Believed to have been visited by the explorer, sea captain and pirate Sir Francis Drake in the 1500s and so named for him, the sweeping bay of Bahia Drake is found on one of Costa Rica’s most isolated swathes of land –the Osa Peninsula. With just one road in – and that often impassable in the wet season – Bahia Drake pushes the already high remoteness of this incredible region up yet another notch or two, making it a dream destination for those adventurous souls who like to explore the road less traveled.
It also happens to be covered in primary rainforest bursting at the seams with exotic wildlife and surrounded by waters equally as full of biodiversity, serving as habitats for an astonishing variety of marine life. The richness of the natural world here is so overflowing that it is immediately apparent on arrival and should you choose to do nothing more than simply sit somewhere for your entire time you would probably still see more wildlife than almost anywhere you could go.
Visitors arrive here to connect with nature in a way seldom found anymore anywhere on Earth and the choice of ways to experience this wonderland are as dazzling and diverse as the flora and fauna. Remote it may be but don’t make the mistake of equating such a geographical isolation with having nothing to keep you occupied. While making very little effort, as already mentioned, would still reward you with wildlife encounters Drake Bay offers an amazing menu of activities to take you even deeper into this playground for the nature passionate. In reality the options are so plentiful you would have to spend some considerable time here to work your way through them all.
Almost all the choices of things to see and do revolve around getting you amid natural splendor and encountering the non-human natives but beyond that the choice is entirely yours. Don a snorkel mask to explore coral gardens with turtles and dolphins swimming alongside, stroll the often-deserted coast and watch monkeys playing in the treetops from the jungle edges which tumble right down to the sands or paddle out on a river kayak adventure of thrills, spills and waterfalls.
Once the exclusive domain of researching scientists, Drake Bay has very slowly become a destination for tourists but in a very different form to any you may have previously been familiar with. People use their feet or horses to get about here, life has changed little in many ways for centuries and almost everything which is needed arrives by boat. Drake Bay has one tiny village –Agujitas –although the whole of the bay is often referred to as the town. Here the locals invite you in with open arms and smiles, eager to share their paradise with you while the small collection of places to eat and drink tend to come with endless helpings of the kind of rustic charm which most of us can only dream of.
Offering every opportunity to unplug from modern life and convene with nature, few who come to this unique part of Costa Rica leave without finding themselves both rejuvenated and healed in some way. As long as Bahia Drake remains isolated it will no doubt manage to preserve all the things which make it so uniquely special, continuing to reward all those who venture here with natural experiences which are exceptional, magical and mind-blowing in equal measure.
A Morning in Bahia Drake
Short on people and traffic but full of wildlife, Drake Bay and its surrounding area is all about the magnificence of Mother Nature and there is no better way to start your day’s adventures than by plunging right into this wonderland.
Fresh, clean tropical sea breezes filling your lungs as you walk a little (or a lot) of the coast is how you can begin and once refreshed with a break for coffee you can take your pick from more nature-and wildlife-themed activities with a kayak, horse-riding or zipline experience.
Beach Walks and Coastal Hiking
Bahia Drake, with the tiny settlement of Agujitas as its center, is a horseshoe-shaped bay scooped out of the Osa Peninsula’s northern fringe with the blue waters of the Pacific lapping at its shores. If you are the kind of person who likes to ease gently into your day there are some easy-stroll options which head straight out from the village center. The bay’s beautiful beach runs for a few miles of its length with the jungle crowding right down from steep hills to its sands. Beginning your morning simply strolling as much or as little of this stretch as you choose won’t just give you gorgeous tropical scenery to gaze upon but also present you with a wealth of opportunities for meeting the wildlife. This is often at its most lively earlier in the morning too.
The most common sight besides the groups of pelicans you will see dive-bombing the waters as they fish is that of the incredibly vociferous and brilliantly-plumaged scarlet macaws. These are frequently seen squabbling over fruits and nuts in the trees or calling raucously as they pass overhead while the same trees will often give you glimpses of monkeys.
