No matter which side of Costa Rica you choose, whether it’s the Pacific or the Caribbean side, there is a great chance you’ll find a beach to make your eyes grow wide.
In Costa Rica, you’ll find beaches with white sand and black lava-hued sand, tree-lined coves and flat strands stretching for miles, beaches with consistent waves that beckon the world’s best surfers, and roomy beaches on protected marine sanctuaries with water so calm you could snorkel all day. And since it’s a relatively small country, you explore several of the best Costa Rica beaches in one vacation.
Map of the best Costa Rica beaches
The yellow umbrellas on the left are the beaches on Costa Rica’s Pacific Ocean side, whereas the ones on the right open to the Caribbean Sea.
The best Pacific Coast beaches in Costa Rica
Playa Nacascolo, Papagayo Peninsula
The posh Papagayo Peninsula lies at the northern end of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, not far from the border with Nicaragua. This region is appealing for several reasons, but the primary one is how dry the climate is relative to areas farther south. Even during the wet season (from May to September), the rains rarely last all day — meaning you have plenty of time to soak up the sun.
The Papagayo Peninsula is renowned for its swanky resorts, but low-key accommodations are also available. And if people-watching poolside at the Four Seasons is not your thing, no problem. There are dozens of adventurous activities nearby, from water sports to wildlife sanctuaries. And then there are the beaches, all of them public, as per Costa Rican law.
But since most of the land on the peninsula aside from the beaches is privately owned, beaches like Playa Manzanillo, Playa Blanca, and Playa Cabuyal are never crowded. Of the Papagayo beaches, a top choice for a first-time visit is Playa Nacascolo. It’s a serene, natural haven inside Culebra Bay not connected to any of the high-end resorts.
Playa Conchal, Tamarindo
Tamarindo is a terrific place to surf, go horseback riding, or even take an adventure tour on the river. But as one of the earliest beaches in Costa Rica to draw travelers, development once ran rampant, and now you’ll spot US fast food chains on its main street. But it has everything you’d need and many accommodations, including one where howler monkeys hang out on the verandas and the outdoor breakfast area is covered in iguanas — so it’s still quite appealing.
If you have time, take a boat across the river to Playa Grande, which is far less crowded than Tamarindo’s main beach. It’s an excellent place for an extremely long walk, as well as a turtle nesting ground, so treat it with care. The best beach in this area is Playa Conchal, just a 45-minute drive from Tamarindo over a coastal headland in a secluded bay. The name literally means “beach of shells” since its sand is mostly tiny crushed seashells. The Westin Resort is nearby, but it’s still marvelously empty nearly all the time.
Playa Guiones, Nosara
Travelers are still in Guanacaste Province (the country’s northwesternmost province). Nosara is actually the name of a town further inland, but when North America travelers talk about Nosara, they’re usually referring to the charming beach town on Guiones Beach — a three-mile long stretch that draws surfers from around the world. It’s even home to an impressive women’s surf community. The lengthy beach is perfect for a long afternoon walk, potentially to Playa Pelada, roughly four kilometers south.
Like many beaches in Costa Rica, shoreline development is prohibited and no buildings can be higher than the treeline to protect nesting sea turtles.They use the moon for navigation and would be disoriented if that lunar light is blocked. There’s also a benefit for surfers: if you’re on your surfboard in the water, you’ll see nothing but lush greenery covering the hills when you look back at shore. And in the nearby town of Nosara, there are plenty of outdoor bars and cafes if you want to end your beach day with a fresh fruit smoothie or a cocktail.
Playa Hermosa, Jaco
While most Costa Rica beaches may have white or tan sand, there are a few black sand beaches. That’s to be expected, as volcanoes — many of them still active — bisect the country. Playa Hermosa is a big draw as far as Costa Rica Pacific coast black beaches go because, as the name suggests, it is quite lovely. It’s also a World Surf Reserve, a designation awarded to beaches for their efforts to preserve the natural and marine environment and protect its waves from ruinous coastal development.
The volcanic rock sand at Playa Hermosa is actually more like a dark grey, but the color is distinctive. That said, if you’re in the Jaco area and just want to dip your toes into pale sand, drive 30 minutes north of Jaco to Punta Leones to find Playa Blanca. It’s a beautiful tree-lined cove, and if you know your Spanish, then you’ll know the sand is white.
Playa Manuel Antonio, Manuel Antonio National Park
It’s not just beaches Costa Rica has in spades: it’s also chock-full of national parks. In fact, 25 percent of the country is protected land. Manuel Antonio certainly ranks as one of the top national parks in the country, not just for its 100 mammal species (including four types of monkeys) but also because of its coastal location.
Within Manuel Antonio National Park are four hikable beaches: the petite little Playitas; Playa Escondido; Espadilla Sur (located on one side of a mini-peninsula that ends at the mushroom-cap-shaped Cathedral Point), and the eponymous Manuel Antonio Beach, on the other side of the said peninsula.
All of the beaches are beautiful enough to make you do a double take, but if you have to choose one, go with the park’s namesake beach. It’s one of the best spots for spotting marine life before enjoying a leisurely afternoon in the sun. It’s in a small, protected bay, so you can usually count on warm and clear water perfect for snorkeling.
