Costa Rica: Península de Nicoya

I have been wanting to write this post since I returned from my amazing journey but I hesitated because I was not sure how to put into words the diverse beauty, fascination, energy and rawness of the Nicoya Peninsula. Rich sapphire waters create rolling barrel waves providing perfect surf for beginners and advanced alike, the coast curves into small beaches that enable one to feel as if they are on a deserted island, rugged roads are filled with organic cafes, yoga studios, surf shops and local “sodas” (restaurants). The Nicoya peninsula is the ultimate destination to nourish your mind, body, and soul. In fact, the Nicoya Peninsula has been designated by Quest Network as a Blue Zone, a designation given to areas of the world where people commonly live active lives past 100 years old.

When to go: The northern portion of the peninsula has one of the driest climates in Costa Rica. Rainfall is highest during the green season of September and October causing rivers to swell and making certain roads impassable. However, this is also when the peninsula is at its most lush. During the dry season the air can be quite dusty on the main roads.

Must see:

  • Playa Hermosa (“beautiful beach”) is a wide sheltered bay with a remote vibe and gorgeous afternoon/evening surf. Come to learn to surf or to watch the experts dance their ballet over perfect barrel waves.
  • Playa Grande has a truly deserted feeling with wide expanses of (hot!) sand and little shade. My experience surfing here was not my favorite but people do say its good. However, beware of rip tides as they are very real and dangerous here. Walk along the beach preserved by Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas de Guanacaste and bathe in the tide pools and view the leatherback turtle nesting areas.
  • Nosara – I didn’t make it here on this trip but next time it’s on my list! Particularly, the Nosara Yoga Institute.
  • Same goes for Samara, fellow travelers recommended renting a car with 4WD and exploring the hidden beaches, particularly Playa Barrigona.
  • Montezuma. My love for this charming little beach town is as deep as the ocean is wide. The town is right on the beach and despite the gorgeous rock formations, sandy nooks, and blue coves, you never feel crowded and the only “annoyance” is adorable, friendly local dogs who want you to play fetch with coconuts. Accommodations are set back in the jungle where in the early hours of the morning you can hear howler monkeys and later in the morning you can watch endangered white faced capuchin monkeys swing effortlessly through the branches with their babies in tow (yes, baby monkeys are the cutest beings on earth). Nights are laid back and best enjoyed by a bonfire on the beach, sipping beers, eating fresh mahi mahi and going to bed early so that you can wake to watch the sunrise over the ocean.
  • Santa Teresa – this beachy town is situated along one long road with endless access to the beach. The beach is wide and uncrowded with great waves and palm studded shade. Food is top notch and the people are laid back. A must. Get a surf lesson at Al Chile and you’ll be standing on the board in your first 15 minutes.

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Skip: Tamarindo (also known as ‘Tamagringo’) this is known as Costa Rica’s top surf and party destination – think crowded, touristy beaches. Nicoya – a hub between beaches, ranches and large cities, this town is packed with commerce and centered around a large church. Definitely provides a taste of Tico culture but not a particularly worthwhile destination.

Stay + Eat:

  • Montezuma:
    • Hotel Los Mangos: the rooms are not the best, the bungalows are better and more expensive. But the grounds and pool are beautiful and it’s a quick walk to the beach without having to stay in the town center. A major bonus is that Montezuma Yoga is located on the property.
    • Luz de Mono: built into a lush inlet of jungles, I enjoyed the best monkey watching in Costa Rica from our bungalow. It was a trek to get to the room but well worth it, even wielding a very heavy backpack. Breakfast is included, but watch out for white throated magpie jays who want to steal your toast! Steps from the beach, although this option is on the pricey side, it is well worth it.
    • Luz en el Cielo: a true hostel, this friendly treehouse style accommodation is also situated right up in the jungle. The people are tremendously friendly, but it can be loud at night when travelers partake in the local, ahem, herbs, and stay up into the wee hours. The included breakfast is superb and you’ll certainly burn it off walking up and down the hill to get into and out of the town center.
    • Luna Llena is a similar hostel with a bit nicer rooms.
    • Camping is also an option – I’m not sure how comfortable it would be in the heat but tents on the beach are common.
    • Go to Cococolores for a more upscale dinner on a beachside terrace lit with lanterns and their twice fermented craft beer options.
    • Organico was my go to spot and although it’s a bit overpriced it was well worth it for their pure, fresh juices, homemade pasta, and epically fresh salads.
    • Restaurante Soda La Naranja was a great lower price option for salads and juice.
    • Montezuma Bar and Restaurant is a great place to enjoy fresh seafood while watching the waves roll in. Go to the second floor for better views and cooler breezes and enjoy their simple, fresh fish or go all out and share a seafood platter or paella.
    • Also, take the 15 minute hike to the waterfall where reggae, locals and a good time are all waiting for you.
  • Santa Teresa:
    • Wavetrotter: a really pristine hostel with a big open common space, plenty of hammocks for your afternoon siesta and large communal kitchen. No A/C but it’s not as hot as you’d expect once the sun goes down. Plenty of great lizard watching and easy access to the beach. Owned by a lovely Italian family who will treat you like you are one of their own.
    • Casa Zen: a chilled out Asian inspired guest house with on-site yoga studio and bar.
    • Burger Rancho: Really good everything, and their creative burger options will keep you coming back for more.
    • Casa del Mar is really two restaurants in one tiki torch filled courtyard but you can dine on both menus. Order the steak from the parijja!
    • Almendra Sweets is literally the cutest, most pastel filled, healthy, green juice making, homemade everything serving restaurant on the strip. Although the hours are unpredictable, it’s worth the frustration!

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Transport: “Direct” transport to San Jose can be arranged in any location but really involves two shuttles and the Paquera ferry. I recommend Zuma Tours if you take this route. Zuma Tours can also arrange transport to Manuel Antonio and Jaco. Nature Air or Sansa will get you to San Jose in about 20 minutes, if you book ahead the cost is actually comparable to the shuttle.

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