"Cocos Island is probably the most amazing place I have dived both above and below the water.

Its remoteness makes you feel that you are in a truly timeless place and the diving is high adrenaline stuff where the unexpected can happen at any time.

The submersible is a thing of wonder - 1000 feet under water and no deco, what could be better.

This operation is the best live aboard experience I have had."
— David MacNair, Founding tribe member since 2001.

Note: David went on one of the navy boats now so imagine an even better experience.

Costa Rica and Cocos Island

Destination Review: Costa Rica Diving and Cocos Island

First Thoughts

Pura Vida! This is a common greeting in Costa Rica which literally means, Pure Life. We fell in love with this forward thinking Central American country while leading expeditions here many years ago. The country disbanded its army in 1948 and put the money instead into infrastructure including roads and education. It didn’t go through all the civil strife during the 70’s and 80’s that engulfed much of Central America and has a European ancestry. The result is a peaceful, stable country with fantastic tourism base and knowledgeable and friendly guides. During the dry season (Dec-March) the weather is gorgeous and shows off the natural wonder and beauty of the mountainous country. While the best diving takes place at Cocos Island, 300 miles offshore, mainland CR offers incredible adventures.

Why We Think Costa Rica and Cocos Island Rocks or Doesn’t

Because it has all kinds of amazing land adventures hiking, ziplining, birding, white water rafting, mountain biking and world class diving out at Cocos Island which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Costa Rica has one of the world’s finest national park systems, protecting its world famous rain and cloud forests, tropical dry forests and marine resources. The people are great, the cerveza is always cold and it’s the land of Salsa Lizano. What’s not to like?

Things that Rock

  • best example of successful ecotourism in the world
  • great Tico vibe
  • adventure activities on land
  • one of best National Park systems in the world
  • a government that is committed to conservation
  • Cocos Island is one of kind

Things that Don’t

  • Illegal fishing that still plagues Cocos Island
  • shore based diving is hit and miss no best season
  • Cocos is ship based only
  • Ridiculously expensive Cocos Ntl Park fee

The Diving

Pull out the scuba tanks, wet suits and dive computers and go to Cocos Island. If you’re going to Cocos, you’re going on a live aboard, no other way, it’s 300 miles offshore on the Pacific side. The 36 hour boat ride can be rough but you’ll forget all about it once your scuba fins hit the water! Highlights of diving there are schooling hammerheads, heaps of white tip sharks feeding at night (extremely cool!), hunting dolphin, whale sharks, mounds of rays, 27 endemic species of fish…..need we say more?

Diving from mainland Costa Rica is definitely hit or miss on the Pacific side. One of the challenges is that there is no best season.Due to nutrient upwellings, visibility is certainly not stellar 20-50 on most dives, it can be rough during the dry season and without any coral reefs, you are in search of critters. In our opinion, if you’re going to Costa Rica and want to dive, why not do the best?….go to Cocos. There is little to no diving on the Caribbean side.

Our Favorite Things to Do Out of the Water

We believe in Surf and Turf checking out the best of underwater AND on land. It just so happens that most of the worlds best SCUBA diving destinations have other amazing things going for them in addition to kick ass diving. Don’t miss it.

  • Visit a Volcano! Irazu, the highest volcano at 3432 m and Poas, with the largest crater (look down into the steam and watch the earths crust being re-arranged!) are within two hours of San Jose and the MacDaddy, Arenal, the most active is not too much farther in the Alajuela Province north of San Jose. 112 Volcanos dot the country of which seven are active.
  • Go Whale Watching. Off of Corcovado National Park in southern Costa Rica is a prime spot during the winter months to watch for migrating Humpback Whales. The totally awesome thing about them is that both north migrating and south migrating whales meet here and the Costa Ricans are trying to decipher them….totally cool!
  • Visit a National Park Besides Irazu and Poas, a couple of other national parks stand out including Manuel Antonio, with beautiful beaches; Braulio Carrillo, with its rainforest beside a highway; Tortuguero, a watery, forested world teeming with wildlife;
  • Visit Cafe Brit. Ok, this one is totally touristy BUT….they grow a lot of coffee in Costa Rica and it’s very interesting to hear the history and see the beans etc… They have an all star cast who lead you through the coffee fields and then take you to their theater where the HILARIOUS comedy routine is relentless. We have done this tour over 15 times and never tire of it!
  • Ok, one more National Park– Corcovado is a fantastic area of southern Costa Rica. You can camp, swim, snorkel, take a row boat up a river and enjoy the white faced monkeys (be careful!). The birding in this area is also quite spectacular!
  • Call Horizontes. If you go to CR on your own and want someone to guide you birding or pick up a multi sport trip, contact these guys. They rock!
  • Talk about multi-sport!– In Costa Rica you can raft, mountain bike, zip line, climb a volcano, bird watch….this country has it all!!!

