San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Caño Island: Costa Rica’s accessible wild isle

Forbidden islands have long captivated, especially ones shrouded in mists, forests and legends of treasure, pirates and Indians. Add world-class diving and snorkeling along with a world hot spot for lightning strikes, and you get one of the most fantastic and unique islands on the planet. Caño Island is all this, plus you can visit it without going on an extended cruise.

While most of the world’s most famous wild islands are reached by heading out to sea for days at a time, Caño Island lies less than an hour’s boat ride off Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast. Lodges from Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula to Manuel Antonio on the Central Pacific take visitors to the island daily. 

Most of Caño Island Biological Reserve is forbidden to visitors; one small section of beaches and two short trails on the northwest side of the island are all most people are allowed to see. Six dive sites and two snorkel areas, again on the northwest side of the island, make up the meager portion of the marine protected area that is not forbidden.

Allowing only a small part of the island to be used seems to be working well. With hundreds of hotels and operators from all over Costa Rica offering tours to the island, it seems that limiting the number of visitors just makes everyone want to go to the island more – and pay more.

Thousands of boats a year visit the island, many paying for people to swim in the waters and hang out on the beach. Sportfishing and superyachts invariably motor around for better chances of catching fish just outside the protected waters, and for the views of thick forests and waterfalls cascading into the sea. The fact that a great part of the island is sure to be untouched seems to be its greatest attraction.

The competition for the island’s next greatest attraction is fierce. Some of the healthiest coral reefs left in the world, or birthing and mating waters for two hemispheres of humpback whales? The accounts of Sir Francis Drake dumping Spanish silver to load more gold, or pre-Columbian mystery stone spheres? Costa Rica’s best mainland dive sites, or the best Pacific coast snorkeling? Lots of whitetip sharks, or lots of giant stingrays? Vast fish schools the size of clouds, or the resident spotted dolphin clan? That Caño gets more lightning strikes than anywhere in the world part of the year, or that the island is named for its ring of singing streams cascading to the sea?

One thing Caño Island does not have much of is wildlife. The ancient forests of thick, giant trees towering overhead are strangely and peacefully quiet. The cacophony concerts of the mainland Osa Peninsula rain forests are absent on Caño. Here, the breeze through the trees, the crashing surf, the running waters and the haunting call of the Inca dove predominate.

You will see no macaws or jaguars at Caño Island. There are so few birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish and plant species for one reason: the island effect. Small islands do not have the space needed to produce the necessary diversity for groups big enough to prevent inbreeding. For this same reason, the small ring of marine protected area around the island is not big enough to protect whales and dolphins, sharks and billfish and turtles into the future. Only big protected areas protect big animals.

The island does have some endemic stream fish species and amphibians found nowhere else in the world, although tourists do not get to see them. To save the unique and fragile animals that do live on the island, only two trails were made for visitors, and these may soon shut down to minimize the effects of sedimentation in the island’s streams. Treasure and Indian artifacts are hidden, except for a rather lame pile of artifacts set up so people can see something and that gives them less reason to hike about. Hiking is best left for the Costa Rican mainland.

Cano Island 2

A snorkeler goes down for a closer look at the reef.

Shawn Larkin

Extravagant lunches are probably best left on the mainland as well. With the risk of having too many people eating on the beach, some operators are ending the tradition of competing for the biggest picnic in a crowd. As the main tourist attraction at Caño Island is underwater, some trips now focus on only diving and snorkeling with a quick visit to the beach, and then eat on the boat or the mainland. This is a good thing, because the wastewater from all the ranger station toilet visits may be causing a smothering algae bloom on the corals everyone comes to see.

This shows why keeping such a big chunk of the island off-limits is a good idea. However, opening a dive site on the south side could reduce daytime poaching by fishermen, by having tourists pay for monitoring patrols. The many tourist boats that ply the north side strictly patrol this area as they work, reporting infractions quickly to the rangers, who do not need to waist fuel patrolling, only enforcing. This same arrangement is making a lot of money for people all over Costa Rica, including the government, which collects a substantial amount of money from park fees. 

And it is helping to conserve one of the world’s most interesting islands.n

Going There

Pretty much any hotel on the southern Pacific coast will book tours to Caño Island for guests. The boat ride takes 40 minutes from Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula; 1.5 hours from Sierpe; 2 hours from Dominical and Uvita; and 3 hours from Quepos/Manuel Antonio.

Your boat should have all safety gear, radio, captain, guide and lifejackets, and should drive slowly around divers, snorkelers and marine mammals like dolphins and whales. The operator should take care of fees for visiting and diving the island. (This must be done via Internet at least the day before by the operator.) Dive guides should make sure no one touches coral or other marine life on the bottom and that no one collects anything, not even shells.

The same conditions that bring in so many big fish – quickly changing currents, visibility and temperature – make Caño Island for experienced divers only. This is a bad place to learn to scuba dive. Snorkeling, however, is for all ages and levels, by boat only.

Some reputable dive operators with certified dive masters and instructors on crew: in Drake, Caño Divers (, Águila de Osa Inn (, La Paloma Lodge (, Drake Bay Resort (, Costa Cetacea (yours truly,; in Sierpe, Osa Divers (; in Dominical/Uvita, Southern Expeditions (; and in Quepos/Manuel Antonio, Oceans Unlimited ( Prices start at about $90 for a no-frills two-tank dive.

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