Playa Camaronal, beyond Punta El Roble about five kilometers south of Playa Carrillo , is a remote three-kilometer-long gray-sand beach that is a popular nesting site for leatherback (Mar.–Apr.) and olive ridley turtles (year-round). It was earmarked as the Camaronal Wildlife Refuge (Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Camaronal, tel. 506/2656-2050).
An arribada (mass nesting of turtles) occurred here for the first time ever in November 2006. Officially, you are supposed to visit by night only with a MINAE guide ($10 pp). However, when I last arrived at the onset of an arribada in 2008, I was horrified to find hundreds of people being permitted on the beach uncontrolled. Children were touching and even sitting on the turtles, while ignorant adults looked on and laughed. I was even offered eggs for sale. Don’t molest the turtles!
A dirt road leads south nine kilometers from Camaronal to Playa Islita, a pebbly black-sand beach squeezed between soaring headlands that will have your four-wheel-drive wheezing in first gear.
The community of Islita is enlivened by the Open-Air Contemporary Art Museum, with houses, tree trunks, and even the police station throughout the village decorated in bright paints and mosaics. The tiny Casa Museo is catercorner to the police station.
South of the community of Islita, in the valley bottom, the road climbs over Punta Barranquilla before dropping to Playa Corazalito. The dirt road then cuts inland to the village of Corazalito (with an airstrip) and continues parallel to and about two kilometers from the shore. The beach is backed by a large mangrove swamp replete with wildlife.
At the hamlet of Quebrada Seca, two kilometers south of Corazalito, a side road leads two kilometers to undeveloped Playa Bejuco, a four-kilometer-long gray-sand beach with a mangrove swamp at the southern end. Warning: This coast is subject to dangerous riptides. Avoid swimming along this section of the coast. The dirt road continues south from Quebrada Seca four kilometers to Pueblo Nuevo, where the road from Cangrejal connects with Carmona and Highway 21; a side road leads to the funky fishing community of Puerto Bejuco, great for bird-watching (the village is hidden and unsigned). Pelicans, jabiru storks, and other wading birds are abundant, picking at the tidbits to be had as local fishermen cut up their catch.
Less than one kilometer south of Pueblo Nuevo, Jungle Butterfly Farm (tel. 506/2655-8070 or 8860-3789, www.junglebutterfly.com , 9 A.M.–4 P.M. daily, $15 adults, $8 children) offers a treat. Entomologist Michael Malliet has developed scenic trails through his 19-hectare forested mountainside property, which has a butterfly breeding facility. Monkeys and other critters abound. Night tours are offered by reservation.
Carrillo Tours (tel. 506/2656-0543, www.carrillotours.com ) offers kayaking on the Río Ora ($45). Rhodeside B&B and Café (tel. 506/2655-8006, www.rhodesidecostarica.com ) has a stable; guided horseback rides cost $35 per person.
Villas Malinche (tel. 506/2655-8044, $20 pp), in Pueblo Nuevo, has seven simply appointed and air-conditioned cabinas (four raised on stilts) with ceiling fans, cable TV, kitchenettes, spacious private bathrooms with hot water, and wide terraces. Its charmingly rustic restaurant has pool tables and a bar.
Pennsylvania transplants Gwen and Edmund Rhodes make delightful hosts at the Rhodeside B&B and Café (tel. 506/2655-8006, www.rhodesidecostarica.com , $45 s/d low season, $60 s/d high season, including breakfast), one kilometer south of Pueblo Nuevo. The couple rent four spacious cross-ventilated rooms with ceiling fans; two have private bathrooms and two upstairs rooms share an outdoor shower. All share an upstairs kitchen with terrace and ocean views, great for spotting monkeys. Their tiny Espresso Café (7 A.M.–7 P.M. daily) is a delightful spot for a cappuccino and baked goodies, or start the day with their yummy natural breakfast. Between the distant noise of the ocean, the nearby howler monkeys calling up the dawn, and the smell of fresh-brewed coffee, you couldn’t want for more. Plus you get to go horseback riding.
One of Costa Rica’s earliest deluxe hotels, Hotel Punta Islita (tel. 506/2656-2020, www.hotelpuntaislita.com , from $310 s/d low season, from $339 s/d high season; two-night minimum required) commands a hilltop above Playa Islita. The lobby lounge has a thatched roof held aloft by massive tree trunks and is open on three sides; it overlooks a sunken bar. A horizon swimming pool melds into the endless blues of the Pacific. Rich color schemes are enhanced by terra-cotta tile floors, colorful tile work, and props from the movie 1492—log canoes, old barrels, and a huge wrought-iron candelabra. The colony includes 20 luxuriously equipped hillside bungalows in Santa Fe style, eight junior suites (each with whirlpool spa on an oceanview deck), and five two-bedroom casitas. Refurbished in stylish contemporary vogue, rooms feature flat-screen TVs, divinely comfortable beds and pillows, and luxury bathrooms. A three-bedroom casita sleeps six people. A private forest reserve has trails, plus there’s a canopy tour, gym, full-service spa, two tennis courts, beach club with water sports, and a nine-hole golf course.
The elegant 1492 restaurant (7–10:30 A.M., 12:30–3 P.M., and 6–9:30 P.M. daily) is acclaimed. Open to the public (as is the beach club by request), it serves such delights as bamboo-steamed mahimahi ($21) and tenderloin filet ($28).
In the hills known as Pilas de Bejuco, Casitas Azul Playa (tel. 506/2655-8209, www.casitas-azulplata.com , $50 s/d) offers two spacious apartment rentals on a farm. It has a covered terrace and a plunge pool perfect for dips on hot days.
Bar Barranquilla (tel. 506/8368-2655, 11 A.M.–midnight daily low season, 8 A.M.–midnight daily high season, $2–12), atop Punta Barranquilla, offers spectacular vistas. It serves comida típica and seafood.
SANSA and Nature Air fly daily to Islita from San José . Empresa Arsa buses (tel. 506/2257-1835 or 2650-0179) depart Calle 12, Avenidas 7/9, in San José at 6 A.M. and 3:30 P.M. daily (four hours, $6) and travel via the Puntarenas–Playa Naranjo ferry and Jicaral to Coyote, Bejuco, and Islita.
You can buy gas at the house of Ann Arias Chávez, on the southwest corner of the soccer field in Quebrada Seca.