The Nicoya peninsula is almost entirely surrounded by ocean waters, and countless white-sand beaches pepper its spectacular northern coastline. The region has remained largely unmodernized, the bulk of it still supporting ranching and farming communities. In fact, only several newly-developed resort communities offer the luxury and sophistication of Western appetites, but these accomodations are rapidly growing in number. Therefore, the Nicoya region can offer travelers the best of both worlds - the rustic pleasures of some of Costa Rica's best beach bungalows, and the elegance and convenience of Central America's finest resorts.
The peninsula's fringe is streaked with a sugar-white shoreline in the north, getting darker southward in gray-scale progression. Three-quarters of Costa Rica's hotels are located along this coastline, illustrating how popular this region is to tourists. Low-laying mountain ranges and their surrounding foothills contour the face of this region, creating a magnificent backdrop, and presenting a lively playground for hikers and bikers. The northeastern border flanks the western bank of the Tempisisque, and, as it dumps into the Golfo de Nicoya, offers some of the best birding and wildlife observation around.
In the past decade, this otherwise quiet, mostly-rural, crab-claw-shaped peninsula known as Nicoya has seen more annual visitors than the rest of the isthmus. The climate here presents more sun than overcast, and more dry days than rain, ultimately producing some of the best watersports, sunbathing, and sportfishing Costa Rica has to offer.
Major Cities of the Nicoya Region
Named for the tamarind trees that line the shore in this area, Tamarindo is one of Costa Rica's most popular resort destinations. This once quiet fishing hamlet now boasts upscale accomodations, fine dining, and cool cafes; most of which are owned and operated by European and North American residents or corporations. Tamarindo is also popular for its close proximity to Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, a spectacular beach front park and paramount nesting location of the leatherback turtle. While the beaches fail to rank with Costa Rica's best, the surfing is superlative, and enthusiasts of all watersports possess a natural affinity to Tamarindo.
Nicoya is the provincial capital of the region, a large ranching and farming community, and possibly the oldest city in the country. Before Spanish colonization, it stood as the cultural center of the Chorotega, and was eventually named for the local Indian chief of the same name. Today, it is the location of Costa Rica's oldest existing church, the 16th century adobe edifice, Iglesia de San Blas. In addition, Nicoya makes a great launchpad for exploration of the rest of the province.
Santa Cruz, about 12 miles north of Nicoya, is a quaint hamlet of rich Chortega tradition. It is known for its lively civic fiestas, held every January 15 and June 25.
Seven miles southeast of Santa Cruz is the small, dusty town of Guaitíl, abounding with a tradition of Chortega ceramics. The village center is filled with artists selling their work, and buyers are encouraged to barter.
The most beautiful and highest concentration of beaches reside along Nicoya's northern white-sand coast. Further south, the beaches can be more pebbley and gray reflecting a less prominent dry season. Starting in the north...
Flanked by Punta Ballena and the Nacascolo Peninsula, Bahía Culebra is a horseshoe-shaped bay featuring some of Costa Rica's finest beaches: Playa Manzanillo and Playa Nacascolo to the north, and Playa Arenilla and Playa Buena in the south. Fishing, scuba diving, sailing, and horseback riding are common activities, and resort hotels can be found on every beach. This is also the site of one of Central America's largest future developments. After a rocky start due to alleged environmental degradation and political corruption, construction of Peninsula Papagayo is under way. Featuring five residential communities, three golf courses, a 200-slip marina, and eight luxury hotels, it is obvious that the isthmus has never seen anything like this.
Just south, at Playa Panamá, a wide range of lodging is available. For those who can't afford luxury accomodations, try camping under the stars, just a stone's throw from the undulating seashore.
While currently in the midst of a slight development boom, Playa Hermosa's gray-sand beaches still retain the charm of a rustic beach community.
Playa del Coco is very popular with young Ticos who fill the area on weekends and holidays. This is one of the region's busiest beaches, and it is renowned as an excellent spot for scuba diving and snorkeling.
Just south, Playa Ocotal is a more isolated, gray-sand beach with tide pools, providing visitors with a good spring board for guided scuba diving and sportfishing tours.
Just past Punta Zapotal, Playa Pan de Azúcar offers sugar-white beaches and the offshore treasure, Isla Santa Catalina, an excellent destination for observing seabirds.
Its surrounding wildlife-rich mangrove provides travelers to Playa la Penca outstanding opportunities to spy iguanas, monkeys, and countless bird species.
Sportfishing arguably hits its peak at Playa Flamingo, a resort community boasting Costa Rica's largest marina. Also known as Playa Blanco, this retiree's haven is considered more upscale, yet less developed, than Coco to the north and Tamarindo to the south. From May to October, sportfishing is at its best; anglers come in droves to take a crack at the wahoo, tuna, dorado, sailfish, and marlin-filled waters.
Playa Brasilito, once a small fishing village, and its neighbor, Playa Conchal, have gone from obscure, sleepy beach communities to major tourist destinations overnight. The transformation can be attributed to one thing - the Meliá Playa Conchal Resort. So far it is the largest of its kind, offering tourists a half mile of white-sand beach and a spectacular 18-hole golf course.
Playa Tamarindo is a popular beach resort community boasting upscale accomodations, fine dining, and hip hang-outs. Close by, the Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas is the premier nesting spot for the leatherback turtle, offering nature-buffs a spectacular wildlife experience.
Playa Nosara, situated north of the estuary formed by the Nosara and Montaña rivers, is a well-known surfing spot. This beach is part of the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Ostional that provides refuge for the Ridley turtles who come ashore to lay their eggs.
