Nicoya

AS A COUPLE
expand_more
expand_more

After spending time on some of the Pacific’s upscale beaches, venturing inland to the heart of traditional Guanacaste can be a little jarring. About 35min east of Playa Junquillal, Santa Cruz is a bastion of the region’s distinctive folk heritage and provides good access to several of the Pacific beaches as well as to Nicoya, 25km to the south at the northern edge of its namesake peninsula. Costa Rica’s oldest city and home to its oldest church, Nicoya’s role today is as the peninsula’s major travel and agricultural centre, though it also retains a strong indigenous presence. Southern Nicoya, effectively cut off by bad roads and a provincial boundary from the north of the peninsula, is part of Puntarenas province, whose eponymous capital, a steamy tropical port across the Gulf of Nicoya on the mainland, is the only town of any size in the entire area.

The area is home to some of Costa Rica’s best-known beaches, several of which are easily accessed from San José on the new Caldera Highway. Each offers a distinct experience, from the coves of chilled-out Montezuma, a former fishing village, to the forest-flanked coastline of Mal País and Santa Teresa, to the huge waves of Jacó and Playa Hermosa, two of the most popular places to surf in the country. Further south, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio has several extraordinary beaches, with white sands and azure waters.

Best times to visit Nicoya

The temperature at the Nicoya Peninsula is pleasant all year round - just watch out for October when the rainy season hits at full blast. Sunshine is guaranteed from January to April, so this is the best time to visit.

Nicoya town

Bus travellers journeying between San José and the beach towns of Sámara and Nosara need to make connections at the country town of Nicoya, inland and northeast of the beaches. Set in a dip surrounded by low mountains, Nicoya is the peninsula’s main settlement. The town is permeated by an air of infinite stasis but is undeniably pretty, with a lovely Parque Central, cascading bougainvillea, colourful plants and the white adobe church, the Parroquis San Blas. Founded in 1644, the church has survived multiple earthquakes and has recently undergone extensive renovation. Nicoya has a considerable Chinese presence, with many of the town’s restaurants, hotels and stores owned by descendants of Chinese immigrants.

The Friendship Bridge

Opened in 2003, the 780-metre Puente Tempisque connects the mainland with the Nicoya Peninsula, spanning from near Puerto Moreno (17km east of the Nicoya–Carmona road) on the peninsula to a point 25km west of the Interamericana on the mainland. The bridge replaced a time-consuming ferry connection and saves at least two hours on the journey between San José and Sámara. The $26 million bridge was financed by Taiwan in exchange for commercial fishing rights in Costa Rican waters, which were quickly rescinded due to abuse. It’s partly held up by suspension cables connected to towers that, at 80m, make it the tallest structure in Costa Rica.

Nicoya Peninsula Beaches

The good news is that whichever Nicoya Peninsula beach you choose, you won't be disappointed. All beaches are phenomenal with blue waters, soft sands and breezy palm trees. It all depends on how adventurous you want your beach trip to be. For a peaceful beachside break, a good bet is to head down to Sámara or Nosara on the Nicoya Peninsula. A road runs the 35km between Nicoya and the coast at Nosara, via Caimital, though it’s only negotiable with a 4WD. Most drivers, and all buses, take the longer, paved route (marked as Route 150 on some maps) through Playa Sámara, from where you can loop north back up the coast. The scenery from Nicoya to Sámara, 30km south, is rolling, rather than precipitous, although there are a couple of particularly nasty corners, marked by crosses commemorating the drivers who didn’t make it.

Playa Santa Teresa

A haven for surfers and well-being enthusiasts, Playa Santa Teresa is a haven for surfing and yoga. Located on the Southern tip of Nicoya Peninsula, the waves are ideal for both beginners and advanced surfers.

Playa Samara

This secluded Nicoya Peninsula beach is another of Costa Rica's secrets. The beach is quiet and calm at the best of times, picking up momentum on the weekends with locals looking to relax and enjoy the waters. Not to be missed if you love getting off the beaten path.

