The Top 16 Must-Do Highlights of the Nicoya Peninsula
Imagine a place so beautiful, tranquil, and refreshing that it enhances the health and well-being of anyone who lives there? That’s the Nicoya Peninsula in a nutshell! Read on to discover the top 16 must-do highlights of this magical destination in Costa Rica.
The Nicoya Peninsula is one of Costa Rica’s most delightful off-the-beaten-path destinations. It is roughly 80 miles long and 40 miles wide and blessed with long stretches of pristine sandy beaches and mountainous rain forests replete with exotic wildlife.
This is one of Costa Rica’s least-developed corners and is often overlooked by mainstream tourists. However, those looking to get off the usual touristy path find their heaven here. Recently, the peninsula has gained popularity among surfing crowds and anyone after a relaxing wellness experience.
The most popular activities to enjoy here are surfing, yoga retreats, beach combing, water sports, and spotting nesting turtles in season.
Nicoya: a recipe for a long, happy, and healthy life
Long renowned as one of the healthiest and happiest places on earth, Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula is one of the world’s five original Blue Zones. This northwestern region boasts such an idyllic lifestyle that it is home to the highest number of centenarians on the planet.
On average, people here are about twice as likely to reach 90 years of age as North Americans. Experts have put this down to the local diet (made up mostly of organically grown fresh produce), strong family and community ties (for that all-important human connection), calcium-enriched water (fewer bone fractures than usual, even at an elderly age), and a strong sense of purpose. Life on Nicoya is still inherently tied to agriculture and hasn’t really changed much over the years. Locals don’t retire: they simply continue working the land with their families for as long as they can. As it turns out, this can be a very long time indeed.
Naturally, you need not live there to soak up the benefits of its pristine wilderness and multitude of anti-stress remedies. An immersive Costa Rica adventure vacation on the Nicoya Peninsula is enough to rejuvenate even the most stressed-out exec.
About the Nicoya Peninsula
Separated from the mainland by a small estuary and a namesake gulf, the Nicoya is only remote on paper. In reality, it takes merely two hours by car to reach it from either the San Jose or Liberia airports.
The majority of the population is clustered in charming seaside towns while inland you’ll discover a lot of nature and not many people. On the coast, villages are small and laid-back. Tourist activities are centered on surfing and water sports, as well as hiking and wildlife-watching.
The most popular bases are the towns of Santa Teresa, Nosara, Mal Pais, Montezuma, and Cabuya. Eco-lodges, surfing hostels, hotels, and rental villas abound, but note that you’ll want to get around in a 4WD to reach even the most popular towns. Perfectly asphalted roads don’t exist here!
Wondering what there is to see and do in this sublime corner of paradise?
Here are the top 16 must-do highlights of the Nicoya Peninsula:
1. Go surfing on Playa Tamarindo
Nicoya’s surfing beaches are legendary, none more so than Playa Tamarindo. This is the reputed best surfing beach in the whole country and you’ll find it on the northwestern border of the peninsula. This is a well-developed part of Costa Rica and is favored for its particularly dry climate. In fact, the northern and southern sections of the Nicoya can easily be considered two worlds apart in this respect.
Surfing is what defines Nicoya to a T, so exceptional waves can also be caught all over the coast. Beginners tend to favor Mal Pais and Playa Hermosa, while more experienced surfers should head to Santa Teresa, after having tamed the Tamarindo beasts.
2. Catch glorious rays on Playa Carrillo (even with kids in tow)
Families love Playa Carrillo because it is almost completely devoid of big waves. Add a stretch of impossibly beautiful sandy shores, swaying palm trees, and breathtaking sunsets, and you’ve got a Nicoya beach made in heaven.
Just south of uber-famous Samara Beach (which tends to attract bigger crowds) Carrillo is quieter and boasts a glorious coral reef near the shore that’s ideal for snorkeling. Enjoy the picnic set up under the shade of palm trees and the long half-moon shores. A favored beach for locals, Carrillo can get busy on weekends but there’s usually always a chance to find some peace and quiet here.
