Costa Rican beaches don’t come more beautiful than Playa Grande, a seemingly endless curve of sand (varying from coral-white to gray) with water as blue as the summer sky. A beach trail to the north leads along the cape through dry forest and deposits you at Playa Ventanas, with tidepools 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.”
Even though surfing is definitely a draw, most tourists come to Playa Grande to visit the turtles ; especially during the October–March nesting season.
The entire shoreline is protected within the 445-hectare Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, which guards the prime nesting site of the leatherback turtle on the Pacific coast, including 22,000 hectares out to sea. The beach was incorporated into the national park system in May 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, 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 Oscar Arias administration considered eliminating the park! Meanwhile, fishing boats continue to trawl illegally and unpoliced within the sanctuary with landlines, which snag turtles.
The beach sweeps south to the mouth of the Río Matapalo, which forms a 400-hectare mangrove estuary. This ecosystem is protected within Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge (Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Tamarindo, 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 upriver from the estuary.
The hamlet of Comunidad Playa Grande is on the main approach road, 600 meters 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.
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).
Hotel Las Tortugas (tel. 506/2653-0423, www.lastortugashotel.com ) rents surfboards ($15–35) and boogie boards ($10 per day) and has canoe tours of the estuary ($30 solo, $55 guided). Pura Vida Café (tel. 506/2653-0835) offers surf lessons ($50), as does Frijoles Locos (tel. 506/2652-9235, www.frijoleslocos.com ), at the entrance to Playa Grande; it’s the best-stocked surf store around.
Next door, El Frijol Feliz Day Spa (tel. 506/2652-9236) can soothe weary muscles with a relaxing massage.
From Flamingo , road access is via Matapalo, six kilometers east of Playa Grande (turn left at the soccer field in Matapolo). 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 daily at 6 A.M. and 1 P.M.; the return bus departs Playa Grande at 7:15 A.M. and 3:15 P.M.
The Asociación de Guías Locales (tel. 506/2653-1687, 7 A.M.–4 P.M. daily) offers water-taxi service between Tamarindo  and a dock on the estuary near the Hotel Bula Bula every two hours ($3).