Additionally, the waters all around the Osa Peninsula are hot-spots for both resident and migrating dolphin and whale species, many of which come close in to land so keep your eyes peeled for the always magical sight of these creatures surfacing in the bay water’s.
If you want to extend your walk a named route actually sets off south-west from the village –the Agujitas–Corcovado Trail -where a wealth of wildlife including toucans, sloths, kinkajous and monkeys are all on the list of possible wildlife encounters, especially for the eagle-eyed. Although the entire length of this coast-hugging hike which ends at the San Pedrillo Ranger Station of the Corcovado National Park is 17km long you don’t have to do the entire thing to get magnificent payback both with regard to views and wildlife.
Along this trail and just 20 minutes from the village will see you arriving at the lovely and secluded Cocalito Beach, another spot frequently visited by a variety of animals and birds but often completely devoid of people. Crossing the Aguitas River to get here via a charmingly rustic hanging bridge with jungle crowding in from every side adds to the adventure and if you need a cool down once you arrive this beautiful little spot is lovely for a swim.
A further 2.5 miles around the coast can be found what most consider to be the true gem of this area with regard to beaches –Playa San Josecito. With crystal aqua-hued waters washing its long sweep of sparkling pale sands, this lush palm-fringed cove is a true tropical beauty whose frequent visitors include capuchin monkeys. Emerald-hued jungle spills right down to the beach so you can watch the scarlet macaws in the trees as you have a snorkel or swim.
If you have the time and the energy hiking the entire Agujitas–Corcovado Trail is exceptionally rewarding for peace seekers and nature lovers but for those who just want to dip their toes into this walk there is also the option to get a boat to any given point and then walk back to town. Such a possibility brings the gorgeous San Josecito Beach within reach for all those who still want to get back to the village in time for a coffee break.
Morning Coffee in Bahia Drake
Things tend to be low-key and simple in Bahia Drake but this is Costa Rica so the coffee standard tends to be high and that applies no matter how isolated you are.
One perfect example of this for those who want coffee with a view is found at the open-sided second floor of the Soda Mar y Bosque. The ‘soda’ in the title tells you this is a traditional Costa Rican choice while the rest of it, which translates to sea and forest, describes what you look out on. With hummingbirds frequently flitting around the bird-feeders, this is a calm spot to rest your legs mid-morning and soak up some of your beautiful surroundings.
Conveniently centrally located, this soda which was the village’s very first restaurant, has a lot of natural wood to add a bit of atmosphere with chunky wooden tables and chairs to sit at. Those with a sweet tooth will be happy to learn that this little spot also serves as a bakery offering a choice of home-made treats such as croissants, pastries and cookies. Just to really put the icing on the cake the coffee standard is high, brewed the old-fashioned way with a chorreador which uses a cloth filter and if you prefer something cold there are also some great smoothies here.
Another simple option which offers a gravel terrace spread about with a few stone tables and benches is the Heladeria Popis. The tent canopy and the trees provide the shade while the wooden counter serves up the coffees –either hot or iced. As the name suggests this basic outfit is also an ice-cream parlor and you can sample these high-quality wares either the traditional way or mixed into an amazing milkshake. Of course if you are feeling extra self-indulgent you can even have both.
A Choice of Activities – Kayaking, Horse-Riding, and Ziplining
While well and truly isolated from the main tourist trail and with nothing but tiny rustic settlements as infrastructure, the Bahia Drake area has an incredible diversity of things to do, all centered around its dazzling nature and wildlife.
Three of the exciting ways to get amid all the magnificence is by kayak paddle power, with a relaxed horseback ride or, for the more adventurous, whizzing over it all on a zipline. While each are offered in a one or two hour version for those who want to cram in as much as possible or are short on time they can also be experienced as half-day adventures if you want to immerse yourself more fully.
With several outfits and hotels offering equipment rental and typically calm, protected waters to paddle in, experiencing the bay by kayak is a highly accessible and rewarding way to spend the rest of your morning.
