Planning Your Time
- The Best of Costa Rica
- Costa Rica’s Top Spots for WIldlife
- Costa Rica’s Most Beautiful Beaches
- Costa Rica’s Best Beaches for Wildlife
- Best Surfing Beaches in Costa Rica
- Costa Rica’s Unique Retreats & Resorts
- Surf’s Up in Costa Rica
- Off-The-Beaten-Path Eco-Adventures
- Costa Rica Family-Friendly Adventures
- Adrenaline Rush
Nicoya’s beaches require a month to sample in earnest. One week to 10 days should be sufficient to sample a few of the best beaches. In the north, Tamarindo makes a good base for exploring farther afield, but the layout of the coast roads is not conducive to round-trip travel. It’s perhaps best to keep moving on, north or south.
If white sand floats your boat, head to Playa Flamingo or nearby Playa Conchal, which is backed by the country’s largest resort hotel, complete with golf course and water sports. Montezuma, a charming little community on the southern tip of Nicoya, also has a superb white-sand beach.
There’s no shortage of options for accommodations for any budget, although reservations are highly recommended for holiday periods, when Ticos flock.
The most complete services and range of accommodations are found at Tamarindo, a surfing center with a wide range of other activities, hotels, and fine restaurants. Playas del Coco and adjacent beach resorts of Ocotal and Hermosa, while less attractive than other beaches, are bases for sportfishing and scuba diving.
Surfers can choose from dozens of beaches: the best begin at Playa Grande and extend south to Malpaís and Playa Santa Teresa; many are remote and have few, if any, facilities. Playa Camaronal to Manzanillo, with several superb and lonesome beaches—almost all favored by marine turtles for nesting—is a fabulous adventure to reach by four-wheel-drive.
Two nature experiences stand out: a visit to Marino Las Baulas National Park to see the leatherback turtles laying eggs, and the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge during its unique mass invasions of olive ridley turtles. These are, for me, the most momentous guaranteed wildlife encounters in Costa Rica. Curú National Wildlife Refuge and Cabo Blanco Absolute Wildlife Reserve offer their own nature highlights, as does Nosara, another prime surf destination.
Don’t leave Nicoya without visiting the village of Guaitíl, where Chorotega families make pottery in the same fashion their ancestors did 1,000 years ago. Nearby, Barra Honda National Park is the nation’s preeminent spelunking site. El Viejo Wildland Refuge & Wetlands offers a fantastic way to explore the wetlands of Palo Verde National Park, by amphibious vehicle. For a literal overview of it all, take to the air in an auto-gyro with Flying Crocodile Ultralight Flight.
The best time to visit is December–April, when rain is virtually unheard-of (average annual rainfall is less than 150 centimeters in some areas). The rainy season generally arrives in May and lasts until November, turning dirt roads into muddy (and often impassable) quagmires that turn your journey into an Indiana Jones adventure. September and October are the wettest months. The so-called Papagayo winds—heavy northerlies (nortes)—blow strongly from January (sometimes earlier) through March and are felt mostly in northern Nicoya. Surfers rave about the rainy season (May–Nov.), when swells are consistent and waves—fast and tubular—can be 1.5 meters or more.
Getting to the Coast
Driving from San José to the coast resorts takes a minimum of four or five hours. A single highway (Hwy. 21) runs north–south along the eastern plains of Nicoya, linking Liberia with the towns of Filadelfia, Santa Cruz, and Nicoya, then south (deteriorating all the while) to Playa Naranjo, Paquera, Tambor, and Montezuma. Spur roads snake west over the mountains, connecting beach communities to civilization.
Excepting a short section south of Sámara, no paved highway links the various beach resorts, which are connected by a network of dirt roads roughly paralleling the coast; at times you will need to head inland to connect with another access road. Plan accordingly, and allow much more time than may be obvious by looking at a map.
Several sections require river fordings—no easy task in wet season, when many rivers are impassable (the section between Sámara and Malpaís is the most daunting and adventurous of wet-season drives in the country). A 4WD vehicle is essential. It’s wise to fill up wherever you find gas available (often it will be poured from a can—and cost about double what it would at a true gas station). The roads are blanketed with choking dust in dry season, although every year sees more and more roads paved.
The Pan-American Highway (Hwy. 1) via Liberia gives relatively easy access to the northern Nicoya via Highway 21, which runs west for 20 kilometers to Comunidad, gateway to Bahía de Culebra, the Playas del Coco region, and Tamarindo.
The main access to central Nicoya from Highway 1 is via the Puente de Amistad con Taiwan (Friendship with Taiwan Bridge), about 27 kilometers west of Highway 1 (the turnoff is two kilometers north of Limonal). Highway 18 connects with Highway 21.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition