Hard to tell with guide books. Surfing beaches are legendary in Costa Rica, but I prefer calm waters, snorkeling, no rip tides, etc. So trying to plan a trip here is DIFFICULT. It is impossible to distinguish reviews when most beaches are described as “beautiful.” I get some guidebooks (at the library no less. Yes, they still exist and they are awesome,) get on the internet and form an opinion that the nicest beaches are in the northwest Guanacaste region. I hear from a friend that after my beach search, I also have to go to the Arenal volcano area for the adventure portion (future article,) so off we go on Operation Beach Search!
We land in Liberia to be closer to our destination. This is a small airport and we are literally outside within minutes of getting off the plane. Our Alamo rental car rep meets us, and then informs us that our car will cost TWICE as much because you can only waive liability insurance online, but it is required in Costa Rica. Turns out this is true. Misleading, but true. Also, get a 4WD, that is non-negotiable in Costa Rica (the rest of the article will make it clear why.)
We get some solid local directions, which is invaluable in a country without any street or highway signs. We’re off to our first search/stop 20 minutes later: Playa Hermosa! I understand that this is one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica. Hermosa actually means beautiful. We get there and it looks quite pleasant and relaxing, maybe a little muddy at the shore, but clear and warm otherwise. Not white sand and Caribbean-like, but still nice. I resign myself that maybe the beaches won’t be amazing. We check into El Velero, a reasonably priced small hotel on the beach, crack a couple of Imperial’s (local beer), order a whole snapper fish lunch, and relax for the afternoon on the beach.
Playa Hermosa as seen from El Valero Hotel restaurant/bar
El Valero whole snapper lunch!
I randomly discover what appears to be an amazing dinner spot, Mario’s. I call for a reservation. Nothing for a week! Am I in NYC? I come to find out it is in a chef’s house with two tables on their front porch. We drive over to beg. No luck. Book it ahead of time and let me know as we are gutted about this and vow to return if only for this!
We wake up early and walk to the north side of Playa Hermosa to check out the tide pools. Turns out you can walk quite a way around the point for a long, healthy walk. Great shelling around there, and we find some truly hermosa, white sand, Baja and California-type water. It is very remote, so there may or may not have been some skinny dipping involved.
Operation Status – Nice beach around the corner from the main beach, thinking positive, but I haven’t found paradise yet.
Sunset on Playa Hermosa
On the way back, we stop at a cool looking beach bar called La Casita del Marisco. The most delicious mixed fish platter a la plancha (means grilled) with onions, peppers, shrimp, calamari, and mahi mahi. A few fruity, blended drinks later, we board the 47’ Ketch Kuna Vela. $75 per person gets you some snacks and all you can drink beer and rum punch. Well, not really all you can drink beer if you are on the boat with a group of 10 Costa Rican 20-somethings like we are and they run out half way through.
La Casita de Marisco Beach Bar and Restaurant and view of Playa Hermosa
The Kuna Vela in Playa Hermosa with the 20-somethings
We actually sailed the whole time, stopped for a nice snorkel, saw dolphins, literally dozens of full-breaching devil rays, and an unbelievable sunset before returning back four hours later. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at another cool looking beach bar called Aqua Sport, where they have a live acoustic guitarist/singer. World’s greatest shrimp quesadilla (seriously, sounds weird, but true) and a few glasses of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc later, we are content.
Aqua Sport Beach Bar and Restaurant in Playa Hermosa
Alas, time to leave Playa Hermosa, quite a relaxing place. Since Playa Hermosa was not as hermosa as I would have liked, I decide to throw another beach into the mix as it is appears to be on the way to our next destination. Playa de Azucar, aka Sugar Beach. The books say this is white sand. I’m skeptical though. It is 75 minutes away, but 50 minutes via the 911 road and “Monkey Trail” to Sugar Beach, which apparently is ok if you are in a 4WD. Save 25 minutes and go way more direct, easy decision!
