Costa Rica’s Playa Grande and Las Baulas Marine National Park

Waves roll in over a flat expanse of beach at dusk.

The Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas guards the prime nesting site of the leatherback turtle on the Pacific coast. Photo © Fran Devinney, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Costa Rican beaches don’t come more beautiful than Playa Grande, a seemingly endless curve of sand, varying from coral-white to gray, immediately north of Tamarindo. A beach trail to the north leads along the cape through dry forest and deposits you at Playa Ventanas, with tide pools for snorkeling and bathing. Surf pumps ashore at high tide. Surfing expert Mark Kelly rates Playa Grande as “maybe the best overall spot in the country.”

Surfing expert Mark Kelly rates Playa Grande as “maybe the best overall spot in the country.”The entire shoreline is protected within the 445-hectare (1,100-acre) Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, which guards the prime nesting site of the leatherback turtle on the Pacific coast, including 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) out to sea. The beach was incorporated into the national park system in 1990 after a 15-year battle between developers and conservationists. The park is the result of efforts by Louis Wilson, owner of Hotel Las Tortugas, and his former wife, Marianel Pastor. The government agreed to support the couple’s conservation efforts only if they could show that the site was economically viable as a tourist destination. The locals, who formerly harvested the turtles’ eggs (as did a cookie company), have taken over all guiding; each guide is certified through an accredited course. However, much of the land backing the beach has been developed with condos, homes, and hotels. MINAE officials contemplated tearing down some of these for violating environmental laws, while the Óscar Arias administration considered eliminating the park! Meanwhile, fishing boats continue to trawl illegally and unpoliced within the sanctuary with longlines, which snag turtles. Alas, environmentalists are fighting a rear-guard action against developers and the shrimping industry, which are elbow-twisting the government to downgrade the park’s status.

The beach sweeps south to the mouth of the Río Matapalo, which forms a 400-hectare (988-acre) mangrove estuary. This ecosystem is protected within Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Tamarindo (Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge, tel. 506/2296-7074) and features crocodiles, anteaters, deer, ocelots, and monkeys. Waterbirds and raptors gather, especially in dry season. The refuge’s ranger station is about 500 meters (0.3 miles) upriver from the estuary.

The hamlet of Comunidad Playa Grande is on the main approach road, 600 meters (0.35 miles) inland from the beach. The sprawling woodsy community at the southern half of the beach is Palm Beach Estates.

There’s guarded parking ($2) at the main beach entrance; elsewhere car break-ins are an everyday occurrence. Don’t leave anything in your vehicle.

Getting There

From Flamingo, road access is via Matapalo, six kilometers (4 miles) east of Playa Grande (turn left at the soccer field in Matapalo). A rough dirt road also links Tamarindo and Playa Grande via Villareal. The Flamingo-bound buses from San José and Santa Cruz stop in Matapalo, where you can catch a taxi or the bus that departs Santa Cruz at 6am and 1pm daily; the return bus departs Playa Grande at 7:15am and 3:15pm daily.

Tamarindo Shuttle (tel. 506/2653-2727) charges $20 for door-to-door service from Liberia airport to hotels throughout the region. A taxi from the airport will cost about $80.

The Asociación de Guías Locales (tel. 506/2653-1687, 7am-4pm daily) offers water-taxi service between Tamarindo and a dock on the estuary near the Hotel Bula Bula every two hours ($3).

Turtle Viewing at Playa Grande

Turtles call at Playa Grande year-round. The nesting season for the giant leatherback is October-March, when females come ashore every night at high tide. A decade ago, as many as 100 turtles might be seen in a single night; today, on a good night, a dozen might come ashore. Each female leatherback will nest as many as 12 times a season, every 10 days or so (usually at night to avoid dehydration). Most turtles prefer the center of the beach, just above the high-tide mark. Olive ridley turtles and Pacific green turtles can sometimes also be seen here May-August.

The beach is open to visitors by day at no cost, and by permit only with a guide at night in nesting season (6pm-6am, entrance $25, with guide; the fee is payable on leaving the beach if turtles have been seen); anyone found on the beach at night without a permit in nesting season faces a $1,000 fine (second offense; first offenders are escorted off the beach). Guides from the local community roam the beach and lead groups to nesting turtles; other guides spot for turtles and call in the location via walkie-talkies. Visitors are not allowed to walk the beach after dusk unescorted. Groups cannot exceed 15 people, and only 60 people are allowed onto the beach at night at each of two entry points (four groups per gate, with a maximum of eight groups nightly): one where the road meets the beach by the Hotel Las Tortugas, and the second at the southern end, by Villas Baulas. Reservations are mandatory, although entry without a reservation is possible if there’s space in a group (don’t count on it, as demand usually exceeds supply). You can make reservations up to eight days in advance, or 8am-5pm for a same-day visit. At certain times the waiting time can be two hours before you are permitted onto the beach; each night differs.

