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The Best Beach In Costa Rica: What To Know About The Central Pacific Beaches

The Best Beach In Costa Rica: What To Know About The Central Pacific Beaches

NOTE: The content on this page was last updated on July 15th, 2017.

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ABOUT THE CENTRAL PACIFIC BEACHES

Choosing a coastal beach area (such as one of Costa Rica’s Central Pacific beaches) to visit during your Costa Rica trip can be a stressful, time consuming, and pull-your-hair-out frustrating part of vacation planning. As we mentioned in our related posts The Best Beach In Costa Rica: What To Know About The Northern Pacific Guanacaste Beaches and The Best Beach In Costa Rica: What To Know About The Nicoya Peninsula Beaches, with a total of 1228km of coastline to offer it is no wonder Costa Rica is known for its countless beach destinations. In those posts we focused on seven of Costa Rica’s Northern Pacific beaches in the Guanacaste province stretching from the Papagayo Gulf down to the ever-popular Tamarindo beach, as well as an additional nine beaches covering the Nicoya Peninsula from Ostional to Tambor. Below, we highlight Costa Rica’s Central Pacific beaches–an additional six beaches (some popular and others remote): Puntarenas, Herradura, Jaco, Espadilla, Manuel Antonio, and Dominical–where the majority of travellers flying into and/or out of Costa Rica’s San Jose (SJO) airport most often plan to visit.

So what is it exactly that makes one beach stand out from the next? After all, we are just talking about sand and water–how different can one stretch of coast be from the next? Actually, quite different. Not only can the texture and colour of sand change from mile to mile, but so too can a number of other beach factors that could impact a visitor’s overall experience. For this reason, we aim to identify some of the advantages and disadvantages of each Costa Rica beach area according to a number of different factors (including the beach’s degree of popularity with tourists, its proximity to towns offering dining, shopping, and tour options, and its distance from the nearest airport, to name a few) in order to help travellers compare the various options and decide on a beach that is perfect for them.

Central Pacific beaches
Playa Jaco

CENTRAL PACIFIC BEACHES: PLAYA JACO

Location in proximity to other Central Pacific beaches: located north of Playa Manuel Antonio and south of Playa Herradura

Distance from San Jose: 100km (approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes)
Closest Town: Jaco
Beach Status: public beach
Type of Sand: light brown sand, smooth beach

Selling Points

  1. For those travellers looking to visit a popular beach town, Playa Jaco is a great choice. This town is one of the most vibrant and populated areas along the central pacific coast, especially when compared to its neighbouring beaches (Herradura and Hermosa). Travellers who choose to stay at accommodations in town have access to a variety of dining and shopping options–the majority of which are within walking distance to the beach.
  2. Playa Jaco is the bar or “disco” capital of Costa Rica. For those travellers looking for an active nightlife, Jaco is an ideal location in which to find it!
  3. Since Playa Jaco caters to young travellers, the area offers many inexpensive accommodation options. Although superior and resort-quality accommodations do exist, these are overshadowed by the abundance of economy and standard accommodation options targeting backpackers and travellers with a limited budget.
  4. Travellers looking to participate in a number of tours/activities during their time at the beach will find a variety in Playa Jaco. Most of the tour operators in this town also service nearby beaches, however transportation to/from these other beaches and Playa Jaco is not always included with the tour cost. For this reason, Playa Jaco is a good choice for those individuals who will not have a rented vehicle and would prefer to stay in a popular town where tour offices can be reached on foot.
  5. Playa Jaco is a long beach. Although it is popular and attracts quite a few visitors, its length allows visitors to spread out down the coast providing beach-goers with the feeling that the area is less busy than it actually is.

Disadvantages

  1. Given its popularity, Playa Jaco is more of a rocking beach town than a quiet, coastal retreat. For this reason, although there are many activities that children can participate in, families tend to prefer the more family-friendly feel of nearby Playa Manuel Antonio to the party atmosphere generated in Playa Jaco.
  2. Since Playa Jaco tends to attract younger travellers, the town offers more economy and standard accommodation options than superior and resort-quality stays. For honeymooners and/or travellers looking for higher-class travel experiences, where Playa Jaco succeeds in student nightlife and penny-pinching it fails in the romance and luxury departments.
  3. Since Playa Jaco offers an active nightlife, the town requires travellers to be alert and use common sense while visiting bars, restaurants, and/or the beach after dark.

Recommendations

  1. If a beach town offering a party atmosphere is what you are looking for, than Playa Jaco would be one of the best central pacific beach options for you. Otherwise, if coastal swagger does not play into your trip plans, perhaps a less busy and more intimate beach area would be a better choice.

