Zancudo, Costa Rica Off the Beaten Path

Zancudo, Costa Rica: Off the beaten path

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Off-the-beaten-path seems to be the latest travel buzz-phrase. Escaping the crowds, finding hidden gems and discovering untouched paradises are as trendy as owning a GoPro. Try as we might, we were beginning to lose hope that such places still existed. Every city we visit – even the ones that aren’t in American travel guidebooks – seems to have a paddle-wielding tour guide. Likewise, it hasn’t been uncommon to find even the smallest villages with their own tourist offices stocked with colorful maps and options for an array of excursions. Then we found Zancudo, Costa Rica.

Zancudo, Costa Rica is as off-the-beaten-path as we have ever been. A single, un-named dirt road runs parallel to six miles of untarnished, gray sand beach – and it is often that our footprints are the only ones in the sand. From the beach facing west, across the Golfo Dulce, we can see the Osa Peninsula. We are dazzled daily by the setting sun sinking into the layers of mountain.

Zancudo, Costa Rica Sunset over Osa Peninsula JetSetting Fools

The sun putting on a show as it sinks toward the Osa Peninsula across the Golfo Dulce.

Looking east from the beach, a dense swath of trees – a jumble of palm, mango and other tropical species – edges the sand, eliminating beachfront structures from sight. One, lonely cellular tower exceeding the height of the trees is the only clue that the land is inhabited and has modern amenities.

Zancudo, Costa Rica High Tide JetSetting Fools

High Tide on Playa Zancudo.

The tides fluctuate vastly, changing the beach from wide to narrow throughout the course of the day. Low tide exposes a sandbar to the north that runs deep into the bay; while at high tide, the waves creep into the line of trees. Most mornings, the water is as flat as a pancake, perfectly mirroring the puffy clouds in the sky. But, by afternoon the water often turns choppy, bringing forceful waves crashing on the sand. The water of the bay is as warm as a bath.

Zancudo, Costa Rica Calm Water Morning JetSetting Fools

Peace, calm and pale blues are the common morning sight in Zancudo, Costa Rica.

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In the town of Zancudo, Costa Rica, population 450, everyone greets one another with a wave or ‘hola.’ There is a strong sense of community. Everyone knows everyone – and it seems most of the locals are somehow related. People here call each other on the phone; the concept of communicating by email is as foreign as the language is to us. We regularly have people stopping by the house. They ring the doorbell…and we answer. Usually, it is someone selling something: fresh coconut water, eggs, homemade bread, bananas, and, once, canvas paintings. Sometimes, it’s a friend, just stopping by to say hello and to check to see how we are getting along.

Zancudo, Costa Rica Bicycle on Beach JetSetting Fools

A boy rides his bicycle on the beach and waves to friends along the way.

There are no high-rises. There are no gas stations. There are no banks or ATMs. The houses range in size and style, but most adhere to the beach house requirement of shaded patios for afternoon lounging. Air conditioning is a luxury and few homes have it. Windows seldom have glass and some don’t even have screens.

Zancudo, Costa Rica House

A house in Zancudo, Costa Rica.

The small grocery stores – of which there are three – are owned and run by local families. These mini-markets sell everything from canned goods to packaged goods to home goods to beer. Gringo products – like shaving cream and sunscreen – come at a premium price. Every item has a price sticker that is manually entered into the register at checkout. Fresh produce is available from the truck that comes twice a week.

Zancudo, Costa Rica Grocery Store Market JetSetting Fools

The Super Bellavista grocery store in Zancudo, Costa Rica.

There are a handful of restaurants, most of which are marked with a sign provided by the Imperial beer company. Every restaurant sells fish (because it would be ludicrous if they didn’t), but it’s never the only item on the menu and each place has its own specialty. Estero Mar, the nightclub of Zancudo, Costa Rica, thumps out music on a regular basis, but we’ve never seen it get too crowded.

Zancudo, Costa Rica Restaurant on dirt road JetSetting Fools

Coquito, a restaurant in Zancudo, Costa Rica.

The house we are living in is at the north end of town, near the point where the Sabalo River flows into the sea. The thin stretch of land is flat, sandwiched between the two bodies of water. Next door is the fenced soccer field and open-air elementary school. The police station is across the road. Although not geographically correct, we consider our area to be the center of town. Following the road south of Zancudo, Costa Rica, there are a few other similar beach towns and then the border with Panama.

Zancudo, Costa Rica Boy Playing Soccer JetSetting Fools

A boy practices by himself on the soccer field in Zancudo, Costa Rica.

The closest city, Golfito, is only six miles to the northeast as the crow flies (or a Pelican, in the case of Zancudo!), but the route by car is 30 miles of mostly dirt road and one-lane, no-railing bridges. It takes an hour and a half to drive or three hours by bus. On weekdays, a 7:00am taxi boat zips across the water to Golfito in just 30 minutes.

Zancudo, Costa Rica Taxi Boat to Golfito JetSetting Fools

The daily, morning taxi boat from Zancudo to Golfito.

The one exception to our off-the-grid, under-the-radar location is the Zancudo Lodge. The high-end fishing resort with an entire fleet of sleek, shiny boats seems oddly out of place along the dusty, unpaved road. While we are curious, the pretentiousness in an otherwise modest setting is off-putting. We’re here for a few more months though and we may just have to take a peek inside. But, for now, we are intent on learning the ropes of life in Zancudo, Costa Rica, off the beaten path.

