Punta Coyote to Manzanillo
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Playa Caletas, immediately south of Punta Coyote and some five kilometers south of San Francisco de Coyote, can also be reached from Highway 21 (on the east side of the Nicoya Peninsula) via Jabillo and the community of La y Griega.
This miles-long brown-sand beach has no settlements. Nothing! It’s just you and the turtles that come ashore to lay eggs. The beach is considered the second most important nesting site for leatherback turtles in the eastern Pacific Ocean (Dec.–Mar.). Olive ridleys also come ashore singly July–March, peaking in September–October.
Programa Restauración de Tortugas Marinas (PRETOMA, tel. 506/2241-5227, www.pretoma.org) has a turtle hatchery here, and as of 2010 had freed more than 100,000 hatchlings to the sea. Volunteers are needed.
The 300-hectare Playa Caletas–Ario National Wildlife Refuge (Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caletas–Ario) encompasses seven kilometers of beach and the mangrove forests of the Bongo and Chapetón river estuaries, plus seven kilometers out to sea.
Playa Caletas—a great surfing beach—extends southward into Playa Bongo, Playa Ario, and Playa Manzanillo—together forming a 12-kilometer-long expanse of sand broken by the estuaries of the Río Bongo and Río Ario, inhabited by crocodiles. Once while driving this road at night, I came around a bend to find a crocodile plodding across the road! Marshy shore flats force the coast road inland.
The route between Caletas and Manzanillo is a true adventure and a high-ground-clearance 4WD vehicle is absolutely essential in wet season, when the Bongo, Caño Seco, and Ario Rivers are often impassable, forcing you over the mountains to Jicaral, on Highway 21 (and thence around the eastern seaboard of the Nicoya Peninsula via Paquera and Tambor) to reach Manzanillo—a five-hour journey!
A shorter, but still challenging route, is to head inland toward Jicaral but cut east to the hamlet of Río Frío, which is signed. From here, you can strike east for Cóbano, which is signed beside the soccer field in Río Frío. This route, however, may also be impassable, as you have to ford the Río Ario. A second, unsigned, route to Cóbano is signed in Río Frío for Bajo de Ario; after 1.5 kilometers, turn left off this road at a Y-fork, from where a really rugged, little-trafficked road leads to Cóbano and also involves fording the Río Ario.
South of Caletas, keep straight via the hamlet of Quebrada Nando until you reach a major Y-fork by a field. Turn right (if you miss the junction you’ll know it, as you’ll soon come to a 90-degree left turn, then run along a disused airstrip) for the Río Bongo. The river crossing is tricky, often with dangerously deep channels (they change yearly with each rainy season). If the way across isn’t clear, wait for a local to show you the way.Once across, it’s about two kilometers to Soda La Perla (a good place to check local conditions), where the dirt road veers left. About one kilometer along you must ford the Río Caño Seco, another challenge that requires scouting before crossing. Shortly beyond, you reach the 30-meter-wide Río Ario Negro. Again, you may need to wait for a local to arrive and show the way.About five or so kilometers farther, turn right at the only junction, just before the hamlet of Betel. The descent will deposit you by the shore at Bello Horizonte, a small fishing hamlet inland of Playa Manzanillo. South of Bello Horizonte, the tenuous coast road (a devil in wet season) leads over Punta Pochote and alongside Playa Hermosa to Playa Santa Teresa and Malpaís.
Alternately, from Soda La Perla you can follow a minor dirt road that leads down to Playa Ario; you’ll have to ford the Río Ario en route. You can then drive four kilometers along the beach to Playa Manzanillo, where you meet the main road as it comes back to the coast. Do not attempt to drive along Playa Ario except on an outgoing tide.
Hotels and Restaurants
In Bello Horizonte, several no-frills budget cabinas include Bar y Restaurante Atardecer Dorado (tel. 506/8360-9377), with two basic rooms with bed only (and funky outhouse toilets) for $12 per person. The bar (with TV and jukebox) is a lively center for locals. It serves filling meals; try the filete al ajillo (garlic fish, $6).
New Mexico styling has come to town at Villas Anazasi (tel. 506/8369-6687, from $60 per day, $300 per week), with three villas at Playa Manzanillo.
For comfort at Bello Horizonte, head to the Polynesian-style Ylang Ylang Lodge (tel. 506/8359-2616, www.lodgeylangylang.com, $130 s or $150 d low season, $150 s or $170 d high season), run by a charming Italian woman. It has a TV lounge and small restaurant, a pool studs a huge wooden sundeck, and a suspension bridge leads to forest trails. The five breeze-swept, bi-level hilltop cabins are marvelous, with vast ocean views. Below, patios have swing seats and hammocks and huge walk-in showers; upstairs the huge bedrooms have king-size beds and french doors open to large balconies. One cabin has a kitchen.
The gorgeous Casa Caletas (tel. 506/2655-1271, www.casacaletas.com, $130–165 s/d low season, $165–200 high season) occupies a working cattle hacienda on the south bank of the Río Jabillo. The luxurious rooms feature travertine floors and bathrooms, halogen lighting, rustic glazed hardwood king beds with high-thread-count linens; they are cross-lit through sliding glass doors with river-mouth views. Some have loft bedrooms. An invitingly hip breeze-swept bar under thatch opens to the sundeck with kidney-shaped infinity pool, and the lounge with poured-concrete sofas with classy fabrics is a delightful place to relax. It offers horseback rides and air-boat river trips.
For simple seafood at bargain prices, head to Langosta Paraíso (no tel., 11 A.M.–9 P.M. daily), a simple soda in Bello Horizonte, with fresh lobster for about $10.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition