A Week in Dreamy Nosara

After our 4 night stay in Santa Teresa, we headed to Nosara, which is farther north up the coast on the Nicoya Peninsula. You would think there would be a nice road along the coast, but no, this is remote Costa Rica folks. There is a coastal road, but you need 4-wheel drive (which we have) and even then, it’s really not advisable during rainy season (which it is now) as you would need to cross multiple rivers and the conditions really depend on the recent rainfall. We decided to take the longer and supposedly safer route back across the peninsula and then back again to the Pacific Coast. Well, it was still quite an adventure and took about 4 hours, and STILL we had to ford a few rivers. I can’t imagine what the other route would have looked like!

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Just as it started raining, we arrived here. Palmer waded into the water to make sure it didn’t go above knee level before we attempted the crossing. Thankfully all went smoothly and we were pretty proud of our crossing river savviness.

We enjoyed traveling through beautiful rural areas and the Tico towns of Jicaral and Nicoya. Lots of green and lots of hills!

We finally arrived at our little casita in Nosara as close as you can get to Playa Guiones and felt like we were in heaven! The beach is definitely one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve seen in all of Costa Rica. A long stretch of white sand beach backed by green foliage, with surfers bobbing in the water at all hours of the day. There is no development on the beach so there are a few short paths that take you from the road to the beach.

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One of the jungle paths to the beach
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And then you arrive here!

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We spent a full week here in Nosara and fell in love with the area. It was hot and humid, but when you wake up to howler monkeys almost every morning and the beach is a 5 minute walk away, what’s not to like?! The town of Nosara is actually located a few kilometers inland and is a typical Tico town which I appreciated as it seemed to retain its traditional feel. It felt a world away from the more developed beach areas of Playa Guiones and Playa Pelada which are increasingly popular with foreign tourists. The whole area still feels off the beaten track and it’s all dirt roads, but nice hotels, excellent restaurants and holiday homes are popping up in many areas along the beach or in the hills just a bit farther away so I expect a lot is going to change in the coming years.

Here are a few of our highlights from the week:

Surf Lessons and Boogie-Boarding at Playa Guiones

Surf is what Nosara is all about as it has such a consistent break, and what’s cool is that it’s for surfers of all levels! Oscar had a blast learning to surf with his new buddy Chico.

Hanging Out at Playa Pelada

Playa Pelada is another beach just north of Guiones and has more of a local flavor. It also has a couple of restaurants right on the beach which was great for lunch with a view to watch the surfers.

Snorkeling in Tide Pools at Playa Guiones

Tide pool are pretty awesome anywhere, but at low tide on Playa Guiones there are a couple of spots where you can actually snorkel in crystal clear water as it’s protected by some rocky areas. We even saw a couple of octopi!

Good Food (and drinks of course!)

There is something for everyone here: typical Costa Rican sodas, fish tacos, shrimp and avocado salads, pipa fría (cold coconut water), fresh fruit smoothies, pizza, bagels, burgers and even gelato. Prices are a bit steep and most prices in dollars 😦 but the quality overall was VERY good.

Searching for Sea Turtles

Our whole visit to Nosara was initially planned so that we could visit nearby Ostional Turtle Refuge and hopefully see an arribada of Olive Ridley sea turtles which arrive by the thousands (!!) to nest about once a month around the new moon from July through November. Well, we planned our trip accordingly but unfortunately the turtles arrived about a week early and we missed it. We were BUMMED, but we did still visit the beach and saw some baby leatherback turtles being released to the ocean by a volunteer group.

Fishing

Oscar and Palmer enjoyed a fishing adventure with a local fisherman and had a blast catching jacks and even a yellowfin tuna which we enjoyed as sashimi for dinner. YUM! Thanks boys!

Sunsets

Best time of the day!

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The Hidden Gems of San José

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San José, Costa Rica doesn’t have many accolades despite there being so much to see and do all around the country so it has never been high on the priority list, but let me tell you, there are a few treasures to be discovered! Here are my top 5 things to do in San José.

1. Mercado Central (Central Market)

As with many Latin American cities, San José’s central market is easy to get lost in. It’s a huge labyrinth filled with stalls of anything and everything you might ever want or need, from fruits and veggies to fresh seafood to spices, home goods, tools, dried flowers and everything in between. It’s even a decent place to find souvenirs! I love that many people here still visit the central market to buy their goods rather than heading to one of the larger grocery or department stores. Spend some time wandering and get a feel for the ‘old world’. I’m sure you’ll come out with a treasure or two.

