Last Updated: November 21, 2019
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) consists of the towns of Dominical, Uvita, and Ojochal. This region 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.
Tip: Because this region is more spread out, we recommend a rental car. If you’re staying up one of the many rough mountain roads, you may need a 4×4 vehicle. Be sure to check out our Rental Car Discount to save 10% and get free extras.
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 affordable accommodations and fun beach bars, Dominical attracts mostly budget travelers coming for the surf or yoga. Up in the hills outside town are options for higher end lodging set in the thick rainforest.
The rocky beach is no doubt the focal point of the community. You’ll find people set up under the palms during the day and groups gathering for sunset at night. Along the sandy palm-tree-lined avenue next to the beach are dozens of merchants selling souvenirs, and a handful of casual restaurants serving up quick bites alongside cold drinks. The main area of town closer to the highway also has some good options for restaurants near the river.
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. One of the only marine national parks in Costa Rica, Marino Ballena is also located here.
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 mix of cultures or the plentiful tropical ingredients, but it is rare to find so many gourmet restaurants so close to one another. In addition to great food, Ojochal also has its own magnificent ocean views, pristine swaths of jungle, and beautiful beaches.
National Whale Marine Park
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 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 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. To book a tour through the company that we highly recommend in Uvita, see the Booking a Tour section, below. Whale watching tours are 3.5-4 hours long and cost around $80-90 per person adults and $30-50 per person children ages 4-10, depending on the season.
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 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. If you need a recommendation, see the Booking a Tour section, below. Lessons start at $50 per person for 2 hours.
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. To arrange a horseback tour, see the Tour Booking section, below. Tours are $85 per person and include breakfast and lunch.
With the mountains so close to the coast, it’s easy to get in an early morning hike and still be swimming by lunch. One of our favorite places for wildlife viewing is Hacienda Barú in Dominical.
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 wanting to explore the creepy crawlies that come out after dark. It also offers zip-line tours for the adrenaline hungry.
Self-guided hikes are $15 per person. Guided tours with one of the Reserve’s naturalists (3-4 hours) are $44 per person and include admission. Zip-line tours (2-3 hours) are $49 per person. If you’d like help arranging a guided hike or zip line tour at Hacienda Baru, see the Booking a Tour section, below.
Hiking Options Nearby
Manuel Antonio, 45 minutes-1 hour north, offers more hiking options. The national park in town is one of the best places in Costa Rica for wildlife viewing. Along the easy-to-navigate paths, you can see three types of monkeys, including squirrel monkeys, sloths, Toucans, and Scarlet Macaw parrots. Rainmaker Nature Reserve also offers hiking and hanging bridges through thick primary rainforest. Read our posts for more details about these two reserves.
More Activity Options
We have several more recommendations for things to do in the Costa Ballena in our post 8 Things to Do in Dominical.
Booking a Tour
If you’d like to book a whale watching tour, tour at Hacienda Baru, surf lessons, guided hike of Manuel Antonio National Park or Rainmaker Nature Reserve, or another excursion in the Dominical/Uvita area, we’d be happy to help. Please contact us through our Tour Booking Service page or email bookings(at)twoweeksincostarica(dot)com, and we will get back to you right away. We just need to know your preferred date/time and the number of people in your party (adults and children). Booking through us costs the same and helps support our website!
Where to Stay
The Costa Ballena has many great options for lodging. From higher end to budget, here are our top recommendations.
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. Ocean-view Villas, $250-300. Even more private Jungle Villas, $200-400. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Another option located outside Dominical is Villas Alturas. This hotel is also set in the jungle, but is only 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, $140-300. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Mid-Range and Budget Hotels
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. The cabins do not have A/C but were designed with air flow in mind. $95-175. 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 very nice pool area. The rooms are spacious and comfortable and some feature large outdoor patios or kitchenettes. $65-140. Check Rates and Availability Here.
For those looking for a great view at an affordable price, try the cabins at Ranchos Remo. Located in Playa Hermosa de Uvita, Ranchos Remo is a casual lodge, perfect for those looking to connect with nature. The newly renovated open-air bungalows are simple but comfortable. Opt for an ocean-view cabin for an amazing ocean view. The property is now run by people from Italy so you will find authentic and delicious Italian cuisine at the on-site restaurant. $75-125. Check Rates and Availability Here.
The Costa Ballena hosts a few events throughout the year, including surf competitions, lifeguard fundraisers, and artisan markets. Some of the biggest happenings are:
Festival of Whales and Dolphins: A festival held in September during the height of the humpback whale migration. 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.
Last Updated: November 21, 2019
Have a question about visiting the Domincal-Uvita area? Ask us below.
Looking for more information to plan your trip to Costa Rica? Check out these posts:
Renting a Car in Costa Rica: Clearing Up the Confusion – Learn what pitfalls to avoid when renting a car in Costa Rica. Covers insurance, airport surcharges, and more.
La Fortuna: What to Expect – With a volcano, hot springs, and many adventure activities, it’s no wonder that La Fortuna is one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. Learn more about planning a visit here.
Drake Bay: Costa Rica Unplugged – For even more wildlife viewing, consider Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula. This remote village is set deep in the jungle but still offers plenty of amenities to travelers.