The southern shore is characterized by rougher terrain, with the exception of a few beautiful beaches. Bahía Ballena is the largest and most popular of the beaches in this area, while Montezuma offers more secluded shoreline, modest accomodations, and a New Age atmosphere.
Isla Tortuga is the quintessential island paradise, featuring white sands, towering palm trees, and a plethora of wildlife. This privately-owned island, located about two miles offshore from Curú, offers visitors many activities including canopy tours, water-bikes, beach volleyball, and snorkeling. Sunbathe on one of its magnificent beaches, or go for a hike among the hills. Stay for a week, or take a day-cruise from one of the tour agencies in Puntarenas.
Parks and Reserves
Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas
This park protects 1,100 acres of Pacific shoreline and 54,000 acres of the surrounding ocean surface in order to harbor nesting leatherback turtles that come here to lay their eggs on Playa Grande. The turtles come year-round but more so between October and April. Access to the beach is limited and visitors must be accompanied by a park ranger.
Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Tamarindo
With 1,000 acres of estuarine mangrove, wetlands, and dry forests in the area where the Río Matapalo meets the ocean, this refuge protects an abundance of fauna: deer, ocelots, crocodiles, waterfowl, and monkeys. Endangered species are beginning to thrive again here in this protected area.
Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Ostional
This refuge protects the home of Ridley turtle nesting at three beaches: Playa Ostional, Playa Nosara, and Playa Guiones. Covering 613 acres and 9 miles of shoreline, this is one of the world's most important turtle nesting sanctuaries.
Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco
This unique reserve lies on the wet tropical and dry tropical ecotone. The Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco, located at the southwestern end of Nicoya, is truly a hiker's paradise. The trails within this 2,900-acre park lead to some of the most spectacular beaches in southern Nicoya, Playa Cabo and Playa Balsita.
Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Curú
Covering 208 acres, this refuge protects forests, mangrove swamps, beaches, and the contained flora and fauna. Three beaches grace this area; Playa Curú, Playa Colorado, and Playa Quesara. Turtles are fond of these beaches and regularly come to lay their eggs.
Parque Nacional Barra Honda
Remarkable subterranean caves and gorges make this national park a highlight for any spelunker. Unlike the rest of Costa Rica, this 5,670-acre park resides upon a foundation of limestone, weathered into a labyrinth of caverns and unique rock formations over thousands of years. Many of the 40+ known caves feature stalagmites and stalactites, magnificent rock pillars formed from the dripping action of limestone's calcium carbonite deposits. Each cavern here maintains its own identity: The Nicoya Cave features pre-Colombian artifacts dating back more than 1,800 years, while the Terciopelo Cave allows the courageous to drop down more than 100 feet to an echo-making rock called "The Organ". To explore the caves, however, experience and climbing gear are a must.
If exploring these holes in the earth makes you cringe in fear, Barra Honda also features a network of terrestrial hiking trails through fauna-rich dry forest. Grab a map, maybe a guide, and prepared to see monkeys, macaws, anteaters and other indigenous wildlife.
Festival of La Virgén de Guadalupe - December 12Nicoya
This celebration is a combination of Catholic beliefs and the Chorotega legend of La Yequita. Livestock shows, bullfights, music, dancing, and plenty of food.
Cristo Negro de Esquipulas - January 15
Guanacaste's Annexation - June 25
Dancing, bullrides, indigenous food and drink.
Iglesia de San Blas Church
This church was built in 1644 in the city of Nicoya and stands as the oldest existing church in the country.
Isla San Lucas
This island just off of the southeast tip of the peninsula was once a sacred burial place for pre-Columbian Indians. These Indians were wiped out by a Spanish conquistador who laid waste to the island. Currently, the island is uninhabited, but rich in archaeological history.
Specific Plants and Animals of the Region
The Nicoya region is famous for the Ridley turtles that bombard the Ostional beach to lay their eggs during specific times of the year. Largest of all turtles, the Leatherbacks, consistently nest at Playa Grande. Full-grown males can measure 10 feet in length and weigh up to 2,000 pounds!
Countless species of fish swim the delicate marine environments surrounding the Nicoya Peninsula. Snorkling and scuba diving will bring you face to face with any number of these, while sportfishing tours can offer anglers the thrill of catching and the possible satisfaction of eating sailfish, dorado and others. Dolphins and whales make cameo appearances along the coast and sometimes in Gulfo de Nicoya.
In the Golfo de Nicoya, a string of islands (Isla Chira, Isla Guayabo, Isla Negritos, and Isla San Lucas) provide homes and nesting sites for birds. Frigate birds, spoonbills, and brown boobies, to name a few, are protected on these islands. Isla Guayabo serves as a warm winter nesting site for the peregrine falcon.
Within the biological reserves of southern Nicoya, visitors can spot anteaters, sloths, boa constrictors, ocelots and pumas, herons, caracaras, and agoutis.
Many animals live in the lush green of mangrove colonies: racoons, frigate birds, crabs, kingfishers, lizards and snakes of numerous variety, oysters, and even stingrays and small sharks.
How to Get There
It is recommended that those traveling by road use the Tempisque ferry route. Other ferries run between Puntarenas and Playa Naranjo and the village of Paquera, providing quick access to southern Nicoya.
If the ferry is not ideal, drive along the interamerican highway to Liberia, then chart your course accordingly.
A bridge over the Ríéo Tempisque was in the works and should be available now.
Buses also enter Nicoya, and can be boarded at San José from Impresa Alfaro eight times a day.
The Daniel Oduber International Airport is Costa Rica's second largest airport, located in the northernmost part of the Nicoya region. If you have the means, traveling by air may be the preferrable way to get to the northern coastline.