Costa Rica and Cocos Island Seasonality

Costa Rica enjoys typical tropical season divided between wet and dry. The wet season runs from May-December and the dry from December -May. All of the time we’ve spent in CR has been from January thru March and we rarely had even a single day of bad weather. With that said, those months can also be the choppier time of year on the water. Generally the run out to Cocos island is bumpy this time of year but it’s also prime hammerhead shark season! So if you’re going to Cocos, AND YOU SHOULD, be prepared for bumpy seas and incredible diving!!!!

Overall

Costa Rica is one of the most travel friendly places we have ever been too its not just that a large part of Costa Rica’s income comes from tourism and travel, its that the Ticos (Costa Ricans) genuinely enjoy having people come and visit their country. Its friendly and laid back and in general, infrastructure is good probably the best in Central America although there are still several wild and remote places in this relatively small country. Make sure you give yourself the time to have a reef and rainforest experience. While that phrase has probably been overdone a bit, it really does perfectly describe Costa Rica. There is no easy or cheap way to get out to Cocos Island but its definitely worth going out to that UNESCO World Heritage listed island. There’s no other place like it.

Sharkman and Mantagirl give Cocos Island and Costa Rica

Two Fins UP

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WHY WE THINK THIS PLACE ROCKS! A.K.A, WHY DO WE GO HERE?

Because it’s wild and wooly a place that’s still relatively untouched. The marine action is big and high voltage. Lot’s of sharks and other oceanic predators and masses of fish. We’ve waited patiently all these years and FINALLY…..there is a luxury expedition ship. It’s no longer only bunk bed style (“you’re in the navy now”) boats.

WHAT’S THE ADVENTURE?

Among Cocos Island’s many attributes is a startling degree of biodiversity. This island’s world-renowned waters explode with life; including innumerable white tip reef sharks, schooling hammerhead sharks, dolphins, mantas and marbled rays, giant moray eels, sailfish, and of course the occasional whale shark. Other common encounters are large schools of jacks and tuna, silky sharks, silver tip sharks, marlin, Creole fish, green turtles and octopus. Like the Galapagos, endemism is high here with 27 species found nowhere else in the world. We journey 36 hours on our luxury expedition ship, the MV Argo, 300 miles from the shore of Costa Rica to this remote oasis then spend 8 days diving. We’ll get on the island once or twice but access is limited so this expedition is mostly about awesome diving and chilling out with friends on the MV Argo between dives. We offer a complimentary nitrox certification because you’ll definitely want to use it here and we’ll be doing in depth multimedia talks on the marine life so you know exactly what to look for. Digital u/w photo instruction and shared DSLR use included! Ditto for digital video! And Cocos Island is fantastic for underwater digital photography. This is gonna rock.

Check out this great short video on the Diving in Cocos Island

Totally unique to diving with the MV Argo is DeepSee. DeepSee is a custom built one-atmosphere submarine, capable of carrying one pilot and two passengers down to a depth of 1,500 feet (475 m). The MV Argo offers (additional fee), the world of adventure travelers a journey deep into the submerged realm where few have gone before. TOTALLY AMAZING!

DETAILS YOU WANT TO KNOW.

DATES: January 18-28, 2011
PACKAGE PRICE: $5390.00 p/p double occupancy
INCLUDED: 10 nights accommodations onboard the MV Argo, all meals, all diving, group transfers, use of underwater digital camera and video, services of expedition leaders including nitrox certification and multimedia talks.
NOT INCLUDED: Air transportation, travel insurance, dive insurance, alcoholic beverages, items of a personal nature, departure tax where applicable, excess baggage fees, SCUBA or snorkel equipment, park fee (@$250), nitrox, DeepSee sub, staff gratuities.
ARRIVAL AIRPORT: San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO)

Getting there in 3 easy steps:

  1. Fly to San Jose, Costa Rica
  2. Drive to Puerto Caldera
  3. Take the boat to Cocos

Fly to San Jose, Costa Rica

Your final destination airport to get to Costa Rica and then to Cocos Island is Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose (SJO).

Most US airlines such as Delta, United, American, US Airways, Continental fly to San Jose as well as Central American airlines such as LACSA, Mexicana and Taca. Other international airlines that service SJO include Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Iberia, and Air Canada.

Non stop US flights originate from Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, JFK and Newark.

Overnight before heading down to the coast and the boat

Drive to Puerto Caldera on the coast

We will arrange your transportation from San Jose to Puerto Caldera, just a two hour drive. Grab an Imperial beer and enjoy the scenery!

Boat to Cocos Island

Relax, you’re on board, enjoy the 36 hour boat ride to Cocos Island, you’ll be fully rested and ready to dive dive dive when you arrive!

Cocos is a special and unique island and a UNESCO World Heritage site . There are no hotels on the island, just a ranger station and some hiking trails. Truly the reason to come to Cocos is the diving.

There are just five live aboards that currently make the 36 hour run out to Cocos. Three of these boats are owned by The Undersea Hunter Group. The three boats vary a bit in size and luxury level but they all get to the incredible diving at the island. I like the Undersea Hunter Group for a few different reasons. One of the odd reasons is that the boats are Israeli owned and Costa Rican operated so they run with a great combination of precision and laid backness….weird but true. Also, they have the most experience at the island and really understand the experience. Lastly, they have the submarine Deep See, so if you’ve always wanted to see the ocean at 1000 feet, here is your opportunity.

www.underseahuntergroup.com

The Fleet

MV Undersea Hunter. I have not been on this boat but I do know it is the smallest with a capacity of 14 and the oldest, built in 1968. Cabins are either twin or queen bed, some with an additional single bed above the queen.

MV Sea Hunter. The Sea Hunter was built in 1980 as a commercial dive support vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. She was purchased in 1996 and refurbished into a live aboard. She was specifically built for long range. I wouldn’t exactly call her a yacht in the sense that we think of elegance but she has all the necessary accouterments to be a comfortable dive ship. She is 115 feet long and has a capacity of 18. There are four cabins below aft, four below forward and one upstairs behind the wheelhouse where some of the crew are housed. She has a main salon just about large enough for everyone with a tv system and booth style seating for meals out of the small galley. The dive deck and camera station are big enough for everyone though not monstrous. As with most live aboards, there is a sun deck above.

MV Argo. The Argo is the newest in the fleet (built in 2008), and at 130 she is the largest and most luxurious in the fleet with. She has 7 very spacious cabins with wide companionways to give more of a hotel feel rather than a boat feel. The walls are painted with marine critters and all have plenty of light. The large main salon is on the starboard side with dining room across on the port. The Argo has a huge dive deck with plenty of space for divers and gear. She also often carries the Deep See submersible.

So you can see that with the Undersea Hunter Group, you can choose your level of luxury with matching cost to get to Cocos. For me, it’s the Argo all the way and while I can travel on just about anything to get to good diving, I prefer to do it in luxury!

The Experience and Operation at Cocos

Diving at Cocos is not for the beginner and is definitely a group experience. Because of strong currents we generally dive as one group and go up and go down together. If you are blown away in Cocos, there’s no telling where you might end up since you are already 300 miles offshore!

All of the diving is done from 24 skiffs. At different times of the year, it can be rough at Cocos and also rainy so having a solid sturdy fiberglass dive boat is key. They are powered by twin 90hp outboards so they can get up and go. It’s never that long of a ride to the dive sites but these boats make the ride quite comfortable.

The mother ship stays at anchor in the sheltered bay so there’s no rocking and rolling at night or during meals (except possibly on the crossing out and back). You just grab your mask and fins and hop on board the skiff and go!

All dives are guided for a couple of reasons. First is safety. As mentioned with Cocos being an isolated island 300 miles off the coast, it is imperative that divers stay together. Currents can be strong. Second, the guides know the general patterns of the sharks and can mean the difference between seeing and not seeing. Our amazing guide, Juan Manuel, was the picture of both fun and safety and I personally request him whenever possible. Juan? Juan? Are you there???

The crew in general are outstanding, fun and safe and I trust them implicitly.

Deep See

The Deep See is a unique experience, one where the general public has the opportunity to go down into the abyss in a three man sub. There is a licensed sub pilot on board whose sole purpose is to maintain and drive the sub. I felt that he was meticulous with the sub though during one trip down they lost power. It has redundant systems as you would expect but that would have been very scary to me! You can choose from three different depths the deepest at 1000. Those that have done it think it’s absolutely a life highlight.

