For such a small country, Costa Rica certainly is a "rich coast" when it comes to beaches. No matter the type of sand, favorite beach activity and crowd preference, your perfect beach is somewhere in on one of the country's coasts. And with Costa Rica's year-round warm weather, a beach vacation is perfect at any time.
North Pacific Coast (Guanacaste)
Beach lovers who also like their nightlife flock to Guanacaste province, the area of the Pacific Coast that has the most developed and popular beaches. Many beaches offer a full range of accommodation, however the more secluded the beach, the less choice to be had. Guanacaste boasts over 50 choice surf spots. The best time for surfing here is during the rainy season (May-October). There are big offshore winds in the dry season but the waves are smaller. But surfing isn't the only thing to do on these beautiful, sandy stretches.
Located in Santa Rosa National Park, Playa Naranjo is home to Witches Rock and Ollie's Point, two of the best beach breaks in the country for experienced surfers. There is no road access to this beach, but you can rent a boat or four-wheel drives out of Playas del Coco. Besides surfing, this beach is a good place to start exploring the wildlife of the national park.
This is a popular beach glimmering with slate-gray sand and adorned with nothing but water and tropical forest. New roads leading directly to the international airport in Liberia and new resort developments make Playa Panama a hot beach destination. Perfect for swimming, sunbathing and long strolls, this beach is frequented by guests of the most exclusive resort in Costa Rica, the Four Seasons.
It's important to note that there are two beaches named Playa Hermosa on the Pacific Coast. This Guanacaste beach is the quieter of the two, with gray sand and clear, blue water surrounded by tropical forest and volcanic rock outcroppings. It's rarely crowded, despite it's proximity to the international airport and the resorts of Golfo de Papagayo. With some of the highest environmental standards in the country, Playa Hermosa (Guanacaste) is great for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving.
Playas del Coco
This beach area is the best place to embark on a surfing safari to Witches Rock and Ollie's Point on Playa Naranjo. It's also a popular jumping-off point for sportfishing and scuba diving, with a choice of tour and dive companies in the area. As the largest village in Guanacaste, Playas del Coco has a well-developed infrastructure with a full-on nightlife and plenty of hotels, shops and restaurants.
For a clean, quiet beach not far from the action at Playas del Coco, drive five minutes south to Playa Ocotal. A calm salt-and-pepper sand beach, this sunny spot is perfect for swimming and snorkeling.
If you're looking for affordable accommodations and a quiet beach to enjoy the sunset and a romantic stroll, Playa Potrero is one of the best. Quieter than nearby Playa Flamingo, you can indulge in all sorts of water sports in its calm, clear water.
Home to the sole full-service marina in Central America between Panama and Acapulco, Playa Flamingo is a beautiful white sand beach with clear blue water. It's easy to see why it's an extremely popular tourist destination. Besides swimming, sunbathing and other activities, Playa Flamingo has arguably the country's best deep sea fishing area and world-class golf courses.
With only a few hotels and cabins, this quiet beach retains its local flavor as it's a favorite of Ticos on the weekends. Tourists can spend almost 12 hours in the sunshine (in the dry season) enjoying scuba diving, snorkeling and swimming.
Separated by only a rocky point from Playa Brasilito, Playa Conchal enjoys the same perfect weather year-round, including the long days of sunshine. This is another sandy, clear water beach where snorkeling is the key activity, allowing you to swim with tropical fish and view the stingrays that swim in the area.
Home to the endangered leatherback sea turtles that come here to lay their eggs every year, Playa Grande is an important part of Marino las Baulas National Park. But turtle watching isn't the only attraction here. Just a few miles north of the very popular Tamarindo, this beach boasts the same great surfing but in a much quieter atmosphere. There is no direct road to Playa Grande from Tamarindo, so you can either walk along the beach or you can drive a long way around. The north end of Playa Grande, just past the basaltic rock outcropping, is home to one of the very few nude beach areas in Costa Rica.
Welcome to Tamarindo, a highly-developed tourist town that caters to every price and every taste. The beach is suitable for any type of water sport and activity. Every level of surfer will be happy with the break but the beach is big enough to find calm waters for swimming, snorkeling and paddling.
Just a few miles south of Tamarindo, Playa Langosta is another great surfing spot along the Pacific coast. It is mostly rocky with small sandy areas, perfect for a romantic stroll. Despite its quiet reputation this small beach becomes very busy during the high season as the crowds spill over from Tamarindo.
Named "little Hawaii" by locals and tourists alike, this white sand beach attracts experienced and pro surfers to its multiple shoreline breaks and huge offshore swells. Because of its strong currents, swimming is not recommended but non-surfers can spend time at the beachfront bars or go for extended horseback rides. Somewhat isolated from other beaches, Playa Avellana is only accessible by dirt road.
The surfing continues to improve as you travel further south down the Nicoya Peninsula. The black sand beach made famous by the movie Endless Summer 2 boasts consistent waves for all surfers. But for some peace and quiet, it's best to head south to Playa Junquillal.
Three miles of pristine beach backed by grassland and only a few hotels and restaurants. This could be the most quiet, romantic, isolated beach on the Pacific Coast. With water too rough for safe swimming, Playa Junquillal can offer quiet sunset strolls, some surfing, horseback riding and some hiking into the surrounding grasslands.
The Nicoya Peninsula has every sort of beach for every type of beach-goer. There are plenty of surfing beaches but the peninsula has beaches made for sunset strolls, sunbathing and snorkeling. Many of the beaches border on some of the most accessible nature reserves in the country, making it easy to spot plenty of wildlife right from the beach.
This black sand beach is part of the Ostional Wildlife Refuge where hundreds of thousand of Olive Ridley sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. What Playa Nosara lacks in paved roads, it makes up for in ecological diversity. Located on a delta where two rivers meet, it's backed by a mangrove swamp and tropical forests. For those anxious to be on the water, Playa Nosara has decent surf breaks and deep sea fishing.
Also part of the Ostional Wildlife Refuge, this light sand beach offers quiet and seclusion to the tamer crowds. Popular with surfers for its consistent breaks, it also offers lots of swimming and snorkeling opportunities.
Site of a fishing and farming village, this beautiful tropical beach is safe and attractive, close to lots of amenities but without the crowds. Great for a family getaway, Playa Samara has a coral reef just offshore, popular with snorkelers and scuba divers. The surrounding forest offers horseback riding, canopy tours and waterfall hikes.
This remote beach is becoming a destination for experienced surfers, with its classic waves and impressive amount of shore breaks.
This sandy horseshoe-shaped beach surrounded by coconut trees is great for swimming as the tide stays fairly low. Towards the south, there are some good breaks for surfing. Part of Playa Coyote's attraction is its isolation and local flavor: only dirt tracks lead here and many Ticos come here for picnics and getaways.
Just south of Playa Coyote is this secluded sandy beach that doesn't attract too many crowds, despite the consistent, big waves for experienced surfers. Playa Caletas is also home to a marine turtle rehabilitation areas where visitors can watch leatherback, Olive Ridley and other sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.
Playa Santa Teresa
This white/gray sandy beach is an ideal surfing beach for all levels, though the swells do get huge during the green season. Sunsets on the beach are not be missed and during high season it's the perfect time to make evening plans at one of the many bars and restaurants that are popping up here.
Although Mal Pais is touted as one of the greatest surfing beaches in Costa Rica, the best breaks are actually at Santa Teresa, along with most of the tourist development. Playa Mal Pais is mostly rocky with some sandy stretches and is a bird watching spot for coastal and migratory birds. The southern tip of Mal Pais borders on the Cabo Blanco National Park, perfect for exploring Costa Rican wildlife. There are plenty of secluded coves for romantic evening strolls and snorkeling with great weather year-round.
