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Nicoya Peninsula

Reliably sunny, dry weather brings planeloads of sun-starved Northerners to the North Pacific area of Costa Rica every winter, and a windswept coastline makes Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula popular with surfers eager to relive the legendary “Endless Summer” of the sport’s early years.

POINTS OF INTEREST

RINCÓN DE LA VIEJA NATIONAL PARK

Rincón de la Vieja National Park is Costa Rica’s mini-Yellowstone, with volcanic hot springs and bubbling mud pools, refreshing waterfalls, and cool forest trails. Often shrouded in clouds, the currently active volcano dominates the landscape northwest of Liberia, rising above the sunbaked plains.

It has two windswept peaks, Santa María, 6,323 feet high on the east slope, and Rincón de la Vieja at 6,254 feet on the west. The latter slope has an active crater that hardy hikers can climb to when the trail is open. It’s usually closed in the wet season, and when the crater is too active.

Fumaroles on its lower slope constantly let off steam. Las Pailas entrance has the most accessible trails, including an easy loop trail that wends past all the interesting volcanic features and a waterfall that flows from August to November. When the volcano is very active, the entire park is closed to visitors, so check with lodges or tour operators before you go.

SANTA ROSA NATIONAL PARK

Renowned for its wildlife, Santa Rosa National Park, part of the larger Guanacaste Conservation Area, protects the largest swath of extant lowland dry forest in Central America, about 91,000 acres. Dry is the operative word here, with less than 59 inches of rainfall a year in some parts of the park.

If you station yourself near watering holes in the dry season—January to April— you may spot deer, coyotes, coatis, and armadillos. The park also has the world’s only fully protected nesting beach for olive ridley sea turtles. Treetop inhabitants include spider, capuchin, and howler monkeys, as well as hundreds of bird species. The deciduous forest here includes giant kapok, Guanacaste, and mahogany trees, as well as calabash, acacia, and gumbo-limbo trees with their distinctive peeling bark. The park is also of historical significance to Costa Rica because it was here, in 1856, that an army of Costa Rican volunteers decisively defeated an invading force of mercenaries led by an American adventurer named William Walker.

PALO VERDE NATIONAL PARK

One of the best wildlife-and bird-watching parks in the country, Palo Verde extends over 198 square 76 square miles of dry deciduous forest, bordered on the west by the wide Tempisque River. With fairly flat terrain and less-dense forest than a rain forest, wildlife is often easier to spot here. Frequent sightings include monkeys, coatis, peccaries, lizards, and snakes. (Keep an eye out for the harlequin snake. It’s nonpoisonous but mimics the deadly coral snake coloring.)

The park contains seasonal wetlands at the end of the rainy season that provide a temporary home for thousands of migratory and resident aquatic birds, including herons, wood storks, jabirus, and flamingo-like roseate spoonbills. Crocodiles can be spotted in the waters of the Tempisque River year-round, and storks nest on islands at the mouth of the river where it empties into the Gulf of Nicoya. Trails are well marked, but the weather here can be very hot and windy. Mosquitoes, especially in the marshy areas, are rampant during the wet season (May–December).

PLAYA BAHÍA JUNQUILLAL

This 1½-mile, tree-fringed, Blue Flag beach is as close as you can get to a white-sand beach in this part of Guanacaste. Not to be confused with the Playa Junquillal on the western coast of the Nicoya Peninsula (that’s farther south), this beach is part of the Guanacaste Conservation Area and is a wildlife refuge to the north of Santa Rosa.

LA CRUZ

North of Santa Rosa National Park on the west side of the highway is the turnoff to La Cruz, a scruffy, bustling little town, noteworthy only for the stunning views of Bahía Salinas from its bluff and its proximity to the nearby windswept beaches on the south shore of Bahía Salinas, in the hamlet of Jobo, and in the Golfo de Santa Elena. Visit the area sooner rather than later; in 2015, Dreams Las Mareas opened its doors, and now other hotels and real estate projects are following suit with initial phases of development.

