Some of the first tourists to Costa Rica were intrepid surfers, attracted by an endless summer and consistent quality waves.
To this day, whenever you see an ad promoting tourism in Costa Rica, the star of the show is the beach. And despite being a small country (about the size of West Virginia) with a relatively small coastline of 801 miles on the Pacific and Caribbean, Costa Rica has a wide variety of beaches.
Black volcanic sand, golden sand, white sand…a mix. Big surfing waves with strong currents. Calm coves great for swimming and snorkeling. Wild, deserted tropical beaches that make you feel like you’re a castaway…busy resort areas with beach bars lining the sand, vendors selling cold coconut water walking by.
No matter what you’re looking for in a beach, you can probably find it in Costa Rica. Over the years, I’ve visited many of them. Here are my top five. I like them for different reasons.
Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is a land apart; a good four hours’ drive from the capital and the least developed region of the country. Head south on the coast road toward Panama and you come to the end of the road in the settlement of Manzanillo.
Just to the south of this tiny village is Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, where you can find a series of coves, lined with overhanging palm trees. Pick one and set up for a day of sunbathing and snorkeling in the crystal-clear water.
The beach at Manzanillo is perfect for nature-lovers.
On my last trip here, I spied a half-dozen species of tropical fish and a ray, as well as a school of tiny cuttlefish.
Dominical is a fishing village turned surfing hot spot that attracts a distinctly bohemian crowd. Despite its popularity on the backpacker circuit, it’s still pretty low key.
A narrow beach road, paved a few years back, is lined with small hotels and open-air restaurants serving up ceviche and fish tacos—and cold Imperial beer, which is great on a hot and humid day. Most days are in this southern Pacific region.
Take a seat and watch the action as surfers take on one of the most powerful waves in the country. Or browse among the wares of the artisans set up in the shade.
3. Playa Biesanz
Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s most visited destination, with the national park of the same name drawing visitors eager to see monkeys and sloths. As a result, this destination on the central Pacific can get pretty crowded, especially during high season from January to April.
I prefer to go to Playa Biesanz, which is just to the north of the main beaches and isn’t very well known. Follow the little sign off the main road through town until you find cars parked by the roadside. There’s a gap in the fence; walk down about 15 minutes and you’ll come across a white-sand beach in a cove lined with tree-covered cliffs.
If you go during the week, you could have the whole place to yourself.
Tamarindo is no hidden gem. It’s a well-known bustling small resort town on the northern Pacific coast with restaurants, bars, and shops galore. A tourist mecca…at least for Costa Rica. Compared to a Cancún or Fort Lauderdale, it’s tiny. And the expats who have settled here enjoy the small-town atmosphere among the long-term residents.
When I lived here, I enjoyed all the amenities Tamarindo had to offer, right on the sand: surf lessons, fishing trips, sunset sailing cruises, happy hour and sunset at one of many beach bars, live music, horseback riding…
On the far tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, the fishing village of Montezuma is great for those looking for a laidback destination. There’s no major development. And the town center is just a few restaurants, hotels, and shops. It’s a bit hard to get to this part of Costa Rica—the roads can be rough, especially in rainy season from May to November.
But it’s well worth visiting this area on the Pacific. Here you can get a sunrise instead of sunset because it’s on the east side of the peninsula. And if you walk down the beach from town, you’ll find a unique freshwater waterfall right on the sand, with pools for soaking and swimming.
Extra: Beaches in Costa Rica’s Northern Pacific Coast
Although Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast is popular with tourists, there are plenty of small and low-key beach towns where expats live. They enjoy a close-knit circle of friends, boating and beach-combing, great restaurants and beach bars, and quiet, mostly residential, communities.
This video explores Playa Flamingo, Playa Potrero, and Brasilito, a trio of beach towns ideal for those seeking the ultimate laidback life by the sea.