Dr Duncan James > Nature Travel Guide > Planet Earth > the Americas > Costa Rica > Nicoya

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Nature Travel Guide

Location 4: Nicoya (Costa Rica)

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.

Coastal birds and stunning forest trails.

Be a Costa Rica Forest Explorer.

I saw mammals and mixed flocks of birds in the forest. The best spots I found were the footpaths at Parque Nacional Carara and Palo Verde.

Nicoya is the name for the bay on the coast of north-west Costa Rica. It is also often used as the name for the land around the bay. It is a fantastic place for waterbirds, particularly in the winter.

Nicoya includes the top wildlife destinations Parque Nacional Carara (often described as the best birdwatching site in Costa Rica and also very good for mammals) and Parque Nacional Palo Verde (during the drier part of the year excellent for large concentrations of waterbirds).

Many of the trails, including those in the forest at Parque Nacional Carara, are close to sea-level. There are also roads and trails that head up into the forested hills reaching approximately 500m.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
Waders on the sand at Tarcoles. The overall look is of a sandpiper. I am reluctant to identify this from a photo as lighting and the lack of movement makes the subtle features more difficult to see. The bill is relatively short, chunky and down-curved. I typically use the breast and belly colours to help with identification. They are probably Western Sandpipers based mainly on the bill.


This information is a summary only and times/routes may have changed.

There is a public bus route from San Jose http://www.transportesjacoruta655.com which runs regularly. This can drop you off at Carara or Tarcoles. Once you are on the coast there are local buses between Quepos/Jaco/Puntarenas which stop at and between these towns. I got a bit confused at times because in this location the buses seem to sometimes do loops through the towns and just because a bus is headed north does not mean it is actually going that way! So, I recommend being careful and asking other bus-users for help.

If you have a hire car then you are in a great position to do some independent exploring and perhaps see lots of waterbirds very efficiently (that is if you are after waterbirds although these are not really the speciality of Costa Rica). If you drive along the coast you should find other places to stop as well.

In general I found that most locations in Costa Rica could be reasonably explored on foot: I did not find this at Tarcoles. The Tarcoles walk is stunning and one of the best "free walks" that I have found in Costa Rica but this is the exception. For example, Parque Nacional Carara is considered one of the best birdwatching locations in Costa Rica and the entrance is on this main road with no pedestrian access.


Some people stay at Manuel Antonia and come to Tarcoles/Carara from there. Others take a day trip from San Jose with a travel time by bus of approximately 2 hours each way. There are places to stay in the village of Tarcoles but you are likely to need some Spanish to book a place.

Palo Verde is also a beautiful place to stay if you enjoy dry forest and wetland. There is accommodation near and within the park. There is an ecolodge http://www.threepaths.co.cr which is part of the same organisation that provides accommodation at La Selva and Las Cruces. Alternatively, there is a campsite nearby run by the National Park http://www.sinac.go.cr/AC/ACAT/PNPaloVerde/Paginas/default.aspx although as usual you will need some Spanish to book.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
Wow! Near the equator reptiles are able to grow very large. This green lizard was just under one metre long.

Wildlife of Nicoya

In the winter this location is a good place to see waders, ducks and other waterbirds. So, if you are a birdwatcher this may be reason enough. For the more generalist wildlife watcher, Parque Nacional Carara is worth a visit as it offers excellent birdwatching combined with good chances of mammals, insects and a local population of crocodiles. Parque Nacional Palo Verde has similar wildlife but can be very hot and dry making it less suitable for a general recommendation.

For the list of possible birds I have included birds that you could see at Carara, Palo Verde and also other wetland areas around the coastline of the Bay of Nicoya. I have not personally explored the coastline with a hire car which is one of the reasons there is such a disparity between the list of "possible birds" and the list of "birds seen" for this location. I have read reports from other birdwatchers that say good numbers of waders can be seen if you explore side roads towards the coast.

In the open areas, birds such as flycatchers, grackles and pigeons/doves are common. I sometimes saw raccoons in the more rural areas. Because it is fairly wet I also saw kingfishers, egrets and other waterbirds which I think really adds to the spectacle. I like to look for places with non-intensive farming that does not have a busy road with my recommended walk at Tarcoles a good example of this.

The open habitats had the usual good numbers of birds such as flycatchers, grackles and pigeons/doves. I also found this location to be particularly good for wrens and sparrows in the more open areas (often feeding along hedges). The fields in and around Tarcoles get a special mention as they seemed to have lots of very good birds including waterbirds such as herons, egrets and kingfishers.

The forests are very popular with birdwatchers because they offer a lower-elevation forest on the Pacific-side that is easily accessible from San Jose. I also found the mammals to be good. If you are walking along a forest trail and there are no other people around I recommend walking in silence. Take the opportunity to be very aware of the noises of the forest and keep walking quietly for up to an hour. Eventually you can be lucky and be rewarded by mammals feeding without knowing you are watching or maybe you could see a rarer bird. On the northern trail at Parque Nacional Carara I have seen monkeys, agouti, peccaries and deer all possible. On the trails near the ranger station at Parque Nacional Palo Verde I have seen monkeys, agouti, peccaries, deer and coati.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
The Jirabu is an unusual-looking waterbird that you might be lucky enough to see at Palo Verde.

This article is part of the Nature Travel Guide and was published on June 2017.

Larger-scale information relating this page include the Planet Earth, the Americas and Costa Rica articles.

Even more articles including detailed site descriptions, illustrated wildlife-watching activities, self-guided walks, itinerary recommendations, birdwatching overviews and mammal-watching overviews are available in the premium eBooks.

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