Exploring the Aguitas River, which empties into the Pacific less than a one-kilometer paddle from the village, is ideal even for novices and offers some incredible wildlife spotting opportunities. Lined by jungle, your tranquility-infused journey along this waterway gives you a practically silent approach so the plentiful bird, animal and reptile species living in the trees and along the river can be seen without alarming them and therefore at closer quarters.
If you’d like to inject a little adrenaline into your day along with having the chance to visit some jungle waterfalls by kayak head out to the Life for Life Sea Turtle Conservation Project. Located within the Punta Rio ClaroNational Wildlife Refuge four miles west of Agujitas village, this wonderful eco-project fund their conservation work by offering guided kayak tours up the river with options for two, three or four-hour adventures.
While offering you the chance to get amid all of the pristine isolation and untouched wonder for which this area is best known it also offers some watery thrills and spills if you want them. Tours are typically a combination of serene paddling, swimming in pools, floating along with the current with a life-vest, visiting cascading waterfalls tucked away in the jungle with short hikes and even some rock scrambling and jumping if you dare.
The horse riding options which set out directly from Bahia Drake offer all the bonuses of hiking amid this natural playground teeming with life but with some very notable extras. Walking jungle trails typically means putting at least some of your concentration into where you are stepping, usually to avoid tree roots, vines and all kinds of other natural rainforest obstacles. From the relative luxury and ease of horseback you can instead focus all of your attention on your surroundings, enjoying to the max your tropical environment and raising your chances of spotting the birds or animals who are almost always found moving through or resting in the canopy.
Guided horseback tours -sometimes with a naturalist guide to really enhance your experience -exclude no-one, offered for both total novice and experienced rider alike and come in short jaunt forms up to treks which cover the whole day.
Journeys typically include a mixture of jungle, coast, river and waterfall scenery and often allow stops for swimming in jungle pools or from the beach. The beautiful Naguala Waterfall with its idyllic pool at its base is a common focus for treks and, as it is located less than three miles south of the village, can be included on ever the shortest options.
For those who dare ziplining is a thrilling activity no matter where it is done however Costa Rica allows you this kind of adrenaline rush in the most jaw-dropping settings. Just a short car ride from Drake Bay brings you to one of the last primary rainforests on Earth –the Corcovado National Park –which is so bursting at the seams with an incredible diversity of wildlife that the National Geographic has called it the’most biologically intense place in the world’.
Located at the park’s north-west edge and offering 13 platforms and 11 cables, the Corcovado Canopy Tour allows you to traverse 50 acres of lush, wildlife-rich jungle at the same height as some of the country’s biggest trees, giving you a rare and privileged perspective. Placing you literally into the midst of the very habitats where the majority of rainforest animals, birds and other creatures live, frequent sightings include monkeys, sloths, iguanas, poison-dart frogs and all kinds of bird-life, the most common of which is that of the noisy scarlet macaws that along with the toucans seem to be everywhere at once.
For those who would like the bird’s eye jungle views but don’t want to take on the zipline element, the Drake Bay Original Canopy Tour which operates from the Hotel Jinetes de Osa right on the western fringe of town offers an alternative. Along with its 9 platform/6 cable zipline element, this set up also has a 65ft observation deck which is rigged high above a turn in the river so that gorgeous views and the potential for spotting wildlife are all part of the experience.
Lunch in Bahia Drake
Whether your morning has been filled with the exertions and excitement of kayaking, horse-riding or ziplining amid all the natural splendor of this area it is almost certain you will by now have worked up something of an appetite.
The number of Bahia Drake’s lunch restaurants, cafes and sodas are not numerous but there is more than enough to offer a little diversity of choice. Most are a very casual affair but despite this the food standard is typically high with portions often generous and prices surprisingly low.
The restaurant menus are not usually extensive but one exception to this is Restaurante Delicias right in the middle of town. In line with the rest of Bahia Drake’s eateries, this is a non-fuss simple spot but with something of a ramshackle charm about it. Wooden benches and chairs or log seats make up the furniture while the super friendly warmth of the welcome tends to creep into almost every review.
