Costa Rica: the Nicoya Peninsula

We spent the first full week of our trip on the Nicoya Peninsula, which has (it is claimed) some of the best beaches in Costa Rica. We stayed four nights in the south and three in the north.

South Nicoya

We stayed in Montezuma, which was partly but not entirely as we had imagined. We envisaged a small town, but Montezuma was barely a village: rather a cluster of restaurants, bars, accommodation and tour operators. It is a resort popular with hippies and backpackers: we were not the only ‘oldies’, but we certainly helped to increase the average age.

Montezuma mural

Montezuma mural

Our room was in a block, each with individual doors opening onto a garden with several multi-coloured hammocks. Beyond the garden was the Pacific. The location was good, and the room had some good points, including an unusually large fridge and (bizarrely) a very large safe. But one thing it did not have was anywhere to store clothes. Since we were going to be in the same place for four nights, Sandie was planning to unpack, but she was out of luck.

Decoration in our beach cabin

Decoration in our beach cabin

We’d chosen Montezuma for three reasons: beautiful beaches, walks to waterfalls and proximity to the Cabo Blanco natural reserve. The beaches certainly are stunning, backed by tropical forest, and we much enjoyed a walk that alternated between sandy coves and shaded tree-lined paths. The weather was very hot and the sea warm enough even for Sandie to swim. Frustratingly, however, we were strongly advised not to venture far into the water because of strong waves and dangerous riptides.

Handstands on the beach

Handstands on the beach

Reflections on the beach

Reflections on the beach

Sunset afterglow

Sunset afterglow

Coloured heron

Coloured heron

Miles of beaches, and the relatively small number of tourists meant plenty of space for all. Apart from a few surfers at the far end, we had one long beach to ourselves. Or so we thought, until Ian turned round and discovered we were being watched by a large iguana. Obligingly, it posed for photos before shambling off.

A beach to ourselves?

A beach to ourselves?

I think this is my beach

I think this is my beach

Just outside Montezuma is a series of three waterfalls. The walk to the first is easy, but the continuation path to the second is tricky, involving slippery rocks, crossing small streams and holding on to ropes. After a while, Sandie gave up, but Ian made it all the way. He did not however attempt to reach the third waterfall, which according to the guidebook is even worse!

The waterfall - at last!

The waterfall – at last!

One day we took the bus to the Cabo Blanco natural reserve. Only a small section of the park is open to the public. The main trail leads through tropical dry forest to a beach at the southern tip of the peninsula. It is graded difficult, so we were not sure we would make it, but we did, without any problems. We were disappointed, however, to see very little wildlife on our walk.   We were also disappointed with the beach: the waves were so strong that Ian got knocked over twice, even though he did not venture far into the water.

Pelican diving at Cabo Blanco

Pelican diving at Cabo Blanco

Rough surf

Rough surf

The return hike was something of a struggle, due mainly to the excessive heat and humidity. We took an alternative path, and got to see (and hear) one howler monkey. We were back at the entrance station with time to spare for the 4pm bus, so relaxed for a bit – only to discover that the last bus was now at 3.20, and we could not get to the bus stop in time. Luckily we got back to Montezuma, thanks to a German family who managed to squeeze us into their car and take us to the next village, and an American couple who did a big detour in order to take us back to our accommodation.

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Montezuma at night

Montezuma at night

Heading north

After Montezuma, our next stop was Playa Tamarindo, further north on the Nicoya Peninsula. The direct route is not covered by public buses, as one part is a dirt road. To get there by public transport (bus and ferry) would have required an enormous detour, and the journey could not have been completed in a single day. We therefore gave in and paid for a ‘private transfer’ – on a small crowded bus. The difference between public buses and private transfers is not at all clear to us.

Playa Tamarindo is a popular holiday resort, with junk shops (sorry, souvenir shops) aplenty – a kind of Great Yarmouth with sun. It is not at all like Montezuma, and evidently attracts a more mixed clientele, families and people (not hippies) of all ages. We enjoyed strolling along the beach, and having sunset drinks, dinner and morning coffee at beach cafés. We found a convenient bank, laundry and second-hand bookstore – all very useful! But Playa Tamarindo was quite noisy, and we had decided to spend just one night there, before moving across to Playa Grande.

Tamarindo street scene

Tamarindo street scene

Coffee on the beach

Coffee on the beach

Surfer dudes

Surfer dudes

Tamarindo sunset

Tamarindo sunset

The contrast between Playa Tamarindo and Playa Grande – just across the estuary – could not be more marked. Playa Grande is just a scattering of small hotels, restaurants and villas, with no real centre or facilities. It does however have a long beautiful beach, good for strolling, sunbathing and dipping in the water. But not for swimming – if you went in deep enough to swim, the waves would be far too strong.

Crossing the river to Playa Grande

Crossing the river to Playa Grande

Heading for the hotel

Heading for the hotel

In the surf

In the surf

The main attractions (also accessible from Playa Tamarindo) concern wildlife. On our first night we went on a ‘turtle tour’, which involved driving over very rough roads to a remote beach, and then climbing over a headland (great fun in the dark!) to another beach. Many turtles, including the endangered leatherback turtles, come ashore at Playa Grande to lay their eggs. We did not get to see any leatherbacks, but we did see three other turtles: one returning to the sea, one moving up the beach, and one actually laying eggs. A government naturalist had set up a small red light, which enabled tourists – sitting in total silence and darkness – to watch the turtle digging her nest and then laying her eggs. It was a magical experience! Afterwards a brighter light was switched on, we were allowed to take photos and the eggs were removed for safekeeping.

Turtle eggs being laid

Turtle eggs being laid

Turtle midwifery

Turtle midwifery

Early the following morning we did an estuary tour by boat. We saw two small crocodiles, an iguana and several birds. Then we left the boat and did a short walk through the trees to see some howler monkeys. Later we went for a walk along the beach, and on our way back stopped at a hotel for coffee. We sat on an open balcony surrounded by trees; there we saw a large iguana and some beautiful birds which came very close to us. We have since identified them as white-throated magpie-jays.

Could I manage a whole tourist?

Could I manage a whole tourist?

Iguana on a branch

Iguana on a branch

Excuse me for being crabby!

Excuse me for being crabby!

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler family

Howler family

The Blue Costa Rican Posing Bird

The Blue Costa Rican Posing Bird

It seems it is unnecessary to go on wildlife tours in Costa Rica – the wildlife will come to you!

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