Sailing To Costa Rica – The Ultimate Boating Guide

Costa Rica By Boat

Costa Rica is the land of magnificent forests, rich wildlife, palm-dotted beaches, and high volcanoes. Thanks to its natural beauty and all these factors, eco-tourism first grew out of this place. There are many other reasons that make Costa Rica a hot destination. The San Jose International Airport connects worldwide to all the big cities through non-stop flights. Quepos, which hosts Marina Pez Vela is just 18 minutes away from here (by air).

Around four million people live in Costa Rica. Just over 300K are Americans. The country has an area that can cover both New Hampshire and Vermont. Despite its small size, it is fascinating that it experiences more than a dozen climate zones. There are many other positives that make Costa Rica the perfect place to live – affordable living, stable government, moderate climate round the year, great medical facilities, high level of education (with more than 96 percent literacy rate).

Then there’s the fascinating Costa Rican culture and people. The locals are known as “Ticos”, who are well known for their sociable nature. Interestingly, the local culture is a mix of so many sub-cultures. The country has a number of sub-cultures – from the native tribes from the Caribbean lowlands to the Sabanero culture in the Guanacaste Province. The combination of all these cultures creates a highly gracious mix of people.

Boating Requirements

Any boat that cruises to Costa Rica must meet the standard requirements for vessels which travel offshore and long distances. However, there are some additional requirements too. If the boat doesn’t have air conditioning, there should be excellent ventilation to maintain the crew’s comfort. Each living space should be provided with at least 2 hatches/opening ports. Because Costa Rica has a tropical climate, the ventilation should be waterproofed against rain. There should also be fans and dorades in all the cabins for improving air circulation. Because of the humid environment, it is also important that all the cargo areas including lockers too be provided with proper ventilation. Otherwise, there is a risk of mold and mildew development.

Latest Charts & Guides

There has been a lot of development and changes in the country within the last few years. Even if you are checking the latest guides, there’s a good chance that the information could be obsolete. This is more the case with regard to the facilities on the shore.

If you are going to spend some time here, the only guide that you will come across is the Charlie’s Charts of Costa Rica (Margo Wood). It may seem to be outdated in many ways, yet it can be of great help.

 

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Cruise Ports

Are you cruising or passing through for several weeks? Then you can find all the harbors along with good amount of information in the Central American Route (Captain Patricia Miller Rains). It has what Charlie’s Charts don’t have – precision GPS waypoints for all the important harbors. If you are traveling from Mexico for the Zihuatenajo Sailfest (www.zihuasailfest.com), which is held in February, there is a CD for you that offers all the information for cruising in Central America. The CD brings you the latest available information including reports and letters from the previous season’s cruisers.

Communication Modes & Costs

When it comes to communication, Costa Rica can be an expensive place. You can get phone cards that allow calls from public payphones from the pulperias, but phone calls are costly. It can cost you around a dollar a minute for calls made to the U.S. You can make calls using various VoIP services including Skype. The Internet cafes here allow you to use headphones but privacy can be an issue. There are some areas where Wi-Fi is available. These include some coffee shops and restaurants in the major Costa Rican towns, which are focused on tourists. If you want Wi-Fi, you should be in Los Sueños Marina close to Golfo de Nicoya, Banana Bay Marina (Golfito), or Tierra Mar.

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Certain Requirements

When you travel from the north, you will come across clearance ports (which are small yet thriving towns) in the following order –

  • Playas del Coco
  • Puntarenas
  • Jaco
  • Quepos
  • Golfito

If you cruise within the country, you will need cruising permit. But the permit will have to be renewed if your boat calls port at any of the above-mentioned clearance ports. Each boat (along with its crew) gets 90 days in Costa Rica. Extension can be sought for 180 days by appearing in person.

The border with Nicaragua is around 60 miles from El Coco, and you can find some amazing harbors in this stretch. When arriving from north, you can make a brief stop at Bahia Santa Elena (and the authorities largely allow it) before clearance. However, it is not recommended to make stops elsewhere. The Coast Guard (Guarda Costa) patrols the areas.

If you want to make port at the El Coco harbor, the surf due to the Pacific swell can be concerning. The surf can be quite heavy during late afternoons and requires handling something small like dinghies with care. Bahia Culebra offers sheltered and safer anchorages and is close to El Coco. But if the Guarda Costa wants to inspect the boat, you will still have to take it to El Coco. Otherwise, there are taxis available from Bahia Culebra to El Coco.

