Highway 21: Carmona to Playa Naranjo
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Highway 21 winds south along the eastern shore of the Gulf of Nicoya via Jicaral to Playa Naranjo, beyond which it swings south around the Nicoya Peninsula bound for Paquera, Montezuma, and Malpaís. At last visit, the formerly horrendous dirt-and-rock road had been graded and partially paved.
Playa Naranjo is one of two terminals for the Puntarenas ferry (Coonatramar Ferry, tel. 506/2661-1069, www.coonatramar.com); use the Naranjo ferry to access the beaches of northern and central Nicoya only. There’s a gas station (closed Sun.) and supermarket here.
Fifteen kilometers inland of the small town of Jicaral, the Karen Mongensen Wildlife Reserve protects 900 hectares of tropical moist forest. It is run by a local community organization, Asociación Ecológica Paquera, Lepanto y Cóbano (tel. 506/2650-0607, www.asepaleco.com), which founded the reserve with financing from international NGOs. The highlight of exploring this wildlife-rich reserve is a hike to the 84-meter-tall Velo de Novia (Bridal Veil) waterfall. To get there, turn off at Lepanto, 11 kilometers south of Jicaral, and drive to Montaña Grande.
ASEPALECO offers horseback rides and hiking at the reserve’s Cerro Escondido Lodge, which has an orchid garden and small eco-museum. To reach the lodge, you must mount a horse for the 90-minute ride. Alternatively, from Jicaral turn west to Unií, then turn east for San Ramón de Río Blanco (16 km), where you need to hike the three-kilometer trail to the lodge. From there you walk through the jungle, crossing the rivers many times, and then hike up a steep hill. ASEPALECO also arranges transfers on request. You can also take a bus to Jicaral, from where a Jeep-taxi will cost about $15.
Costa Rica’s second-largest island, Isla Chira floats below the mouth of the Río Tempisque, at the north end of the Gulf of Nicoya. It is surrounded by mangroves popular with pelicans and frigate birds, and uninhabited except for a few fishermen, farmers, and others who eke out a living from salinas (salt pans). Roseate spoonbills and other wading birds pick among the pans.
Isla de Chira Amistad Lodge (tel./fax 506/2661-3261, or c/o Costa Rican Association of Community-Based Rural Tourism, tel. 506/2248-9470, www.actuarcostarica.com, $33–36 pp) offers a simple dorm and six quad rooms. ACTUAR offers one- and two-day packages ($62 and $122) with boat trips.
Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Isla San Lucas
Isla San Lucas National Wildlife Refuge (615 hectares), five kilometers offshore of Naranjo, seems a pleasant palm-fringed place where you might actually wish to be washed ashore and languish in splendid sun-washed isolation. Yet a visit to Isla San Lucas once amounted to an excursion to hell.
Until a few years ago, this was the site of the most dreaded prison in the Costa Rican penal system, with a legacy dating back 400 years. In the 16th century, the Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Fernández Oviedo used San Lucas as a concentration camp for local Chara people, who were slaughtered on the site of their sacred burial grounds. The Costa Rican government turned it into a detention center for political prisoners in 1862. In 1991, it closed. There are still guards here, but today their role is to protect the island’s resident wildlife from would-be poachers. It also has eight pre-Columbian sites.
The overgrown prison now functions as a museum. Should you visit the grim bastion, the ghosts of murderers, miscreants, and maltreated innocents will be your guides. A cobbled pathway leads to the main prison building. The chapel has become a bat grotto, and only graffiti remains to tell of the horror and hopelessness, recorded by ex-convict José León Sánchez in his book La isla de los hombres solos (The Isle of the Lonely Men), available in English as God Was Looking the Other Way.
Bay Island Cruises (tel. 506/2258-3536, www.bayislandcruises.com) offers a package day trip, departing Puntarenas at 9:30 A.M. daily (and with the option of transfers from San José). Coontramar (tel. 506/2661-1069, www.coonatramar.com/paq_sanluca_en.php, $60) also offers tours from Puntarenas.
You can also rent motorboats through the Costa Rica Yacht Club (tel. 506/2661-0784, www.costaricayachtclub.com), in Puntarenas.
Hotels and Restaurangts
The nicest of several accommodations at Playa Naranjo is the modern Italian-owned Hotel El Ancla do Oro (tel. 506/2642-0369, www.caboblancopark.com/ancla, $40 s/d fan, $45 s/d a/c), just 200 meters from the ferry terminal, with nine brightly decorated, air-conditioned rooms fronted by a wide porch with hammocks. There’s a pool and thatched bar and pizza restaurant where movies are shown at 8 P.M.
The Karen Mongenson Reserve has a guest house, Cerro Escondido Lodge (c/o Costa Rican Association of Community-Based Rural Tourism, ACTUAR, tel. 506/2248-9470, www.actuarcostarica.com, two-day packages $68), with four cozy wooden dorm-style cabins with solar power, plus private cold-water showers and verandas with magnificent forest views. It serves meals family-style in its open-air restaurant. It’s great for an immersion in local country life.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition