Golfito – Costa Rica
Located in a bay nestled within a bay, Golfito is a wonderfully different Costa Rica destination, steeped in rustic charm and, apart from its coastal edge, almost enfolded by a dense growth wildlife refuge. In essence this small town, which was practically off the travel radar to all but adventurous surfers and game fishermen until the 1990s, is just a thin sliver of land tucked between sea and steeply rising hills covered in tropical greenery.
The history of Golfito is fascinating and the rapid rise and just as rapid fall of its fortunes are the very reason why this tucked away place has finally come to the attention of outsiders. The relatively sudden collapse of its huge banana-growing industry in the 1980s forced the government to take action and led to the establishment of the duty-free shopping center which can be found just north of town. Both ex-pats and Ticos have flocked there ever since to buy all kinds of household goods at bargain prices. Because of its difficult access from other inland destinations such shopping excursions typically necessitate overnight stays in the area and provide the local bars and restaurants with custom thus giving the economy a much needed boost.
Despite this duty-free shopping draw tranquil Golfito still remains a sleepy, rustic port making it an ideal destination for all those who like to delve beneath the tourist surface, explore beyond the roads most traveled and remove themselves from modern bustle. Wilderness immersion hikes, kayak paddles amid hushed mangroves, horseback riding on remote beaches, watching wild dolphins leap just feet from your tour boat and a range of other exciting activities are all possible from Golfito while Costa Rica’s famous and dazzling biodiversity is all right at your fingertips. The Golfito National Wildlife Reserve can literally be accessed directly on trails leading out of town while the Piedras Blancas National Park borders it to the north.
A further array of amazing things to see and do is also accessible from Golfito, thanks to its geographical make up and a network of water taxis. There are jungle-nestled botanic gardens to explore which can only be reached by boat and any number of gorgeous beaches just a five minute ride across the gulf while for those in search of something a little livelier you can skip across the bay to Puerto Jiménez.
A Morning in Golfito
Begin your morning instantly immersing yourself into what Costa Rica is most famous for –its incredible protected habitats and the astonishing biodiversity of the flora and fauna which are found there. After a morning coffee break you can head out again to take in some of Golfito’s small town charm and tranquility along with a glimpse or two into its banana industry past.
Wildlife Refuge Walks and Hikes
For all those who believe there is no better way to start the day than with some nature immersion nothing could be easier to achieve in Golfito. Apart from where the town borders the bay, jungle crowds in from every side and even the airport is just a runway cut through the rain forest. Wherever you stand in this small port town you will be able to see lush tropical greenery and towering canopies. The Golfito National Wildlife Refuge literally abuts the town so a short stroll out of the center in any of several directions will lead you directly into this protected parkland.
Originally created to maintain a water supply to the area, today this almost 7,000 acre natural swathe of land plays a significant part in protecting native flora and fauna and is home to many of the same species which are so abundant in the Piedras Blancas National Park which forms the refuge’s northern boundary. The protected area offers a network of trails ranging from short strolls to scenic lookout points such as those heading out east from town to longer and more strenuous hikes which lead to remote beaches and deeper jungle.
The Golfito National Wildlife Refuge is one of Earth’s wettest habitats leading to an exceptional lushness and allowing trees to grow to incredible heights –in places almost 45 meters. This abundant growth and super-rich evergreen foliage in turn provides exceptional protection for many animals and birds. Toucans are often spotted here along with several exotically-colored tanager species and motmots which you will often see as bright splashes of red, blue and yellow flying from tree to tree. Another vibrantly-colored resident easily seen as it flashes its iridescent blue wings in flight is the blue morpho butterfly which can grow to up to almost 8 inches across making it one of the planet’s largest butterfly species. Mammals such as anteaters, pacas and agoutis are also often seen browsing among the jungle floor detritus and all of the native monkey species are found in the refuge. One of these –the mantled howler monkey –has a call impossible to miss, so loud it can be heard up to 3 miles away. Jaguars, cougars and tapirs are known to be present here too but as all of these endangered species are both exceptionally shy and much rarer you would have to be exceptionally lucky to encounter them.
The free-to-access Tower Road which bisects the refuge is both a nature-rich trail in itself and the access for several other trails. If you make it all the way to the top here you are rewarded with jaw-dropping views of the whole of Golfito Bay spread out below you. If you don’t have the time or energy but still want the views you can take a taxi part or all of the way there and back or opt to walk back down –a far less strenuous way to experience some of the trail.
Morning Coffee in Golfito
Golfito isn’t large but having earned a pause to catch your breath after your explorations on foot there are still a handful of places which can reward you with a mid-morning coffee break. Just to the south of the town’s San Jose Church can be found the hippy-chic-charming Coconut Cafe whose wooden and tile floors, giant bamboo screens and tables made from massive tree trunks create an especially cozy and welcoming space. Make yourself comfortable on one of the cushion strewn sofas covered with bright prints and choose from the hot or iced coffee choices, teas and fresh juices which you can enjoy with a range of mouthwatering sweet treats available.