The menu is not just bigger than the average town restaurant but huge, offering everything from ceviche to soups and pizzas to pasta with chicken, beef, fish and shellfish all included. There are some more international-influenced dishes for those not looking for culinary adventure while those who want to try traditional Tico fare have plenty of options.
For a further choice of local cuisine, this time right at the beach, head to the family-owned La Cocina del Pirata, also located in the center of things. With some gorgeous views of the bay, the Pirata vibe is laid-back and its setting ensures there are always at least one or two other people here, usually cooling down with an ice-cold Imperial. Just a simple collection of tables, chairs and plants beneath a canopy shade, this restaurant’s menu is small but has all the traditional Tico staples of set lunches (known as casados) with sides such as rice, beans and plantains to accompany the main choices of shrimp, fish, chicken and sometimes beef. Also offering ceviche, burritos and nachos, this restaurant is a perfect example of how some of the bay’s most seemingly basic offerings are those which serve up the tastiest and highest quality food.
An Afternoon in Bahia Drake
The natural splendor focus of your Drake Bay day continues into your afternoon hours with a menu of incredible possibilities to choose from. Head out to Cano Island to snorkel with the turtles, tropical fish, rays and even dolphins if you are lucky before marveling at the 2000 year old carved stone spheres of a civilization which once inhabited this island but disappeared long ago. Alternatively go on a whale-and dolphin-watching trip or head off into the jungle on a guided hike to meet the native wildlife in the surroundings of one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth –the Corcovado National Park.
Just visible from Bahia Drake itself is the uninhabited and rocky dot of Pacific Ocean-surrounded land known as Cano Island. Home to a biological reserve and skirted by coral reef ledges teeming with life, Cano Island is yet one more example of the area’s incredible natural diversity and with waters of exceptional clarity thrown into the mix this pristine destination has understandably become extremely popular with divers and snorkelers.
Tours to snorkel and visit the island are offered from Drake Bay, typically with half or full day options. The 45 minute ride is in itself a highlight, with dolphins frequently accompanying boats while a wealth of sea-birds and scenery of the beautiful kind also give you plenty to look at. Quite what you will find once you don snorkel and mask in this underwater wonderland will depend as everything is wild and free but fish in great numbers and in colors covering the whole spectrum are always present. These include trigger-fish, barracuda, trumpet fish, damselfish, parrot fish, angel fish and puffers with sting rays and sea turtles often found swimming alongside you. Other possibilities include moray eels, reef sharks and even dolphins and the largest fish on the planet -whale sharks.
Boat trips typically include a stop on the 740 acre island itself which is home to an array of plants, insects and birds and has Olive Ridley turtle nesting sites. Some of the options also include guided hikes so you can learn about the part Cano Island plays in the eco-systems of the area and the species you are seeing.
The island is also home to some of the mysterious carved petrospheres which are found in their hundreds in various locations in Costa Rica. These perfect stone spheres which range in size from just inches to more than 6ft and weight several tons, are believed to date from around the first century AD, long before the Spanish ever conquered these lands. The ancient civilization which created them completely disappeared following European colonization and today the purpose of these incredible archaeological relics remains unknown.
Whale and Dolphin Watching
While the region’s rainforests provide habitat for an incredible diversity of creatures the coastal waters which surround the country are also teeming with life. Many species of whale and dolphin –both resident and migratory –are found in high numbers off the coast of Costa Rica and the Osa Peninsula is a particular hot-spot, especially at certain times of the year.
Several possibilities operating directly out of Drake Bay can get you aboard some kind of watercraft and watching these majestic and enchanting animals up close for the kind of experience you are unlikely to forget in a hurry. The dolphin species resident year round include the most instantly recognizable dolphin species to most –the bottlenose –known for their curiosity of humans and often found escorting boats and riding bow waves.
If you have always wanted to see humpback whales in the wild you will perhaps never again have such an opportunity as that which the Osa Peninsula offers. This area covers a unique section of ocean in which migration routes from both Northern and Southern Hemisphere cross over –the only place on Earth where this occurs.