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While it isn't the most accessible area to visit, the Central Pacific coast is the most popular for surfers. Consistent waves and good breaks along this entire section of coastline allow all levels of surfer to enjoy the water. Even if you just enjoy the surfing culture without hitting the water, any beach along the Central Pacific will do.
Less crowded than its neighbor to the south, Jacó, this black sand and rock beach is the site of a number of new tourist developments and golf course. Great for swimming its green water and jumping into a boat for some sportfishing, Playa Herradura is best used as an escape from the crowds at Jacó.
Like so many popular beaches in Costa Rica, not so long ago Jacó was just a sleepy fishing village with great surfing. Nowadays, this is the place for clubs, bars and beach parties à la Fort Lauderdale at spring break. The long, gray-sand beach is still beautiful and the surfing is just as fantastic but this may not be the place for you if you're looking for peace and quiet, or a family vacation. Jacó is growing as quickly as construction allows and the inevitable problems of rapid development is evident. Swimming on parts of Playa Jacó is not recommended due to massive pollution from sewers and other untreated waste water being dumped into the ocean.
Playa Hermosa (Puntarenas)
While the surfing in Jacó is accessible to every level of expertise, just to the south is Playa Hermosa, surfing haven for professional surfers. Home to international surf championships, this beach is best for experienced surfers only. The currents are quite strong, so swimming is not recommended.
This is another secluded surfing spot on the Central Pacific coast. Difficult to access with only a few amenities, Playa Esterillos is truly a calm oasis from the hordes at Jacó and Hermosa.
Playa Palo Seco
Previously unknown to all except local Tican families, Playa Palo Seco is becoming a hotbed of development. New condominium developments are going up quickly and this wide, black sand beach with great surf breaks and swimming opportunities won't be quiet for long.
Manuel Antonio National Park
There are four main beaches in this popular park: the Espadilla Sur, the Playita, the Manuel Antonio and the Escondido. While all of these have terrific snorkeling and swimming, Playa Manuel Antonio is the most photogenic, with its white sand and offshore coral reef. The north end of this beautiful beach, beyond a large stone outcropping is a topless beach and one of the only 'gay' beaches in the country. This small area, which requires some effort to reach, is known as Playagita or 'Little Beach'.
This long, rocky beach is another fantastic surfing spot for the experienced surfer. Swimming is almost impossible due to strong currents and riptides but there plenty of other things to do here. Surrounded by lush tropical forests, close to Naucaya Waterfalls and plenty of offshore diving opportunities, those who don't surf won't be bored.
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South Pacific and Osa Peninsula
Costa Rica's southern Pacific region is probably the most remote and least visited part of the country. It is far from any major airport and many of the beaches require persistence and determination to travel there. But the rewards are high for those willing to spend some time visiting these amazing beaches.
Just south of Dominical is a white sandy beach where the smaller waves and clear, blue water is perfect for swimming and snorkeling with the whole family. Located in Marino Ballena National Park, Playa Uvita boasts a spectacular landscape of estuaries, mangrove swamps and twice a year, humpback whales.
Also located in Marino Ballena National Park, this gold sand beach has something for everyone. The swells are high enough for a little surfing but the waters are calm enough for snorkeling and swimming. There are a variety of accommodations along the road but it certainly isn't crowded.
Playa San Josecito
Just south of Drake Bay, this beach is difficult to get to, especially during the rainy season. But efforts to reach this secluded beach are rewarded. There is a beautiful coral cove for snorkeling and scuba diving. It's the perfect place to camp on the beach as there are very few accommodations nearby and privacy abounds.
Corcovado National Park
Home to some of the most unspoiled tropical rainforest in the world, this national park also hosts miles of unspoiled beaches along the Pacific ocean. There are a few named beaches, such as Playa Corcovado, Playa Madrigal and Playa Sirena that are mostly good for sunbathing and walks. The surf is rough and marine life such as sharks and stingrays are plentiful. For all these reasons, swimming is not recommended along the national park beaches.
