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May 11, 2009

Costa Rica's Best Caribbean Beaches

PlayaChiquita
I snapped this photo of Playa Chiquita at sunset looking southeast toward Punta Uva and Panama.

by Alex C. Pasquariello

We've told you about Banana Azul and Aguas Claras, a couple of gems straddling the rasta-hippie enclave of Puerto Viejo on Costa Rica's south Caribbean Coast. I just got back from a week in this tropical paradise, where the jungle-backed beaches are the real draw. Here's the lowdown on the four best beaches, all within a rented-bike ride of Puerto Viejo.

Playa Negra is a peaceful expanse of black sand that curls from Cahuita National Park south into Puerto Viejo. The farther north you stray from town, the more deserted the beach gets; you won't have to hike to far to find your own patch of sand. Best of all, the palm trees fringing the length of Playa Negra are perfectly spaced for hammocks. Banana Azul, which is tucked into the jungle between Puerto Viejo and Cahuita, rents them out or you can pick up one on the cheap from the vendors along Puerto Viejo's main drag.

About a mile south of Puerto Viejo, Playa Cocles is the surfing spot. On weekends and holidays this beach is hopping, starting first thing in the morning when the waves are ripe. Despite its popularity, the white-sand beach is beautiful because the small, mostly family-run hotels backing it have put together a community group that keeps it clean and trains local lifeguards to patrol the waters. I don't have a picture of Cocles because I was too busy surfing its sweet, hollow waves. There's no territorial surf-dude attitude here; the break is long enough that local hotshots and tourist newbies can coexist in peace. Plus, a lot of the scene's best surfers are entrepreneurs on the side, offering lessons and rentals right on the beach. I met up with the guys at Hotel Totem, a funky little lodge on Playa Cocles, for some instruction. If you're looking for laid-back accommodations where you can plug in to the local surf scene, this is the place.

Another mile or so south is Playa Chiquita, an idyllic sliver of sand perfect for living out your shipwrecked-on-a-desert-isle fantasy. This beach stays off the radar thanks to its unmarked entrance and the fact that from the main road you can't see the beach through the trees. You know you're almost there when you get to Aguas Claras, which has its own little footpath from its colorful cabanas to Playa Chiquita. Even if you're not staying there, pop in at its café, Miss Holly's Kitchen, for a cup of joe, a bite to eat, and directions to the beach (and Wi-Fi, if you must). You can see in the above photo that the jungle almost gobbles up the beach. This actually provides a lot of nice shade throughout the day, so you can relax or fall asleep to the rhythmic lapping waves without frying yourself to a crisp.

Everybody I talked to from Cahuita to Puerto Viejo told me that Punta Uva is one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica, and they're probably right. It's certainly the best swimming beach in the area, with calm, warm water. It's also one of the best snorkeling spots on the south Caribbean coast thanks to a healthy reef that includes a fine collection of brain and elkhorn corals right off shore. It was the perfect place to play around with one of my toys, a waterproof case for my Flip Ultra camcorder. I was a little herky-jerky with the Flip underwater, so my video doesn't really convey the stunning tranquillity of this ecosystem. The water was also a bit cloudy from a storm that rolled through the night before. But it affords a taste of what you can expect at Punta Uva.

Alex C. Pasquariello is a senior assistant editor at Condé Nast Traveler.

Further reading:
* More Sun for the Money: Affordable beach vacations
* Dispatches: On the road

Comments

You guys are wonderful. Local media in Costa Rica always gives Caribbean coast such a bad rap. Most of this bad image stems from decades of racism in Costa Rica against the Jamaican immigrants.

The more adventurous travelers that make it to Caribbean are pleasant surprised and really are happy they made the journey.

one small correction... Banana Azul does not charge for hammocks on the beach. They let anyone use them.

sshhhhh... I thought this was my little secret. Oh well, now that the word is out be sure to bring good spirit, love of nature and warmth of heart. Cranky people stay back!

Greening of Hacienda Matapalo


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