The Nicaraguan border lies just north of La Cruz at Peñas Blancas. Travelers may be stopped at two checkpoints south of La Cruz for passport and cursory vehicle inspection. Police vigilance is heightened in the region.

BAHÍA SALINAS

The large windswept bay at the very top of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast is the second-windiest area in the country, after Lake Arenal, making it great for windsurfers and kitesurfers, as well as beachgoers looking for breezy, uncrowded, pristine beaches. It also happens to be the sunniest and driest side of Costa Rica. Strong onshore breezes blow from November to May, when only experienced riders are out on the water and the water grows steadily cooler.

The south (bay) side has the strongest winds, and choppy, colder water from January to May. In July and August, the wind is more appropriate for beginner kitesurfers and windsurfers, whereas any time of year you can enjoy the area’s diving and beaches. On the sheltered Golfo de Santa Elena, to the west, are two beaches that rank among the most beautiful in all of Costa Rica: Playa Rajada and Playa Jobo, although Dreams Las Mareas Resort has recently claimed ground at Jobo Bay. Still, it’s a far cry from the overdeveloped beaches of Guanacaste’s gold coast farther to the south.

LIBERIA

Once a dusty cattle-market town, Liberia has galloped toward modernization, becoming the commercial, as well as the administrative, capital of Guanacaste. There are still a few vestiges of its colonial past on quieter side streets, and the occasional sabanero on horseback still ambles into town. But Liberia has virtually become one big shopping mall, complete with fast-food restaurants— dueling McDonald’s and Burger King face off at the entrance to town—and a multiplex theater.

Walk a couple of blocks south of the main street along Calle Real, though, and you can still find some whitewashed adobe houses for which Liberia was nicknamed the “White City,” as well as some grand townhouses that recall the city’s glory days. A few have been restored and are now hotels and cafés.

Liberia today is essentially a good place to have a meal and make a bank stop at any one of a dozen banks, including Scotiabank, Citibank, and HSBC. Liberia can also serve as a base for day trips to Santa Rosa and Rincón de la Vieja national parks. Keep in mind that Liberia is the hottest city in Costa Rica, getting up to 115º F in April. The drive from San José takes between four and five hours, so it makes sense to fly directly into Liberia if you’re going only to the North Pacific. It’s easy to rent a car near the airport.

PAPAGAYO PENINSULA

The Papagayo Peninsula, a crooked finger of land cradling the west side of Bahía Culebra (Snake Bay), enjoys guaranteed sun from January to April, making it a prime site for all-inclusive hotels catering to snowbirds escaping Northern winters. Five large hotels are already situated around Papagayo Bay, and many others are slated to be built here, all part of a government-sponsored development program modeled after Cancún.

Although the hotels are reminiscent of their Caribbean counterparts, the beaches are distinctly Costa Rican, with brown sand and aquamarine water that grows cool from January to April. Isolation is the name of the game here, which means that getting out of man-made “paradise” to explore anything off-property often entails a pricey tour.

High season here coincides with dry season, when the heat is intense and the landscape becomes brown and brittle. In the rainy season (August to December), the landscape is greener and lusher. The sparkling water and spectacular sunsets are beautiful year-round.

PLAYA HERMOSA

Beautiful Playa Hermosa, once a laid-back fishing community, has grown like Topsy, with condominiums and villas covering the scrubby hills overlooking the wide, curved beach. Warm, swimmable water, prime dive sites, choice fishing grounds, and sunset views of the Papagayo Peninsula are all reasons why Canadian and American expatriates are buying up those condos. In the early morning, though, Playa Hermosa is still the kind of place where the beach is the town’s main thoroughfare, filled with joggers, people walking their dogs, and families out for a stroll. Not to be confused with the mainland surfers’ beach of the same name south of Jacó, this Playa Hermosa has long been occupied by small hotels, restaurants, and homes along the length of the beach, so the newer hotel behemoths and other developments are forced to set up shop off the beach or up on the surrounding hillsides.

