Costa Rican Cruising


Liz Tosoni

Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica,

10°55.1’ N lat., 085°47.35’ W long.

“There’s a good spot to anchor at Cabo Matapalo, just ten miles from here. From there you can set off at first light, no hazards to worry about, for the next long leg to Drake’s Bay. I’ll give you the coordinates,” advised Tim at Land Sea Services in Golfito. Sounded good to us. What he didn’t tell us was that Cabo Matapalo is a surf beach, locally known as “Backwash” with occasional monster waves, and that surfers flock there from far and wide to ride them.


Well, I guess ignorance can be bliss and luckily we did enjoy mellow conditions while we were there, but there was a very definite ocean ground swell in that open roadstead. We used Tim’s waypoints, but only as a guide, of course, and eyeballed things as we got closer. Charting here is extremely unreliable, as you can see. On C-Map our actual position at anchor made it appear as though we were high and dry!


A very pleasant surprise came in the form of Misha, a young surfer gal from Sooke, Vancouver Island, who swam out to Feel Free on her surf board. “Hi, my name’s Misha. Would you like some fresh local lemons? I brought a bag of them for you. May I come aboard?”

Misha is an intelligent, down-to-earth, go-for-it individual, with penetrating, direct eyes. She was on a surfing holiday with her husband Bruce, staying at a friend’s home at Matapalo. Over tea (lemon tea of course) we learned all about her life as a tree planter of 20 years, as well as about her and her husband’s dream to sail off into the sunset one day soon. This was not an ‘airy-fairy’ type dream either, as she and Bruce really do have a boat, one they built themselves over many years and recently launched, a 32 foot, steel Brent Swain design. Brimming with enthusiasm, she asked a litany of questions about the cruising lifestyle and we in turn learned some fascinating things about her world. It was one of those special, unexpected, chance encounters we’ll not soon forget.

It was calm the next morning at 0400 when we raised anchor, shores covered in a blanket of mist, skies sparkling with stars.

An uneventful day of light winds ensued and then we were in wide, open Bahia Drake (as in Sir Francis Drake, who landed there in 1579 or so they say), our only neighbour in the anchorage being this four-masted cruise ship.

From Sarana’s Guide to Cruising Costa Rica:

The story goes that he attacked and stripped a boat named Nuestra Señora de la Concepción (Our Lady of Conception), in Esmeraldas, Ecuador before reaching Isla del Caño. This was a 120 ton vessel with a most interesting cargo which Drake had heard about while in Lima, Peru. He set sail immediately for Ecuador and then snuck up on the ship while disguised as a slow merchant vessel, dragging pots in the water under full sail. The shock of suddenly being attacked by an English ship in the Pacific was so great that the fight was short lived and surrender was quick. As a result, Queen Elizabeth scored a fortune worth 350,000 British pounds in 1580 or about $140 million in today’s dollars. Supposedly, Drake then stopped at Isla del Cano to caulk up his ship, Golden Hinde, with bark from the trees.

Some of that gold was thought to be buried in this area and for ages gold seekers came in search of their own fortunes, but now visitors are after the beaches, the jungle and the wildlife.

From the anchorage, you have easy access to Corcovado National Park, the second largest park in the country, with 108,022 acres of wet tropical forest. It's a living laboratory for scientists, home to nearly 300 species of birds, 139 species of mammals, 116 species of amphibians and reptiles and where on one acre more than 100 species of trees can be found.

We took advantage, immersing ourselves in Costa Rica’s bounty of nature.

Our next stop would be Bahia Brasilito, 160 miles distant, so it was another early morning departure in order to make it, with any luck, the following day. Our time at sea was again uneventful, some sailing, some motoring, some brown water (was it algae?), changing landscape from lush tropical to dry and arid, a lone humpback whale, a few dolphins, a few turtles, and a bright full moon, like a good friend, sharing our night watches.

Then, an abrupt turn of events.

