Three Beaches on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast
There is a lot more to Costa Rica’s Jungle hikes, zip lines, and Hot Springs
By Tab Hauser
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Writer
The nature country of Costa Rica is a must-see place for its beauty and diverse things to do. For first-time visitors, I always recommend seeing the most popular nature sites. These include the Tabacon hot springs area near the Arenal Volcano and the Monte Verde Cloud Forest.
However, there is more to Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast than jungle walks on suspension bridges, sloths, hot springs, and zip line rides. This country also has some good beaches worth resting on after the above adventures.
What Beach in Costa Rica?
Deciding on what sand to throw your towel on requires some research. Costa Rica is not known for its long sandy beaches in the same way as Aruba, Grand Cayman, Puerto Rico, or Providenciales. Most beaches are smaller. Things to look out for include, dark or gravel-like volcanic sand that can get hot, water too shallow to swim, and surf too strong for children among other things.
Below are a few diverse playas (beach in Spanish) to consider for a relaxing time. These playas are between one and two hours’ drive depending on which international airports you are using.
Playa’s Potrero and Flamingo
Playa Flamingo and Potrero are adjacent to each other and require about an hour’s drive from the Liberia airport. Potrero is a very laid-back beach town with a main street about a third of a mile long.
The town has one beachfront hotel called Bahia del Sol Hotel, a few low-budget hotels near the beach along with beachfront low-rise condominium buildings. There is never a crowd here.
Most people stay in two to three-floor condo units on the water that are rented through Airbnb, VRBO, or local management agencies at reasonable prices. Potrero has lower prices and a larger selection of condos on the beach than in Flamingo.
Playa Potrero’s main street has several restaurants. There is a beer garden, a small food market, and a pharmacy. For the best Costa Rican produce don’t miss the fruit stand on the way to Flamingo. Here you will find the juiciest limes and the sweetest pineapples.
On the beach, there are three restaurants. The two on the southern end are more rustic Tico-style places with good food and prices. The flash-fried red snapper should not be missed there. The place for happy hour on the sand is the Beach House. When dining in Potrero you never need reservations. Dressing for dinner means a clean T-shirt and flip-flops.
The Beach at Potrero
Potrero’s beach is long and crescent-shaped with a length of about 1.5 miles. It is a beach where the dark sand gets hot so you need to wear flip-flops to the water’s edge. It is a good walking beach because of the firm sand. It can be a little shallow for swimming. For better swimming and sand I prefer Playa Flamingo.
Playa Flamingo is a five-minute ride from the center of Playa Potrero or a 30-minute walk along the beach to get to it. There is no central town here.
Between Playa Potrero and Flamingo are some high-rise condos and a few restaurants. There is a decent small food market less than a mile south on the main road.
Flamingo’s Beach: It’s the Best!
In my opinion, Playa Flamingo is one of the finest beaches in the Guanacaste region and a top ten in Costa Rica. It is about three-quarters of a mile long with soft white sand that is packed enough for easy walking.
The inviting clear water usually has a gentle surf that allowed us to bob around on our floats about 50 feet out. There were a few days that the surf was a little rough for children or people that may have issues getting in and out of the water.
Even More Popular
The beach has become even more popular since my visit four years ago. The narrow dirt road alongside the beach has cars parked on both sides so drive slowly.
Early visitors have first dibs on a few shaded places under low trees. Locals rent canopy shade covers and chairs. The beach itself was never crowded during our peak season visit.
Staying until sunset gives you a front-row seat to that beautiful orange ball that drops below the horizon. Here, for about ten minutes, everyone just stops what they are doing to watch this beautiful evening event.
The only two places to stay directly on the beach are the “mini” Margaretville Hotel at the beginning of the road or the upscale Palms Condos. (More later on the Palms). If you do not need to be beachfront consider a place in the high-rise condos between Potrero and Flamingo. The only restaurant on the beach is Coco Loco.
Tips for Potrero and Flamingo Beaches
What this immediate area makes up for in a relaxing beach environment it lacks in things to do if you are an active traveler. There are no major tourist attractions nearby. If you are staying in Playa Potrero you can walk to everything and will not need a car. For Playa Flamingo, a car is needed to get to the restaurants in Potrero or nearby Brasilito.
Potrero Four-Hour Sail
The one local activity I recommend in Potrero is the afternoon snorkel and sunset cruise with Panache Sailing www.panachesailing.com.
After sailing for about 90 minutes the catamaran stops for an hour in a protected cove. Here I would pass on their mediocre guided snorkeling and instead use their kayak, stand up board, or just swim to the beach.
