From surf’s up to chill out – the best beaches in Costa Rica

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Jenny Cahill-Jones

With five percent of the world’s total biodiversity, Costa Rica is a fascinating destination. It's packed with abundant natural charms, from ethereal cloud forest to the pounding waves of the Pacific Ocean.

For many, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime destination, a chance to experience a host of different microclimates and spot rare rainforest creatures. And the best way to process the all the colourful memories? A quiet day or two at the beach. And even the beaches are widely varied in this beguiling country – you’ll find everything from rugged surf spots to white sand Caribbean charmers.

Although this list could have been twice as long (easily!) here we offer a few places to start when it comes to exploring the best beaches in Costa Rica..

Playa Manuel Antonio is also known as Playa Tres © Christian Hartmann / Shutterstock

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.

Getting There

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.

Where to stay

Gaia Hotel and Reserve - This ultra-chic boutique hotel takes style and service to the next level. Well-appointed terraced suites and villas, decked with natural flooring, come with huge, cloud- soft beds, flat-screen TVs and rainforest views. There are two pools, one cascading into the other, and you could quite easily eat all your meals at the fine restaurant, with its varied menu and globetrotting wine list. Room rates include breakfast and a free treatment at the on-site spa. No under-13s.

What to do

Discover the suspension bridges at Rainmaker Mountains and observe the local flora and fauna, with a refreshing dip in a waterfall at the end of the tour.

An aerial 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.

Getting There

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.

Getting There

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.

Getting There

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.

Where to stay

The Backyard Beachfront Hotel - The top choice for surfers with money, the sprightly rooms in this beachfront hotel have a/c, TVs and bathrooms. You can do laps in the swimming pool, just outside your balcony, party at the popular bar and restaurant next door (see below) and enjoy one of Hermosa’s best surf breaks on your doorstep.

What to do

Go on an adventure in Jaco - fly through the jungle on an extensive zipline before driving an ATV on muddy trails and through rivers.

An olive ridley turtle on Playa Ostional © Xenia_Photography / Shutterstock

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Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Ostional

The coffee-coloured beach at Ostional is one of the most important nesting sites in Costa Rica for the olive ridley turtle. Female olive ridley turtles return en-masse in September and October to the place they were born to lay eggs, in a phenomenon known as arrabida, or arrival. Each arrabida can last 12 hours, as thousands upon thousands of turtles climb out of the waves to dry land to lay their eggs. As many as 11 million eggs are laid during this time. For many, spotting wildlife in its natural habitat is a top reasons to travel. If that's you, you’ll be wowed by the annual spectacle. We don't recommend swimming at Ostional, especially during nesting season. The presence of so many turtles can draw sharks to the area.

Getting There

Ostional is located in Guanacaste Province, 15 minutes by car from the village of Nosara. Note that there’s no organised taxi service or regular public transport in the area.

Where to stay

Hotel Boutique Lagarta Lodge - Set on the edge of the Reserva Biológica Nosara (see opposite) southwest of the village, this high-end lodge has excellent birdwatching and stunning coastal views. The stylish en suites above the pool overlooking the ocean boast one of the best panoramas in the country. There’s a spa, and a great restaurant-bar and they can also help you arrange a car or transport to Ostional.

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