Costa Rica #4: Touring the Northwest Beaches

Seen one beach, seen them all? Not so in Costa Rica. The ones we saw were all different. The interior I-21, which runs from south of Nicola to Santa Cruz and then to Liberia, is the spine from which numerous side roads head west to different beach areas. These main roads are paved, but access roads to many more remote beaches are not, and a 4WD is necessary to negotiate gravel and dirt roads, some surprisingly rough.

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The vast Playa Grande is across the estuary from Tamarindo and, apart from the surfers offshore, has practically no one on it. Crocodiles and caymans are said to live in the estuary and, as the beach and its hinterland are part of the protected Parque Nacional Marino las Baulas (Leatherback Turtle Marine National Park), development adjacent to the beach is prohibited. According to Lonely Planet, the area is one of the world’s prime nesting beaches for these leatherback turtles, which can live for 50 years and weigh up to 400 kilograms. Apparently, they come ashore at night to lay their eggs, which later hatch on the beach, and then go out to sea. We didn’t see any, but friends have.

Thirteen kilometres south is Avellana, a broad white sand expanse of remote beach with high waves and good breaks for advanced surfers. It was here, and at nearby Playa Negra, that Bruce Brown filmed his classic surfer film, Endless Summer 2, in 1994. Apart from the excellent surfing, the leading attraction is Lola’s bar and bistro, named after a succession of porcine mascots. It is an idyllic spot in the sand under the palms, great for good food and leisurely lounging. Those who don’t surf spend their time at Lola’s.

We made several trips north. Not far from Tamarindo is Playa Flamingo, Playa Potrero and, at the end of a more remote road that rises high above the coast, Playa Danta. Flamingo has a broad protected bay ideal for yachts, and another white sand beach along the open sea. On the beach, locals stretch colourful materials between the trees to stake out their space, I guess, and get a little shade. The sand at Potrero, dark coloured and apparently rich in marine life, attracts vultures and pelicans dive-bombing into the water for their food. Danta is a charming beach in a narrow little bay. Apart from the sand, flat rock shelves extend out of the water. Lucio recommends the area for snorkelling. At the moment, the bay is used almost exclusively by locals. There is, however, a huge high-rise development being built just inland from the beach. Once finished, this little local paradise will be inundated by occupants of the new resort, a classic example of the conflict between the natural beauty of Costa Rica and ongoing development for tourism.

On another trip further north, we spent some time at Playa Hermosa, considered one of the quieter and more beautiful bays in the area. Hermosa Bay is utterly delightful, a narrow semi-circle of water and grey sand with tall trees providing ample shade along the shoreline. There is no surf here, only water splashing into the bay. The scene seemed so inviting that I decided to wade in. Within minutes, a huge wave over my head surged in, totally swept me off my feet, and, before I knew it, my glasses were swept away. Silly “gringo.” I should have gone wading at the far end of beach where the “tico” children were swimming and playing on a more protected shelf of sand.

Losing my glasses meant that I could not drive. I had brought a spare pair which were at the apartment. But that prescription is 20 years out of date, so driving with those spare glasses was not possible. When I returned to Vancouver, I immediately saw an optometrist to get new glasses. She found cataracts I never knew I had. Now, I am waiting for an appointment with an ophthalmologist and, likely, cataract surgery. There is an ophthalmologist here in Vancouver who could see me in early March and do the surgery in late May. I’ve been seeking options back in Toronto. Who would have thought that a vacation in Costa Rica would lead to interprovincial negotiations between Canada’s health care systems? Moral of the story? Pay attention where you enter the sea in Costa Rica. And always travel with an extra, up-to-date, pair of glasses.

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