Playa Nancite  

Most of the links in this document are automatic. Move the cursor over a link and a picture will be displayed on the right. Don't click on the links unless it says to!  The faster your connection, the faster the picture will appear.  Problems?

OK - Here's the story so far:  We're 15 people from Marietta College in Ohio, down to Costa Rica for a 3 week course in the summer of 2005.  We've been at Santa Rosa National Park for a few days, staying at the biological station there.  We were studying the dry forest in the park, as well as using it as a base of operations to visit some other areas in the vicinity.

One of the places we were really anxious to see was Playa Nancite.  This deserted, undeveloped beach is heavily protected as a nesting site for sea turtles, particularly the Olive Ridley sea turtle.  We weren't there at the right time of the year for turtle nesting (July to December is the peak of the season), but the prospect of an undeveloped beach and some time in the surf was very appealing.  So, on Friday, May 13th we gathered in the dining hall  at Santa Rosa to pack lunch, and loaded up for our trip to the beach.

Our transport to the beach was arranged by local entrepreneur and world-class surfer Eladio Castro (on the right here, with the mustache).  Eladio runs a click to activate link->  business <-click to activate link catering to surfers who want to surf at the world-famous Witch's Rock off Playa Naranjo, but he and his son will also transport groups to other places and are particularly knowledgeable about the local natural sites.  Eladio's main means of transport is a 4-wheel drive Toyota Landcruiser  of a much different lineage than the overstuffed minivans that Toyota calls a Landcruiser in the US.  For those of you that resemble the "original" landcruiser, the version Eladio had would be more familiar - it had a spartan interior with bench seats running the length of the interior and no climate controls - no A/C and no heat for that matter.  Contrary to some speculation, it did have shocks AND springs, and it turned out to be the perfect vehicle for the "road" down to the beaches.

The "road" is about 12 kilometers from the biological station down to an area between the beaches Playa Naranjo and Playa Nancite.  As a protected area, access to Playa Nancite is strictly limited.  A ranger came along to open the gates and accompany us to the beach.  If the gate wasn't enough to protect the beach, I suspect that the "road" itself would be a major deterrent.  Washboard would be an improvement; Eladio maneuvered us expertly around the rocks and washouts.  In places the "road" crossed streambeds and looked like it would be impassible during the rainy season.

About halfway down the "road" Eladio's son spotted a group of capuchin monkeys in the treetops.  We stopped to take a look and found that members of the troop were spread across treetops on both sides of the "road".  It was relatively easy to see the capuchins in the mostly leafless trees of the dry forest.  We had seen howler monkeys earlier at the station; the capuchins were the second species we saw in Costa Rica (click here for monkey page).

We proceeded on, and eventually the track began to get flatter and the trees started showing more leaves.  It was obvious we were getting close to the ocean.  Finally we parked and loaded up for what was said to be only a short 2km walk to the beach.

Little did we realize that the first kilometer or so was straight up, in the full morning sun and 90+ degree F heat.  The trail worked its way up switchbacks to the top of a knoll several hundred feet high.  From here we could see back to the lowlands we had started out from, and began to think that maybe it would have been easier to push through the lowland forest to the other beach in the area, Playa Naranjo.  In this picture, you can see the wooded lowland where we parked, and Playa Naranjo in the distance.

From this promontory - which closer to the coast separates Playas Naranjo and Nancite (and to which we would return later) we headed off down a long sloping trail to Playa Nancite.  Just before the beach we came to a low area where a very run-down field station used by researchers and rangers during the turtle nesting season.  Scrub and mangroves in front of the station soon opened up onto the beach itself.

Playa Nancite was beautiful - and deserted.  We had about 6 km of beach - all the land we could see - all to ourselves, and aside from a few boats which passed way offshore, we were the only people in sight.  It was one of those rare places on the planet where you could neither see nor hear any sign of human influence.  To the north, another promontory tumbled down to the ocean and pinched off the beach; some distance to the south the promontory we had climbed earlier delineated the southern boundary of Playa Nancite.  

The first order for all concerned upon coming out on the beach was water.  As in getting in the water. Packs, cameras and other gear were dropped onto the sand as the group moved as a whole into the ocean for a cooling swim  and a few tries at the surf.  

Cooled off, we proceeded to do some beachcombing, with most of the group drifting north to the rocky area that looked more promising in terms of finding animals.  About the only things on the beach itself were hermit crabs and ghost crabs.  Dr. Brown caught one of the ghost crabs and demonstrated how the eyes always remain level in regard to the horizon.  As the crab is tilted the eyes remain at the same angle with respect to the ground.  We saw a number of these crabs, which seemed to be more common as we got near the rocks.

Also near the rocks we came upon one of the most interesting finds of the trip.  In the shelter of a large rock was lying a caiman, er, crocodile.  The crocodile seemed quite tolerant of close approach and I was able to get some close-up pictures using a macro  lens and a wide angle lens.  The American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is an endangered species; I was lucky enough to see a full grown one in the Everglades several years before.  The Costa Rican crocodiles were of the same species, and we saw them in two locations, lucky finds for the students on the trip.  At first, we had convinced ourselves that we were looking at a caiman (they are far more common), but something about the teeth bothered me, and it wasn't until we returned from our trip that I looked at my photos, saw the protruding lower tooth and realized it was a crocodile.  This one also had a magical property about it - it seemed to grow smaller in photos.  As we left the beach, most of the party - especially those who had joined the "touch the caiman club" - would have sworn that it was about 2 meters (6 feet) long.  Looking at the photos - particularly those with people in them for scale - one soon realizes that this was either a class of giants or that the crocodile was about 1 meter long at best.  Eventually, I'll get around to creating a crocodile and caiman page (yes, we saw caimans later in the trip) which you can access by clicking here.