2.5 hours later, we arrive at Sugar Beach. Why so long? Because there are no road signs and GPS cuts out all over the place, so we got lost several times. Lesson learned, stick to major roads, no matter what a map or Google tells you! But all’s well that ends well, we arrive at Sugar Beach. In the end though, it is a similar beach to Hermosa. A beautiful surf break, tons of Pelicans floating and flying around. We have some lunch, a few fruity, blended cocktails (sense a pattern?) and go for a quick dip and take off.
Operation Status – Still looking…
Our actual next stop is Brasilito, a quaint, small, fishing village with a very poor beach reputation (the word grey is used.) Why stop here? It is in between two other beaches that sound the most promising, but they are pretty much dominated by big resorts and we have a car, so we decide to stay in between. This is our last hope!
On our way, we figure out we are going to pass by one of the aforementioned beaches, Playa Flamingo. This is actually written up as THE best beach, with true white sand. No real amenities offered at the beach, so we stop at Coco Loco on the beach for some good food and take a dip. This is pretty close to being a beautiful white sand beach. It is gorgeous!
Operation Status – Not Caribbean, but beautiful, clear, and warm! I think maybe we found it! Not sure if we are gonna do better.
Flamingo Beach as seen from Coco Loco and my coconut drink and shells
After an hour or so, we head 5 minutes further south down the road to Brasilito and check into the very cute Conchal Hotel. $75/night gets you a large room, king size bed, very friendly staff, and one of the best restaurants in Costa Rica (no joke), named Papaya. Dinner is greek salad, lobster, rib eye imported from Nicaragua (Costa Rican cows are very skinny, not sure one could even feed me), with an amazing coconut cake for dessert.
I should say that before dinner we took a walk around town and down to Brasilito Beach. We expect this to be grey and dumpy according to the guide books. We are pleasantly surprised to see it is actually quite similar to Playa Hermosa, which we found wholly adequate for the most part…
Operation Status – Expected to still be looking and still looking…
Papaya restaurant with rib eye with shrimp and lobster
An ample, fresh continental breakfast is included with the room, but I opt for the $5 supplement charge in Papaya and have the best Huevos Rancheros I have ever had. We will end up eating most of our meals here, why mess with perfection! Anyway, I next get picked up for my two-tank dive at Catalina Islands with Pacific Coast Dive Center. I’m skeptical because visibility is not good in the Pacific. But immediately, we have two giant, I am talking 10-plus feet across, Manta Rays circling above us during half of the dive. We also see white-tipped reef sharks, countless green and spotted eels, two huge sea horses (relatively, they were 6 inches,) an octopus, small sea slugs, puffer fish, and trigger fish. Way better diving than I expected. Visibility was better than usual, maybe 20-30 feet. Not Caribbean quality, but definitely adequate.
Back to lounging by the pool and I am plotting to get back to Playa Flamingo. I decide to inquire about our other target beach just south of here, Playa Conchal. The friendly Spanish couple running the hotel temporarily say that Playa Conchal is more beautiful than Playa Flamingo. Oh really now! To get there, you actually drive on Brasilito beach, round a corner up a pretty steep grade and voila! On the other side, a stunningly beautiful beach. The beach sand is actually made of tiny and not so tiny shell pieces, so a beautiful white/rosey color. The water is similar to the Caribbean with gorgeous rock formations, crystal clear water, various shades of green, blue, and aqua. It is also very relaxed and down to earth. Ticos (locals) have umbrellas and chairs for rent, as well as a grill going and a cooler filled with drinks and beers. All at reasonable prices. We stay there all day. And we are happy.
Playa Conchal very close up of the shell sand. It is crazy cool!
Final Operation Status – We find the paradise we are looking for: Playa Conchal! Overall, even though I think this is #1, Playa Hermosa area also has a lot offer. Stay in Brasilito as we did, but skip Sugar Beach, so little change to a great itinerary in search of the perfect beach.
Dinner back at Papaya and we wake up refreshed to hit the road for Arenal and the adventure part of the vacation. Stay tuned for Part 2!