Extra notes

  1. Recommended day trips from Playa Jaco include visits to Playa Herradura and Playa Manuel Antonio.
Central Pacific beaches
Playa Manuel Antonio

CENTRAL PACIFIC BEACHES: PLAYA MANUEL ANTONIO

Location in proximity to other Central Pacific beaches: located north of Playa Dominical and south of Playa Jaco

Distance from San Jose: 170km (approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes)
Closest Town: Quepos
Beach Status: public beach accessed via paid entry into the Manuel Antonio National Park
Type of Sand: white sand, smooth beach

Selling Points

  1. For those travellers looking to visit a popular beach area without the noise and crowd that beach town centres offer, Manuel Antonio is a great choice. The name Manuel Antonio (taken from the area’s famous beach) has been given to the entire region of land stretching from Quepos to the beach/national park along which one main road runs connecting the two areas. Although this region remains a popular vacation destination from year to year, given that the area’s variety of accommodations, tour operator offices, restaurants, shops, and other local businesses are spread out along the main road, the region rarely feels “full” given that there is no town centre that visitors can occupy at one time.
  2. Manuel Antonio offers everything that travellers could want during their trip, including the perfect balance of commercial development hidden in and among a lush, green, rainforest landscape. Travellers can choose to stay at accommodations located along the mountainside (most of which offer incredible views overlooking the Pacific Ocean) or at an accommodation on beach-level and within walking distance of the Manuel Antonio national park.
  3. Visitors to the Manuel Antonio area instantly gain access to two free public beaches: Playa Espadilla Norte (the main public beach situated outside of the national park) as well as Playa Biesanz (Manuel Antonio’s best known snorkeling spot located a five minute drive or taxi ride from Playa Espadilla).
  4. Travellers looking to participate in a number of tours/activities during their time at the beach will find a variety in Manuel Antonio. Most of the tour operators in this town include round-trip transportation to/from Manuel Antonio accommodations. For this reason, Manuel Antonio is a good choice for those individuals who will not have a rented vehicle and would prefer to stay in an area where getting to/from tour/activity, dining, and shopping options is possible via foot or a short taxi ride.
  5. Playa Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches. Not only does the beach offer some of the nicest sand you will find in the country but its unique area in the heart of the lively Manuel Antonio national park makes it a not-to-miss hot spot.
  6. Depending on your hiking interest and ability, additional beaches can be accessed within the national park including Playa Espadilla (Sur) and Puerto Escondido.

Disadvantages

  1. Playa Manuel Antonio can be a busy beach. It is not only popular for its name and beauty but also for its location. Given that the beach is accessed from inside the national park it is frequented by park visitors on a daily basis. For this reason, the beach can get quite busy during the high/summer season when the country experiences a higher volume of tourism traffic.
  2. Since Playa Manuel Antonio is located within the Manuel Antonio national park, the park entry fee must be paid to access it (this fee is charged upon each entry into the park; come-and-go access into/out of the park is not permitted).

Recommendations

  1. The Manuel Antonio region is known for offering a lot, not a little. If easy access to accommodation, tour/activity, dining, and shopping options is what you are looking for, than the Manuel Antonio area would be the prime central pacific coastal destination for you. Alternatively, travellers looking to stay at a remote location where they can truly “get away from it all” (avoiding other travellers, local businesses, and tourism overall) would likely be put off by everything the Manuel Antonio region has going on. Although Manuel Antonio offers a lot without forcing it in travellers’ faces (the presence of tourism in the area is apparent but not annoying), the fact of the matter is, travellers who would rather stay within the boundaries of their chosen accommodation with little interest in venturing out to explore its surroundings would not benefit from the plethora of detail that is available to be experienced in the Manuel Antonio region. In this case, a different coastal area would be recommended.

Extra notes

  1. Recommended day trips from Playa Manuel Antonio include visits to Playa Espadilla (Norte), Playa Dominical, and Playa Jaco.
Learn more about Playa Manuel Antonio by reading our related blog post:

What To Know About Playa Manuel Antonio Costa Rica (Manuel Antonio Beach)

Central Pacific beaches
Playa Herradura

CENTRAL PACIFIC BEACHES: PLAYA HERRADURA

Location in proximity to other Central Pacific beaches: located north of Playa Jaco and south of Playa Puntarenas

Distance from San Jose: 90km (approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes)
Closest Town: Jaco
Beach Status: public beach
Type of Sand: light brown sand, partly rough/partly smooth beach with stones

Selling Points

  1.  Ideal for those travellers who are looking for a quiet beach to relax at without the distraction of other visitors.

Disadvantages

  1. The Playa Herradura area is home to very few hotels as the coastal area is primarily consumed by the Los Suenos Marriott Resort (and little else). For this reason, visitors who wish to stay at a hotel in the area have a limited selection of accommodation options to choose from.
  2. Playa Herradura offers very few tour/activity options–far less than can be found in nearby Playa Jaco. For this reason, it is not the best beach location for those travellers who wish to participate in many tours and activities during their time at the beach (transportation to/from Playa Herradura is not regularly included with tours run from the Playa Jaco area).

