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Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge

Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge

Quick Facts

  • Location : 7 miles south of Puerto Viejo
  • Area : 12,382 land acres and 10,950 marine acres
  • Hours : 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
  • Telephone : 2759-9100 or 2759-9064
  • Entrance Fee : Free

Step inside overgrown cacao forests. Walk on hard packed sand trails along the Caribbean coast. Touch balmy sands washed daily by turquoise tides and listen for the crackle of dried leaves under your feet. Like the golden hobo fruit scattered over the forest floor or the ripe mangoes waiting for hungry capuchin monkeys, the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge is the fruit of Costa Rica's southern Caribbean spanning nearly 25,000 acres of jungle, marshland, lagoons, reefs, coves and coastline – everyone wants a taste.

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From its origins at the Cocles River, south of Puerto Viejo, the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge incorporates the coastal communities of Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita, Punta Uva and Mazanillo extending all the way to Costa Rica's southern border – Sixaola River - with Panama, to the north with the Caribbean Sea and to the east with the Talamanca Mountains and the surrounding indigenous reservations of the Kekoldi, Bribri, Cabecar of Talamanca, Telire and Tayni; and the International Friendship National Park. Within, the refuge protects almost 70 percent of the southern Caribbean coast.

White sand beaches and aquamarine waters stretch for miles along its coast. More than 35 species of coral live just off-shore, attracting more than 125 species of fish as well as octopus, sea turtles, lobsters, sting rays and nurse sharks. The refuge's vast marine life combined with its clear blue waters, make it one of Costa Rica's richest habitats for snorkeling and scuba diving. The beaches of Punta Uva (Grape Point), Punta Mona (Monkey Point) and Manzanillo are some of the refuge’s most famous attractions.

The refuge's best hiking trails begin in the village of Manzanillo and wind through 988-acres of forest, marshland and coastline along the refuge's southern tip. Inside the forest, under the dense cover of cacao trees, strangler fig and coastal almond trees, live capuchin and howler monkeys, two- and three-toed sloths, tapirs, agoutis and raccoons. Among the lagoons, visitors can find caimans, freshwater turtles, emerald basilisk lizards and a variety of other wildlife creeping to the water's edge for a drink.

Along the coastline, the refuge's beaches serve as nesting grounds for leatherback, green, hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles. Just south of Punta Mona, a large red mangrove swamp provides protection to a natural oyster bank. Farther south, Gandoca River Estuary is home to spawning Atlantic tarpon, caiman, manatee and other water-loving species. 

In addition to protecting diverse acreage, the refuge, created in 1985, has legal provisions that grant local communities permission to live within what is now wildlife refuge protected land, creating a diverse, vibrant refuge.

Weather

Annual average temperature: 79 degrees

Annual average rainfall: 98 inches

There is no clearly defined wet or dry season in the southern Caribbean, though the driest months are September through October and March through April. Even during the drier months, afternoon or evening showers can roll into the Gandoca-Manzanillo area.

Activities

Bird and wildlife watching: The southern Caribbean is populated with howler and capuchin monkeys, two- and three-toed sloths, toucans, iguanas, butterflies, frogs, snakes, raccoons, anteaters and other wildlife. Turtle tours: Leatherback turtles, the largest sea turtles in the world, nest on Gandoca Beach from March through July while populations of green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles nest in smaller numbers. To protect and preserve the nesting turtles, a guide is required during nesting season.

Hiking: The refuge is an excellent choice for light hikes along meandering trails. Several area tour operators offer informative, guided hiking tours. Note: During heavy rains, the trails may be very muddy and difficult to walk.

Surfing: Surfing is popular at the eastern end of Manzanillo Beach. Rent Surfboards at any of several beachfront shops, or from individuals offering surfing lessons.

Scuba diving: When the waters are calm and the visibility is good, divers can enjoy more than 20 dive sites between the shores of Cahuita and Manzanillo, which together are home to Costa Rica’s only two living coral reefs. The colorful, underwater worlds are full of life, including angelfish, triggerfish, nurse sharks and parrotfish.

Snorkeling: Snorkelers can also enjoy the area’s living coral reefs, which host more than 35 species of coral and 125 species of fish. Visitors can join local snorkeling tours or rent equipment from hotels and beachfront kiosks.

Kayaking: Join a local tour or rent kayaks from local hotels for excursions through the canals of the refuge and out into the ocean.

Flora & Fauna

The beaches within the refuge are the most important nesting sites for leatherback turtles along Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean. The nesting season brings up to 580 egg-laying females each year (nesting March through July). Three other species of marine turtle lay their eggs on the beaches here: green sea turtles July through October, the hawksbill and loggerhead turtles from February through May.

Punta Mona, a 988-acre slice of the park, is home to Costa Rica’s only jolillo palm and sojo trees, in addition to migrating and permanent-resident birds, including the red-lored parrot, the red-capped manikin, the collared aracari, the chestnut-mandibled toucan, the rare harpy eagle and more than 360 other avian species.

Facilities

A Costa Rican Ministry of Environment office is located on the right-hand side of the road when entering the town of Manzanillo. The office offers complimentary maps, video presentations, bathroom facilities and a wealth of information about the wildlife refuge; entrance to the refuge is free. 

Trails

There are several hiking trails in the wildlife refuge ranging from short one- and two-hour hikes to day-long adventures. Most trails are appropriate for beginners and follow the ocean from Manzanillo to Punta Mona including a popular 3.4-mile trail that takes hikers through primary and secondary forest.

For experienced hikers, a 5.6-mile trail offers a strenuous hike from Manzanillo, through the Punta Mona Swamp and finally to the small community of Gandoca. Be sure to wear hiking shoes and take plenty of insect repellent, as trails can be muddy and some areas are very mosquito-heavy. Guides are recommended.

Recommendations

  • Rain gear: The weather at Gandoca-Manzanillo is unpredictable, so it is best to go prepared.
  • Insect repellent: You'll find a lot of mosquitoes in the park's interior.
  • Cool clothing: This area is often hot and humid, so dress in cool clothing. Don’t hesitate to wear your bathing suit, as quick ocean dips are a very enjoyable way to keep cool.
  • Hire a naturalist guide: Guides are worth every penny – they are full of interesting facts and information and know exactly where to look for camouflaged wildlife.

Getting There

From Puerto Viejo, follow the road that heads south out of town toward Manzanillo. The Manzanillo area’s hiking trails begin at the end of the sandy road that parallels the beach. 

To reach the Gandoca area, turn right just before the paved road changes to gravel as you head to Puerto Viejo. There are signs here for Bribri and Hone Creek.  Follow this dirt road through Hone Creek and Bribri. Turn left onto another dirt road shortly before the town of Sixaola and go toward Gandoca. Gandoca is a fairly isolated location with only one dirt road leading to it and no real tourist facilities.

Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge in Pictures

Wildlife in Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge

Experiences in Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge