The constant moaning hum of the single-engine Cessna Caravan drowned out most conversation as we punched south of San Jose, Costa Rica. Onboard, a motley group of off-shore fishing enthusiasts, hard set on chasing yellowfin tuna and hooking rooster fish at the legendary Crocodile Bay and Botánika. Located deep in the jungle and pretty much as far south as one can travel in the land of Pura Vida, this fisherman’s paradise beckons the adventurous. Recently, a partnership with Hilton has also made it a destination for naturalists and yogis too, offering luxury accommodations deep in the rainforest with meditation shalas dotted amongst the trees.
Once a small hacienda-style hotel with a notorious bar with walls that have heard more fish stories than most, Crocodile Bay today is hardly recognizable from its former self. The accommodation portion of the business, now named the Botánika, offers new chic buildings, including a reception area and restaurant, residential tower, and sprawling pool facility, that stand in front of the aging original Crocodile Bay lodge. Two tell-tale signs of its past still remain: epic fishing and a landing visitors are sure to remember.
There was a screech and a sudden bump as our wheels touched down in the small town of Puerto Jiménez situated on the blue waters of the Golfo Dulce. Taxiing down the runway, I glanced to my left and noticed we had just landed beside a cemetery. It was unexpected, and to someone with a dark sense of humor like me, it made me chuckle. Strange, I know, but there is just something eerie, ironic, and oddly satisfying about it. For me, travel is about the story. It was off to a good start.
After a short ride from the airport, we arrived at the hotel gates. All of us were astonished by the resort’s new look. It was airy, rich in warm wood details, and carefully decorated in an eco-centric contemporary style. Its organic architecture blurs the lines of outdoors and in. Living in perfect harmony with the wilderness that surrounds it, the hotel offers open-air atriums in the main tower where rain falls through, providing life to the flourishing leafy plants and trees that inhabit the common area. Howler monkeys could be heard barking from deep in the forest while colorful jungle birds soared across the canopy above. A heavy mist flooded the area with an occasional light rain, cooling the usually equatorial-sun-soaked scene. It was quintessential Costa Rica in the most pristine and unspoiled way.
There to greet us was one of the kindest and seemingly happiest souls I have ever met. Octavia, a staple at the resort, was all smiles as she burst into song upon our arrival. She oozed an infectious energy that was inspiring. It was genuine, heartwarming, and most of all, welcoming. “There are many things, we would like to say to you this day, but of all the things, we really mean to say, we love you,” she sang. “Welcome, sweethearts.” Following the unique serenade, welcome drinks featuring fresh, locally sourced organic juices topped off with rum were handed out.I was home for the week.
With the largest private fleet of boats in all of Central America, including 24- and 25-foot Boston Whaler Outrages and 33- and 35-foot Strike Tower boats, Crocodile Bay’s rod-bending legacy lives on. Its reputation as a top fishing destination stands tall and never in the shadow of the new Botánika. Operated separately, yet one now, the two outfits complement each other perfectly. Luxury on land, and luxury at sea.
Walking down the 800-foot private pier takes time, but it offers the perfect way to reflect on the beauty that you just left and the adventure you are about to embark on. Well-equipped with the best rods and reels that Penn offers, anglers are outfitted generously and ensured that when the bite is on, their gear will be too.
On the Water
The Golfo Dulce is rich with volcanic reefs, crevices, and caves that have become breeding grounds for a staggering variety of marine life. It is also there that you will find one of only four tropical fjords in the world. The bay is a breeding ground for marine species from the northern and southern hemispheres including humpback whales that delight visitors.
Though the whales are a sight to see, we were focused on two other species: yellowfin tuna and rooster fish. Most know what a tuna is, but far less know about roosterfish. It is one of the pinnacle game fish of the region found in the warmer waters of the East Pacific from Baja California to Peru. A roosterfish is distinguished by its “rooster comb”—seven very long spines of the dorsal fin. They fight hard, can strip line from a reel in moments, and are frankly, in my opinion, more fun to catch than tuna. Not to mention, they look great for the camera.
In the Bite
It didn’t take long for us to find fish. It probably took longer for one of the other anglers to do her ceremonial cookie sacrifice to the fish gods, which I won’t even get into. All I will say is that it either was the guide or the snickerdoodle that was cast overboard—one of the two, maybe both, did the trick. With just a few casts, my Penn reel was screaming, and with a push of the drag lever, I had a fully bent rod and a fish on the line.
Fighting a roosterfish is a cross between a diving shark and a running tuna. It is exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. But after a hard fight, I could see the silver-and-black zebra-esque looking fish just below the surface—only problem was he saw me too—the long-haired gringo-esque angler just above the surface. With the flick of a tail, the fight was on again. Diving deep below the surface, the fish depleted what energy he had left, and so did I fighting him back to the boat. My forearms had one hell of a pump, and my legs were equally worked. I had earned the catch and the trophy—an ice-cold Imperial Lager and a new profile picture for Instagram. With the release of the fish back into the ocean to fight another day, I tossed another cookie overboard, and we continued to catch several more. Some say live bait, I say confections.
The next day was epic. Pods of dolphin were working boiling balls of bait creating chaos on the surface. Yellowfin tuna ranging from football size to full grown launched like torpedoes through the bait balls, and sea birds were there to clean up what little scraps were left. It got to the point that we couldn’t not catch a tuna. We resorted to flies to help even the odds for the fish. It was a day like I have never had before.
Keeping our fair share, our First Mate filleted and made onboard sushi. It was a delight that is only possible on such a trip. Words cannot describe the freshness of the fish. Let’s put it this way, it was so fresh, the sashimi was still warm when served. With full stomachs and our lockers full of fresh fish, we spent the rest of the day catching and releasing tuna.
Back On Shore
A tray of Chileguaro shots quickly approached the dinner table as we celebrated our successes. Tierra a la Mesa, Botánika’s flagship dining experience is world class. Their food is sustainably sourced from the surrounding land and sea (we sourced much of that our week at the resort) and served with the authentic flavors of Costa Rica. The restaurant supports local farms while showcasing both traditional and innovative land-to-table and fresh seafood dishes. The restaurant is, weather permitting, open air and just as the name translates, land to the table, creates a dining experience that perfectly blends nature with civilization. The earthy tones and organic materials used within its walls envelop your senses and coupled with the freshest of ingredients, provides a culinary experience like none other.
Not Feeling Fishy?
Fishing is not the only adventure you can have at the Botánika and Crocodile Bay. Eco-photography tours full of guests meander the resorts grounds snapping images of thriving wildlife. Back on the water, kayaking, paddle boards, diving, snorkeling, and more are offered. To relax and repair our bodies after three days on the water fighting more fish than I could count, the resort also has a spa that offers massages in the old Crocodile Bay lodge. Pro tip: reserve this for the last evening after a day on the water right before dinner. You’ll thank me later.
It was hard to leave. This trip was the perfect mix of adrenaline-filled offshore fishing and blissful relaxation. I will leave you with this: If your partner is anything like my wife, this is a place where luxury meets adventure. Oh, and there is chocolate plantation tour (which, unfortunately, I did not have time for). When you get there, let me know how it is! Better yet, don’t, because I’ll be back soon. There’s another rooster fish with my name on it, and I would bet the fish gods love chocolate chip cookies too!