We explored the area near the rocks for some time and many of us ate our lunches there.  It was an interesting area, and we marveled at the century plants growing from the bluff.  There was also a cave in the rocks that we examined.

With the day wearing on, it was time to walk back down the beach.  Along the way we saw some gulls hunting near the waterline and flying over the waves.  We also found the remnants of a few turtle eggs, and hoped that they were discarded as the hatchlings made their way to the sea.  Eladio, who had headed back while we were exploring the beach, was back and it was time to go.

None of us were looking forward to climbing up over the bluff again to get back to where we had parked.  Eladio knew a shortcut, however - a shorter hike, moving along the beach and just dropping down a 20m cliff with the help of some ropes.  It sounded like a good idea, so off we went.

We went back through the area behind the beach, where we saw a number of different lizards, including the Rose-bellied Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus variabilis) and the Striped Whiptail (Cnemidophorus deppii).

We climbed to the tip of the bluff we had come over to get to the beach.  As it neared the ocean it was lower, only about 30 meters over the water.  Eladio was right, the drop was about 20 meters with the aid of two ropes to hold on to.  The slope was steep and the stone was rotten, but overall it was a lot like the bank of an abandoned Ohio strip mine - only set in a beautiful setting.  The brown hills were sloping down to an astounding blue Pacific Ocean, with magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) flying overhead.

The dominant element in the scenery was the imposing Witch's Rock, an icon for surfers worldwide.  Brilliantly lit by the sun, it seemed to hover over the ocean.  There were other sights in the water below us as well.  A school of yellow-tailed fish came swimming through the rocks at the base of the cliff.  There was also a Spotted Eagle Ray (Aetobatus narinari) cruising the shallow water.

Once we had absorbed the scenery, our attention turned to the cliff that faced us.  Eladio went into conference with David Brown as the ranger set up the ropes on the cliff; something he had obviously done many times before (with the same ropes no doubt).  The first brave soul to venture down was Alicia Felton, on the theory that as a Spanish minor she would be in the best position to understand what the ranger was telling her, since he did not speak English.  Alicia set off down the cliff ((Nancite Descent Video!). She didn't seem to have any real trouble; the slope wasn't that steep and the ropes were there more as an aid than as a necessity.  She disappeared at one point to appear moments later at the bottom of the cliff.  With Alicia safely down, several more students worked their way down the cliff face.  Alicia's role turned into helping students down the last 10 meters beyond where the ropes extended (and dodging the occasional rock from the climbers above).

All of the students were getting down without trouble; Josh Moore perhaps making the easiest descent although he seems to have forgotten something in his climb.  Now, all but one of the packs were sitting at the top of the cliff, and no one had mentioned how they were getting down.  I was carrying about 20 pounds of camera gear and didn't fancy it being lowered down the cliff, so like Josh I decided to carry my gear down.  The scramble was not too bad to the end of the rope - and then I saw what happened at the point where everyone before had disappeared from view from the top of the cliff.

It turns out that Eladio's 20 meter cliff was more like 30 meters with the ropes extending only 20 meters.  We were on our own for the last 10.  Fortunately, the rocks were in much better shape here and Alicia was there to point out good hand and footholds.

Moving away from the falling rock zone I was able to join the students already at the bottom resting on the  rocks, recounting their descents , and watching the rest come down,  It was also a good place to take in the surf, which was crashing on the rocks just below us.  The tide was coming in and the waves kept throwing themselves against the rocks and retreating, only to crash again in a frenzy of white water.  As the tide came up the waves got closer and closer to some of the resting places in the shade at the base of the cliff.

The bottom of the cliff was a good place to watch the remaining climbers.  Will Fogle had shaken off an earlier scorpion sting back at camp (remember, it was Friday the 13th) and came down easily, taking a well-deserved rest at the bottom.  Let's take a closer look at Tyler Snell's descent past the ropes.  First, I should point out that Tyler also carried down his camera gear (which I appreciated, since he was borrowing one of my cameras and several lenses).  When he got to the end of the rope, the ranger was there to help him make the turn, and passed him over to Alicia's guidance.  He handed down the backpack and scrambled the last bit of the way, gave Alicia a hug of gratitude, and took a break.  

Since there was only one set of ropes, it took a while to get everyone down.  Once all the group was down, Eladio and the ranger ferried the bags down from the top of the cliff, both of them pointedly ignoring the ropes as they moved over the cliff.  The long shadows over the rocks at the base of the cliff reminded us all that it was getting late - days are only 12 hours long in the tropics at any time of the year and no one wanted to drive back up the road in the dark (well, I'm sure Eladio wouldn't have minded).  I didn't get many more pictures as we scrambled over the rocks to Playa Naranjo , where we took a last look at the ocean and headed back through the trees to the vehicles.  We did manage to "spot" a Spilogale gracilis on the way out, however.