Situated on Osa Peninsula's southern most tip, this beach is home to all-inclusive resorts but the independent traveller finds it difficult to get here. With only dirt roads leading here, it is a secluded beach with good swells for experienced surfers and offers a jumping-off point for Corcovado National Park.
If there was an award for the perfect beach in Costa Rica, Playa Zancudo would take the prize. South of Golfito, this straight-as-a-board black sand beach and crystal, blue water has something for everyone. At the north end of the beach, the gentle surf welcomes families and swimmers into the water. As you walk south, the surf increases so boogie boarding and body surfing is possible. By the time you get to the south end of the beach, the swells are high enough for surfing. Add its quiet, casual atmosphere and stunning sunsets to all of this and Playa Zancuda is probably the best-kept secret on the Pacific coast.
This is the surfing spot for those searching for the best waves in Costa Rica. Pavones is the home of longest left break in the world; a mile long on its best days. Unfortunately, there is little else to do here other than surf as the coast is quite rocky.
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The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is the shorter coast but offers a great variety of activities for everyone. However, the best beaches are located in the southern part of the coast. While there are beaches on the north Caribbean, these are part of national parks and wildlife refuges and are not typically used for sunbathing or water sports.
A beautiful coastal town with both black sand and golden sand beaches, Cahuita is becoming more popular as a calm alternative to its partying neighbor to the south, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Just steps from town, the beach offers warm waters and an underwater coral reef to snorkelers, swimmers and scuba divers. Hiking trails into a national park also lead from the beach into lush rainforests.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Popular with younger tourists and the surfing crowd, Puerto Viejo is home to some top-rated surfing at Salsa Brava beach. International surfers come here to catch some of the biggest ride-able waves (up to seven meters) in Costa Rica. However, there is a strong rip current, so swimming is not advised. But there are still plenty of things to do here, especially if you're in a party mood; Puerto Viejo is becoming one of the country's premier party destinations.
This is a small fishing village south of Puerto Viejo; the last town before you hit Panama. And it's biggest attraction is a stretch of white sand beach lined with palm trees and warm Caribbean water. With an offshore coral reef and calm surf, this place is made for scuba diving, snorkeling and swimming. It's also a prime fishing spot with other wildlife to be seen; there are three species of dolphin that ply these waters. The village itself is known for its Afro-Caribbean influence, laid-back atmosphere and tasty seafood dishes.
While going topless or sunbathing nude are not the norm in Costa Rica, there is one location where you can expect to see a little more skin. As mentioned at Manuel Antonio National Park, there is a small beach (Playagita) at the north end of Playa Manuel Antonio. It is beyond a rocky outcropping and some effort is required to get there. However, while you may be out of sight from people on the main beach, you could be in full view of hikers on the trails above the beach. In the past, if there are complaints, park rangers have simply requested nude sunbathers to put on their clothes.
Nudity is not encouraged on populated beaches but Costa Rica has a number of quiet secluded beaches that are completely out of sight of anyone but a few howler monkeys and frogs.
Playa Manuel Antonio is known as a LGBT-friendly beach, with a small nude beach at the northern end. There are many LGBT-friendly lodges, hotels, bars and businesses in the Manuel Antonio National Park region.
Like other countries, any popular beaches in Costa Rica are magnets for petty criminals and pickpockets. It is never a good idea to leave anything of value unattended on a beach while you're swimming or otherwise enjoying the day. Also, many beaches are also without lifeguards or first aid stations and you are enjoying the beaches at your own risk.
At the time of writing, there are also a number of beaches that are reporting high levels of fecal contamination, mostly due to the untreated runoff from hotels, businesses and homes in the area. Right now, there are a group of 13 beaches that are racing to correct the issue. Six beaches have swimming bans due to the pollution, including Jacó, Quepos and Tambor in Puntarenas, Guanacaste's Playa del Coco and Limón's Cieneguita and Portete. The other seven beaches also have high levels of contamination but not high enough to place a ban on swimming. These beaches include: Guanacaste's Sámara and Tamarindo, Puntarenas' Agujas, Hermosa and Herradura and Limón's Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo.
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