North Puntarenas, Nicoya Gulf Islands and Monteverde
The province of Puntarenas is the largest, and one of the most important tourist regions of Costa Rica. It includes islands, coves, beaches and natural treasures of great beauty. Its destinations for sun and beach are complemented by unique protected forest areas. The city of Puntarenas is not only a place to visit, but is also a departure point for the southern Nicoya Peninsula, the Nicoya Gulf and its islands. Puntarenas is very close to the Central Valley – about 120 km (90 minutes) from the capital city of San Jose.
The southern Nicoya Peninsula is full of natural beauty and offers first-rate exquisite beaches. The Peninsula’s jagged and mountainous landscape has an isolating effect on many of the region’s small coastal towns and beaches, adding to their unique allure. Major sights include the beaches of Santa Teresa, Mal Pais, Montezuma and Tambor, the Cabo Blanco Absolute Natural Reserve, the Gulf islands of San Lucas, Chira and Tortuga, and the exceedingly remote and exotic Coco Island.
The community of Monteverde, located in the Central Highlands north of the city of Puntarenas, is an important region both nationally and internationally since it is known worldwide for its efforts in conservation and a lifestyle dedicated to respecting nature. At 1,440 meters high, cool, misty mountains and prehistoric-looking cloud forest has made the mountaintop paradise of Monteverde a favourite hot spot for ecotourism in Costa Rica. Its main attraction is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, with its unique cloud canopy encompassing eight distinct biological zones, and featuring scenic hiking trails for observing flora and fauna. Bird watching is especially spectacular to see species like the Resplendent Quetzal, three-wattled bell birds, trogons, toucans, and guans.
The main activities you can do in North Puntarenas include: sun and beach time, surfing, photography, boat tours through mangroves, boat tours to see dolphins and seabirds, fishing, historical and cultural tours, visit butterfly gardens, bird watching, recreational biking, hiking, horseback riding, and rural community tourism services.
North Puntarenas Major Attractions
The city and port of Puntarenas is a major centre for recreation and tourism in Costa Rica. There is a newly remodelled terminal for cruise ships, and docks for ferry services to the southern Nicoya Peninsula. In Puntarenas, you can arrange tours of the Nicoya Gulf islands and mangroves in the Puntarenas estuary. Puntarenas is known for its fresh seafood cuisine. Additionally, you can visit several buildings of interest and historical value.
Paseo de los Turistas (Tourist Boardwalk)
A lively and attractive port city, perhaps one of Puntarenas’ most interesting features is the “Paseo de los Turistas,” a tree-lined promenade adjacent to the beach. This boardwalk turns into a colourful street festival on weekends, as people from all over come to the popular restaurants, discos, cafes, bars and hotels that are found here. It is located parallel to the main beach of Puntarenas. In the immediate area of the cruise ship pier are kiosks selling crafts, and traditional beach desserts like fruit salads with ice cream, and sweet frozen ices called a “Churchill.” Near this area, you can find other facilities such as tennis courts, parks, showers, and restrooms – all that you need to enjoy the beach.
Parades of floats, concerts by the sea and many other recreational activities make for a fun ambience to share the local culture of the Puntarenas community. Carnivals are scheduled during the month of February, when it is dry season and ideal for enjoying the beach and events.
Nicoya Gulf Biological Reserves of Guayabo, Negritos and Pájaros Islands
Part of the Tempisque Conservation Area, this reserve encompasses the small unpopulated islands of Guayabo, Negritos and Pájaros, all of which are important sites for migratory birds. Guayabo Island in particular is one of the largest brown pelican nesting areas in Costa Rica. Boobies, Magnificent Frigate birds, Peregrine falcons and parrots are also common visitors here.
Tortuga Island Biological Reserve
Tortuga Island is a quintessential tropical island paradise just off the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula in the shallow warm waters of the Nicoya Gulf. There are no hotels or other tourist services on Tortuga Island, so that you can enjoy it in its purest state. You can relax under the shade of coconut palm trees or soak up the sun on glittering white sand beaches. Water activities like kayaking, scuba diving and snorkelling in crystal clear aquamarine waters are very popular, or you can try a canopy tour. Several tour operators offer daily tours to Tortuga Island departing from Puntarenas, Montezuma and Herradura.
Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve
The oldest protected area in Costa Rica, the Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve was created in 1963 by Scandinavian pioneer couple, Olof Wessberg and Karen Morgenson. Situated at the southernmost point of the Nicoya Peninsula, the Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve encompasses 1,172 hectares of pristine dry tropical forest and Pacific lowland tropical forest. It is a very beautiful area with undisturbed beaches that can be visited by hiking scenic trails. At the tip of the Peninsula, 2 km offshore, is the Cabo Blanco Island – a white rocky crag where you can see many Magnificent Frigate birds, Brown Pelicans and Brown boobies.
San Lucas Island Wildlife Refuge
The 1,156-acre San Lucas Island, once the site of the most formidable prison in Costa Rica, was declared a national wildlife refuge in 2001. It is one of only two islands in the Nicoya Gulf with natural fresh water, which has attracted a wide variety of wildlife, such as howler monkeys, snakes, deer, pheasants, and at least eight species of bats. The former prison buildings are considered cultural heritage sites, which you can see on a tour along with several ancient indigenous archaeological excavations.
Curú Wildlife Refuge
The privately-owned Curú Wildlife Refuge protects tropical dry forests, beach, and mangrove estuaries and rivers on Costa Rica’s southern Nicoya Peninsula, near Paquera and Tambor. It is one of the smallest sanctuaries in Costa Rica, at only 84 hectares, but is home to a rich and diverse wildlife population spread over five ecological habitats. Guided walking tours of the Refuge’s trails are a highlight of any visit to the Nicoya Peninsula.
Coco Island National Park
Costa Rica’s province of Puntarenas also contains the famed Coco Island (Isla del Coco,) a remote tropical island located 480 km offshore that is protected as a national park. Considered “the most beautiful island in the world” by the famous oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, who visited here several times, Coco Island is the ideal destination for scuba divers and marine biologists, or simply if you appreciate the magnificence of nature. The island harbours almost 24 km2 of pristine natural wilderness on land, and nearly 200 km2 of protected marine ecosystem. More than 1,000 species of plants, animals and insects, many of which are endemic to the area, have been discovered at Coco Island. Lush vegetation, beautiful waterfalls, colonies of migratory birds, abundant marine life, and extraordinary land and seascapes are some of Coco’s exclusive attractions. A trip to Coco Island is perfect for avid scuba divers who wish to marvel at the teeming schools of manta rays, whale sharks, and hammerhead sharks that frequent Coco’s beautiful waters. Diverse ecosystems and microclimates provide numerous ecological niches to allow a high endemism among plants, reptiles, spiders, birds, crustaceans, molluscs, and fish. The island’s contribution to scientific investigation of evolution and ecosystems is of great value to humanity, and it has been declared a World Heritage Site. Due to its status as a pristine national park, fishing and camping are prohibited. The independent non-profit foundation Friends of Coco Island (FAICO) are in charge of its care. Coco Island can only be reached by sea on a journey of about 36 hours that begins from the port of Puntarenas. Tours of 10 to 14 days are organized on live-aboard boats.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is an important ecotourism destination that attracts scientists, bird watchers, and wildlife lovers from all over the world. Inside the 10,522-hectare reserve, you can explore virgin cloud forest and centuries-old towering trees on well-kept trails. A notable site is the viewpoint that straddles the Continental Divide; from here on a clear day, you can see both the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts. The Monteverde Reserve is also one of the few remaining habitats in Costa Rica for the endangered Resplendent Quetzal, along with 420 species of orchids, 200 types of ferns, 400 kinds of birds, 100 mammals, and 1,200 different amphibians and reptiles. With its mist, trailing clouds and giant tree ferns creating a surreal environment, the Monteverde Reserve is considered to be among the most exceptional wildlife sanctuaries in the New World Tropics.
Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
The magnificent 310-hectare Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve sits slightly higher than the Monteverde Biological Reserve, and is less visited. It is an enchanting and magical place with abundant hanging vines, epiphytes and mosses seeming to cover every centimetre of the trees, exotic bird calls echoing through the canopy, and small mammals scurrying across the forest floor. There is a viewpoint from one of the trails where you can see Volcano Arenal, if the weather is clear. Proceeds from entrance fees go towards managing the reserve and helping to improve the nearby community of Santa Elena.
Bajo del Tigre Trail
Part of the reserve in Monteverde, Bajo del Tigre (Below the Tiger) offers a 3.5 km system of trails to enjoy the area flora and fauna. There are viewpoints with excellent views of the Nicoya Gulf. Wildlife common to see here includes white-faced Capuchin monkeys, armadillos, agoutis, and a wide diversity of butterflies, toads and birds. These trails are particularly suited to families; there is an information centre, a store, and various environmental activities. Guided “Twilight Walks” also are conducted here to see nocturnal birds, insects and mammals.
