Playas del Coco, Costa Rica: Fun in the sun by the sea
If you were on a sailboat from California at night, entering Costa Rican waters from the north, you wouldn’t see a lot of lights on the shore, and you might correctly surmise that much of the coast north of Playas del Coco is uninhabited.
But suddenly — “Land ho!” A big, bright city appears on the portside, and you see more lights in one minute than you’ve seen in three hours. “Captain, take this spyglass, I’m sure we can find anchorage there!”
Welcome to Playas del Coco, Costa Rica. Whether you call it a big town or a little city, it’s Costa Rica’s northernmost large population center on the Pacific coast. Sometimes called “Playa del Coco” (without the “S”), the name is often shortened to just “Coco,” which of course means “coconut.” Just don’t call it “Del Coco Beach,” unless you’re Google Maps.
Mother Nature and Father Time collaborated closely on this one — it’s a horseshoe-shaped bay created by tectonic uplift, with a wonderful beach. The bay is a backwards “C,” a perfect harbor, a tranquil anchorage. But the landlubbers actually got here first.
And then they just kept coming.
Playas del Coco: It’s not easy being first
Tamarindo is more famous, with its Hollywood credits in the surf movie “Endless Summer II,” and Tamarindo doesn’t like to be second to anything. But it is.
The strange truth is that Coco was the first big beach destination in northwest Costa Rica that was ever reachable by road. In the 1960s, just a few Costa Rican families lived here, and they sure didn’t get here by driving a paved road.
Mother Earth conspired against visitors by planting a big, steep hill just outside Coco. It’s still there today, and your car will still labor to climb it, from either side. The first visitors, tens of thousands of years ago, were indigenous people who walked, as the wheel (and horses) were unknown in Central America before the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500s.
But you can still find old-timers in this town who remember when people had to push a bus trying to climb the steep dirt track between here and civilization. Today this road is paved, so fire up your Maserati and put the hammer down — but beware of buses that still chug up the hill at 10 miles per hour.
Freddy Barahona, a 50-something attorney and owner of a local chocolate and cigar shop, spent his entire life here except for a few years at law school in San José. He remembers the 1960s, when he was a little kid, and everyone used to get up at 4 a.m. to go fishing. Then they would go to bed at 7 p.m. because there was no light.
Another native son, Lucas Rivera, told me for a Howler Magazine article, “Everyone was living in more or less a campsite. By the ’50s, kids living and growing up here didn’t know what a fresh lettuce looked like.” He said that people who grew up here in the 1970s recall that there were only three televisions in town. Electricity was a late arrival, and telephones? What are telephones?
The secret, of course, couldn’t last. By the 1980s and beyond, the word was out, and this secret hideaway was no secret anymore. The road over the mountain got paved, and then everyone started coming — Tico weekenders, extranjeros, real estate speculators and everyone in between.
How do you say “boom” in Costa Rican? That’s exactly what happened here — people with money started buying and building, and soon this sleepy village was a bustling boom town. Could a casino be far behind? Pretty soon there was a casino, and everyone was saying, “Ka-ching!”
A big beachfront park features lots of green grass, a basketball court, a skate park, and a winding esplanade called “Paseo Amor de Temporada.” This means “Walkway of Seasonal Love,” a reference to a popular song about a love affair. Its totem is a life-size sculpture of a man playing a guitar for a woman, and for some reason he has six fingers on one hand. The better to catch her with?
By night, the town comes alive with music, dancing and partying. The town has its vices, if you’re looking for them, but it’s also a very family-friendly town. And the people-watching is superb.
Playas del Coco attractions
Still today, COVID pandemic and all, Coco remains one of the four or five most popular beach towns in Costa Rica, for both tourists and expats. Its only real competitors are Jacó, Tamarindo, Manuel Antonio and maybe Puerto Viejo.
It’s got a gas station. (Even Tamarindo doesn’t have a gas station.) It’s got all the big banks. It has an Auto Mercado, which is the best grocery store chain in Costa Rica. It has medical clinics, pharmacies, hardware stores, clothing stores, car rentals, souvenir shops, surf shops, tour agencies, scuba shops, a post office, basically everything you need. The only thing Coco doesn’t have is a volcano, but the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park is just 75 minutes away.
Coco is only 30 minutes from the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia, all on nicely paved roads. There is no other beach town in Costa Rica that you can get to faster from an international airport.
Coco is also close to a lot of other great places. Drive just 10 or 15 minutes north and you’re in Playa Hermosa, a charming beachfront town that lacks Coco’s crowds yet boasts a beautiful beach and several great hotels, restaurants, bars and more.
Drive north of Hermosa, and there’s a string of first-class resorts, including the chic, sleek El Mangroove on Playa Panamá, not to mention the Four Seasons in Papagayo, which is considered the finest resort in Central America.
South of Coco lies Playa Ocotal, another nice beach with plenty of elbow room, known for the Father Rooster beachfront restaurant, plus the sumptuous gourmet dining and oceanside setting of the Maracuyá Beach Club at Playa Azul.
Also nearby is the Diamante Eco Adventure Park, which has the longest ocean-view zipline in Costa Rica, plus an animal rescue center with jaguars and lots of other exotic wildlife. It’s close to the all-inclusive Hotel RIU Palace, which has some of the nicest hotel rooms you’ll find anywhere.
Rent a car, and you can drive the recently paved Monkey Trail to Potrero and Surfside, another pair of excellent beach towns, and from there you can explore further to the Mediterranean-style development of Las Catalinas to the north or Flamingo, Brasilito, Playa Conchal and Playa Grande to the south. And Tamarindo, known for its nightlife, shops and surfing, is just a little further south.
But many coqueños (which is what you call people from Coco) find little reason to leave town, as it has basically everything they need. There’s a large community of foreign expats who came here to visit and never left. You can find them every day gathered under the big rubber tree in front of the Bambú Beach Bar, or else bellying up to the bar at Zi Lounge or Coconutz, the two biggest restaurants downtown.
Luxury living at Pacifico
Special Places of Costa Rica manages vacation rentals at Coco’s top condominium resort, Pacifico, which has over 200 deluxe condominiums in the heart of town. Just eight blocks from the beach, Pacifico has four swimming pools, a poolside bar and grill and many acres of manicured tropical gardens and lawns.
Every unit here has air conditioning, television, wi-fi, a washer-dryer and secure parking. This gated community with 24/7 security has a high-end Auto Mercado grocery store right next door, as well as a commercial plaza full of shops. It’s not a short walk to the beach (it’s a little over half a mile), but Pacifico is right off the highly walkable main street, which is packed with restaurants, bars, tour offices and souvenir shops. And if you don’t like walking, we’ll be happy to help you find a rental car or even a golf cart, which is a popular mode of transportation in this town.
Contact Special Places if any of this sounds interesting to you, and we’ll set you up! The hardest part about staying with us here will be the day you have to leave.