Santa Cruz to Nicoya

Santa Cruz

Heading from Liberia down Highway 21, the first town of any real size in the surrounding area is Santa Cruz (52 km), with a population of just under 18,000. Known as Costa Rica's 'National Folklore City', January is the month for the festival of Santo Cristo de Esquipulas with its colourful fiestas, dancing and regional food. (July 25th is Guanacaste Day and the town also celebrates this in some style with dancing and music.)

For much of the rest of the year, it's a quiet little town serving as a transport and supply hub. If you're heading for self-catering accommodation, Santa Cruz is a good place to stock up on basics. Activity focuses on a rather bare square called Plaza de los Mangos. While in town, take a look at the modern church with its fine stained-glass images that spray a rainbow of colours across the congregation. The tower of the old church is monument to the earthquakes that shake the region.

Guatil

An easy and worthwhile excursion meandering through cattle pastures and small settlements, the town of Guatil is 12 km east of Santa Cruz. The neat lines of pots and plates seen laid out along the road in parts of the peninsula are mostly produced here and the town still makes the hand-crafted and oven-baked red and black pieces. You can visit a few studios (easily found along the road), just drop in and have a look at what is on offer. If you're interested in the manufacturing process, stick your head round the back and nose around - with luck, you'll get the full low-down on techniques and plants used to make the dyes. Naturally, items are for sale as well, with prices slightly cheaper than stalls along the main road. Buses leave Santa Cruz every couple of hours.

Nicoya

At the heart of the peninsula, Nicoya (population 25,000) is a pleasant little market town, distinguished by possessing the country's second oldest church. Like Santa Cruz, Nicoya is an important regional transport and supply centre, with links to the beach communities of Sámara and Nosara to the south, the Tempisque ferry to the east, and Playa Naranjo on the southeastern tip of the peninsula.

The church of San Blas has a pulpit dating back to the 16th century, while the actual building was consecrated in 1644. Looking every bit its age, the church has undergone periodic renovation over the years.

For most of the year the town beats to the gently percussive rhythm of commerce. On the 12 December, however, it lets its hair down by celebrating the Fiesta de la Yegüita, with dancing parades, fireworks, bullfights and music.

Parque Nacional Barra Honda

A limestone outcrop to the west of Nicoya creates the largest cave system in Costa Rica and forms the heart of Barra Honda National Park (2295 ha). Rising to a plateau of just over 500 m, the steep sided hills are the result of fault movements. A network of 42 caves has been discovered to date but only 19 having been officially explored, making this a focus of attention for the serious spelunker.

Because access is fairly difficult, the Barra Honda caves are in excellent condition. Most people enter through the Terciopelo Cave, which is richly adorned with stalactites and stalagmites - formed by deposits of calcium carbonate and the trickling of water from the roof of the caves. The flutes of one, The Organ, provide an eerie accompaniment to the darkness, producing musical notes when gently tapped. Santa Ana cave descends for over 240 m, while the Trampa cave has the longest single vertical descent at 52 m. The musty aroma is interrupted at the Pozo Hediondo (Stinking Pothole) - named after the only cave with a large bat population, whose droppings produce the smell. Nicoa cave stands out for mention - human remains and pre-Columbian artefacts have been found here.

Above ground there are a few trails leading up and across the plateau with fine views across the peninsula and the Gulf of Nicoya. One trail leads to La Cascada - an impressive waterfall flowing over calcium deposits, but you'll need a guide to get here as the trails have been hopelessly muddled by cow paths.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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