Costa Rica's Beaches

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Costa Rica's Beaches
With scenic shores on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, Costa Rica features a wide variety of beach experiences for sand- and sun-seeking visitors.
By Julie Schwietert Collazo, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Stuart Pearce/age fotostock
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    The Caribbean Coast
    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. Smooth shores slope gently into calm waves. Views are framed by palm trees. From north to south, you'll find Tortuguero, Limón, Cahuita, Uva, and Playa Manzanillo. Cahuita is particularly notable because of its national park, which fronts white-sand beaches and impressive coral reefs where you can snorkel with a guide.
    Photo by Stuart Pearce/age fotostock
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    Beaches of the Pacific
    The Pacific coast runs the length of the country's western edge. The landscape is more varied and rugged than the Caribbean. For surfers, water sports aficionados, and beach bums, the Pacific is filled with riches. Malpaís, Montezuma, and Tamarindo are all popular among surfers and expats and each has a lively atmosphere. Conchal, Hermosa, and Sámara are a bit more laid-back, and Flamingo is quite developed—some say overdeveloped. Manuel Antonio is another beloved Pacific beach, though it's not the off-the-beaten-path spot it was 20 years ago. The remote beaches of the southern Pacific coast await adventurous travelers.
    Photo by Mint Frans Lanting/age fotostock
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    Costa Rica's Islands
    Mainland Costa Rica has plenty of beaches to keep you busy, but if you're itching to venture offshore, there's a host of islands waiting for you as well. Cocos is the farthest, more than 300 miles off the coast, and is popular among divers who sign up for multi-day excursions. It was declared a UNESCO Natural Heritage site in 1997. Calero Island is much closer, sitting on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua; in fact, the countries often dispute who owns the island. Caño and Tortuga Islands are perhaps the most popular. Tortuga is a favorite among day-trippers who appreciate the white-sand beach. Outfitters and operators offer excursions to most of the country's islands.
    Photo by G. Cozzi/age fotostock
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    Horseback Riding on the Beach
    Costa Rica offers the stuff of vacation advertisements: You sitting atop a horse, galloping gently across a white-sand beach. The fantasy is easy enough to turn into a reality thanks to numerous outfitters that offer beach horseback riding excursions along both of Costa Rica's coasts. Options include Junquillal Beach in Guanacaste, Puerto Viejo near Limón, Playa Platanares in the southern Pacific, and Manuel Antonio. Choose between all sorts of rides—daytime, sunset, moonlit. Most are peaceful journeys for beginners where speeds don't exceed a trot.
    Photo by Rob Francis/age fotostock
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    Costa Rica's Secret Beaches
    Beware of advertisements showcasing properties with private beaches. By law, Costa Rica prohibits the privatization of seaside shores. That doesn't mean you're destined to lie towel-to-towel with other tourists, however; the country has enough beaches for everyone who visits, and there are plenty of secluded stretches where you may just be the only person around. Playa Avellana and Playa Negra are both near Tamarindo but lack the services and crowds common to the area since they're both located off dirt roads. Matapalo is on the extreme southern tip of the Osa Peninsula. It's remote, rustic, and features almost no services or tourists.
    Photo by Sergio Pitamitz/age fotostock
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    Volunteer on the Beach
    Sure, it's sweet to be served when you're lounging on the beach in Costa Rica, but a growing number of visitors flock to local beaches to offer their services to animals and organizations in need. Turtle conservation projects are among the most popular voluntourism activities in the country, and several nonprofit groups host guided trips to Costa Rican beaches, where you'll help move eggs to hatcheries, attach movement-tracking transmitters to turtles, and help clear turtle migration paths of debris. Rustic Pathways leads a turtle conservation trip to a remote part of the Nicoya Peninsula, while Earthwatch takes guests to the beaches of Guanacaste's Marino Las Baulas National Park.
    Photo courtesy of the Costa Rican Tourism Board
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    Beach Camping in Costa Rica
    Before Costa Rica became such a popular travel destination for Western tourists, camping on the beach was commonplace. It is less common today, but if you're determined to pitch your tent within sight of the ocean, your best bet is to do so at an authorized campground within one of the coastal national parks. Corcovado, Junquillal Bay Wildlife Refuge, and Santa Rosa are among your options. Be prepared for company; in these parks, you're likely to see agouti, crabs, iguanas, monkeys, and other animals. Insects can be serious pests, so be sure you've got DEET-based repellent. Ask rangers about camping conditions and local regulations, including whether fires are permitted.
    Photo by Carver Mostardi/age fotostock
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    Where to Surf
    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. The “best” surfing beach depends on what you're looking for. Are you a beginner who wants to be surrounded by other folks on boards? Playa Hermosa and Jaco are for you. Short on time? Tamarindo's your spot; you can surf several types of breaks within close proximity. Need to leave your non-surfing partner somewhere fun while you ride waves? Manuel Antonio's the place. Looking for the most remote surfing? Head to Matapalo. Conditions change quickly, so check surf reports regularly and chat with locals for up-to-date tips.
    Photo by Kristen Fortier