Probably about a dozen years ago Sue and I were walking the coast trail to punta Mona in Gandoca Manzanillo wildlife refuge and we started talking about all the animals we’d seen, not just that day but in all our visits to Costa Rica. I was trying to come up with some that we hadn’t seen but really wanted too.
I listed “Jaguar of course and Harpy eagle but they’re officially extinct in Costa Rica. Maybe we’re close enough to Panama to get a casual visitor.” Sue picked tapirs.
I was having a hard time coming up with any others “we’ve seen tons of cool frogs and the best snakes…except the eyelash viper…everyone sees eyelash vipers and we haven’t.”
Sue actually said “you mean like that one right there?”
Not more than six feet from my elbow and displaying the brilliant yellow phase against the brown bark of a tree trunk was Bothriechis schlegelii.
I could try to make this stuff up but no one would believe it.
The Reserve Around a Town
Gandoca Manzanillo wildlife refuge includes not only the town of Manzanillo within its boundaries but also a few dozen hotels, rental homes and mini boutique resorts along route 36 north to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. The beaches of Cocles, Chiquita and Uva are all withing the limits of the refuge.
Many of the buildings were present before the refuge was declared and the ones built since have followed strict regulations required to develop in harmony with nature. We love staying in this area because you feel like you’re in a wildlife refuge but you can hop on a beach cruiser bicycle and head down the road to a variety of excellent restaurants, bakeries and beach bars.
South of Manzanillo the road ends and hiking trails begin. The route out to Punta Mona and on to the station at Gandoca is almost always soggy and muddy but often sun drenched at the same time.
Along the coast there are dozens of side trails down to tiny coves and beaches where you’re unlikely to see anyone else all day. You’re also unlikely to be able to stay all day because along most of the southern Caribbean coast the high tide comes right up to the treeline submerging the beach for a couple of hours twice a day.
When to Visit
There’s a secret about the dry season in the southern Caribbean. It’s the opposite of the rest of Costa Rica. When most of the country is getting out their umbrellas and muck boots in September and October the Gandoca Manzanillo region is ordering extra sunscreen.
There’s an explanation for how this happens on the weather page but the most important thing is that it does happen. If you want beach weather in the fall you’ll be well advised to skip the resort areas of northwest Guanacaste and head southeast instead.
Of course that also means that if you’re visiting during what all the brochures refer to as the “dry season in Costa Rica” December through May you should expect rain here. The video above from January shows Sue navigating a muddy trail in knee high rubber boots – it’s obviously not the dry season here like it is on the Pacific beaches.
See January weather patterns or use the drop down menu to see weather patterns and other seasonal information for the month you are thinking about visiting.
Directions to Gandoca Manzanillo couldn’t be much simpler. Head east on the Guápiles highway (32) to Limón, take a right and head south on the coast road (36) and drive until there is no more road. Park and hit the trails. No entry fee or permit necessary.
Another significantly more fun way to arrive is to use an overnight whitewater rafting trip down the Pacuare river to cover much of the distance and then as described in one of our best trips ever you can arrange for the outfitter to shuttle you from the rafting take-out to the beach.
Finally if you have a 4WD (some river fords required) you can drive to the south end of the reserve at the Gandoca station by turning inland from route 36 at Hone creek, passing through the Bribri indigenous reserve towards Sixaola and hanging a left onto the dirt road towards Mata de Limón about 6 km shy of the Panamanian border.