The beaches, or playas, of Costa Rica are as diverse as the country itself: they come with soft white, black volcanic, or beige pebbly sand. They also come with lapping waves, roaring surf, hidden reefs, awesome dawns and spectacular sunsets, as well as some wildlife attractions on and offshore.
For visitors looking for a beach vacation with lots of sun, sand and surf, the Pacific coast beaches of Guanacaste, stretching down from the Nicaraguan border to the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, offer some of the best. They are also readily accessible via the international airport in Liberia. Stiff competition—although offering a totally different lifestyle of an easy-going Afro-Carib culture and a far smaller lodging infrastructure—comes from the Caribbean beaches south of Limon down to the border with Panama, specifically Cahuita and Puerto Viejo.
Although beach aficionados will have various opinions, let’s take a look at (some of) the best beaches in Costa Rica.
The Pacific Coast
Santa Rosa National Park, 20 miles north of Liberia, has some beautiful beaches, and clients will have them all to themselves, except in October when the Olive Ridley sea turtles swarm in to nest on Playa Nancite. Vacationers can carry their own surf board aboard a 4WD vehicle to the golden sands of Playa Naranjo, renowned for its steep and powerful tubular waves and surrounding estuaries good for crocodile spotting. In the dry season, on the north side of the peninsula, travelers can head to Playa Blanca, a remote white-sand beach with calm waters.
A new addition to the northern Pacific coast, is Recreo (recreocostarica.com), a resort with eight 1- to 5-bedroom villas with private plunge pools and panoramic ocean views. Package rates include meals, and guest activities range from swimming in the pool or at the beach, to snorkeling, kite and windsurfing, and excursions to Santa Rosa and Rincon de la Vieja.
The Nicoya Peninsula
Playa Flamingo is one of the most magnificent white-sand beaches in the country, framed at one end by a high rock outcropping upon which most of Playa Flamingo’s hotels and vacation homes are built. Of note: the surf can get a bit rough here.
Playa Grande offers a miles-long, golden sand beach with vast views across the bay toward Tamarindo. Often a bit rough for swimming, it’s popular with surfers. The beach is also the nation’s prime nesting site for leatherback turtles.
Playa Montezuma on the southern tip of the peninsula presents miles of beautiful and almost abandoned beaches, and comes complete with a beachside waterfall; nearby are the Curu Wildlife Refuge and the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, both with many pretty beaches of their own.
Playa Malpais and Playa Santa Teresa are today’s hotspots in beach discovery, surfing and boutique resort development, with Tambor the nearest domestic airport. The most upscale resort choice on Playa Malpais is Casa Chameleon (hotelcasachameleon.com), while Playa Santa Teresa offers its own trio of high-end getaways: Florblanca Resort (florblanca.com) is the most luxurious option; Pranamar Villas (pranamarvillas.com), located at the far end of the beach; and Latitude 10 (latitude10resort.com).
Manuel Antonio National Park in the Central Pacific region was the first beach destination to become popular in Costa Rica, and the beaches inside the park remain idyllic: calm turquoise waters, rocky headlands, and the rainforest as a backdrop. There is no shortage of great lodgings in this area.
On the Osa Peninsula, a short distance east of Puerto Jimenez, the long pretty stretch of sand called Playa Platanares abuts both rainforest and mangrove, and is an important nesting site for marine turtles and viewing whales and dolphins offshore. Tell surfing clients to head a bit farther on to the beaches of Pan Dulche, Backwash and Matapalo, offering good right point breaks and beginning surfers good places to learn.
The Caribbean Coast
People come to Cahuita National Park for its miles of pristine white-sand beaches, which stretch both north and south from town. The southern beaches, the rainforest behind them and the coral reef offshore draw beach lovers and snorkelers to Cahuita.
Puerto Viejo is the coast’s hottest destination, with Le Cameleon (lecameleonhotel.com) its loveliest and most luxurious hotel, located on beautiful Playa Cocles. Puerto Viejo is the departure point to Playa Punta Uva, a long curving swatch of white-sand beach that stretches all the way to Playa Manzanillo—literally the end of the road before reaching the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Reserve that in turn runs all the way to the border with Panama. The living coral reef running just offshore offers clear and colorful snorkeling. On Punta Uva, clients will find Tree House Lodge (costaricatreehouse.com), whose individual houses are the most stylish and often spectacular lodging options on this coast, while Almonds & Corals Hotel (almondsandcorals.com), a few steps from Manzanillo Beach, has morphed from a tent camp to an upscale jungle lodge whose rooms-raised-on-platforms feature four-poster beds, large-screen windows and private balconies. Both these conservation-minded hotels have earned their “4 Leaves” rating from the CST program.