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Tamarindo is one of the most popular beach destinations on Nicoya !!

Surf City, here I come. ~ Jan and Dean

Partly because of paved roads that lead almost all the way there (plus a local air strip, with service from San José) and partly because of its wordof- mouth reputation among surfers, Tamarindo is one of the most popular beach destinations on Nicoya.

It was once a sleepy little fishing village, but the hillsides up from the dusty road that runs parallel to the beach are slowly filling up with small hotels and private houses. The main drag is home to restaurants and artsy-crafty gift stores. At the end of the downtown road, where restaurants and the beach square a circle, street vendors sell jewelry and art in a tiny park. It's a central meeting place, made more popular by its bank of pay phones.

Some of these vendors are North Americans trying to eke out enough money to stay in Costa Rica longer - a difficult task if you're looking for inexpensive hotel rooms, and Tamarindo isn't nearly as cheap as its laid-back surfer reputation might lead you to think. On our last visit, one young woman plied the streets selling her rich, homemade jelly donuts. Yum.

The ride from San José, to Tamarindo in the evening, takes you out of the valley and over dramatic mountains down to the rolling plains of Guanacaste and the Nicoya cattle country. Like the American West, the land is gritty, especially in the dry season, when light brown dust, polvo, coats the landscape along unpaved roads. In Tamarindo, most restaurants have learned to set their tables well back from the road to avoid coating your spaghetti sauce with grit.

But no one seems to mind the windy weather when the surf is up in the warm Pacific. Surfing season at Tamarindo winds down at the end of July with a major professional / amateur competition in both long and short boards, dude.

Robert August, the California surfboard manufacturer and star of Bruce Brown's classic surfer film, Endless Summer, has a home on the hill overlooking the beach.

Even though it's a surfer area, swimming at Tamarindo isn't bad at all. The beach is long, wide and shallow, and is protected by an offshore reef. The whole of the playa is framed to the north and south by two river estuaries that empty into the Pacific. WARNING: Be careful wading or swimming across the easily accessed estuary to the north between Tamarindo and Playa Grande. The tidal current can be very strong. Wait for low tide.

Locals already know that swimming in the ocean in front of the Barceló Playa Langosta hotel, where the Río San Francisco estuary flows into the Pacific, can be very dangerous because of rip tides. According to the former sheriff of Tamarindo, the hotel refused to post danger warnings and access to the beach was blocked for all vehicles - even for emergencies!

Tamarindo is a welcoming beach destination, offering an eclectic social and nightlife, an appealing beach, interesting ecological trips nearby and a variety of hotels and restaurants to please any taste. Get there by plane private or shuttle bus from San José. If you're driving, turn west off the Liberia-to-Santa-Cruz road, in the town of Belén, and follow your nose.

Adventures on Water:

The big sport in Tamarindo is surfing, and Iguana Surf ( 506 ) 653-0148, www.tamarindo. com/iguana) is the largest supplier of everything in watersports in Costa Rica. They have two locations, a small surf shop right in the downtown and their large four-story palapa-roofed headquarters and restaurant on the road to Playa Langosta and the Río San Francisco estuary. They rent and sell boogie boards, beach chairs, beach umbrellas, snorkel gear, sea kayaks and both long and short surfboards. Iguana Surf's guided sea kayak nature tour on the Río San Francisco estuary, is excellent.

Anyone going deeper can check into Agua Rica Dive Shop ( 506 ) 653- 0094, www.tamarindo.com/agua) on the main street for organized dive tours, equipment and certification. Day and half-day deep-sea fishing trips are the specialty of Papagayo Excursions ( 506 ) 653-0254, papagayo@sol.racsa.co.cr) at the Hotel Diría. They can arrange land tours as well. Tamarindo Sportfishing ( 506 ) 653-0090, www. tamarindosportfishing.com) also offers day and half-day fishing trips out to the rich offshore Pacific grounds.

Adventures on Land:

TV tours can be taken from Iguana Surf (see above) on private trails, or with Tamarindo Adventures ( 506 ) 653-0640). If you want a horseback ride, horses are often corralled up the estuary on the beach in back of Tamarindo Tours (_506/653-0078). Hourly rates are inexpensive. Anumber of places rent mountain bikes, including Iguana Surf.

Adventures in Nature:

A great place to rent horses and get a nature tour of Guanacaste's disappearing dry forests is Casagua Horses - Cantina Tours ( 506 ) 653-8041, kaydodge@racsa.co.cr), located near Portegolpe on the main road into the beaches from Belén. Kay Dodge, Ph.D. and her husband Esteban Peraza, are extremely ecological minded and deliver some of the most professional, and most fun, nature tours in Guanacaste and Nicoya.

To see turtles nest in season at Playa Grande - an activity that requires some stamina, a bit of luck, and lots of patience - ask in the Coopetamarindo office on the main drag, where guides have set up a locally based organization. If you're over on Playa Grande, try the Matapalo Conservation Association, which has a small office next to Las Tortugas hotel. This co-op benefits the local community. Sign up at 6 pm for their participant-limited turtle tours.

The world of the turtle is explained at Playa Grande's unique small museum, El Mundo de La Tortuga ( 506 ) 653-0471) through a selfguided cassette player presentation in Spanish, English, Italian and German. Admission is about US $6.

Oxcart Trails

One of the best ways to see waterfowl, or a rural Guanacaste / Nicoya that is fast disappearing, is to follow one of the old oxcart trails that connects towns. An old, rutted oxcart trail, still in use, runs from Categena to Santa Cruz through seasonal ponds, swamps and rivers. Proceed by car (best in four-wheel-drive in dry season only) about a half-mile west of the turn for Cartegena. Better yet, arrange for a guided trip on horseback with Casagua Horses ( 506 ) 653-8041).

Places to Eat

Frutas Tropicales (Main Street) serves typical Costa Rican food and, of course, delicious tropical fruit. El Arrecife (next to Fiesta del Mar at Circle) also offers typical dishes and fresh seafood. Pedro's is the place for whole fried fish, at the end of the dirt road on the beach near the circle. El Pescador (175 meters / 575 feet down from Pedro's toward Punta Langosta) serves seafood, of course, right off the boat.

Zullymar (beachside, next to the circle) has been around since forever. It Serves seafood dishes and popular Tico fare. Johann's Bakery may change names again. As of this run, Johann's serves Tico fare (dining is pleasant in the back), and the bakery does a brisk business.

Iguana Surf. They do everything else, so why not California/Costa Rica cuisine and coffee? For Italian, head to Stella's (on the corner at the end of town).

El Milagro (on the left coming into town) is a shady restaurant that has grown its own pleasant cabaña hotel in back. It serves seafood and Tico dishes.

The Cala Moresca restaurant (_506/653-0214 for reservations) at Cala Luna hotel offers classy dining on Italian and seafood. Equally in- viting is the French restaurant at Hotel El Jardín del Edén ( 506 ) 653-0137). You'll need a reservation here, too. Diría ( 506 ) 653-0031) has a new chef and puts out a good meal. Most dishes are international cuisine with plenty of seafood. Dinner reservations are recommended


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