3. Enjoy yoga and laid-back sundowners in Santa Teresa
Often dubbed the Tulum of Costa Rica, the remote village of Santa Teresa is enjoying a crazy surge in popularity right now. The enchanting beach town boasts unpaved roads, loads of wellness retreats, amazing food (more international options available), and a sublimely chilled-out vibe. This has now become THE most happening surfing town on the entire peninsula.
Since this quaint little town hit the news a few years back (thanks to Giselle Bundchen and Tom Brady buying a house here), an increasing array of luxury options for accommodation and activities have sprung up. Great news for anyone who wants more comfort while still getting way off the beaten path.
Surfing and swimming beaches in and around Santa Teresa have now made this the most popular base of all.
4. Go horseback riding in Cabuya
What do you get when you have a stunning western-facing beach, stunning wilderness, and tropical climate? A romantic sunset horseback riding tour, of course!
Horseback riding is offered all over the Nicoya, but we think the torus on offer in Cabuya are sensational. The tiny hamlet is nestled just east of the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, the resplendent park on the southern tip of the peninsula.
This is the remotest and wildest corner you can visit, one home to ranches offering day-long and multiple-day horseback riding experiences.
5. Watch nesting turtles on Ostional beach
Two of the best night tours in Costa Rica take place on the Nicoya Peninsula. The most famous is the turtle testing tours in Ostional on the Nicoya Peninsula, which run from the end of May, all the way to October. The protected beach at Ostional attracts Olive Ridley turtles in extraordinary numbers.
These mass nesting events, called arribadas, are among the most magnificent natural events you could experience, anywhere in the world.
6. Enjoy the nightlife action in Playa Samara
Adventure vacations on the Nicoya don’t tend to focus on nightlife action. Usually, everyone is far too wiped out from the day’s thrilling activities to even consider a night out on the town. But if you think you might want to stay somewhere a little more ‘vibrant’ then Playa Samara is for you.
Between the beach tapas bars, wine bars, dance clubs, and live-music venues, you are sure to find plenty of after-dark entertainment here.
7. Visit Isla Tortuga
As mentioned above, Montezuma is one of the popular bases for Nicoya adventures. The town itself doesn’t hold tremendous appeal but it does offer the shortest boat transfers to Isla Tortuga, one of Nicoya’s prime highlights.
Turtle Island, as the name translates in English, is heaven on earth. A protected nature reserve boasting just enough amenities to make a day visit super comfy (deck chairs, kayak rental, snacks, drinks, and more), this amazing island offers excellent SCUBA and snorkeling options. In high season, boats run daily and trips take just under one hour. Spend a whole day at the beach here and you’ll feel incredibly rejuvenated!
8. Take a wildlife-watching cruise in the Palo Verde National Park
One of Costa Rica’s magical mangroves, Palo Verde is a hive of biodiversity, attracting an insane array of migrating birds between December and April, which join countless resident species. Meander the rare ecosystems of Palo Verde in search of giant jaribou storks on boat rides in wet season, and explore the park on foot during the dry season.
No matter when you visit, Palo Verde is a must!
9. Hike the Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve
If you’re staying in Montezuma for a night or two to visit Isla Tortuga, then you’ll have Cabo Blanco at your doorstep.
Comprising the southernmost cape of the Nicoya Peninsula, Cabo Blanco is best visited on a one-day hike, given that most of the reserve is actually impenetrable. Aside from being drop-dead-gorgeous, Cabo Blanco is revered for being Costa Rica’s first-ever protected reserve. It’s been kept pristine since the 60s and a visit is an incredibly rewarding experience.
Read our Cabo Blanco guide before visiting, and find out where to go and what to expect.
10. Go chasing the Montezuma Waterfalls
A series of three waterfalls just east of Montezuma town will entice you to spend an entire day frolicking in the refreshing water. Enjoy the hike up the river and reward yourself with a swim, picnic, and relaxing afternoon.