Corcovado National Park
About 14 miles south of Bahia Drake can be found the northern fringes of the Corcovado National Park. Even by Costa Rican standards –a country known for its dazzling biodiversity –Corcovado is exceptional, wrapping within its 161 square miles one of the planet’s last remaining swathes of primary rainforest.
This is a truly primeval place where jaguars, jaguarundis and pumas still move secretly through the jungle, where the roar of howler monkeys penetrates the air for miles around and Central America’s largest mammal –the Baird’s tapir – still roams free.
Entry into this sensational place is possible through a collection of ranger stations, the closest to Bahia Drake that of Los Planes, accessible within 30 minutes by vehicle. Exploring the park in any way is only possible with official guides whose knowledge and expertise of the wildlife and flora which call this rainforest home adds considerable value to any visit here. Not only are these professionals able to interpret in an easy understandable form all you are gazing upon butthey are also highly familiar with all of the wildlife hot-spots.
While it is the longer hikes and overnight options which penetrate into the deepest parts of the jungle the diversity of animals and birds here is so remarkable that even on the shortest ofhikes you will almost certainly be guaranteed plentiful sightings. Frequent species seen include monkeys (all four of the nation’s monkey species are present here), agoutis, sloths, anteaters and peccaries while the most common bird species include hummingbirds, toucans, scarlet macaws, kingfishers and tanagers.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Bahia Drake
Refined cocktail lounges and elegant restaurants are not part of the Bahia Drake drinking and dining scene and it is the very absence of such things which draws the adventurous to these remote shores. What you get instead is the chance to rub shoulders and share beers and tales with the people who call this unique place home and eat great food in a collection of restaurants which show that the simple things in life can sometimes be the best. Most venues –the majority of which function simultaneously as both bar and restaurant -are open-air and often little more than a roof held up by a few tree-trunk supports.
With local fishermen heading out daily to harvest the edible bounty of the ocean, fish and seafood are something of a focus on menus and cuisine types include Mexican, Italian, South American and typical Costa Rican dishes.
With everything so low key in Bahia Drake your sunset drinks sessions are most likely going to be casual, relaxed affairs as you mix with locals and any other visitors adventurous enough to be in this part of the world.
If you want to keep up the wildlife theme of the day and still haven’t had your fill of the Costa Rican animals and birds then head to La Jungla Bar right in the village where this cute little drinking spot has an open-air balcony which looks right out onto the rainforest. Sometimes referred to locally as Tureka, a La Jungla’s self-professed selling point claims ‘the only place in the country where you could be sipping an ice-cold beer and watching a tapir’ which may be pushing the point a little (these animals are now extremely rare) but you will almost certainly see wildlife of some kind. The brief dusk and sundown are one of the most active times of day for wildlife, monkeys included, and before it gets dark the almost ever-present scarlet macaws are all but guaranteed to be around. Besides the ice-cold beer promised by La Jungla they also have a great range of cocktails which are made using fresh local fruits.
If you want to focus your attention on the glorious colors of the sunset itself instead then a few minutes’ walk from La Jungla, at the western end of Drake Bay, you will find the lovely Kalaluna Bistro which is part of the Hotel Jinetes de Osa. This section of the bay, a little separated from the real center, is where the jungle starts to take over again giving the Kalaluna an even more removed air in a place which already feels miles from anywhere.
Open to non-guests, this open-sided bar and restaurant gem is full of chunky and beautiful wooden furniture and fronts the beach so glorious views are all part of the experience. If you want to be literally at the water’s edge there are a couple of tables often set out there too so you can keep your eyes peeled for passing dolphins as you enjoy your sundowners. Besides the ubiquitous Imperials and other beer choices there are also cocktails and a surprisingly varied choice of wines.
If you opted to watch the sunset at the Kalaluna Bistro you might decide to hang around to dine, especially as many claim this is Bahia Drake’s number one restaurant. With a focus on freshly-made in-house Italian cuisine and the seafood which the local fishermen deliver daily immediately after catching it, the menu here has a variety of choice and, as previously mentioned, a good range of wines to accompany your selected dishes.
