The good, the bad and the beautiful: dirt roading the Nicoya Peninsula

For the cyclist, there’s good and bad news.

Let’s get the bad stuff out the way… The northern swathe of the Nicoya Peninsula is overdeveloped with resorts and pocked with private, gated communities, foreign-owned complexes completely cut off from the local settlements around them.

In the dry season dust can be a real issue, particularly in the parched climes of the north. This wouldn’t be so bad, but for the fact that few of the rental SUVs tearing around the peninsula have the consideration to take things easy and slow down a little. I guess a relaxing holiday only goes so far…

Yet despite all this, the Nicoya is home to undeniably one of the most beautiful, endless strings of beaches I have seen. With some local insight, it’s possible to find lesser used, smoother dirt tracks, that are amongst the most enjoyable I’ve ridden on this whole journey. Even the beach itself can be cycled at low tide, which makes touring here unique.

Heading south, the coastal roads become calmer and calmer, and a more Costa Rican atmosphere prevails – even amongst the foreign communities which seem more integrated into their surroundings.

Like the rest of the country, it’s expensive. Luckily, away from the tourist centres, you can camp almost anywhere – there’s kilometre upon kilometre of empty beach where you’ll find nothing but the stars and surf for company. That’s just the ones I saw. For every beach I detoured to there were half a dozen others I had to forgo, hidden down winding dirt tracks that beckoned to be explored.

I don’t mean to be overly negative, but the reality is that at its worst, the Nicoya Peninsula is hellishly dusty and Gringo-fied.

At its best, it promises some of the finest dirt road touring imaginable.

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The Monkey Trail, a respite from the busy paved roads that head in towards the coast from Liberia.

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Playa Flamingo, where I camped the first night. It's a nice enough spot, but with its gated communities, theres a real Us and Them feeling to this area.

Not very exotic... Cheap dinners help to balance the Costa Rican budget, along with camping most nights. More than made up by the view...

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My dining companions.

I havent come across many other cyclists recently. Andy, from the UK, is a self confessed bird-spotting fanatic. He was touring around Costa Rica for three months on his folding Brompton, and travelling impressively light. With its emphasis on wildlife sanctuaries, this country is a birders paradise, though as Andy pointed out, you need to budget in a wad of extra cash for park and private reserve entry fees.

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Heres something I don't get: the Private Gated Community. You buy up chunks of a foreign countrys land. This pushes up property prices beyond the reach of locals. Then you completely segregate yourself off from the existing community. Happens all over the world.

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Nicoyas Bible Belt. Im not sure how much 'loving thy neighbou'r is going on in these parts, judging by the complete lack of integration between Tico and Gringo communities.

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Sorry, I need to vent a bit more. Nicoya's gravel thoroughfare can be biking hell. My triple nemeses: corrugation, a speeding SUV and its inevitable, accompanying cloud of dust. Incredibly, some drivers even waved as they past, foot pressed firmly to the floor. Do people lose all contact with the world around them once they get into the cocoons of their cars?

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These kind of posters are all over the northern region of the Nicoya. Thankfully, south of Tamarindo - infamous for its resorts - the gated communities give way to smaller pockets are gringo settlements, more in tune with their surroundings.

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Very Costa Rica: another exclusive Eco Community. I always thought of ecologically-minded communities as inclusive, rather than exclusive...

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Perhaps this is one reason the jaded Costa Ricans, who sold much of their prime coastal land for quick cash during the property boom, dont seem as warm as their northerly neighbours. This said, I still experienced small acts of kindness all the time. This Tico was selling cold coconuts from the back of his locally-made trailer. 'Pipas', as they're called here, are ideal bike food, a great nutritionally rich way to rehydrate. After we chatted, swapping notes on what we enjoyed about cycling, he wouldnt accept any payment, insisting I accept a second coconut instead.

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This is more like it. It's best to stay away from the main gravel trails, and track down the backroads. Blissful riding.

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A teak plantation. Apparently, there's some great singletrack in there...

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Helicopter pilot Barry, part of the Warmshowers bicycle hospitality network, kindly put me up for a couple of days in his beachside home. He also took me out with his Coloradan friend, the outlandish Jonny Smokes, for a night on the town. Thanks Barry!

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Me, a little fried from the sun but happy.

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In the dry season, the Nicoya is baking hot. I flagged down this farmer. As I reached over to pick out a honeydew melon, I was hit by an amazingly sweet aroma. The farmer lent me his massive machete, and after lopping it into slices, I sat down by the roadside and ate it there and then.