Children's Eternal Rainforest
In 1987, the Monteverde Conservation League (MCL), an independent, non-profit association dedicated to the conservation of tropical ecosystems and their biodiversity, embarked on an innovative land acquisition program. Money was raised by Swedish schoolchildren to buy and protect threatened land in the Monteverde area. Since then, the MCL has worked with other organizations in more than 40 countries to help form what is now Costa Rica’s largest private reserve, The Children’s Eternal Rainforest. The reserve straddles the Continental Divide, encompassing 22,500 hectares of virgin and secondary forest, as well as several reforestation areas.
Principal North Puntarenas Beaches
Beaches of Puntarenas
The beaches of Puntarenas stretch parallel to the Paseo de los Turistas, site of numerous hotels, restaurants, bars and other tourist services. Besides swimming, you can enjoy other water sports and activities like boating.
Beaches at Caldera and Mata de Limón
This area features an estuary that can be explored by boat to observe the flora and fauna in the mangrove forest.
Playa Doña Ana
Located about 10 km south of Puntarenas, the beaches of Playa Doña Ana are a surfer’s paradise. Site of an annual surfing competition, the rocky coves and strong currents attract surfers from all over the world. But be aware that riptides are very strong, and the beach is recommended for experienced surfers only.
This beach has strong waves, popular with surfers. The beach is large and there are mangroves; it is ideal for hiking, horseback riding and sunbathing.
Aptly named “Gigantic Beach,” the wide Playa Gigante features abundant vegetation and small waves. Here, you can walk, ride horses, and enjoy the flora and fauna.
These perfect white-sand beaches, coastal forest and mangrove forest are part of the Curú Wildlife Refuge. You can enjoy guided walks along the refuge’s 17 trails, swimming in the calm Nicoya Gulf waters, and resting under the shade of tropical coconut palms. Wildlife in the refuge includes howler and white-faced Capuchin monkeys, iguanas, raccoons, and many other animals.
Located near the Curú Wildlife Refuge, Tambor is a very beautiful sandy beach with ever-calm waters ideal for swimming, kayaking, scuba diving and other water sports. Hiking and horseback riding also are very popular here. Tambor features a variety of tourist services from budget accommodations to all-inclusive luxury hotels. You can find a multitude of recreational activities in Tambor: Golf, tennis, sportfishing, diving tours, kayaking, boat tours, horseback riding, mountain biking, and hiking.
A small rocky cove with profuse vegetation and scenic beauty, Playa Pochote is excellent for hiking, and enjoying the sea and sun.
Near the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, Montezuma is a popular destination for young travellers who like the town’s mellow beach ambience. The coastline is extremely beautiful with sandy beaches combined with rocky areas and tide pools. There is abundant vegetation that is home to many kinds of animals such as howler monkeys and numerous birds. In Montezuma, you can enjoy horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, fishing tours, surfing, snorkelling, excellent restaurants and lively night entertainment. Just outside of town is a 20-meter-high waterfall, accessed by a beautiful walk through the rainforest, with a large pool popular for swimming.
Playa Mal País
On the western side of the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula lies the small beachfront village of Mal Pais. It is a surfer’s paradise, with consistent and exceptional swells year-round. Located 6.5 km north of Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve, Mal Pais is an excellent place to enjoy the incredible natural surroundings in peace and tranquillity. Popular activities include surfing, horseback riding on the beach, snorkelling and diving, fishing, mountain biking, kayaking, and watching the spectacular sunsets over the Pacific.
Sandwiched between Mal Pais and Santa Teresa, Playa Carmen is an excellent surfing spot. It is less rocky than Mal Pais with sparkling light beige sand. There are many luxury hotels and budget beach bungalows along this stretch of beach. Sunsets, as in Mal Pais and Santa Teresa, are sensational.
Playa Santa Teresa
The long, undulating beach of Santa Teresa is one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful. Light beige, white and grey sand glitters with crushed shells and sea glass, interspersed with rocky tide pools. Coconut palms and Pacific Almond trees provide soothing shade from the hot sun. Santa Teresa is one of the most popular surfing beaches in all of Costa Rica. Other favourite activities include sea kayaking, stand up paddling, horseback riding, fishing tours, canopy zip lines, mountain biking, long beach walks and relaxing in hammocks. The town of Santa Teresa is quite cosmopolitan with many different nationalities residing here and operating restaurants, shops and hotels.
Recommended Partners in North Puntarenas and Monteverde