We heard it was a beautiful and diverse country. But we were also warned that it would be expensive and the most similar to North America of all the countries in the region. Because of this, we originally planned to avoid this popular tourist destination and spend our entire holiday in Panama. However, due to our travel plans, it only made sense to fly out of the capital, San Jose, rather than backtracking to Panama City on our return trip home. And oh are we ever happy we did so.
Costa Rica shines like a sparkling gem amongst the rest of Central America's gritty diamonds in the rough. The original ex pat paradise, Costa Rica received decades of attention, in the form of investments, development and tourist dollars ahead of the other countries in the region. Combine this with a government that had the foresight to preserve 50% of its wild country as park land for future tourists to invest in and enjoy, and you have the recipe for the Hawaii of Central America.
The sun kisses you in warm gold. The waves break into thousands of tiny, glistening diamonds. The locals have skin dripping with honey, long sun bleached locks and exotic emerald eyes. The streets (where we visited) are free of garbage, the humidity is manageable and there is always a warm tropical breeze.
And those beaches...
When we arrived in Central America earlier this month we still had no idea of where we would end up in Costa Rica, and only planned as far ahead as the government required plane ticket out of Panama. Serendipity stepped in and we were tipped off on the tiny town of Playa Grande by an east coast Canadian couple staying at our hotel in Santa Catalina. They had stayed in Playa Grande the year before and their description was just what we were looking for. A small town with a mellow vibe, just outside the tourist hub of Tamarindo, featuring a two mile long beach break just steps from the hotel. They had us at mellow. We snagged the last room at Las Tortugas and booked our flight with Nature Air.
Fast forward two weeks and we touched down at the Tamarindo airport expecting the typical Central American mob of taxi drivers looking to grab a fare. Instead, we landed on a farmers field and were greeted by a heard of disinterested milking cows. The tiny plane wobbled in the wind, landed on a mini strip of tarmac, squeeled on the brakes and did a u turn on the dirt to drop us off. No taxis and no fan fare, just a wee office and a few vacationers in flip flops picking up or dropping off their friends and family. A man in a white suburban claiming to be a taxi driver offered us a ride for double the going rate. We balked, he caved and we threw our packs in the SUV breaking one of the golden rules of travel: never take a ride with an unmarked taxi. At the last minute I dashed back to the 'airport' and asked the desk gal if the hombre could be trusted. "Oh yes. He is a taxi driver. It's different here." With a little wink and a smile she built my confidence and off we went into the warm afternoon wind in the burban.
He quickly turned off the main road and took us on a 'short cut' down a dusty, dirt road, past shacks and farms, keeping our spidey sense on alert. But it was all good in the end and within thirty minutes we were zipping through the sleepy town of Playa Grande. We passed two or three shops and a few driveways and were wondering if 'that was it?' as we pulled into the little oasis of Las Tortugas at the end of the road.
Playa Grande sits just two miles to the north of Tamarindo but it could exist a universe away. Separated by a crocodile infested river it takes about 40 minutes to walk, 15 minutes to pedal or thirty minutes to drive around the river and surrounding park lands. A mandatory water taxi takes you across the river to save you from a croc fight and lighten your wallet by 500 colones ($1USD). On the map Playa Grande looks like another park and long strip of beach protected as a turtle reserve. But tucked in the jungle just ten to twenty metres from shore are hidden tourist homes, bungalows for rent and small hotels with funky adjoining restaurants. This is a unique zone where turtles live alongside tourists in a balancing act of beach time. By day the beach is filled with sun goddesses and surf lovers. But at night the humans get the boot and the turtles are queen of the darkness.
From October until March, 1200 pound leatherbacks haul their massive bodies up above high tide to dig their nests and give their offspring the best chance at life they have to offer. The giants will return up to nine times in the same season to bury their 'clutches' of precious cargo with no tools other than their huge awkward flippers. Playa Grande IS a park and the wardens take its protection seriously. Tourists are forbidden to be on the beach after sundown unless accompanied by a guide to ensure the safety of the protected turtles, which are on the brink of extinction. Hatcheries and markers are spread out along the beach and volunteers and staff monitor the turtle's, by counting them and tracking their progress on a daily basis. Our sunrise walks on the beach always revealed birth stories from the night before. Each morning we would find massive tracks leading to crater sized sand pits just above the high tide line. With a wisdom beyond our understanding, these ancient sea creatures battle obstacles on their long journey home. A few years ago we witnessed a turtle returning to her beach in Nicaragua to lay her eggs above the high tide in the night. It was a powerful experience and one that I would recommend if and while you still have the chance.
But Playa Grande is home to more than giant turtles. It's beautiful beaches also have humans returning year after year. One of Costa Ricas best beach breaks sits metres from the end of the main road, directly in front of Las Tortugas hotel and the local taco stand, Taco Star. And although the main break is absolutely packed at high tide from December to April, you only need to walk five minutes in either direction to find your own private wave and secluded piece of paradise. Set up, chill out and play in the waves for an hour or for the entire day. If two miles of soft, brown sugar sand isn't enough to keep you occupied then you can stroll north to explore the next beach...or the next beach... Or, you can stroll south to experience the craziness of tourist trap Tamarindo aka: mini Puerto Vallarta.
On our second morning we rented cruiser bikes from local guide and all round nice guy Johnathan, and made the trip across the crocodile river to Tamarindo. And one day was definitely more than enough. Rows of beach chairs in the sun, massage tables in the shade, horses, vendors, surf schools and hoards of sunburned tourists bobbing in the sea had us staring in awe at the Mexico style scene. Pretty much a mini PV without the sea of garbage and parasail dudes selling rides from the beach. We got our groceries from a mini mercado and cash from the ATM and got out of dodge, happy to put the crocodiles between the crazy town and our bit of paradise. If you like action, bars, endless restaurant choices and shopping opportunities, however, you will love Tamarindo!
In contrast, Playa Grande is a ghost town compared to the hopping scene in Tamarindo but still had everything we needed. We rented boards from Mano's surf shop, rented bikes from Johnathan at our hotel and picked up snacks and drinks at the local Wil-Mart a few minutes pedal down the road in the Palm Beach estates neighbourhood. Yup. 'Wil-Mart' is in town and they have all the snacks and supplies you need.
We spent our days strolling the beaches, fishing at the point, climbing big turtle rock, cruising on bilkes through the side roads, spotting howler monkeys, tracking turtles, watching butterflies, surfing at high tide, lounging poolside at low tide and swinging in hammocks in the shade when we just couldn't take the heat any longer. It was a lazy but perfect way to spend the final week of our holiday.
And we finally got our fill of good tipico (local dishes) and limonadas! Although there are a few good options for dining out in Playa Grande we found ourselves returning day after day to our own restaurant in the hotel. Tasty food at the best prices in town and only steps from the pool made it hard to beat.
At first I wasn't so sure about Costa Rica. Compared to our new love, Panama, it seemed too polished and pricey for us at first glance. But we soon realized the perks of prosperity benefitted us as well as the locals. Costa Rica is about 30-50% more expensive than the other Central American countries, but with some research and planning it would still be possible to keep the budget in check while enjoying n extended vacation here. Although we only visited one tiny dot on the map of Costa Rica, we got a good feel for why travellers flock and families invest in this country and we already have a long list of the places we will explore...next year😉.
Hotel and restaurant: Las Tortugas http://www.lastortugashotel.com
Surf Shop: Matos https://www.facebook.com/Matos-Surf-Shop-208081972555711/
Bike rentals and tour guide: Johnathan at Las Tortugas
Life is short...find your paradise!