The three-level waterfall offers easy and more challenging access depending on your fitness level. The first pool is undoubtedly the most popular, so keep hiking up to reach the higher levels to enjoy it with fewer visitors. The upper levels are accessed via bridges built by a local tour operator, who charges a few dollars for access. Money well spent!
11. Go zip lining in Montezuma
The Montezuma Waterfalls can be visited on a thrilling zip line course as well. Currently, two companies offer canopy tours down south: the one connecting you to the waterfalls and a longer, faster and higher course just outside Mal Pais.
12. Visit the Curu National Wildlife Refuge
Located near Tambor in southern Nicoya, Curu is part of a privately-owned bio-reserve home to a local farm ranch and a small pocket of wilderness awash with monkeys, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, iguanas, racoons, deer and masses of ghost crabs on the beach.
You can choose to stay overnight in one of the farm’s cabins and rent kayaks on the beach, for a truly immersive Nicoya wilderness experience.
13. Explore the mysterious caves at Barra Honda
One of the least known but most fascinating national parks in Costa Rica, Barra Honda is a hidden Nicoya gem. It straddles the area where the peninsula meets the mainland and comprises a complex limestone cave system that’s still being explored by scientists.
The Barra Honda underworld is mesmerizing and the above-ground hiking trails offer ample options for fantastic wildlife-watching. Right now, tours must be guided and only a section of the enormous complex is open for visitors.
Here’s our guide to discovering the Barra Honda National Park.
14. Experience the magic of bio luminescence at Bahia Rica
The second awesome night tour in Nicoya is to see the otherworldly bio luminescence at Bahia Rica, on the south-eastern corner of the peninsula. This glow-in-the-dark plankton is best viewed on overcast nights and, if one is forecast, you’ll find local kayaking tours selling out fast.
Tours cast off from the Bahia Rica Kayak Lodge and last around one hour. Departure times differ depending on the month and weather conditions. Suitable for beginner kayakers, the tours are on calm water and only require a minimum of equipment, aside the rented kayak. Bring a head torch and make sure you have water shoes and bug spray with you.
The rest, will be taken care of by Mother Nature!
15. Feast on health-boosting local produce
Soak up the health benefits of the local Blue one diet and treat your taste buds to glorious local food when visiting the Nicoya Peninsula.
Most of the lodges and hotels in this area of Costa Rica place heavy emphasis on serving up locally grown organic produce. Farm to table experiences abound and include delicious avocado, guava, mango and a local variety of passionfruit called granadita. Fresh fruit juices and whole coconuts are sold everywhere and you’ll find stalls at the entrance of all major attractions (like the Montezuma waterfalls).
Cabuya is also famous for its abundance of local producers, who make honey, jams, and coconut oils.
Follow in the footsteps of those who’ve come (and feasted) before you: check out the top 10 best-rated restaurants in Nicoya on TripAdvisor.
16. Stay in a luxury boutique resort in Santa Teresa
Well, we did promise you could indulge in luxury on Nicoya, and luxury you shall have!
We collaborate with a handful of gorgeous hotels in and around Santa Teresa. Of course, we are always happy to arrange any accommodation option you prefer (by location and budget), but if you do want a little luxury on your adventure vacation in Nicoya, Santa Teresa is where you’ll find it!
Ready to explore this off-beat, totally addictive corner of Costa Rica?
We can take you there!
Nicoya beats to a different drum than the rest of Costa Rica. The beaches here are as outstanding as any you’ll find on the mainland, yet their remoteness means they see far fewer visitors. This makes them unspoiled, laid-back, and immensely relaxing. They provide the perfect backdrop for adventures that are as eclectic as they are unforgettable.
The Nicoya Peninsula is tailor-made for adventure-seekers who are constantly on the hunt for unique experiences off the beaten path.
Where exactly is the Nicoya Peninsula and how can you reach it on your next Costa Rica adventure vacation? We detail it all, right here.