Guanacaste is famed for its beaches. They’ve earned this slice of Costa Rica global notoriety for their brilliant sand, clear waters and world-class surf. So integral to Guanacaste’s heritage are their famous ‘playas’ that the Pacific coast is peppered with towns which have taken their names from their closest beach; from Playa Hermosa to Playa Tamarindo, western Costa Rica is a veritable mecca for beach junkies.
One such beach town, Playas del Coco, became my home for three months of my travels. It’s fair to say that we didn’t have a great relationship, Coco and I. Some days, driven to the brink of despair that any vestiges of natural beauty remained in this over-developed corner of the rich coast, I’d run to the hills in a desperate attempt to escape the sports bars and American diners of the main strip. Just a few kilometres away from the garish lighting and incessant noise, I’d find solace in the quiet, unadulterated calm of Playa la Penca. Not to be confused with Playa Penca – the large, popular stretch of beach which sits squarely in the middle of the long Pacific coast – Playa la Penca is a small, secluded cove which nestles demurely in between the resort towns of Coco and Hermosa.
After weeks of sitting through soccer marathons and drinking over-priced beer, I determined to use my precious day off more wisely and set out on my first trip to Penca looking for adventure. And adventure I got. Before I’d even laid eyes on the beautiful beach itself, I first had to brave the arduous journey to get there. The first challenge was cajoling a taxi into taking us halfway there. During the drive, the winding A-roads of the Costa Rican highway quickly give way to a rubble track. Taxi drivers will begrudgingly subject their suspension to about ten minutes of pit-hole pounding before giving up and unceremoniously chucking their passengers out on the side of the track to fend for themselves. From the summit where we were dropped, the track continues for the best part of an hour, undulating dramatically past some of the best views the region has to offer.
But getting there is merely a warm-up for the return trip. Poor phone reception renders it impossible to book a car home. The alternative? A long hike back into town. Meandering back up the track and up onto the main road is a strenuous old walk but, thanks to a shortcut which winds through a residential estate, you can be back in Coco in less than two hours, albeit with aching legs and a throbbing lower back.
Reaching Playa la Penca is no walk in the park. And thank heavens for that. The gruelling journey to the beach is more than enough to deter the fair-weather tourists from arriving in their droves and overrunning the place. But for those hardy enough to brave the walk, the reward is something quite magical.
Gentle turquoise waves lap the golden sand, and striking volcanic islands pierce the horizon.
Clambering over the shadowy rocks at the far end of the shore, you can catch glimpses of spindly sea-creatures hiding within their craggy daytime dens.
As the tide rolls lazily up the beach, the setting sun scatters jewels of light across the breaking waves. It’s a mesmerising spot to sit and watch the evening draw close and forget the hustle and bustle of the tourist hotspots.
Costa Rica is, for me, a country of confusing contradictions. At times, it has revealed to me nature at its most astounding – vast, imposing and breathtakingly beautiful. But it has an ugly side; the relentless surge of blind tourism has swept across its foundations of natural and cultural heritage, leaving behind fast-food joints, casinos and shady nightclubs like so much flotsam and jetsam floating unpleasantly on the surface. And so I am grateful for Playa la Penca. It is hidden gems like this that helped me to discover Costa Rica’s good side, to capture the country in its best light and to keep the faith when I felt like writing off the whole experience. There’s slices of paradise hidden all over Costa Rica, you just have to be prepared to find them.