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The Ocotal Beach Resort

Our wake-up call didn't arrive. Rather, it didn't arrive to room 103.

While my travel partner and I were soundly sleeping off 150 miles of dust, wrong turns and bad Spanish pop music, the guests in room 203 were being woken up at 7 a.m. with a cheerful "Pura vida! Theese eees your wake-up call, senior."

I was initially upset at the missed call, as it meant I had missed my dive boat for the day, but once arrangements had been made for the next day's dive trip, my troubles were eased and I was actually thankful for the extra sleep. And since we had arrived late the night before well after dark, we had the whole day to explore the resort and the surrounding areas.

The black, volcanic sand of Playa
Ocotal nestles up against a
small cove, considered one of
the quietest in the area.

When the burble of complimentary Café Rey in the coffee maker finally stirred me out of bed, I threw open the curtains and found myself staring at a small, sheltered bay edged by a black, volcanic sand beach. We had been told our room was on the beach the night before when we arrived, but we were so exhausted we hadn't even noticed before collapsing into bed. Now, as I pulled open the sliding glass doors, the ocean breeze pushed the warm, salty air into our room. I trudged down to the water's edge and surveyed the area.

El Ocotal Resort is located in the Guanacaste region of northwest Costa Rica on the Pacific Coast. Unlike the humid, tropical areas of Costa Rica, the Guanacaste region is sun-baked and arid. Lush rainforest give way to dry forest. Although much of the same wildlife can be seen, including howler monkeys and iguanas, the landscape is starkly different- with chaparral and dry grass across parched hills. Even this early in the morning the sun blazed down on me from a cloudless sky.

After refreshingly hot showers, we left the cool comfort of our air-conditioned room to explore the resort. We passed up the complimentary shuttle service from our room and instead drove our rental car to the restaurant perched on the clifftop. As we climbed the hillside along a tree-lined road, we passed a dozen bungalows that are also part of the resort, each with a private spa and sprawling view of the bay and ocean beyond.

The outdoor restaurant at El Ocotal
offers delicious food and stunning
views of Pacific Coast islands.

While the restaurant made its transition from brunch to lunch, we grabbed bottles of Imperial from the bar and found a multi-level deck behind the restaurant from which we gazed over the Pacific Ocean. As I soaked in view and beer alike, I imagined myself in the exact same spot as the original owners some 22 years earlier, standing in silent awe at the 300-degree view of the coastal hillsides, the serene bay below, and the limitless Pacific beyond dotted with islands. Below us I could see the bungalows perched on the hillsides and still further below, two pools and the building in which we would be lodged for the next several days.

Guests can beat the
afternoon heat at a
beach-level pool, with
swim-up bar and grill.

At the main resort office I inquired about some of the activities El Ocotal offered. Those inclined for relaxation can spend the day at any of the three pools, sipping a cold cocktail while reading a book, or relax at Father Rooster Bar, where the dress code is bare feet and swim suits. Tennis rackets and balls are available for use on hard courts and swimming in the bay is an easy way to beat the scorching heat.

And while a number of amenities are offered within the resort itself, El Ocotal also offers a variety of activities for the more adventurous. Guided tours to Arenal Volcano, river rafting down the Corobici River, private surf charters to isolated beaches like Witch's Rock and Portrero Grande are all offered out of the resort. El Ocotal also offers sportfishing for novice to expert fishermen. A 32' twin-diesel engine boat can take fishermen out on half and full day trips to the gulf of Papagayo, where world class sailfish, marlin, roosterfish, tuna and 25 other varieties have been caught.

In addition, a canopy tour among the dry forest treetops is offered several miles from El Ocotal. Feeling inspired from our previous day's drive up the coast of Costa Rica, we decided to investigate a local canopy tour offered nearby at the Congo Trail, located a mile or two from Ocotal.

After several wrong turns, an unexpected Tico fare (who spoke no English, yet still managed to hitch a ride) and a lot of charades, we reached the canopy tour. As we were strapped in to our harness and clicked onto the steel cable, it quickly became apparent that this was not about the wildlife, but simply about the thrill of skimming along the treetops fifty feet above the ground. At each tree platform, our guides clicked, unclicked and reclicked our main links and safety links to the network of steel cables that snaked throughout the treetops. We were sent sailing forwards, backwards, flying like Superman, even upside down, sometimes as fast as 30 mph, out-howling the howler monkeys across the forest canopy. At the end of the tour, with our pulses racing, we returned to the resort to slow our pulses with cool cocktails poolside.