Another option for those who would prefer to take their coffee break alfresco is the Soda El Muellecito located on the central ferry dock. With taxi boats continuously coming and going and typically a small flow of customers waiting for rides this waterside spot is as about as buzzing as it gets in sleepy Golfito. The cafe’s terrace is also a popular meeting place for the locals who live around the Golfo Dulce, arriving by privately-owned watercraft to do a spot of provision shopping or share a coffee with friends.
Strolling the Town
First inhabited by the indigenous Boruca people since ancient times, Golfito was all but ignored throughout the colonial period despite the fact that it was this very area through which the Spaniards first poured into Costa Rica in the early 1500s. Nothing more than a small fishing village for centuries, the late 1800s gave rise to a banana-growing explosion, so much so in fact that the US-owned United Fruit Company moved their center of operations here in the 1930s. Things went from big to booming and by the 1950s almost the entire banana exports of Costa Rico were those grown in the Golfito region and shipped out by the town’s port. In an effort to keep everything running like a well-oiled machine, UFC built an infrastructure of stores, schools, a hospital and even a cinema to address the needs of the worker population which arrived in their thousands.
The end came in the 1980s when a combination of fruit disease, high taxes and workforce strike action prompted the UFC to relocate to Ecuador which was akin to a death sentence for the town. All but abandoned to economic collapse, the government stepped in and with the building of the Deposito Libre brought life and business back to Golfito.
A stroll around the small confines of Golfito with its brightly painted houses still offers a glimpse into the days of the banana boom, most notably with the architecture of some of its structures which were once homes to the more wealthy UFC executives. At its height, the company town of Golfito was divided into three distinct zones –the white zone for the most senior company staff, the yellow zone for the middle management and the gray zone which was mostly made up of shacks where the plantation and dock workers resided and is now the center of town.
The grander homes with their verandas and jutting roofs designed to provide shade from the tropical sun are often easy to spot and a meander through the area of the Bella Vista neighborhood in particular will bring you face-to-face with some such examples. Making the effort to cover some of the steeper inclines of the town is also worth it just for the gorgeous views of the lower settlement, harbor and bay you will get from their higher elevations which border the jungle.
If you venture further north out of the center you arrive at the area which was once the white zone and home to the two grand villas of the United Fruit Company’s most senior executives. Once having restricted entry to all but the wealthiest, this ‘Zona Americana’ is today the location of the duty-free shopping complex.
The Deposito Libre Comercial is the government-funded initiative which brought life back to Golfito after the collapse of the banana industry left the town in economic dire straits. Somewhat removed from the rest of the country, shoppers who want to take advantage of the tax-free bargains here typically overnight in the area meaning much needed business for hotels, shops and restaurants. While the tax-free element here only applies to nationals or those with legal residency, it is worth stopping by if you have wandered this far north if only to see some authentic Tico local bustle set amid jungle-clad hills.
If watching planes land close-up is something which appeals make your way a further 200m north from here to arrive at the town’s airport. In reality nothing more than a tarmac strip cleared through the jungle and with a shack serving as its terminal building, this is probably unlike any airport you have ever seen before and watching small craft come into land here is memorable.
Lunch in Golfito
Eating in Golfito is typically a casual affair with both traditional Tico plates and international fare the main offerings. The town has a small collection of cafes and restaurants strung along its north to south stretch but additionally, thanks to its water taxis there are other easily accessible and lovely alternatives if you’d like to explore a little further afield.
Playa Puntarenitas for example -a five minute jaunt by boat –gives you a few rustic beach restaurants to choose from while north of the sandy spit where Puntarenitas is located is Cacao Beach. Just 1k away across the bay, this rocky little spot is home to the open-air Siete Mares whose charm is old-school and its seafood reasonably priced. With lush jungle spilling right down to the beach and the chance to have a quick cooling dip while you wait for your food to arrive, Siete Mares makes you feel as if you are a long way from anywhere and is perfect for a peaceful lunch with stunning views. Although there is very little here besides this and one other eating choice you’ll have no chance of getting lost as the pier at which the water taxis arrive is right in front of the restaurant.
Should you prefer to stay in town to lunch one lovely choice which has some great set lunches is the Banana Bay Marina. Painted in pineapple-yellow, this small complex raised above the water on wooden pilings comprises of hotel, restaurant and bar and is typically frequented by yachties and a few out-of-town visitors who have come for the duty-free shopping.
