Mr Hudson on exploring the best of Costa Ballena, Costa Rica

Mr Hudson on exploring the best of Costa Ballena, Costa Rica

Casey Siemasko

Costa Rica’s sweeping natural beauty isn’t exactly a secret. Travellers have long fallen head-over-heels for the country’s diverse wildlife, lush jungle and paradisiacal beaches. In fact, just recently, Costa Rica celebrated its one-millionth tourist to the country. But don’t let this popularity throw you off from visiting. If you’re willing to travel just a bit farther from the most popular tourist areas, you’ll be rewarded with some of the country’s most stunning—and least-visited—attractions.

To get started on your off-the-beaten-track Costa Rican adventure, you can’t go wrong with Costa Ballena. Just about a four-hour drive from the country’s international airport, the raw authenticity of this southern strip of coastline belies its relative accessibility. Here, verdant mountainous terrain meets picture-perfect, palm-tree clad beaches. And a surprising number of luxurious boutique hotels and mouth-watering restaurants ensure you won’t have to sacrifice style while exploring Costa Ballena’s hidden gems.

Getting To Know Costa Ballena

The Costa Ballena is a 35-kilometer stretch of coastline comprised of three vastly unique towns: Dominical, Uvita and Ojochal. Though relatively small in distance, the region is overflowing with picturesque waterfalls, jungle hikes, nature reserves and exotic wildlife. But perhaps what truly makes Costa Ballena so unique are the verdant mountains that rise magnificently above the coastline. Here in the rolling hills is where you’ll find many of the area’s most upscale restaurants and boutique hotels—all with jaw-dropping views of the coastline below.

Photo: Dan Moore

Photo: Dan Moore

Dominical

This sleepy surfer town primarily attracts backpackers chasing their next big wave. However, take a moment to look beneath the surface, and you’ll find a few shining gems that warrant a visit from even the most discerning traveller. To get started, just 15 minutes north of Dominical lies one of Costa Rica’s most spectacular waterfalls: the Nauyaca Falls. A four-kilometre hike through the jungle reveals two sets of waterfalls coming in at a staggering height of over 60 metres. A large pool at the bottom provides the perfect spot to dip in and cool off while you enjoy the luscious surroundings.

When hunger strikes, head back to the coast for PorQueNo. This intimate restaurant in a quiet cove serves a wide array of mouth-watering dishes alongside an idyllic ocean view. Continue slightly further south from PorQueNo and you’ll find Villas Alturas Hotel. This small, seven-villa hotel offers some of the best views of Costa Ballena. Use it as your base, or simply stop by for a cocktail at sunset. But while you’re there, don’t miss a visit to the on-site Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary. Tucked away behind the hotel, the sanctuary and non-profit rehabilitates rescue animals with the ultimate goal of releasing the animals back into the wild. A tour through the sanctuary offers the opportunity for up-close encounters with monkeys, sloths, macaws, coatimundis, and more.

Uvita

While Costa Rica has numerous national parks and reserves, here in Uvita you’ll find one of the country’s marine national parks. The Marino Ballena National Park is a lovely strip of pristine beach lined with tall palm trees and zero development. A visit is a must to experience the famed ‘Whale’s Tail’, a long sandbar that juts out into the ocean to resemble a whale’s tail from above, one of only a few like it in the world. Meander along the sweeping sandy strip, and don’t forget to turn around to take in the beauty of the rainforest-clad mountains behind you.

Costa Ballena, which translates to ‘Whale Coast’, might get its name from the iconic ‘Whale’s Tail’, but interestingly enough it’s also one of the top places in the world to observe the Humpback Whale migration. Due to its unique location, Marino Ballena receives both north and south migrating whales seeking warm water in which to nurture their calves. Join a boat tour and keep your fingers crossed for a sighting.

There are quite a few noteworthy restaurants in Uvita, but perhaps none is as chic as Ballena Bistro. Located in the Goathouse 169 Building (where there are frequently small art showings and galleries) Ballena Bistro is exquisitely designed with charming rustic details. Everything on the menu is homemade and much of it locally sourced.

For accommodation in Uvita, it doesn’t get more luxurious than the Kura Design Villas. Noted for the unique architecture that blends seamlessly with the surrounding rainforest, at Kura you’ll find amenities such as double rain showers, a saltwater infinity pool and a 360-degree jungle view sky lounge.

Photo: Dan Moore

Photo: Dan Moore

Ojochal

The final town in Costa Ballena, Ojochal has become a popular spot for expats from around the world seeking a slower, more natural way of life. You’ll find countless unspoilt beaches, but perhaps the most unique is Playa Ventanas. This small beach is named for its two caves that stretch from the beach to the open ocean. During low tide, it’s possible to wade through the caves and take in the unbelievable natural formation.

Though just a small dot on the map, Ojochal is often considered one of Costa Rica’s top culinary hot spots. This enclave of gourmet restaurants boasts everything from Indonesian to French to Italian. Try Citrus for New World cuisine nestled along a rushing river. For authentic Indonesian cuisine in the heart of the Costa Rican jungle, Ylang Ylang is the obvious choice. And for international fusion made from the hearts of lovely owners Lucy and Robert, don’t miss long-standing local favourite, Exotica.

After you’ve eaten your heart out, you’ll need a memorable place for a siesta. While a castle might not be the first type of accommodation to come to mind in the rainforest, don’t look past El Castillo Hotel. Perched high on a bluff with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, El Castillo is small, romantic and offers all the amenities you would expect from a newly renovated five-star hotel in paradise.

There’s a popular phrase in Costa Rica: Pura Vida. Simply translated, it means “Pure Life.” But this iconic Costa Rican motto means so much more than its translation alone. Pura Vida is a way of life; a feeling of happiness and gratitude. It doesn’t take long to experience Pura Vida when immersed in Costa Ballena’s abundance and beauty—you’ve just got to visit for yourself to find it.

Where would you like to go next? How about discovering the best wellness retreats in Costa Rica?

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