A detour north to Costa Rica on his classic Swan 37 rewards Max Campbell with some of his most adventurous cruising yet
The sea curls with distant groundswells as the fragmented skyline of Panama City dips into the horizon. A neat queue of cargo vessels waits at anchor for their turn to transit the Canal. Gone are the steady trades I’ve become accustomed to, and we face the serene blue void of the Pacific. Two years after that first chilly Biscay crossing, Elixir’s hull parts a new ocean.
The excitement of waking up in the Pacific lasts for several weeks. I feel overwhelmed by the infinite number of paths leading to exciting destinations. The Pacific season is beginning and everyone on board craves another ocean passage, yet we feel as if we’ve barely scratched the surface of Latin America. We’ve tasted the flavour of life in Colombia and Panama, and it’s left us wanting more.
In the lingering aftermath of Covid, many Pacific islands still have their borders shut. We decide it’s as good an excuse as any to stick around in Central America. Instead of casting off for French Polynesia immediately, we settle on a 2,000-mile detour to the Sea of Cortez. After checking out of Panama, our next stop is Costa Rica.
Punta Burica marks the border between Panama and Costa Rica. It extends like a bead of water about to drop off into the Pacific. Our first Costa Rican sunset is a vibrant orange dream. We pull in bonito on the line. The red Pacific sun melts into the seascape, leaving a burning soup of molten sky and clouds.
We shift between leisurely drawn-out tacks, until the tip of the Osa Peninsula emerges at sunrise. Golfito, nested in the Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf), is the first port of call for sailors arriving from the south.
We make a quick stop at Playa Pavones. A curving cobblestone beach creates one of the longest surfing waves in the world. Shortly after dropping the hook, I dive over the guardrail to begin the day with one of the longest waves of my life. Landfall in Costa Rica has immediately surpassed that of any other country, so far. As I sit on my board surrounded by the early morning tribe of surfers, I can’t stop smiling, looking back at Elixir and thinking about how far we’d come.
The previous sleepless night of coastal sailing catches up, and tiredness strikes me down. As the afternoon breeze kicks in, I paddle back to Elixir. We sail off into the deep bay, before anchoring in the port of Golfito to begin the check-in process. Generally, checking into Latin American countries is complicated and expensive. We found Costa Rica to be one of the most tedious. The entire check-in process costs around $350 (with an agent) and takes around half a day of admin.
Costa Rica isn’t set up for cruisers. Marinas are expensive and cater more towards motor fishing vessels. There are few marine stores, and importing anything is expensive. However, visiting by yacht does allow a special insight into one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.
The nation is known for its progressive environmental policies and egalitarian society. It has one of the highest standards of living in Central America, supporting free education and healthcare. In 1949 Costa Rica abolished its military, and has since become a model for eco-stewardship. An impressive 25% of its territory has been set aside as nature reserves and protected areas, preventing any further development. On top of its commitment to preserving its natural spaces, over 98% of its energy comes from renewable sources.
We enjoyed the feeling of openness and warmth throughout Latin America, and found the Costa Ricans to be especially friendly. The phrase pura vida (‘pure life’) is dropped into almost every conversation and represents the essence of Costa Rican culture. The versatile expression is used in a variety of contexts, replacing ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘yes’ and ‘good thanks’. The term somehow defines Costa Rica, illustrating the nation’s attitude to living a healthy, happy and stress-free existence.
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The Osa Peninsula stretches like a protective arm over the deep bay of the Golfo Dulce. It’s home to the largest of Costa Rica’s nature reserves, the Corcovado National Park. Defined by the National Geographic Society as ‘the world’s most biologically intense area’, this national treasure houses 3% of the world’s biodiversity.
Several ports and anchorages provide access to the Corcovado National Park. We choose the anchorage of Drake Bay, on the northern shoulder of the peninsula. On the 60-mile sail from Golfito, the water is rife with dolphins, turtles, sea snakes and rays. We make the most of a light south-westerly and set the spinnaker. The late afternoon sun casts a soft orange hue over vast swathes of untouched jungle.
We ghost into Drake Bay under the glow of a full moon. The constant hum of jungle echoes across the water. When Elixir’s anchor shatters the slick surface there is a vibrant blue explosion of phosphoresce. The following morning sunrise exposes a scenic anchorage. Aside from a thin strip of sand, the vegetation extends almost to the sea surface. Only a few discrete buildings poke through the thick blanket of jungle spread over the surrounding hills.
