Golfo Dulce (The The Sweet Gulf ) – Costa Rica
It had been a very long trip back to Golfito, Costa Rica from Tasmania, Australia – two days, two young boys, 3yo and 5 month old, and over 100 kilos of baggage, how did ‘Sonrisa’ look after 8 months alone? We had been away for the birth of our new (and last) crew member Huon. Thankfully, ‘Sonrisa’ was in great shape, all tidy with still a hint of the new fibreglass smell we had so enjoyed in the first year’s cruising. The dehumidifier had done it’s job well as the usual speckled mould patches were gratefully absent.
In July, August 2009 I had spent two months by myself while Melissa and BJ flew home early due to the flight restrictions on pregnant women. Normally a few days in Golfitio watching the swell reports, then an early morning motor to Punta Salias, an easy left, uncrowded compared to the fabled Pavones break – made for a satisfying life surfing and relaxing at one’s leisure. With the family back it would be quite different, as we all readjusted to cruising once more.
Golfo Dulce is a substantial gulf, some 28 miles long and around 8 miles wide, at the very Southern Part of Costa Rica, near the border to Panama. A port of entrance, Golfito (08 Deg 37min N, 83 Deg 09 min W), hides behind a narrow opening on the SE side of Golfo Dulce – the 3 marinas and anchorage are all tranquil and well protected from any swell. This is a pleasant change from those anchorages at the entrance to Golfo Dulce, where the world renowned, long lefthander, Pavones provides excellent surf. On the Northern side Matapalo point and surrounding reefs give equally good right-handed surf.
Unfortunately, for the average cruising yacht, while Golfo Dulce provides interesting cruising, for most it is normally just a reprovisioning and check-out location. During our 3 months we saw only a handful of yachts, none of which actually ventured north into the isolated and tranquil bays. The water is murky due to the very high rainfall (March through to September is the rainy season) and numerous rivers, the sand is black, the anchorages can be a bit rolly (for monohulls!) and there are crocodiles. However for us with good, easily accessible surf, convenient shopping in both Golfito and Jimmenz on the West side, numerous tranquil and isolated anchorages and finally extensive rainforests we could easily have stayed more than the allowed 3 months.
The development of the Bay and surroundings has all been fairly recent, when Golfito was designated a Banana loading port in the 1930’s the area became accessible. The United Fruit company constructed roads, railways, housing infrastructure and a huge wharf to move the tons of Bananas grown nearby. For a while there were small quantities of alluvial gold to be found which further expanded the area. Now eco tourism is the main income with the CordovaNational Park drawing hikers and alike from around the world. Cheap accommodation abounds alongside fabulous villas and exotic gardens along with many friendly surf breaks.
Jimmenez has a real wild west feel, bars are numerous, perhaps a leftover from the gold days when the real money to be made was to be taken from lonely and occasionally rich miners. The small airfield is right in town so access for visitors is very easy from San Juan, the capital, exactly the same applies for Golfito with it’s own airfield. Plenty of cheap restaurants, and an excellent supermarket make for fun trips ashore. The anchorage off Jiminez is uninteresting and deep, we much preferred the beach near Punto Arenitas a mile to the south, where the swimming for kids was easy.
We enjoyed cruising the North and North Eastern parts of Golfo Dulce, From Punta Rincon, past numerous isolated beaches and bays, the Rio Esquinas and finally onto Punta Esquinas. With up to a 3 metre tidal range a bit of care is needed in choosing an anchorage, we always found a place within swimming distance of the shore. An added bonus was the frequent small, fresh water creeks, great for the kids and clothes washing. The copious rainfall meant that we never ran the watermaker, in fact we were always full, and easily developed wasteful habits of water usage, like a city dweller.
Most of the prettiest bays / beaches are owned by foreigners for the occasional visit. There would usually be Costa Rican caretaker / gardener living full time on the land. While paddling past one of these, that had a delightful manicured garden, the caretaker wandered into the water with a bowl of bananas. Herman had been there a number of years, and was delighted when we returned the following day with a few treats from Sonrisa. After a strong home brew of coffee he led us around the garden and along a bubbling brook, finally ending at a small cascade. We didn’t dawdle long as the aroma of young flesh brought a cloud of mosquitos.
