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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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