Southern peninsula

From Nicoya, Highway 21 continues southeast skirting close to the towns of Holancha and Carmona, before running along the eastern flank of the peninsula with fine views of the gulf and small villages with sodas and cafés for refreshment. Although the road is asphalted, it takes a fair pounding from traffic and there are some axle-crunching potholes that almost stops at Playa Naranjo. Ferries from Puntarenas provide an easier route to Naranjo, and to Paquera further round the peninsula, from where the road heads west to the popular destinations of Montezuma, Malpaís and Santa Theresa.

Playa Naranjo

Deceptive to the last, there are no oranges and only fair beaches in Playa Naranjo, which is little more than a ferry dock with a few overpriced
sodas
, a restaurant and a gas station.

Paquera

A small village 22 km along the coast from Playa Naranjo, Paquera is reached overland along one of Costa Rica's more deceptive roads. Seemingly a natural connection to the southernmost tip of the peninsula, the road climbs and falls over and around the rocky headland for the mind-numbingly slow trip towards the main tourist areas. If you're out exploring, a 4WD is recommended for the bone-shaking journey. If you're coming from Puntarenas, get the boat to Paquera where there are a few shops and some simple lodgings, for example Cabinas Rosita, on the inland side of the village. It is separated from the quay by a kilometre or so, where apart from a good
soda,
one restaurant, a public telephone, a petrol station and a branch of Banco de Costa Rica, there are few facilities. You will, however, find transport heading west to Tambor and beyond.

Playa Tambor

From Paquera the road improves. Once a quiet fishing village, Tambor makes for a pleasant and quiet stopping point, with a dark sand beach stretching for 6 km around Bahía Ballena. The town has a handful of shops and restaurants, but apart from that you'll be entertaining yourself all day lying on the beach and taking walks along the sand.

Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Curú

Between Bahía Ballena and Paquera the Curú National Wildlife Refuge vies for the title of smallest protected area in the country with a mere 70 ha which nevertheless packs an impressively diverse punch. Rising from the three beaches, perfect for swimming and snorkelling, there are five different lifezones, including red mangrove swamps. Mammals are equally diverse with white-tailed deer, raccoons, pacas and capuchin monkeys visible to the patiently quiet.

Cóbano

Little more than a junction for travellers passing through, Cóbano can be reached by bus from the Paquera ferry terminal. Its primary interest to visitors to the area is a branch of Banco Nacional, a petrol station and road access, by 4WD and in only the best conditions, to the north of the peninsula if the rivers are low enough. Ask locally for conditions - and listen to the answer.

Montezuma

Once a quiet sleepy hamlet, Montezuma is a small village which has become one of the most popular budget traveller destinations along the coast. Montezuma made its way onto the tourist circuit by virtue of its reputation for having a laid-back alternative lifestyle. These days it is no longer a secret hideaway, attracting as many holiday makers as backpackers, and you shouldn't expect to see much of the
Tico
way of life. At busy periods, hotels fill up every day, so check in early.

Although it gets crowded, there are some wonderful beaches, rounded off by rocky points, great for exploring tidal pools. Go for beautiful walks along the tree-lined beach, visit impressive waterfalls and, further afield, Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve , is an easy and enjoyable day trip.

Cabuya

A small town 9 km south of Montezuma along the coast road, Cabuya lies close to the southwestern most point of the peninsula, and 2 km from the entrance to Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve. It's a quiet spot and there's not much to do - and so it's fantastically relaxing as a result. At low tide, you can wade out to
Isla Cabuya
. A rough 4WD-only road leads west to Malpaís.

Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco

www.caboblancopark.com.

Neatly covering the southwestern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve is a precious reserve, both ideologically and biologically. Created in 1963, it is the oldest protected area in the country apart from the frontier corridor to the north with Nicaragua. The reserve is the legacy of Nicolás Wessberg and his wife Karen Mogensen who set out to preserve the stands of moist forest as development gradually denuded the surrounding area. The land was finally donated to the National Parks programme in 1994, when Doña Karen bequeathed the land to the state.

Today, the 1370-ha reserve is easily visited on short trips from nearby Montezuma. The reserve is home to tracts of evergreen and deciduous tree species in the beautiful moist forest that fringes the beaches and rocky headlands. With roughly 2300 mm of rain a year, this is one of the wettest spots on the peninsula.

Carmen, Malpaís and Santa Teresa

From Cóbano a road leads west for 11 km to Carmen, splitting to head south for Malpaís, a rocky beach at the northern limits of the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve. The right fork at Carmen leads to the beach at Santa Teresa, with long white beaches, creeks and natural pools stretching along the coast.

Once a quiet spot, the area is now buzzing with activity, from surfers, creative bohemians and conventional foreign families and investors; the growing community is strangely close-knit and very friendly. There is an organic market every Saturday morning at Playa Carman, and regular community beach clean ups. Unlike small villages packed with tourists, such as neighbouring Montezuma, life here is spread throughout the long stretch between Malpaís and Santa Teresa creating a great mix of both lively activity and empty pockets of beach and deserted hiking trails around the hills.

These two villages have expanded along the beach to meet in the middle. They have become a surf Mecca for all nationalities from the US to UK, or Switzerland to Sweden. There is a relaxed beach vibe, reminiscent of Kuta in Bali in the early days of surf exploration. It's also becoming popular for those seeking a yoga retreat. The Mal Pais crossroads has recently seen new developments including appartments and shops, now boasting a modern bank with ATM (open seven days a week). The road north to Santa Teresa is prone to flooding in the rainy season, and is bumpy and dusty during the high season. Rumours of a new tarmac road abound. Surfing in Malpaís is good for beginners and there are a number of surf camps and surf shops here, however, the surf to the north in Santa Teresa is best left to the more experienced. (Note that some European surfers find it cheaper to buy a surfboard in Santa Teresa, use it for a week, then sell it back to the shop, rather than pay board carriage on airlines.)

The best way to get around is to hire a bike, but quads are available.

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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