Recommendations

  1. Since some hotel options are located near the beach, it is not required that all visitors have a rental vehicle. However, since the Playa Herradura area offers few dining, shopping, and tour/activity options, it is often recommended that travellers staying in the Playa Herradura area make plans to visit nearby Playa Jaco in order to access additional amenities. In this case, having a rental vehicle is advantageous as travellers can drive themselves to/from Playa Herradura and nearby beach towns, however travellers without a rental vehicle can simply plan to use taxi services to get to/from where they wish to go.

Extra notes

  1. Visitors staying at the Los Suenos Marriott Resort have access to Playa Herradura.
  2. Recommended day trips from Playa Herradura include visits to Playa Jaco and Playa Manuel Antonio.
Central Pacific beaches
Playa Espadilla

CENTRAL PACIFIC BEACHES: PLAYA ESPADILLA (NORTE)

Location in proximity to other Central Pacific beaches: located north of Playa Manuel Antonio and south of Playa Jaco

Distance from San Jose: 170km (approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes)
Closest Town: Quepos
Beach Status: public beach
Type of Sand: light brown sand, smooth beach

Selling Points

  1. Second to Playa Manuel Antonio (where access is restricted to national park entry), Playa Espadilla (Norte) has one of the nicest beaches comprised of light brown sand and a long shore. Its position at the base of the Manuel Antonio mountainside (just outside the Manuel Antonio national park) allows visitors to access great beach-side restaurants and take in the view of the national park’s stunning Punta Catedral–all while watching and listening to monkeys play in the trees.
  2. Given that Playa Espadilla (Norte) is located a hop, skip, and throw away from Playa Manuel Antonio (the former is situated outside of the national park whereas the latter is found inside of it), the selling points (#1-#6) described for Playa Manuel Antonio above apply to Playa Espadilla (Norte) as well. Some of these selling points include a spacious and beautiful beach area matched with favourable proximity to everything a traveller could want while on vacation (i.e., a variety of accommodation, dining, and tour/activity options, additional nearby beach options, and a stunning rainforest backdrop).

Disadvantages

  1. Like Playa Manuel Antonio, Playa Espadilla (Norte) can be a busy beach. Given that the Manuel Antonio national park is such a highlight (and one of those not-to-miss sites), it attracts travellers to the region on a continued basis. For this reason, Playa Espadilla (Norte)–as the main public beach serving the area–can get quite busy during the high/summer season when the country experiences a higher volume of tourism traffic.

Recommendations

  1. Like Manuel Antonio, Playa Espadilla (Norte) is an ideal beach area for travellers who would prefer easy access to a wide variety of accommodation, tour/activity, dining, and shopping options. For those looking for a more secluded vacation, Playa Espadilla (Norte) would not be recommended.

Extra notes

  1. Recommended day trips from Playa Espadilla (Norte) include visits to Playa Manuel Antonio, Playa Jaco, and Playa Dominical.
Central Pacific beaches
Playa Puntarenas

CENTRAL PACIFIC BEACHES: PLAYA PUNTARENAS

Location in proximity to other Central Pacific beaches: located north of Playa Herradura and south of the Nicoya Peninsula

Distance from San Jose: 95km (approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes)
Closest Town: Jaco
Beach Status: public beach
Type of Sand: brown sand, partly rough/partly smooth beach

Selling points

  1. This beach area caters to travellers visiting Costa Rica via cruise ship docks. For visitors who only have a short period of time to spend in the country (usually between 8:00am and 4:00pm), Playa Puntarenas provides a decent beach lined with a few informal restaurants and souvenir stands.

Disadvantages

  1. Playa Puntarenas is a beach area most frequented by local Costa Ricans. Given its proximity to San Jose (geographically it is one of the closest beach areas to the capital city), many Costa Ricans flock to Playa Puntarenas over the weekend and on holidays for some fun in the sun. Although this is not a disadvantage, some international travellers may feel uncomfortable being surrounded by locals and/or visiting a non-touristy beach area where English is not as widely spoken.
  2. Playa Puntarenas is a port town, not a tourist town. Apart from visitors frequenting the area via docking cruise ships (local souvenir vendors will man small stations and tables along the beach in anticipation of such), most travellers do not make a note of adding a stop in the Puntarenas area to their Costa Rica trip itinerary. The town itself is not overly clean (nor does it have the reputation of being safe) and most opt out of a visit to the area in order to experience a different beach further down the coast.
  3. Given that Playa Puntarenas is not a popular tourist destination, the area is home to very few hotels and only a handful of tour/activity options (most of which do not highlight the best Costa Rica has to offer but have been created to offer activity opportunities to cruise stopover visitors). For this reason, it is not the best coastal area for those who wish to choose from a variety of accommodations and/or tours/activities during their time at the beach.