2. Feria Verde in Aranjuez (Organic Farmer’s Market)

If you’re ever in San José on a Saturday morning, be sure to check out the colorful Feria Verde at the Polideportivo Aranjuez just north of downtown. It’s a really fun gourmet/hippy/hipster market where you can buy organic produce, but also many specialty items such as hard to find cheeses and spices, but also clothing, jewelry, soaps, yoga mats, and lots more. There’s even a food booth section with all kinds of special goodies including pastries and fancy coffees and juices. It’s definitely worth an hour of two of fun!

3. Teatro Nacional (National Theater)

Located in the heart of the city next to the expansive Plaza de Cultura, Costa Rica’s Teatro Nacional opened in 1897 and is one of the country’s finest architectural buildings with beautiful furnishings inside. It offers regular high quality performances including operas, symphonies, concerts and plays as well as hourly guided tours for visitors and a lovely gourmet café open to the public. We haven’t yet made it to a performance, but it’s definitely worth a visit at least.

4. Museo de los Niños (Children’s Museum)

Okay, I realize this may not be for everyone, but if you have little ones , the Museo de los Niños in San José is definitely a must-see. We’ve been there twice so far and we STILL haven’t explored everything yet. There are tons of cool interactive exhibits from dinosaurs to space exploration to optical illusions to whole areas dedicated to the history, culture and wildlife of Costa Rica such as coffee production, the rise of banana plantations and how they function, historic train cars from the national train system, etc. There’s even a double decker bus, an old fire engine, an airplane and a helicopter that the kids are able to explore! We highly recommend a visit..or two…or three!

5. Barrio Amón

Barrio Amón is a lovely historic neighborhood in San José (check out Avenidas 9 and 11 just west of the zoo and botanical garden) that is going through a sort of revival. The beautiful historic mansions lining the streets were originally built by wealthy coffee growers back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of them have been beautifully restored into hotels or restaurants, and others are in total disrepair or covered with vines which gives the neighborhood an authentic…or maybe nostalgic…feel.

With every visit we make to the capital, we discover something new, so I’m sure there are other hidden gems just waiting to be uncovered. It just takes a little digging!

Our Top 5 for Sámara

With Auntie Tay Tay visiting and the kids out of school for Semana Santa, we headed to the beach (along with everyone else!) for some quality R & R.  We chose to explore Sámara, a chill beach town on the Guanacaste Coast that I’ve long wanted to check out having heard lots of good things.

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Here’s our list of what’s not-to-miss:

1. Sunset at Sámara Beach

Everyone heads to the beach at sunset! It’s the best time of day when the heat subsides but still plenty hot enough to enjoy a dip in the warm water, go for a horseback ride, enjoy an ice cream or cocktail, and not risk burning your scalp and every other piece of exposed skin. On our first night, we checked out Lo Que Hay, a casual beachfront restaurant specializing in tacos but with lots of other options and super drink specials. High tide or low tide, there is plenty of beach for everyone…even during Semana Santa. Sunset is definitely our favorite time at the beach in Costa Rica!

 

2. Spend a Day Boogie Boarding at Carrillo Beach (and don’t forget your hammock!)

About 4k south of Sámara Beach is another lovely picture perfect beach called Playa Carrillo. You can park right along the beach for free, hang up your hammock and set up camp along with lots of other picnicking families. It had the most perfect waves for boogie boarding which helped soothe our poor burnt feet after running through the scorching hot sand.

 

3. Dolphin Boat Tour

Sámara offers lots of cool activities such as surf lessons, boat tours, wildlife hikes and hidden beaches, and we opted for a morning dolphin and snorkeling tour (THANKS Auntie Tay!) that was seriously awesome. We saw manta rays jumping out of the water all around us, the spotted dolphins were also fun to watch, and we even saw a couple sea turtles. The snorkeling wasn’t all that great for us, but still fun to give it a try.

 

4. Tide Pooling at Low Tide on Sámara Beach

On our final morning, we headed straight to the beach and it was perfect as there was almost no one there and it was low tide so we had a blast exploring the tide pools on the north end of the beach, and all the critters waiting to be discovered, before having to pack up and head back home. 😦

 

5. Check Out the Town

Samara is small enough to easily get around and find your own little slice of heaven, but big enough to offer some great services, such as some fabulous restaurants (beachfront places such as Gusto Beach, and others specializing in seafood, French, Mexican, etc.) and a couple watering holes (don’t miss Franks and the Flying Taco for live music on weekends), tours for visitors, some decent shopping and even Spanish language classes. There are also troops of howler monkeys that you can’t miss right in and around town, short hikes with lovely vistas that you can take and other nearby beaches such as the secluded Playa Barrigona (“Mel Gibson’s Beach”) to explore.

