With its 1.5-metre high waves and broad pristine beaches, Tamarindo is a surfer’s paradise. But it offers other natural – and commercial – attractions that draw visitors from around the world.
Several of the region’s quieter beaches along with an adjoining 21,800 hectares of ocean comprise a national marine park protecting exotic birds, plants and animals, including the world’s largest turtles.
Fiercely proud of its ecotourism industry, Costa Rica ranks fifth in the world and first in the Americas on the global Environmental Performance Index. Meanwhile, Tamarindo’s some 100 restaurants, ranging from Cuban to Sushi, proudly use local ingredients while shops feature high quality, reasonably priced handcrafted products from regional materials.
Early afternoon A car rental representative meets us at Liberia’s spiffy new airport and drives us to the nearby agency office. Some tips: rent from a company that also has an outlet near your ultimate destination, as you may need repairs during your stay. Once off the main highways, en route to magical coves or rainforests, the roads are in such poor – but not hazardous – condition that your car is likely to experience some damage. (We lost our muffler cover and got a flat that were replaced locally by friendly rental agency staff). It’s worth it to buy extra insurance, even though it can double the weekly rental price, because you will likely need it. And rent as large a car as you can afford to reduce the impact of those bumpy side roads.
Tamarindo is a pleasant one-hour paved drive from the airport.
4 p.m. Settle in to your accommodations – there is a wide selection of rentals and hotels available on the Internet – and then head to the modern Auto Mercado/Supermarket on the edge of town
Grocery shopping here is a familiar North American experience, with a wide selection of wines and beer to go along with the fresh fruit, vegetables and baked goods. Prices are comparable or somewhat cheaper than at home. En route to the supermarket, women may wish to visit Papaya con Leche, a made-to-measure bathing suit shop beside the Hotel Diriá on Tamarindo’s main street. This shop is for both mothers and daughters. After choosing your material and design, the fitted suits will be ready in two days.
6:30 p.m. After unpacking the groceries and making an early dinner “at home,” a guide in an air-conditioned van picks us up for the 30-minute drive to an isolated beach after sunset to witness an “Oh-my-God” experience.
Stand silently in the moonlight as giant turtles emerge from the deep to lay their eggs. If you are visiting between October and February, you will be able to observe the majestic leatherbacks that can tip the scales at nearly 900 kilograms and are about two metres long.
Likely an inspiration for Darwin, these truly awesome reptiles have been around for more than 100 million years. Once the females reach mating age, they returning annually to the beaches where they were born to lay their eggs. They lumber out of the water after dark, climb in slow motion up and beyond a dune, seeking a nesting spot safe from the tides. At first, our guide keeps us 100 metres away so as not to disturb the beasts. But we move in at close quarters once they start digging deep holes to deposit some 100 ping-pong-ball sized eggs. Then the turtles cover the eggs with sand and slowly, excruciatingly slowly, waddle down the beach to be swallowed by the sea.
9:30 p.m. Drop off at home. Cost of the visit is $35 per person.
8:00 a.m. Breakfast at Le Petit Café, owned by Alison Thompson from Toronto.
A former business consultant at the Bank of Montreal who had been “visiting Costa Rica virtually online every night for several years,” Thompson learned the café was for sale on her first “real” visit to the country. “I slept on it and decided to buy the next morning,” says Thompson, who opened up on Canada Day, 2010. “I wanted a lifestyle change. This place is perfect.”
In a country where the coffee is excellent everywhere, Thompson’s stands out for its richness and hint of chocolate. For breakfast she offers a variety of homemade moist muffins ($1.85) and chewy Montreal bagels with cream cheese ($3.25). A breakfast burrito of two eggs, bacon and cheese is $4.50, including coffee. You can take home a pound of her Café Sánchez Classic ground arabiga beans for $8 (www.lepetitcafe-cr.com).
10:00 a.m. Surfing lesson from local legend Pedro Cruz, a former Costa Rican national champion who grew up on Tamarindo’s beaches.
After teaching at some of Tamarindo’s larger surfing schools, the irrepressible Cruz ventured out on his own two years ago, opening a small shop that also sells handmade boards.