Recommendations

  1. Unless something specific offered in the Playa Puntarenas area catches your eye, an overnight stay (or a longer period of time spent in the area) would likely be better spent elsewhere. Of course, to those who plan to take in Playa Puntarenas as part of their cruise plan’s scheduled port stop, not to worry! There are plenty of activities that have been developed specifically for you to take advantage of given your limited time in the country. For other travellers who have the ability to plan their own in-country vacations however they wish, the quality of travel experience that can be obtained via visits to other coastal areas is worth looking into.

Extra notes

  1. Visitors staying at the Hilton DoubleTree Resort have access to Playa Puntarenas (drive or taxi ride into downtown Puntarenas required).
  2. Recommended day trips from Playa Puntarenas include visits to Playa Herradura, Playa Jaco, and/or inland areas (such as Monteverde).
Central Pacific beaches
Playa Dominical

CENTRAL PACIFIC BEACHES: PLAYA DOMINICAL

Location in proximity to other Central Pacific beaches: located north of Punta Uvita and south of Playa Manuel Antonio

Distance from San Jose: 215km (approximately 4 hours and 15 minutes)
Closest Town: Dominical (small town), Quepos (large town)
Beach Status: public beach
Type of Sand: brown sand; partly rough/partly smooth beach with rocks and other debris

Selling Points

  1. Playa Dominical is a long beach. Although it is popular and can attract quite a few visitors at certain times of the year, its length allows visitors to spread out down the coast providing beach-goers with the feeling that the area is less busy than it actually is.
  2. More than anything else, Playa Dominical is a small surf and yoga town. For anyone looking to surf or practice yoga on a budget and/or with an interest in visiting a small surf/yoga community (as opposed to Costa Rica’s larger surf towns offering more developed and higher quality sites, such as those found in Playa Tamarindo and/or on the Nicoya Peninsula) Playa Dominical is the correct place for you.

Disadvantages

  1. Playa Dominical’s beach is not the most attractive one along the coast. Although not a dirty beach, the rocks and debris spread out across the area prevent it from offering a smooth groundwork you could walk along barefoot. For this reason (and the fact that plenty of light sand and smooth beaches exist merely an hour up the coast), Playa Dominical’s brown-sand beach fails to impress.
  2. Since Playa Dominical tends to attract travellers drawn to the budget-friendly surf and yoga community, the town offers more economy and standard accommodation options than superior and resort-quality stays. For honeymooners and/or travellers looking for higher-class travel experiences, luxury is virtually non-existent in the Playa Dominical neck of the woods.
  3. The Playa Dominical area does not offer travellers a wide variety of tour options (when compared to the countless activity possibilities offered in nearby Playa Manuel Antonio). For this reason, it is not the best beach location for those travellers who wish to participate in many tours and activities during their time at the beach.
  4. Given the laidback and Bohemian feel of Playa Dominical (a product of the relaxed attitude of the area’s inhabitants), Playa Dominical is far more an area to visit if you would prefer to plan your trip as you go and not in advance. Operations in town move at a snail’s pace, and while some travellers love this about the area (pura vida, mae!), others feel more comfortable visiting areas where tourism is practiced in a more organized manner. For this reason, families (especially those with young children) tend to prefer the more family-friendly feel of nearby Playa Manuel Antonio to the laissez-faire atmosphere generated in Playa Dominical.

Recommendations

  1. If a small-town beach feel complete with a handful of surf and yoga opportunities is what you are looking for than Playa Dominical would be the prime central pacific beach location for you. Otherwise, if a cleaner, more organized, and more developed area including a higher degree of tourism interests you, a different coastal area would be the smarter choice.

Extra notes

  1. Recommended day trips from Playa Dominical include visits to Punta Uvita and Playa Manuel Antonio.

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Which of the Central Pacific beaches (Puntarenas to Dominical) is your favourite? Why?

Pura vida!

If you’re more of a visual learner, take a moment to view our gallery photos below from our most recent visits to Costa Rica’s Central Pacific beaches.

Plan to visit one of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula beaches instead? Don’t miss our related blog post:

The Best Beach In Costa Rica: What To Know About The Nicoya Peninsula Beaches

Below is a sample of photos taken at the Nicoya Peninsula beaches you’ll learn about in the above post.

Plan to visit one of Costa Rica’s Northern Pacific Guanacaste beaches instead? Don’t miss our related blog post:

The Best Beach In Costa Rica: What To Know About The Northern Pacific Guanacaste Beaches

Below is a sample of photos taken at the Northern Pacific Guanacaste beaches you’ll learn about in the above post.

Nikki and Ricky

DIY Costa Rica

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