Bahia Herradura – Costa Rica
Until relatively recently Bahia Herradura was not a typical inclusion on the itinerary of overseas tourists but all of that changed in the 1990s once the Marriott group constructed the vast Los Sueños Resort. Sufficiently large scale and luxurious to receive international attention, this marina, golf and entertainment complex now sprawls across the northern end of the beach and offers all kinds of options for those who enjoy the finer things in life. The five-star marina has also helped put Herradura on the map as the country’s fishing capital too, as big game fishermen arrive from every corner of the world year round and particularly when the grand fishing tournaments are held. Contrasting with this rather more opulent side to the town are those distinctly Tico flavored-beach bars and rustic favorites which make up things to the south. Two very different elements combined in one destination mean visitors can have the best of both worlds, experiencing if you so choose the authentically Latin American side and the luxury yacht scene at the same time.
Also known as Playa Herradura, the town’s black-sand palm tree-lined beach is backed by greenery-cloaked hills and in the near surrounds can be found all of the incredible pristine nature and wildlife for which Costa Rica is best known. The Carara National Park –one of the country’s top bird-watching destinations –sits a short journey north with the Tarcoles River weaving a course through its forest. Here you can head out on foot to look for monkeys and sloths or climb aboard a boat and set off through the mangroves to have some truly close encounters with the incredible number of super-size crocodiles who live in this area.
Hiking and cruising though are just two of the ways to experience the rain forest and its animals and birds with plenty more on the activity menu. These include horseback riding deep into the jungle, a serene aerial tram ride through the tree-tops and thrilling ziplines which allow you to gaze at it all as you whizz along above the canopy.
The bustling town of Jaco, a darling of the surfing crowd, lies just six miles south and adds a whole extra list of things to see and do along with even more eating and drinking venues to enjoy during your time in Herradura.
A Morning in Bahia Herradura and Surrounds
With more than 25% of its territory given over to national parks and protected areas and representing all by itself 5% of the world’s entire biodiversity Costa Rica is one of the planet’s top destinations for wildlife lovers and the nature passionate. So richly blessed is this country in fact that it is almost impossible to spend any time here without encountering its animals even if you’re not making any special effort to do so.
For those who prefer not to leave things to chance however, the area around Herradura is nothing short of a wonderland for those with a wildlife focus. Your Costa Rican day begins with either a stroll through a mountainside garden full of birds and butterflies or a short hike into one of its national parks. After a coffee break you can continue the nature theme with a boat trip up the river to observe one of the largest gatherings of crocodiles in Central America.
The Pura Vida Gardens
Located just a short 15 minute drive north of Herradura can be found the magnificent Pura Vida Gardens which offer an incredible mix of natural magnificence, manicured walkways and sensational views. Open from 8am, an early morning visit here is magical and means you can begin your Costa Rica day early in order to fit in as much as possible.
Perched 2000 ft above sea level and surrounded by hills and valleys thickly cloaked in jungle, the gardens immediately immerse you into a natural wonderland to which has been added tens of thousands of plants representing almost 400 species including a wonderful collection of orchids. To access this abundance you can wander along gravel trails which weave their way up ridges, down into valleys and along the banks of a river. At times it is hard to know where to look as near at hand you will have orchids and other tropical blooms in abundance if you arrive in flowering season while the overall views allow your gaze to take in hills, jungle and Pacific Ocean.
The 50 acres of the Pura Vida Gardens also incorporate four waterfalls including the 600 ft Bijagual which is often cited as being the country’s largest waterfall which, although not actually correct, is nevertheless impressive. Not surprisingly such an environment is home to a wealth of wildlife with birds and butterflies constantly flitting around you as you explore. The raucous calls of the Costa Rican parrot known as the scarlet macaw –an almost guaranteed sighting here -will alert you to their presence usually long before you spot their vivid red, blue and yellow plumage while toucans, hummingbirds and a wide variety of other bird species can also frequently be seen.
Guided walks are offered for those who want to learn more about the flora and fauna they are looking at and the property is also home to a restaurant and gift shop which stocks some authentic Costa Rican souvenirs.
