Text and photos by James Kaiser
With two coastlines surrounded by lush jungle, Costa Rica is famous for some of the most beautiful beaches in Central America. There are golden beaches on the Pacific that enjoy fabulous sunsets and powdery Caribbean beaches surrounded by candy-colored corals.
Over the five years I spent researching “Costa Rica: The Complete Guide,” I wandered up and down Costa Rica’s Pacific and Caribbean coasts. I hiked through the jungle to visit rarely seen beaches and rode rickety boats to beaches on remote islands. On particularly clear days, I flew in an ultralight “gyrocopter” to photograph the stunning scenery below. I learned a lot about Costa Rica’s spectacular shoreline, and below are my picks for Costa Rica’s best beaches.
1. Playa Conchal
The sparkling white stand of Playa Conchal, just north of Tamarindo, wraps around a turquoise bay that’s perfect for swimming or snorkeling. Because it’s tucked away south of the underwhelming Playa Brasilito, Playa Conchal is overlooked by many visitors.
But for those in the know, it’s paradise. There’s only one hotel near the beach: the luxurious Westin Playa Conchal Resort. Fortunately, the massive resort is set back from the tree-lined beach, helping Playa Conchal retain a natural feel.
2. Manuel Antonio
This stunning beach, part of Manuel Antonio National Park, has long been considered one of Costa Rica’s best beaches. Just west of the beach is imposing Punta Catedral (Cathedral Point), a rocky headland shielding the beach from powerful waves.
The water here is consistently calm, making it a terrific choice for families with young children. The surrounding national park, meanwhile, is filled with wildlife. You can easily spot white-faced monkeys, howler monkeys, green iguanas and sloths. Manuel Antonio is also one of the few places in Costa Rica that is home to a healthy population of endangered (and adorable) squirrel monkeys.
3. Playa Flamingo
Playa Flamingo, to the north of Playa Conchal, has a combination of mellow waves and high-end development that make it one of the most family-friendly beaches in Costa Rica. The soft sand slopes gently into the ocean, and the beach’s western exposure delivers consistently lovely sunsets. Expensive homes and condos dot the hills on either end of the beach, and the overall vibe is upscale and relaxed. If words like “hostel” and “counterculture” turn you off, you’re going to love Playa Flamingo. Onshore there are great restaurants. Offshore there’s great scuba diving, sailing and sportfishing.
One of Costa Rica’s most popular beaches, Tamarindo is an action-packed destination known for great beginner surf and a lively nightlife. The town is also surrounded by Las Baulas National Park, which protects endangered leatherback sea turtles that nest on nearby beaches between October and February. Between the beach life, the nightlife and the wildlife, it’s no wonder Tamarindo attracts so many people. For nonstop excitement, Tamarindo is hard to beat.
5. Punta Uva
South of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast, a narrow road twists through the jungle on its way to the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. Along the way you’ll pass great restaurants and eco-lodges, but the real highlight lies at the end of the unmarked dirt roads that head to Punta Uva. Home to two spectacular beaches separated by a lush point called Red Cliff, Punta Uva is one of Costa Rica’s most enchanting destinations. Golden sand, pristine water, coral reefs, palm trees, monkeys — qué tuanis, mae! As you wander around Punta Uva, keep an eye out for great green macaws in the trees above. These magnificent parrots, which are native to the region but highly endangered, were recently reintroduced to Punta Uva as part of a captive breeding program.
6. Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa is famous for three things: beautiful beaches, great surf and Gisele Bündchen (who owns a villa in the hills above town). Located near the dramatic southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, Santa Teresa combines stunning natural beauty with an upscale backpacker vibe. Because it remains relatively difficult to get to, Santa Teresa is not overrun with “sun and fun” tourists who arrive en masse via budget package deals. Instead, this rugged area lures more adventurous travelers in the backpacker/hippie/surfer mold. Although it takes some effort to get to Santa Teresa, the gorgeous beaches are worth it. Just ask the local expats, many of whom arrived on vacation and never left.
Which one would you visit first?