Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, Central Pacific Coast
With white sand beaches backed by verdant forest packed with wildlife, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is one of the most beautiful spots in all of Costa Rica, and also one of its most popular tourist destinations. The coastline is dominated by the rocky outcrop of Punta Catedral which juts out into the sea creating endless photo opportunities. The park is home to three beaches (with a fourth just outside the entrance), the most picturesque of which is Playa Manuel Antonio, also called Playa Tres. It's the safest beach in the area for swimming, and offers good snorkelling too – head to the rocks at the end of the beach to see an array of marine life. The beach is popular with locals come the weekend, so visit during the week if you can.
Manuel Antonio National Park is located a short drive south of the city of Quepos. Buses depart for the park daily from Quepos and San José. There’s also paid car parking on the road to the park if you’re coming by car.
An ariel view of the islands at Islas Tortuga © Tami Freed / Shutterstock
Islas Tortuga, Nicoya Peninsula
Uninhabited and (as yet) unspoiled, Islas Tortuga is the epitome of an island hideaway. Made up of Isla Tolinga and Isla Alcatraz, the islands are densely forested with picture-perfect golden sand beaches and bright turquoise water. They will bring a smile to the face of even the most jaded traveller. Isla Tolinga’s two enchanting beaches are ideal for swimming, snorkelling or simply soaking up the atmosphere. There’s no accommodation on the island so visitors come for the day by boat. During the week the islands are relatively peaceful, but at weekends boatloads of visitors arrive, spoiling the tranquility somewhat. Plan to avoid a weekend visit if you can.
Islas Tortuga are located off the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, near Paquera. Trips depart twice a day from Paquera’s Playa Curú. Boat trips also make the journey from further afield, including from the country’s capital San José and Jacó or Quepos on the central Pacific coast.
Punta Uva beach's Caribbean good looks © Chrispictures / Shutterstock
Punta Uva, Caribbean Coast
The name Punta Uva translates to grape point, and if you could get a bird’s eye view of the landscape (or hop onboard a drone) you’d see the name was very apt. To the west of the point, Punta Uva beach is one of the few places in Costa Rica where you’ll find a coral reef ideal for snorkelling within swimming distance of the shore. Playa Grande, to the east, has the classic Caribbean-style palm-trees, but the water here is rougher and less suitable for swimming. If you’re lucky you might spot a rare green macaw while you’re here. The nearby Ara Project in Manzanillo has been breeding and releasing the endangered birds since 2011.
Punta Uva is located in Limón Province, just south of Playa Chiquita off Highway-256, before the town of Manzanillo. The bus between Puerto Limón and Manzanilla stops along the route.
The famous swell at Playa Hermosa © Daniel Patrick Adams / Shutterstock
Playa Hermosa, Puntarenas
Costa Rica boasts multiple beaches called Playa Hermosa (beautiful beach) so it always pays to make sure you’re headed to the right one! This particular Hermosa is a six mile (10 km) stretch of dark grey sand just south of the town of Jaco, and one of the best surf beaches in Central America, especially during rainy season (May to August). Steep sandbars out to sea create consistent waves that break close to shore, offering a challenge to surfers of all levels. There are strong rip tides here so it’s a not a good place to swim. It's also not the best place for surf lessons unless you’re confident in your skills already. For those with some experience however, you’re practically guaranteed a memorable day on the waves. Armchair enthusiasts can watch the experienced locals in action on Friday and Saturday afternoons during the Backyard Surf Series competition.
Buses make the journey from Jacó to Quepos and back daily, stopping at Playa Hermosa along the way. Alternatively, taxis can take you there from Jacó, or you can drive and park.
An olive ridley turtle on Playa Ostional © Xenia_Photography / Shutterstock