the entire the feeling of a hidden oasis. Modern hotel rooms surround a small courtyard pool and across the road is an even larger pool. Rooms here range from junior suites to two-bedroom suites, although they’ve not been updated. There’s a good restaurant and bar onsite as well.
In Arenal we stayed at Lavas Tacotal, in the shadow of Arenal. The brightly landscaped grounds feature a smattering of private cottages as well as comfortable, simple hotel rooms that face a lush field of sugarcane.
Where to Eat
There are a few good spots in and around Playas del Coco. Tucked into a little strip of shops and restaurants off the beach is Kaixo. This small restaurant and art showroom offers a great breakfast menu and ever-changing variety of tapas for lunch and dinner. Vegetarians and vegans have lots of options like stuffed peppers with vegetables and daily croquettes.
A bit further south in Ocotal is Father Rooster, a beachfront restaurant with a can’t-beat location for sunset. Settle into one of the tables scattered on the sand and order a drink for the show. Settle in and watch the sun set dramatically on the Gulf of Papagayo between the land and a rocky outcropping. After cocktails, there are a variety of tasty burgers, wraps, salads, tacos and ceviche for dinner.