PLAYAS DEL COCO

Messy, noisy, colorful, and interesting, Playas del Coco has the best souvenir shopping, the most dive shops, and the liveliest nightlife and barhopping on this part of the coast. It’s still a working fishing port, with a port captain’s office, a fish market, and an ice factory for keeping the catch of the day fresh—not for cooling margaritas, although many are enjoyed here. A beautiful boardwalk built in 2011 made the beach much more attractive, with palm trees, benches, and even cold showers.

An explosion of condominium and villa projects has brought new money to the community, along with new commercial development, including the upscale Pacifico Village shopping center at the entrance to town. This center boasts a flagship AutoMercado, the country’s top grocery chain, as well as a bank, pharmacy, Citron restaurant, fast-food chains, a UPS office, and a few clothing boutiques. Fresh seafood, myriad souvenir shops, and plenty of bars have always drawn tourists here, but Playas del Coco also has a high concentration of tour operators offering diving, fishing, and surfing excursions at remote breaks such as Ollie’s Point and Witch’s Rock. Because Coco is mere minutes from Playa Hermosa, however, you can just as easily enjoy those sports while staying at that more pleasant beach. If you like to shop and party, and want some local color, Coco’s slightly raucous ambiance can be appealing.

PLAYA GRANDE

Down the (long, paved) road from Tamarindo, but only five minutes by boat across a tidal estuary, lies beautiful, pristine Playa Grande, by day one of the best surfing beaches in the country, and by night a nesting beach for the giant leatherback sea turtle. The beach has thus far escaped the overdevelopment of nearby Tamarindo, and is consequently lined with thick vegetation instead of hotels and strip malls. But Playa Grande isn’t immune to development; developers have sold hundreds of lots, and there are at least 75 finished houses.

The ongoing battle to protect the beach continues. The good thing is that the homes are 200 meters from the beach, thanks to a legislated buffer zone and a decree that no lights can be visible from the beach, to avoid disturbing the turtles. A few hotels and restaurants make this a pleasant, tranquil alternative to Tamarindo. And if you want to go shopping or barhopping, Tamarindo is only a boat ride away. Recent trip reports suggest that crime in the Playa Grande area has increased of late. Take reasonable precautions, choose a hotel with room safes, bring very few valuables, and stay alert.

TAMARINDO

Once a funky beach town full of surfers and local fishermen, Tamarindo is now a pricey, hyped-up hive of commercial development and real estate speculation, happily accompanied by a dizzying variety of shops, bars, and hotels, and probably the best selection of restaurants of any beach town on the Pacific coast. There’s a tiny shopping center at the entrance to town with an upscale AutoMercado supermarket and a Scotiabank branch and ATM.

On the downside, the congested two-lane beach road through Tamarindo comes to a halt certain times throughout the day, especially when delivery trucks stop in front of shops and restaurants, while drivers inch past flashing hazards and distracted pedestrians. Strip malls and high-rise condominiums clutter the rest of the main street and obscure views of the still-magnificent beach. Tamarindo serves as a popular base for surfing at the nearby Playas Grande, Langosta, Avellanas, and Negra. There are plenty of outdoor options in addition to surfing, among them diving, sportfishing, wildlife watching, and canopy tours.

You can also play 18 rounds at the nearby Hacienda Pinilla golf course, or simply stroll the beach and sunbathe. Some low-life elements are making security an issue, especially with car break-ins, but upscale hotels and inns have their own security and gated parking. Once you’re on the beach, almost all the negatives disappear (just keep an eye on your belongings).

NOSARA

One of the last beach communities for people who want to get away from it all, Nosara’s attractions are the wild stretches of side-by-side beaches called Pelada and Guiones, with surfing waves and miles of sand on which to stroll, and the tropical dry forest that covers much of the hinterland. Regulations here limit development to low-rise buildings 180 meters (600 feet) from the beach, where they are, thankfully, screened by trees. Americans and Europeans, with a large Swiss contingent, are building at a fairly rapid pace, but there appears to be an aesthetic sense here that is totally lacking in Tamarindo. Hotel owners and community members have started an ambitious reforestation project along the beachfront to create a lusher biological corridor. The town of Nosara itself is inland and not very attractive, but it does have essential services, as well as the airplane landing strip. Almost all the tourist action is at the beach.

