Dive Into the Gulf of Nicoya
Among these coastal hot spots are Puntarenas, Jacó, Manuel Antonio, Tambor and Mal Pais. Manuel Antonio offers the high likelihood of wildlife spotting in its preserved national park, while Tambor gets the glory of hosting beautiful whales in its Ballena Bay each year. While Mal Pais gets high praise from surfers, Jacó is known for its party-like atmosphere. Puntarenas, covering a larger area on its own, is one of the more popular beach areas because of its proximity to the country’s capital. Each one of these beach towns has its share of luxury resorts and fun activities, along with hidden-away gems just waiting to be discovered.
Gulf of Nicoya Overview
Mapping Out Costa Rica
Eco-friendly explorers enjoy the Arenal Volcano/Monteverde area for its hiking tours, thermally heated rivers and amazing forest views. On the other hand, beach lovers are at home in the Guanacaste Beach region, which offers gorgeous turquoise water and powdery white sand for an experience in paradise. The Gulf of Nicoya region is made up of fun-loving beach towns with surfers and adventure seekers breaking waves, exploring the forest, and partying on the beach. San José, the capital city of Costa Rica, is home to the country's cultural dedications, offering authentic shops and the coolest of the country's youth.
Ballena Bay in Tambor
The coastal line that marks the beginning of the Ballena Bay in Puntarenas is in the shape of a whale’s tale, and Ballena Bay just happens to be where whales migrate to mate and birth their calves each year.
The best time to visit is from December through April, when whale watching is the biggest attraction. You'll have a perfect view of the bay from the Barceló Tambor Beach resort, which is located directly on Tambor Beach's volcanic sand. Tambor Beach's cleanliness won the Barceló resort a Costa Rican Institute of Tourism Blue Flag award for its dedication to sustainability, so enjoy the environmentally friendly hotel's sand, or snorkel in the bay when you're not out admiring the whales.
Jacó: Surf's Up in Party Town
Grab your best friends and pack your dancing shoes because Jacó is where you'll find the best nightlife in Costa Rica. When you've had your fill of partying, you can find out what else this beach town has to offer too.
Because it's one of the closest beach towns to the capital, it's also one of the most visited. Surfers from all over the country hang out in Jacó for the fun waves, great parties and beautiful scenery.
If you haven't exactly mastered surfing but like watching the experts hit the surf, you could try taking lessons. Beachfront resorts like the Best Western Jacó offer classes to help you brave out your first wave, and after the sun sets, you can hit up the best bars and nightclubs to celebrate.
Santa Teresa/Playa Carmen (Mal Pais)
Mal Pais makes up the surf towns of Santa Teresa and Playa Carmen, off the Gulf of Nicoya. Just as you’d expect from a surfing environment, the atmosphere in Mal Pais is relaxed and stress-free.
It’s the place to go to step away from the everyday and unwind surrounded by nature. While the area’s main attraction are the waves, Mal Pais is also close to the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve. At the reserve and from boating tours of the gulf, see if you can spot dolphins and whales in the sea.
Pura Vida Gardens and Waterfalls
An experience in paradise is only complete with a trip to a butterfly-filled meadow of floral and cascading cliffs. The picture-perfect Pura Vida Gardens and Waterfalls near Jacó are sights not to be missed in Costa Rica.
The tropical and beautiful scarlet macaw and toucan birds make their home in the gardens, and the diversity of flowers and vegetation is striking. Don’t forget your camera if you visit. The landscape from this point of view is the perfect vision of Costa Rican beauty, and you’ll want to capture it.
Wildlife of the Tárcoles River
There are plenty of beautiful bodies of water in Costa Rica and, admittedly, this river is not one of them. But while the Tárcoles River may not be the most gorgeous, the American crocodiles calling it home are enough to take your breath away.
It makes its way along the central Pacific coast with crocodiles slithering through it. If you're adventurous enough to tour it on an excursion, you'll be guaranteed sightings of creatures that are up to 20 feet long.
Like the best parts of Costa Rica, the river is also a great spot for bird watching. Keep an eye out for the beautiful scarlet macaw flying around the river.
Gulf of Nicoya Quick Facts
Currency: The Colon, U.S. dollars and major credit cards are widely accepted.
Electricity: The outlets are 110 V, with standard U.S. two-prong plugs.
Passport/Iimmigration: All U.S. citizens must have a valid passport when traveling to and from Costa Rica.
Drinking Water: The water is potable, but bottled water is recommended in areas surrounding the coast.
Time Zone: Central Standard Time (UTC/GMT - 6 hours)
Peak Season: Dry Season, December - May
Tips & Transportation
Best Spot to See Monkeys: Parador ResortParador Resort and Spa's proximity to the Manuel Antonio National Park is more than just a resort perk! If you stay at this eco-friendly and luxurious resort, you'll get visited by the titi, whiteface or howler monkeys during your stay. They tend to show up outiside of terraces of the suites. What an adorable sight!
A Not-so-secret Snorkel Spot
The white sand and clear-turquoise water of Secret Beach makes it a true gem in this region. Also known as Playa los Suecos, the small bay is south of Mal Pais at the entrance to the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve and is the perfect snorkeling spot when in low tide. It isn't exactly a secret anymore, but it's still a visit worth making for a vision of cool caves, rocky cliffs and tree-lined shore. If you get lucky and find it mostly secluded on your trip there, you'll get to appreciate its "deserted island" feel.
Best Restaurant and Sunset: Pura Vida Gardens
The lovely restaurant at Pura Vida Gardens is surrounded by striking mountains and miles of lush gardens. There's no place better to sip on a cocktail and enjoy a meal. In fact, if you dine in the evening, you'll get a breathtaking view of the Costa Rican sunset.
Best Café for Costa Rican Cuisine:Bohemia Café Boutique
If your stay is near the Manuel Antonio National Park, dine at the Bohemia Café Boutique in Quepos. It's the perfect little café serving Costa Rican cuisine with reasonable prices. It's very popular, so the earlier you are for dinner, the better chance you have of getting a table.
Best Pizza in Puntarenas: Matobe's
Got a craving for a little taste of home? Matobe’s Pizza and Pasta in Puntarenas is a great place to go for some Italian specialities. Make sure to try the hot wood-burned pizza that's loved by both locals and tourists. Pair it with wine and taste some of their fresh-baked pasta too.
Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) in San José was once the busiest airport in Central America. It’s still pretty busy and is the major hub for Costa Rica, serving 4 million passengers a year.
Immigration & Customs
The flight attendant on your flight will likely hand you a customs form that asks you declare what you’re bringing into the country. When you first get off the plane, you’ll go to immigration first and an officer will check your passport. You can then go to baggage claim and after, the customs section.
Getting to Your Hotel
CheapCaribbean.com has partnered with AMSTAR as our premier transportation company in San José. They’ll provide you with safe, comfortable and professional transportation from the airport to your hotel and back. They’ll also provide transportation to any excursions booked through our site that you’d like to take while you’re in your destination.
Once you arrive at the SJO International Airport, you will clear customs and pick up your luggage. Look for the Amstar representative wearing a tropical blue shirt will be waiting for you outside baggage claim and customs holding a sign with your name on it.
Getting Around the Gulf of Nicoya
The terrain outside of many of the resort areas is hilly and hard to drive on if you’re not used to it. Off site excursions like hiking, horseback riding and ATV tours are available through Vacaciones Barcelo. The company even provides transportation to and from the resort, so you've got a dependable ride to get you where you need to be.