The Southern Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

December 17th was the last day of the first semester of school for us.  Since the weather is so perfect here right now, our school has a bit of an extended break for the holidays.  We’ve had a month off of work, and we have taken full advantage of our first extended vacation.  We boarded a plane for the States the 18th and spent a week in Nashville and a week in Indiana.  We’d been out of the country for about five months, and it was a bit of a strange feeling being back home after that much time.  The biggest adjustment came on the roads – we actually had to stop at all red lights and stop signs, pass only in designated areas, and wait until the light turned green.  I had to actually remind myself not to swerve around slow cars in residential areas on two lane roads.  Making the long drive to Indiana, however, was so easy! Driving 75 mph on highways that were sometimes three or four lanes wide! I felt like I was Jerry on the episode of Seinfeld when Kramer paints over the lines to make the lanes wider.  It was also nice to get some good beef and Southern cooking!  We spent as much time as possible with friends and family, but the two weeks seemed to go by way too fast.  It felt like no time before we were boarding the plane back to San Jose.

A couple of days after getting back we were on the move again – this time to the Southern Nicoya Peninsula and the towns of Santa Teresa, Mal Pais, and Montezuma.

The roads in this region are notoriously horrendous even for Central American standards, so the easiest way to get there is by a ferry that leaves Puntarenas, a port town on the Central Pacific.  It was just under a two-hour drive to Puntarenas, an hour ferry to Pacquera, and a rough two-hour drive to Santa Teresa where our vacation rental was.

Ferry from Puntarenas
Ferry from Puntarenas

The roads in the area lived up to their reputation and then some.  Granted our car has a bit of a shake and a rattle on the best of roads, but this was in a different ball park than our driving experiences in the Central Valley.  You know the cartoons when someone is driving a car and it falls apart, and the driver is left holding the steering wheel as the rest of the car falls to the ground? I was sure that was going to happen at any moment on the rutted out gravel that leads to Santa Teresa and Mal Pais.  The roads didn’t improve much in town – no pavement, no gravel, just dust. This was a trip on which we were fortunate to have bought a car with four-wheel drive, which was necessary to even make it up the “road” to our cabin.  The view from our house to the water below was worth the off-roading, though.

View from our house in Santa Teresa
View from our house in Santa Teresa

All of the area was worth the somewhat difficult traveling.  The lack of good roads has kept development to somewhat of a minimum in the area.  There are plenty of small hotels/hostels, restaurants, and surf shops,  but there is little else – a nice change from the crowded streets of the Central Valley. Like many of the small beach towns here, there are no chain restaurants or hotels.  Maybe our best dining was at a small soda that was set up in front of a house just down the road from our house.  The owners built a makeshift wall in front of their house and built a small restaurant in their front yard.  We were the only people eating there, and I guess out of a courtesy to us, the son of the family who served as busboy and DJ changed the music.  The Spanish music stopped and then we heard the familiar sounds of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and George Strait.  As I looked up as “I’ve Been Everywhere” started playing, the boy looked back with a grin across his face.  It was perfect timing to hear a little bit of home after feeling like we had to leave the States too soon the week before.

Mal Pais and Santa Teresa are on the western side of the peninsula while Montezuma lies on the eastern side.  We’d heard about an impressive waterfall in Montezuma so we decided to make a day trip over and check it out. Since we’ve been here we’ve seen tons of pictures of waterfalls, and we’ve been itching to get to one.

Montezuma Waterfall
Montezuma Waterfall

Montezuma’s didn’t disappoint.  The waterfall was an awesome sight to see, and the cool water in the pool below offered a nice reprieve from the heat.  Many times in Costa Rica we have found secluded places to enjoy nature in solitude – not here.  The falls in Montezuma were more of international watering holes from backpackers from all over the world.  Really, the whole area, both sides of the peninsula, was somewhat of a hippie haven.  Everywhere you looked were dreadlocks and tattoos. I don’t know what caused this area to become labeled as the “it” place for young backpackers, but somehow it did, and they flock there.  It’s definitely not a knock on the area because the hippies don’t bother anyone, but it is interesting because the area is pretty tough to get to.  The guidebooks all rave about the “laid-back vibe” of the area, but we haven’t found many beaches around that aren’t laid-back.

Another interesting side-trip we took was to Cabuya Island, near Montezuma.  Later in the month we visited beautiful tropical islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama with crystal clear water and colorful, life-filled reefs.

Cabuya Island
Cabuya Island

Cabuya Island is nothing like that.  This island, accessible by foot at low tide, is a cemetery for the local people of Cabuya.  I don’t think there are too many island cemeteries that you can walk to across a natural land bridge at low tide, so it was something we decided to check out.  It was truly an eerie trip, even in the middle of the day.  Because fishing is prevalent in the area, it looks as if the ocean has dried up revealing a rocky barren landscape with fish carcasses strewn about, being feasted upon by hoards of buzzards.

On the walk to Island Cabuya
On the walk to Island Cabuya

It wasn’t the kind of place we expected to see on vacation in Costa Rica, but it was a unique experience that I don’t think we will soon forget. I’m usually the last person who wants to go check out a cemetery, but this is one I’m glad I visited.

Overall, it was a great trip.  The house we rented was perfect, the beaches were awesome, we got a couple of chances to snorkel, and we saw some new sites that we haven’t had the opportunity to see in Costa Rica yet.  I don’t think we would stay in Santa Teresa again, though.  It’s not that we didn’t like the town because we did, but it would be much easier to stay in Montezuma which is much closer to the ferry, and, therefore, a much easier trip from the Central Valley.  Be sure to check back in the next few days for a blog on our trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama!

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