Who was Spanish explorer Diego de Nicuesa?

Playa Nicuesa in Costa Rica

Playa Nicuesa in Costa Rica

Playa Nicuesa is an unusual name for a beach.

The picturesque little cove in the Pacific gulf of Golfo Dulce in southern Costa Rica takes its name auspiciously from the Spanish conquistador and explorer, Diego de Nicuesa (1464 – 1511).

His name further lives on in Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge, a beautiful ecotourism and nature lodge located on Nicuesa beach.

But who was Diego de Nicuesa, and how did a little Costa Rican beach receive his name?

Diego de Nicuesa was a very rich nobleman and a member of the Spanish Royal Court.Diego de Nicuesa, Spanish explorer

He held the office of The Royal Carver, serving the king and queen at mealtimes. Nicuesa was known to be one of the most pretentious and arrogant individuals in Madrid, although reportedly he was very popular with the ladies at Court.

In 1508, Spanish King Ferdinand II (married to Queen Isabella I), looked for volunteers to go colonize the “new world”, called Tierra Firme, that had been found by Christopher Columbus. All of Tierra Firme, west of the Gulf of Darien where Panama meets Colombia, was named Castilla del Oro, or Castle of Gold, for the riches of gold alleged to be in those lands.

The King wanted that gold and appointed Nicuesa, along with Spaniard Alonso de Ojeda, to go colonize these new lands – giving each a separate territory to govern. Nicuesa’s land was what would now be the northern half of Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, while Ojeda had southern Panama and Colombia.

At the time, however, Europeans did not know that the Pacific Ocean existed, and so their concept of the area confined to the east coasts and what land they could see extending beyond.

Nicuesa and his men in their new home unfortunately were besieged by disease, hunger, the hostile jungle environment, and indigenous peoples who didn’t feel like being colonized. No gold was found. After more than a year, nearly all of Nicuesa’s 700 men had died, his horses had been eaten, and his ships were sinking. The ragtag group managed to build a small fort at a place they called Nombre de Dios, or Name of God, in the Colón Province of northern Panama.

Diego de Nicuesa exploration map

The little colony nearly disappeared until at the end of 1510, one of Nicuesa’s captains, Rodrigo Enriquez de Colmenares, who had been left behind on the supply island of Jamaica, showed up loaded with provisions and fresh men. Colmenares found Nicuesa and the handful of men that were still alive and reinvigorated them with fresh food and clothing.

Nicuesa found out that a southern colony named “Nuestra Señora de Antigua del Darien”, governed by Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, was faring quite well and it wounded his pride. Since the little colonial town was technically in his territory, Nicuesa decided in early 1511 to journey there to enforce his power and take control of the settlement. But by the time he arrived, the colonists were warned of Nicuesa’s pretentious intent and denied him entry.

Most of his men were allowed to stay, however Nicuesa and 17 loyal followers were put out to sea in a leaking ship and were never heard from again.

Vasco Núñez de Balboa went on to cross the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean in 1513, two years after Nicuesa’s disappearance, becoming the first European to reach the Pacific Coast in the New World.

No one knows who named Playa Nicuesa. Maybe when Balboa was exploring up the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica he needed a name for the little beach and decided to immortalize Nicuesa as one of the first Spanish colonists.

The legend remains a mystery!

Beach at Playa Nicuesa Rainforest LodgeLuckily Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge has none of the pretentiousness of its beach’s namesake. The beautiful Costa Rica eco-hotel is a down-to-earth place to stay in Golfo Dulce, offering all-inclusive vacations in comfortable rustic luxury, and amazing rainforest and ocean adventures. Located on a 165-acre private rainforest preserve – accessible only by boat on the Golfo Dulce – the exotic destination is part of an immense wildlife corridor including the famous Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula and the Piedras Blancas National Park.

To stay at Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge, check here for reservations. Get directions to Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge here.

Article by Shannon Farley

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