Golfito, Costa Rica

Golfito, Costa Rica
©iStock/Sergii Zhmurchak

Golfito, Costa Rica: Things to Do, History and Cost of Living Information

By Lou Kritz

A unique town and area that is often bypassed by travel writers is the pleasant area of Golfito. Costa Rica's southernmost town is located on the Golfo Dulce, the Sweet Gulf, across from the Osa Peninsula, just a little over 20 miles from the Panama border.

Golfito is a small city of an estimated 12,000 people. Situated on the coastal plain of the Pacific, it is only five meters above sea level. The town has also been in the Costa Rican program of establishing ecological areas that preserve both the forests, oceans, and environment along with the native species of animals that inhabitant them.

This small city is about as far out as you can get in Costa Rica. Golfito lies about 115 direct miles southeast of San José, the capital, but the mountainous, curvy roads about double the miles to over 200 miles, and make it a six to eight-hour road trip. Many visitors opt to fly into the well-maintained airport.

Tourism started to develop with the marinas that supported the Pacific sport fishery. The Golfo Dulce lies behind the Osa Peninsula, thus protecting the calm waters from the active waves. Nearby, out of the protected area, at the mouth of the bay, are the surfing beaches of Matapalo and Pavones, considered to be the best surfing beaches on the Pacific side of Central America.

Two very different attractions make Golfito a popular destination for both tourists and residents of the nation. First, because of its natural beauty and distance from the hustle and bustle of the Central Valley, the area boasts five national eco-parks along with botanical gardens and animal reserves. Nature lovers can visit and observe the ocean, the secluded bays for swimming, park trails, and relax in the quiet natural calm of the surrounding area.

The second part of the attraction is the large duty-free shopping area that offers citizens and legal residents the opportunity to purchase goods at nearly half the cost of regular retail. As Costa Rica is known for heavy import duties and taxes, this amazing development requires a little history and an explanation.

The History of Golfito and Some Amazing Facts

Golfito represents what good governments can do for their citizens. The story begins in 1938 when the United Fruit Company established banana plantations and a major export operation. In 1985 Golfito declined as an export city when United Fruit, upset with rising export taxes and labor disputes, ceased operations and moved to Ecuador. It left the town in poverty and with no hopes for a recovery.

The government saw the need for commerce to provide jobs and opportunities for the residents. They established the Golfito Duty Free Zone so citizens and residents of the country could purchase imported goods free of the import duties that range from 5% to as high as 70% of certain items. The original program allowed residents to purchase $500 worth of goods every six months and required an overnight stay. It meant that hotels and inns would spring up, along with dining options, as well as jobs in the Zone and around it in support businesses.

The program worked but recently met consumer resistance to the stay-over feature. The government reacted by computerizing everything to make it a one-day program, and raised the purchase limit to $1,000 every six months, thus doubling the previous amount. This helped tremendously, and the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel is getting brighter as the national health department works to get the country back to the new normalcy. It shows what happens when a government provides a program for the citizens. In Golfito, it provided stable jobs and business opportunities for both the duty-free operation, and enhanced the prospects of tourism venues.

Retire in Golfito, Costa Rica

Because of its distance from the Central Valley, where the largest percentage (±65%) of the population resides, Golfito struggles to attract new residents. Most folks want to be "where the action is" and forego the incredible peace and beauty of the Osa Peninsula, the Golfo Dulce, and the surrounding green areas.

If, however, you've left the time-crunching corporate life or one of the rat race's oval tracks, and you lambasted the fact that there was never enough time for sport fishing, Golfito just may be the answer. Perhaps nature, in its true form, is your passion, then this pleasant town will put you in the middle of it. Another great pastime is relaxing on your deck in the late afternoon as the sun sets over the Pacific, turning the evening sky to shades of gold, pink, and rose.

You can enjoy year-round warm temperatures at this low elevation. Medical care is very good with the opening of the new CAJA (or government-backed hospital) in town. The town is big enough, and active enough, to provide most of your daily needs, from groceries and home goods to specialty shops. And add on to this the ability to spend $1,000, per person, every six months, in the duty-free area.

For dining out and entertaining, Golfito can't be beaten. This is a heavy tourist area with many reasonable lodging venues with dining facilities, as well as every level of independent restaurant fare. If you love fresh seafood, it's only a toe-dip away.

