Of the nearly 2 million visitors to Costa Rica each year, just a tiny percentage of them plan a trip to the Osa Peninsula. Costa Rica may have hit its tourism sweet spot, but the Osa is still untamed and remote.
This is not the part of Costa Rica where the sloths lead the other animals in singing a verse of In the Jungle. The Osa Peninsula is a place of wild, joyful, freedom. Leafcutter ants march relentlessly in long lines across the jungle. Groups of coatis forage along the forest floor without worrying about a human like me standing in their midst. The dolphins in the Golfo Dulce leap from the water playfully. While the spider monkeys shake the branches overhead reminding anyone passing by that we’re in their jungle, not the other way around.
First-time visitors might be hesitant to journey down to this pristine southwestern corner of Costa Rica. After all, it’s so much easier to plan a trip to more traversed areas like Arenal or Monteverde. But, consider this. The Osa Peninsula is your best bet if you’re hoping for a Costa Rica experience away from nature experiences whitewashed for tourists.
How to Plan a Trip to the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica
How to get to the Osa Peninsula
Most travelers fly into Costa Rica’s international airport in San Jose. The Osa Peninsula is 5-6 hours by car depending on your final destination. Until you’re within perhaps a few miles of your lodging, the roads are newly paved and well-marked. Gone are the days when this trip took 10 hours along hardly passable roads! But, expect tolls along the route that are payable in US dollars and/or CR Colons.
For extensive driving around the Osa Peninsula during your stay, you’ll want to rent a 4×4 vehicle. The local roads are unpaved and may require water crossings when rivers swell in the rainy season.
Regional air carriers, Sansa and Nature Air both fly routes between San Jose and Puerto Jimenez, a popular base on the Osa Peninsula. The short flights take about an hour and cost between $100-$150 one-way.
On both my visits to Costa Rica, I’ve rented a car from San Jose and used it to travel around. At the end of these trips, I chose a one-way flight back to San Jose. I had the most time possible to enjoy Costa Rica while expediting my travel time to catch my return flight to the U.S.
One word of caution regarding your initial arrival into San Jose at the start of your trip. On my most recent visit, the airport was extremely busy with numerous flights arriving around the same time. As a result, my plane landed late and I had a 2-hour wait in line at Costa Rican Customs and Border Control.
This was not at all the case on my first trip years ago. I also spoke with other return visitors in line with me who said they’d never experienced such a long wait to enter the country, either. But, it’s something to be aware of when considering whether to drive or fly to the Osa Peninsula. Although I was late to pick up my rental car, the car was still there waiting for me. I wouldn’t have been as lucky if I had booked a flight.
I also planned a stop in Manuel Antonio along the way for a couple nights. After being so delayed at the airport, this planning saved us from having to drive at night on roads with few or no lights.
Where to Stay on the Osa Peninsula
Puerto Jimenez is the main town on the Osa. It sits along the Golfo Dulce, a sparkling protected inlet between the Osa Peninsula and mainland Costa Rica. Named “Sweet Gulf” for a reason, the Golfo Dulce looks and feels more lake than ocean. The calm, clear, sun-kissed water reflects the bright, blue sky overhead just like a piece of glass.
Puerto Jimenez has just a few thousand residents and one dusty main road. But, travelers will find all basic amenities including ATMs, a supermarket, a gas station, restaurants, hotels, hostels, and the small airport. The town makes for a great base whether you’re doing the multi-day hike from Leona Ranger Station to Sirena Station in nearby Corcovado National Park or day-tripping throughout the area.
I love to hike, but I also love having a comfy bed at night where I can wash off the day’s sweat and dirt. My budget-friendly Puerto Jimenez hotel had basic bungalow-style rooms with pretty, lush grounds, a beyond helpful staff, and AC.
The ability to cool off at day’s end should not be underestimated! The Osa Peninsula is a tropical rainforest. The air is hot and saturated with moisture. The sweat is never-ending! 😉 For someone like me, though, with sun and heat intolerant skin, I needed to be sure my skin could regulate each night. If AC is important for you, don’t assume hotels or hostels have it. Be sure it’s listed as an amenity, as you’ll find many hotels (even beautiful luxury lodges) with just ceiling fans. Check latest Puerto Jimenez hotel prices.
Visitors also choose to stay in Drake Bay and Matapalo. Drake Bay is on the northern tip of the Osa Peninsula, close to Cano Island and with boat access to Corcovado National Park. It’s more rustic than Puerto Jimenez and has no ATMs. Cash is king so be prepared and bring enough with you to pay for food, lodging, and tours. Check latest Drake Bay hotel prices.
The Matapalo area is about an hour from Puerto Jimenez along a very bumpy road. This laid-back area is near the southernmost tip of the Osa Peninsula and home to yoga retreats and luxury eco-lodges. Matapalo is along the wild, rugged coastline and surrounded by primary and secondary rainforest. Wildlife sightings are a virtual guarantee. Humans not so much. Check latest Matapalo hotel prices.
