Manzanillo, Santa Teresa

Manzanillo Costa Rica
Manzanillo, Pacific coast of Costa Rica

The beach of Manzanillo is shaded by stocky palm trees and old almendros leaning far out over the sand. Bathing is possible at mid to hight tide. During low tide be careful of underwater rocks. At low tide you can walk over the rocks to a shallow lagoon which is protected by a reef. It’s a good place for snorkeling and has the best light in the morning hours.

The best place for swimming is on Playa Ario, a 10-min hike north, across from the Rio Manzanillo. The coastal strip from here until the estuary of the Rio Bongo belongs to the » Wildlife Reserve Caletas Ario which protects sea turtles who come to these lonesome beaches to lay their eggs.

Manzanillo Beach
Fisher boats in Manzanillo

Although Manzanillo is only a 20 min drive away from the bustling surf town of » Santa Teresa the tranquil beach village has so far escaped touristic development. There aren’t any hotels in Manzanillo, only a small nature lodge hidden in the hills and some vacation rentals. A beachside restaurant serves typical Costa Rican dishes with nice beach and sunset views.

Most of the locals live one kilometer inland, in the small village of Belo Horizonte, where you find two grocery stores selling basic supplies.

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The coastal road from Mal Pais and Santa Teresa ends in Manzanillo. Further north the beach is a protected wildlife reserve for sea turtles and other maritime species. Although you might read and hear about the option to continue driving along the beach to get further north you may not do so. It is against Costa Rican laws and it kills maritime wildlife. You also risk to get stuck or drown your vehicle in a river or in the upcoming tide.

If you want to continue north, to Playa Coyote and Samara, you have to turn inland: » Road Map from Manzanillo to Playa Coyote.

The Caletas-Ario Wildlife Refuge

Seaturtle Sanctuary
Sea turtle hatching station

The area north of Manzanillo is one of the last long uninterrupted stretches of pristine beach wilderness on the Nicoya Peninsula.

Birds breed in the thickets at the river estuaries and sea turtles come to lay their eggs in the sand. The beach is an important nesting site for olive ridley and the highly endangered » leatherback seaturtles. In 2008 it has therefore been converted into a wildlife sanctuary which stretches from the Rio Manzanillo until » Punta Coyote.

In the middle of the 315 hectare reserve is the majestic Rio Bongo, the largest river on the Nicoya Peninsula. It forms the border between the provinces of Guanacaste and Puntarenas. Very near its estuary the Rio Bongo is joined by the Rio Ario and the Rio Cano Seco.

From Manzanillo to the estuary of the Rio Bongo it is 7 kms. Driving on the beach is strictly prohibited. You can take a tour on horseback, or walk by foot.

Rio Bongo
The landspit near the Bongo estuary

For hiking along the beach check on the tides, also take drinking water and protect yourself of the sun as there won’t be any shade. Before you arrive at the river mouth you wander along an extended spit of land which the river has formed over the years. Here you have the loud, pounding ocean on the one side, while on the other side is the calm and slowly flowing river.

At low tide you can cross the Rio Bongo by wading through waist-high water at the outer edge of the river mouth. Watch out for crocodiles who live in the river and sometimes swim out into the ocean.

If you still feel like it you can continue your hike on the other side of the Bongo. You will walk along the pristine beach of Playa Caletas until you reach Punta Coyote, 8 km from the Rio Bongo.

The Manzanillo Sandcastle Party

Manzanillo Sand Castle Contest
The sandcastle contest in Manzanillo

In Manzanillo, the most important party of the year comes in March with the annual sandcastle contest. People stake their claims in the early morning and spend the entire day building works of sand art.

Food stalls serve local dishes and beers and people from all neighboring communities come with their families and friends to party on the beach. Late in the day, when the tide comes up the sea will take most of the creations away to the ocean. The party however continues with live music and dancing until late into the evening.