|Families love the calm water of the Papagayo peninsula; a hammock awaits at Playa Islita; parking at Playa Guiones.
Costa Rica's turn as an eco-haven secret is over. The beaches are still long and empty, but this once-undiscovered place is now making a push to be the world’s next great hot spot. For years, the country has been revered for its raw geographic marvels: volcanoes, mountains, rainforests and talcum-powder sands. Not surprisingly, visitors have come here more for adventure than for culture. Indeed, critics blast the sun-saturated Pacific coast for being all play and no substance, but that’s changing fast. Beach-hop up the 130-mile coast of Guanacaste Province, from south to north, and you’ll witness the invention of a tropical paradise, from sandy surf hamlet to haute cuisine.
BEST SMALL TOWN
All of two corners, with a school, soccer field and general store, Islita might have been any Tico roadside village if not for its profusion of candy-colored outdoor mosaics and murals. The town’s generous benefactor is the Hotel Punta Islita, set on a bluff over the town and occupying much of the beachfront with its restaurant, pool and nine-hole golf course (hotelpuntaislita.com). The luxury resort financed Casa Museo—a contemporary art gallery that displays solo shows by Costa Rican artists, and also houses a workshop where a women’s collective produces some of the best Naive School art in the country. Hotel bedsheets are used as canvas for woodcut prints ($25); seashells and pebbles are sewn into shadow boxes ($30); and sea-polished driftwood becomes chic sculpture ($20–$150), all for sale in the gift shop. Visiting artists teach classes to members of the collective—women who wouldn’t otherwise be economic players in such a remote part of the country. All this makes Casa Museo the kind of feel-good, world-saving partnership that Costa Rica does so well.
BEST SURF TOWN
Long before sun worshippers arrived, surfers claimed the crescent-shaped beaches of Guanacaste as their own. Open Pacific rollers break here year-round, to the left and the right, large and small, for beginners and addicts alike. Nosara is the Brigadoon of surf towns. Just off Highway 160 and set between three great surf breaks, it remains sleepy and sweet, almost untouched by the tourism boom. After a morning yoga class at Harmony, the eco-lodge on Playa Guiones, get your Zen on at the hotel juice bar, then try grinding the waves in body-temperature waters over sand-bottom shallows. At the Nosara Tico Surf School, a patient, procedure-oriented (and hunky) instructor will give you an individual lesson at $60 for 1½ hours—less than you’d pay for a group class at most schools in Hawaii. It could be the greatest bargain boarding in the Eastern Pacific. nosara-surf-school.com
BEST BEACH BAR
You have to look hard to find this stylish bar on Playa Avellanas, a half-mile-long fingernail of sand six miles south of Tamarindo. You’ll sit under blue canvas umbrellas in low lounge chairs while waves thunder nearby. Palms and mangroves offer shade, and a tree stump is your cocktail table. Menu ingredients are all organic and local; food waste is composted; and the fryer oil is recycled into biodiesel fuel. That should ease the guilt of tucking into Lola’s beloved home-cut fries. And while you’ll find tart, fresh ceviche throughout Guanacaste, the pitch-perfect vibe here makes Lola’s the best (lunch for two, $25 without drink, tax or tip).