We drop the dinghy over the side. Since having our outboard stolen, we’ve adopted a 1960s British Seagull engine, fondly nicknamed ‘Steven Seagull’. A tight gap in the rocky headland provides access to a small river which quickly becomes engulfed by the lofty canopy. The tinny rattle of the Seagull echoes between the trees, the peculiar sound catching the attention of anyone nearby. Two amused fishermen, a band of spider monkeys, and a discreet cayman all gaze with curiosity as we pass by.
Due to Costa Rica’s strict conservation laws, anchoring within the protected area is not permitted. Instead we arrange to visit Corcovado with a local tour group. Shortly after sunrise, a launch full of tourists pulls up alongside Elixir, and we speed off towards the entrance to the park.
Corcovado is the largest primary rainforest on America’s Pacific coastline. Our day exploring it is a constant series of exciting wildlife encounters. After each one, the next fascinating animal would emerge from the bushes as if scripted. We stumbled upon all four species of Costa Rica’s monkeys, tree frogs, snakes, crocodiles and toucans. Lucky visitors can catch glimpses of tapirs, pumas, anteaters and jaguars.
From Drake Bay, we sail north to Playa Uvita. A thin sandbar extends to meet an offshore reef, forming an uncanny resemblance to a breaching whale’s tail. At low tide, the reef offers enough protection to sculpt a novel anchorage. On either side of us, waves beat onto the lonely stretch of sand, squashed beneath the unkempt beauty of the thick, tropical rainforest.
As we venture further, the land becomes more developed. In Dominical, a line of palms embellish the shoreline. Yet, it’s impossible to ignore the escalating signs of development. With another day’s sailing we reach Manuel Antonio. By now airy mansions and condominiums crowd each headland, all vying for the best view of the unobstructed ocean.
Compared to the Caribbean, where shiny white hulls spill from any sheltered anchorage, spotting another boat is rare. It’s easy to see why. Instead of romping between islands in the tradewinds, we welcome any breeze, making careful sail adjustments in an effort not to scare it away. After a sweaty day of obsessive trimming, we celebrate even half an average day’s run in the Atlantic.
While cruising north through Central America, the wind is generally ahead of the beam. Not once did we take a reef, the sea is usually flat, leading to some smooth and enjoyable upwind sailing. However, the journey wasn’t entirely painless. Anchorages are often exposed to Pacific groundswells. Coming ashore involves a long dinghy ride and a beach landing. Inevitably, every journey ashore ends in a swamping from a breaking wave.
The oppressive midday heat can make even simple tasks a struggle. Despite these obstacles, we were still to discover Costa Rica’s biggest downfall. The wet season dominates the year in Central America. On the final day of March, three months of unobstructed sunshine come to an abrupt end. Shortly after sunset, we observe a grim veil floating over the horizon. Weather systems move slowly in the region, and often a patch of cloud will sulk in the distance for hours. Eventually, the suspense is broken with a deluge of tropical rain and a succession of piercing lightning strikes.
I could be overreacting. While learning to sail in the UK, lightning seemed like an almost alien phenomenon. But here on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica it’s real. There have been a few nervous moments over our two and half year voyage, but nothing has driven fear into my soul like watching several hundred million volts smite the water next to Elixir. The relaxed pura vida is quickly forgotten and the energy on Elixir is tense. Blinding flashes illuminate the sky, briefly exposing our drenched, worried faces. I’m torn. We have only scratched the surface of this rich country, yet with each menacing thundercloud I feel increasingly vulnerable living on a boat.
The Pacific coast of Costa Rica is made up of two peninsulas: the Osa Peninsula in the south, and the Nicoya Peninsula in the north. Both curl round to the south, squeezing a thin slice of water between the mainland.
We run with the spinnaker into the Nicoya Gulf. A few small islands provide rare respite from the swell, and we relish several peaceful nights at anchor. The stretch of mainland adjacent to the peninsula is dashed with winding mangrove creeks and broad mudflats. At the first meander of one of these creeks lies a shipyard. Inside, a group of boatbuilders are constructing a 45m sailing cargo vessel, all from tropical hardwood grown in Costa Rica.
