Last Updated on May 24, 2023 by Carolyn
After having relaxed and enjoyed Manuel Antonio for almost two days, on the 10th morning of our Costa Rica exploratory trip we were ready to continue our journey. Today we would be heading to Carmona on the Nicoya Peninsula.
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Chances are you’ve never heard of Carmona. It’s situated on the east side of the Nicoya Peninsula above the Gulf of Nicoya. Carmona District as it’s officially known is listed as having a population of about 2700, which I’m sure has grown significantly in the last few years.
As Route 21 winds down the eastern side of the peninsula, it takes an easterly jog and bypasses Carmona, hence why most tourists miss Carmona entirely. It’s a typical Tico agricultural town with a town square at its center. It has a few grocery stores, typical small-town Costa Rica restaurants (a handful of fast food chicken places and sodas), and your basic needs stores.
Wally had seen the following advertisement on Craigslist before we left on our adventure. It surely looked worth checking out:
“40 acre farm with mix of farm and jungle land, stellar views of Nicoya bay, and a waterfall. Located above Carmona. $75,000”
We’d talked about exploring some of the Nicoya Peninsula so why not start with this?
A Warning about the Roads in the Nicoya Peninsula
We told our host Dan where we were heading and he had this to say:
“I’ve never been to the Nicoya Peninsula, I’d like to visit it sometime. Though you know how you were talking about how bad the road is to Osa Mountain Village? The roads in the Nicoya Peninsula are reputed to be the worst in the country.”
We tucked that tidbit of info in our useful travel notes and also asked Dan if he recommended stopping anywhere along the road to Jaco and beyond. He suggested a quick stop at the Tarcoles bridge to view the crocodiles.
There are two options to get from mainland Costa Rica to the Nicoya Peninsula. You can drive to the top of the Gulf of Nicoya along the Costanera Highway or take the ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera. We opted to drive around the top of the Gulf of Nicoya as we were interested in seeing more of Costa Rica!
It is approximately a 200km drive from Manuel Antonio to Carmona, and we anticipated the drive would take most of the day ( 4 hours driving time plus stops).
Parque Nacional Carara
Parque Nacional Carara is the first place of interest we came to. Had we had more time we certainly would have stopped here for a hike. If you’re driving this route and want to get out and stretch your legs this makes a great stop. The park has several hiking trails and has one hike that features 3 loops so you can adjust the hike to the length you desire. If you hike all 3 loops it’s approximately 5 km long, but can be shortened down to just a 1.25 easy hike if you do just the paved Universal Access Trail. Admission is $10.00 per person for non-nationals.
Tarcoles Crocodile Bridge
As Dan had recommended we stopped at the Tarcoles Crocodile bridge. On the North side of the bridge, there are many vendors selling souvenirs, sodas for food and refreshments (including a Pops Ice cream shop), and banõs for those in need.
There is plenty of room to park and if you like you can pay an attendant about $1 for a little added security. You can view the crocodiles from either side of the bridge.
We hopped out and walked onto the bridge and sure enough, there were loads of crocodiles and some very brave (or stupid?) Basilisk lizards running over the water.
There are estimated to be approximately 2000 crocodiles in the Tarcoles river, which is sadly one of the most polluted rivers in Costa Rica. This represents 25 crocodiles per square kilometer and is the highest population of crocodiles in the world!
If seeing the crocodiles from the bridge isn’t exciting enough for you, there are boat tours offered on the river where you can get even closer views of these prehistoric creatures. If you opt for a boat tour, please be a responsible tourist and choose one that doesn’t feed the crocodiles. It is illegal to feed them and also leads to crocodile aggression, something we definitely don’t need.
The next “city” we came to was Caldera which extends into Puntarenas, a city known for its bustling port that caters to cargo and cruise ships alike. Puntarenas is also famous as being the birthplace of the famed Costa Rica treat “Churchills”.
