The Gulf of Nicoya, Costa Rica
The Gulf of Nicoya which separates the Nicoya Peninsula from the mainland of Costa Rica is a stunning marine and coastal landscape of wetlands, jagged rocky islands and cliffs, extensive mangrove habitat, and high biodiversity. A geological fault has once caused the land to submerge, leaving exposed only the tops of what were formerly low hills. These are the numerous islands which today dot the Gulf of Nicoya.
At its upper end, the Gulf is shallow and muddy. The Tempisque River washes much soil and organic material into the estuary, and mangrove swamps thrive on the shores. In Costa Rica mangroves are protected because they play an important role for aquatic life. In their foliage birds are nesting and the mud at their roots shelters mussels, crabs and shrimps. Located along the banks of the Tempisque River is the Palo Verde National Park which is home to one of Central America’s most densely populated areas of migratory birds.
The water in the upper Gulf is rich in nutrients, allowing algae to flourish which feeds fish and mollusks. Most of the area’s inhabitants depend on food from the sea. From July to August however, nobody is allowed to fish, as this is the breeding time for maritime life.
The lower Gulf of Nicoya is much different from the upper part. There are few mangroves and the area is even less populated. Densely forested hills and promontories touch the sea, closing off secret bays. The water here is saltier, clearer and much deeper: between 30 and 180 meters. There are many fish in the lower Gulf but by far fewer shrimp and shellfish.
Currently, only few of Costa Rica’s tourists visit this region – an advantage for those who love nature instead of crowds.
From Naranjo to Paquera
On the Nicoya Peninsula the only reliable road connection between the provinces Guanacaste and Puntarenas is along the Gulf of Nicoya. Other tracks connecting the northern with the southern province are only seasonally driveable and you need a car with 4WD. See » Driving from Manzanillo to Playa Coyote.
Few people live in this region and the lush jungle touching the sea and covering the islands gives a wild beauty to rocky cliffs, promontories and bays. Same as in many other remote parts of the world, these lonesome beaches are also littered with plastic trash. It originates from the metropolitan area of Costa Rica and is washed into the Gulf by the rivers.
Playa Naranjo isn’t much more than the ferry slip, a small hotel and an abandoned gas station. A short drive from Naranjo is the Karen Mogensen Eco Reserve with trails through the jungle, river swimming pools and waterfall.
3 km south from Naranjo a side road to the left leads to Playa Blanca which looks upon the Sugarhat Island and the former prison island Isla San Lucas.
The cove of Playa Blanca has white coral sand and turquoise waters where you can snorkel and swim.
On the same road is also a small supermarket, restaurant and some dispersed villas and vacation rentals of the Roma del Mar development.
Further down the main road to Paquera you come close to the shore at Bahia Gigante, a crescent sandy bay with dark sand which is nice for a break and a snack in Ericka’s cozy little restaurant by the beach. From here you look upon Isla Gitana which lies 400 m offshore. In pre-columbian times it had been used as a cemetery island.
Isla Gitana protects the Bahia Gigante and the adjacent Bahia Luminosa, making them a safe and picturesque anchor place for sail boats.
5 km further on you pass through the hamlet of Rio Grande. From here you can make a tour on horseback into the hills to get to the “El Salto” waterfall with its swimming holes. Also close to Rio Grande is the small, scenic cove of Playa Pájaro where you can swim and relax under huge old trees.
From Rio Grande it’s another 7 km drive until Paquera, which is locally known for producing vegetables and fruits. In Paquera you find supermarkets, an ATM cashier, a gas station and some nice options for staying overnight. Cabinas in Paquera are inexpensive compared to the popular tourist spots. Although there isn’t much to do in the small village Paquera is a good basis for visiting the Curu Wildlife Reserve which is only 5 km away. Local operators also offer boat and snorkeling tours to the Tortuga Islands or scuba diving.
Four km out of Paquera is the terminal for the ferries to Puntarenas. On the way to the ferry terminal a road to the right goes to Playa Organos, a placid wide bay with a picture-perfect sandy beach, surrounded by jungle. The bay is safe for swimming and you have views to the Tortuga Islands. Don’t forget a repellent, as there are sometimes many bugs on Playa Organos.
The road Ruta Nacional 160
The last years a lot of work has been done on the Ruta National 160 – the road from Santa Cruz to Cobano. In 2020 the remaining 24 km of unpaved road between Paquera and Playa Naranjo have been fixed. This stretch of road leads through mountainous areas and enormous quantities of earth were moved to cut a broad highway straight throught the dense jungle.
However there is still no public bus between Paquera and Playa Naranjo. Without own vehicle you have to cross the Gulf by ferry to continue by bus from Puntarenas. Or use a private shuttle from Samara, Nosara or Tamarindo to Montezuma, Mal Pais and Santa Teresa.