PLAYA CARRILLO

With its long, reef-protected, crescent beach backed by an elegant line of swaying coconut palms and sheltering cliffs, Playa Carrillo (interchangeably called Puerto Carrillo) is a candidate for the most picturesque beach in Costa Rica. A smooth, paved boulevard runs along the beach, with sparkling turquoise waters on the seaside and a hedge of scarlet bougainvillea on the land side.

BARRA HONDA NATIONAL PARK

You can’t miss this park’s massive peak, once thought to be a volcano. Within that mountain, however, is an intricate network of caves to be explored, and hiking trails that lead to scenic cascades and views over the Gulf of Nicoya.

PUNTARENAS

This town is not on the Nicoya Peninsula, but rather on Costa Rica’s mainland. It is best known as a cruise-ship port and launching pad for ferries heading southeast to the coast of the Nicoya Peninsula and for cruises sailing out on the Gulf of Nicoya. Puntarenas is also a major fishing port with a lively fish market. The town’s reputation suffers from the unimpressive parts you see from your car as you roll through town on the way to the ferry dock. But the town has a lot of character off the main drag, thanks to its illustrious past as an affluent port town and principal vacation spot for San José’s wealthy, who arrived by train in the last century.

Once the port was moved and roads opened to other beaches, Puntarenas’s economy crashed, but it’s making a comeback. Sitting on a narrow spit of sand—punta de arenas literally means “point of sand”—that protrudes into the Gulf of Nicoya, the town boasts a beautifully groomed, wide Blue Flag beach with views of the Nicoya Peninsula and spectacular sunsets, along with a public swimming pool, the San Lucas Beach Club, and a marine-life museum.

Ticos arrive by bus and car to enjoy the beach and stroll the Paseo de los Turistas, a beachfront promenade lined with tree-shaded concrete benches and seafood restaurants. Crowds of locals, called porteños, cruise by on bicycles, the town’s most popular form of transport.

CURÚ NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

With miles of trails through forest and mangrove swamp, this uncrowded, private refuge is most famous for its pristine beach, perfectly suited for swimming, snorkeling, and easy kayaking to nearby Tortuga Island.

PLAYA TAMBOR

Much of the huge Bahía Ballena shoreline is taken up by a massive all-inclusive hotel and an adjoining private residential development and golf course. But to the south, near the actual village of Tambor, visitors can explore the barely developed Playa Tambor, a beautiful flat beach with nothing more than a volleyball net, a few concrete tables set under shade trees, and one beach shack serving pizza. This beach was never developed as much as Montezuma or Malpaís, making it a better destination for those who want to get away from the crowds. It can serve as a convenient base for fishing excursions, bird-watching, horseback-riding trips, and day trips to Curú National Wildlife Refuge and Isla Tortuga.

ISLA TORTUGA

Soft white sand and casually leaning palms fringe this island of tropical dry forest off the southern coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. Sounds heavenly? It would be if there weren’t quite so many people. Tours from Jacó, Herradura, San José, Puntarenas, and Montezuma take boatfuls of visitors to drink from coconuts and snorkel around a large rock. On the boat ride from Playa Tambor or Montezuma, you might see passing dolphins.

MONTEZUMA

Beautifully positioned on a sandy bay, Montezuma is hemmed in by a precipitous wooded shoreline that has prevented the overdevelopment that has affected so many other beach towns. Its small, funky town center is a pastel cluster of New Age health-food cafés, trendy beachwear shops, jaunty tour kiosks, lively open-air bars and restaurants and, at last count, three ice-cream shops, one advertising organic Italian gelato. Most hotels are clustered in or around the town’s center, but the best ones are on the coast to the north and south, where the loudest revelers are the howler monkeys in the nearby forest. The beaches north of town, especially Playa Grande, are lovely.

CABO BLANCO ABSOLUTE NATURE PRESERVE

True to its name, this reserve at the southernmost tip of the Nicoya Peninsula is absolutely natural, and very hot. Challenging hiking trails lead through humid, evergreen forest, brimming with wildlife, to a magnificent beach with a view of a nearby island, home to hundreds of sea birds.