A Morning Alternative – The Carara National Park
If a totally natural environment appeals more than botanical gardens the Carara National Park – just a few kilometers further north of the Pura Vida Gardens –is a great alternative. The low mountainous Carara is what is known in ecological terms as a transitional zone, seen here with coastal rain forest gradually giving way to dryer tropical areas to the north.
Home to a wealth of wildlife, Carara is especially well-known for its abundance of bird species with the noisy scarlet macaw found in some of its greatest numbers here. Such an impressive variety of species is due to the two distinctly different zonal habitats represented, as previously mentioned, but also because of yet another environment type afforded by that of the Tarcoles River. Not only are birds plentiful here but they are also easier to spot thanks to the nature of the undergrowth and the presence of non-evergreen tree species. All of these elements combined make Carara one of the top bird-watching spots in the whole of the country.
The most commonly seen species besides birds are howler monkey, sloth, agouti and raccoon but also present are anteater, peccary, poison-arrow frog, caiman, armadillo and any number of other animals which you might be lucky enough to meet during your walk.
Carara’s linear and loop trail network also makes life easy for those who are short on time or who just want to dip their toes into this protected area. All offer options on the gentler side and the easiest of all the hikes is the Universal Access Trail which covers less than a mile and has a plentiful supply of places to pause and rest your legs.
While some choose to explore independently, making use of the information panels along the trails, it is often far more enriching to go with a guide who can not only ensure you miss nothing but can also help you have a greater understanding of the ecosystems’ flora and fauna. For those who don’t always think to plan ahead there are always a handful of good quality guides offering their services at the park entrance.
Morning Coffee in Bahia Herradura and the Surrounding Area
As a bustling center Bahia Herradura has plenty of morning coffee break options with the more locally-flavored choices spread along the southern end of the beach and the more sophisticated options clustered around the northern end where the Los Sueños Resort is located.
For those who want something a little more upmarket with ocean views, enjoy high quality coffee and have a sweet tooth there is perhaps no better choice than the resort’s Dolce Vida. With its clustering of alfresco pavement tables and building architecture this cafe could almost have been plucked straight from the streets of Paris or Rome and has a rather more Mediterranean feel than a Latin American one. Elegant cushioned cane chairs and marble table tops add an air of class while the specialty drinks menu will satisfy even the most discerning coffee connoisseur.
Besides the lovely setting and excellent coffee Dolce Vida also has a seemingly endless choice of sweet treats which includes brownies, macaroons, Danish pastries, cinnamon rolls, croissants, muffins and cakes so if you can’t find something to suit here it is unlikely you will find it anywhere.
At the extreme other end of the scale is Soda Las Lapas, located in the small town of Tarcoles which is right where your day will continue after your mid-morning break. Sodas are the collection of typically small, family-run food and drink places of Costa Rica so for those looking for an authentic Tico experience this is the way to go. The open-sided and no-frills Las Lapas is set on the beach and typically the only other customers you might have to share this tranquil little spot with are a handful of locals. This cafe offers a range of smoothies and cold drinks and sometimes (but not always) coffee so if you can’t last the morning without a caffeine fix you might want to head elsewhere.
Another Tarcoles option is Restaurante Crocodile Man Tours, located right beside the river itself and therefore placing you as close as you can be to where your morning will continue while still keeping your feet dry. This simple but cute little cafe with its wooden tables offers a range of hot and cold drinks and also serves lunches if you feel like stopping by after your crocodile tour.
Rio Grande de Tarcoles Cruising and Crocodile Safaris
Just 12 miles north of Herradura lies the small and dusty Tico town of Tarcoles which would probably fail to register on the tourist radar but for one thing. It sits on the banks of the Tarcoles River which happens to be home to an almost impossibly large number of crocodiles and boat tours to view these impressive creatures in their natural habitat have become very popular. Crocodiles have a lineage so ancient that they walked the Earth at the same time as dinosaurs and on the Tarcoles they congregate literally in their hundreds, representing one of the biggest populations found anywhere in Central America.
