South of the Santa Rosa National Park (reachable from Liberia), the two-kilometer-long gray, but clean, sand beach of Playa Hermosa stretches along the Golfo de Papagayo. Many private vacation houses line the curved bay, and hotels of all categories offer overnight accommodations. These tend to be heavily booked on weekends and during peak vacation periods. Surfboards, kayaks, snorkeling equipment and mountain bikes are for rent at the entrance to the town, and fishing enthusiasts and divers can find boats for hire. At the northern end of the street, three kilometers from Playa Hermosa, is the less developed idyllic beach of Playa Panama. At present there is only a small shop selling food and a beach bar, but all that could soon change. Plans for the development of Playa Panama are just waiting in the filing cabinets of big investors, and the mighty brazilwood and mesquite trees will soon give way to their bulldozers.
The Playa Panama joins the twokilometer gray sand beach of Bahia Culebra. The bay is lined with low bush covered hills and small mangrove swamps in which birds nest. The Pacific is so deep in this bay that it is said U.S. submarines anchored here undetected during World War II. The ruins of a preColumbian Indian settlement near Nacascolo are an easy walk away at the western end of the bay.
The neighboring town of Puerto Culebra is reachable via a new street that now connects it to Bahia de Culebra. The gigantic and controversial Papagayo project, consisting of yacht harbors, hotels and apartment complexes, was to have been built here, but so far only a few smaller luxury hotels, such as the Malinche Real Beach Resort and the Costa Smeralda Hotel have been realized.
The beaches closest to Liberia, which lies 35 kilometers to the east, are the Playas del Coco, accessible by bus via Comunidad and Sardinal, or easily reached by car. These beaches attract local young Ticos rather than foreign tourists, in part because, unlike many of the other beaches surrounding the village of Coco, these playas provide entertainment – day and night. Despite a strong undertow and sand that is not always clean and well maintained, the crowds seem to love the Playas del Coco and go there in ever increasing droves.
It sometimes seems that the number of beachgoers is well over any acceptable limit. Several simple cabins, hotels and campgrounds make a stay of a few days here possible.
Just three kilometers southwest of the Playas del Coco, almost vertical cliffs reach skyward. This is where the less frequented Playa El Ocotal lies almost hidden and reachable only by a rather poor road. In addition to good swimming conditions and few bathers, this beach provides a good area for snorkeling at its south end. The water is crystal clear and filled with soft coral, and is inhabited by colorful tropical fish and tiny sea horses. The best place to start underwater exploration along this 500-meter-long beach is to swim out in the direction of the rocky 14-kilometer-distant Santa Catalina Island. The island is easy to reach by boat. From March to September special kinds of sea swallows nest on the island.
Sport fishing enthusiasts regard the Playa El Ocotal as the gateway to the Golfo de Papagayo. They prefer to stay at the sport fishing resorts of Las Corndas and El Ocotal, and go to sea from the fishing village in boats especially equipped for deep-sea fishing in hopes of hooking a black marlin or hawkfish.
A modest road leads from the Playa El Ocotal via Zapotal, past Playa Pan de Azucar (Sugar Loaf Beach) and La Penca, which is generally known as Playa Blanca, both of which are good for snorkeling. A bit further is the twokilometer-long white sand beach of Playa Flamingo Potrero. Both local and foreign visitors claim this to be one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches and call it the “Acapulco of Costa Rica.” The name, Playa Flamingo (after the Flamingo Beach Hotel), is the clever marketing idea of the resort’s local investors. Far and wide, there are no flamingos to be seen.
Playa Flamingo is more exclusive than other Pacific coast beaches in the northwest. Well-to-do Costa Ricans and Americans have built their elegant villas along the beach. International sports fishing enthusiasts followed on their heels and soon turned Playa Flamingo into the base for the largest sport fishing fleet in Costa Rica. Its harbor is busy throughout the year. Anyone arriving from international waters by yacht, however, has to complete customs formalities at Playas del Coco before entering the shallow water of Playa Flamingo. The accommodations along the beach fall, without exception, into the luxury category with prices to match.
The tiny Playa Brasilito, with its little fishing village of the same name, borders on the “Acapulco of Costa Rica.” Small shops, restaurants, inexpensive accommodations and the possibility of horseback riding from the La Perla restaurant attract vacationers willing to brave the less than romantic road to Playa Brasilito. Its white sand beach is also fabulously beautiful but not developed for tourism.
Playa Brasilito runs south to the rocky spit of land called Punta Conchal (Shell Point). The Pacific surf sweeps lots of shells onto the sparking white sand, which always seems freshly washed. In addition to swimming and sunbathing, this beach is a good place to take long walks and gather some very exotic looking shells. A parasol provides a bit of shade, the shallow turquoise blue water laps at your feet and soon – who would have imagined anything else – the Playa Brasilito connects to another dream beach, Playa Conchal. Locals discovered Playa Conchal as a vacation destination only a few years ago, and plan to expand its facilities. In 1996, Sol Melia, the Spanish hotel chain, built a resort directly on the fine white sand beach. The sprawling Melia Playa Conchal Beach and Golf Resort has 300 luxury suites, an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, a fitness center and a diving school.
Playa Grande, popular with surfers for its long smooth waves, is on the road that goes through the villages of Puerto Viejo and Matapalo. Nature lovers also find many attractions nearby. A 400hectare mangrove swamp at its southern end provides shelter for the crocodiles and sea birds that find an ideal habitat in its shade and brackish water.
Leatherback turtles come to Playa Grande to lay their eggs, and environmentalists have succeeded in obtaining protected status for the beach, despite a 10-year wrangle with developers who attempted to build resort facilities on it. The beach has been administered by the National Park Service since 1990.