This post brought to you by Camille, my one and only traveling companion.
No one takes the beach more seriously than this sun worshipper. Since arriving in Costa Rica, I spend every day basking in the warmth of the sun, often lying on the shoreline, my bikini bottoms filling with sand with each crash. White sand stretches for miles backed with trees bearing coconuts, almonds, and sea grapes. The ocean sparkles in its turquoise glory, interrupted by the cerulean striations of the underwater coral reef. Land crabs scurry into their holes as flocks of birds skim the water’s surface before making their ascent. These are easily the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen… but that’s not why I love them. Well, not the only reason. What I love about the beaches is also what I love about the towns. That one continuous, linear piece of land can house such diversity in landscape and culture. That every day I walk the beach I see something different and for a moment fail to recognize my surroundings.
Manzanillo: A Different World
Colorful boats rest lazily in calm, still waters. The sounds of televised Reggae fill the air, blaring at Maxi’s, one of three restaurants in the entire town.
Houses painted aqua, fuschia, pumpkin, and lime surrounded by tropical gardens hint at an old Puerto Viejo, before spoken Spanish replaced Patois (Jamaican Creole). Children drink from coconuts, machetes in hand. Caves formed by coral reef create an entrance to the natural reserve filled with howler monkeys and sloths.
The beach continues for miles, expansive and flat with little surf, perfect for swimming. The walk to Punta Uva is so desolate it’s easy to wonder if you’re the only human being on earth.
Punta Uva: Raw Beauty and a Bit of Wreckage
Punta Uva varies between developed and wild more than any other beach community in the area. For most the name is synonymous with beauty; I call it home.
Closest to Manzanillo, a popular beach among locals rests on the sandy lawn of a once magnificent resort. Today pink rubble and support beams lay in its place. A proud dolphin crowns an empty pool. The land developer violated Costa Rican environmental laws and after thirty years of legal debate was forced to shut down. It would cost $650,000 to clean up the mess, making its further deterioration imminent. Families and friends lay under the protective shade of palm trees, unbothered by the ghetto behind them, eating snacks and playing music from their nearby trucks.
Reaching the rest of Punta Uva requires hiking over a cliff in the jungle… or taking the road. We rarely choose the road.
Beyond the cliff is another local hangout, though this beach is backed by a functioning hotel and restaurant. Dogs run wild, tourists and locals wade in the ocean, children ride bicycles through the jungle onto the shore and play in the creek nearby.
The beach quickly narrows from high tides; coral and driftwood create constant obstructions. Now immersed in pure wilderness the surroundings are akin to the set of Lost for at least a mile. Civilization reveals itself once more in Playa Chiquita.
Playa Chiquita: A Hippie Haven
Playa Chiquita is easily my favorite of the beaches here.
The women are nude or topless. Ethnically diverse families wade in the shallow tide pools, babies suckling their mother’s exposed breast. Germans rub their topless counterparts with tanning oil, fearless of the equatorial sun.
Tropical fish reminiscent of Nemo swim between channels of coral.
Fallen palm trees offer respite from the sun.
You might call it paradise.
Fifty meters through the jungle you find the town of Playa Chiquita. Organic, fair trade, and local are more than just buzzwords here. Yoga centers and ecological restaurants owned by European transplants fill the area. For us, it’s the closest thing to civilization, a twenty-minute walk from home.
Playa Cocles: See and be Seen
The path to Cocles gives no hint of the surfing mecca at its end. Prohibitive coral reef covers the shore, forcing pedestrians to walk a lovely path through the jungle. Thick jade green grass feels foreign under your feet. Open fields allow sunlight to cover you, shaded only by the occasional palm tree. An aquamarine house resting on an overgrown lawn transports you to Havana. Winding back to the beach, soccer goals entertain active children. Shelters made of giant palm fronds and bamboo offer respite from the sun or rain (we hid under one during a massive downpour, even more massive salads in hand). An exclusive beach club, Le Cameleon, is out of place with red awnings and white lounge chairs, waiters in suits holding trays. The beach is expansive; the tide covers the shore in pearlescent half moons that turn iridescent at sunset.
In the distance is the Island of Cocles, uninhabited and rocky. At the end of Cocles lies Beach Break. Surfers fill the ocean, waiting for the next big wave. A lifeguard watches lackadaisically. Rastafarians sell coconuts and beckon you to take a surf lesson, sometimes clapping their hands as if to call a dog. The jungle no longer backs the beach, rather bars, a yoga studio, hostels, and our favorite Tuesday night hangout Tasty Waves. Here you will see locals and tourists who bumped arms with you in the club the night before. Grab yourself a coconut, wade in the water, and when the next big wave comes, relent.
Puerto Viejo: Beware Salsa Brava and The Cheese Grater
The beach of Puerto Viejo lies on the other side of a rocky cliff from Beach Break. Coral reef surrounds the shore. Occasional patches of sand interrupt the local businesses. The main attraction here is the Salsa Brava, a famous wave that brings surfers from all over the world. Crowds paddle out, a few catch waves, and many break their boards or backs on the coral reef dubbed “The Cheese Grater”.
Bars and restaurants provide lovely views. Stalls selling hammocks, sarongs, and jewelry line the beach.
Puerto Viejo at night is a different world.
“Very good, very good. Delicious, delicious!” A street vendor shouts as she grills skewers of chicken and beef over an open flame. “Hola Mami,” men hiss as you walk by. Drugs exchange hands outside of Johnny’s Place and Tex Mex. No doubt the scene is unsavory; drug dealers from nearby Limon and inebriated tourists don’t mix well. However, if you keep your guard high and your mind open you will find charm and hopefully friends. Restaurants with hospitable service and beautiful men are everywhere. An American style dance club, Mango, owned by a European-Latin couple is a melting pot for young locals and tourists. We dance our hearts out at Mango at least three times a week. We’re greeted with hugs and kisses. The DJ plays our song requests. The bartenders know our names. It feels like home.
Playa Negra: A Place for Stargazing
If you feel so bold, skinny-dip here under the stars. The black sand will feel as soft as confectioner’s sugar, the water as warm as a bath. Your only witness: the moon.