Central America: Roads Less Traveled

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Any of these hotels can assist with hiring a small boat for a day, enabling visitors to head offshore and north into the Port Honduras Marine Reserve that embraces 20 miles of coastline, a 500-sq.-mile area encompassing the four, white-sand Snake Cayes. This pristine reserve protects manatees, fish, birds, mangroves and reefs and offers activities such as birdwatching, snorkeling and swimming. Thirty-eight miles out is the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve (a 125-sq.-mile protected area) on the barrier reef. For divers and kayakers, this is a wonder-world of healthy coral reefs, abundant marine life and sandy beaches carpeting six islands. All of these offshore waters and some coastal lagoons and inland rivers offer superb fishing. In Punta Gorda, boats large and small are available for day charters, and such outfits as TIDE Tours (tidetours.org) and Wild Encounters are well equipped for adventure on both land and sea.

Austin-Lehman Adventures (austinlehman.com) wraps up the whole outdoor experience of Toledo on its 8-day Maya to Moho Cay program that includes visiting Mayan ruins and villages, exploring caves, snorkeling the Snake and Sapodilla cayes, and kayaking to the jungle lodge for a stay at Moho Cay Lodge.

costa rica Costa Ballena: A Whale of a Coast

Along the southern Pacific shore, the new Costanera Sur Highway is now paved all the way from Quepos/Manuel Antonio National Park to the Panama border. In between the towns of Dominical and Palmar Sur is the Costa Ballena, a name that tells us only about one attraction: whales—five different species. But in this relatively new tourism frontier in this undiscovered corner of Costa Rica, you also find a bounty of long stretches of nearly deserted beaches and jungled forests, wildlife and birds galore, and active pursuits such as sea kayaking, horseback riding, surfing (or learning surfing), scuba diving, and fishing. You’ll also find that migrating whales share these southern Pacific waters with dolphins.

To this recent visitor, a good map and a good ground operator can be essential in planning an itinerary, especially when continuing along the highway to include Golfo Dulce and the Osa Peninsula.

Among the commanding attractions are:

  • Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge: Just north of Dominical, this is a happening place. Its two miles of beach, mangrove swamp and primary rainforest offer a safe haven for the likes of anteaters, ocelots, kinkajours, tayras, capuchin monkeys and jaguarundis, and the bird count is over 300 species. Petroglyphs carved onto large rocks are found here, as well as a birding tower, orchid garden, butterfly garden and turtle hatchery. And indeed Olive Ridley and hawksbill turtles nest on Baru Beach. Visitors can reserve guided walks, explore on horseback or take a canopy tour.
  • Whale & Dolphin Cruise: Boats head for the areas where whales and dolphins are generally seen in Ballena Marine National Park. The bay is the southernmost mating site for the humpback whales that come south from California between December and April; others come north from Antarctica between July and October. In addition to whales, a day cruise excursion should turn up dolphins, while Isla Ballena and the rocks known as Las Tres Hermanas are havens for pelicans, frigate birds and boobies. On the north end of the beach of Playa Ventanas are beautiful caves (accessible by foot at low tide) forged by the sea and home to colonies of penguins. On another day’s outing, also within the national park, adventurers can kayak (at low tide) from Pinuela Beach to Ventanas Beach, and on arrival, surf the waves with kayaks. Ventanas Beach is also a good spot to go for surfing lessons.
  • Mount up for a horseback ride to Don Lulo’s Nauyaca Waterfalls, in the company of a guide. From the stables, ride out for half an hour, stopping for a typical Costa Rican breakfast and lunch on return at Don Lulo’s House. Then ride on to the magnificent waterfalls, tumbling in two cascades into deep pools for swimming.
  • Palmar Sur is an important air gateway, with scheduled small craft air service to San Jose. Additionally, on a banana plantation outside town, you’ll find what everyone calls “those mysterious stone spheres,” many preserved in situ at the archaeological dig in theParque Tematico y Museo de las Esferas de Piedra. Most of these gigantic spheres—made of basalt-like stone and measuring a few inches to eight ft.—have been found in this region. (There is a sphere in the courtyard of the National Museum in Costa Rica.)
  • The Terraba-Sierpe Wetland Reserve, 10 miles south of Palmar, is a vast mangrove ecosystem teeming with wildlife. Sierpe is one of the departure points for a small boat cruise with guide, exploring the vast network of channels and estuaries where crocodiles, caimans and easy-to-see birds galore thrive in this mangrove habitat.

The lodgings infrastructure along Costa Ballena is marked by small hotels, many catering to surfers and moderate budgets. A good example is Hotel Diuwak (diuwak.com). Certainly the choicest bases from which to enjoy all the attractions are the Hotel Resort Cristal Ballena & Spa (cristal-ballena.com) and Cuna del Angel (cunadelangel.com).