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One of the many river crossings to ford in the area - the best technique is to watch a local, and trace the route.

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The wet season brings quagmires of mud. Some of the deeper fords had elevated walkways, not they were needed at this time of year.

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I spent a night in Playa Carillo with Nicaraguan Ray and his family, in their simple home, a world away from the ostentatious edifices that line so many of the shoreline. I'd met him earlier that day in Playa Samara, where we'd chatted a while. Ray 'got' what I was doing, and asked a stream of questions about the ride and my impressions of life on the road. His invitation was simple and genuine: 'I can offer you dinner at my home, a place to sleep, breakfast and before you continue on your journey.' True hospitality.

In the morning climbed atop a gently rolling headland carpeted with mango trees. We sat and savoured the view, stretching over a sea of green-hued foliage to the Pacific waters beyond. 'All this peninsula once belonged to Nicaragua. Perhaps thats why I feel so happy here,' said Ray. His easy warmth and kindness really lifted my spirits, just when I was feeling a little disconnected with everything around me. I remarked to him that Nicaraguans seemed more open than Costa Ricans. 'When you have nothing, what else have you got to lose?' came his reply.

The next shortcut involved fording a river, then following this dirt road, that whittled down to the kind of singletrack I yearn for. Then a series of rollercoasting climbs and descents ensued along the jagged coastline.

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Punta Islita is home to a small but rather beautiful open air, contemporary art museum. It was set up by the hotel there, as a way of maintaining a connection with the local community. The hotel helps finance micro enterprises for locals.

As ever, I'm a sucker for murals. Especially one as surreal as this.

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This photographic exhibition caught my eye, and the way it captured the ambiguity of reflections.

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Sculptures around the football field.

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Even the police station was mosaic-ed.

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More beaches lay ahead. Riding the flats between San Miguel and Playa Cayote involved negotiating this estuary. The rising tide was threatening to cut me off.

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This particular crossing was chest high, so I had to balance my bike above my head, then shuttle back for the panniers.

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I accidentally ventured into this side valley close to San Francisco de Coyote, flush with unexpected bursts of colour from blossoming trees.

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I was almost reluctant to turn back.

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My campspot that evening, beside a turtle hatchery program.

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A lil turtle emerged from its ping pong ball-sized egg the next morning. I joined Katie, volunteering there for two months, in helping to set it off on its life path. You can't just plop it straight into the water though. It's important to left the baby find its way down to the sea, as females migrate to their natal beaches. If youre wondering about the ethics of human intervention, its human activity thats to blame in the first place. Sea turtles, which are threatened by extinction, run the gauntlet of being caught in fishing nets, colliding with boats and having their habitats disturbed by commercial development.

Volunteers help run the simple centre, and leave their insignias when they leave. I can imagine how living here, listening to the soundscape of the Pacific surf and experiencing this amazing ritual - one that's been happening unchanged for over 65 million years - must be a wonderfully grounding experience.

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The largest species, the Leatherback, can reach six feet in length. They travel up to 12 000kms, and dive to over a kilometre deep. I saw my first leatherbacks when I was living in French Guyana, another important nesting spot for them.

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Warm, soft, soothing light at Playa Caletas. At this time in the morning, the sand takes on an inky black quality.

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The first glow of sun caught the edges of the frothy surf.

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I waited until the tide was close to its lowest point before setting off to ride the ten kilometre stretch to Playa Manzanilla. In just a few places, the sand was still soft. After I'd dropped my tyre pressure, the going was easier.

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The roads became briefly busier once more along the Santa Theresa and Malpais gravel road, a veritable surf haven lined with shops, hangouts and eateries.

The bike shop in Santa Theresa.

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Playa Carmen. Catching those last waves before the end of the day.

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The communal kitchen at my hostel in Rio Carmen.

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A new fruit discovered: a caimito, or star apple. Costa Rica is a tropical fruit paradise.

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Which way... up or down? As it turned out, at this point it was down. When the climb came, it was a big one.

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It lead me over the mountains to Cayuba, which in turn linked me to the hippy hangout of Montezuma.

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A massive strangler fig tree by the side of the track.

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The perfect backdrop for the Troll, which is handling these rough and tumble dirt roads with impressive poise. Im enjoying this bike a lot.

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The southern side of the peninsula had a succession of shorter, rockier beaches, where the water was often calmer and better for swimming.

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Hotel Lucy, where a shoe box room set me back $11. This was my view.