As you pass through Caldera, the Costanera highway brings you by the waterfront alongside which were many food carts selling a variety of street food and of course the infamous Churchills.
At this point, you’re probably wondering what an earth is a Churchill? It’s a super sweet concoction of shaved ice, condensed milk, kola syrup, powdered milk, fruit, and ice cream served in a cup and eaten with a spoon. Definitely not health food, but a refreshing treat for road-wary travelers.
After passing through Puntarenas the Costanera passes through quite a jungly area. There were some slowdowns along the way due to mudslides and fallen trees. We left the Costanera and headed west at the junction of Route 18.
Puente La Amistad
Route 18 passes through an agricultural area and if you didn’t know better you could think you were in rural Virginia. After about 1/2 on Route 18, we arrived at Puente La Amistad, the largest bridge in Costa Rica. It spans the Tempisque River at the top of the Nicoya Bay.
A plaque on the bridge tells its story:
“The bridge is a gift from the Government of the Republic of China and was constructed by the Taiwan RSEA company. The construction started in 2000 and was completed in 2002. The Government of the Republic of China christened the bridge “the Taiwan Friendship Bridge” to symbolize the fraternal ties between two nations”
Parque Nacional Barra Honda
We crossed the bridge and continued our drive toward Carmona. For those wanting to sightsee the turn-off to Parque Nacional Barra Honda lies just before the junction with route 21, and the park is about 15 minutes by car up the road.
Parque Nacional Barra Honda is not on most Costa Rica tourists’ radar but if you’re a spelunker or interested in caves it should be, as the main attraction of the park is a large network of limestone caves. The park is 5000 acres and also has hiking trails to explore the tropical dryland forest. Wildlife seen in the park includes capuchin monkeys, agoutis, pizotes, raccoons, deer, anteaters, and bats.
Though the park has over 42 caves only 19 have been explored and only 2 are open to the public. The caves are closed during the rainy season and must be explored with a guide. The tour costs approximately $40 and includes park admission of $13. If you want to do a cave tour it is recommended to call ahead and make a reservation by phone +506 8721 2444 or via their Facebook page.
We didn’t go to the Barra Hondo park as we wanted to get to Carmona in daylight and hoped we’d be able to see the “finca” before dark. The roads were all paved and we got there in good time. We were famished so looked for somewhere to eat straight away.
Carmona First Impressions
There wasn’t much choice in restaurants, especially for the vegetarian in our party. We ate at a little soda but weren’t thrilled, there were a lot of flies buzzing around our food and Wally was sure his meal which was pretty unidentifiable contained meat. Much of it ended up in the trash.
We spent the next couple of hours trying to firm up arrangements to meet someone to show us the “finca”. It’s always a task trying to see properties as much of the time the owners are abroad and have to find someone available to show the properties, and there’s a lot of waiting around for returned calls. We finally were able to make arrangements to meet up, but it wouldn’t be until the next morning.
Next on our agenda, was to find a hotel, there wasn’t any showing close by on Google maps. I tried contacting a couple of Airbnbs that weren’t too far away but I wasn’t getting any responses back. We asked someone on the street but had trouble conversing as they didn’t speak any English and my Spanish was extremely limited. You wouldn’t think it would be too hard to say “Dondé hay un hotel” but somehow I was botching it up. We finally were able to get pointed in the direction of a hotel.
The hotel had to be one of the worst hotels I’d ever stayed in. Our room which was small had about 4 or 5 beds in it, bugs all over the floor ( at least most of them were dead), a rusty fan, a shower with no shower head, and internet service only out in the parking lot. At least it was cheap, just $25.00.
There was a bar at the hotel and we hoped we would be able to get some food, and maybe an internet signal, but alas they had neither. We ended up eating some of the food we’d bought for road snacks for dinner by the unappealing pool and calling it an early night as there really wasn’t anything to do.
We were both feeling a little less than enchanted but were looking forward to seeing some properties the next day.