Housing is a little bit of a challenge, as property owners often prefer short-term vacation rentals over longer residencies. The pandemic has changed much of this, as landlords realize that a lease commitment is more profitable than the in again-out again vacation rentals. The housing market is finding its way after COVID and more properties, for both rentals and purchases are coming to the fore.

Lifestyle in Golfito, Costa Rica

One word describes a long-term stay here—and that is "laidback." The outdoors person has natural parks, rescue sites, and all the outdoor activities available at a comfortable beach location. Swimming, sun, and world-class surfing top the list, and big-time sportfishing backs it all up. Then, evenings can be spent in one of the comfortable dining venues, which will even prepare your catch of the day. If you own your own boat, there are several first-class marinas for docking and maintenance.

Four national parks and wetlands surround Golfito and offer nature and green life at its best. This is then topped off by the Parque Internacional La Amistad, or International Friendship Park, so named because it is one of the few parks systems worldwide that stretches across the border into two countries. "Friendship" is a cooperative effort by both Costa Rica and Panama to protect and enhance all phases of the natural environment, both the flora and fauna, of both counties.

Cost of Living in Golfito, Costa Rica

Your cost of living will be based on your lifestyle choices. Living in a comfortable town far removed from the population centers can add to the expense if you choose to travel for urban shopping and amenities. While Golfito can easily supply all of your daily needs, an occasional trip for a more urban assortment of stores may be enjoyable. The examples below show a range, based on your lifestyle.

Consider these estimates for cost of living in Golfito:

ExpenseU.S. $
Rent for two-bedroom apartment or house$1,000 – $1,800
Utilities: electric, water, cable/internet, phone$100 – $150
Groceries$400 – $500
Medical/CAJA$120 – $140
Dining/Entertainment$120 – $320
Transportation$250 – $420
Household Help & Incidentals$150 – $175
Monthly total:$2,140 to $3,505

Things to Do in Golfito, Costa Rica

Land That Big Pacific Sailfish

A day, or more, going after that big catch is a specialty in Golfito. The town, and thus the marinas and beaches, lies on Golfito Bay, which is within the Golfo Dulce, and is separated from, and sheltered by, the Osa Peninsula. The water there is calm and relaxing allowing for safe harboring of boats.

Golfito offers small marinas, sport fishing, boating and yachting services. Many of the hotels and lodges have their own boats and offer complete vacation packages of lodging, fishing excursions, and water sports. There is also a host of independent boat captains offering fishing excursions. And yes, this is the place to land a Pacific sailfish, along with other Pacific species.

Get to Know "Real Nature"

You can do this because living in Golfito means you live in the middle of five natural parks, all devoted to protecting the beautiful flora and fauna of Costa Rica. For a day of leisurely walking or strenuous hiking, choose from:

  • Tierra Sierpe National Wetlands,

  • The Reservá Forestal Golfo Dulce,

  • Parque Nacional Corcovado,

  • Parque Nacional Piedras Blanco.

You’ll also have the opportunity to visit one of the world’s most unique parks. Parque Nacional La Amistad, or the International Friendship Park, is located north of the town and is equally split between Costa Rica and Panama. It is the largest nature reserve in Central America, covering 401,000 ha of tropical forest.

It's designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Three indigenous tribes—the Naso, Bribri, and Ngöbe-Buglé also live within the park. Be sure to pick up some of their handmade artwork and fabrics—native artifacts found nowhere else.

Shop Until You Drop

You simply cannot fail to spend a lot of time at Depósito Libre Comercial de Golfito, the Golfito duty-free shopping center. Open to residents and tourists alike, duty and tax-free items from household appliances, electronics, alcoholic beverages, watches and jewelry, and tires, plus much more are offered at the absolute best prices in the country. Consumers are granted $1,000 purchase allowance every six months.

The merchandise is all new, guaranteed, and top quality. If your merchandise is too big for your car or tour bus, delivery is available for 3% of the purchase price. That's $30.00 on a $1,000 purchase, to anywhere in Costa Rica by a government-regulated delivery service. Combine your shopping with the enjoyment of local dining, and it's a day you'll remember.

Say "Hello" to Timmy Toucan

The Golfito National Wildlife Refuge surrounds most of the city, making it possible to spend a day exploring or an hour or two on a relaxing walk. Welcoming you will be native trees, like the copal, butternut, manwood, and the silk cotton, whose white, fluffy pods will remind you of those Vermont winters.

