If you need a manicured lawn, 18-hole golf course, large fancy supermarket, or luxury condo to be happy…you can find that in Costa Rica. But you’ll have to give the country’s southern Caribbean coast a miss.
In the U.S., something as beautiful as Lake Arenal would have a shoreline clogged with resorts and marinas and waters churned up by powerboats and jet skis. But in Costa Rica, this region retains its traditional agricultural heritage and staggering natural beauty...with nary a powerboat to disturb the lake.
Just a 25-minute boat ride off the northern tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is a sliver of an island called Holbox (pronounced ol-bosh). In the Mayan language it means “black hole.” For the increasing number of visitors (as well as a small number of pioneering—mostly part-time expats and full-time business owners) who make their way here it’s a tropical getaway that’s quite different than spots like Cancún and Playa del Carmen on the nearby Riviera Maya.
The central Pacific beach town of Jacó in Costa Rica was long known primarily as a destination for sport fisherman, surfers, and backpackers. And Ticos—as Costa Ricans call themselves—flocked there around Christmas and Easter because it's the closest major beach to San José, the capital.
A nickname like the Valley of Flowers and Eternal Spring is pretty hard to live up to. But the area around the small town of Boquete, high in the green mountains of the Chiriquí province in western Panama, certainly does. This bustling town of around 20,000 sits at an elevation of just below 4,000 feet.
Imagine waking up each morning to the sound of gentle waves lapping up the shore of a white-sand beach. The warm Caribbean waters are clear, in shades of turquoise and azure. Down the road is a community with shops, restaurants, and, most importantly, lively beach bars. This is what it is like to live on the tropical island of Roatán.
I'd never traveled with a celebrity before. When we arrived at the airport in Costa Rica, it was a madhouse. People kept coming up to take pictures with my companion. Customs officials rushed us through the line after a cursory check of our documents. Baggage handlers competed to grab our luggage.
I first visited Costa Rica's southern Pacific coast in 2005 on my honeymoon. Back then, it felt like a real adventure to get to what is officially known as the Southern Zone. The coastal highway was incomplete, with a long, bone-rattling section of rutted dirt and gravel. And the bridges looked like they might fall over in a stiff breeze.
Among the 2.6 million visitors who come to Costa Rica each year, a big percentage (maybe even the majority) head to the Pacific coast. For good reason: the country’s beaches are among the most beautiful in the world. And there is a large variety of types of beaches and beach communities too.
Samantha Wei lives on Costa Rica's northern Pacific coast, just inland from the surfer hotspot of Tamarindo, with her boyfriend, Yeison Kim. But you never know where the couple might be on any given day.