Further east along the bay on the main street will bring you to another dining option for seafood fans – Roberto’s Marisqueria. Located right at the beach this eatery, in line with most of the local choices, is a simple affair, in reality little more than a few wooden poles supporting a roof. However, it does have a laid floor (not always a given in charmingly rustic Bahia Drake) and magnificent views of the bay through the palm trees, particularly from its upstairs deck. The furniture is again of the chunky natural kind made straight from huge hewn slices of trees and at night, when the lanterns wink on, this little place takes on a special and cozy atmosphere as the wood glows warmly in the light.
The cuisine here is marine-bounty-focused, created from whatever catches the fishermen have delivered freshly from their boats that day. There are some great ceviche choices along with such things as garlic shrimp pasta, grilled fish, fish tacos and seafood rice.
Perhaps the closest thing to refinement you will find in the bay is offered at Casa Tortuga. Remember, however, this is Bahia Drake so things are still relatively rustic and casual with an open-air tiled patio and a roof held up by tree trunks. Also known as Drake’s Kitchen, this lovely family-owned restaurant offers ocean views, placing you just steps from the beach with usually a couple of tables set right by the waterside beneath the trees for those who want an intimate dinner.
Located at the eastern end of the bay and popular with locals on a night out, Casa Tortuga is filled with beautiful carved timber furniture and once the sun has set takes on a very definite air of romance and extra charm. The chalkboard menu is extensive by bay standards with seafood, red meat, chicken and pasta dishes all on offer, all well-presented and all high quality. The whole fish dishes, usually served on a bed of banana leaves so you can’t forget your tropical surroundings, are a specialty while those who want to sample some typical Tico fare can also do that here.
An Evening in Bahia Drake
Those drawn to the end-of-the-road-feel Bahia Drake are principally here for one thing –nature and wildlife. Although your day will already have been bursting at the seams with all of this region’s natural magnificence even once the sun sets it is possible to continue this theme for those who don’t simply want to sit back with a few nightcaps at a bar.
Night tours which see you strapping on a headlamp and heading off into the jungle come in more than one variety in this unique place ranging from short jaunts to longer hikes. As you will already be aware after your day’s adventure spotting wildlife is more easily done here than avoiding it but things turn up even yet another notch or two once dark falls. Many of the creatures which live in the rainforest only start becoming active after dark, spending their daylight hours sleeping and hidden well away. While there is always the chance of spotting nocturnal mammals the most frequently encountered animals at night are frogs, toads, insects, spiders, bats, and snakes.
Besides the chances of meeting the native species the primeval-like surroundings of a rainforest take on a special atmosphere and magic after dark, offering an entirely different experience to any you might already have had during the day.
Of all the night jungle options that head out directly from the Drake Bay village arguably the number one choice is that of the ‘Bug Lady’. These two hour treks led by the bug lady herself – biologist Tracie Stice -and Tico naturalist Gianfranco Gomez have received not just endless rave reviews from just about everywhere they appear but are also acclaimed on an international scale. Even if insects wouldn’t typically spark off your enthusiasm much you might like to think again as this tour has a way of changing people’s previous views on creepy-crawlies with its elements of the entertaining, educational and fascinating in huge measures.
Once you have learned what the bugs, amphibians and reptiles are that you are seeing you will then be regaled with some astonishing facts about the habits and life cycles of the rainforests insects and otherwise misunderstood species. Learn how to harvest silk from huge spiders, discover how poisonous jungle toads have been utilized in mind-control research, hear about the child caring habits of certain species and how indigenous tribes used insects for their medicinal properties or what part cockroaches played in the Vietnam War.
While mammals are not the focus of these tours there is of course no knowing what might be encountered during your night walk and past sightings have even included some of the native wild cats such as pumas, jaguars, ocelots and jaguarundis. More frequently seen are kinkajous, skunks, racoons, armadillo.