So you’ve decided, like me, that skipping out on winter for a bit is worth putting a big dent in your budget. But you still want to travel on a budget. A day trip to Punta Rio Claro near Drake Bay in Costa Rica doesn’t cost much money, and it’s unforgettable.
- Transit: Getting to Drake Bay is easiest done by plane, or by bus to Sierpe and a boat from there. You can drive, but only in the dry season and only if you’re really confident driving through less-than-ideal conditions. Getting to Rio Claro means a 1.5 – 2 hour hike from Drake Bay, or (if you’ve got the hookup) a boat ride to San Josecito and a walk from there.
- Cost: Low (cash only, check out Rio Claro Aventuras’ Facebook page or ask ahead at your accommodations about the current price per person for different activities there).
- Crowds: Minimal, even in the tourist high season. You may have to wait a bit for the next canoe, but it’s a ludicrously beautiful place to wait, and you’ll be grateful for the sit-down.
- Attractions: Adventure, nature, water, birding, photography, animals, tranquility, lots and lots of cardio. Like, lots of cardio.
- Accessibility: You’ll need to be able to walk for a few hours (to and from, with breaks) along varying terrain (usually fairly flat, sometimes quite steep), swim, and handle heat over 30 degrees and rainforest-style humidity.
- Environmental impact: Minimized by the guides, who keep tourists on particular courses in a small part of the refuge. Proceeds go to a good cause.
- Click here for map.
So we blew our budget getting to Costa Rica, the Osa Peninsula, and touring the world-famous Corcovado National Park. We did that, in part, on purpose. We wanted to have a rather large slate of time open for just exploring and enjoying one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. And, personally, I was tired of being over-scheduled on vacation. I wanted to kick up my heels and relax, and try whatever came our way.
Our host recommended Rio Claro Aventuras very, very highly. She talked and talked and talked about how great it was, and her love of it was seriously infectious. She suggested we hike out first thing in the morning to avoid the heat of the day, which of course I neglected to do and regretted enormously. So, let this be your warning: Hike out at the beginning of the day so you can get back before noon.
The hike from Drake Bay (Bahía Drake en español) is superlative, and it alone is worth it. Yes, I spent most of the trip stripping off clothes and dripping with sweat, but I did it all with a smile on my face.
The coastal foot trail takes you over rivers, across suspension bridges, and hopping stones over creeks. When we were there, we found the path intermittently carpeted with purple-pink petals from flowers above.
We dipped in and out of lush tropical rainforest, surrounded by the thunderous song of myriad cicadas that sounds for all the world like you’re in the midst of a sonorous glass bottle factory; and the next thing we knew we would pass out onto the hot sands of one of twenty two gorgeous – and usually deserted – equatorial Pacific beaches with warm turquoise and sapphire waters. This is paradise.
All the while, until it gets very hot out, the observant are able to spy any number of tropical birds, crabs, reptiles, monkeys, butterflies, and more.
The trail also passes by and through a few tourist camps and lodges. At one they advertised refreshments, but everything was closed up. We were glad we brought lots of water and trail food. Lots and lots of water.
The end of the hike took us right to the Rio Claro, unbeknownst to us at the time. It ended at a point that looked like a disused launch for small boats, and it wasn’t until we hiked across the huge beach nearby cut through by the Rio Claro that we saw the open-air buildings hidden back in the tree line that marked the end of our voyage.
Rio Claro Aventuras uses the money from canoe rides of varying lengths up and down the river, we were told, to pay for their primary goal: Protecting and hatching the diverse sea turtles who breed at Punta Rio Claro. They were very kind and worked with my terrible Spanish, even though their English was much better. We had a lovely wait watching the waves roll in from the shade after cooling our feet in the crystal waters of the river that cut through the beach sand on their way to the ocean.
After swinging from a rope into the river (I flubbed it and belly-flopped; no I am not posting that video) we got into our canoe with our guide and another couple and headed up stream.
The riverbanks were mostly steep volcanic rock with sudden walls of jungle towering above. Sure, we headed out too late in the day to miss the heat, but it meant the sun flooded in from overhead when we were on the river.
At the top of the river most of us jumped out and floated back on the current. My body ate up the fresh cool of the water and the warm touch of the sun through the craning leaves and branches above. It remains one of the most magical experiences I’ve had in Costa Rica.
At the end we came to a small waterfall where we could explore and swim a bit more. Then it was time for the hike back in the afternoon heat (again, you should really head out first thing in the morning).
We made many stops at the many beaches, most of which make a nice spot to cool your feet, catch the ocean breeze, and take a dip if you’d like (especially on the way back). When we reached playa Cocalito (more on that another time) we dropped our backpacks, got in our swimsuits, and spent the rest of the afternoon in the water.
We intended our trip to Punta Rio Claro National Wildlife Refuge to be an exercise in exploration. We didn’t really know what we would find along the way; all we knew was that people couldn’t say enough good things about it. Now I’m one of those people, too.
Take your time, stop often, drink lots of water, get your feet wet, and keep your eyes and ears open. Enjoy one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.