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Pure Life: Sailfish and Sloths in Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula

Fly fishing the “the most biologically intense place on Earth.”

Pure Life: Sailfish and Sloths in Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula

Read more in Destinations 2023. (Jeff Johnson photo)

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Is requesting a “Pura Vida” tattoo in Costa Rica the same as yelling out “play Free Bird!” at a concert? Asking for a friend.

I’m guessing Costa Rican tattoo artists have lost count of how many times they’ve sent a tourist home with this popular, permanent souvenir. While bringing the inked phrase back home across the globe to Montana or Maine or Minnesota may be viewed by some as cliché cultural appropriation, it’s no doubt those who sport it are trying to cling to the simple life promised in the expression’s translation. Perhaps the mark is a daily dose of inspiration for a cubicle-imprisoned 9-to-5er in an office high-rise as she flips over her hand mid-spreadsheet to see on her wrist the cursive reminder of a less stressful week.

And it’s not just tourists who revel in the pure life enjoyed throughout a country with a reputation for being the happiest in the world. It’s also the attitude of the Ticos, as Costa Ricans affectionately refer to themselves. Ticos may be aware that their regular life is your vacation, but their kind and peaceful nature prevents them from rubbing it in. For locals, Pura Vida is a simple appreciation of life despite whatever challenging circumstances may come.

A collage of Costa Rica lifestyle and fishing images.
(Photography by Jeff Johnson, Pat Ford, & BotÁnika)

For destination anglers, the Pura Vida vibes can be either empowering or maddening, or both. Some fishermen have spent their lives wondering if a guide exists who won’t berate their cast or yell at them to set the hook. In Costa Rica, the guides with whom I fished are customarily laid back, while graciously asserting helpfulness. This may take some getting used to for anglers who believe they can only succeed when being screamed at and chastised.

As Northern California teenagers on vacation with their father and grandfather in 1993, Beau and Cory Williams instantly appreciated more than Costa Rica’s mellow guides and world-class fishing. Their affinity went beyond hooking up on sailfish and soon spread to a deep affection for the variety in nature found along the Osa Peninsula between Corcovado National Park and the Pacific Ocean’s Golfo Dulce, or “sweet gulf.” In 1997, the boys’ father, Robin, purchased the property in Puerto Jiménez that would soon become Crocodile Bay Resort.

“The awe-inspiring nature touched us each in such a way that it forever connected us,” says Cory Williams, now co-owner of Crocodile Bay Marina and Botánika Osa Peninsula. “For this reason, we continue to strive to help others discover the raw power of this natural world, in hopes that they will then understand the deeper value and synergy that nature holds for us all. Our father’s belief was that in a world so full of details, the best way to do business was to ‘treat others as you wish to be treated as you share with them what you love.’”

Nearly 30 years later, Crocodile Bay Resort has evolved to become Crocodile Bay Marina and Botánika Osa Peninsula, Curio Collection by Hilton, an eco-resort offering guests opportunities to experience luxurious amenities in an area National Geographic calls “the most biologically intense place on Earth.”

Officially opened in May 2022, the new Botánika Osa Peninsula is managed by Aqua-Aston Hospitality and includes the marina Crocodile Bay Resort. The marina is expanding into a full-service international marina with 140 boat slips, a yacht club, a flagship over-water restaurant, and seaside shops. It shares acreage with Botánika Osa Peninsula’s residentially designed guest rooms ranging from studios to three bedrooms, including living areas, kitchens and balconies overlooking a lagoon-style swimming pool, bar, restaurant, fitness center, and event space.

Two fly anglers leaning over the side of a boat in the ocean holding a sailfish.
(Jeff Johnson photo)

Osa Conservation Area

In February before the official opening, several fishing buddies and I flew into San José, the capital of Costa Rica, and enjoyed a relaxing evening prepping our gear at the Hilton. My room overlooked the national football stadium, framed afront a stunning mountain backdrop. In the morning, we flew to Puerto Jiménez, the largest town on the Osa Peninsula with around 3,000 inhabitants. A five-minute shuttle brought us to the resort, where the friendly fishing manager, Diego, met us at the check-in desk with cold colada fresco cocktails.

Diego suggested we take a short boat ride across the bay to get a feel for the water and scout for the next day. When we reached the opposite shore, we immediately saw birds circling over a massive bait ball busting on the surface. We hadn’t yet rigged our rods, as we didn’t plan to fish during the scouting session. (I can hear the groans from readers: Always rig to fish, Hil! But, hey, not rigging rods is a great way to ensure that fish will show up, right?) While we rushed to get lined up, Diego slowly followed the bait, and put us in position to cast. My friends Tatum and Jake and I took turns throwing to the edges of the bait ball. We had several dorados dart out from the smorgasbord to follow our streamers, but even with a double-hand retrieve we couldn’t seem to move the pattern fast enough, and each time the dorados turned off as we ran out of real estate at the tips of our rods. We also ran out of daylight and had to head back to the dock before we could hook up.