Fiercely predatory and formidable hunters, the river crocodiles can be seen basking in the mud shallows and banks or gliding soundlessly through the water. While most wildlife viewing experiences are something of a hit-and-miss affair the sheer number of crocodiles along the entire river here make sightings 100% guaranteed; with an average of 25 crocodiles for every third of a square mile it is far easier in fact to see them than find a patch of river where they are absent. Boat pilots maneuver their craft to allow those on board extreme close-up viewing allowing a full appreciation of their size and some of the Tarcoles crocodiles are true giants, exceeding 13 ft in length.
There are several operators who offer boat tours and the vast majority of them pilot silent craft which makes approaching without alarming the wildlife easier and have canopy roofs to offer shade from the tropical sun. Be sure to pick one of the more eco-focused options; some tours use meat to lure the crocodiles right up to the boats while the companies with the better ethics believe in a no-interference-of-any-kind approach, a policy approved by the Certification for Sustainable Tourism accreditation scheme. The best tour companies are also as committed to education as to the wildlife viewing so your trip will help you learn about mangrove habitats and their huge importance within the conservation web.
While the crocodiles are without doubt the star of any trip up the Tarcoles River the experience overall is one of communing with nature as you cruise serenely up this waterway. The mangroves’ canal systems are fascinating habitats teeming with life while rain forests crowd in from the edges. Wildlife commonly seen includes monkeys, iguanas, Jesus Christ lizards –so called because they run on water –mangrove crabs and a plentiful variety of bird species such as hummingbirds, flycatchers, macaws, herons and ibis.
Lunch in Bahia Herradura
Once your date with the crocodiles has ended you can start turning your thoughts to lunch venues. If you want to continue with the nature theme head up to the hills above Tarcoles where after a windy 10 minute drive you will arrive at the Ti-Ko Restaurante Mirador Surf and Turf. Something of what awaits you at this wonderful spot is suggested in its title; in case you didn’t know ‘mirador’ means look-out in Spanish and that is exactly what you get here. The mirador from this restaurant’s gorgeous open terrace is beyond spectacular with views over the jungle swathes of Carara National Park and the Tarcoles River with the sparkling Pacific Ocean on the horizon.
The restaurant’s name honors the original indigenous cultures of Costa Rica whose word for water was ‘ti’ and the word for earth ‘ko’ and together –with a slight variant in spelling –gives the Costa Ricans their alternative name of Ticos. The water and earth theme also describe the sea and land elements of their menu which feature some traditional local foods such as beans and rice, patacones (fried plantains) and pico de gallo sides along with a range of chicken, seafood and fish dishes. With your elevated position you have all the advantages of a cooling breeze while wildlife spotting opportunities can continue throughout your lunch. Frequently seen are monkeys, scarlet macaws, toucans and trogans and the restaurant even has binoculars for their diners’ use.
Welcomes are warm here and service attentive while an extra element which you most definitely won’t find everywhere is the obvious passion of the staff for their magnificent natural surroundings. Constantly aware of each wildlife stirring, they are quick to draw your attention to anything which arrives and will even offer some interesting facts regarding each particular species if you express interest.
If you prefer to head back to Herradura Bay for lunch you have an array of choices with the north end of the beach typically the domain of the more upmarket options. These include all those under the umbrella of the huge Los Sueños Marina with the more rustic choices typically strung along the beach further south.
La Puesta del Sol represents one of the more authentic beach choices and as the family which run this spot can trace their roots all the way back to the town’s founder this is as local as it gets. La Puesta del Sol was here long before Herradura boomed with the building of the marina and serves up large portions of Costa Rican staples at budget-friendly prices. A lively venue known for its set lunches (casados), this soda’s specialty is its ceviches which come in a variety of delicious forms.
An Afternoon in Bahia Herradura and the Surrounds
Costa Rica’s collection of pristine protected jungles and the incredible diversity of flora and fauna which they contain serve as the country’s principal draw card and a constant theme but there are many different ways in which you can get yourself amid this natural splendor and meeting its wildlife. Besides hiking Bahia Herradura has a choice of exciting options for exploring the rain forest ranging from the tranquil to the adrenaline filled. If you really can’t make up your mind between them several tour operators offer combos so you can experience them all.