The river Esquinas provided a wonderful day’s outing in the tender. It meanders peacefully for many miles, and after nearly two hours speeding up river we halted on a small sandbar for morning tea. Not a soul had been seen, as the jungle reached high over the rivers banks, tall bamboo and grasses making our own little wonderland. We managed to surprise a few sizable caiman, slithering into the murky brown water. The return trip was even more exciting as we drifted down river in complete silence apart from the bubbling of the water at the numerous tree snags. We saw many more caiman, tortoise and an amazing array of birds. We finally headed back out through the extensive mangroves at low tide, here, several rather large saltwater crocodiles lazed happily in the mud rather changing my evening swim routine.
As we were here during the wet season, like most of the Costa Rican coast, winds were invariably light, only on one day did we have a decent sail with a steady 15 knot breeze. With the afternoon thunderstorms there would be 10 minutes of gusty winds before the hours of torrential rain. These calm conditions appear typical, I had also made a cruise, looking for surf, to the north of Costa Rica the previous year – never setting the mainsail and motoring all the time. One hazard at this time of year is the intense lightning, before I had only heard of two cases in many years while here and in Panama we came across four yachts that had actually been struck. One very loud and close call managed to incapacitate our sophisticated battery monitor.
The Golfito bay itself has little to offer apart from a very secure anchorage and the facilities of a small town. There are 3 small marinas, BananaBay caters to the sports fishing industry and larger yachts, Land and Sea run by ex cruisers Time and Katie and finally the Fishhook. Land and Sea provides the cruiser with almost a home away from home – hot showers, TV room, wifi, use of a BBQ in a wonderful setting, over the bay. If Tim can’t help then there is probably not a solution locally. The Fishhook is very relaxed and friendly. We left Sonrisa there for 8 months while Huon entered the world, probably the only bugbear was the several small fish processing plants a few hundred meters up the bay. With the strong tidal flow up to a few knots any discarded fish offal ended up caught in the pontoons. That being said, we were not too worried when excellent tuna, mahi mahi, prawns and squid were cheaply available.
The town of Golfito is spread along a few kilometres of the main bay side road, hemmed in by the steep jungle slopes where howling monkeys are often heard. In fact there are several good walks nearby all giving a delightful glimpse of assorted jungle birds, animals and plants. Most needs are readily available, a couple of hardware stores, supermarkets, duty free zone etc. Bar street on the second level provides some interesting sights for a night time stroll.
After several weeks of further cruising North along the Costa Rican coast we will remember Golfo Dulce as the most rewarding of all, a very compact and complete location to retreat from the hustle and bustle of normal travel. We will definitely look forward to further exploration of the bay on our return voyage after Mexico.
Costa Rica is probably the most developed and safe of the smaller Central American countries, albeit the most expensive also. The country has good infrastructure and the people are environmentally conscious with tourism being a major source of income. As always, a few words in Spanish are very helpful. As Golfitio is an official port of entry and exit, immigration, customs and port requirements are easily dealt with. Technically a domestic ‘Zarpe’ is required each time your yacht leaves the port. We were boarded by courteous and helpful ‘Guardia Costa’ several times and the lack of the domestic Zarpe did not seem to be a problem.
The crew and yacht are given a 90 day permit / visa to stay, while extending the visa simply requires 72 hours out of Costa Rica the yacht has to leave for 3 months which we (and many of the local officials) found quite strange, considering that Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico and now Panama allow for an almost indefinite stay. Without a boatbuilding industry to protect Costa Rica is loosing valuable income by forcing yachts to leave. The yacht can be placed in Bond, which requires use of a certified marina berth and no movement of the yacht, we managed to get a very reasonable monthly rate, at the Fishhook Marina for Sonrisa, while we were away.
Of more than passing interest, to any European or Australian yacht which have a 220 V AC system, is the complete lack of any parts, tools, domestic appliances which use this voltage – all is 110 V AC so sufficient spares are required. Importing goods, cost wise, was rather random as some incurred no tax while others were excessively expensive – in fact one complete parcel, via courier, went completely missing.
There are remarkably few hazards to navigation within the bay, though the cloudy water and afore mentioned tides means care is necessary along with the associated currents which can run up to several knots in restricted passages. Shoals etc are unmarked and our Navionics Charts, while OK for a general outline did put us ashore in several anchorages so here too caution is necessary.