Montezuma Beach

Montezuma is a charming little beach town and the most touristy of all in Nicoya Peninsula, although it does still feel wrong to brand it touristy considering the numbers are very little. If you wish for a perfect blend of relaxing on the beach and adventure, Montezuma is your winning beach. With cute beach bars and a ziplining course through the canopies nearby, Montezuma offers action-packed activities between swimming and relaxing.

Playa Janquillal

One of Nicoya Peninsulas hidden gems, Playa Janquillal is a serene beach with little tourism. The currents are quite strong, so this beach is more a place to relax on the soft sands rather than swimming.

Playa Sámara

Sámara is one of the peninsula’s most peaceful and least developed beachside villages. It’s a great place to relax, and its distance from the capital makes it much quieter than the more accessible Pacific beaches.

Things to do at Playa Samara

Even at the busiest times, there’s little action other than weekenders tottering by on stout criollo horses and the occasional dune buggy racing up the sand. On Sundays, the town turns out in force to watch the local football teams who play on the village field as if they’re Brazil and Argentina battling it out for the World Cup – even weekending Ticos shun the beach for the sidelines. Besides this, all there is to do is relax, tan, swim and sip cold beers.

Getting to Playa Samara

There are 3 ways to get to Playa Samara depending on where in Costa Rica you are; Bus, car or plane. To fly, Samara is around 2 hours away from the Liberia airport. Nosara airport is also an option. Bus-wise, journeys take about 5 hours and depart from Alfaro Terminal in San Jose. If you opt to drive, expect a 4-hour drive.

Best times to visit Playa Samara

The temperature at Playa Samara is always pleasant, constantly sitting around 30 degrees, however, it is the rainy season you need to look out for - sitting on the beach doesn't quite have the same effect during a tropical storm. The dry season is from December to April, with the wet season taking place from May to November.

Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Ostional

Eight kilometres northwest of Nosara, Ostional and its chocolate-coloured-sand beach make up the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Ostional, one of the most important nesting grounds in the country for olive ridley turtles who come ashore to lay their eggs en masse. If you’re in town during the first few days of the arribadas, you’ll see local villagers with horses, carefully stuffing their big, thick bags full of eggs and slinging them over their shoulders. This is quite legal: villagers of Ostional and Nosara are allowed to harvest eggs, for sale or consumption, during the first three days of the season only. Don’t be surprised to see them barefoot, rocking back and forth on their heels as if they were crushing grapes in a winery; this is the surest way to pick up the telltale signs of eggs beneath the sand. You can’t swim comfortably at Ostional though, since the water’s very rough and is plagued by sharks, for whom turtle nesting points are like all-you-can-eat buffets.

Arribadas

One of only two species of marine turtles who nest in mass numbers (Kemp’s ridleys being the other), olive ridley turtles emerge from the sea in their tens of thousands onto the beaches of Ostional to lay their eggs, mainly in the rainy season from August to December. These arribadas (the Spanish word for arrivals) can last over twelve hours, with a steady stream of females crawling slowly out of the water to a free patch of sand beyond the high tide line where they will begin to lay their eggs.

Each individual will lay around one hundred eggs over the course of a few days; collectively several million eggs may be deposited on the shores of Ostional during a single arribada. It is the sheer number of eggs that is the evolutionary reason behind the unusual behaviour of the olive ridleys: the more eggs there are, the better chance the offspring have of survival. With so many eggs and hatchlings for predators to prey on, the likelihood of a hatchling making it out to sea increases dramatically. Despite the mass layings, however, the odds are still stacked overwhelmingly against the young turtles – only one out of three hundred hatchlings from the protected beaches of Ostional will reach adulthood.

Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas

On the Río Matapalo estuary between Conchal and Tamarindo, Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas is less a national park than a reserve, created in 1995 to protect the nesting grounds of the critically endangered leatherback turtles, which come ashore here to nest from November to February. Leatherbacks have probably laid their eggs at Playa Grande for millions of years, and it’s now one of the few remaining such nesting sites in the world. The beach itself offers a beautiful sweep of light-coloured sand, and outside laying season you can surf and splash around in the waves, though swimming is rough, plagued by crashing waves and riptides. Despite its proximity to an officially protected area, developers have been given carte blanche to build at Playa Grande: the Rancho Las Colinas Golf and Country Club, which includes an eighteen-hole golf course and over two hundred separate villas, is symptomatic of the lack of planning, the short-termism and the plain daftness (the golf course is located in an area with a long, hot dry season and a history of water shortages) that characterizes so much recent tourist development in Costa Rica. What effect the development will have on the ancient nesting ground of the turtles remains to be seen

Barra Honda National Park cave formations, Costa Rica © Rey Alpizar/Shutterstock

Parque Nacional Barra Honda

The Parque Nacional Barra Honda, about 40km east of Nicoya and 13km west of the Río Tempisque, is popular with spelunkers for its forty-odd subterranean caves. A visit to Barra Honda is not for claustrophobes, people afraid of heights (some of the caves are more than 200m deep) or anyone with an aversion to creepy-crawlies.

The landscape around here is dominated by the limestone plateau of the Cerro Barra Honda, which rises out of the flat lowlands of the eastern Nicoya Peninsula. About seventy million years ago this whole area – along with Palo Verde, across the Río Tempisque – was underwater. Over the millennia, the porous limestone was gradually hollowed out, by rainfall and weathering, to create caves and weird karstic formations.

The caves form a catacomb-like interconnecting network beneath the limestone ridge, but you can’t necessarily pass from one to the other. Kitted out with a rope harness and a helmet with a lamp on it, you descend with a guide, who will normally take you down into just one. The main caves, all within 2km of each other and of the ranger station, are the Terciopelo, the Trampa, Santa Ana, Pozo Hediondo and Nicoa, where the remains of pre-Columbian peoples were recently found, along with burial ornaments and utensils thought to be over two thousand years old. Most people come wanting to view the huge needle-like stalagmites and stalactites at Terciopelo, or to see subterranean wildlife such as bats, blind salamanders, insects and even birds.

Down in the depths, you’re faced with a sight reminiscent of old etchings of Moby Dick’s stomach, with sleek, moist walls, jutting rib-like ridges and strangely smooth protuberances. Some caves are big enough – almost cathedral-like, in fact, with their vaulted ceilings – to allow breathing room for those who don’t like enclosed spaces, but it’s still an eerie experience, like descending into a ruined subterranean Notre Dame inhabited by crawling things you can barely see. There’s even an “organ” of fluted stalagmites in the Terciopelo cave; if knocked, each gives off a slightly different musical note.

Above ground, three short trails, not well marked, lead around the caves. It’s easy to get lost, and you should walk them with your guide or with a ranger if there is one free, and take water with you. Some time ago, two German hikers attempted to walk the trails independently, got lost and, because they were not carrying water, died of dehydration and heat exhaustion.

The endangered scarlet macaw sometimes nests here, and there are a variety of ground mammals about, including anteaters and deer. As usual, you’ll be lucky to see any, though you’ll certainly hear howler monkeys.

Cave architecture

Created by the interaction of water, calcium bicarbonate and limestone, the distinctive cave formations of stalagmites and stalactites are often mistaken for each other. Stalagmites grow upwards from the floor of a cave, formed by drips of water saturated with calcium bicarbonate. Stalactites, made of a similar deposit of crystalline calcium bicarbonate, grow downwards, like icicles. Both are formed by water and calcium bicarbonate filtering through limestone and partially dissolving it. In limestone caves, stalagmites and stalactites are usually white (from the limestone) or brown; in caves where copper deposits are present colours might be more psychedelic, with iridescent greens and blues. They often become united, over time, in a single column.

Southern Nicoya

Most visitors’ first sight of the southern Nicoya Peninsula is from the soothing, slow-paced ferry from Puntarenas: you’ll see its low brown hills rising up in the distance, ringed by a rugged coastline and pockets of intense jungly green. Much of the region, though, has been cleared for farming or cattle grazing, or, in the case of the surf towns on its far southwestern tip, given over to tourism.

