Costa Rica’s Best Beach Towns

June 14, 2012 by

Best Of Lists, Day Trips, Local Guides, Things To Do

Sunset at Playa Samara

Sunset at Playa Samara. Photo courtesy of Marissa Stmiste via Flickr.

This sliver of paradise caught between the crashing waves of the Pacific and beautiful blue waters of the Caribbean is a dream come true for beach lovers. Costa Rica offers something for everyone.

When choosing the perfect beach destination for your Costa Rica vacation, there are several considerations, perhaps most importantly the weather. The Pacific beaches have clearly defined wet and dry seasons, though these have been less reliable in recent years. Rainy season usually runs May to December, beginning earlier (and raining more heavily) in the south. Until late August, you can count on sunny mornings no matter where you are; September and October, however, can have downpours lasting days. Guanacaste is the driest and sunniest, and your best bet in the rainy season.

The Caribbean Coast does not have a clearly defined rainy season, and you should bring your umbrella all year round. There is often a “mini dry season” in late July and August, but don’t count on it. If you’re traveling in rainy season, when reservations are less important, your best bet is to check the weather in La Nacion or the Tico Times, and make your travel plans accordingly.

Of course, there are plenty of other considerations when choosing the perfect playa. Here are some pointers to get you started.

Endless Summer Surf Trek

Costa Rica is famed for its surfing, and there are plenty of great spots to choose from. The most convenient surf town is Jaco, less than an hour from the capital and international airport, a somewhat scruffy sprawl of surf shacks, five-star golf resorts, and everything in between, close to some of the most reliable waves in the world. Tamarindo is another top spot, one of the best-developed beach towns in Central America with easy access to several kilometers of world-class waves.

Those seeking fewer high-rise condos and a more laid-back surf atmosphere could check out Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a classic surf community on the Caribbean, or isolated Nosara, a surf haven hidden away on the western edge of the Nicoya Peninsula. Hipsters head toward Dominical, south of Manuel Antonio, a rather ramshackle surf town with riptides that keep the big-time developers at bay. If you really want to get away from it all, travel south to Zancudo and Pavones, near the Panamanian border, or make the arduous trek into Santa Rosa National Park, close to Nicaragua, with access to world-famous Witch’s Rock and Ollie’s Point. And those options are just the tip of the beach break.

Relaxing Resort-Style

While Costa Rica doesn’t offer the same range of all-inclusive resorts as, say, Cancun, there are plenty of plush spots where the luxury traveler can enjoy every creature comfort amidst truly wild nature. The most famous resort area is Manuel Antonio, a 7km (4mi) strip of pristine rainforest stretching from the service town of Quepos to famed Manuel Antonio National Park, which Forbes magazine recently voted one of the ten most beautiful in the world. Dozens of excellent four and five-star properties overlook the fantastic beaches, many of them the very height of green architecture.

The Papagayo Peninsula, in Guanacaste (close to Liberia International Airport) is your other upscale option, with a handful of stunning resorts, including one of the world’s finest Four Seasons, surrounded by pristine beaches and outstanding golf courses. You’ll find other excellent resort properties and beautiful boutique hotels scattered around the nation as well, such as the Los Suenos Mariott near Jaco (most convenient to San Jose) and famed Lapa Rios on the utterly untamed Osa Peninsula.

Just a Low-Key Beach Vacation

Just want to kick back on a perfect beach with a handful of options for lodging, dining, and an ice-cold Imperial beer with a view? No worries. Consider Playa Samara, about three hours from Liberia International Airport, a laid-back community too isolated for big developers and too calm for surfing, but absolutely perfect for you. Cahuita, on the East Coast, offers all the Caribbean flavor of its more famous neighbor Puerto Viejo, without the crowds or hassles. Punta Uva is perfect for whale watchers, or keep going south for even simpler options.

Perhaps the best pure beach destination, however, is at the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, in the tiny towns of Montezuma, Santa Teresa, and Malpais. There’s no paved road access to these lovely little beach communities, so you must arrive either by plane or boat, most of the latter leaving from the important fishing town of Punta Arenas, itself a destination for folks interested in seeing a real, working Tico city on the beach.

Life on the Caribbean

The Caribbean Coast is quite different from the Costa Rican Pacific. There is no dry season; it is lush and green year round, and rainy as well. Because the Caribbean was effectively isolated from the rest of Costa Rica until 1949, it seems like an entirely different country. Many people are descendants of Jamaican workers, and are of African descent, speak English, and have a richer, spicier style of cooking that many travelers prefer. The scalloped coastline of quiet white-sand beaches is an entirely different experience than those on the broad, straight Pacific.

The most popular destination on the Caribbean is Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a festive surf town with a wide range of hotels and restaurants (including lots of excellent Italian options) and some of the best nightlife in Costa Rica. Stay right in town, or at any number of beautiful hotels scattered along the gorgeous shore south to Gandoca National Park, among Costa Rica’s loveliest.

Just north of Puerto Viejo is much smaller Cahuita, a mellower resort town with more limited amenities, but with its own small but gorgeous national park, the pretty, eponymous white-sand peninsula, right at its doorstep. This is also the best snorkeling spot in Costa Rica. Puerto Limon, to the north, is a gritty port city with a handful of beach hotels popular with Costa Ricans, but most foreign travelers prefer to head south.

Thinking Outside the Box

If you’re curious about the neighbors, it’s easy to continue south from Puerto Viejo to the island paradise of Bocas del Toro Archipelago, Panama, just a few hours away. With wonderful beaches, fantastic diving, and plenty of water taxis for transportation, it’s something completely different from what Costa Rica has to offer. Or cross the northern border toward Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast, with the growing beach town of San Juan del Sur and more isolated surf beaches, such as Playa Pie de Gigante, as you head further north. The options are almost endless.

-Paige Penland

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