Pick up an old guidebook on Costa Rica, even from just a few years back, and you’ll read that the area known as the Costa Ballena is difficult to access and offers little to travelers. Fast forward a few years and you’ll discover that this is no longer the case. Located an hour south of the popular beach town of Manuel Antonio, the Costa Ballena (Whale Coast) is slowly becoming famous for its pristine beaches and rolling green mountains that teem with wildlife.
Below is our guide for one of the most up-and-coming destinations in Costa Rica, the Costa Ballena.
The Costa Ballena is a 22 mile (35 km) stretch of coastline in Costa Rica’s south Pacific. It is made up of three major towns: Dominical to the north, Ojochal to the south, and Uvita in between. Each town has a different feel, making the area fun to explore with a rental car. What these towns do have in common is a magnificent coastline and plenty of all-but-abandoned beaches. Another shared trait are the verdant green mountains that rise quickly from the smoothly paved highway. Hidden in these hills are vacation rentals, eco-lodges, bed and breakfasts, and upscale hotels, all with spectacular sunset views.
For many of the accommodations in this region, you will need a rental car, sometimes with 4×4. If you plan on renting a car, be sure to check out our discount to save on your trip.
The Towns of the Costa Ballena
A surfer’s escape, Dominical is a laid-back beach town where you can roll out of bed, walk to the beach, and not return until well into the night. With a number of affordable accommodations and fun beach bars, Dominical attracts backpackers, surfers, and yogis alike. But no matter what you fancy, during the day everyone ends up at the beach. Along a sandy palm-tree-lined avenue, dozens of merchants sell souvenirs, and restaurants serve up quick bites alongside cold drinks. Stay for sunset and you too will fall in love with this small town’s charm.
Marked by a small hub of banks, restaurants, grocery stores, and offices near the main highway, Uvita is a town that offers much more than convenient commerce. Take one of the many dirt roads into the mountains and you will discover hidden neighborhoods neatly tucked into the rainforest. From here, you will have breathtaking views of the famous whale tail, a giant sandbar shaped just like that of a whale fin.
On the coastal side, a charming Tico neighborhood named Bahía Ballena abuts some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, and one of the only marine national parks in Costa Rica, Marino Ballena. A stop here will give a glimpse into real Tico life and show you why Costa Ricans are some of the happiest people on earth.
A popular landing place for expats from the United States, Canada, and all over Europe, Ojochal has quickly become a culinary destination in Costa Rica. Maybe it’s the mixture of cultures or the plentiful tropical ingredients, but it is rare to find so many gourmet restaurants so close to one another—and in the land of rice and beans, of all places. In addition to great food, Ojochal also has its own magnificent ocean views, pristine swaths of jungle, and beautiful beaches.
National Whale Marine Park
One of the only marine parks in the country, Marino Ballena National Park offers plenty to do for beachgoers. There are several beautiful beaches where you can find your own piece of paradise, all backed by tall palm trees or shrubby beach almonds. Picnicking is commonplace here and you’ll see plenty of families set up with hammocks and grills. The real draw at Marino Ballena, though, is Punta Uvita, commonly called the whale tail. This naturally occurring sandbar is shaped just like a whale’s tail. At low tide, you can walk its length and explore the rocks and tide pools near the tip. The uneven rocks can be tricky, but the view of the majestic cloud-encased mountains makes it all worthwhile. Read our separate post all about the Whale Tail and Marino Ballena National Park.
The Costa Ballena is named for whales and it’s not just because of the tail-shaped sandbar. Several different whale species can be spotted off the coast during certain times of the year, including false killer, Bryde’s, pilot, and humpback whales. Humpbacks are especially common since they use the area’s temperate waters as a seasonal breeding ground and to rear young. There are two separate humpback migrations, each over several months, which ensures that it is whale season almost year-round. Boat tours will get you up close and personal with these gentle giants and usually leave from the beaches of Uvita. For more about the whales, including the best times of year to spot them, check out our post Whale Watching in Costa Rica.
With the biggest waves in the area, Dominical naturally draws the most surfers. But there are some lesser known beaches along the Costa Ballena worth noting as well. Playa Hermosa, just north of Uvita, offers consistent waves for the beginner-to-intermediate surfer, especially when high swells at Dominical are a little too intimidating. Look for the best break right in front of the new lifeguard stand. For beginners, Uvita’s Playa Colonia is a perfect place to start. Since offshore rock formations tend to ease the swell, this beach inside Marino Ballena National Park offers more manageable waves for the novice. There are plenty of surf schools in the area if you’re looking to pick up a board.
The lush hills of the Costa Ballena are home to many stunning waterfalls but probably the most famous lies a half hour into the mountains. The Nauyaca Waterfalls is one of Costa Rica’s most impressive cascades with two sets of falls measuring a combined 200 feet (61 meters) tall. The lower falls have a large pool where you can swim and jump into the cool water from the rocks. The upper falls have an impressive 140 foot (43 meter) cliff and are the perfect place to picnic. Most people access the Nauyaca by horseback on a tour, but you can also hike to the falls on your own.
