Costa RicaCosta Rica

Nicoya Peninsula: A Cemetery and a Wildlife Refuge

Destination: Montezuma

Less than a half-mile off the coast of Cabuya Beach sits a beautiful island that many visitors and locals alike are not quite brave enough to visit. The area is not covered with venomous snakes and the journey to get there is not dangerous. The island is rarely frequented not because it is perilous, but because it serves as the town cemetery.

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While the tide was low and the path still accessible, Vincent and I arose just before dawn to walk a short distance to the graveyard. At the last minute, Vincent claimed that the lighting was bad for photographs -- and besides he needed to babysit the car, which held our luggage and computers. He'd been to Cabuya a few years ago, and didn't need to go there again. We were running short on time, so although I had a sneaking suspicion that he was superstitious, I left solo without questioning his excuses.

Reflective pools and enormous broken pink conch shells littered the trail. Upon arriving, a large white arch welcomes visitors to the silent graveyard, a place covered with spiky plants and black birds. I quickly snapped a few photos while respectfully walking around the perimeter of the area, trying not to step on anyone. Most of the graves were unmarked, and decorated with felt or plastic flowers. Only the newer graves (1996 and on) had dates of birth and death, with very few including names of the deceased. A stunning view of the Pacific Ocean seemed a rather incongruous backdrop for this elevated graveyard.

Suddenly, as every scary campfire story I've ever heard simultaneously raced through my brain, I realized that I was the only breathing person on the island. It gave me the chills. I heard a noise and froze. Turning around, a black vulture was blocking my path to the living. On Tuesday I'd heard a radio program talking about how birds symbolize death. To make matters worse, glancing down I realized that I was inadvertently standing upon an anonymous grave.

Perhaps it would be an overstatement to say I sprinted toward the exit like a fleeing gazelle. After warily tiptoeing around this bad omen, I quickly darted under the archway and back to the car, where I proceeded to make fun of Vincent for chickening out. Proud of myself for drumming up the courage to visit an eerie old graveyard, by myself no less, I couldn't wait to drag my superstitious friends and family there at night.

Next stop was the Curu Wildlife Refuge. Driving east of Cabuya, Curu is situated 45 minutes along the road toward Paquera. On our way to the meeting place for our Quesera Beach horseback tour, we saw some of the park's diverse habitats: semi-deciduous and deciduous forest, pasture, mangrove, river, and ocean.

The tour left at 11:30 a.m., the most sweltering part of the day. Luckily, we had bought sandwiches and plenty of water the night before to bring along for the journey. Unfortunately, the horses had no way to hydrate themselves, and if I ever ride in the tropics again, I will insist on a morning excursion.

Our group consisted of Vincent, me, and a young mother and father with their ten-year-old son. The vista of the Bay of Curu was on the way, so we paused for a photo. From that height the waves looked like they were crashing into the cove in slow motion.

Continuing on to Quesera Beach, our posse encountered a myriad of wildlife on the way: two troops of white-faced monkeys, one family of howler monkeys, countless white-tailed deer, woodpeckers, bats, lizards, and a motmot. Although we didn't have the good fortune to come across them, many other large and elusive mammals also inhabit the area: ocelots, peccaries, otters, pumas, anteaters, and coyotes to name a few.

An hour and a half later, we arrived. There was not another soul on the pristine shore. Not only was it stunning -- it was ours. Cozy and dotted with caves, the coastline couldn't have stretched more than 1/8 of a mile in length, boasting a wonderful view of Tortuga Island with her boats and snorkelers. Crystal clear straight down to the bottom, the water was a soothing temperature. The sand was not like sand but white, powdery flour. We were all dumbstruck until the cute little boy declared in Spanish, "Hmm. Looks like Cancun. A Costa Rican Cancun."

With lunch in our stomachs, we mounted the horses for the return ride. Vincent was hopeful we would see animals known to feed around 3 p.m., a time when the light is optimal for photographs. We spotted a scampering group of 15 or more coatimundis, then howler monkeys, followed by white-faced monkeys, deer, numerous spiders, and a mother with baby raccoon feeding on crawfish in a stream.

Before leaving the park we wanted to see Curu's famed Monkey Sanctuary, the result of a project called COLIMO: Conservacion y Libertad de los Monos, or Conservation and Freedom of Monkeys.

The endeavor seeks to rescue and rehabilitate sick monkeys and reintroduce them into the wild, particularly those who have been captured, domesticated, and/or abused as house pets. The organization takes donations to help their wonderful cause.

As we exited the park for the hotel, three deer stared at us in curiosity. We stared back until they resumed grazing. Driving along the paved road back to town, Vincent suddenly pulled the car over to the side of the street. Five red parrots flew overhead, stunning us with their brilliant feathers, elegant tails, and impressive wings. They posed for a few pictures and then flew off into the late afternoon.

Nicoya Peninsula: A Cemetery and a Wildlife Refuge in Pictures

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