Playa Grande, Costa Rica: Surfing, Turtles and Crocs, Diay!
If you look at a map of Playa Grande, Costa Rica, you’ll notice that if you had a big enough slingshot, you could fire a rock due west and hit the Philippines, straight across the world’s largest swimming pool. That’s because there are no obstructions — no headlands, no gulf, no islands in the way.
That’s part of the reason why incredible surfing waves crash on Playa Grande so consistently, day in and day out. Just to the south, Tamarindo may be Costa Rica’s most popular surf town, but most surfers there will tell you that Playa Grande has better waves.
This is why surfers from Tamarindo sometimes ignore sound counsel and paddle across the estuary that separates the two, even though these waters are thick with crocodiles. Fortunately, crocodiles don’t attack surfers very often, though it does happen.
Playa Grande (“Big Beach”) is also famous for another paddler, the leatherback sea turtle, known in Spanish as a “baula.” The entire beach is part of the Las Baulas Marine National Park, designed to protect the nesting grounds of these fragile giants.
Leatherback Turtles of Playa Grande, Costa Rica
The largest of all turtles, the leatherback is the only sea turtle that lacks a hard shell, which evolution has replaced with hard, leathery skin. Leatherbacks can grow up to 7 feet, 2 inches long — about the same height as Shaquille O’Neal — and weigh up to 1,540 pounds, almost five times as much as Shaq.
These huge aquatic reptiles, listed as vulnerable but not endangered, have one of the strangest survival strategies of any animal on earth. Though they cannot breathe underwater, they spend their entire lives in the ocean — yet they cannot be born there.
Female sea turtles must leave their watery habitat and waddle onto a beach, where they are easy prey for jaguars, dogs, humans or any other predator large enough to eat them. (Male sea turtles, on the other hand, never leave the ocean — though they do hang out in the waters near nesting grounds, looking for females to hook up with.)
Female sea turtles welcome any male that wants them, and they’re capable of storing the sperm of various males and using it to fertilize the dozens of eggs they produce. If sea turtles practiced monogamy, they would probably be extinct — and sea turtles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs.
Pregnant females must find a safe place to dig a hole in the sand, and then they lay up to 100 eggs, and use their flippers to bury the nest. Then they return to the sea, never to learn what became of their young.
Why so many eggs? Because almost none of the babies will survive. It’s estimated that out of 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings, only one will survive. Many of the eggs will be dug up and eaten by raccoons, coatis, dogs and humans. Of the turtles that do hatch, some will be killed by seagulls and other predators on the beach while they waddle toward the sea. And once they’re in the ocean, they face even more predators looking for a soft, helpless, tasty snack.
But the weirdest thing about sea turtles is that the hatchlings that do survive will swim hundreds if not thousands of miles to distant places — but the females will usually return to the EXACT SAME BEACH where they hatched to lay their own eggs. That must take an incredible GPS system.
Unfortunately, the population of turtles that nest at Playa Grande has crashed in recent years. Nighttime turtle tours are still offered here in season, October through February, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll see a turtle.
Attractions of Playa Grande, Costa Rica
If you’re looking for the “town” of Playa Grande, you might drive around for a while wondering where it is. Heading west on the little highway from Huacas, you’ll definitely see signs of civilization along the road, but you won’t find much that resembles a town.
Playa Grande is more of a loose collection of businesses and homes near the beach. There’s the Wil-Mart grocery store, the Frijoles Locos Surf Shop, the RipJack Inn, the Ventanas housing development. Closer to the estuary down the road, there’s the Bula Bula Hotel and restaurant, among others.
But if you’re looking for a town with a soccer field and a population center, you might have to turn around and go back to Matapalo.
Among the properties managed by Special Places of Costa Rica in this area are Casa Ventana, which is on the adjacent Playa Ventanas (sometimes called Playa Ventana, and not to be confused with the Playa Ventanas on the south Pacific coast near Ojochal). Casa Ventana is a 4-bedroom beachfront mansion that you have to see to believe.
One other peculiarity of Playa Grande: Though it’s a very short boat ride from Tamarindo across the estuary (maybe 150 meters), it’s a pretty long drive from one to the other. So even though Flamingo is 20 kilometers away, you can drive to Grande from Flamingo faster than from Tamarindo.
This has made Playa Grande the go-to surf spot for anyone staying at points north. Although there’s a string of beautiful beaches from Conchal and Brasilito all the way to Coco and Hermosa, none of them is known for surfing. Far to the north, Witch’s Rock offers world-class surf, but you have to get there by boat, and you’d better be an expert surfer.
For anyone else along this northern coastline looking to drive to a beach and ride a wave, Playa Grande rules the roost.
Just watch out for the turtles.