Island Escapes in Costa Rica
From the world-famous Cocos Island to the lesser-known Chora, the country's Pacific coast promises a world of riches to island hopping travelers. Here, you'll discover lands known for pirate treasure, sublime turquoise waters, indigenous artifacts, and hundreds of marine species, including swirling masses of hammerhead sharks and wave-jumping manta rays.
Like a siren rising from the sea, Cano Island Biological Reserve emerged from the ocean's depths approximately 50 million years ago thanks to the contrasting movements of two major tectonic plates. Today, Isla del Cano, as it's called in Spanish, has nearly 500 land acres and 6,700 marine acres for visitors to explore. Some 15 species of coral provide a colorful backdrop for snorkeling and scuba diving, and regular sightings include king angelfish, moorish idol, pufferfish and spotted eagle rays. Back on land, the lush island protects the archaeological remains of the Diquis indigenous tribe, pre-Columbian inhabitants who decorated the terrain in mysterious graphite spheres. Cano Island is a popular day trip from Drake Bay and Sierpe, on the Osa Peninsula.
Insider Tip: Cano Island only permits a small number of visitors each day, so advanced reservations are required. During high season (December-April), spots can fill up quickly, so reserve your tour early.
Chora Island, known locally as Isla Chora, is a wonderful escape from the bustling beach town of Samara, on the country's north Pacific coast. To reach the tiny island, adventurers must undertake a bumpy boat ride or a challenging two-hour kayak excursion. Not many travelers make the trip, so those who do are often rewarded with a private tour of pink sands, calm waters, and shallow caves that create some of the area's best snorkeling conditions. The aquamarine ocean abounds with colorful and exotic sea life; look for green sea turtles, spotted eagle rays and sea anemones. The cooler waters just offshore are also home to dolphins and humpback whales.
Insider Tip: Leave early in the morning, as high tide swallows up the island's accessible land. Thunderstorms are common during the rainy season (May-November), so it's important to squeeze in travel and leisure time before the afternoon rains begins to fall.
In a country of superlatives, Cocos Island – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's fairytale "Treasure Island" – finds a way to stand out from the crowd. The 5,700-acre island, known as Isla del Coco, was once a hiding spot for pirate booty but today harbors treasures of a more natural kind. Cocos is a crucial habitat for large pelagic species like hammerhead sharks and giant manta rays, as well 32 types of corals, 57 crustaceans, 118 mollusks and 250 fish species. Recognized as one of the world's top ten scuba destinations, the spectacular island offers divers a surreal underwater experience. The only way to reach Cocos Island is on a dive expedition departing from Puntarenas; the journey takes 36 hours and excursions spend most days and some nights diving Cocos' biodiverse waters.
Insider Tip: If you've ever wanted to live on a deserted island, Cocos Island National Park accepts volunteers. In exchange for 40 work hours per week and a one- or two-month commitment, the park will pick up the tab for transportation from Puntarenas, all meals, and lodging.
Sapphire ocean and white sand beach frame the postcard-perfect Isla Tortuga, Spanish for Turtle Island. The 300-acre landmass is one of the Gulf of Nicoya's most popular attractions, and is best known for its crystal-clear waters and volcanic rock reef that promises excellent snorkeling among moray eels, spotted eagle rays and porcupine fish. Swimming and sunbathing are also top-notch. Full-day tours depart daily from San Jose and Jaco, and getting there is half the fun: en route to and from the beautiful island, the party catamaran will tempt you to relax on the pontoon hammocks while chatting with other guests over a refreshing drink.
Insider Tip: On the catamaran ride to and from the island, keep your eyes trained on the ocean scenery. Day-trippers often spot jumping manta rays and playful dolphins, and on special occasions, breeching humpback whales.