Exploring Drake Bay & Isla del Caño

Fully loaded with SCUBA gear, I leaned back off the side of the boat, falling headfirst into the cool water. After a second to get my bearings, I headed to the rope and made my way 50 feet down into the ocean with the dive instructor. Visibility was good with a fair current. Within minutes we saw our first shark, a white tip reef shark quietly resting near a large rock covered in coral. It didn’t take long to realize my top priority for the dive (other than finishing the certification of course), seeing a turtle (hawksbill I think) hanging out under a rock at the bottom.

Drake Bay

Drake Bay

Isla del Caño is one of Costa Rica’s most popular dive sites, a small island in the southern Pacific region near the popular Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. Many consider it to be the next best thing to Cocos Island, a world-famous dive site way out in the Pacific ocean. The island and its surrounding waters are a wildlife reserve, protecting dozens of both terrestrial and marine species. Drake Bay is the beautiful stretch of coast where rainforest, dark sand, and deep blue water meet up and where divers and other travelers stay while visiting the area.

Getting to Drake Bay was more of an adventure than expected however. I was based in La Palma on this stay and had a few days of rest between taking volunteer groups to work with green and hawksbill turtles in the Golfo Dulce, a spectacular body of water between the Osa Peninsula and the southern Pacific mainland of Costa Rica. What should have been a quite hour-long bus ride turned stressful (and expensive) when the owner of the bus decided to leave a half-hour early, leaving me stranded and looking for a taxi.

Once on the way however, watching out the window as we passed through tiny little towns and over (sometimes through) small rivers, I relaxed and enjoyed the ride. Having brought many tour groups to explore this beautiful country over the years, I rarely get outside our standard locations to see new areas. The Osa is extremely well conserved, with more than 2/3rds under some form of protection, and the views along the way were incredible.

I stopped at El Progreso, a small town about 20 minutes before Agujitas, the beach town where most people go, instead staying at Drake Bay Backpackers, a small hostel run by Fundacion Corcovado, a local organization that works to protect the area’s wildlife, including sea turtles nesting on the nearby coast. While the hostel didn’t have the more upscale rooms and beachfront views available at Agujitas, it offered many benefits those other places could not, including immersion in small-town Costa Rica, an opportunity to give back to the community and reduce my environmental impact, and also to save quite a bit of money.

Drake Bay Backpackers (photo: Rob James / Fundacion Corcovado)

Drake Bay Backpackers (photo: Rob James / Fundacion Corcovado)

The hostel is a new and innovative way for Fundacion Corcovado to support the local community. Built by the organization, management of the hostel is being passed on to local residents and provides a local base for tourism for a town that most travelers only pass through on the way to the beach. They offer more than a dozen tours to explore the area’s rich wildlife, all run by local residents who are able to supplement their income. The hostel acts as a base of operations for the organization’s successful sea turtle conservation program, offering volunteers a place to stay while patrolling the beaches at night protecting olive ridley sea turtles.

The next day, I got a ride into town early in the morning to meet the dive instructors. The 45 minute ride to the island was calm and relaxing and we even had an opportunity to see a few dolphins before getting in the water. After a quick stop to register at the guard station on the island, we headed back to a shallow area to begin diving.

Welcome sign at Isla del Caño

Welcome sign at Isla del Caño

Once in the water, it wasn’t long before I saw my first turtle hiding in a small space under a rock. It looked like a juvenile hawksbill but I wasn’t close enough to be sure.

Having worked with sea turtles on and off for more than 15 years, this view was different from my normal turtle experience, seeing them drag themselves up onto the beach to nest. On land, sea turtles are awkward and slow but their grace and beauty in the water is entrancing. We stopped to watch for a moment before it swam away with a few powerful strokes of its front flippers.

After the turtle, we made our way around an area called “Paraiso” (Paradise), an area of rock and coral formations with impressive numbers of stingrays, reef sharks, and large schools of fish. At one point, we approached an area of seagrass, long black blades moving with the current. Only it wasn’t grass I learned once the little blades retracted themselves into the sea floor, they were garden eels.

Back in El Progreso, I explored the town, walking down a quiet road lined with cow pastures and African palm oil plantations. Near a small creek, a turtle of another sort was making its way across the road. I stopped to explore this much smaller cousin of the animal I know so well, which I later learned was a white-lipped mud turtle. Back at the hostel, I received a tour of the hostel’s innovative water filtration system by Fran Delgado, the Administrative Director of Fundacion Corcovado. By filtering all its gray water (from the sinks and showers) and releasing it back to the ground, the hostel significantly lowers its environmental impact on the town. That evening, I had a great conversation with (soda owner and father) about the town and rural living over an excellent typical dinner.

White lipped mud turtle in El Progreso

White lipped mud turtle in El Progreso

Making my way back to La Palma after a few days of diving and exploring was as much of an adventure as getting there and made me realized that I didn’t miss much the first day by taking a taxi. A group of young travelers were well into their Imperial beers and about halfway through their packs of cigarettes by the time I got on board. Fortunately the volume and air quality of the inside of the bus improved dramatically when the group decided they preferred riding on top of the bus (up and down the same steep hills and through the same creeks). All part of the non-stop adventure that is traveling in Costa Rica…

Learn more about the Corcovado Foundation's turtle volunteer program here.