A tuna underwater.
(Pat Ford photo)

The next day we enjoyed an early breakfast of traditional Costa Rican rice and beans called gallo pinto, with local sausages and plantains. The resort boasts four culinary outlets led by Executive Chef José Tizado, each featuring sustainable ingredients sourced from regional purveyors as well as the resort’s own gardens. The menus showcase the bounty of local farmers and fishers. A favorite is freshly caught mahi mahi cooked on a custom charcoal grill using traditional Costa Rican techniques.

Since the 21-acre jungle-nestled resort is set on one of only four tropical fjords in the world, guests can walk from their rooms to the marina. So, after breakfast, we walked to the dock to meet our boat captain and skipper. They loaded us up and ran in the 35-foot Strike Tower boat about six miles—not a particularly long distance for sailfish.

The first half of our run took us along the peninsula, which is home to at least half of all species living in Costa Rica. A large section of the peninsula is a protected wildlife preserve called the Osa Conservation Area. Corcovado National Park is part of this conservation area. Established in 1975, the Park protects 164 square miles and is the largest in Costa Rica. Tropical ecologists worldwide celebrate the scientific value in the remarkable biodiversity and abundance of wildlife here. The Park conserves one of the few remaining sizable areas of lowland tropical forests in the world as well as the largest primary forest on the American Pacific coastline.

During the run, the skipper rigged up “teasers,” or large, brightly colored, squid-patterned, hookless lures, which he selected from a massive sushi-roll-style tackle case.

Teasing is an effective method of bringing sailfish close enough to the boat for fly fishers to make a cast. The hookless teasers are trolled from outriggers on one or both sides of the boat, about 70 feet behind. When a sail is “raised,” it starts chasing the teasers, and the crew reels like mad to bring in the lures, enticing the fish closer to the boat. When the fish is within casting range (only about 20 feet or so) the angler uses a quick sidearm cast to sling the popper. Fly placement is key.

It seems to me that there are two kind of sailfish anglers: those who lounge and nap in the boat until springing into action when a sail is raised and all hell breaks loose, or those who stay piqued for hours, staring at the open ocean in attempted manifestation of all hell breaking loose. I’m the latter. I just know it’s going to happen! Having over-scheduled our vacation (including snook fishing from kayaks, beach fishing for roosterfish, sloth and monkey viewing, surfing, and an organic chocolate farm tour, and a jungle hike), we left ourselves just one afternoon of offshore sailfishing, so we had to make it count. When the hell-breaking-loose happened, everyone sprang into some sort of action; meaningful action by the crew, and intent-is-9/10ths-the-law action by the anglers.

A roosterfish underwater.
(Pat Ford photo)

We tried to look like we knew what we were doing. I already had the 14-weight fly rod in my hand, with the feathery purple popper laid out on the gunwale. I waited, tense and wildly ready. When the captain and skipper excitedly hollered out their command in unison and put the boat in neutral, I slingshotted the fly to the side of the sailfish, behind its head as instructed.

The skipper yanked the teaser out of the way, and I jumped the popper with as much commotion on the water as possible while simultaneously stripping it in to replace the teaser’s position. In an instant, the sailfish banked on the fly, but since it happened as I was trying to give the fly action, I moved my rod tip too much, essentially trout-setting. The sailfish seemed to back off, and we thought it was over. But the captain started cheering again in Spanish, encouraging me to keep the fly in the whitewater of the boat’s wake. Suddenly we saw a bill slice up through the waves, sending my heart into my gut. The bill slashed the air as the fish again banked on the fly. I didn’t even have to set the hook as the sailfish raced off the stern, peeling line so loudly the captain could hear it from the tower.

I refused to look at how much backing remained, or didn’t remain, on my reel. I only focused on managing the jump and picking up the retrieve whenever the big fish opened a window. Since we wanted to release the sailfish in excellent health, I knew I had to get it to the boat quickly. My main objective was not to let it run too far, and to shorten the distance between us at every opportunity. In the meantime we got quite a show, with the sailfish tail-walking to beat the band. Once we had the 120-pound beauty alongside the boat, we kept it submerged for a photo. I carefully lifted the sail from its back, reveling in the leathery feel of the fin on my fingers and ogling at its blue-black shimmer. Only when I watched some video footage later did I know that everyone on the boat waved at the sailfish as it heartily swam away.