OLIVE RIDLEY TURTLES
BEST BEACH SCENE
Hundreds of thousands of female Olive Ridley sea turtles come to Guanacaste's beaches to lay eggs. Every year, the females flock to the same dunes for three or four nights in a row. The season runs from July through December, peaking in August through October. The repeated event is called the arribada—arrival by sea—and can be experienced on guided nightwalks ($7) at three beaches—Camaronal, Ostional and Grande. When the hatchlings are born (from October to February), visitors can volunteer to protect them during their crawl to the ocean. pretoma.org; earthwatch.org
MAR Y SOL
BEST SUNSET MEAL
When Playa Flamingo claims the title “The Next Riviera”—as it surely will—then chef Jean Luc Taulère will be the one to blame and to thank. The airy, swank Mar y Sol dining room pairs extravagant sunsets with fine dining. Taulère is an eighth-generation French restaurateur with an American culinary school pedigree. His farm-to-table vision might not seem so revolutionary in North America, but it’s entirely new under the Guanacaste sun. He brings an enthusiastic tropical palate to the conversation; his Coco del Mar is a riff on traditional bouillabaisse, accented with ginger and lime and served in a coconut bowl. For dessert, order the crèpes—they’ll be flambéed at your table with papaya, mango or passionfruit. 011-506-654-4151; dinner for two, $80 without drinks, tax or tip
BEST FAMILY BEACHES
Tidal pools and protected beaches are rare in Guanacaste, so families with toddlers and devoted snorkelers must seek out these gentler pleasures. The Papagayo Peninsula, a narrow finger curling into Culebra Bay, has both calm waters and shady coves. While the gatehouse at the entrance to the four-mile peninsula might seem forbidding, all Costa Rican beaches are public property, so press on to gain access to the immaculate Playa Blanca and Playa Virador, both at the Four Seasons resort. Snorkelers should head to the bayside Playa Blanca to see octopus, parrotfish and polka-dotted damselfish. A short way north, Playa Virador is on the sea side but protected by islands, so the waters lap against the shore and provide a great spot for younger kids. The peninsula’s greatest assets, however, may be its hard-to-reach beaches such as Playa Huevos and Playa Jícaro—best approached by paddleboard or outrigger canoe. Once there, you can picnic in a protected seaside wilderness amongst howler monkeys and parrots—the cheery papagayo.
RCI-affiliated resorts in Guanacaste include:
Set on bluffs overlooking
Papagayo Gulf on Costa Rica’s
northern coastline, this secluded
resort offers beach and pool
relaxation as well as backcountry
adventures. Playa Buena,
Golfo de Papagayo
“We ziplined at 3,000 feet on 12
different ziplines—what a thrill.
We even passed a tree of howler
“Very friendly and attentive.”
“We went deep-sea fishing and
my husband caught a mahimahi.”
This laid-back resort is near the
gray sands of Playa Hermosa.
You’ll need a rental car if you
want to explore this remote area.
Playa Chorotega, Golfo de Papagayo
“The staff was all very helpful
and spoke excellent English.”
“Ideal beach location.”
“Sammy, the tour director,
was wonderful and helpful
with our needs and translating.”
CONDOVAC LA COSTA
You can snorkel with manta rays,
watch howler monkeys and Olive
Ridley turtles, and take day trips to
soak in mud baths or float down a
river on a tube. Playa Hermosa
“The rooms were simple yet
“Rent a car if you think you may
want to leave the resort.”
“We actually felt that we were
in a foreign country!”
“Try to go to Rincon forest—
beautiful hiking trail to a waterfall,
volcanic bubbling areas and
“The ceviche and service at
La Finisterra are the best in
ECOPLAYA BEACH RESORT
On a remote beach in Salinas Bay,
near the border of Nicaragua and the
national parks of Rincón de la Vieja,
Santa Rosa and Guanacaste. Enjoy
sea kayaking, fishing, snorkeling and
mountain biking. Playa La Coyotera,
El Jobo La Cruz
“If you like windsurfing, you’ll like
“Not a touristy area at all.”
“Peaceful parks and secluded beaches
For more information, including more
member reviews, visit RCI.com or call
Club Members, please call your specific
Club or RCI telephone number.
HOTEL PUNTA ISLITA
This isolated boutique hotel in Spanish-
style stucco has 67 rooms. Iguanas bask
in the sun and hummingbirds hover over
the bougainvillea in your private garden
with plunge pool overlooking the Pacific.
hotelpuntaislita.com; doubles from $202
A spare 24-room eco-lodge near
Playa Guiones, with a healing center,
yoga studio and juice bar.
harmonynosara.com; doubles from
$165 per night
HOTEL LA TORTUGAS
Playa Grande’s only oceanfront hotel
has 11 low-key guest rooms, a turtle-
shaped pool and a lively bar. The
owners were major advocates of turtle
conservation on Playa Grande, and
the area is now a national park.
lastortugashotel.com; doubles from
$50 per night
FOUR SEASONS COSTA RICA
An eco-luxe resort on the Papagayo
Peninsula, with 155 rooms and
residences decorated in native
hardwoods, rattan and bamboo.
fourseasons.com; doubles from
$395 per night
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.