Ziplines and Canopy Tours
If zipping along high above the forest floor registers as something fun for you then there are several zipline options within easy access of Herradura. The closest of these –the Vista Los Sueños Adventure Park -lies just 3 miles east, high in the hills which overlook the bay. While the more than two miles of cable here which soar up to 100 ft above the ground without doubt provide an extreme adventure element for thrill seekers this attraction was also created in order to offer a low-impact nature immersion experience too.
With 10 lines in total –the longest of which is almost half a mile long –interspersed with platforms providing some spectacular views, the Los Sueños zipline gives you a privileged window onto a part of the forest rarely seen. As plant-life competes to get as high as possible to receive sunlight the rain forest canopy is an eco-system all of its own, filled with dazzling displays of ferns, vines and orchids which you will be right in among. The cable system crosses primary forest where both plant and animal life is especially rich with monkeys, toucans, butterflies and scarlet macaws just some of the species frequently seen. Additionally, both wet-tropical and dry ecosystems are represented which means an even greater diversity of life.
Zipliners are transported to the top of the mountain by tractor ride –quite an adventure in itself -and also another wildlife-spotting opportunity. Coming back down via the cables can be as extreme as you dare with options for riding the ziplines hands-free and even upside down if you choose. Besides the thrill element there is also that of the spectacular views. Vista Los Sueños is aptly named –it means ‘dream view’ in Spanish and from your elevated perch you will be able to see not just the Herradura Bay but the whole of the Nicoya Gulf, the Nicoya Peninsula and the sparkling Pacific Ocean beyond.
Seven miles from Herradura can be found another option for a rain forest view with a difference -the aerial trams of the Rainforest Adventure Park. A somewhat more serene alternative to the zipline, the aerial tram allows you a ride in comfort in an open-sided gondola suspended high on cables which glides you through tropical transitional forest.
The total experience here offers a one hour gondola ride with each car carrying its own expert nature guide to enrich your journey. Also included is a visit to butterfly and medicinal plant gardens so that you can explore the forest at literally every level –from the ground to the canopy. Passing a waterfall and with incredible views of the Pacific Coast, your gondola ride lets you glimpse normally secret parts of the forest and is especially good for spotting some of the more elusive bird species which you wouldn’t typically see from the forest floor. The micro-ecosystems which exist at the forest’s highest level as plants colonize the treetops in their fight for survival are especially fascinating and if you’re lucky you may also get to spot some of the other tropical wildlife which calls this area home.
For those who prefer to stay at ground level there is also the option of exploring the rain forest environments by horseback directly from Herradura. While hiking the jungle environments is rewarding doing it from a saddle allows you to give your full attention to your surroundings rather than concentrating on not tripping over tree roots or other natural obstacles. Additionally, horseback tours can typically take you deeper into the forest and offer access even for those whose fitness level is not high.
One of the horse riding adventures possible from Herradura is offered by the same operator which provides the closest zipline to town –the Vista Los Sueños Adventure Park. Known for having well-cared for horses, this adventure park also has its own private swathe of forested land full of waterfalls, gorgeous natural swimming holes and wonderful views, all of which you get to visit during your ride. As you head out and ascend through rich forest keep your eyes constantly peeled for wildlife with white-faced monkeys, toucans and scarlet macaws all common sightings.
Tours allow you some free time at the waterfalls for a cooling dip and also include some welcome refreshments before you head back to town.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Bahia Herradura
With both simple local choices and a range of high-end hotels both present in Herradura the whole scope of drinking and dining possibilities are covered, no matter what you preference or budget. The more sophisticated watering holes and finer dining restaurants tend to be clustered around the Los Sueños Resort while further south is where you’ll find the more rustic and homely venues.
If you don’t mind a short taxi journey then into the mix of town drinking venues and restaurants you can also add several more sprinkled around the nearby area. Some of these offer some extra-special elements and one most definitely in this category is the Anfiteatro, one of the two restaurant options located at the luxury boutique Hotel Villa Caletas just over six miles inland. As a cocktail venue for sunset it probably doesn’t get any more spectacular than this as this spot sits 1,000 feet up with views which seem to stretch on forever, sweeping over the jungle and on to the Pacific Ocean.