Black and yellow Toucans, blue and scarlet Tanagers, and the rare Fiery Billed Aricaris head the list of beautiful birds. On the ground, anteaters, pacas, agoutis, and all of Costa Rica's monkey species abound. On any daily walk, or more aggressive hike, you will be assured to spot an animal, bird, or tree that you've never before seen.

Get in the "Pocket" But Don't "Wipeout!"

Living in Golfito will place you in or near Central and South America's very best surfing hotspots. At the mouth of Golfo Dulce is Playa Pavones, Peacock Beach, a world-class venue, with the world's second longest wave in terms of length, height, speed, and swell. Closer to the town is the more relaxed surf of Playa Zancudo, or Mosquito Beach, whose gentle waves offer new surfers a chance to practice safely. A little further south is Pavones, and its beach, a little rockier, but with excellent challenges for the experienced surfer. Transportation from Golfito to any of these spots is available from tour providers or water taxis, along with the use of your own car.

Explore Golfito's Gastronomic Delights

This moderate-sized town offers a surprising array of choices for your dining out pleasure. It's one of the benefits of living in a tourist-oriented community. Start the day at innumerable coffee shops offering the fine Costa Rican brews and pastries or one of the complete breakfast spots. The selection for the day continues on through lunch, dinner, and late-evening victuals.

The local tico compliment of sodas, or small diners, and family-style restaurants is added to by the myriad of hotel dining rooms and free-standing specialty spots. The fun part for the new Golfito resident is the challenge of exploring all of the choices.

Give Pavones a Second Look

We've seen that Pavones is known for surfing, but many of its other wonders will draw you back again and again. Hiking along and in the Rio Claro is relaxing and refreshing as you swim to cool off as you watch the monkeys play along the shore. Two waterfalls, Punta Banco and Tiskita, are scenic, each with a swimming hole that is rejuvenating. The Tiskita Biological Reserve contains 130 types of tropical fruit trees, 275 species of birds, and at least 60 species of butterflies spread over 800 natural acres.

If you are adventurous and in good shape, you can head off on the five-hour hike to the Guaymi Indian Reserve. This is a secluded indigenous tribe, dating back to at least the middle of the 16th century, who mainly grow their own food—beans, rice, corn, and yucca. They do, however, venture out for the coffee harvest in both Costa Rica and Panama, as well as the men working on cattle farms. The women make crafts like colorful dolls, hats, cloth bags, and their own style of jewelry.

"Thar she Blows!'

In and around Golfito are many providers of dolphin and whale watching tours. They vary in length, schedule, and their relation to the migration of the mammals in the sea. Both dolphins and whales live in the surface waters of the ocean and you are guaranteed to be able to see them. Plan to spend at least several hours, and often the best part of a day on this incredible adventure.

Visit Costa Rica's Exemplary University

The University of Costa Rica, the government-backed elite educational system, maintains a campus in Golfito, where most of the students are local residents. The school offers a wide range of disciplines in many fields, but they are most proud of the newest concentration. Realizing that sports are an important part of the culture, especially as adjuncts to the tourist industry, the school now offers a Sports Science curriculum. Given the school's location, they include many water sports, with an emphasis on rowing sports.

Visiting the school is interesting, but attending the newly instituted competitive teams at their meets is an enjoyable way of supporting the university.

Spend Many Days Experiencing a Jewel

Considered the crown jewel of the county's extensive biological reserves and national parks, Parque Nacional Cocovado, Corcovado National Park, is just across the Golfo Dulce from Golfito. The 165 square mile park is the largest park in the system. It is so outstanding that National Geographic has labeled it "the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity."

Visit the park and expect to see an incredible profusion of wildlife, the largest primary forest on the Pacific coast of the entire Americas, and a sizable area of lowland tropical forests, possibly the largest in the world.

The offshore waters are the breeding grounds for humpback whales, Bryde's whale, spinner and rough-toothed dolphins, and manatees, just to name a few. Watch them on day hikes, or camp overnight, or stay in one of four ranger station bunkhouses.

Corcovado Park is laced with trails that can be handled in a few hours, to day-long hikes, and finally, extensive treks that take several days, and require an approved guide. When you read about Costa Rica's green emphasis and efforts to preserve our ecological beauty, this park is where all can be observed and experienced. In addition to individual entries into the park, one can find guided tours and group outings that make the trip special.