While El Ocotal offers white water rafting, big game fishing, relaxation and a warm, friendly staff, it is best known for scuba diving. Credited as the first dive resort in Costa Rica, El Ocotal has a complete in-house dive operation: a dive shop just off the beach with enough equipment for more than 30 divers, two top-of-the-line 13.1 cfm Mako compressors, two dedicated dive boats for day trips and two dedicated boats for longer trips. As part of Ocotal's dedication to diver safety and satisfaction, there are never more than 10 divers per boat and five divers per guide. In addition, the staff carries all equipment onto and off of the dive boats and as if that's not enough, rinses all gear off for divers at the end of the day.

Among the more popular dive sites are the Bat and Catalina Islands, located an hour to two hours from Ocotal. Divers can expect to see massive bull sharks, tiger sharks and schools of manta rays, some with wingspans as large as 20 feet across. A ten-day live-aboard trip is offered to the Cocos Islands, some 300 miles from Ocotal. Like the Bat and Catalina Islands, divers can expect large pelagic marine mammals, but have to battle strong currents and often churning Pacific swells, all without the aid of an anchor line. In the event of an emergency, the nearest hyperbaric chamber is 2 days away in Panama.

High winds and rough seas kept us among the dozens of dive sites near Ocotal. Two days of diving the local sites revealed the dilemma with diving in Costa Rica. While I saw an amazing variety of pelagic marine life including rays, white-tip reef sharks and turtles, the visibility was consistently limited to between 20 to 30 feet. A high concentration of plankton and microbial life thrives in the 75-85 degree Pacific water, which, while attracting a variety of feeder fish and in turn larger marine life, limits the visibility. Visibility typically varies from 20 to 80 feet, sometimes on different dives on the same day.

Most dive sites center around volcanic rock pinnacle formations 40 to 80 feet deep. The first dive site we visited was called Virador, just a few miles off the coast, around a volcanic rock upwelling roughly 75-85 feet at its deepest point. As I descended, clouds of sergeant majors, grunts and other schooling fish swarmed past me and around me. I passed through a chilly thermocline at 50 feet, but not chilly enough to send me to the surface. Dozens of pufferfish idled around us and when we reached bottom, we spied a number of rockfish camouflaged in the rocks. On our tour around the pinnacle, eels curiously poked their heads out from shadowy dens. I peered out into the murky distance and couldn't help but think that there was an entire audience of massive marine animals lingering just beyond my field of vision, waiting patiently for us to leave.

The second dive featured much of the same marine life. After off-gassing for an hour in a warm, calm cove to protect us from the wind, we motored to a popular site called Punta Gorda. A similar layout to our first dive, the highlight of Punta Gorda was dozens of cow-nosed rays settled on the sea floor, piled up like pancakes on a breakfast plate. Occasionally one or two would skim away, then others would join. At one point as I circled the site, a three foot ray sailed effortlessly below me, just out of arm's reach. I spread my arms out, mimicking the ray's wingspan and watched as it slid silently into the murky distance. Again I wished for better visibility.

While the wind settled on our second day, visibility was still between 20 to 30 feet. Our dive master, Liev, a bubbly blonde woman who grew up in American schools around the world, kept the atmosphere on the dive boat light and cheerful as we churned out to a new site called, appropriately, Aquarium.

Dive on InA stark contrast to our previous guide, Eric, who was soft-spoken and reserved, Liev's enthusiasm was contagious. "C'mon, diving is supposed to be fun!" she would blurt out as we strapped our gear on, lost in thought. Her energy on deck, and calmer weather conditions, translated into excellent dives that day. At Aquarium we saw the usual pufferfish, rockfish and eels, and cow-nosed rays, but were also treated to an eagle ray gliding along in the distance. We spotted several timid white-tip sharks lingering just at the edge of our field of vision. A smaller 2-3 foot white-tip playfully swam around us, up and over the rock formation we were exploring, while a larger six foot white-tip lurked further away. When the group of divers followed Liev around the side of the outcropping, I swam over the top and discovered a green turtle, darting in and out among the rocks, hunting for food. While my first instinct was to get the other divers' attention, I decided against it and instead enjoyed my private show. I wanted to grab onto its shell and go for a ride, but decided to let it enjoy its meal.

Tropical Gear From Around The EquatorOn our second dive we snooped around a shipwreck, spending much of the time looking for a frogfish that Liev had seen there earlier in the week. Although we didn't find it, Liev was able to point out two tiny yellow seahorses balancing precariously on the rocks. In every nook or crevice, we'd find an eel or lobster peering out curiously.

The variety of marine life we saw was impressive and I wondered again and again what lingered in the murkiness beyond. And as we motored back to the resort that afternoon, the hot Costa Rican sun warming my body, I wondered what other treasure Costa Rica could offer me on my next trip.

— By Misha Troyan, San Diego Correspondent.

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