During our cruise, we were served tasty snacks and the friendly crew always made sure our drinks were refreshed. The Panache headed back after the sun went down.
Tamarindo is 25 miles south of Potrero. In over twenty years I have seen Tamarindo go from a quiet small surfing village to a bustling town that is now too built up for my taste. During our stay in Playa Flamingo, one of the ladies in our group needed retail therapy so a day visit was just what was needed.
Tamarindo’s beach is 1.5 miles long with hard-packed sand making it easy for walking. At the north end is an estuary that separates it from Playa Grande. Do not wade through this section as there can be strong currents flowing in either direction. There are also crocodiles that live in the estuary. For a dollar or two, a boat will ferry you to the other side. Of the three beaches, we visited this trip, Tamarindo had the most people (and horses) on it.
Due to Tamarindo’s easy consistent waves, it is a good place to learn how to surf. It is here I decided my “end of middle age body” is going to get up on a surfboard. Iguana Surf company has been in Tamarindo for many years. For $50 I signed up for a group lesson which included a longboard. They also offer private and semi-private lessons.
Our lesson started with beach demonstrations on paddling and board standing. After drilling for 15 minutes the instructor took five of us out to the wave breaks. Working with us one at a time to try to catch a wave I was very pleased and surprised not only to get up on my first wave but to ride it all the way to the sand.
After catching and riding five waves in a row to shore I decided it was time to retire from surfing. One reason was not wanting to push my luck. The other reason was that it was a long way to paddle back out to the waves. I was both insulted and proud when the instructor called the kids in our group out for falling over the place “while the old guy was up and riding”.
As I walked my board back to the store with my head held high I realized the Bonzai Pipe on Oahu’s north shore with has to wait for me in my next life.
Costa Rica’s Easy Nature
If you have an interest in nature while in Tamarindo consider a two-hour small boat tour on the estuary with Natives Way (www.nativesway.com) Onboard Captain Ivan pointed out several species of birds, iguanas, a few small crocodiles, and some howler monkeys. This is an easy and inexpensive way to view a little wildlife.
Playa Tamarindo is very developed. You can shop until you drop at galleries, jewelry stores, craft boutiques, and souvenir stores selling everything Costa Rican. There are coffee shops and dozens of restaurants with most specializing in seafood.
During our recent visit to Costa Rica, we included a week in Jaco (pronounced Ha-co) for a reunion. Jaco is a moderate size beach town about a 90-minute drive southwest of the San Jose airport.
It is known for its surfing beach and its main street lined with shops, markets, tourist offices, restaurants, and nightlife. Jaco is also a good base to enjoy several good attractions.
The Beach in Jaco
Jaco’s Beach is 2.5 miles long. Here the sand is dark, having an almost dirty look to it. It also gets hot by mid-day. The beach is easy to walk on as the sand is compact.
I recommend wearing sandals or water shoes due to the sand’s abrasiveness in areas. You also cross two shallow streams with large pebbles if you walk the entire beach. Surfing is very popular in Jaco.
Attractions in Jaco
Jaco is in a good area if you like to be active. In the mountains behind the town, there are waterfalls and swimming holes along with horseback riding and serious hiking for the fit. If you drive one hour and 15 minutes you will reach Manuel Antonio Park. This must-see place has the region’s best beach and easy trails where you may see birds, sloths, up to three species of monkeys, and more.
When coming to Jaco from the airport ask your driver to stop at the Crocodile Bridge just 30 minutes north of Jaco. Most drivers I met show real pride for their country and are happy to show off what Costa Rica has to offer.
It is also nice in return to tip a little extra for the stop. Crocodile Bridge is a free attraction that takes about 10 minutes. During my visit I watched three large crocs (15 to 17 feet long) resting in the shallow water.
The Jaco Falls (www.facebook.com/jacofalls) is on a private 150-acre tract of jungle bought by two young Americans who want to keep this area natural.
The main attraction is a swimming hole filled by a 30-foot waterfall. Visitors can wade across the pool and step behind the wall of water if it is not flooding. You can also hike down the river to other falls.
To get to Jaco Falls you need to drive up a dirt road off Highway 34 for 30 minutes to the gate. This is a rough road where an SUV is recommended or it will be very slow going in a car. Don’t attempt it after a storm.
To enjoy this place call or message them on WhatsApp at 1832-799-8600 to confirm your visit. They will give you instructions on how to get there. Another way is to take one of many ATV tours that stop there.