The well-mixed drinks here are not the cheapest in town but the million-dollar view is thrown in for free so overall you will almost certainly feel you have the better half of the deal. As the Anfiteatro’s other function is that of a restaurant you can really make the most of your time at this magical spot by dining here once you have finished enjoying both sunset and pre-dinner drinks.
In Herradura itself you can stroll the beach to see which of the more rustic beach bars appeal or if you prefer a little more style you can consider one of the Los Sueños options. This complex offers a choice of surroundings and ambiance with perhaps the Hook Up representing its most casual pub-like option. With its open-sided aspect and elevated perch from an upstairs floor, this bar gives you beautiful views over the marina and the chilled crowd here makes for a relaxed pre-dinner drinks choice. If the Hook Up doesn’t quite match your idea of the ideal you can check out the resort’s other bars and restaurants which range from the cafe casual to a little luxurious sophistication.
While several of the Herradura dining options are located within walking distance of each other some other possibilities will need a little effort to get to, if you consider a five minute taxi ride an effort. One of these is the Anfiteatro–part of the Hotel Villa Caletas –which you may already have arrived at earlier for a cocktail hour at altitude bathed in the glow of the setting sun. Located more than 1,000 feet above sea-level amid lush jungle, this colonial-style villa features a wealth of wonderful details including art and artifacts introduced by its interior designer owner. The overall effect is magnificent but onto this already beautiful canvas you can tack the bonus of some of the most amazing views you could possibly have while dining anywhere in the entire country.
The Anfiteatro restaurant’s open-air terrace sits at the top of a series of curving steps which intentionally resemble one side of an amphitheater. Classic-style columns topped by urns complete the effect and the clever design makes you feel as if you are perched on the edge of the world. The restaurant’s ambiance is casual but the elegance is undeniable with a mosaic floor, crisp tablecloths and beautiful wrought iron chairs.
With its west-facing aspect and high vantage point offering breath-taking panoramas across the jungle canopy and the Nicoya Peninsula, sunsets here are beyond description. Enjoy the cocktail specials and the jaw-dropping outlook as you peruse the menu of international flavors with some Latin elements and rest assured, as the hotel owner is French, that no matter what you opt for the quality will be high and the presentation artful.
Once the glow of the setting sun fades to dusk the atmosphere of this special place switches as well-placed string lighting and candles add an air of romance and the creatures of the jungle begin their night chorus to serenade you.
If you prefer to stay in town and want to try some of the best seafood around head to the open-sided El Pelicano which sits just across the road from the beach. In reality nothing more than a stone terrace with a canopy supported by cross-woven bamboo, this simple but charming venue has been part of the Herradura scene for more than three decades now. With a little of everything on the menu including steak, pasta, chicken dishes and some Tico staples, what El Pelicano is really best known for is its fresh-off-the-boat seafood and in particular its ceviches.
An Evening in Bahia Herradura
The Herradura after-dark scene is typically low-key and laid back. Things generally center around the beach bars where there is sometimes live music and karaoke at least one night of the week. The huge Los Sueños Marriott Resort is also a good bet for those looking for music and entertainment as the bars and restaurants of this sprawling complex almost always have something going on.
If being serenaded by the sounds of nature has more appeal then it is straightforward to arrange a night jungle tour from Herradura. Walking through rain forests during daylight hours is a very different experience to exploring these wildlife-packed environments at night so even if a jungle experience has already featured in your day it is worth considering heading back after dark.Besides a whole new set of sounds and a magically different character, the wildlife you can see is likely to be entirely different too as many of the forest inhabitants remain totally hidden during the day, only becoming active once the sun has set.
The guides who lead these tours know exactly what to look out for and where to find it, helping you to have close encounters with all kinds of creatures that you would almost certainly miss without their expertise. As always with any wildlife tour which takes you into natural environments quite what you will see depends but the most commonly seen species include tiny and colorful frogs, bats, spiders, snakes and nocturnal mammals such as raccoons, armadillo and sloth. If you are looking for a livelier scene and considerably more options for after-dark activities and nightlife then head to Jaco, less than six miles to the south.