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A Day of Snorkeling at Isla del Caño

“In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans”. – Kahlil Gibran Jr.

I awoke at 6 am to the beautiful sound of the birds yet to a terrible backache. I had tossed and turned all night feeling like the Princess and the Pea moving beds and eventually sleeping on the twin bed in my room with three mattresses stacked on top of each other. Obviously I wasn’t 16 like I felt the night before when I was galloping into the sunset with glee. The horseback ride that I had so blissfully enjoyed had done a number on my lower back and I was feeling more my age.

Despite dealing with chronic back and neck pain my entire life, I wasn’t going to let pain get in my way today or any day on vacation. It was my very last day in Costa Rica and today we were going snorkeling to the reefs off of Isla del Caño, an island about 12 miles offshore of Drake Bay.

Besides hiking, snorkeling and being like a fish in the water is one of my other favorite activities to do while on vacation. Unfortunately living where I do and often choosing mountains over oceans, I don’t get a lot of opportunities to snorkel. Similar to horseback riding, swimming was something I spent a lot of time doing in my youth.

I grew up with an outdoor pool which was pretty crazy given the fact that we lived in Minnesota and our season for swimming was a mere three months. I will never forget the excitement that brewed in my blood come Memorial Day weekend and knowing we would get to remove the ugly dirty tarp and finally fill up the pool with water.

By the end of May, we opened up the pool and for the next three months until Labor Day my brother, sister and me were fish. I spent entire days swimming and eventually joined a competitive swim team for five years until I hit 13 and was too embarrassed of my ugly duckling pre-puberty body in a speedo. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise I quit the hours of practice and turning my neck because a few months later my neck hurt and it hasn’t stopped hurting for 30 years.

Drake Bay, Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

There was a plate of freshly made huevos rancheros with tortilla, beans and dark rich Costa Rican coffee awaiting me on the terrace of our hotel. The sun was long up, the day was warm and clear, and the birds were singing with all their glory. I knew it was going to be a delightful day.

By 7 o’clock, we piled into the Land Cruiser and drove over to Drake Bay where we were fitted for flippers and masks. It was the first time in six days that I had been anywhere near tourists and it felt a bit strange after being in rural, local-based travel lodgings for so long. The group of 20 was a mix of mostly Europeans and all ages. Our svelte snorkel guide was a 40-something man from Spain and he was like a mermaid in the water. So incredibly agile and graceful. He had moved to Costa Rica to follow his passion of free diving and was an incredibly knowledgable guide. We were truly lucky to have him.

We boarded the boat and set off into the hot morning sun, wind blowing in our sun kissed faces and the taste of salt clinging to our tongues.

Drake Bay, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Drake Bay

Drake Bay, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Heading to board our boat that will take us to the island.

A visit to Isla del Caño is one of the most popular excursions from Drake Bay. Roughly a thirty minute boat ride from Drake Bay, the crystal clear waters and reefs surrounding the island make up the Caño Island Biological Reserve, one of the best areas for snorkeling and scuba diving in the Osa Peninsula. The protected reefs around the island shelter a large variety of fish as well as sea turtles and birds. A recent push by the government to protect and conserve the national parks of Costa Rica has helped preserve this pristine ecosystem. Since 2014, the Costa Rican National Park Service has restricted access to the island and only allows a certain amount of visitors each day. You can no longer explore the island on foot and need a permit to visit. There is only a tiny bathroom facility and other than that the rest of the island is wild and undeveloped.

As we left Drake Bay we watched the town disappear into the horizon. I also got my first glimpse of some of the high-end luxury ecolodges that run upwards of $500/night and are only accessible via boat. Some people fly all the way to the Osa via small plane and stay at these luxurious resorts only leaving out to do a few tours. I prefer the local, rugged travel where I immerse myself with the land and people. But of course I wouldn’t have minded a night in luxury too!

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As we headed to Isla del Caño, our guide pointed out a pod of dolphins in the distance. We watched them in awe for who doesn’t love to dolphins? Their playfulness and eagerness to show off for us made me smile. Our driver was very mindful of not getting too close to bother them. Once again, I admired the respect and love of wildlife that many Costa Ricans possess. The country has really stepped up preservation efforts and education by bringing awareness to the consequences of environmental damage to its diverse flora and fauna. Throughout my trip, our local guides gave me examples of some of the positive changes they have seen over the years and it was inspiring.

By ten o’clock, we reached our first destination. We pulled up to a reef near Isla del Caño and dropped anchor. Our group put on our snorkels and flippers and jumped into the warm, silky water. Oh it felt incredible!

I jumped full speed into the water, ducked my face into the water and was delighted by the crystal clear visibility. Having snorkeled in such places as the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, Honduras and the Caribbean I wasn’t sure what to expect. Oftentimes after Australia, nothing compares to the magic I saw in the Great Barrier Reef. However, instantly I saw brilliantly colored fish in hues of pinks, oranges, iridescent blues and yellows. I was thrilled and once again I’m brought back to those days as a young girl feeling like a fish.

 Isla del Caño, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Our guide was absolutely fabulous. He would free dive down to about twenty feet and point out the fish. Then he would gracefully float up to the top with a few circular kicks of his fins and tell us exactly what species of fish it was. His passion for the water was infectious. We snorkeled for about an hour and then it was time to head over to the beach at Isla del Caño and take a break.