Playa Uvita, Marino Ballena National Park
No list of the best beaches in Costa Rica would be complete without at least one option in the stunning national park of Marino Ballena, which encompasses nine miles of coastline and 13,000 acres of ocean. On a map, it looks like a whale’s tail (hence the name). Rent or bring snorkeling gear to explore the coral reef just a short swim from shore.
While Playa Arco has a waterfall, the arguably best beach here is Playa Uvita. Its broad shore is perfect for a long walk while you catch humpback whales breaching offshore. It’s also well-known as a prime spot for watching sunsets, since the beach is flat and the shallow water stretches far over the sand. It makes the sand light up in the same blaze of colors as the vivid sky it’s reflecting.
Playa Llorona, Corcovado National Park
The Osa Peninsula is widely considered one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. It’s one of the top places to explore in a country full of top places, and Drakes Bay is home to one of the most popular resorts Costa Rica (La Paloma). That means the peninsula’s Corcovado National Park unites two things that make this Central American country so special: natural treasures and coastal beauty.
After you’ve visited one of the world’s oldest forests within the national park, head to the beach. While you could do no wrong hanging out at Playa Sirena or the park’s namesake Playa Corcovado, take a trek over to Playa Llorona, preferably at low tide, since it’s a tiny beach. Playa Llorona means “crying beach” or “crybaby beach.” It’s so named for the lovely waterfall that cascades down to its soft sand.
The best Caribbean beaches in Costa Rica
Playa Grande, Manzanillo, Limón Province
If you’re after a beach with undeveloped shores and true “wait, are we actually on a desert island?” vibes, look no further than the country’s Playa Grande. Locals usually refer to the whole area as “Playa Manzanillo” since it’s close to the town of Manzanillo on the country’s southern Caribbean coast — but there’s technically another Playa Manzanillo on the Pacific Coast, so make sure you’re not mixing the two up if you’re booking travel or accommodations.
The beach is wide and smooth, with plenty of areas to lay out a towel and few rocks or roots. It’s one of the best Costa Rica beaches in the southern part of the country and is near Punta Uva, which also has postcard-worthy vistas. And if you need a break from the sun, head to the Refugio Nacional Gandoca-Manzanillo (Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge), which protects everything from sea turtles to sloths to crocodiles, toucans, and tapirs. And it’s a top spot for birdwatching in the country, too.
Playa Negra, Cahuita
The name gives away what to expect at Playa Negra: black sand. It’s one of the only black sand beaches in Costa Rica and just a short bike ride from Puerto Viejo, where tourists have plenty of options for lodging and dining. Just north of the town is Cahuita National Park (well-known for scuba diving and snorkeling on shipwrecks), and the famous Jaguar Rescue Center is only 15 minute south.
The water at Playa Negra is usually calm enough for swimming and playing in the surf. But if it’s a little windy, you’re still in luck as small waves here are ideal for learning to surf. As with a few Costa Rica beaches on this list, Playa Negra is one of two beaches that share the same name. Be sure you’re looking at the Playa Negra on the Caribbean side, not the Guanacaste/Pacific side, when booking your hotels. And if you’re a digital nomad, look into the Selina co-working and co-living space in nearby Puerto Viejo, which has yoga and surf lessons for guests.
Playa Salsa Brava (north of Playa Cocles), Limón Province
Most of the best Costa Rica beaches earned their reputation by offering acres of soft sand, usually lapped by gentle waves.
But Playa Salsa Brava is the exception: the waves here are decidedly not gentle. But that’s great news for surfers, who flock to the beach to take advantage of arguably the biggest and best surf break on Costa Rica’s Caribbean side. It has a shallow reef, so the waves may look “small” — but they’ll get much bigger as they near the shore. March and April are prime time for the big waves.
This is still one of the most fun beaches in Costa Rica to visit if you’re not a surfer. Just grab a cold beer at one of the laid-back nearby beach bars and watch the expert surfers do their thing. Of course, non-surfers will enjoy the beach as long as they stay away from the big waves, especially since it’s lined with palms to provide plenty of shade. Just watch for falling coconuts.
Playa Bonita, Limón
Most of the best Caribbean beaches in Costa Rica are fairly far south, requiring a somewhat long drive along narrow roads. But if you only have an extra day or two to spend exploring beaches on Costa Rica’s Caribbean side, head to Play Bonita (“beautiful beach”) in downtown Limón. It’s only about five miles from the airport, making it easy to fly in, check in to a beachfront Caribbean resort, and be lying on the beach in less than an hour.
Aside from the beaches, Limón has quite a lot to offer as a destination. The city is home to attractions like Veragua Rainforest Park and the Buttercup Center for Sloths, as well as the starting point for Costa Rican adventures like whitewater rafting and banana plantation tours.
But back to the beaches: Playa Bonita is a bit on the small side, but it’s never as crowded as major beaches on the Pacific Side. There are usually a few vendors on the beach renting umbrellas and beach chairs. But the big draw is snorkeling, since there’s a reef very close to shore. It’s easy to identify species like parrotfish and angelfish, but you may also see rarer species like sawfish or long-snout seahorses.