Falling in like with Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

Finding the best bits of Playas del Coco

“I’ve got the perfect title for my first Costa Rican blog post”, I told James smugly as our tiny Avianca plane touched down at Liberia airport.

“Oh yeah?”, he said, waiting as the other passengers on board – all seven of them – collected their bags and penguin-waddled past us down the gangway, “what’s that then?”

Pause for suspense… “I’m in love with the Coco” I revealed ceremoniously, “like the song!”

It’s a song that had been playing on a loop in my head since we’d arrived in more tropical climes, and had become something of an anthem for my travels so far – relaxed, hypnotic, euphoric. So it felt perfectly apt to borrow its name to title the post about my home for the next three months; I had a feeling Playas del Coco was going to be the geographical equivalent of a heart-throb.

Playas del Coco sunset

So convinced was I that this little coastal town on the Pacific side of Costa Rica was going to win my heart that the first thing I did when I fired up my blog was to schedule in a draft bearing my proudly-conceived title for a couple of weeks ahead. Surely that’d be all the time I’d need to find myself truly, madly, deeply in love with the Coco.

It’s fair to say I was a little preemptive.

Arriving somewhere for the first time at night can make or break a first impression. Sometimes, if the air is right and a breeze is up, the coolness of an evening makes a place seem like an exotic haven, an oasis of life after the hustle and bustle of soulless air travel. Soft lighting and the buzz of people enjoying their evening drinks and dinners can be charming, inviting, compelling. But sometimes the darkness can go the other way. It can blot out a place’s best features, highlighting instead its brightly lit flaws – sports bars, casinos, poorly attended dance-floors on which middle-aged tourists sheepishly shuffle back and forth from the bar.  Unfortunately, the Coco that I experienced on my first night in Costa Rica fell into the second category. My travel-addled brain took in the rows of garish signage and sighed to see the culture I had anticipated bowing down to the dazzling power of neon, the god that all local businesses were praying to.

It wasn’t a great first impression.

Nevertheless, I awoke the next day with a positive frame of mind – you should never judge a book by it’s cover as they say, and I was sure that the Coco just outside my door was revving up to show me the charm and quirks it was surely famed for. Walking through the town I tried my best to overlook the Texan steakhouses and the rows and rows of cheap plastic souvenirs, to avert my eyes from the countless TV screens blaring out sports and adverts, to kid myself into thinking that the Papa Johns was in fact a quaint local street-food joint. But after a few days of tentative exploration I was left with a dull feeling in the pit of my stomach – a feeling that Coco, Costa Rica was being ruined by the strip that cleaved it in two.

Tourist souvenir megamarts in Playas del Coco

And so, I turned instead to the ocean and found an underwater haven. The bottom of the sea remains, thankfully, largely untouched by the human desire to build, to develop, to colonise and, while it suffers greatly from the consequences of our on-land endeavours, the landscape itself remains pure. I spent my first month in Coco burying my head beyond the sand and enjoying the authentic Costa Rican beauty that diving was able to reveal to me.

Diving in Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

But every day when the boat came in and work was done, I was faced with a walk home along the dreaded strip and I’d feel my spirits sinking again. Grabbing a social beer at the end of the day became an exercise in finding the bar with the least intrusive TV playing, the lowest level of noise pollution.

Join us for the game! Maybe not...

Join us for the game? I’d rather not…

I’m not painting a great picture am I? In defence for the strip, it’s a prime example of supply and demand – the local industry providing the type of experience that their tourists want or expect. It just saddens me that, in the main, the message they’re receiving from the visitors who have begun to flock here is loud and clear:

“We want to travel to somewhere hot and exotic without losing any of our home-comforts. We want live sports, air-conditioning and hamburgers over authentic local flair. But throw in a couple of generic souvenirs and a Mariachi band (which is a Costa Rican tradition right?) and we’ll feel like we’ve had the holiday of our lives…”

The totem to all things heinous – the Hard Rock guitar.
Walking passed this still makes me shudder.

The majority of bars and restaurants that line the strip have simply taken this message on board and created businesses that will make money by catering for a large chunk of custom – wealthy white tourists on a jolly. But what about those of us who find ourselves here for different reasons? Be it for diving or surfing, yoga or bird-watching, adventure or relaxation, what has Coco got for us?

