I have traveled over 3,000 miles to the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. I have come here seeking what the wonderful people of this country (Ticos and Ticas) call Pura Vida. The Pure Life. The simple pleasures of beautiful beaches, pristine rainforest, abundant wildlife, fresh food, and uninterrupted time with my family. The warm sun and the cooling rain. Green mountains that tumble to the very edge of the ocean. As always, I am finding more in this place than I came looking for. Keep reading for travel resources to the pristine Playa Ballena.
As I write these words, I am seated on a shelf carved deep into the grey rock above Playa Ballena (Whale Beach) in the Marino Ballena National Park. My perch has a well worn path leading to it, worn into the stone by feet or water, I do not know. Tiny black and grey sea snails make their homes here, clinging to the crevices of rock when the tide is low and this place is exposed. A little higher up, tiny green bromeliads and ferns cling to life in the most unlikely of places. Off to my left, Ballena Island stands stark against a blue sky.
Above me, the jungle hangs densely overhead, providing the cooling shade I have come here to rest in. The sound of cicadas rises and falls from the green tangle of trees, their high-pitched trill like a counterpoint to the low pounding of the ocean. Waves sigh and splash amongst the rocks below, creating tidal pools where tiny sea creatures take refuge of their own.
This spot can only be reached at low tide. It is temporary, fleeting; safe and calm now but a terrible crash of water and waves only hours before and after. The transitory nature of this place appeals to me. It speaks to the power of NOW.
From this vantage point at the very end of the beach, nearly the entire length of Playa Ballena stretches before me. Here the beach makes a curve towards these rocks like the whorl of a shell. The sand is a light greyish-tan, and the beach is scattered with millions of stones. If you catch it at just the right moment, a wealth of large and nearly perfect sand dollars wash in with the waves.
All along the edge of the beach, the jungle crowds in a riot of green. Palm fronds sway in the wind. Above, the verdant mountains rise steeply and disappear into a bank of white clouds that creeps along their rounded peaks.
In writing this blog, I have set out to explore the notion of how place defines experience. Some unfortunate recent experiences since I have been here in Costa Rica have led to me to wonder about the reverse: How can our own personal experiences change the way we see a place? How much of the beauty we see in a place is tied to the state of mind we are in while we are there?
Even in paradise, a cloud of negative emotions can cast a shadow over the most beautiful and amazing places. We are all slaves to our own perceptions, all blinded by our own thoughts, emotions, prejudices; peering through a filter of our own particular versions of myopia. We can only look upon the world with our own eyes, and how hard it can be to see clearly through the storms that sometimes rage inside of us.
It was only a few days ago that the cloud of my own life had stolen some of the beauty of this place from me. I have found the cure in the world around me. I have looked outside of myself, and let this magnificent place teach me the answer.
Stop looking for something you dreamed up inside of yourself, this place has taught me. Just look around. Look out into the world. Peer into dark corners if you must. Search out the beauty that screams or whispers all around you. No matter how amazing or bleak a place may seem, you cannot find joy without looking for it.
Here, my days rise and fall with the tide. The water’s movement directs mine, setting the course for my hours. Low tide moves forward one hour each day, charting the passing of time like the sun charts change across the sky. I am falling into this rhythm, and I feel the ocean teaching me how to live in peace with this beautiful place.
A cool breeze lifts the page of my notebook, and I look up from my words. The sun is high in the sky and I know I have lingered here too long. The walk back down the beach will be long and hot. But there are shady places along the edge of the jungle to sit and rest awhile. And the draw of this perch, with its sweeping panoramic view, is too precious to rush away from. I hold fast to the rocks like the snails in their shells, slipping into love with this singular place, at this fleeting moment in time.
Plan Your Trip!
Playa Ballena is located along the South Pacific coast of Costa Rica, just south of Manuel Antonio, Domincal and Uvita. It is a beautiful and pristine beach in the Marino Ballena National Park; so named for the pods of whales that come here to mate and raise their babies each year. The entrance fee will run you $6 a person, with children, 11 and under, getting in for free. The admission is good for the whole day, and you can visit several of the park’s unique and beautiful beaches for one price. The money helps preserve these amazing natural habitats for everyone to enjoy.
The most popular entrance to the park can be found a little further north in Bahia Ballena at Playa Uvita, which boasts the famous Whale Tail sandbar. (stay tuned for an upcoming post on this destination!) Playa Ballena, the south entrance, is much lesser known, and therefore much less crowded. I have often walked this gorgeous beach for hours without another human in sight, and even on a busy day there are not many people. It can be easily reached by bus or car from Uvita, and there are a number of hotels and vacation rentals in the area.
To avoid confusion with the north entrance, indicate to the local bus driver you would like to go to Escuela Ballena, a small school on the road to the park. If you tell them Playa Ballena, you will invariably end up in Bahia Ballena at Playa Uvita. Take a right by Ballena Bistro, and walk about 5 minutes where the road dead ends at the park entrance.
A word of caution, please shuffle your feet while walking in the surf to avoid a painful sting from the Stingrays that like to sunbathe in the shallows. They are especially numerous when the tide is going out, and near the small freshwater “rivers” that enter the ocean. My husband got a particularly nasty sting our first day here that had him stuck in our rental house for the first two weeks of the trip, hence my byline on nearly all the photos in this post. Luckily, there are a couple of doctors in nearby Uvita, as well as Red Cross, emergency services, and a hospital about 25 minutes away in San Isidro should any mishaps befall you while you are here. These creatures are truly quite gentle however, and a simple Stingray shuffle will alert them to your presence and help you to avoid a similar fate.
If you are coming from out of Costa Rica, your first stop will likely be the San Jose airport in the country’s capital. I recommend an overnight stay at the Hotel Aeropuerto. They have clean rooms, complimentary taxi to and from the airport, a restaurant/bar, and a breakfast buffet included with your stay.
From there you will need to rent a car(4wd is best for this area), take a bus, or hire a shuttle service. By car the trip will take about 3.5 hours. On this particular trip, I used a private driver named Adrian who was fantastic. I highly recommend his services. He lives in the Arenal area, so he can also help you with transport to the Volcano Arenal if you would like to visit while you are here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org If you are driving yourself or hire a driver, be sure to stop off along the way at the Tarcoles River to view the numerous crocodiles who make their home under the bridge! You can also use the restroom, and snag a snack and some souvenirs while you’re there.
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I am in Costa Rica for an entire month, and will have numerous upcoming posts covering several areas of this magnificent country. Follow me in LOCUS: A journey in search of PLACE and read more about my travels!
Do you have questions about Playa Ballena, or did something I write strike a chord with you? I invite you to sound off in the comments below.