The small Central American country of Costa Rica is best known for the enlightened protection of its wealth of tropical biodiversity through a coordinated system of National Parks, Forest Reserves, Private Reserves, and Wildlife Refuges. Many of these are easily explored by land, as the entire country is no larger than the state of West Virginia. But tropical rains and a mountainous landscape make the more remote protected areas difficult to reach, and unless you take a Costa Rica cruise on a small expedition ship, it will be difficult to get to know the jewels of the southwest of Costa Rica like Golfo Dulce and its protecting Osa Peninsula.
Golfo Dulce literally means “sweet gulf” referring to the relatively low salinity of the surface water because of the tremendous annual runoff from the surrounding tropical rainforests. Indeed, if you look at a map of Costa Rica, to the southwest you see the large Osa Peninsula protruding into the Pacific Ocean like a thumb. The Osa Peninsula contains some of the world’s best remaining tropical rainforest and wildlife, with jaguars, tapirs, and much, much more protected by the Corcovado National Park. The Osa Peninsula also protects the 25-mile stretch of tranquil waters known as Golfo Dulce on its inland side, and feeds it much of the rainwater runoff that gives the gulf its name. Corcovado National Park abuts the more recently established Piedras Blancas National Park, which creates a forest corridor around Golfo Dulce that includes the Golfito Forest Reserve. This forest ring makes Golfo Dulce one of the most beautiful bodies of water to cruise in Costa Rica.
Because it is a protected deep water inlet with easy access to the Pacific Ocean, Golfo Dulce has always been a fisherman’s dream. The key to the health and productivity of these fisheries are the miles and miles of mangroves that line the shorelines and deltas of the tributary Rio Rincon, Rio Esquina, and Rio Coto, as well as the extensive mangroves lining the most important commercial inlet within Golfo Dulce at Golfito.
Costa Rica cruise ports are few and far between, but in 1930 the United Fruit Company established the port of Golfito as a headquarters for its banana export business, and for 50 years large cargo ships took advantage of the protected deep water bay and Golfito became one of the most important banana ports of Central America. United Fruit moved out in 1985 and sent the region into depression, but in 1990 Golfito was established as a duty-free zone to try to attract Costa Ricans to the area.
At the same time, there was a boom in western awareness about the rapid rate of tropical deforestation, and inspired conservation movements began campaigns to protect tropical watersheds and lowland tropical rainforests. United Fruit had done a lot of forest damage for the sake of the banana plantations, but the Osa Peninsula was the jewel of tropical rainforests in Costa Rica, and there remained significant primary and secondary forest on the perimeters of Golfo Dulce. Reforestation plans were launched into action in the former banana plantations, and a protected forest corridor was established linking the mainland forests with the Osa Peninsula. Discovery of Pavones Beach on the southeastern coast of Golfo Dulce as one of the surfing world’s longest left-hand breaks put Golfo Dulce and the importance of its protection on the map for a new generation.
Golfo Dulce today remains one of Central America’s best areas to access a variety of tropical rain forest habitats, with outstanding tropical flora and fauna, if you can get there. The roads remain difficult and turbulent flights on the small planes over the Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death) can be harrowing, so Golfo Dulce remains off the beaten track and a favorite place for those that seek to get away from the mainstream. But it provides perfect anchorages for a Costa Rica cruise on a small expedition ship, which can visit both the interior of Golfo Dulce and the outside waters of the Osa Peninsula.
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