The area’s main town is Cóbano, a dull transport hub with a petrol station, a post office and a Banco Nacional with an ATM, a rare convenience in these parts. Most tourists pass straight through on their way to the thriving coastal towns of Mal País, Santa Teresa or Montezuma, one of Costa Rica’s most popular beach hangouts. The partly paved road to Montezuma, lined by acres of cattle pasture, offers a startling – and disconcerting – vision of the future of the deforested tropics. Once covered with dense primary Pacific lowland forest, today only stumps dot the fields. Still, heroic efforts are being made by local conservationists to create a biological corridor throughout the peninsula, with the wildlife refuges of Reserva Karen Mogensen and Curú proving that nature can – and is – making a comeback.

Montezuma Beach in Costa Rica © Jiri Stoklaska/Shutterstock

Montezuma

The popular beach resort of Montezuma lies about 40km southwest of Paquera, near the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. Some three decades ago, a handful of foreigners seeking solitude fell in love with Montezuma and decided to stay. In those days, it was just a sleepy fishing village, largely cut off from the rest of the country, but today Montezuma draws tourists galore, and virtually every establishment in town offers gringo-friendly food and accommodation and sells tours. Nevertheless, it still feels like a village because large-scale development has been kept to a minimum – and it’s still a bit of an effort to get here.

Montezuma and the area south to the Reserva Absoluta Cabo Blanco features some of Costa Rica’s loveliest coastline: leaning palms and jutting rocks dot the white-sand beaches. Here you can enjoy uninterrupted views of the Pacific, especially arresting when the occasional lightning storm illuminates the horizon and silky waters. Inland, thickly forested hills, including rare Pacific lowland tropical forest, dominate the landscape.

Things to do in Montezuma

Montezuma, being a fairly popular yet charming place, has an assortment of restaurants and bars to dine and drink in. There is plenty to do in this sweet little town whether that is ziplining through the canopies or relaxing on the beach.

Montezuma Falls

Quite the hotspot, Montezuma falls is a great day excursion to get active. It takes 40 minutes to hike to the waterfall, with three different routes each suitable to different abilities. Once at the waterfall, you can swim and dive from the designated platform.

Montezuma, being a fairly popular yet charming place, has an assortment of restaurants and bars to dine and drink in. There is plenty to do in this sweet little town whether that is ziplining through the canopies or relaxing on the beach.

Practicalities

Flights from San José to Tambor land at the small airstrip about 4.5km out of town. The bus that runs between Montezuma and Paquera stops in the village.

A block back from the beach, chilled-out Cabinas Cristina is the best budget accommodation in town, with nine basic but clean rooms, most with private bathroom and one with kitchen. The Tico owners dish up lovingly prepared meals at the popular on-site restaurant and can arrange tours. Nearby, the friendly new owners of Hotel Costa Coral are currently upgrading the ten rooms at their boutique hotel, which have air conditioning and cable TV with DVD player; most have a private terrace overlooking the pretty pool area and tropical gardens. The best place to stay in town, though, is the good-looking Hotel Tambor Tropical, set in palm gardens facing languid Playa Tambor, with an inviting pool, hot tub and beautiful wooden cabinas with large kitchens; no children under 16 are accepted. It’s also the base for Seascape Kayak Tours, which runs recommended trips to nearby Curú.

You can dine on fresh fish directly hauled in from the incoming boats at the Bahía Ballena Yacht Club restaurant, just south of town, where conger eel is usually among the day’s catch.

The bus from Montezuma to Cabo Blanco runs past Cabuya; the road is rough, so you’ll need a 4WD if driving yourself. Another rough, and hilly, road links Cabuya with Mal País; it’s only driveable in a 4WD, and a water crossing often makes the road impassable in the rainy season.

The Hotel Cabo Blanco is set right on a gentle beach with good swimming; the rooms come with fan or air conditioning and TV, and there’s a swimming pool if you just can’t face the short walk to the beach. Just before you enter the village, Hotel Celaje is a Belgian-owned beachside beauty with six palm-roofed bungalows that come with two beds with mosquito nets and small bathrooms. There’s an inviting swimming pool, a bar and restaurant. You can stock up on groceries at two mini-markets or eat cheap typical food at Cabyuya’s two sodas; about 200m north of town, munch on decent pizza, washed down with a thick fruit smoothie, at Café el Coyote.