After your Jaco Falls visit drive 300 yards to the left to Rancho Shadday. Do not miss their homemade cornmeal-crusted empanadas and fresh fruit smoothies. While there, dare yourself to take their “Tarzan” bungee-like swing. (Before having the empanadas!)
Waterfalls and Monkeys
Neo Fauna Costa Rica (website) offers two very different tours to their waterfalls. One is a three-hour adventure that requires hiking, helmets, and following ropes in the river to 10 waterfalls. The other tour is easy taking 90 minutes by 4×4 to swim at two waterfalls.
Monkeying Around in the Jungle
Neo Fauna also offers a monkey encounter. This should only be done if you really like monkeys because this is a three-hour event of which two hours are driving.
The drive takes you to the back of a house on the edge of the jungle. Once arrived, a woman steps out of the house and makes some noise to let the monkeys know you are there.
As we approached the trees we saw the monkeys come out slowly because they knew they would be given cuts of bananas or peanuts. Here we met the alpha male, some of the females, and a few babies that were apprehensive to come close when the male was around.
The monkeys will jump on your shoulders, climb up your leg or climb on your arm if you extend it to a tree to get their snack. Sometimes they would stand on my head or shoulder while they shelled the peanut. The monkeys were lightweight and had no smell to them as they clean themselves in the waters nearby.
They are not there to hold or pet as they are all business about getting that snack. After 45 minutes we were monkeyed out. As we walked to the car, the monkeys climbed back into the jungle.
Discovery Horse Back Tours (website) offers 2.5-hour tours through the forest just 20 minutes from Jaco on the mountain. Here the owner makes it a point to show you in detail how well the horses are taken care of before your ride. During our tour, he walked in front of the horses pointing out birds, trees, flowers, and anything interesting.
After an hour we stopped at a small river for 30 minutes. At the river, we were given a bucket of the same thick black mud used in spas for skin treatment. After our self-treatment, we splashed around removing the mud and enjoying some fresh cut pineapple before mounting back up.
The ride concluded 10 minutes later at the barn where we fed the horses the pineapple rinds. Before leaving we got the chance to use an old hand-cranking sugar cane machine to have some silky smooth refreshing juice.
Beach Side Accommodations and Food
The Palms (www.palmscostarica.com) is an upscale small condominium resort-like place. Their two-bedroom units are spacious 2000 square feet.
It had a large patio off the master bedroom and one off the living room looking out to the pool and sea. Its fault was a second bedroom and bathroom were small.
What is nice here is that there is no road in front of the property. This meant we were able to go from our lounge chair under the palm trees and walk 100 feet to the gentle surf or turn around and walk 50 feet to the pool. You can rent a unit here direct from the website or VRBO and Airbnb. For those wishing to save 20 to 30% and be on the beach, stay in Potrero.
Gracia Mar Vista, located in a gated community, is a good place for chicken, fish, and salads.
Patagonia del Mar in Brasilito has a perfect flash-fried snapper, excellent sushi, poke, and is a good place for beef.
Coco’s is the only restaurant on the beach on Playa Flamingo. They are moderately priced with good food. The tuna taco makes a good shared starter or by itself for lunch.
Café del Sol is one of the better places on Potrero’s main street. We liked ceviche, large portion shrimp starter, and their Tico food.
La Forketa will help any pizza or pasta crave. Their monster-size calzones are Instagram-worthy!
Surf Box is a place not to be missed for breakfast and their Montreal-style bagels.
Tamarindo Diria (www.tamarindodiria.com) is the only beachfront four-star hotel. It has a nice pool and basic rooms. It is within walking distance of town.
La Palapa on the beach is where we enjoyed a large two-pound fresh snapper that was crisp and flavorful. Standard drinks were two for one.
While there are several three and four-star hotels on or just off the beach I recommend renting from a condominium here. We stayed a week in Diamonte Del Sol. This place has two eight-story buildings with a nice ocean view pool in between. All units in the building are spacious and have a view of the morning surfers. It is within walking distance of everything in town.
Recommended Nearby Restaurants:
Koko Gastro Pub located on the beach specializes in Tuna. We enjoyed the poke, tuna steak rare, and tuna tacos. They also make an excellent burger and plantain poppers.
Graffiti’s is a little upscale. It is the place for fresh fish and slow-roasted ribs Argentinian style.
Sabress was perfect for our Middle East and shawarma cravings (The place is kosher too)
Amancios Pizza Pasta Drinks always has consistently good pizza.
If you are into the nightlife, just walk the main street and listen for the music or the doorman in front. Come dress to impress after 10 PM.
The website https://www.visitcostarica.com/en is a good place to gather information for your visit to Costa Rica.