Once described as the most beautiful island in the world, Cocos lies in the eastern Pacific, 550 km (344 mi) off the coast of Costa Rica. The island formed around two million years ago from cooling lava and today the mountainous and irregular slopes are covered with misty primeval rainforest, and scored with ravines and waterfalls.
Cerro Iglesias, the summit, is 671 m (2,201 ft) high and rises in the southwestern part of the island. Because the island is so remote, much of its flora and fauna is endemic, which has led it to be designated a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The only inhabitants are the park rangers.
The sheer 600 m (1,970 ft) high cliffs that surround much of the island plunge deep underwater, and are riddled with secret caves.
The coastline is so precipitous that there are only two safe landing places. The island was discovered in 1526, and soon became legendary as a hiding place for pirate gold.
In 1820 when the revolt of Peru seemed imminent, the Spanish Governor in Lima arranged for the Spanish treasure there to be shipped to Mexico. The loot, which included two life-sized statues in pure gold from the church, along with countless other treasures, was entrusted to a Captain Thompson of the Mary Deare.
Thompson could not resist the temptation and, killing all the other passengers on board his ship, buried the treasure on Cocos. He died before he could return to recover it, and over the years at least 300 expeditions have been mounted to find the gold from the Mary Deare, or any of the other pirate treasure buried on the island. Even now people have not given up hope of stumbling across a hoard of bullion in one of the innumerable coastal caves or jungle ravines.
Nowadays most visitors come here for the diving. Cocos Island offers the perfect environment for every sort of fish, from tiny baitfish to huge whale sharks: a pollution-free, no-fishing zone at a crossing point of currents and counter-currents. The area has one of the richest concentrations of pelagic species in the world, literally hundreds of hammerhead and white-tip sharks, mantas, rays, tuna, bottlenose dolphins, green sea turtles, whale sharks and even humpback whales. Ten-day boat tours can be arranged in San Jose.
Population: Park rangers only.
When to go: Diving is best between March and December.
How to get there: Fly to San Jose, Costa Rica, then by pre-arranged tour boat.
Highlights: Diving in the waters around the island – it is literally like falling into a fish tank.
Birdwatching – despite the lack of vegetation, many species of birds visit and nest on the island.
Hire a bike and explore the many tracks that lead to the lagoon. Atoll walking at low-tide to reach the more remote islands.
You should know:
You can only go on an organized seasonal diving trip and with the permission of the island rangers. You are not permitted to camp or sleep on the island.