An Expat’s Guide to Playa Grande, Costa Rica
By Kirk Lee
Along the Guanacaste coast of Costa Rica, along the northern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, I am beginning to settle deeply into a much slower rhythm of life in a sleepy little surf town called Playa Grande. Surrounded by nationally protected beaches and bordering Las Baulas National Park, this seems perfectly natural in contrast to the hectic way of living so many have grown numb to back in the U.S.
As I sit here on an early morning writing from my front porch, feet resting in a hand-made hammock, howler monkeys picking nuts in the trees overhead, and surrounded by a variety of lush greenery and the sounds of exotic birds, I already have the deep satisfaction and contentment that comes from a full and rich morning and it is barely 8 a.m. Such is pura vida life in Playa Grande, Costa Rica. It is said that in Costa Rica, the enjoyment of the day is more important than productivity.
It’s hard to believe that Playa Grande is hidden just one beach removed from Tamarindo, the notorious surf town that gets all the publicity. Yet, quietly and discreetly tucked away just a few miles by boat across the narrow estuary separating the two beaches, Playa Grande offers a completely different vibe, arguably better waves, and a much more tranquilo one, with its small population of roughly 1,000 residents or so during the high season and 500 during the rainy months. To steal that classic lyric from the Beach Boys, “that’s where you wanna go to get away from it all.”
In Playa Grande, you will find that empty stretch of beach for miles that is so often portrayed in souvenir shop postcards. However, if you want to take in this stretch of pale sand beach with warm temperature waves all to yourself, you must get up with the sun at 5 a.m. After that, Playa Grande quickly takes its place as one of the best surfing spots in all of Costa Rica, with waves surpassing the more celebrated swells of Tamarindo.
Playa Grande is convenient to both major airports in Costa Rica. One can easily get there by way of flying into San Jose or Liberia. From San Jose, it is less than 200 miles and quite easy to catch one of the various shuttles from various points in the city, such as Interbus, and travel directly to Tamarindo. By car or by bus will run between five to six hours. A stop at one of the Costa Rican cafeterias along the way is a must. If you are flying into Liberia, Playa Grande is roughly 45 miles and can be reached in less than two hours. Be sure to stock up on groceries and supplies in either major city, as Playa Grande is truly a sleepy town.
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In the walkable area of town, you will find a handful of restaurants that have been run for years by the locals like Victor and Dawn, such as their Cafe Mar Azul offering a delicious menu, and an ideal location for a drink and appetizer just before another majestic sunset on the beach. There is also the Grateful Dead-themed hotel, aptly named The Grateful Hotel, as well as the Hotel Cantarana restaurant and hotel. You will also find a small number of boutique hotels in the area, such as the newly opened Onda, which serves as a hub for travelers and co-working nomads. Playa Grande is just removed enough from the busy town of Tamarindo to feel as if you truly are away from it all in Costa Rica. By car it is a drive of approximately 13 miles over winding dirt and pothole-filled roads which will take you up to 30 minutes, depending upon traffic. More easily, you can take a water taxi directly for a dollar and be there in minutes to find that place of tranquility.
The overall cost of living in Playa Grande can range greatly depending upon each season. As with all of Costa Rica, real estate prices have been steadily climbing due to the ever-increasing number of foreigners looking for a simpler and more pura vida way of life. However, lots to build on can be found just steps away from that majestic beach for around $100,000 and you can build your own plan according to your liking from there. If you prefer to keep things simple, a minimalist container-style home can be delivered onto your property for approximately $50,000. Needless to say, much larger and grander style homes are going up in the area at a rapidly increasing pace.
Nonetheless, if the simple pura vida lifestyle is what you are after, it can definitely be found in Playa Grande. As a nomad, I have always been a renter while in Playa Grande, living here for up to three-months at a time. During the busy or high season, December through May, prices can be high as tourists want to get away to this beautiful stretch of beach. Prices can range anywhere from $1,200 monthly to over $2,500 depending on your tastes. However, as I have found, during the low season between June and November, the tourists thin out and many places are available. If you navigate your options through Airbnb or ask locals on the ground, you may discover a gem just steps from the beach for less than $1,000 a month. This has always been my personal strategy and has allowed me to enjoy places like Playa Grande during the quieter seasons and Boquete, Panama during the busy season.
This morning, I woke and got outside for my daily three to four-mile walk along this empty stretch of beach at 7 a.m. It felt late, with the sun already high overhead. I had already missed that sacred hour at 5 a.m. on the empty beach, where I normally walk meditatively as the sun begins to rise. By this hour, the water was already filled with surfers, lined up in anticipation along the wave lines coming in. These were the peak hours for optimal swells and the tide was already high up on the beach.
Even at this 7 a.m. hour with the sun high overhead, the heat burned down upon me as I walked to the mountain along Ventanas cove. There is an inland area of beach I have discovered as the ideal spot for my morning stretches and exercises. Being in Costa Rica along the Gold Coast, it is almost as if moving and embodying my body seems to happen quite naturally. There is no gym, there are no treadmills, no Fitbits, or Apple Watches. Just the elements.
Most mornings, I will do some stretching movements dating back to the Shaolin Monks in China. I also carry my bamboo stick with me every morning, and naturally flow into some bamboo stick movements I discovered in Asia. Additionally, I have found a large tree trunk to be the perfect size and weight for more strength-building exercises. The experience of moving and exercising this way on a beach with the waves crashing in, using the surrounding elements as natural equipment is unlike any other.
By this point in the day, I have gotten up and outside into nature early, I have walked three to four miles, meditated, exercised, and am ready to make my breakfast and coffee. I grin to myself, as it is a Monday morning in Playa Grande, and surfers have been out flowing in with the waves for a couple of hours now. In Costa Rica, there will be no one jumping into traffic to sit for an hour while making their way to a job in a sterile office. Maybe in San Jose. Playa Grande offers the essence of the pure laidback vibe of Costa Rica that is pura vida.
You may be looking for more to do in Playa Grande. If you are looking for lots of activity and busyness, all of your desires can be found in nearby Tamarindo. However, Playa Grande offers some of the best surfing in all of Costa Rica, sailing and fishing tours, and a handful of restaurants and music venues. Tours for ziplining and wildlife viewing are also easily accessible from the area. Playa Grande is perhaps most famous for its Leatherback Turtle nesting site. The Leatherback Turtle is nature’s largest marine reptile. Las Baulas National Park, which surrounds Playa Grande beach, was created to protect this endangered species. For more than 30 years, the turtles have been protected in the area and made it one of the largest nesting sites in the world. Between October and March, the turtles make their way onto shore during the night to lay their eggs. Guided tours are available, and the best possibility for a sighting is just before or following high tide.
In this area of Costa Rica, near the Nicoya Peninsula, we are located in one of the five “Blue Zones” in the world. These zones are where the longest-living people are found to be in the largest numbers. It is no surprise, as perhaps this way of living contributes to an overall lower stress level, and longer lifespan, simply living in alignment with the rhythm of nature as opposed to living in the hectic modern world. Playa Grande offers such rhythm and a way of life, and all at a fraction of the cost of living elsewhere.
This is living pura vida.
Featured Image Copyright: ©Kirk Lee