 

We only had 4 nights here so I’m sure there are other gems to be discovered in Sámara. We sure hope to return!

Highlights of Tortuguero

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Palmer and I recently enjoyed a 3 night getaway to the small town of Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s north caribbean coast (HUGE thanks to mom and dad for babysitting and allowing us some time sans kiddos!). Though most famous for its nesting green sea turtles that return to the beach where they hatched during the months of June through October, we had an amazing experience during our early January visit. Here are a few of the highlights:

1. Guided Canoe Trip in Tortuguero National Park

We booked a 3 hour canoe trip with Tortuguero Tours, a local guiding company, in the national park where you can spot amazing wildlife. We woke up at dawn and headed down to the meeting point for some coffee and fruit before being given a pair of binoculars and heading to the park. We were on small boat with 4 other tourists plus our local guide who rowed us through the smaller canals and pointed out some fascinating flora and fauna. We saw howler monkeys, sloths, caimans, iguanas and lots of bird life (green macaws, little blue herons, yellow crowned night heron and northern jacanas to name a few). The highlight for me was a male emerald green basilisk that was perfectly camouflaged on a branch just over the water surrounded by leaves…so camouflaged that you couldn’t get a good pic!

2. Hike in Tortuguero National Park

Since we had already purchased our national park passes for the canoe tour, we headed back to the park later that same day to hike the one out and back trail that the park offers. We were all geared out with our sturdy rubber boots, hiking clothes, hats and even a dry bag. It soon started to rain pretty steadily and we were thankful for our rental boots as it was so muddy…and also the umbrellas we brought. Ha! We weren’t very lucky with wildlife, but we did see a howler monkey eating and a pretty cool great curassow (a large pheasant-like bird strolling the path ahead of us) and enjoyed a walk on Tortuguero beach where the turtles nest.

3. Visit to Sea Turtle Conservancy

Even though it wasn’t turtle season when we visited, we still felt we got the turtle experience with our visit to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the world’s oldest sea turtle research and conservation group founded by Dr. Archie Carr. He was also instrumental in the effort to protect the region and advocate for the opening of Tortuguero National Park. The small facility is located just off the beach a few blocks from the town center and functions as a research station but also hosts a small museum for visitors to learn more about the sea turtles of Tortuguero, the history of the region, and the work that STC does. We ended up adopting a turtle (named ‘Shelby’ thanks to Oscar) to support their mission. We are looking to return one day when we can actually observe the turtles nesting. That would be amazing!

4. Exploring the Town of Tortuguero

We really loved discovering the town itself and were glad that we opted to stay in town rather than one of the resorts to get a better feel for the community. We stayed at El Icaco, a modest but colorful hotel on the beach side, and had plenty of time to walk the paths of town and just relax. The one main paved pathway in front of the public dock is sprinkled with businesses (restaurants, grocery stores, shops) while the rest of the paths are mainly sand or some combination of boards or stepping stones due to all the rain they experienced. Apparently the rainy season in Tortuguero ends in late January. We enjoyed some good meals at Tutti’s (amazing calzones!) and Donde Richard, and delicious breakfasts and cakes at Dorling’s Bakery. Budda Cafe had fancy cocktails and a lovely canal-side location.

5. Getting There and Back, an Adventure In Itself

Tortuguero is only accessible by plane or boat so we opted to drive to La Pavona (basically a restaurant, bathrooms, small store and parking area in the middle of nowhere) where you can then park your car and hop on a boat for the one hour ride to Tortuguero. The drive from San José to La Pavona is beautiful as you first climb through the misty mountains of Braulio Carrillo National Park and then head north through the banana plantations and ranches north of Guápiles. The road is mostly paved except for the last 30-40 minutes when it turns to gravel, but the views were beautiful and we loved the drive. I’m sure that flying in would be spectacular too as the region is so remote and picturesque, but we’ll have to save that for our next visit.

Overall, Tortuguero totally exceeded my expectations with its raw beauty and unique wildlife and even though the town is mainly dependent on the tourism industry, it still has an authentic small town Caribbean vibe. We are hoping to return again soon during turtle season!

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