Day 1: Hacienda Baru Wildlife Refuge
I departed the cool highlands of Cerro de la Muerte and continued on to the balmy beaches of the south Pacific coast. Never having ventured south of Manuel Antonio, I anticipated a laid-back surfer scene, where mountains jutted up from the coastline and framed long stretches of palm-fringed beach.
I was headed to Dominical, a tranquil beach town 28 miles south of Quepos. A place of breath-taking scenery and killer waves, Dominical has surprisingly escaped the mass development so prevalent on other Pacific beaches.
Popular with surfers over the years, Dominical has only recently seen a rise in tourism. The bone-jarring road leading in from Quepos remains a major deterrent for many travelers (not to mention developers). Luckily for me, I was driving the newly paved highway from San Isidro -- a 40-minute journey through picturesque villages and farming communities.
As I approached the coastal lowlands, a familiar heat and dampness set in -- suggestive of the sultry weather so typical in the South Pacific.
My destination was Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge, an 815 acre sanctuary situated three kilometers north of Dominical on the road towards Quepos. Declared a national wildlife refuge in 1985, Hacienda Baru serves as a crucial link between Corcovado National Park, Manuel Antonio National Park and Los Santos Reserve.
Known as "The Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor," this tract of protected land aims to create a passage of forest joining these parks and reserves so that tapirs and jaguars (which no longer inhabit Hacienda Baru) may someday pass through the region again.
Jack Ewing, general manager of Hacienda Baru (and author of "Monkeys are Made of Chocolate," a wonderful book), put it in very simple terms when he showed me an aerial photo of Hacienda Baru dating back to the early 70's. Heavily farmed for decades, the photo showed broad swathes of barren land, whereas today's image reveals a promising re-growth of secondary forest.
The private and state-owned land has been protected from farming and hunting for more than 30 years. It is now rich in biodiversity, hosting an impressive variety of tropical flora and fauna. Ecotourism is the primary source of income for Hacienda Baru, which attracts travelers with a variety of nature and adventure tours.
I chose to lodge at the refuge, in one of their six spacious cabins, built with wood grown on their sustainable teak farm. There was no pretense of luxury -- these were rustic but comfortable accommodations with a kitchen, living area, safe box and two large bedrooms that could sleep a family of five. I was super-pleased to discover fans in every room and a stocked coffee maker for my early morning caffeine ritual.
From my cabin, the distant hum of crashing breakers called me to explore. A path led to Baru beach, where I walked a few kilometers to the Baru rivermouth. The deserted shore had a wild and raw feel about it-- a lonely stretch of cocoa sand with scattered driftwood and powerful surf.