Resist the temptation to follow the example of the many thoughtless visitors who get too close to the turtles, try to touch them, ride their backs, or otherwise display a lack of common sense and respect. Flashlights and camera flashes are not permitted (professional photographers can apply in advance for permission to use a flash). And watch your step: Newly hatched turtles are difficult to see at night as they scurry down to the sea. Many are inadvertently crushed under visitors’ feet.

The park headquarters (Centro Operaciones Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, tel. 506/2653-0470, 8am-noon and 1pm-5pm daily) is 100 meters (330 feet) east of Hotel Las Tortugas. It features an auditorium with a film on turtle ecology. Viewing the film is obligatory for everyone intending to witness the turtles nesting.

The Goldring Marine Biology Station (tel. 506/2653-0635), next to Hotel Las Tortugas, is funded by the Leatherback Trust. Earthwatch (tel. 800/776-0188) has 10-day trips for volunteers, who are based at the station.

Other Tours and Recreation

Hotels and tour companies in the area offer turtle-watching tours (about $25) and a Jungle Boat Safari aboard a 20-passenger pontoon boat that takes you into the Tamarindo Wildlife Refuge ($30). Estuary Tours (tel. 506/2653-0482) offers crocodile spotting wildlife trips. Hotel Las Tortugas (tel. 506/2653-0423), at the park entrance, rents surfboards ($15-35) and boogie boards ($10 per day) and has canoe tours of the estuary (solo $30, guided $55).

Pura Vida Café (tel. 506/2653-0835) offers surf lessons ($50), as do Playa Grande Surf School (in Palm Beach Estates) and Frijoles Locos (tel. 506/2652-9235), a well-stocked surf store at the entrance to Playa Grande. Next door, El Frijol Feliz Day Spa (tel. 506/2652-9236) can soothe weary muscles with a relaxing massage.

Accommodations in Playa Grande

You can camp at Kike’s Place (tel. 506/2653-0834, $5 pp) at Comunidad Playa Grande; it has showers and toilets. Kike’s also has 12 two-bedroom cabinas ($15 pp) with fans and private baths with cold water only; eight rooms sleep six people and lack air-conditioning but have small kitchens. There’s a restaurant, a pool, and free laundry. Run by colorful local owner Carlos Enrique “Kike” (KEE-kay) Chacón, its bar is a lively favorite for locals.

For backpackers, I recommend Playa Grande Surf Camp (tel. 506/2653-1074, dorm $15 pp, cabins $35 s, $45 d), in Palm Beach Estates. It has three small but delightful air-conditioned wood-and-thatch cabins on stilts, plus two A-frames, including a dorm with screened windows. The courtyard has a pool and thatched shade areas with hammocks, plus there’s Wi-Fi, board rental, and surf lessons.

The charming Italian-run Sol y Luna Lodge (tel. 506/2653-2706, low season from $55 s/d, high season from $75 s/d), one kilometer (0.6 miles) inland of the beach, has eight tree-shaded and thatched cabins (for four or six people) with Indonesian batiks, cable TV, Wi-Fi, ceiling fans, mosquito nets, verandas, and nice modern baths with whirlpool tubs. All in all, a lovely aesthetic! A rustic restaurant sits beside the pool landscaped with a rock-wall hot tub and a water cascade. Two smaller cabins are air-conditioned and have king beds.

The Playa Grande Surf Hotel (tel. 506/2653-2656, low season from $75 s/d, high season from $125 s/d) belies its name. This modern two-story Spanish colonial-style hotel is among the most stylish around, with a hip contemporary style to its rooms and suites, all with flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi, and air-conditioning. The Sushiko sushi restaurant is here.

The Hotel Las Tortugas (tel. 506/2653-0423, low season economy $25-45 s/d, standard $50-60 s/d, suite $85, high season economy $50, standard $80, suite $120) has lost its edge, but retains the advantage of abutting the main beach and park entrance. Backpackers get eight “student” rooms with bunk beds and shared hot-water showers. The 12 other air-conditioned rooms vary markedly: Some were looking outdated and urgently in need of an upgrade. The hotel has a swimming pool, plus a whirlpool tub and a quiet palm-shaded corner with hammocks. The restaurant is the highlight, with an outdoor balcony and great food. The hotel rents surfboards and canoes for trips into the estuary and has horseback riding and a mangrove boat tour. It also rents apartments.

