Opportunities in the Southern Zone of Costa Rica

These photos of life in the Southern Zone of Costa Rica—from Dominical to Bahia Ballena (Whaletail Beach) to Punta Mala and Ventanas–reflect our own personal experiences with these locations. There are many other things to see, do, and experience in this off-the-beaten path part of Costa Rica, which is about a three-hour drive from the capital city of San Jose. Province: Puntarenas

Living in las montañas of the Southern Zone

Yeah, yeah, everybody loves the beach. But here’s the thing: In the Southern Zone, there’s very little development directly ON the beach. Why? Because they’re smart about it. There are numerous protected areas, for turtle nesting and conservation , whale mating, multiple national parks⁠–and there are stringent regulations about over-development in this area.

So a lot of people live “in the mountains” where it’s cooler, there are fewer mosquitoes, and you have a sense of privacy while still having access to nearby markets, cafes, restaurants and so forth. 

Also, it’s not like the mountains are the Rockies or something. We’re talking little mountains, montañitas in fact, with the beach being within easy distance once you come down off the mountain⁠​–which is, admittedly, a whole other feat in itself. 

But now that we’ve lived on a mountain, and we’ve stayed in a beach town, we got a good taste of the best of both. Here are things we love about mountain life in the Southern Zone of Costa Rica. (P.S. Per my friend Ed Zaydelman, “That’s AirBnB in Costa Rica. You get a house and a dog.” We couldn’t have asked for a better mejor amigo at our place, Aves del Paraíso. “Stewart” is a cat-lover’s dog; he’s that awesome.)

Sunsets in the Southern Zone

My friend Kim Engstrom has been “chasing sunsets” here in Costa Rica because they’re just so magnificent. Below are images taken at the beach in Dominical (thanks Tuey!) and just stepping out into the parking lot at Sibu restaurant in Uvita.

Beaches and beach towns in the Southern Zone

Bahia Ballena (Whaletail Beach, part of Marino Ballena National Park)

“Ballena” or whale in Spanish, is appropriately named as not only can you see the whaletail formation–one curves left, the other right, and you can walk out to this section when the tide is low–but also these are mating waters, especially for humpback whales. During whale-watching season, which commences in July and goes until around October for humpbacks of the North and December to March for the humpbacks of the South, you may also see pilot whales and other sea creatures.

Delightful Dominical on the Pacific Coast

As Costa Rica beach towns go, Dominical has all the low-key cool any alternative traveler needs. Surfers and big waves. Friendly vendors peddling vibrantly colored and brilliantly designed cotton bedspreads that flutter in the wind between the trees near the beach. Squawking scarlet macaws rustle and bicker in the treetops (newly visiting Dominical since COVID; fewer people, more animals – yes!).  Cafes and “sodas” (small, affordable restaurants where the locals eat) abound and you can stay in a decent, air-conditioned room starting around $30/night.

​We stayed at Danyasa Yoga Retreat, a tropical haven featuring converted containers (well-done, tiny house living-like); yoga, meditation, sound and vibration classes day and night; complimentary breakfast; and a refreshing swimming pool in the center of it all. Plus it’s smack-dab in the middle of this not-so-big town. Easy to walk everywhere.

Southern Zone creatures, critters and crawlers

The bugs have definitely gotten to us. But they’re a fact of life in this beautiful country made up of rainforests, cloud forests, and tropical dry forests. You know, places where bugs like to hang out.

If you’re here long enough, whether a week or a month, you’ll get to experience a whole host of creepy crawlers from spiders and biting ants (they’ll eat anything organic that you’ve got lying around or dead bugs on your floor) to scorpions and grasshoppers big enough to open your front door and hop on in. 

But don’t be a freak and pull out the bug-killing spray. And it’s really not necessary to splatter insect guts all over with a shoe. Be kind. We keep a plastic “bug cup” next to the door so we can humanely escort them out of the house (which is just about every night).

(As the night wears on, the jungle becomes noisier and noisier. Tree frogs beeping like a smoke alarm that you can’t figure out where the sound is coming from. Locusts buzzing so loudly it sounds like they’re about to explode. And then come the howler monkeys. Wanna know why they call them thats? Listen in.

Eating in the Southern Zone

Three words for you: Fresh, fresh, fresh! Crazy fresh. Everything tastes the way it’s supposed to taste and you know that it didn’t travel far, isn’t covered in pesticides, nor is it genetically engineered or whatever else we’re used to ingesting “back home.”

From ginormous aguacates (avocados) and firm, mildly sweet papaya to succulent pineapple that’s so soft in the middle you can usually eat the core. Gallo pinto is the typical Costa Rican comida, a mix of “pinto” (black-ish beans) and rice and seasonings often served with eggs or some choice of meat.

Patacones are delicious fried plantains you’ll see on the menu along with eggs and other food combinations. 

Smoothies of every variation, including some fruits and combinations you’ve never seen or heard of, are irresistible and always delicious.

Of course there are plenty of different types of restaurants, including Italian, French and Pan-Asian.

Self-care in the Southern Zone

MASSAGE. Karen Rojas of Jazmin’s Spa – O.M.Freaking.G. The Best. Seriously. She uses a combination of modalities, inspired by Thai massage, which is like yoga performed on you by someone else. Lots of stretching, leaning on pressure points of arms and legs. And if you ask for “deep,” Karen is small but mighty! An invigorating massage that can be done at the spa or in your own place. If you get multiple services or a “series,” you may be able to negotiate on the rate as well.

We also loved Alegria Spa in Dominical. Again, the deep-tissue was fab and at $55 for 85 minutes, very affordable. And of course the chill vibe at Danyasa Yoga Retreat is good for mind, body, soul.