Golfito, a sportfishing center and the most important town in the Pacific southwest, is for travelers who love forlorn ports. This one is a muggy, funky, semi-down-at-the-heels place born in 1938, when the United Fruit Company moved its headquarters here after shutting down operations on the Caribbean coast . By 1955, more than 90 percent of the nation’s banana exports were shipped from Golfito. The United Fruit Company pulled out in 1985 after a series of crippling labor strikes.
The town sprawls for several kilometers along a single road on the estuary of the Río Golfito. First entered, to the southeast, is the Pueblo Civil, the run-down working-class section full of tumbledown houses (many hanging on stilts over the water). The Pueblo Civil extends northwest to the compact town center with an uninspired plaza. Nearby, the Hotel Centro Turístico Samoa has a small Museo Marino displaying a large collection of seashells and coral.
About two kilometers farther is the Muelle de Golfito, the banana-loading dock at the southern end of the Zona Americana, a more tranquil and orderly quarter where the administrative staff of United Fruit used to live in brightly painted two-story wooden houses raised on stilts set in manicured gardens shaded by tall trees hung with epiphytes and lianas. Here, too, is the Depósito Libre, a duty-free shopping compound that lures Ticos in droves on weekends, when the town’s dozens of cheap cabinas fill up. (Golfito was declared a duty-free port in 1990—an attempt to offset the economic decline that followed United Fruit’s strategic retreat.)
The vision of Golfito improves dramatically from across the bay at Playa Cacao, five kilometers southwest of Golfito. Funky charm was never funkier or more charming. The road from Golfito winds around the shore and spills steeply down to a beach of shingle and brown-sand (the narrow dirt road can be a challenge in wet season).
The 1,309-hectare Golfito National Wildlife Refuge, created to protect the city’s watershed, is formed of primary rainforest covering the steep mountains immediately east of town. Trails connect northward with Piedras Blancas National Park . A sign across from the Plaza Deportes soccer field in the Pueblo Civil points the way along a dirt road that leads about nine kilometers uphill to Las Torres radio station. You can also hike a steep trail from opposite Hotel Centro Turístico Samoa.
On the waterfront in the center of Golfito, Centro Turístico Samoa (tel. 506/2775-0233, www.samoadelsur.com , 10 A.M.–2 A.M. daily) has a dartboard (a darts club meets on Monday nights), table soccer, and a pool table, plus music at a bar that is shaped like a sailing ship with a busty mermaid prow.
Bar La Bomba, upstairs opposite the gas station, is another lively, colorful bar with karaoke. Expatriate gringos gravitate toward Latitude Ocho, opposite Hotel Costa Surf. Hotel Roland (tel. 506/2775-0180), by the Depósito Libre, offers a snazzier alternative and introduced “dancing girls.” Nearby, the Casino Golfito (tel. 506/775-0666) is open 6 P.M.–2 A.M. daily.
Prime season for sailfish is December–May; for marlin, June–September; and for snook, May–September.
Banana Bay Marina (tel. 506/2775-0838, www.bananabaymarina.com ) and Fish Hook Marina (tel. 506/2775-1624, www.marinafishhook.com ) offer sportfishing packages and charters, as does Capt. Bobby McGuinness (tel. 506/2775-0664, bobbymcguinness [at] racsa [dot] co [dot] cr), who holds more than 140 world records.
The Bosque Mar Canopy Tour has a 13-platform zip line ($75) on the road to Golfito Wildlife Refuge. Book through Land-Sea Services (tel./fax 506/2775-1614, www.marinaservices-yachtdelivery.com ).
The town is awash in budget—and often grim—accommodations not worth recommending. In the town center, Cabinas El Tucán (tel. 506/2775-0553, $10 pp cold water and fan, $30 s/d with hot water and a/c), opposite Centro Turístico Samoa, has 16 small, simple rooms with fans and private bathrooms with cold water only. Twelve newer rooms have air-conditioning, TVs, refrigerators, and hot water.
The Hotel y Restaurante el Gran Ceibo (tel./fax 506/2775-0403, $20–50 s/d), where the road meets the shore at the entrance to Golfito, has 27 simple rooms in modern two-story and one-story units. All have cool tile floors, TV, and clean bathrooms. There’s a good restaurant and a nice poolside breakfast area, plus a swimming pool and kids’ pool. Road noise is a problem. The lively bar draws a young crowd.
Nearby, Las Gaviotas (tel. 506/2775-0062, www.lasgaviotasmarinaresort.com , $72–130 s/d) has 21 modestly furnished rooms with cable TV, refrigerators, private porches, and spacious tiled bathrooms with large showers. Overpriced standards have fans only; larger and more nicely furnished junior suites are air-conditioned. The outdoor restaurant overlooks the gulf and serves seafood. There’s a pool and free Internet.
Your best bet in this price range is Hotel Centro Turístico Samoa (tel. 506/2775-0233, www.samoadelsur.com , $40–45 low season, $55 high season, up to four people), on the waterfront in the center of Golfito. It has 17 well-kept cabinas with fans and TVs. There’s an excellent restaurant, the liveliest bar in town, and a swimming pool. It also accepts RV campers for $15 per vehicle in a guarded parking lot with gleaming showers and toilets.