Responsible Fishing

With the afternoon’s events freshly tattooed in our minds as irreplaceable memories, my friends and I enjoyed the scenic run back to the resort, stopping to catch a good-sized snapper that Chef Tizado later cooked as part of the evening feast. The main restaurant at Botánika Osa Peninsula, Tierra a la Mesa, uses protein sustainably sourced from the surrounding waters and lands, and from  local farms. While I should have branched out at dinnertime, each night I chose the catch of the day, and each night I was overly impressed at the freshness and flavors of the innovative dishes that Chef Tizado says meld nature and civilization.

After dinner, our group visited the Botánika Science and Nature Center, located on the resort property. The center hosts visiting scientists from major universities, including Stanford University, the Billfish Research Laboratory at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science, and the University of Saskatchewan. Through the center, anglers and other guests have the opportunity to tag fish, dolphins, and sharks for research. The center has also partnered with the nonprofit foundation BioSur to host the largest insect museum in southern Costa Rica with more than 6,000 species of endemic butterflies, beetles, and moths. The collection is so expansive that it has been designated a “national patrimony”  by Costa Rica.

The Williams brothers say conservation has always been a strong thread in the fabric of their company, and the Botánika Nature and Science Center doubles down on that commitment. “It is impossible to spend time here and not learn to love it enough to want to protect it,” says Cory Williams. “If future generations wish to have the same experiences that we do today in regard to seeing this pristine environment and the many species that call it home, both businesses and individuals alike must join forces to do their part in conserving them,” he explains.

A fly angler hooked up to a sailfish which is jumping in the distance.
(Jeff Johnson photo)

Beau and Cory say many of their company’s sustainability practices are relatively straightforward, like how they worked to create a local recycle program in Puerto Jiménez, mirroring those in developed nations. “But we also have taken additional steps that are more complex,” says Cory Williams, “like strengthening the efficiency of marine protection with the Federacion Costarricense de Pesca.”

The Federacion Costarricense de Pesca (FECOP) was formed in 2008 in Puerto Jiménez with participation of Crocodile Bay Resort and has since become a national organization that lobbies for sport fishing and conservation efforts in Costa Rica. Williams says their first project was to make the Golfo Dulce, where Crocodile Bay is based, the largest Marine Area of Responsible Fishing in Central America. “This banned shrimp trawling, gillnets, and only allows sustainable types of fishing methods,” says Cory Williams.  “FECOP then moved the tuna purse seine boats out to 45 miles from the coast using a presidential decree and Congress is now voting to make it a permanent law hopefully at 100 miles. These high-volume commercial fishing vessels are the main danger to the sport-fishing industry here in Costa Rica and so it is very comforting to know that progress is being made to help limit their reach.”

Williams says FECOP is currently working on a permanent ban on any commercial harvest of sailfish, and has launched education programs for students and groups to instill sport-fishing ethics and respect for the ocean. “Scientists can stay at our facilities while they are performing their research,” says Cory Williams. “And visitors can participate in citizen scientist programs where they can gather data points that will help the biologists collect information at an exponentially faster rate. Then those same visiting biologists will regularly share their studies and findings with the clients here on vacation in our conference rooms, which will help clients and families to better understand the numerous different species being studied in our area and why they are important enough to continue to be protected,” says Williams.

My friends and I were surprised at how connected we felt to the area on just our first visit, just as Cory Williams predicted.

“This place becomes a part of you,” said my friend, Tatum Monod. “It’s just crawling with life from the jungle to the ocean. Every day we saw a new creature that was new to me. We were able to target roosterfish and snook kayaking around in the mangroves, and go for sailfish offshore, but I feel like we only just scratched the surface!”

That same feeling is what I imagine sends countless visitors scrambling to the tattoo parlor before catching their flight home; scratching into their skin the evidence that Pura Vida becomes them. While my group opted out of the inking, we agreed that this unique fishery permeated beneath our skin. So much so, it’s a wonder the cursive didn’t magically appear on my wrist through osmosis. Such is the power of Pura Vida.

Recommended Gear

Sailfish tackle is super specialized, and unless you regularly fish for billfish and tuna, you should likely rely on the guides to provide your gear. You should bring your own rods for snook, roosters, and dorados. A 9-weight is a good choice because you can also use it for permit, tarpon, barracudas and other species on future trips to other saltwater venues.

Book Your Destination

A multi-story wooded lodge in a dense forest.
(Photo courtesy of Botanika)

To get to Botánika Osa Peninsula, you’ll need to fly to San José, Costa Rica, and then a short 40-minute flight to Puerto Jiménez where a hotel shuttle will pick you up. You can also drive to Puerto Jiménez to see more of the countryside.

Hilary Hutcheson started guiding as a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. Today she guides on the Flathead River system, and owns and operates her fly shop, Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana.

A wader-clad fly angler kneeling and holding a large brown trout, smiling at the camera.
Get your copy of Destinations 2023 here. (Zach Heath photo)

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