After weeks of feeling a little bit jaded about my new home, I decided to throw off my blinkers and set about answering that very question. Like any traveller worth their sea-salt, I made it my mission to get off the beaten track strip.

I started with the beach. The beaches of the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica are famed to be some of the best in the world so it seemed logical that this is where I’d find the natural beauty and authenticity I craved. The ‘business-end’ of Playas del Coco gets quite busy, bearing the brunt of overspill from the bars and restaurants at the end of the strip. But if you venture further up the 5 kilometres of beach, you encounter untouched stretches of sand and blessed silence. Aside from the occasional runner or dog walker, the lack of big businesses at the east end of the beach means that you can enjoy the bay without the soundtrack of beeping horns, chart music and sports commentary.

Playas del Coco beach - the East side

If you travel a little further afield, there are still more little-known treats to be enjoyed. A short taxi ride and a 45 minute hike will take you down to a secluded near-private beach which enjoys a unique anonymity thanks to its remote location. The next major town along, Playa Hermosa, also offers a different vibe from Coco’s main street, with locally-owned sea-food restaurants lining the beach and fewer boats to-ing and fro-ing in the harbour.

Playa Hermosa, Costa RicaPlaya Hermosa

Finding sanctuary on the beaches, I began to dig around for treasure. And, once I was prepared to ditch the map and follow my instincts, I found a veritable trove of goodies that were shielded from the crippling glare of Coco’s main strip.

My kind of tagging

One of my favourite discoveries, a small, low-key beach bar which is so unobtrusive it doesn’t even have a name, has become something of a refuge over the past month. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy the unsullied views of Playas del Coco’s rugged coastline, to watch the sun dip lazily behind the imposing hills, to sip a beer or two and enjoy the uninterrupted peace that comes from simplicity – no screens, no neon, no need.

Playas del Coco beach bar - a hidden gem

From the moment I saw the beer gong, I knew me and this bar were going to be friends…

A quiet spot to relax and write in Playas del Coco

Once I started looking further afield, I was delighted to discover The Lookout, a restaurant nestled snugly within the unspoiled sections of Coco’s landscape. The Lookout is hardly a well-kept secret – it ranks as the #2 restaurant in Coco on TripAdvisor. But it deserves its place on the tourist’s podium due to its unrivalled views, delicious cocktails and attentive service. What makes The Lookout so different from the rest? It is quite literally a separate entity, sitting solitary in the hills that roll around Coco. The short taxi journey might as well be taking you a world away from the town centre’s main offenders as the atmosphere up here is calm, organic and just a little bit special.

The watermelon mojito coupled with that view makes for a dreamy evening

After rebelling against the picture of perfect tourism that Coco was trying to get me to swallow, my explorations had led me to a better place. I realised that there was authenticity to be found both in Coco’s nature and its people. Slowly my feelings morphed from aversion to apathy, from apathy to appreciation and I found myself softening to its subtle charms.

It took me months rather than days to get here, but I’m happy to the say that I finally came around to Coco and, while my heels still remain firmly below my head, I have found a quiet and personal admiration for the unsung corners of this town. When you get out of the tourist mindset, there’s gems to be found everywhere. Look up and there’s iguanas in the branches, and howler monkeys hooting from the treetops. Look around and there’s a coastline that can never be taken for granted, that stands proud and regal, detached from the frenzy of activity that mars its streets. Look further and there’s hidden coves and stunning hilltop views. And, if you look really really closely, there’s even the odd trinket to be found right under your nose; local vendors battle the giants with their simple stalls and reasonably priced fruits and sweet-treats; there are exceptions on the strip that serve delicious, simple eats; the smiles of strangers and friendliness of locals go along way to overriding the behemoth that is blind tourism.

Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

Now if only Ed Sheeran had written a song called ‘I’m in Like With the Coco’, I’d be in a bloggers paradise…


 

You can read all about my remaining time in Costa Rica, and my subsequent travels, by following me on BlogLovin’. Check out my Instagram for more photos of Playas del Coco’s hidden gems.