When I began to plan a trip to the Osa Peninsula, I went back and forth about the best areas to stay. In hindsight, I’d absolutely still spend time in Puerto Jimenez because of its amenities, its nearness to the Golfo Dulce, and the relatively easy access to day trips and tours. Visitors without a car will also do well in Puerto Jimenez, as it’s easy to get around by bike, taxi, or on foot.
However, I would tweak my itinerary a bit and also mix in a couple days stay in Matapalo, instead of just the day trip there. The easy access to self-guided hiking trails and the absolute beauty and isolation of the area made Matapalo irresistible. This was only confirmed by locals who recommended the area for my next trip to the Osa Peninsula.
Popular Things to Do
Visit Corcovado National Park.
Undoubtedly, Corcovado is the gem of all of Costa Rica’s National Parks. The 164 square miles of primary and secondary rainforests grow as green and dense as bunches of broccoli and only give way for a narrow stretch of untouched sand and turquoise ocean waters. The biodiversity in the park is everywhere you look, absolutely stunning, and has been noted as such by National Geographic.
Expect to see an unbelievable array of Costa Rican wildlife. Corcovado is home to 4 species of monkeys, sloths, wild cats, tapirs, crocodiles, peccaries, anteaters, and the list would be endless if I named every mammal, bird, reptile, and insect.
The National Park has a few different access points, none of which are all that easy to reach. You’ll have to work for your right to get to Corcovado! In fact, the only ways to get to one or more of the parks ranger stations is on foot, by chartered plane, or by boat. The latter 2 are, of course, pricier, but great options for nonhikers. Either way, you must have a guide to enter Corcovado. If there’s one can’t miss thing to do on the Osa, Corcovado National Park is it!
Watch Dolphins in the Golfo Dulce.
The Golfo Dulce is fed by the Pacific Ocean and mangrove rivers and streams. This creates the perfect feeding grounds for dolphins who wait for mackerel and other small fish emptying into the gulf.
Day trip boats depart from the pier in Puerto Jimenez and cruise along the Golfo Dulce in search of the resident dolphins. If you’re lucky, you’ll see family groups swimming alongside your boat and playfully jumping out of the water! Migrating humpback whales also love the calm waters of the gulf and come to give birth and care for their babies between August-October.
Explore the biological diversity underwater.
Cano Island is the premiere spot to snorkel and scuba dive. The island is off the northern coast of the Osa Peninsula, closest to Drake Bay. Day trips from Puerto Jimenez are possible but require a very early morning start. You’ll be rewarded, though, with one of the most diverse underwater worlds in all of Costa Rica. The clear waters are home to dolphins, rays, all kinds of fish, eels, turtles, sharks, and whales.
If you can’t get to Cano Island, snorkeling is also pretty good in the Golfo Dulce! I snorkeled in the gulf and saw lots of colorful fish, turtles, rays, eels, and more. Not to mention, it’s a lot easier to access from a Puerto Jimenez hotel.
Spend the day in Matapalo.
If you day-tripped to Corcovado and you’re still longing for more jungle time, hike the shorter self-guided trails in Matapalo near Bosque del Cabo. Spider monkeys are a common sighting as they move in troops through the forest canopy. The deep-throated calls of the howler monkeys fill the air, disrupted only by pairs of loud squawking macaws flying overhead.
The area’s eco-lodges also having offerings for non-guests. Make lunch reservations at Lapa Rios while taking in the breathtaking views of the rugged beach and turquoise ocean waters. Have more time? Book a guide to hike with you to the nearby rainforest waterfall. Maybe you’re someone who’d like to relax. In that case, call ahead to Encanta la Vida and check their yoga schedule. Non-guests are welcome to drop in for classes.
Kayak through mangroves and into the Golfo Dulce.
The mangroves on the Osa Peninsula are a tangle of tree roots and twisted vines. The shallow, grassy water offers baby fish some protection from the wilds of the larger gulf and ocean. Expect to see water birds, like heron, always searching for these fish as their next meal!
Kayaking in the afternoon is not complete without a stop at a deserted beach to enjoy juicy pineapple and the absolute peace of being on your own. When you’re ready, kayak back to Puerto Jimenez’s beach area and watch the sky turn all shades of pink and orange as it sets into the horizon.
- Whether you’re hiking or just out for the day, a daypack is essential for carrying water, sunscreen, bug spray, and other essentials.
- The Osa Peninsula is so sunny and humid. Hydration is a must! Carry water at all times.
- Be mindful of your camera and other electronics when they move between warm and cool temperatures, say from outside to a hotel room with AC. Lenses fog and condensation forms quickly. Use plastic bags or a dry bag to protect against moisture.
- When hiking in Corcovado, wear a pair of sturdy hiking boots, moisture-wicking hiking pants, and white socks that go up your shin to protect against ticks. If you’re really off-the-beaten path, consider rubber boots like the guides wear.
So, would you like to plan a trip to the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica?
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