Refugio de Vida Silvestre Reserva Karen Mogensen

The wildlife-rich Refugio de Vida Silvestre Reserva Karen Mogensen, 20km southwest of Playa Naranjo, offers the most rewarding ecotourism experience on the southern Nicoya Peninsula. This nine-square-kilometre patch of primary and secondary dry-humid tropical forest functions as both a private reserve and tourist lodge and has become the most crucial link in an expanding biological corridor that runs between the Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco, 85km south at the end of the peninsula, and Parque Nacional Barra Honda, 50km north in Guanacaste. Named after the late Karen Mogensen, the Danish conservationist who was instrumental in creating Cabo Blanco, the reserve was established in 1996 by the local not-for-profit ASEPALECO – a name that references the peninsula’s three main towns, Paquerea, Lepanto and Cóbano.

Fence removal, tree planting and natural regeneration has returned this former patch of farmland into a fully functioning jungle ecosystem. Endangered plant species such as rónrón, mahogany, teak and ebony grow in the reserve, while white-faced and howler monkeys abound, and deer roam the forest, preyed on by elusive pumas. More than 240 species of birds have been spotted, including great curassows, motmots, long-tailed manakins, spectacled owls and three-wattled bellbirds.

Five kilometres of well-maintained hiking trails run through the reserve, leading to lookouts with jaw-dropping views of the Gulf of Nicoya as well as to one of the most breathtaking waterfalls in the country – the 18m Catarata Velo de Novia (Bridal Veil Falls), which cascades down a rounded cliffside before dropping to a deep, turquoise swimming hole.

Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco

Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco, 9km south of Montezuma, is Costa Rica’s oldest protected piece of land, established in 1963 by Karen Mogensen, a Danish immigrant to Costa Rica, and her Swedish husband Olof Wessberg. Until 1989, no visitors were allowed into the twelve square kilometres of reserve, which covers nearly the entire southwestern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. Though hard to believe today, most of the reserve was pasture and farmland until the early 1960s. Since its inauguration, Cabo Blanco has been allowed to regenerate naturally; a small area of original forest that had escaped destruction served as a “genetic bank” for the re-establishment of the complex tropical forest that now fills the reserve.

Pay your entrance fee at the ranger hut, and they’ll supply you with a trail map (there are only two), which also outlines the history of the reserve and the species living here; walking the trails here can be very hot work, so head out early. The Sendero Sueco (5km; 2hr) leads from the entrance through tropical deciduous forest to Playa Cabo Blanco, a lovely, lonely spot (in low season, anyway). Swimming, however, isn’t great around here; due to the high tide (marea alta), you’ll need to walk back along the trail rather than the coast. Ask the ranger at the entrance when and where you’ll likely get cut off if you want to venture along the beach.

Watching wildlife in Cabo Blanco

The best time for animal spotting is around 8am, or on Wednesday mornings, after the reserve has been closed for two days. The heat chases a lot of the wildlife into the more heavily forested sections of the reserve, which are off-limits to visitors, but you’re still likely to see howler monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys and white-tailed deer; agoutis and coati are also common. Harder to spot mammals include the margay, northern tamandua and collared peccary – Cabo Blanco has what is thought to be the last herd of these boar-like creatures on the Nicoya Peninsula.

Birdlife is astonishingly plentiful, in the forest itself (where you might catch a glimpse of a long-tailed manakin or a sulphur-winged parakeet) but particularly down by the shore – you’ll often see scores of pelicans and clouds of magnificent frigatebirds, while Costa Rica’s largest community of brown boobies nests on Isla Cabo Blanco, the guano-encrusted island that lies 2km offshore.

Top image: Beautiful Beach of Pacific on Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica © Lucas T. Jahn/Shutterstock

The Rough Guide to Costa Rica and related travel guides

In-depth, easy-to-use travel guides filled with expert advice.

Find even more inspiration for Costa Rica here

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

author photo
Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
Ready to travel and discover Costa Rica?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels