Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 5: Ballena National Marine Park

Destination: Dominical

Each year from August - October and December - April, pods of massive humpback whales migrate through the warm waters off Marino Ballena National Park. Protecting more than 5,300 hectares of ocean and nine miles of coastline, the park also serves as a nesting site for endangered Olive Ridley and hawksbill sea turtles.

The park's rarely visited beaches are protected by a network of crescent-shaped reefs and a scattering of rocky islands called Las Tres Hermanas (The Three Sisters). Sea currents have swept aside portions of sand, forming shoals that shelter swimmers from large swells and dangerous surf.

Located south of Dominical on the Costa Ballena, the marine park has four entrances manned by park rangers. I chose to explore the Uvita sector where visitors can observe Punta Uvita, the famous rock and reef formation that fittingly resembles a whale's tail. I had just missed the peak whale watching season, though a few 40-foot giants were still being spotted on occasion.

However, I wasn't to be disappointed with the wildlife. While following a path along mangrove estuaries, I stumbled upon a Tico couple taking racy photos of one another in the shallows. I chuckled to myself and, not wanting to disturb their courtship ritual, moved along as they quickly covered themselves with sarongs.

Wandering the deserted beach, it was easy to see why they chose such a place -- we were the only people amid miles of spectacular shoreline. A current of red crabs rippled across the beach, their translucent bodies bobbing in and out of holes in the ivory sand.

The calm waters off Punta Uvita are ideal for swimming and snorkeling, with mild currents and decent visibility. After cooling off in the ocean, I poked around tide pools that had formed at low tide before seeking shade from the scorching sun. I backtracked on the Costanera Sur and headed north to Cuna del Angel, my luxury hotel for the next two evenings.

Located five miles south of Dominical, between the mountains and coast, Cuna del Angel (Angel's Cradle) was an experience to be savored. As the hotel staff checked me in, I sipped a fresh mango smoothie under a dome of painted stars in the hotel's open-air palapa. The building's unique design was one of many romantic touches in this enchanting boutique hotel.

Cherubs adorned nearly every door, and staff fluttered about with angel wings emblazoned on their shirts. The hotel's sixteen rooms, each named after a different angel, feature a blend of Asian and colonial decor. Overlooking the swimming pool, my room came equipped with all the amenities you'd expect in a four-star hotel -- coffee service, satellite TV, wireless internet and a fully-stocked mini-bar.

On the recommendation of another guest, I hiked down to the scenic bay of Puerto Nuevo, a private beach just ten minutes from Cuna del Angel.

Howler monkeys sounded off as I scrambled down the steep trail to a gently curving shore. I spent the remainder of the afternoon where the mountains melded with the sea in a striking union of surf and jagged cliffs veiled in lanky palms.

Day 5: Ballena National Marine Park in Pictures

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