I have not personally gone down but plan to on my next trip in January. Keep in mind that you are going to pay big bucks for this experience BUT it may be the only time in your life you get to do it!

Honestly, I’m afraid to do it since I am big time claustrophobic but I’m told that the clear top gives the impression you are out in the blue and not in a tiny bubble under the sea.

Be sure to check which boat you are one and which one is carrying the Deep See during your trip so you will have the opportunity if you want to.

Food

The food on board was good and plentiful which is what I want when I am doing lots of diving in cold water. It was not gourmet but that was fine. The galley team always remembers to prepare me something different when they served seafood which I really appreciate.

Regulations

This is a topic that annoys me about places like Cocos and Galapagos and other marine parks. In order to protect the environment certain activities are placed off limits. However, logic does not prevail with these limitations. While we are allowed to dive with all the sharks, turtles, rays and fish, we were not allowed (by the National Park, not by the Undersea Hunter) to get in the water with dolphin or with a baitball. So, instead of using the meager resources the National Park has to protect the environment from illegal fishermen, they are patrolling to be sure we are not swimming with the dolphin. Show me the logic here. Even the park rangers can’t explain the logic. These 20 year old kids with only a handful of dives under their belt are spending their time diving and checking on our behavior. It’s a farce.

Overall

Ok, off my soapbox on regulations….Overall I find Cocos to be a special dive opportunity which may only come around a few times in a diving career so take advantage of any opportunity you can.

The crew and operation of Undersea Hunter Group has put their expertise to work to make the experience at Cocos exceptional. And with the end of 2010 and the early part of 2011 coming on, we are seeing evidence of the La Nina we all expected to follow El Nino. With water temperatures dropping, LOOK OUT! It’s all going to come up for the show this year!

There are simply some dive destinations that hold an allure like no other. One of those on my list for more than a decade was Cocos Island. Geologically, it is similar underwater to the islands in the Galapagos and I was reminded of those islands in some respects. But Cocos and Galapagos each have a uniqueness that make them both must haves on the divers list of destinations.

We stay land based for a couple of days in the San Jose area to enjoy the richness of what Costa Rica has to offer. With 26 national parks, you could spend a lifetime in the country and never come up for air, so to speak. For this review, I’ve chosen our preferred resort in the Central Valley, Xandari Resort and Spa, and for our chosen dive operator, I will concentrate on our experience with The UnderSea Hunter Group of boats.

From www.xandari.com

Xandari Resort & Spa is a tropical paradise of 23 individually designed villas nestled on a 40 acre plantation overlooking the Central Valley of Costa Rica, and only 20 minutes from the San Jose International Airport. At an elevation of 3900 feet (1200 meters), Xandari enjoys a near perfect temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit all year.

Overall Feel of Xandari Resort and Spa

Xandari is in the town of Alajuela, a suburb of San Jose, in the busy Central Valley of Costa Rica but you feel all alone here. It’s a perfect setting for colorful villas among the gardens with great views. Each villas is a different bright color and looks like a rainbow standing out in the green forest. You can get lost here for a fews days enjoying the spa, the brand new swimming pool, spacious villas, gardens, hiking trails, waterfalls and the artful ambiance that is Xandari. I’ve only had the opportunity to stay at this remarkable resort one time but will be going back in early 2011 and I can’t wait!!

Resort Spec Highlights

  1. 23 large villas with fabulous views
  2. Two swimming pools
  3. Orchid greenhouse
  4. Lush gardens
  5. Full spa
  6. Hiking Trails
  7. Waterfalls
  8. Extremely cool art all over the resort done by the owner
  9. Brightly colored decor which gives a happy feel
  10. Mouth watering Tico cuisine grown on the premises

Swimming Pools

There are two swimming pools at Xandari. One is a lap pool set in the gardens behind the villas and the other is a brand new football shaped pool in the front of the resort with views. Try them both!! I think I prefer the pool with the view! This pool was not even open when I was there because it is so new. My only concern is that it’s a bit of a walk from the main area….BYOB!!! or maybe they will set up a bar eventually down there.

Gardens

I had a guided walk through the gardens and while gardens are not totally my thing, I thought these were particularly pretty. They are just behind the villas and it’s an easy walking path. There is also an orchid greenhouse just FILLED with flowers.

