Costa Rica Beaches, Mangroves and Rainforests

Travelers are flocking to Costa Rica these days. Costa Rica has many reasons to visit. As a self-declared ecotourism destination, Costa Rica offers a huge variety of ecosystems and habitats. Let’s Go Learn Things about Costa Rica beaches, mangroves and rainforests….

Costa Rica Diversity

A basic understanding of the various climate zones in Costa Rica will help you plan your itinerary. Often several of these climates are found in one trip up a mountain road.  The elevation changes offer widely different climate zones. A certain level of self-awareness is also helpful. Are you looking for a luxury beach resort, a zen-like mountain retreat, an adrenaline pumping adventure or a hippie surfer paradise? Costa Rica has them all and more. The best known and sought after climate zones are:

  • Tropical beaches
  • Rain forests
  • Cloud forests
  • Jungles
  • Mountains
  • Volcanic remains

With the compact size of Costa Rica you can encounter several of these climates within a 3-4 hour drive from a homebase. However, you need to be reasonable with your expectations. That 3-4 hour drive is a deceptively short distance but typically a very difficult drive. Many Costa Rica travel tips articles warn about difficult driving.  Heed the warnings and plan plenty of daylight hours for your driving.  In addition, you can encounter totally different experiences within similar climate zones. For instance, tropical beaches just in the Central Pacific Coast region ranged from the upscale and luxurious Playa Herradura to the motley surfer hangout of Playa Dominical to the deserted Playa Uvita. Many of the Europeans we met were in the country for 3 weeks or more.  This is probably the amount of time it would take to explore all of the country.

Central Pacific Coast

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we chose to stay just in the central Pacific coast region, close to the Manuel Antonio National Park. This central coast provided a great variety of ecosystems for us to explore on day trips. Let’s take a look at what the actual coastline has to offer.

 

Costa Rica Beaches

Playa Herradura

The personality of each beach varies greatly.  In the northern portion of the central Pacific coast of Costa Rica lays Playa Herradura.  As you can see from the image below, it is quite developed and upscale.  The marina full of yachts and the Marriott Los Suenos dominate the personality of this ritzy beach. We did not visit this area on this trip, but our son has stayed here and appreciated the amenities.

Playa Herradura

Playa Espadilla and the Manuel Antonio National Park beaches

In a previous post I featured the Manuel Antonio National Park.  This park sports 3 beautiful Costa Rica beaches which are accessible only via the park; Playa Escondido, Playa Manuel Antonio, and Playa Espadilla Sur.  These beaches are  very nice, clean and free of vendors, with picnic tables available. The surf on the park beaches is also calmer and more family-friendly.  However, the park costs $16 a person entrance fee and closes promptly at 4 PM.

Just outside of the park, along the very touristy road to the park entrance is Playa Espadilla. This beach is public (no fee) with more exciting surf and typical “beach economy” going on.  There are vendors wanting to sell you anything and everything, the parasails take off here, and the across the street is a line of ticky-tacky t-shirt shops and bars. This beach is open until dark with moderately convenient parking and directly on a the bus route.

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 Playa Dominical

Costa Rica beaches
Dominical a more traditional little Costa Rica surf hangout.

 

As you travel south along the coast you will find another popular beach with a unique personality.  If you are looking for a laid-back surfer paradise, Dominical’s little strip of town is perfect.  There are no Marriotts in town, honestly I didn’t see any building that appeared to be a complete set of four walls. But hey, if the surfs up and the drinks are cold, who really needs four walls.

 

 

 

 

I think hidden in the jungles around the beach were some upscale lodging options. The beach is fun and there were daredevils swinging into the Rio Baru which flows along the village.  Personally, I had seen one too many crocodiles by this time to feel tempted, but it looked fun. Further back up stream about 10 km were the Nauyaca Waterfalls which offered hiking and cool mountain pools.

Playa Uvita and the Marino Ballena National Park

Another 15 km south of Dominical is the village of Uvita and the Marino Ballena National Park.  This park was designated to protect the oceans and coastline along the path of migrating marine life, especially whale. It encompasses 270 acres of beach and coastline, and 13,000 acres of ocean. A ticket into the park is $6 and gives you access to Playa Uvita, Playa Colonia, Playa Ballena, and Playa Piñuela. The beach at Uvita protrudes out into the ocean with a sand bank known as the “whale’s tail”. This whole coastline is prime whale-watching during the migration season ( Southern migration from August to November and Northern migration from December to March).

Costa Rica beaches
Park entrance at Playa Colonia

 

 

 

 

 

There is a very tiny little park building at Playa Uvita and Playa Ballena. We entered at Playa Colonia and found the beach to be very rocky and tough navigate.  I recommend entering at the northern end, Playa Uvita

Mangroves

I love mangroves and the wildlife they nurture. These forests live in brackish, tidal waters and thrive only in tropical temperatures. They serve vital environmental roles and are under constant threat from coastal development. Mangrove forests stabilize the coastline and reduce erosion. The intricate root system of mangroves also creates a safe haven for fish and other organisms seeking food and shelter from predators.

Rio Paquita and Damas Island

After our success with Wilbur, our guide at the Manuel Antonio National Park we decided to go on a mangrove boat tour with him.  We headed out of Manuel Antonio and north of Quepos to what felt like a pretty sketchy little boat launch.  But we are retired and our children grown so if we never returned…Oh Well.

Turns out this was a really fun day.

 We floated down the Rio Paquita through the mangroves, along the tiny Damas Island and out to the mouth of the river and a vast deserted beach. Along the way we enjoyed numerous waterfowl, lizards and white-faced capuchin monkeys. We encountered a few other similar tour boats and a couple of kayaks along the way. I am aware that environmental purists would disapprove of the monkey experience as not “responsible tourism”. The monkeys came down out of the forest canopy once they realized the boats had bananas. Yes they were being domesticated by the boats, but they were still in the wild and not in a zoo! At the mouth of Rio Paquita, as it flows into the ocean we found a  deserted beach. The beach is at the tip of Damas Island, reached either by boat or at low tide.

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Rainforests and Jungles

We stopped at the Hacienda Baru which was a little compound of hiking trails, ziplines, birdwatching and several rental cabins. They had a little gift shop, a refreshing cantina and the hiking trails took you through mountain rainforests, lowland jungles and coastal environments.

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After lunch we ventured out on one of their self-guided trails.  It was here at the Hacienda that I learned the distinction between a rainforest and a jungle. Both were represented on the trail.  A rainforest is characterized by a very high tree canopy that blocks any sunshine onto the forest floor.  This makes the hiking trail open and free of vegetation. A jungle on the other hand is an area with an open canopy but a dense forest floor.  Sometimes the jungle is natural and sometimes it is caused by the destruction of the original rainforest.

There is a bird watching tower in the initial rainforest portion of the trail. The bird chatter was quite impressive here.

The trail was nicely marked with information about the ecosystems and wildlife.

Costa Rica beaches
Hacienda de Baru is family owned and strives to revive and protect the original habitats.

Beautiful Costa Rica

As you can see in a stretch of coast less than 85 miles all these amazing ecosystems can be explored. It is no wonder that Costa Rica has become known as a ecotourism destination. You may want to just soak up the sun on the Costa Rica beaches, but the country boasts many more ecosystems as you move away from the coast and up into the mountains. Watch for the next Costa Rica post on Bird watching in the Cloud Forest.

 

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