Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Journey to the Southern Tip

This is a map of the Nicoya Peninsula:

It looks small but, as is the case with all of Costa Rica, it is time consuming and often difficult to get from one place to another. One of the areas we really wanted to explore before we leave is the southern tip of the Peninsula - down to Montezuma and Mal Pais. There are two ways to get from Nosara to the southern tip. One is the heavy black line that goes north, then east, then south. The other is the faint dotted line that goes south along the coast.

Lonely Planet has this to say about the coast road:
"If you are truly adventurous, have a lot of time on your hands and some experience driving in places where there is nary a road in sight, you might be ready to take on the southern Pacific coast of Peninsula de Nicoya. Make sure you have a 4WD with high clearence as well as a comprehensive insurance policy. Do not attempt this drive during the rainy season.... Take a jerry can of gas, your favorite snack foods, and plenty of water - if you break down, plan on spending some quality time on your own or with your traveling companion. For very good reason, Costa Rica's tourist office recommends against undertaking this journey."
Oh, for goodness sakes, that seems a bit overly dramatic, don't you think? However, it was enough to push us to: 1) get in gear and get on the road before the rains get heavier; 2) get a rental car instead of taking our jalopy, and; 3) check the tide schedule and save the coast road for our return trip during low tide.

So on Saturday we took the "main" road up and over and down and made it Montezuma in about 4 hours. Montezuma, or "Montefuma" as some like to call it, is described by Lonely Planet as a charming and tranquil village still well in touch with its hippie roots. We arrived without a reservation anywhere and based on a few descriptions in the guide book and a drive down the main road, we chose to stay at a lovely little inn on the edge of town. A step up from our usual travel acommodations, the place was perched at the edge of the rocky coastline and beautifully landscaped with a large lawn strewn dozens of hammocks, benches and lounge chairs. Very unlike Nosara, where not only are there no lawns, but there is no development that close to the beach. It felt more Hawaii than Costa Rica.

That evening we ate at an adorable beachside restaurant and had what was probably the best restaurant dinner we've had in Costa Rica. Ceviche, a bok choy and ricotta tort, fresh thick crusty bread, caprese salad (fresh mozzerella!), and chile rellenos with cheese (not quite up to par with Dona Tomas, but darn good and the only chile rellenos I've had in almost a year!). Everything was very fresh and very flavorful, as in FULL of FLAVOR. Yum.

However, aside from the delicious meal, we weren't too taken with Montezuma. It was very small, practically devoid of children, and seemed to have an almost seedy element to it. It did not present the open friendly vibe that most Costa Rican towns do. We didn't have a real desire to stay there longer, so the next morning after hiking to a waterfall and getting caught in the rain, we packed up and headed around the tip (well, up and over the tip) of the Peninsula to Mal Pais.

Mal Pais refers to the southwestern corner of the Peninsula and encompasses several small villages that all seem to run together along one main road that parallels the ocean. Mal Pais seemed immediately friendlier than Montezuma somehow. It reminded us of Nosara in many ways, as it is clearly another laid back beach community where many expats have settled and are now raising children. There is even a bilingual Montessori school. Interestingly, there is also a large Israeli community, and we saw many restaurants with signs in Hebrew.

Mal Pais appears bigger and more "developed" than Nosara. Though, like Nosara, there is not much development right on the beach (at least no resorts or high rise condos), there was a lot of commerce along the main (still dirt) road. Lots and lots of restaurants. Lots and lots of variety of food. Based on another recommendation, we had our second best restaurant meal in Costa Rica (or maybe it was a tie for first). An out of the way, beautiful little SUSHI place. The Japanese sushi chef running the place kept the menu limited to a few kinds of fish and designed a huge variety of options based on those fish (grouper and tuna), shrimp and octopus, and some chicken and beef. Everything was very fresh and very delicious. The restaurant also was home to three dogs, one of which was a tiny puppy, so while Ian and I ate and ate, Sadie played with the puppy and a little girl who lived there.

Oh, and the acommodations we chose. Sigh. As you know, we are devoid of a steady income this year and therefore during our travels we stay in places that fall under the "budget" category. Now don't get me wrong, we aren't hauling our rolling suitcases into the backpacker hostels - there are a few luxuries I refuse to do without, such as a private room. Our usual accommodations are small, basically clean, and functional with no frills. Perhaps because we are headed quickly to the end of our sabbatical, we decided to live it up during this trip and significantly upgraded our lodgings. Our home away from home for one luxurious night was a beautiful wooden cabin on a hill above the ocean. Two stories, two bathrooms, two little decks, a hammock. To give you some perspective on our usual acommodations versus this one, this was the first hotel we've stayed in this year that provided shampoo and conditioner! Oh, the luxury! Plus, English magazines! Bathrobes! Free movies! We even splurged for massages (my first in Costa Rica), in the open air massage palapa! Let me tell you, it was tough to leave Horizon Ocean View Hotel and Yoga Center.