Hiking Trails

There ares interconnecting hiking trails that connect a few different waterfalls down in the gulch below the resort. You can start off through the bamboo forest as it winds down to the river. They are not Victoria Falls but they are cool and wet and a nice diversion so it’s worth the walk. To get to some of the falls it is over 300 steps down so be aware that you have to get back up at the end! I did end up going the wrong way at one point and landed on the neighbor’s plantation. Eventually I found my way.

Spa

The Spa Village at Xandari to me is special. There are five palm roofed jalapas and they each have a jacuzzi. So you can arrange to soak in the jacuzzi with or without a glass of white wine and with infused herbs in the water before your treatments. What a great way to begin the relaxation process.

The spa menu reads like a five star restaurant including coconut or coffee body scrubs, hot stone massage, holistic massage with guided meditation and amazing combo treatment options. I’m feeling relaxed just writing this!!! Sign me up!!

Environment

Xandari grows most of their own food and has a great sustainable tourism program you can read about at their website. You can even plant a tree while you are there. They take the environment seriously at Xandari and it shows. It’s the kind of place where they dry the sheets in the sun and plant their own herbs. They believe in the philosophy that we are simply stewards of the land and take pride in constant rejuvenation.

Art

One of the coolest things about Xandari is the art. The owners of the resort are an architect/artist couple from California. She has showcased her diverse abilities in everything from mosaics to paintings to tapestries. Her liberal use of bright colors bring it all together with stunning results throughout the resort.

Bars and Restaurants

There is just one restaurant on the premise. The menu is sumptuous making use of local products grown on the 40 acre property including everything from the herbs to the fruit and the chickens! The typical Costa Rican fare is chocked full of fruits and healthy veggies and is absolutely delicious. This is not haute cuisine in the sense of five star continental, but to me it’s five star tortillas for sure!! I could sit outside in the morning listening to the birds and drink fresh squeezed juices all day!!!

There is just one bar which is attached to the restaurant. The villas have a stocked, included mini fridge with colas, juices, beer and wine.

Accommodations

Xandari is one of those places where each villa is designed and decorated individually so I can’t describe exactly what each one looks like but let me give you the overall idea between the room types. I love this about the place because I can stay here 23 times and have a completely different living environment!

There are four room types including Prima, Prima Plus, Ultra and Ultra Plus

Prima

These beautiful rooms are about 500 sq ft and overlook the central valley. They are in connected buildings of either two or four villas and all have front patios.

Prima Plus

Prima plus are mostly larger units except for villa 20 which is 500 sq ft. This villa is unique in that it is round and has a garden view instead of a valley view. This is a great room for birders!

Villas 15 and 16 are over 700 sq feet and have an alcove sleeping area and sitting room.

Villas 23 and 24 are stand alone with approximately 600 sq. ft. These villas have two full beds with a sofa bed.

Ultra

I stayed in an ultra villa on the east hill and I loved it. It had a separate sleeping area, large living room and kitchen area and a huge patio all in about 735 sq feet and a stand alone unit with privacy. It rocked! Out the back of the bathroom was a glass wall with enclosed garden area.

Ultra Plus

If you want more of a palatial feel the Ultra Plus are gorgeous. There is so much cool art work in these units! They are mostly the newer rooms located on the west hill which is a bit more of a walk from the main building. These have a bit more of a modern feel to me with lots of room, over 800 square feet. Villa 26 is also accessible.

Finally there is The Star. With over 1400 square feet this would be comparable to a penthouse. It has two separate bedrooms, full kitchen, dining room area, office area with internet and overlooks the large new sunset pool. was the farthest away from the main building through an electric cart is available for the rooms on the west hill. This was not even fully completed when I was there a few months ago.

There is not a room on the property that I would not thoroughly enjoying staying in, though for me I prefer a view so I would be less inclined to Villa 20 but some guests think this room is the cats meow!

There is no air conditioning at the resort but it is not needed due to it’s elevation above the valley.

Awards

Condé Nast Traveler 2008 Top 10
Central & South American Resorts

Travel + Leisure 2009 Top 10
Central & South American Resorts

Trip Advisor Travelers Choice 2009
10 Best Luxury Hotels,
Central & South America

World Travel Award
Costa Rica’s Leading Spa Resort
Fodor’s Choice 2009

Note: Xandari has a second property down on the beach which has similar style villas. I have not visited this resort but I imagine it is just as awesome.