Zancudo, Costa Rica Off the Beaten Path Dirt Road JetSetting Fools

The un-named road through Zancudo, Costa Rica.

Where To Stay:

During our visit to Zancudo, we were house and pet sitters (found through Trusted Housesitters). However, for those who prefer staying in traditional accommodations, there are a few accommodations to choose from in the area. 

Before You Go: 

  • Don’t forget to pack a pair of lightweight and comfortable walking shoes. I (Sarah) have traveled with these shoes by Columbia, Skechers and Reef. Kris prefers wearing these shoes by Merrell and Sanuk.
  • We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos. We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures, is slim and lightweight – and the new models are wifi enabled so you can share your trip pics to social media in real time!). 
  • We think travel insurance is essential! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, travel protected with World Nomads.

Want more travel planning tips for Costa Rica? Read about surfing in Pavones and chasing nature on the Osa Peninsula! Also, head over to our Travel Planning page for our complete packing list and other travel resources!

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We want to know: Have you ever been to Zancudo, Costa Rica? Where is the most off-the-beaten-path place you have ever visited? Tell us in the comments below!

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18 thoughts on “Zancudo, Costa Rica: Off the beaten path

  1. Hi guys! I loved reading your description of Zancudo! my husband and I are headed to Zancudo shortly for our very 1st time. Would you be able to comment more on what you enjoyed (or not) during your House Sit there? Also, any other recommendations you would have for an extended stay over a few months in a remote place such as Zancudo (even tho Golfito is only 30 min boat ride away 🙂 )? Hindsight is always 20/20 so I am always curious to hear what things you may have done differently /changed/added/ or brought with you on your Zancudo adventure. Thank you in advance!

    • Hola Anyri! Thank you so much, we’re pleased you enjoyed our post! Definitely bring heaps of sunscreen and bug spray:) Sounds like you’ll be visiting in the rainy season, so expect daily rain and some powerful afternoon thunderstorms that may wash out the roads. Also, expect this already sleepy part of the world to be very quiet, which if that’s what you’re looking for, it could be ideal. Are you going to have a car(you would probably want 4+4 for rainy season)? We did not, but it would have been very helpful if you’re interested in exploring further afield(the water taxi to Golfito may not run daily in the off season & the daily “school” bus leaves at 6am & returns at 6pm) and also for making “border runs” to Panama for shopping(more affordable & broader selection) and if you’re staying longer than 90 days, visa runs. Last but not least, make friends with the expats and locals as soon as you can. Their knowledge of all things Zancudo was invaluable. Salud!

  2. Brad Moss

    I arrived here about a week ago and immediately fell in love with this place
    In all my travels, I cant say that I have ever been in a friendlier place than this.

  3. Jayne

    My partner and I spent two weeks in Zancudo about two years ago and can’t wait to get back there. We started out exploring Costa Rica in Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula. Remote rainforest. Touristy because it is a great place for getting to and exploring Corcovado National Park. After Drake we started looking for property in Costa Rica and some of the houses we wanted to look at were in Zancudo so we connected with Sue Johnson and Carlos (owner of Coquito) local realtors. Spent two weeks in one of her cabinas on the beach and didn’t want to leave. Still dreaming of owing a property there one day. Puerto Jiminez is also an interesting spot. Dry and dusty but colourful and all the amenities. Enjoy and say Hola to Sue and Carlos for us. Jayne and James

  4. Tori Stdow

    Never been off the beaten path!! I would love to find a place like that. Simplifying is on my 5tear goal list!!

    • Tori Sydow

      Wow I don’t know how that got past my spell check filter! I must be sleepy!
      Can’t even spell my last name right!!

  5. Pat Leighton

    I wanted to have an “adventure” and suggested going to Costa Rica to my man friend (now husband) in the fall of 2000. I spent tons of work time googling places to stay and Cabinas Los Cocos came up as one option. Unlike many places, I heard back immediately from Susan England who, with her husband Andrew, had the cabinas and a boat business there. We extended our stay after being there for a few days, then discovered a piece of beachfront land for a very reasonable amount. We bought it a few months later and in 2004 we built a house. Everything you’ve said about Zancudo is true; it is a close and incredibly friendly place to be. A lot of the homeowners from Northern America come down during the high season, but we love July. It’s supposedly the “rainy” season, but it’s perfect. Not as hot and fresh rain in the afternoon sometimes. Even the kids in school are let out for a vacation during July to enjoy the perfect weather. We are headed there next week and can’t wait. We do plan to sell though… I have a 93 yr old mom who needs me and I think it’s time for us to stay closer to home. We’re almost 70, but it would be a perfect place for younger people!

    • Hi Pat – Love your story of how you came to Zancudo! We are looking forward to the beginning of rainy season, as we will be in Zancudo until July. Perhaps our paths will cross when you are here next week!

  6. RC

    Enjoyed reading your blog on Zancudo. Loved the area. In 2007, I stayed at the Black Turtle Lodge in Puerto Jimenez directly west of Zancudo.

  7. Louise Lachance

    I have gone to Zancudo about 10 times always renting houses from Los Cocos or from the most charming lady in Zancudo , her name is Barbara. The headquarters is Sol Y Mar where the food, music and people are just great. My french canadian friends also rent cabinas at Au Coeur du Soleil (Themiddle of the sun). I feel lucky to know this hidden place.

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