This is part one of a series of three articles about our time on the Nicoya Peninsula.
The Nicoya Peninsula is located on the north-western end of Costa Rica. The region has been recognized as one of the Blue Zone by National Geographic, regions where the concentration centenarians are higher and where “people had grown old without health problems like heart disease, obesity, cancer, or diabetes.” It is a popular destination not only for those visiting the country but also a top choice amongst Costa Rican going on holidays. Activities abound; quad-bike (known as ATV) tours, surfing, trekking, taking a yoga class, watch sea turtle nesting in one of the wildlife refuges, visiting animal rehabilitation centres and access secluded and pristine beaches where you could spend an entire day in a hammock. And for the crazier ones, there’s cycling around the Peninsula.
From Liberia, we took the busy Ruta National 21 and turned right towards Sardinal before hitting the hard compacted dirt surface heading towards our first climb on the Peninsula, probably one of the easiest although it didn’t feel that way then. We were gasping for air, giving us time for a break and admire the scenery.
It wasn’t until we arrived in Playa Potrero that we understood why so many people visited this part of the country. Amazing beaches with a laid-back atmosphere is often a combo people lean toward. Add to that an abundance of wildlife and jungle treks and you have a winner.
From Potrero, the road became super dusty leaving a cloud after each car. It was so thick we often had to stop to let it settle. People drove as if they were still on asphalted highways, following each other at super close distances. Sometimes there would be a convoy of 5 cars zipping by, leaving us in the dust with zero visibility. How could they see the car in front of them let alone the road, left us in shock. On our second day on the Peninsula, the road became even busier. The main reason being the holiday season. We were between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, probably the busiest time of the year. The traffic was unbearable at times with some driving fast on loose gravel and dust, powdering the air to a point where the trees and leaves were covered red-brown instead of showing their luxuriant shades of green.
It was off the main road the Peninsula shined. It was much quieter than the main road making for a much more enjoyable adventure. We rolled along grassland with cows gazing at us as we passed by, used single-lane paths going through jungles as howler monkeys laid on branches or, even better, cycled directly on long stretches of beach lined with palm trees we so often see in brochures.
We couldn’t escape the bloody hills, though. There were killer ones, without a doubt the hardest we had dealt with so far. On many occasions, we had to unsaddle and push our loaded bikes up. It was hard going. Many sections were slippery because of the loose dirt surface. Cars didn’t slow down though, passing us as they looked in amazement. Some even photographed us from their air-conditioned interior. Most hills were short but left us panting when reaching the top. It was often followed by short but tricky descends on loose dirt and rocky surfaces only to go back up again. Some days we did 20 km and it felt like 100. Add to that temperature of 40 degrees Celsius and it makes for pretty hard going.
Pitching our tent by a pristine beach at the end of a hard day was the perfect reward. There was nothing to beat this feeling of accomplishment after a tough day. Dinner tasted better and tea was delightful. Sunset was extraordinary, sleep was deep and remedial. Waking up as the sun came above the horizon, we started our routine of packing up and eating breakfast before getting back in the rollercoaster dirt roads once again.
One of the toughest section was before Samara, a small town packed with ex-pats and tourists. We arrived on the 29th of December and decided to spend New Year’s Eve in town. The only room we could find was in a nice El Cactus Hostel owned by a Swiss man who has been living there for nearly 15 years. We enjoyed a nice dinner in an American wild west looking bar and a much earned day off at the beach. On the morning of 31st, I opened the door to find my cycling shoes missing. They were soaking wet after crossing rivers before Samara so we placed each our pair to dry outside of our door. The burglars jumped the huge gate to steal the laptop at the reception and took my shoes along the way. Pierre, the owner, had screwed and locked his laptop on the reception desk but they still took it. That was frustrating as I had to resolve to my non-clipping trekking shoes from now on. For NYE we were invited to join Pierre’s friends in the hostel garden. Everyone cooked a little something and we shared a large communal dinner with drinks before heading to the beach and watch the fireworks into 2020.
Not surprisingly, we woke up with a headache the following morning. Since we couldn’t find any room anywhere in town, we had to leave on that day. What a way to start the year; cycling steep dirt hills with a hangover. We stayed until about 2 PM before going. Like many have suggested, we were to cycle to the next beach only a few kilometres away from where we could camp. To our surprise, the beach was a protected wilderness area for turtle nesting and it was not possible to sleep anywhere, not even close to the reception area. The security guards were adamant; no camping allowed. We had no other choice but keep going. It was passed 4 PM, the sun was going down and still had to cycle a few kilometres, including a steep hill but we had no other option. As we pushed our rigs up, darkness rose. With our headlamps on, we kept rolling into the evening, our head still throbbing from the night before. We arrived at Playa Islita in total darkness, chose a spot by the beach to pitch the tent and ate pasta after completing the toughest day of our journey so far.
The story continues in part two of three.
More photos available in the Costa Rica Photo Gallery
NICOYA PENINSULA SUMMARY
The Nicoya Peninsula route is mostly on dirt roads, steep hills and could be extremely dusty. I would not recommend it for beginners for cycle-tourers with fully-loaded bicycle mostly because of near-impossible steep hills on loose dirt and rock. However, it is a fantastic route for bikepacking of any level. The heat could be unbearable by midday and everything is more expensive than anywhere else in the country.
Camping under a tall palm tree on underdeveloped beaches stretching for miles, dipping in the warm Pacific waters, the chance to witness sea turtle hatching or nesting, riding on jungle paths where howler monkeys and red macaws watch you pass by and riding on the hard, compacted sand right on the beach are only some of the highlights.
We followed the Gira Costa route available on bikepacking.com, from Liberia to the Amistad bridge. The GPX file from the other route, “Nicoya Peninsula Dirt Road Odyssey”, proved to be harder to follow on our routing applications but essentially is the same. There was only one section we couldn’t follow around Playa Junquillal because the road had been taken away by floods during the last wet season. For more about the route, visit bikepacking.com.