 Isla del Caño, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

The gorgeous beach at Isla del Caño

 Isla del Caño, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Time for some fresh coconut milk

 Isla del Caño, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica Isla del Caño, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica Isla del Caño, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica Isla del Caño, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica Isla del Caño, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica Isla del Caño, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

After a bit of relaxation on the beach, it was time to get back on boat and do one more snorkel. I could hardly wait!

We road off to another reef area and this time found a female turtle. I watched her gracefully swim away and I swear she was smiling. The other highlight was the discovery of a school of at least a thousand fish which surrounded us in every direction. Our guide told us that these fish (I can’t recall the species) stay in the reef until they are big enough to leave and fend for themselves against predators in the ocean. They stay together in a big school to look bigger and more threatening to sharks. It was a magical experience to swim inside the school and have foot-long fish above and below you, and all around you.

I could have stayed in the water all day but alas my stomach was growling and it was time to head off to our final stop. A picnic lunch at the Playa Jocesito, the beach we were at yesterday on our horseback ride and swim. The boat brought us ashore and we all got off at the lovely beach.

The staff told us to wait a few minutes for them to get the food set up. Again, I was expecting some kind of pre-packaged sandwich and chips like we would get in the US on a similar tour. But then I was reminded that fast food simply does not happen in Costa Rica! Instead, we had a gorgeous spread of garlic chicken, fruit and vegetables, rice and beans and of course coconut milk. It was an amazing lunch and I was famished.

 Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Our boat drops us off at the beach for an amazing lunch

After lunch, it was time to leave this tranquil spot. Our guide summoned the group to gather up their belongings and get back on the boat to head back to Drake Bay. However, a few of us decided to walk back to our hotel on the beach.  I was so glad I did!  I was rewarded with a ton of nature and the most spectacular sunset imaginable. It was my last day in Costa Rica and I was going to enjoy it to the fullest possible.

 Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Our boat heads back

 Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

I took my time walking back and stopped several times to watch the monkeys play, admire the macaws and take notice of all the incredible beauty around. It was the perfect way to end the perfect trip.

 Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

The monkeys were playful and I saw a pair of stunning scarlet macaws only a few feet away. I stood and watched them in awe and wonderful. They are one of my most favorite birds and better yet they mate for life.

There were also some beautiful horses along the beach. I saw a mother and foal just hanging out near the water. It was priceless.

Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

 Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

As the late afternoon sun began to make its final descent, I began to notice all the intricate patterns on the sand. Curious, I stopped and had a closer look. I realized that these were tracks made by hermit crabs. The crabs would come out of their holes and find a new home. Even the tiniest of shells were moving meaning there were even crabs inside of them! It was pretty amazing!

Isla del Caño, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

But the real treat was the sunset…here is a glimpse of what I witnessed. It was so sensational I am dedicating an entire post to it.

28 comments

  1. Beautiful. I’m glad to see tourist numbers being restricted in places. I’ve been to far too many places that are being damaged by high tourist numbers. Also been to a few places that could do with stepping up their game regarding conservation efforts too so good to hear Costa Rica are taking their biodiversity seriously.

    • Yes me too! I was very happy to hear a lot about the restrictions as well as all the education going on to the local community about conservation and preservation. I learned lots of amazing initiatives and it is helping. For example, they used to eat the turtle eggs but now they leave them. They also used to use dangerous chemicals in the rivers when gold mining and it killed off the different fish and crayfish and shrimp but now they don’t use it and these creatures are coming back. Also, they can’t cut down trees like before and hunting is illegal. So a lot of impressive work going on in CR!

  2. It certainly sounds like a fabulous day. I can feel your joy. I too love snorkelling. I’ve been in some amazing places, including Galapagos which was incredible, but still the best snorkelling ever was the GBR. Nothing compares to it. I’ve seen those same hermit crab trails on beaches in Australia (hmmm, or was it Mexico?). I think they’re beautiful. Love the second horse photo, and the third monkey photo.
    Alison

    • I would love to go to the Galapagos someday Alison. I am glad I went to the GBR when I did years ago. I know it is very endangered and threatened now due to tourism and climate change. I’d feel almost guilty going now as I wouldn’t want to make a mark! Glad you enjoyed the photos! 🙂

  3. Sounds like a heavenly day! I was also obsessed with horses and swimming as a child (ended up swimming through my freshman year in college!), but I’d be scared these days to gallop like you did. I have not snorkeled much, but I was lucky enough to do it years ago in the Great Barrier Reef and have tried it in Costa Rica also. It’s so relaxing and awe-inspiring, and your joy in the water was palpable in this post!

  4. Di

    Hello Nicole!
    I’m not sure how I’m going to leave this part of your world when you inevitably have new places to write about!
    Immersion in such an unknown part of the world is brilliant.
    What a week you experienced, and to the utmost too. Hope your neck and back are better by now.
    As with all good things, they end, so onwards and upwards for me with your new adventures. I know there’ll be many. And I’ll love them just as much.
    Thank you again for a stunning, insightful post 🌟💐

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