The Swiss-run La Purruja Lodge (tel. 506/2775-1054, www.purruja.com , $30 s, $40 d), four kilometers east of Golfito, has five cabinas with Spartan furnishings. They’re set amid landscaped lawns on a hill overlooking a forested valley, with trails.
Serving the serious shopping and gambling crowd is the Hotel Sierra Resort & Casino (tel. 506/2775-0666, www.hotelsierra.com , $70 s or $80 d low season, $80 s or $90 d high season), between the airport and the duty-free zone. Although soulless, it has 72 well-lit, nicely furnished air-conditioned rooms, plus a pool with wet bar, a children’s pool, restaurant, bar, disco, and casino.
My favorite place in town is the contemporary Banana Bay Marina (tel. 506/2775-0838, www.bananabaymarina.com , $75 s/d rooms, $95 s/d suite low season; $95 s/d rooms, $135 s/d suite high season), overhanging the waters one kilometer south of the town center. It offers three standard air-conditioned rooms and a gorgeous master suite, all with gracious mint-and-sea-green decor, ceiling fans, and large bathrooms with walk-in showers. The master suite has its own computer, cable TV, and sofa set. It has a lively bar and restaurant, Internet café, and the best sportfishing marina in town.
The Fish Hook Marina & Lodge (tel. 506/2775-1624, www.marinafishhook.com , $120–135 low season, $130–145 high season) competes with Banana Bay Marina (next door) but is less appealing. Its spacious rooms are sumptuous enough, with a surfeit of glossy hardwoods, but they’re dark. It has a bar-restaurant and, of course, a dock.
At Playa Cacao, Rancho Tropical (tel. 800/705-3474, www.fishgolfito.com , package rates vary), alias Fish Golfito, is another dedicated sportfishing ranch and has three simply but charmingly furnished cabins by the shore. All have cable TV, DVDs, coffeemakers, and fridges, and you get use of a small swimming pool and a hillside hot tub. It has two 31-foot Bertrams for fishing.
Casa Roland Marina Resort (tel. 506/2775-0180, www.casarolandgolfito.com , $110–225 s/d low season, $150–270 s/d high season), in the Zona Americana, opened in 2008 to much acclaim. It’s by far the classiest act in town, beginning with the marble-clad reception lounge and lavish bar with rust-red leather chairs. The hotel is festooned tip to toe with contemporary art. And the three types of air-conditioned rooms are graciously furnished and have ceiling fans and mod-cons such as flat-screen TVs. But what on earth was the architect (and owner) thinking? The place is virtually devoid of natural light: Bedrooms have only tiny windows, labyrinthine hallways are gloomy and claustrophobic, and the restaurant has no windows at all. Hurting for business, it has introduced “dancing girls,” presumably to lure the sportfishing crowd. Note that it’s landlocked, and not a marina.
Land-Sea Services (tel./fax 506/2775-1614, www.golfitocostarica.com ) offers vacation rentals, including furnished air-conditioned waterfront villas and apartments with gulf views.
Latitude Ocho (tel. 506/2775-0235), in the town center, is a meeting spot for expats eager to start their day with omelettes, pancakes, and other hearty breakfasts. Nearby, the super-clean, air-conditioned Buenos Días (tel. 506/2775-1124, 6 A.M.–10 P.M. daily), on the main road, serves U.S.-style breakfasts, green salads, and local lunches at bargain prices.
For elegance and variety head to Banana Bay Marina (tel. 506/2775-0838, 6 A.M.–10 P.M. daily, $5–15), where the menu includes spicy Louisiana gumbo, and pork loin with mushroom pasta and veggies. Or try the chic restaurant at Casa Roland Marina Resort (tel. 506/2775-0180, 7–10 A.M. and noon–10 P.M. daily), serving such nouvelle delights as jumbo shrimp with whiskey and honey mustard ($20) or beef tenderloin over portobello mushroom and goat cheese ($22).
For inexpensive seafood, I opt for the open-air Le Coquillage (6 A.M.–11:30 P.M. daily) at Centro Turístico Samoa, which also offers a wide menu, from burgers and pizzas to paella. Portions are filling, and the corvina al ajillo (garlic sea bass, $6) is splendid.
Both SANSA and Nature Air operate scheduled flights to Golfito.
Tracopa buses (tel. 506/2221-4214 and 506/2775-0365) depart San José  daily from Calle 5, Avenidas 18/20, at 7 A.M., 3:30 P.M., and 10:15 P.M. daily (eight hours, $8); return buses depart at 5 A.M. and 1:30 P.M.
Buses depart for Ciudad Neily  hourly, and to Zancudo  from the muellecito (the little dock immediately north of the gas station in the center of Golfito) daily at 1:30 P.M.; and for Puerto Jiménez  from the muelle at 11 A.M.
Water-taxis (lanchas) depart the muellecito to Puerto Jiménez ($5–12 pp each way depending on the boat), Playa Cacao ($1 pp each way), Playa Zancudo ($5 pp each way), plus Playa San Josecito and other destinations. Viajes Los Conejos (tel. 506/2775-2329) operates water-taxis to Playa Cacao from near the commercial dock; and Association ABOCOP (tel. 506/2775-0712) operates from the banana dock.
You can rent cars with Solid Car Rental (tel. 506/2775-3333, www.solidcarrental.com ), in the Hotel Samoa del Sur.