The Osa's northernmost point, Drake Bay, a rudimentary town named for Sir Francis, is a good starting place for exploration. With at least seven lodges clustered near the headland, it's the most developed part of the peninsula. But it's also pleasantly isolated, with no road or air links to the rest of the Osaor the world. Visitors must undergo a literal rite of passage: The only way to reach Drake Bay is on a small boat that rips through huge Pacific breakers at the mouth of the Rio Sierpe. This wetting is worth it. Drake Bay is blessed with some of the prettiest scenery and most exotic dive sites in Costa Rica.
To get to the bay, begin at the inland city of Palmar Sur, the inevitable jumping-off point for all tours of the Osa Peninsula. Pause in town long enough to look at the large, pre-Columbian stone spheres in the plaza on the south side of the river. Perfectly round, they are among thousands found all over southwest Costa Rica. Scientists have never determined their origin, though it seems obvious they could only have been bowling balls for the gods.
The tiny village of Sierpe, a slow, bumpy, $15 taxi ride from Palmar Sur, is the staging point for the boat trip to Drake Bay. The trip begins as a scenic ride (about $20), complete with iguanas in the trees and crocodiles along the shore. But 15 miles downriver, just as you're feeling complacent, you'll look up and realize you are headed straight into huge, boat-chewing whitewater surf. At that point, the driver will gun the engine, cut back, and gun it again, mentally measuring time and angles as he negotiates walls of crashing water before finally breaking through and speeding the final five miles to Drake Bay. (Though this ride is usually heart-stopping for passengers, at least one of the lodge workers, well accustomed to the drama, will probably sleep the whole time.)
At Drake Bay itself, the most haute-jungle accommodations are at the Aguila de Osa Inn, where the high-peaked rooms and open-air dining area give you a skybox view of comings and goings on the bay (doubles, $100 per person, including meals; phone/fax, 232-7722).
Farther afield, the Mapache Wilderness Camp and Fishing Lodge lies several miles upriver on the Sierpe. Recently built by an Italian couple with a pledge to invest part of the profits in land preservation, the lodge is proudly rustic; its owners seem to be boasting as well as warning when they tell visitors, "Do not forget that many kinds of dangerous snakes and crocodile families live close to the houses." Rates for doubles are $75 per person in the owners' house, $45 per person in platform tents. The lodge also runs tours of the Osa. Phone 786-6565, fax 786-6358.
Fun in and around Drake Bay often involves a saddle. Guided horseback rides along the beach can be arranged through most lodges. Be aware, though, that while many horses here are gentle, some answer, appropriately, to names such as Volcano and Stormy.
Once you and your mount have bonded, leave the beach and head up into the rainforest. The clay paths lead to gorgeous lookouts, but canter with caution: The gullies are deep enough to swallow a cavalry.
End a day at Drake Bay with the most high-flying adventure of all: a canopy tour offered by...Canopy Tours. High in the trees, where you'll share space with monkeys, scarlet macaws, and blue morpho butterflies, you propel your swing chair via a pulley-and-cable arrangement between three penthouse-level viewing platforms ($40 per person; 257-5149).
Outside the Osa
Across the Golfo Dulce, on Costa Rica's mainland but still on the gulf, the waves break long, strong, and left. For decades, surf aficionados have headed to Pavones to catch these legendary breakers. A ferry runs daily from Puerto Jimñez to Golfito ($5, no cars). From there, buses and water taxis ferry surfers to Pavones.
Fishermen, too, will want to cross to Golfito, since most of the gulf's sportfishing boats are based there. Try hooking up with Captain Steve Lino at Golfito Sportfishing. His boats actually run out of Zancudo, a beach town just south of Golfito where gringos have built a series of vacation dream shacks. The fishing, for sailfish, marlin, and other game fish, costs $350-$400 per day (phone/fax 382-2716).
Accommodations in Pavones tend toward the primitive, but at least they're cheap, rarely rising above $20 per night. The Oficina de Servicios Turisticos de Golfito (phone 775-0131, fax 775-0631) can make reservations. For more luxury, check into the Tiskita Jungle Lodge (and fruit farm), four miles south of Pavones (doubles, $75 per person; phone 233-6890, fax 255-4410). It's so close to the Panama border that visiting the detached bathrooms almost requires a passport.