No matter which table you end up at in this open-sided waterfront spot you will have great views of the moored yachts and the bay and hills beyond. The menu of this restaurant is extensive, crammed with options for several Costa Rican-influenced dishes along with North American classics such as potato skins, buffalo wings and burgers. Other options include soups, salads and steaks while the fresh and quality seafood dishes are something of a specialty here. While there are options available for those who prefer lighter lunches the Banana Bay Marina is an ideal choice for those with larger appetites as the proportions are generous to say the least.
An Afternoon in Golfito
The small jungle-surrounded town of Golfito has a charm all its own to be immersed in but it is also a great base from which to explore some extra-special gems found within the surrounding area. Having refueled at lunch you can now get back to adventuring with an afternoon choice of watching whales and dolphins or wandering the pathways of a private botanic garden which is both stunning and remote.
Whale and Dolphin Watching Boat Tours
Getting out on the waters of the Golfo Dulce –a deep bay separating the Osa Peninsula from Costa Rica’s mainland –is sufficiently magical in itself to make it worthwhile. Completely enclosed save for a 12 km gap which leads out to the Pacific Ocean, this body of water surrounds you with some of the country’s most magnificent scenery, much of it national parkland or protected wildlife zones. Lining its fringes are a collection of dreamy tropical beaches where palm trees sway in the breeze and monkeys play in the jungle growth which spills right down to the sand.
However, the astonishing beauty you will experience by taking any trip by boat here is just one aspect of this enchanting place. The Golfo Dulce and Pacific coast also happen to be teeming with marine life including an exceptionally large number of whales and dolphins. Although these marine creatures can be found in practically all of Costa Rica’s coastal waters one of the principal hot spots is the Osa Peninsula where at least 25 species either live or pass through on migration routes and mega-pods of 100 or more are not uncommon. The Golfo Dulce itself is even home to two resident dolphin species –the bottlenose and spotted -and so rich are these waters that it is rare to head out on a boat tour and not see them.
Bottlenose dolphins are perhaps the most easily recognized species for most people, known for their curiosity and playfulness, they will frequently follow tour boats or ride bow waves giving all on board a true up-close encounter. Spotted dolphins are one of the dolphin family’s true acrobats, known for their spectacular leaps and somersaults with jumps as high as 15ft into the air.
Another unusual aspect of this area of coast means whales are also on the wildlife-spotting menu for a considerable chunk of the year. Humpback whales are known for their migratory habits, typically traveling thousands of miles on annual back-and-forth journeys in order to feed, mate, give birth and then nurse their young. Migration routes are typically confined to the Northern or Southern Hemisphere but the Osa Peninsula sees migrants from both south and north –the only place on the planet where this occurs.
Not surprisingly with such a multitude of whales and dolphins frolicking in the waters, tours to watch these magnificent creatures in the wild are popular and operators head out from a variety of points around the gulf, including Golfito. If you are lucky you will find a tour which has a naturalist guide on board so you won’t just get to see the dolphins and whales up close but also learn about their life cycles and behaviors.
Besides the whales and dolphins which understandably tend to steal the limelight, there is a high chance you will see plenty of other marine creatures during your time on the water. Most frequently spotted are a multitude of birds, manta rays, huge schools of fish and turtles while mighty whale sharks –the world’s largest fish –are also often seen at certain times of year. Depending on the tour you decide to go with, trips sometimes include time for snorkeling, swimming or some other water activity such as kayaking to really help you enjoy your afternoon to the max.
The Casa Orquideas Botanical Garden
While filling your senses with the scents and sensational beauty of Casa Orquideas incredible gardens is a not-to-be-forgotten experience the journey to get there also ranks as something of a highlight. This privately owned treasure sits nestled amid national park land bordering a remote beach and there are no roads in; the only way to arrive here is by boat which from Golfito takes around half an hour.
Your water journey first weaves through Golfito Bay before passing through the narrow channel which brings you into the wide blue expanses of the beautiful Golfo Dulce. The coast as you travel north is all part of the Golfito National Wildlife Refuge so the scenery of dense rain forest is both constant and magnificent. Brilliant flashes of red in the air accompanied by loud squawks are a common sight and sound as scarlet macaws pass overhead and there is always the chance of spotting monkeys in the trees for those who keep their eyes peeled.
The end of your journey brings you to the six acres of forest and gardens known as Casa Orquideas –a labor of love for its owners Ron and Trudy MacAllister who moved to this former coffee plantation in the 1970s. Although the name translates as Orchid House, this remote botanical garden in reality has far more beyond its orchids with an outstanding collection of tropical plants, trees, vines and blooms from both Costa Rica and further afield.
Easy to follow pathways overhung with tropical foliage meander through themed areas such as its medicinal garden which features plants known for their healing properties or the edible plant areas which are full of grapefruit, banana and mango trees. Also in this area are a variety of tropical spice trees, plants and bushes such as cinnamon, vanilla and ginger. The gardens are also home to 100 species of native orchids which you will see dotted about and inside a series of glasshouses where you can also learn how these exceptionally beautiful and often highly delicate flowers are grown.
