The recent spotting of humpbacks just off Playa Matapalo has once again highlighted the exceptional whale-watching value of Costa Rica’s stunning Gulf of Papagayo. With its warm, calm and inviting sea, this north-western gulf on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast attracts humpbacks almost six months out of every year, as well as dolphins galore. Our guests have reported seeing whales right off the beach here, from their resort balconies and on catamaran tours, making this one of the most rewarding marine-life spotting destinations in the whole country.
Read on to discover the best months to visit Playa Matapalo and the Gulf of Papagayo for whale-watching and all the other attractions and activities that make this one of Costa Rica’s most rewarding (and luxurious) adventure travel destinations.
Whale Watching Seasons in Costa Rica
Humpbacks are as in love with Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast as we are, migrating along the full length of the western coast on two main migrating seasons.
The primary humpback season runs from July to March, with December, January, February and March considered the very best months to spot the majestic beasts. Although you may not know any different, it’s interesting to know that the humpback season is so long here because two main species visit from two opposing directions (northern humpbacks head south from the Arctic and southern hemisphere humpbacks come up north from Antarctica), combining to create one, long, continuous whale-watching season for very lucky Costa Rica visitors.
Being so central makes this entire Latin American region host to the world’s longest whale migration season and that’s why Costa Rica, in particular, is one of the best destinations in the world to spot humpbacks.
In August and September, they return once more, bringing their young and settling in for weeks at a time in one of the many protected bays, among them the Gulf of Papagayo.
Whale Watching in the Gulf of Papagayo @ Playa Matapalo
Visit Playa Matapalo in the months between July and October (Green Season) and your chances of spotting whales are top-notch. Sailing and boating tours during this time will offer better chances for close-up encounters although, oftentimes, whales can be spotted right from the beach.
Visiting Matapalo during Green Season means you’ll probably have to deal with some afternoon rains (September is, traditionally, the wettest month of the year) although crowds, and prices, will be reduced when compared to the more popular Dec-Feb tourist period. Green Season travel in Costa Rica has many advantages, exceptional whale-spotting among the very best.
This most recent whale-spotting event on Playa Matapalo is not unheard of, but it is uncommon to spot whales here in February. Still, if you’re planning a beginning-of-year adventure trip, it will be worthwhile to head off on a catamaran sailing tour.
Although humpbacks are not the only species of whales that visit Costa Rica’s shores, they are the ones that stay closest to the surface of the water. They’re also very active and inquisitive and serve up spectacular acrobatic shows. This is the main reason the humpbacks are the most revered among whale-spotters – they are, for their incredible breaching habits, the most rewarding to see.
Overview of Playa Matapalo
Where is it? Nestled between Playa Hermosa in the north and Las Catalinas in the south (and on the southwestern end of the Gulf of Papagayo) Matapalo is a quiet and laid-back seaside village and a favorite among surfers and anyone who prefers a more chilled-out and uncrowded Costa Rica beach vacation. The seemingly endless sandy beach is ideal for those who love a morning job and long romantic walks on the beach. Head here early in the morning and you’ll see cheeky monkeys scouring the beach for leftover fruit, and will likely find that you have the whole beach to yourself.
What does it offer? Although the Papagayo Peninsula to the north is renowned for being the most luxurious destination in Costa Rica, home to a fantastic array of 5* all-inclusive resorts offering a mind-boggling array of services and activities, Matapalo, to the far south, is a much quieter and wilder alternative. There are still plenty of gorgeous resorts for you to enjoy and plenty of comforts and luxuries, yet here they’re offered in a much more rustic and authentic environment.
Why is this beach so special? Matapalo hides two sister-beaches to the west: Matapalo Blanca and Matapalito, the latter a breath-taking isolated cove that is best accessed by boat. These three lesser-known and lesser-visited beaches are absolutely stunning and offer the discerning adventurer a stunning reprieve from the at-times overcrowded beaches to the north and south. Sometimes, we’ll have guests looking for an out-there, unplugged and unspoiled destination in which to spend the last few days of their adventure vacation and, if they’re adventuring in Guanacaste and the travel-style suits, this is where we send them. For the right kind of beach lover, Matapalo is heaven on earth.
Who is it suited to? Framed by palm trees and backed by stunning mountains, Matapalo also happens to sit on one of the prettiest stretches of coast in all of Guanacaste and is as ideal for couples and families as it is for lone surfers. The beaches are clean and the waters are warm and calm close to the shore and that’s why it’s also suitable for families. If you’re after a crazy and exuberant nightlife, Matapalo Town will disappoint you but if you want to soak up the Pura Vida – and about the most gorgeous sunset vistas around – then this place will sing to your soul.
What else can you do here? Matapalo may feel like it’s in the middle of nowhere but it’s exceptionally well-connected to nearby national parks and, as such, offers a wealth of fun adventures. Fishing and catamaran tours are the area’s best activities, as are ATV excursions, canopy tours and ziplining, horseback riding on the beach
Where can you stay? Matapalo itself offers a limited choice as far as accommodation is concerned but, if you were to ask us, we’d say thing sings its praises more than anything else. There’s a reason the beaches here are never overcrowded! Having said that, your options increase exponentially if you were to stay just a few miles either north or south. Las Catalinas is probably our favorite family-friendly choice, a car-free village that covers just over 1000 acres of sensational seaside wilderness with two exquisite beaches and oodles of fun sports and activities. Catalinas is just to the south of Matapalo and staying here means you can really have the best of both (wild and fully-serviced) worlds.
The Best Attractions Around Playa Matapalo
When you’re out at sea spotting whales on Matapalo, you have the option of visiting these nearby attractions:
Diamante Eco Adventure Park – A spectacular wildlife and adventure park combined, Diamante is the kind of place you need a whole day to explore. Revered for being home to the second-longest dual zip-line in the whole continent, this amazing destination also hosts the largest wildlife refuge in all of Guanacaste, with a bevy of exotic creatures living in beautiful and natural surroundings. New to zip-lining? Read our zipline guide before you visit Costa Rica and discover our favorite zipline courses where you can enjoy the best and safest rides.
Nicoya Peninsula – Playa Matapalo is a wonderful springboard for amazing adventures in the reputed ‘wild west’ of Costa Rica. The Nicoya Peninsula is one of the country’s least developed regions, a striking wilderness haven home to drop-dead-gorgeous beaches, wildlife reserves, jungle hiking trails, a multitude of waterfalls and some of the most enchanting eco-lodges in the whole country.
Find more unforgettable adventures in the Guanacaste Province
At Costa Rica Rios, we organize award-winning adventure tours throughout Costa Rica (both fully and semi-guided vacations) and can offer as much support as you like. We cater primarily for adventure-seekers (adventure vacations are our niche) but can tailor-plan any itinerary to suit your personal wishes. For thrilling family, honeymoon and off-the-beaten-path adventures, we’re simply the best in Costa Rica!
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