The official formalities require that the vessel be carrying minimum 2 copies each of all documents at the point of clearance. These documents are:

  • Passports
  • Boat paperwork
  • Clearance from previous port of call
  • List of crew members who speak Spanish

You can get the formats for the documents from the cruise guides.

Make sure that you always carry copies along because most of the small towns may not have operational copying machines. The authorities will not charge anything for clearance during standard working hours, except that you will have to pay for getting copies if you don’t have them already.

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Carrying Sufficient Water & Fuel

Boats can find fuel docks in Golfito, Los Sueños Marina and Puntarenas. Boats with efficient rain-catching systems can do without a watermaker. If you are in a boat with deep draft (more than 6 ft.), you will not want to deal with the shallows of the Puntarenas’ backside. It will be best to head to the Los Sueños dock which is fully equipped and easy to access. Boats that require over 100 gallons fuel should call in advance for an appointment (506-637-8886 is the number from within Costa Rica). Even when you are at the marina entrance, make sure to get on Channel 16 to give a call to “muelle de combustibles” to check if there’s sufficient dock space.

Entering & Leaving Costa Rica

Boats from and to Mexico will find the “tehuantepecers” to be the most difficult challenges. The tehuantepecers are storms/gales that can cause hazardous seas within the Gulf of Tehuantepec. This gulf is formed between the coastal borders of Mexico and Guatemala and is 500 miles wide. The waters rise because of the funneling of the northeasterlies across the cape off the Caribbean.

Boats can find it challenging to come in from offshore in the dry season. The northeasterlies are known as the papagyos in this season and affect the northern areas of Costa Rica. The good thing is that the two strong winds can be forecast depending on the Caribbean conditions. So warning can be had many days before your cruise starts.

Keeping “one foot on the beach” is a safe method used by the cruisers. They sail within a few miles offshore and this helps in avoiding the big seas and from being blown away and losing course.

What Language is Used in Costa Rica?

Your Costa Rican trip can become even better if you learn even a little bit of Spanish. If you don’t, you are most likely to feel your engagements with the locals a little frustrating. It will be best to carry along a dictionary, Kathy Parson’s Spanish for Cruisers, and a self-study material to help you.

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Costa Rican Marinas

The country can have many marinas in the future. But the process is still in the planning and approval phase. There are not many places here where boats can be safely anchored. But if international standards are taken into account, there’s just one that could be called a genuine marina. Los Sueños Marina (www.losSueñosresort.com) has space for 200 berths. It is located close to Jaco, south from Golfo de Nicoya in Bahia Herradura.

Los Sueños Marina is a full-fledged marina offering all the facilities, inclusive of fuel dock. There is no other chandlery in the country that caters to offshore boats. The luxury grocery store is one of the main attractions.

The marina’s transient fee is expensive. It can almost always be fully berthed with boats of pro fishing guides and condo owners. We spent $4 a foot daily.

If you have a vessel that’s under 7 feet, Puntarenas offers many places for berthing. But there’s one concern – theft. The most secure place is the Costa Rica Yacht Club (www.costaricayachtclub.com). There’s round the clock security, with guard-patrol on both land and water, and boats are checked every hour. Even those who leave their boats here in rainy season will not have to worry about anything getting stolen.

Golfito offers two great berth places – Banana Bay Marina (www.bananabaymarinagolfito.com) and Servicios Tierra Mar ((Land Sea Services; www.marinaservices-yachtdelivery.com). Banana Bay Marina offers transients at $2.5 a foot a day and $25 a foot a month, Wi-Fi, and a restaurant that has both the style and prices that remind you of America. Servicios Tierra Mar is even more affordable. Interestingly, they offer bulletproof moorings ($8 a day) and some med-moor slips at just ($0.5 a foot a day or $8 a foot a month). Spend just $4 a day and you can have access to the cruisers clubhouse and dinghy dock. The clubhouse offers Wi-Fi, showers, satellite TV, DVDs, massive deck for barbecues, and one book exchange.

Handling Finances

If you are in El Coco, you will find just one bank. But it doesn’t have any ATM. You will have to stand in a line after taking a number at the entrance. It may be required to wait up to 6 hours. Fortunately, you can deal in dollars with many Costa Rican businesses. It is recommended to carry dollars in various smaller denominations. This will help you avoid the bank here.