A self-guide pamphlet and a collection of signs help you identify and learn more about what you are seeing while guided tours are a must for those who really want to learn about the gardens’ incredible flora.
Besides the beauty of both the setting and the plants themselves, the remote location of Casa Orquideas provides an ideal habitat for a multitude of insects, butterflies, birds and other wildlife. Considerably enhancing the enchantment of this stunning place, many of the species are vibrantly hued so expect to catch frequent flashes of bright colors flitting through the air as you explore.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Golfito
Retaining its rustic fishing village ambiance and tucked away from the tourist trail Golfito has no flashy resorts, polished cocktail joints or slick fine dining. What you will find instead is a range of homely, cozy and casual bars and restaurants where the welcome is warm and you can share ice-cold Imperials with locals. The drinking and dining spots of Golfito may see you swapping stories with a fisherman just back from a few days at sea, a villager who has nipped out for a few nightcaps or a bay resident who has arrived by boat from some isolated dwelling to have an evening out.
Bar La Bomba is a perfect example of the town’s rustic watering hole offerings and if you stop by here you can also surround yourself with a little piece of history. Located in the center of town, this lemon-and terracotta-painted relic of the banana boom days is impossible to miss, dominating the corner head where the main waterfront road and a side street fork. Beautifully renovated, this timber-built no-frills bar which dates from the 1940s has a good range of national and international beers, cocktails and spirits which you can enjoy while perusing the collection of old photos which decorate its walls.
For pre-dinner drinks in a decidedly unusual setting make your way to the town’s northern edge where you’ll find Bar La Pista. Translating directly as ‘runway’ this is exactly what you will get here as this drinking spot is located at the airport although this is a rather grand description of what in reality is just a tarmac strip cut through the jungle. Sipping on something cold while watching planes come in almost directly above you is a unique experience and should there be no flights scheduled you can sit in the beer garden and simply gaze at the moon and stars with the night sounds of the jungle as a soundtrack.
A popular spot for locals, La Pista offers a great range of appetizer plates known as bocas which will keep you going until the main event of dinner if you are feeling a little peckish.
Golfito’s range of eateries typically come as small family-run concerns serving up cuisine which encompasses both more traditional Tico fare and international choices. For those who like to dine with a view doing so is practically a given in Golfito where the waters of the Golfo Dulce are never far away, no matter where you are in town.
One dining choice which places you as close to the water as possible is the charming Fish Hook-a small marina which offers lodgings, bar and restaurant. Raised on stilts, the picturesque Fish Hook’s open-sided restaurant gives you direct views from its spacious terrace of the boats docked at the connecting pier, the bay beyond and the surrounding hills clad in lush tropical greenery.
Offering a mix of Tex-Mex, American and local dishes, the Fish Hook’s boast is that they have the largest menu in town and as the happy hour here lasts from late afternoon to early evening you can enjoy a few drinks as you peruse your options.
Set a little south of the town is another lovely waterfront option which has a well-earned reputation for serving great seafood. The Mar Y Luna is another of the town’s family-owned and run casual dining choices which also incorporates a small hotel. Open-sided to make the most of the gorgeous views and sea breezes, Mar Y Luna has a distinctly maritime ambiance with its range of nautical knick-knacks such as driftwood, buoys, nets and life-rings sprinkled about. Known for attentive service, the restaurant offers good quality international food which includes some great appetizers, fresh fish, seafood and steaks.
An Evening in Golfito
While now accustomed to a small stream of visitors, sleepy Golfito is still completely free of the more typical commercialized trappings you might find at other spots in the country that have had decades to refine their tourist infrastructure. This means that once night falls the choice of things to do are generally those very things which the locals themselves enjoy for an evening out. Typically this involves finding a bar for a few nightcaps or lingering over after dinner-drinks at one of the town’s restaurants.
If you happen to be a karaoke fan you will find yourself with more than one opportunity to sing the night away or listen to Golfito’s residents offering up their own musical version of tunes both well-known and new. La Bomba is one possibility here with regular karaoke nights while Samoa del Sur is another occasional option.
The one exception to this low-key night activity menu is the chance to head into the jungle after dark and meet some of the country’s nocturnal creatures. Located a few kilometers north of Golfito is the magnificent Piedras Blancas National Park which, like so many of its Costa Rican cousins, is almost bursting at the seams with an astonishing array of wildlife. Many of the creatures which call this verdant habitat home only stir once the sun has set and heading out with a guide offers the extra special opportunity of viewing some of them in their natural habitat. Guides use flash-lights which reflect off the eyes of many of the animals hidden away in trees and undergrowth, making them easy to spot. With such an amazing biodiversity present which includes 350 species of mammal alone there is really no telling what you might encounter but common sightings are tree frogs, snakes, sloths, spiders, bats and armadillos.