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Costa Rica's Unspoiled Coast

By Jason Holland

The landscape is the first thing you notice about the Southern Zone, the region on Costa Rica's southern Pacific coast. It's so dramatic that it dominates every viewpoint.

Picture high mountains, covered in lush plants and trees in a thousand shades of green, running along the coastline. They drop dramatically near the shore, where a narrow jungle-filled lowland gives way to palm-tree lined beaches. Then you have the wild blue Pacific, home from December to April and then July to October to the creatures that give the area it's other name: Costa Ballena, or Whale Coast.

Costa Rica
Photo: Arenal Net

By the way, the area's vast rain forests are full of wildlife, too. In an already extremely biodiverse country, the Southern Zone takes the top spot, with three-toed sloths, howler and capuchin monkeys, toucans, and many more species common.

For years, this area was pretty hard to get to. The last two hours of the journey from the main airport in San Jose, the capital, was over a very rough dirt road. Rickety bridges and chancey river crossings were the norm. The alternative was a harrowing journey over a mountain-hugging two-lane road filled with semi-trucks.

But the completion of the coastal highway, including new bridges, in 2010, really put the Southern Zone on the map. A journey that could take five to six hours from the airport, was cut to three. And developers and the tourist industry took notice.

You might think this all adds up to a recipe for overcrowding and over-development.

But this stretch of coast remains an out of the way spot that draws fewer visitors and expats than the central and northern Pacific coasts. The region is still unspoiled...undeveloped. The natural beauty dominates. Visit any beach and you won't see more than a handful of people. Often you'll be the only one there.

There are no big resorts. No high-rise condos or hotels ruining the view. A large national park on the coast means that they'll never touch a big stretch of shore. Besides, there's a ban on any building over three stories.

Yes, there are more homes. But developers and property owners here understand that it's the views and beautiful vistas that draw people here, and they don't want to mess with that. As a result, houses dot the hillside in seemingly random fashion. Most hidden by thick jungle. No cookie-cutter "grid" communities here.

And the great thing about the ease of access is that it's brought plenty of modern touches too. You can get high-speed Internet, even in the middle of the jungle. Ditto satellite and cable TV. Okay, cell phones are a little more touch and go in some areas—but what do you expect with so many mountains?

Plus, thanks to expats from around the world who are serious about food and have opened restaurants, you can get a world-class meal in a variety of international cuisines, including Italian, Indonesian, French, and more. And the local grocery stores now carry many imported favorites from Europe and the U.S.

The Southern Zone hasn't got much attention in the mainstream press. But at International Living we strive to expose you to these little-known regions where you can live a very unique lifestyle in comfortable surroundings.

In upcoming issues of International Living magazine, I'll be revealing more of this "undiscovered" coast. On my recent trip there I met retirees, business owners, and restaurateurs of all backgrounds, and I discovered some natural wonders that are must-sees if you're in the neighborhood.

 - International Living



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