Photo by Kevin Wells Photography/Shutterstock
Photo by TG23/Shutterstock
The sand at Playa Conchal, a beach on Costa Rica’s Pacific side, is made up of millions of tiny shells.
Costa Rica opens to all U.S. travelers on November 1—making the country’s hundreds of beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts available once more.
Costa Rica offers the stuff of vacation advertisements: horses galloping on a white-sand beach, surfers crouched in an enormous barrel wave, sea turtles gently nesting just steps from the ocean. Notice a sandy theme? The country has more than 800 miles of coastline and 300 beaches, divided between its Pacific and Caribbean sides.
Now that the country is—as of November 1—reopening to American travelers (without a COVID test), it’s time to talk beaches. Surfing is a big draw, of course. With waves and ever-shifting trade winds coming from the Pacific and the Caribbean, surfing in Costa Rica presents all kinds of conditions and challenges for surfers of various skill levels.
But there is a beach for every sort in Costa Rica, whether you want to a remote cove to hide from the crowds, a calm beach suited for young children, a shore with excellent wildlife-spotting potential, or a busy surf beach with plenty of nightlife possibilities. Ready to find yours?
Beaches on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica are the ones printed on tourist brochures and postcards. That is to say, they’re practically perfect: think smooth shores slope gently into calm waves and views framed by palm trees. Beaches are arranged here from north to south. (Note that Costa Rica has several beaches with the same name, so watch for that when researching or booking anything.)
Best for: turtle lovers
In Spanish, tortuguero translates roughly to “turtle region” and this beach in Tortuguero National Park, a protected sanctuary, does not disappoint. Tortuguero is less of a lie-about beach—for humans. For the shelled reptiles, it’s sandy heaven. To spy green sea and hawksbill turtles nesting, visit from July through October (August is considered peak nesting month).
To see the rarer leatherback, visit from February to April. You’ll want to book with a guide for two reasons: 1) The park is accessible only by boat or plane and 2) Turtles typically nest at night—and visitors are prohibited in the park after 6 p.m., unless with a guide. Reserve ahead of time or take your pick of the many outfitters in Tortuguero Village, the hotel- and restaurant-packed gateway town.
The beach town of Cahuita is particularly notable because of its national park, which fronts white-sand beaches and impressive coral reefs. Cahuita is also just north of one of Costa’s Rica’s best black-sand beaches, Playa Negra. The sand here is an inky black and stretches for six long, picturesque miles. The waves of the Caribbean are gentle enough for swimming but can offer enough action for newbie surfers, too.
This Caribbean beach is one of Costa Rica’s best surf spots: It attracts surfers from around the world who want to tackle Salsa Brava’s notoriously challenging break. The beach itself is a lovely place to camp out and wade while watching brave souls barrel ride hundreds of feet across the sea. Salsa Brava is on the edge of the Puerto Viejo beach town; there are plenty of amenities nearby, including the beloved Lazy Mon beach bar. Sunsets in this part of the country are particularly spectacular.
Small and quiet, the pristine Playa Chiquita offers calm waters perfect for snorkeling and families with little kids. Horses are a common appearance—there are several outfitters that offer rides down the beach in this area. Warning to parents: Given Playa Chiquita’s private location—a stretch of rain forest separates the beach from the main road and there’s not much signage—it’s also a popular spot for those who prefer to sunbathe sans clothing.
To experience Playa Chiquita, Salsa Brava, and Negra book a room at Le Cameleon Boutique Hotel, "a starkly minimalist and chic hideaway across the street from lovely Playa Cocles offering 23 remarkably white rooms,"—Karen Catchpole.
Best for: swimmers, snorkelers, tentative surfers
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If you’re looking for a postcard-perfect Caribbean beach, Playa Uva ticks all the boxes. Gentle waves lapping at creamy sand? Check. Window-clear waters, perfect for snorkeling? Check. Quiet, ample space, and a ridiculous number of palms with excellent hammock potential? Check, check, and check. A hikeable peninsula that splits the beach into north and south adds intrigue.
Best for: swimmers, snorkelers, seafood obsessives
It’s quiet in the fishing town of Manzanillo, where the homes are on stilts and you can’t throw a starfish without hitting a seafood restaurant. The town is part of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife and Marine Refuge, and the beach reflects that: the protected waters bathe coral reefs alive with marine creatures, and the beach is backed by a stretch of rain forest and mangroves. It’s gorgeous to boot, with white sand sprouting swaying palms and almond trees.
The Pacific coast runs the length of the country’s western edge, and the landscape is more varied and rugged than on the Caribbean. For surfers, water sports aficionados, and beach bums, the Pacific is filled with riches. Adventurous travelers who crave remote beaches will find plenty of options to get away from the crowds. Beaches are arranged here from north to south.
The pink-sand shoreline of Playa Conchal, a laid-back beach in the Guanacaste Province, is made up of almost 3 million tiny shells. Ponder the magnitude while swimming in the calm bay, or snorkeling in the abundant reef. While the beach feels remote—it’s rimmed by thick forest and there’s no adjoining town—a couple of luxury hotels, including the W Costa Rica and the Westin Conchal, mean you can make Playa Conchal home for at least a few days.
An odd mix of green space—it’s part of Guanacaste’s Las Baulas National Park—and lively beach town, Tamarindo isn’t exactly hidden. But what it lacks in under-the-radarness, it makes up for in excellent beaching. Surfers short on time can surf several types of breaks within close proximity. Animal lovers can look for howler monkeys and nesting sea turtles or take a horseback ride down the two-mile-plus beach. Sunbathers who like to chase beach days with nighttime carousing will find pristine sands (awarded Costa Rica’s Blue Flag for ecofriendly practices) and plenty of restaurants and bars a short stroll away.
Costa Rica’s Pacific coast [offers] world-class surfing, especially at Playa Negra in Guanacaste province. The superlative, not-for-newbie waves and the beach’s isolation make for extraordinary adventure. The nearby town of Los Pargos supplies a smattering of “civilization”—cutesy hotels, boutiques, restaurants—and top venues for dining and sleeping include Villa Deevena and Café Playa Negra.
For a place to stay Marriott's Guanacaste Resort & Spa, is just a 20-minute drive north of Play Negra and 30 minutes south of Tamarindo. —Evan Upchurch
Best for: surfers of all levels, foodies
In an isolated corner of the Nicoya Peninsula, Playa Samara is one of Guanacaste’s most beautiful beaches, right at the spot where the five-hour drive from San José to the Pacific ends. As befits great shorelines, you’ll find top surf, boom-boom nightlife, and a winning small-town Costa Rica vibe that still seems like a secret, very worth the trouble it takes to get there. Pizza, burgers, and tacos fly beachside at Lo Que Hay; sexy, casual Microbar is ground zero for artisanal suds and flirt. —Evan Upchurch
Best for: surfers of all levels, fishermen and women, birders
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There are several beach towns within a few miles of one another on the Nicoya Peninsula, including Santa Teresa and Carmen, both of which have wonderful beaches and plenty of off-sand action. But Playa Mal País, on the edge of a fishing village, has a quieter vibe with long empty beaches and excellent fishing (mahi mahi, snapper, and tuna are common). Birders can spy dozens of species: falcons, parrots, and herons.
Best for: snorkelers, scuba divers, island adventurers
In the 17th century, Tortuga Island, just off the Nicoya Peninsula, was a touchpoint for pirates eager to loot Costa Rican towns. These days, it’s a favorite among day-trippers who appreciate the white-sand beach. From Jacó Beach (where you can book excursions), it’s a 90-minute boat ride to the 60-square-mile island. Scuba divers can plumb the depths while looking for stingrays and spinner dolphins (and even sunken ships!); snorkelers can paddle while watching for angelfish and stingrays. Need a break from the surf? There’s plenty of hiking—the summit trail is a popular one—as well as canopy and zip line tours.
Best for: surfers of all levels, budding marine biologists, sunbathers
Located all the way at the southernmost point of the Nicoya Peninsula, the town of Montezuma still feels like a secret. It’s quiet and thickly forested—so small you can walk through in 15 minutes—and crowned by a long white-sand beach. Swimming isn’t as easy here, thanks to powerful waves, but the tide pools that appear at low tide are mesmerizing. From the beach, you can hike to Playa Grande, another surf beach, or visit Romelia Wildlife Reserve, which helps protect sea turtles that hatch on the beach.
Best for: beginner surfers, travelers who like to be in the middle of the action
First discovered by hard-core surfing enthusiasts, Jacó is now, thanks to Highway 27, the closest beach to San José. With buoyant nightlife and an ever more go-go real estate market, Jacó is much more than just its 2.5-mile shoreline. Swanky resorts and luxury apartments, galleries, and down-to-earth beachside shops create an active destination. National parks, waterfalls, and many more natural attractions are minutes away from town, so day trips are easy. Seafood takes the starring role in local eateries; options range from white-tablecloth eateries to come-as-you-are ceviche shacks. —Travesías
Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most visited places in Costa Rica and home to beaches of its own. But for travelers who don’t want to pay the entrance fee, Playa Espadilla, a mile-long beach just outside the park, is an excellent option. Also known as Playa Primera or Playa Numero Uno, it can be busy, but there’s plenty of space to stretch out. The waters are calm enough for swimming—and there are lifeguards on duty. Bonus: deck chairs with umbrellas available to rent.
As for places to stay near Playa Espadilla, five-star Arenas del Mar is an 11-acre hotel and reserve set atop rain-forested cliffs overlooking the Pacific. It delivers just the right amount of luxury within walking distance of Manuel Antonio.
Best for: campers, sunbathers, and swimmers who want quiet
Lengthy and often empty, Playa Platanares is part of Corcovado National Park. There’s not much to do here—which is the point. Enjoy the swim-perfect waves, read on the gray-sand beach, and walk without spotting another soul. If you want to make this part of a larger park adventure, look into a multiday camping and hiking trip in Corcovado (travelers are required to enter with a guide).
Best for: experienced surfers, eco-minded travelers
Matapalo, another Blue Flag beach, is on the extreme southern tip of the Osa Peninsula. It’s remote, rustic, and features almost no services or tourists. Looking for the most off-the-grid surfing? Head to Matapalo. Conditions change quickly, so check surf reports regularly and chat with locals for up-to-date tips. The small adjoining village is committed to ecological practices—most of the small lodges and resorts are solar-powered and feature meals using local ingredients and furniture made from local bamboo.
This article originally appeared January 11th, 2018, and was updated on October 30, 2020, to include current information.
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