I like the aesthetic at the RipJack Inn (tel. 506/2653-0480 or 800/808-4605, low season from $70 s/d, high season from $90 s/d), with eight individually styled rooms, plus suites and bungalows, all upgraded with contemporary touches. The open-air restaurant, Upstairs@the RipJack, serves nouvelle Costa Rican fare and has ocean views. Yoga fans will appreciate the yoga studio. Next door, the lovely Rancho Privado (tel. 506/2653-2682, $90 s, $110 d) is a charming eight-room boutique hotel with a swimming pool and stylish yet simply decorated rooms with flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi, and heaps of sunlight. Like the Rip Jack, it has a sushi bar and a cozy entertainment lounge.

Rancho Privado’s equally handsome neighbor, the Playa Grande Inn (tel./fax 506/2653-0719, rooms $50 s/d, suite $75) is also an upscale surf camp with eight impeccably clean and simply appointed rooms in an all-wood two-story structure. There’s a pool, a whirlpool tub, and a lively bar. You can also rent an apartment. Next door, the equally tasteful and convivial BP Surf Hotel (tel. 506/8879-5643, low season $45-60 s/d, high season $50-60 s/d), also has contemporary themed rooms with flat-screen TVs and lovely baths.

I adore the Hotel Bula Bula (tel. 506/2653-0975, U.S. tel. 877/658-2880, low season $95 s/d, high season $120 s/d), in lush gardens adjoining the mangrove estuary, two kilometers (1.2 miles) south of Las Tortugas. This attractive place is in the hands of two vivacious U.S. entrepreneurs, one a professional restaurateur. Although small, the 10 air-conditioned rooms boast rich color schemes, king beds with orthopedic mattresses, batik wall hangings, plus fans, fresh-cut flower arrangements, batik sarongs for use by the pool, and a shady balcony facing a swimming pool in a landscaped garden. It has a stage for live music. The excellent restaurant and bar (with Wi-Fi and loaner laptops) are popular with locals. A free water-taxi to Tamarindo is available. It also has a beach house for rent.

The other standout hotel is the German-run Hotel & Restaurante Cantarana (tel. 506/2653-0486, low season $55 s, $80 d, high season $95 s, $110 d), a Tuscan-style sepia-toned two-story lodge with an open-air gourmet restaurant and lush gardens. Its five rooms offer lovely ambience, with bamboo furnishings, ceiling fans, delightful baths, and shaded patios.

The French-run Hotel El Manglar (tel. 506/2653-0952, $35 s, $40 d) has 10 apartments that surround a lovely amoeba-shaped pool. For greater intimacy, try Casa Verde (tel. 506/2653-0481, rooms $135, entire house $285), a lovely modern home with pool. Three simply appointed air-conditioned rooms with cable TV have glass sliding doors opening to broad eaves shading terra-cotta patios. One room has a king bed and a kitchen.

Food in Playa Grande

Start your day at the Wave Café (thewavecafe@rocketmail.com, 7:30am-3:30pm daily), a lovely little place on the approach road to the beach, selling hot cinnamon rolls, plus fresh-baked pastries, coffee, and smoothies. It also has Wi-Fi. Owner Cara Decristoforo is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy.

You don’t have to leave the beach to eat. Just pop up to Taco Star (9am-sunset daily), a grill at the park entrance. Jay sells burgers and more. Here also the Hotel Las Tortugas has an airy restaurant (7:30am-9:30pm daily) serving an eclectic menu; leave room for the apple pie and ice cream.

Inland, Kike’s Place has an inexpensive soda selling típico dishes. For gourmet fare, head to the elegant Great Waltinis (5:30pm-8:30pm Tues.-Thurs., 5:30pm-9pm Fri.-Sat.) restaurant at Hotel Bula Bula, two kilometers (1.2 miles) south of Las Tortugas. It serves international cuisine, including quesadillas, chicken wings, and shrimp and crab cakes, plus such superbly executed dishes as duckling with mango chutney ($14), filet mignon ($16), and filet of ahi tuna sautéed with white wine and garlic butter ($12). Leave room for the “Siberia” chocolate drink-dessert. Avoid the superb martinis if you’re driving!

Gourmands will appreciate the German-run Restaurante Cantarana (7:30am-9:30am, noon-2pm, and 6pm-9pm Mon.-Sat.), at the namesake hotel. Delights at this airy upstairs venue include carrot and ginger soup ($9), mixed salad with garlic shrimp ($11.50), and duck breast with veggies and jasmine rice ($19).

Café del Pueblo Pizzería (tel. 506/2653-2315) is an Argentinean-run air-conditioned restaurant in a Tuscan-themed house about 400 meters (0.25 miles) from the beach. Jason at Playa Grande Inn (tel. 506/2653-0719) cooks casados, pulled-pork sandwiches, quesadillas, and pizzas (from $6). And the nearby Playa Grande Surf Hotel hosts Sushiko, serving sushi.

You can stock up at Super Pura Vida, in Comunidad Playa Grande, or at Super Malinche (tel. 506/2653-0236), which has a thatched seafood restaurant attached.

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