Costa Rica’s Best Beaches with Christopher P. Baker

1. For sheer beauty, which Costa Rica beach takes your breath away?

Costa Rican beaches are less about scintillating white sands and more about physical context. For a sheer scenic “Wow!” reaction, I’d give top marks to Playa Guiones in Nosara. Wider than a football field at low tide, this favorite of surfers has tide pools and is great for horseback riding. I’m still bowled over every time I visit Manuel Antonio’s Playa Espadilla Sur, too—not the main Playa Espadilla which fronts the resort area, but the long scimitar separated from the former by a rocky outcrop and river, which sweeps around the crook of a tombolo and ends at a large knoll called Punta Catedral. The views of Manuel Antonio from there are fantastic. I love arriving by Zodiak off the National Geographic Sea Lion when I escort tours. Monkeys are almost always there to greet us, along with coatis, iguanas, and sloths and boas in the trees.

2. If a traveler is craving privacy and a secluded spot to relax, what’s your recommendation?

Costa Rica is largely about nature. If you’re seeking a total escape where you can relax in a hammock with a good book and a pair of binoculars to spot birds and wildlife, there are a few options. If you’re in the mood for deluxe rusticity, try Casa de Tranquilidad—it has its own rainforest wildlife reserve. On a lesser budget, the experience of literally being eye-to-eye with the monkeys in your own treehouse is unbeatable: Lapa’s Nest Costa Rica Tree House gets my vote. Two favorite “chill out and relax” hotels that immerse you in nature but also offer something intangible and unique are Iguana Lodge, which is on the Osa Peninsula, and Monteverde Lodge, which edges up against the cloud forest in Monteverde.

3. What should a visitor know about beach etiquette? For example, are there clothing-optional beaches? Or is nude sunbathing not appropriate?

I’m always amazed at how often I see European women walking through beach towns, such as Quepos, in bikinis. Costa Rica isn’t Brazil! It’s much more conservative, and such dress is considered inappropriate by locals. There are no nude beaches, nor even topless beaches in Costa Rica. Gay locals and visitors used to have their “own” nude beach (Playa Dulce Vida) at Manuel Antonio, but it is now the domain of the magnificent Arenas del Mar, which I recently blogged about.

4. Is beach camping permitted in Costa Rica?

Camping is not permitted on any beach. For many years, locals paid no attention to the regulation; now it’s being enforced more, but you will still find many Costa Rican families pitching their tents beneath the coconut palms (which is actually one good way to ruin your day—more people are killed by falling coconuts than by venomous snakes in Costa Rica).

5. What beaches are best for snorkeling?

Costa Rica has relatively few great snorkeling spots, especially compared to its neighboring countries. There are, however, small coral reefs and fabulous fish life to be seen off Cahuita, on the Caribbean side; off Playa Manuel Antonio, in the Central Pacific Coast; and further south (and most notably) at Uvita. Riptides are a danger at many beaches, and you should always inquire about local conditions before swimming.

6. Where can visitors combine a beach day with seeing wildlife?

The ability to combine beach with wildlife is one of Costa Rica’s major fortes. On most beaches on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, the forests spill over the sands. The large-scale resort development that has characterized the beaches of northern Nicoya Peninsula has driven away much of the wildlife that was previously easily viewed in the dry forests backing the beach. Elsewhere, however, the world’s your oyster. My favorites—all of which are served by eco-sensitive hotels—include Tortuguero (good for viewing marine turtles nesting), Manuel Antonio (although it can get crowded, it offers guaranteed viewing of creatures), and the beaches of Cahuita National Park.

7. What’s a good beach for people who love to surf, but aren’t seasoned surfers?

Surf’s up! Are you a beginner? Me too. If I were to choose my preferred learn-to-surf spot, I’d opt for Tamarindo: it’s the most developed beach resort for surf schools and offers a wide choice of beaches for every level. There are also women-only and kids’ classes. Plus, since it’s “surf central” you get all the fun of chilling with fellow surfer dudes and checking out a crazy bar scene, if that’s your thing.

8. A day at the beach is always good, but what if someone wants to do good as well? Are there any volunteer programs you’d suggest?

Tremendous! Again, lots to choose from. For example, beach-goers can help save the planet’s endangered marine turtles at Playa Matapalo’s Portalon Ecological Wildlife Refuge, and with the Sea Turtle Conservancy at Tortuguero. Also at Tortuguero, Costa Rica Expeditions offers an innovative way for guests to donate a few hours of their time in local schools. For a complete list of organizations that are active in conservation efforts in Costa Rica, click here.

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