If you must withdraw money from your account, you can take a taxi to the Do-It Center. Here you will find an ATM that offers both colones (Costa Rican currency) and dollars. Just say “Do-It Center” and the driver will take you there and charge $30 for the entire trip.

Major towns like Golfito and Puntarenas have ATMs. You can use debit/credit cards in supermarkets and stores everywhere in Costa Rica.

Provisioning

There’s the problem with provisioning in Costa Rica, just like in Mexico. Not only are the basics costlier than in America, there are other issues too:

  • Meat is tough because it’s not aged
  • All fruits and vegetables are stored in the refrigerator because they can’t last many days in this tropical climate

It will be best to come fully provisioned. Any provisioning should be delayed to another destination in Central America, where food and produce is more affordable and of better quality. If you are ready to spend more, northern part of Costa Rica has quality provisioning because of the demands by rich foreign settlers. Here you can get items which can be found only in Panama (in Central America).

Jumbo is the leading supermarket here. But you will have to reach Liberia. A taxi from El Coco can be too costly (at least $50 for a round trip), but a bus ride can be cheaper. Taxi is also available from resorts in Bahia Culebra. You can find almost everything that a major US supermarket can offer, but many items can cost twice the amount.

El Coco’s supermarkets may not be as organized, but you can find almost all the items here if you can spend more time in searching. The meat can also be great.

Golfito and Puntarenas supermarkets are also well stacked up, but give a more third-world impression. Buy beyond the major towns, don’t expect much in terms of provisioning, as it is much limited in the pulperias. It will be best to head to David, in Panama for much cheaper and complete provision if you are planning to cross the Pacific.

Safety & Security Concerns

Costa Rica is in Central America. So cruisers should still be watchful for their protection.

When we first visited El Coco and went ashore for clearance, we returned to find that our dinghy’s oars were gone. It was docked near the police station. Other items were probably safe because they were all locked/tied. We recommend using oars having holes in their blades. Run a cable through the holes to secure them.

Lock your dinghy to a tree. Lock everything including the tires, fuel tank and outboard too. The dinghy should be lifted off the water at nighttime and kept on a halyard. It should be locked to the boat rigging or the toerail.

Make sure that your boat is fully closed and locked if no one is going to attend to it. It often occurs that even small children swim and enter the portholes for stealing anything that’s small and valuable.

You should be careful even when you are ashore. Avoid loud jewelry and don’t keep lots of cash with yourself. Never put down your backpack. When in a bus, don’t allow anyone to hold or put away your backpack. There’s a widespread scam here where fellow travelers offer stowing backpacks but pass it on to others who then get off the bus. Fortunately, we had only our oars stolen and nothing else. But we did come across so many stories from others.

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What’s There to See?

Despite having magnificent beaches, the most stunning sights in Costa Rica can be found inland. This includes its soaring volcanoes, cloud covered forests, villages on mountains, lush green valleys, and ‘mysterious’ wildlife including the striking Resplendent Quetzal.

If you want to go touring, you should choose only the marinas given above. None other place is safe for leaving your boat overnight.

Want to explore the splendid wildlife here from boats? Bahia Santa Elena is the perfect place, located in Parque Nacional Santa Rosa. While this is the perfect wildlife destination in north, Bahia Drake is the ideal place in the south. It allows you to reach the Parque Nacional Corcavado and Osa Peninsula through motorboat or hikes. You can find planned tours, buses and car rentals almost everywhere.

If the waters are calm, you could also reach Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (located south of Quepos) via boats. When in Golfito, the Orchid House (Casa Orquideas) is a must visit. It has stunning gardens featuring so many varieties of orchids, butterflies and birds.

Chandlery & Yacht Services

Golfito, Puntarenas, and El Coco all have different marine stores. You can find materials and simple spares for fishing boats. But don’t expect to find anything in the form of dedicated yacht spares.

Los Sueños Marina has a chandlery where few parts can be found for various equipment including generators and watermakers. There’s the option to have parts shipped from the U.S. to Liberia based offices through DHL (but during our stay the El Coco office was out of service and was to open again in some months). They can also be shipped to Puntarenas. Certain arrangements can also be made to have the spares shipped to a marina in Golfito. When we got a fluxgate compass shipped, we didn’t have to pay any VAT or duty. But the customs did chare us inspection fee ($22).

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