“I love to teach,” says Cruz, eyes sparkling. His philosophy for wary beginners: “It’s all about building confidence.” If business is slow during the day, Pedro is unphased.
“If we don’t have lessons, we go surfing.” ($50 for a one-hour to 1.5-hour private lesson. www.pedrosurf.com.)
1:00 p.m. Beachfront lunch by the pool at Hotel Capitan Suizo.
The birds and monkeys in the trees are mere observers, unless you leave your food unattended. Try the cooling cucumber gazpacho soup or ceviche to start (www.hotelcapitansuizo.com).
3:00 Pick up a used paperback at the Jaime Peligro Book Store for beach reading.
For a truly tranquil spot, try Playa Langosta a few kilometres south of town, especially when the tide is out and the two-kilometre long beach is some 200 metres wide. This is protected parkland, and no development is allowed. Meanwhile, Playa Tamarindo beach in town is livelier, although it is still easy to find a quiet spot. Or rent a beach bike ($15 for half a day) at the Bike Shop from Kevin Bennett, a former commercial diver who left his native Arkansas less than a year ago with his wife Tammy for “a simpler life” (www.bikeshoptamarindo.com).
5:30 p.m. Drinks upstairs on the beachfront Nogui’s Restaurante. Watch the surfers ride the waves as the sun sets slowly into the water behind them. Tamarindo sunsets alone are worth the visit. Stay for dinner here, one of Tamarindo’s oldest and best restaurants. Fresh tuna is grilled simply over the barbecue, releasing the natural flavours ($11.50).
Pies are a specialty and have earned a deserved reputation among North American aficionados. Be sure to try the fresh banana cream. Oh, my. Most days, you can also get coconut cream, chocolate cream and apple-pineapple.
9:00 p.m. And now for something completely different. Stop in or spend the rest of the evening at Aqua Discoteque or gamble at the Hotel Diriá casino.
7:00 a.m. Breakfast outside, overlooking the water at Sueño del mar, a luxury beachside B&B just south of town.
A sign in the sand beckons early morning walkers. The fare is cook’s choice and varies from day to day. But it is always three courses and is always excellent. Today, it’s vanilla muffins, a generous cilantro omelette on a brioche and sliced fresh fruit. With mixed fresh fruit juice and coffee or tea, it’s $12 per person.
8:30 a.m. Join a two-hour guided boat journey in a 1,000-acre park estuary just north of town.
We are surrounded by mangrove forest, with roots extending far above the water surface. See crocodiles sunning on islands and a sampling of the tiny country’s more than 800 bird species, including herons, hummingbirds, cuckoos, warblers and yellow-billed cotingas. Well into the estuary, we tie up and walk about 200 metres into the forest. Henry, our guide, bangs a large plastic water bottle filled with sand against a tree. In response, the noise of what sounds like an army of wild dogs, echos from the trees. We stretch our necks and see that the hubbub comes from a dozen of the appropriately named howler monkeys. (Tour cost is $35 per person).
11:30 a.m. Go for an ocean swim or an impromptu massage on the beach under the shade of a canopied Guanacaste tree.
For a more luxurious session, visit the scenic hilltop Los Altos de Eros hotel, which sends a driver to pick you up. A three-treatment, 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. package, including lunch with wine overlooking the ocean and round-trip transportation, is good value at $250.
1:00 p.m. Light lunch at La Panaderia de Paris, where fresh croissants and pastries are also available.
A salade nicoise is $12 and baguette sandwiches range from $4.50 to $6. The Panaderia is mostly take-out, but there are beachfront tables just outside where we encounter regular Richard Shank, originally from Seattle. He first visited Costa Rica on holiday with a daughter who came here to surf. “At the end of our trip,” he says, “I drove her to the airport, dropped her off and stayed behind.”
That was seven years ago.
2:30 p.m. Time for last-minute shopping.
here are a number of quality stores amid the hawkers of T-shirts and other touristy fare. Among them: Doloros for women’s wear, Ban Bam Boo for clothing made of hemp and bamboo and Souvenir Guanacaste, which specializes in locally handmade wood products and jewelry. Large polished wooden salad bowls are a bargain at $45 to $65. And, before leaving Tamarindo, don’t forget to pick up that made-to-order bathing suit.