These days, the words Banana Republic are more likely to conjure up an image of neatly stacked chinos and v-neck sweaters than they are a place like Golfito. But when United Fruit built this town on the southwest coast of Costa Rica in 1939, there was nothing here but wilderness and Boruca, the region's indigenous tribe. Fleeing a rash of banana disease that was sweeping through their Atlantic coast plantations, United Fruit surveyed this deepwater bay sheltered within the Golfo Dulce and found untamed perfection. They built a massive dock, immaculate houses, schools, roads, a hospital-even a bowling alley-and they brought in workers from around the world. Most of all, they brought money and influence to a region that became their virtual fiefdom for nearly half a century.
That era ended a long time ago, with the last vestiges of Mama Chiquita (as United Fruit was called by its employees) pulling up stakes in the eighties. They left behind a company town without a company; Golfito is no longer immaculate but it is, once again, wonderfully Costa Rican.
At one end of the town, there's the gritty bustle of mecanicos and pulperias that seem to be fighting to keep their foothold against the rain forest encroaching from the hills above. At the other, United Fruit's ghost town lingers in what locals call the Zona Americana, adding a partially decayed, colonial charm to an area that feels a little like wild frontier. These houses, once occupied by manageriallevel workers at United Fruit, were built in a style that's reminiscent of Key West architecture and many have been bought and renovated in recent years. There are plans for a world-class luxury resort and marina to be built in Golfito. Bahia Escondida is still in its infancy, but it has already brought some important improvements to the town, creating a park for local children and expanding the waterfront area with a reclamation project. Also promised is a boardwalk that will connect the American Zone with downtown Golfito.
Just beyond the American Zone is the airport, a simple strip cut through the jungle, with an open-air ticket counter. A stone's throw away is Bar la Pista, a great place to relax with an Imperial while you wait for your flight, or to have lunch after a morning at the teeming Deposito Libre Comercial de Golfito. A large plaza with shops selling all sorts of electronics, appliances, and housewares, this "duty-free" shopping zone was created to bring business to the area after United Fruit left. Shoppers come from all over southern Costa Rica to furnish their homes at prices that are taxed much lower (though not tax-free, as the name implies) than anywhere else. The catch is a complicated ticket system that calls for visitors to buy the day before, which means overnight hotel stays. Ticos (Costa Ricans) know the way to beat the system: Buy your tickets from one of the many locals who make a living reselling tickets outside the Deposito entrance and be prepared to bargain hard.
Visitors to the area, however, will have little use for the Deposito. You are in one of the most beautiful places in the world and you may have to resist the urge to stop saying Wow!
Golfito is perched at the base of the towering hills of the Piedra Brancas National Park with its Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Golfito (a wildlife refuge), and at the top of the Osa Peninsula, home to the Corcovado National Park.
There are paths from town leading up into the rain forest of the Wildlife Refuge and you don't have to go far to be dazzled. On one short walk I took up to the waterfalls behind La Sirena Hotel, I saw a javelina- which resembles a cross between a boar and a pig, with a bristly coat, thin legs, and tusks-scamper into the brush. In the tall, moist cavern of the falls, a bright blue butterfly- as big as a salad plate!-hovered between the moss-covered wall and the cerulean sky. I felt like I had stepped back into some kind of prehistoric world and then I realized-I had! It was an amazing experience for a traveler who considers herself easy to please but hard to surprise.
The rain forests of the area are home to howler monkeys, spider monkeys, white faced capuchins, and squirrel monkeys. Agouties inhabit these parks, as do coatis, sloths, tapirs, brocket deer, poison dart frogs, giant dragonflies and the blasphemous Jesus Christ Lizard (named for its ability to walk on water). Jaguars and ocelots still live here, as do parrots, macaws, and toucans. The truly adventurous can have an unforgettable nature encounter by roughing it with a permit to camp or by staying at Sirena, a research station within the Corcovado park.
Golfito makes a great jumping-off point for exploring other towns in the region. Puerto Jiménez, for example, is directly across the bay from Golfito and reachable by ferry. A former logging and mining area, the laid-back town is now the gateway to Corcovado Park and is well known for the scarlet macaws that flit from tree to tree.
If steamy hikes through primary rain forest are not your thing, you may want to grab a surfboard and head for Pavones or Zancudo, two of the area's famed surfing breaks. At Playa Zancudo, you'll find a six-mile stretch of sand lined by coconut palms, where the waves range from gentle at the northern end to gnarly at the other. Cabanas Sol y Mar is the place to go for a couple of beers at the beachside bar and, in high season, Sunday afternoon horseshoe throws where the competition gets intense-in a mellow sort of way. Pavones, farther out the same peninsula, has the second longest left-hand break in the world and when there is a south swell, the surfers are even more blissed-out than usual. But who wouldn't be? This is verdant Costa Rica and the Tico attitude of pura vida reigns.
If your surfing days are behind you, how about landing dozens of billfish from the cockpit of a sportfisherman? The Golfito area is a sportfishing paradise and specialty lodges abound for the hardcore fisherman. In fact, vacationing anglers rival ecotourists in importance, though obviously, many visitors to Golfito are both. And no wonder: The waters abound with giant dolphin, wahoo, sailfish, yellowfin tuna, striped marlin, black marlin, and blue marlin. And that's just the offshore catch. A labyrinth of nearby rivers and estuaries yield snapper, grouper, roosterfish, and pompano.
Be sure and take a cab to the top of Tower Hill Road. There's a picnic table in a clearing where you can sit and look all the way out across the Golfo Dulce. No matter how much you travel, it's one of the most beautiful views you'll ever see. Directly below you'll spot the huge old dock where the banana boats used to load. To the right, there's Playa Cacao-where the restaurant Siete Mares offers open-air views across Golfito Bay. It's a great place for ceviche and beer.
Whether your idea of fun is hanging ten toes off a board, hanging five fingers around a cold bottle at the beach, or hanging 300 pounds of fish off the stern of a boat, Golfito has it all. United Fruit was right: And it's still perfect
|Places to Stay If you're going to the Osa Peninsula region, the best way to go is aboard your own yacht. But other accommodations range from bare-bones, self-catering surfer shacks to luxury fishing lodges, with just about everything else in between. Many combine pursuits-for instance fishing with ecotourism, or ecotourism and spa vacation. Wherever you choose, be prepared for the amazing views and warm gulf waters to trump a flatscreen TV and jacuzzi every time. Rancho Tropical Playa Cacao www.fishgolfito.com +506-8870-9133 or 9132 Crocodile Bay Resort Puerto Jimenez www.crocodilebay.com (800) 733-1115 Cabinas Los Cocos Playa Zancudo. www.loscocos.com +506-776-0012 The Zancudo Lodge Playa Zancudo www.thezancudolodge.com (800) 854-8791 Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge Golfito www.playanicuesa.com (866) 504-8116 Fish Hook Marina La Sirena Boutique Hotel Golfito www.fishhookmarina.com +506-775-21624|