Hotel grounds with "Massage Palapa" in foreground

But leave we must. Determined to take the coast road home (see description above), we stopped at the grocery store for water, peanut butter, bread, avocados, cheese, chips, and more water, and hit the road going north in our rented Jimny (which was apparently named for Jiminy Cricket owing to its size. I've never seen anything with 4WD so small).

Mmmm..."Chis Wis"

The road north along adjacent to the beach quickly got smaller and less and less maintained until it finally ended at someone's beach house. We had heard that we would have to drive on the beach for a portion of the way, so we veered off the road and onto the sand. It was unnerving to drive on the deserted beach so close to the waves as a passenger, but even more unnerving for the driver, Ian, who had more firsthand knowledge of how the car was "handling" plowing through sinking sand. I kept a positive attitude, however, insisting that the tide was going to continue to recede for several more hours, so we had plenty of time to keep going on the beach with hopes of eventually finding a road to turn onto (with some wiggle room to turn back if we had to).

Things were going along rather well, at least the car was still moving in the sand, until the sandy beach gave way to rocky intertidal. Hmmm.... We got out and walked the tidepools and decided to go for it. I wish I had taken a picture of the Jimny hugging the bottom of the cliff and trying to avoid the largest and deepest tidepools...but the moment was a little too nervewracking to stop and pose. Once back on "solid" sand, we really really kept our eyes open for any possible road.

We did finally find a way off the beach and were happy to be back on a small muddy path, rather than the beach. Until the path ended at a large river. We knew we had to ford a few rivers on the coast road but not only did this look too large to possibly be fordable, but there also didn't appear to be anything resembling a road on the other side. We pondered our choices for a while then decided to retrace our steps back to the beach and continue on the sand until we could find another road. Just as we were getting back in the car, two pickup trucks drove up the pathway. The driver of the first truck asked us where we were going then suggested we follow him as he led the second truck across the river. So we did. Turns out the river was fordable, even in the Jimny, and that further along the bank on the other side, just past those shrubs, was a road. After successfully reaching the road, we all stopped and we explained to the truck driver that we were going to go back to the beach and drive further north. Oh dear, that would NOT have been a good idea, he says.

After leaving us and the second truck with instructions, the first pickup went back the way he came, and we followed the second truck through another large river. We convoyed together for an hour or so, stopping occasionally to compare maps and agree on turns, until they stopped for a break and we continued on.

The road was slow but relatively easy to travel from there, and took us through miles of beautiful Costa Rican forests, pastures, villages, coast lines and mountain passes.

We stopped once to eat our bread and cheese and avocado at the cleanest, most well maintained beach I've ever seen in Costa Rica (or maybe anywhere).

Very impressive garbage/recyling collection. Even a can only for coconuts!

We made it home in about 4 1/2 hours, and all in all it was a great drive. My dad, the King of Back Road Driving, would have loved it.

Note to Lonely Planet for next printing: Keep the part about not attempting the road without a 4wd or in the rainy season, but feel free to scale back on the drama.


  1. GREAT! I almost feel like I now went with you guys- you described it so well! Check that off my list...oops, forgot, only Rick has done it.

    Now I know where to stay though. I'm so glad you didn't ask me about a rental car. i don't think I would have let you take a Jimmy, little clearance.... would have been worried for you guys. It sounds like a really memorable family adventure and optimum timing. Like by maybe days even, optimum!

  2. Sounds like a real adventure (especially for the poor sea stars in intertidal under your tires. Ha!

    Keep that sense of adventure OK?!

  3. Yes, Heidi, definitely a memorable adventure and most certainly optimal timing!
    Kym - Ha! I was wondering who'd be the first to bring up the whole "intertidal organism impact" issue! I swear the tidepools were utterly devoid of life when we barreled across them. Not even a limpet was harmed.

  4. Wow! I'm glad I didn't know about this before. I would definitely have worried. Great adventure though and makes for a great story!

  5. I just want to give recognition to Sadie as the back-seat passenger. She's obviously a total trooper and brave as well! At her age I would have been a car-sick nervous wreck on a trip like that. Kudos to you all for your awesome sense of adventure and the good fortune that smiles upon you!