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Costa Rica swims with sights for yachts

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The Pacific coast of Costa Rica offers more than scenery for yachts transiting the Panama Canal and heading north.

Nico Ghersinich of Sea Masters, a tour and guide company in Costa Rica, enticed captains with details of his country at the Antigua Charter Yacht Show in December. Here’s what he told them:

The first thing to know is that there are two seasons: a dry and a wet.

The dry season is December to April. It includes winds out of the northeast that keep the sky clear and the waters flat and blue in the southern part of the country. In the north, there is room around the mountains for wind to come through so it has good surfing and kite surfing and the Gulf of Papagayo has deep green water.

Crossing to surrounding islands and down to the Galapagos is better in the dry season, as well.

The wet season has traditionally been from May to November, but there’s been a weaker wet season the past 10 years, Ghersinich said. Changes in weather have reduced the really wet time to just September and October. In late summer, it’s often sunny in the morning with short bursts of rain in the afternoon, he said.

The winds stop in the north so the blue water is back in the bay. In the south, the winds come up from the southwest so it’s cloudy and rainy more often. And there’s a swell as well.

Yacht use in Costa Rica is for the owner, guests and friends of the owner. No chartering. But Ghersinich said the industry is writing regulations to allow it, taking the lead of other nature-sensitive places that allow chartering such as Fiji and Tahiti.

For the owner, guests and friends, the yacht will need a cruising permit. Three-month permits are issued ahead of time, but once in country, yachts can apply for a two-year permit. With the three-month permit, once the yacht leaves, it cannot come back for a year, he said.

Unlike the Galapagos, yachts are not required to have a guide to cruise Costa Rica’s national parks, but Ghersinich recommended it because of the diversity of the ecosystems and the knowledge a local guide can provide.

Ghersinich reminded captains that the Panama Canal is “only 1,150nm from Antigua, the same as to Miami.”

Once through the canal and heading north, the first place a yacht will come to is Coiba National Park and Golfo de Chiriqui in Panama. There are 50 islands in this area and no buildings. The continental shelf is nearby, which drops 2,000 feet in a half mile.

“You can spend 10 days just here,” Ghersinich said. “There’s only one commercial live-aboard and not many people so you are usually alone.”

Beyond Golfo de Chiriqui is Costa Rica and Golfo Dulce, the only fjord in Central America. The Osa Peninsula that creates the bay is perhaps the most bio-diverse spot on earth, Ghersinich said.

In the dry season, as many as 4,000 spinner dolphins create a superpod in the area and visitors can swim among them.

Around the peninsula is Drake Bay and, offshore, Cano Island, which has a national park, though yachts cannot anchor there at night.

Farther north is Ostional, where hundreds of thousands of olive ridley turtles come ashore to lay their eggs over a few days near the full moon in the wet season.

Also worth exploring are the Bat Islands off Santa Rosa National Park, which has nine ecosystems from coral to rainforest. These islands are protected so there are no tourists. It’s also a popular spot for diving to see bull sharks.

About halfway from Costa Rica to Galapagos is Costa Rica’s Cocos Island National Park, a world heritage site. A permit is required to visit here. Though the crossing is calmer in the dry season, the diving is better in the wet season, Ghersinich said. There are nine species of shark here and opportunities for deep dives. But there are no motorized toys allowed, only diving and kayaks, he said.

If making a circular route to the area, south from Cocos Island is Malpelo Island, another world heritage site, which is for hard-core diving enthusiasts. Again, a permit is needed and Colombia only issues one at a time. Yachts can no longer drop anchor there so it’s uncomfortable to be there during the best diving time, May-August.

And, of course, Galapagos is nearby and can fit into an itinerary here. But that is a whole other story.


Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at lucy@the-triton.com.


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