Tom was on watch, I was napping down below at 2015, when WHAM! All of a sudden we heeled over dramatically, fully canvassed. Just south of Cabo Vela (“Sail Cape”), someone in heaven must have turned on the wind switch because suddenly we were a sailboat again. Cabo Vela marks the southern end of the region of Papagayo winds, strong northeasterlies, or “gap winds.” We were aware of that, but somehow couldn’t believe they’d arrive so unceremoniously at the precise entrance to the region.

For the next two hours, Feel Free screamed along like a bat out of hell. A brilliant balloon moon lit up the way to our bay, Bahia Brasilito, and once the hook was down, the crashing of surf on the resort lined shore wiped out all other sounds. Somehow, we managed to drop into our bunk and sleep through the bright night.

Our next challenge was getting to shore. The sea was too high for our dinghy to handle without capsizing, so the only way in was to swim. We filled the dry bag with clothes, hats, sunglasses, and flip-flops, and over the side we went. Tom was the designated bag carrier.

Our next challenge was getting to shore. It was decided that the surf was too high for our dinghy to handle without capsizing, so the only way to go was to swim. We filled the dry bag with dry clothes, hats, sunglasses, and flip flops and over the side we went. Tom was the designated bag carrier.

Once close to shore, a technique had to be used. We looked behind, and when a wave came that looked reasonable, swam like the devil with it, body surfing. Well, somehow that wave managed to really do a number on me, tumbling and tossing me like I was inside a washing machine. I was covered in sand, but unscathed. No injuries. Guess my wave riding skills could use improvement.

The Papagayo winds stayed with us the next day as we slogged into them en route to Playas de Coco, but it was only 15 miles away and in three hours we were there.

The once quiet fishing village is now hopping with tourists and tour operators and all the requisite souvenir shops, internet cafes, casinos and restaurants. As it’s the northernmost port of entry in the country, it was also a business stop for checkout procedures, as well as a place to stock up on provisions and enjoy a restaurant meal.

As it turned out, what we thought would be a simple visit to the various offices — Immigration, Port Captain and Customs — in order to obtain clearance papers and passport stamps, evolved into a “Checkout from Hell” for us, as well as for our buddies on Bag End.

In 27 years of cruising the world, Tom and I have now checked in and out of some 49 countries, and both of us must admit that it’s one of our least favourite and most tiring cruising activities. It can take less than an hour or it can take all day. This one took all day. I won’t even begin to explain the minutiae and peregrinations of the things that went wrong, the misunderstandings, the waiting in lines, the long bus ride to a town called Liberia, 40 kilometers away, to find the Customs office, the taxi ride from there to yet another wrong place, the long walk in the torrid heat, blah blah blah.

After it was all said and done, at the end of that most frustrating, agonizing day, we had to agree that our checkout of Costa Rica had to be our very worst to date and we definitely needed a stiff drink!

We fuelled up in a bay around the corner the next day, and were away again and into the famous Golfo de Papagayo, sailing fast and boisterously, in 25 knots of northeast wind. The lush, verdant shores of southern Costa Rica gave way to the dry, mountainous region to the north. Feel Free flew along close to shore, allowing her crew to view this spectacular, iron bound setting, with jutting, layered pillars of rocks that provided a knife edged silhouette against the cerulean sky. Mountain ridges of Cerros de Santa Elena form the spine of this uninhabited, isolated land we were entering as Feel Free rounded the wild, steep promontory that marked the entrance to our final harbour in Costa Rica, large, lovely, land-locked Bahia Santa Elena.

Cruising sailboats find this a popular destination, but so do whales, dolphins, fish, turtles, birds, butterflies and monkeys. We all congregated there, enjoying one another’s company. Anchored next to trees filled with layers of life, you have the sensation of being suspended between two distinct worlds, the one above and the one below.

There is good hiking too. One of the hikes took us to “the prettiest and least visited beach in the country” (Rough Guide to Costa Rica), another to a waterfall, yet another to a lookout that gave us a fine view of the harbor. We could have stayed in Bahia Santa Elena much longer, savoring its beauty, isolation and other-worldliness, but once again, it was time to move on.