With the mountains so close to the coast, it’s easy to get in an early morning hike and still be swimming by lunch. A couple of our favorite places for wildlife viewing are the Tesoro Escondido Eco-Reserve in Playa Hermosa de Uvita and Hacienda Barú in Dominical.
The Tesoro Escondido Reserve sees fewer visitors than many other parks in Costa Rica so you have a good chance of seeing hard-to-spot rainforest animals like peccaries, howler monkeys, toucans, parrots, and even snakes. One of the reserve’s trails also leads to a beautiful view of Uvita’s whale tail. Guided tours can be arranged through the Playa HermOSA Ecological Association, a rural tourism organization located in the village of Playa Hermosa de Uvita. In addition to hikes, the Association offers cultural experiences that will teach you about the local culture and even homestays with neighborhood families.
Hacienda Barú near Dominical is another great place for hiking. This wildlife refuge has 4.3 miles (7 km) of well-maintained trails filled with amazing wildlife and birds like pacas, white-faced monkeys, and king vultures. One of the trails also has a lookout with views of Dominical Beach. Hacienda Barú has night tours and overnight jungle stays for those of you wanting to explore the creepy crawlies that come out after dark. It also offers zip-line tours for the adrenaline hungry.
For more activity ideas in the area, see our post 7 Things to Do in Dominical.
Where to Stay
The Costa Ballena has many great options for lodging. From higher end to budget, we have six recommendations.
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Oxygen Jungle Villas
In the forested hills around the whale tail are a number of boutique-style hotels. Of the choices, our pick for a luxury escape is Oxygen Jungle Villas. Oxygen has 12 modern Balinese-style villas and a picturesque infinity pool overlooking the ocean. Each villa has huge glass windows, which make you feel like you’re immersed in the jungle. The hotel sits privately near the top of a mountain and has a lot of wildlife around like monkeys and toucans. The staff is friendly and will go out of their way to make sure your stay is relaxing and memorable. The hotel has a few trails on-site that lead to private waterfalls. Ocean-view Villas, $250-300. Even more private Jungle Villas, $200-250. Check Rates and Availability Here. Enter promo code TWOWEEKSINCOSTARICA to save 10% on your booking at Oxygen!
Another option located outside Dominical is Villas Alturas. This hotel is also set in the jungle, but is just a short drive to the beach and amenities. Villas Alturas offers both one- and two-bedroom units, making it a good option for families. Each of the seven villas comes equipped with a kitchen, but there is also a great restaurant on the premises. Guests will want to check out the wildlife sanctuary next door. Villas, $140-250. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Tree of Life Cabins
One of our favorite properties in the area is Tree of Life. Tree of Life is a small B&B-type hotel in the mountains a few miles south of Dominical. They offer four spacious, modern bungalows overlooking the ocean. The setting is very private and romantic, with quiet rainforest surrounds. The owners are friendly and helpful, and you will feel like a part of the family by the time you leave. Be sure to take advantage of the meal offerings as one of the owners is a chef. The cabins do not have A/C but were designed with air flow in mind. Cabinas, $100-175. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Cuna de Angel
Perfectly situated halfway between Dominical and Uvita is Cuna del Angel. Beautifully crafted with Spanish-style architecture, this hotel sits propped over the jungle and offers nice ocean breezes. The on-site restaurant serves up gourmet food and is even completely gluten free. It is one of the larger hotels in the area with more than 20 rooms so is a good option for groups. $80-200. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Villas Rio Mar
Villas Rio Mar is a locally owned hotel on the river right outside the main area of Dominical. It is a good option for those traveling without a car as the beach and restaurants are within walking distance. Villas Rio Mar has individual bungalows surrounded by gardens and a really nice pool area. The rooms are spacious and comfortable and many have been recently renovated. Some feature large outdoor patios or kitchenettes. $90-140. Check Rates and Availability Here.
And finally, for those looking for a great view without paying too much, try the cabins at Ranchos Remo. Located in Playa Hermosa de Uvita, Ranchos Remo is a casual, family-run lodge, perfect for those really looking to connect with nature. The open-air bungalows are simple and rustic and offer a true taste of Tico hospitality. The restaurant has delicious Costa Rican cuisine and is a destination even for those not staying at the hotel. $60-120. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Festival of Whales and Dolphins: A festival held in September during the height of the humpback whale migration, which features discounted whale-watching tours and a community fair with food and vendors.
Envision Festival: A music, art, and sacred movement gathering that brings thousands of like-minded individuals together in late February or early March.
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The Costa Ballena is one of our favorite destinations in Costa Rica because of its unhurried pace and outstanding natural wonders. When we first visited many years ago, it was love at first sight. Tourism has slowly developed here but has done so in a way that is not overwhelming. The foggy mountains and arcing sands still take the show. Those seeking amenities at every corner will probably want to look elsewhere, but those wanting a connection with nature and especially the ocean will find exactly what they need.