We anchor Elixir in the mouth of the silty river and venture upstream to sneak a peek at Ceiba. A huge wooden stem emerged from behind the mangroves. Beneath the shade of a mango tree, a team of shirtless boatbuilders are enthusiastically fairing the frames of an enormous wooden hull.
One of the lead shipwrights is a friend of mine, and he leads us through a tour of the build. Everyone is covered in sawdust and bitumen. After spending time in gruff English boatyards, I’m struck by how friendly everyone is. The team invites us to eat with them, and we learn that the project is propelled by a very international assembly of boatbuilders. Everyone is young. It’s obvious that they’re not driven by money, but by a deep passion for traditional shipbuilding. Their dedication to the project is contagious, and after a few hours, I wanted to be part of it too.
We spend almost a week in the Sailcargo yard, where we glean a fascinating insight into the world of sustainable shipping. The project is a unique blend between tradition and innovation. It’s backed by a team of international investors, all with an interest in furthering the development of carbon-free shipping.
Ceiba will be a 45m topsail schooner, built from timber grown within a 50km radius of the shipyard. Costa Rica has some of the strictest forestry laws, and the project also involves a tree-planting scheme. Some 12,000 newly planted trees will replace the 400 used in the build. When these trees reach full maturity, they’ll be used to construct another sailing cargo vessel like Ceiba. The process of shipping cargo will become completely regenerative, and the system will be complete.
We leave the Sailcargo yard with three extra crewmates. All are boatbuilders from the shipyard, who have taken a few days off to sail north. We fly out of the Nicoya Gulf with the ebbing tide, and back into the rolling groundswells of the Pacific.
After rounding the Nicoya Peninsula, we stop at several coastal towns, and make our way into the northern territory of Guanacaste. The leafy trails and wooden shacks of Drake Bay seem like a distant memory. The jungle canopy has thinned into an arid bush. The coastal towns of Guanacaste are more developed and more Americanised than anything we’ve seen yet.
The Papagayo Jet
We check out of Playa del Coco, the northernmost port of entry and exit. Like checking in, checking out involves half a day of riding buses between customs, immigration, the bank and the port captain. Before leaving on the five-day passage to Mexico, we spend several days cruising Guanacaste and the Santa Rosa National Park. The coastline offers up a handful of empty bays, as well as more world-class surfing. Often we have an anchorage to ourselves, and we spend the days exploring isolated beaches and mangrove creeks. After each sweaty evening meal, we don goggles and leap over the guardrail into a brilliant green and blue eruption of phosphorescent plankton.
Leaving Costa Rica to sail north often involves waiting between periods of strong Papagayo winds. Tradewinds in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico funnel through a narrow mountain pass. The result is a fierce acceleration zone that blows offshore into the Pacific Ocean. During the winter months, the Papagayo Jet can sustain wind speeds of 40 knots for several days, building up a nasty sea even only a few miles offshore.
In five weeks we’d sailed the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, from its southern border with Panama to its northern border with Nicaragua. At sunrise, we weighed anchor for a final time, and set off on the 550-mile passage to Chiapas, Mexico.
Wealth of experience
A light south-westerly filled in, and we disappeared on a broad reach. I twisted the pin on the steering wheel, engaging the Monitor wind vane. Elixir began to steer herself at a gentle 5 knots. Apart from the calming trickle of the waterline, everything was silent. The light shifted from a harsh glare to a warm glow. In the final hour of daylight, we reflected on Elixir’s time in Costa Rica.
A steadfast dedication to conserving biodiversity and natural spaces makes Costa Rica unique. The pura vida culture symbolises a healthy, happy, stress-free lifestyle. It’s easy to fall into the laid back flow, and the attitude to life is contagious. But we found that pura vida didn’t always extend to life on the water. A stress-free existence is a struggle to maintain when intense tropical squalls are a daily occurrence.
We arrived too late in the year to truly appreciate Costa Rica as a sailing destination. If you’re planning to cruise there, I’d recommend making the most of the dry season. Even so, we left feeling grateful to have met such vibrant nature and warm people. Central America is an enchanting place to visit by boat. Our detour through Costa Rica has added a wealth of experiences to this voyage.
We pass Cabo de Santa Elena, Costa Rica’s northernmost headland. The steady breeze nudges us out, back into the Pacific. The muted coastline backs into the distance, and we relish the clear sky. Ahead of us lies a week of offshore sailing, and the beginning of the next chapter of Elixir’s journey, Mexico.
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