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Yes, it really was a shoebox. Note skinny bed. Luckily I'm on the lean side myself these days, so I fit into it fine.

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The ferry over to Punta Arenas. My bike cost twice as much as me to cross. I sat up top and worked my way through a melon I'd bought on the road, and two massive mangoes.

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For eight hair raising kilometres I rode the Panamerican, which at this point, is barely wide enough for two 18 wheelers to thunder pass. This hopeful sign announces the impending construction of a cyclepath. Im not sure where theyre going to find room for it.

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Another fruit pit stop to keep me sugared up. By now, I was back on paved roads again.

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Then it was time to climb back up into the mountains, following 15 kilometres of sinuous ascent. Unfortunately the main highway was closed to traffic, so I was joined by a perpetual flow of cars and buses crawling their way up and over the mountain. Often I had to pull over to take a breather from the exhaust fumes. As darkness fell, I camped in a coffee plantation, watching the unabated snake of lights below me. It's at times like this that I despair at the amount of vehicles in the world.

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On the way into Alajuela, I came across this beautiful, evocative mural, the story behind which I have yet to track down.

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Normally, I'd prop up my bike for a photo. This one seemed best left undisturbed.

12 thoughts on “The good, the bad and the beautiful: dirt roading the Nicoya Peninsula

  1. therighthonharoldgiblet

    Where’s my picture of a Greenheart tree?
    Hope you well, would you like me to post you some lard? hg

    Reply
  2. Susie Moberly

    We’re following your journey with delight revelling in each and every chapter… brilliant photographs as always and great descriptions. Sad about the gated developments in Gringo land but I guess this is the price we pay in this world as it becomes smaller and easier to travel… love all the street art and the mural you found on your way into Alajuela, which I’m still digesting! Cool and raining here in Chiang Mai yet it’s supposed to be the height of summer… look forward to the next fruit pit stop X

    Reply
  3. Casey OD

    Jodi from LegalNomads recommended your blog to me and I’ve been enjoying it for a couple of months. I had to comment because a very popular travel blogger is currently writing about Costa Rica as well and there is just no comparison. I take a little trip in front of my computer with your photos and stories. Even when you point out the not-amazing things about a place, you make me want to go anyway.

    Reply
    1. otbiking Post author

      Thanks for that, Casey – I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog.

      Susie – I hope Chang Mai is treating you well. I love that place…

      Reply
  4. Pete Bursnall

    Hi Cass,

    Looking lean at the moment! Glad the new bike is going well, always interesting getting man and bike in harmony after many miles on a different frame… bike & man! Great pics as ever, inspired.

    Cheers

    Pete

    Reply
  5. zeanny

    Thankyou for sharing all these wonderful pictures of my lovely “tiquicia” I’m sorry you didn’t find a “pura vida” vibe from the ticos, but I do understand you, it’s hard to do so now, everytime I go back home I can’t help but feeling sad of much my country has changed, it’s hard to find the true tico now days, I used to live in Nicoya as a child, climbing mango trees, swiming in the rivers and riding my bike everywhere.. I can only hope to see that back…
    Ps: the mistery man with fire in his hand ins Juan Santamaria (our airport was named after him) famous for sacrificing himself to burn “el meson” in 1856.

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Thanks for your message. My favourite part of Costa Rica was the Nicoya peninsula. I just preferred the southern part, which felt – to me at least – more like Costa Rica and less like the US. Amazing beaches and dirt roads…

      Reply
  6. alex retana

    Hello: I am in the process of building a surly troll and take off from Tampa Florida to Patagonia. I am from Costa Rica and been living here in the States for 3 decades. I really wanted to congratulate you on your review of this region. I am ashamed to admit that I do not know this region very well. I also wanted to thank you for bringing up and attention to the whole contrast about the rich and the poor and the dichotomy of nationalization and privatization. As what you have experience in my country, the Anglos love it because it is almost like transferring to one American place to another, Well, my point is that I think this is a really nice media to not only discuss the benefits of bicycle touring exploration but also the cultural and societal benefits of traveling and connecting the way you have. I only wish more people would travel through my country the way you have to illustrate that my country is more than monkeys, volcanoes and exclusive resorts,.
    Thank you very much and pura vida.
    ALex.

    Reply
  7. Lea

    Just wanted to thank you for this post. I’m using it as a source for a journal I have to write for my Intro to Latin America class. Very helpful, beautiful pics. Thanks again!

    Reply

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