Flamingo Coast is a green, blue and gold microcosm of Costa Rica’s greatest hits
This story and the Flamingo Coast series originally ran in December 2016.
FLAMINGO, Guanacaste — “Do you think you can tell heaven from hell?” crooned the Uruguayan musician at a bar in Potrero, the Shack, which was packed with both expats and Ticos on a weeknight.
Come to think of it, I believe I’ve just discovered one of the above.
Some people come to Costa Rica looking for isolation in nature where a splendid beach meets a virgin forest. Some come wanting a more social environment, where they can meet people and party a little. Some come to buy their dream homes and raise their children, if not to retire for the rest of their lives.
I haven’t found a better place in Costa Rica to do any or all of the above than the Flamingo Coast north of Tamarindo and south of Playas del Coco.
Costa Rica’s Greatest Places
In this series, The Tico Times Travel section takes an in-depth look at some of Costa Rica’s greatest destinations, with multiple articles exploring the attractions of each. Throughout the month of December, we’ll visit the sumptuous Flamingo Coast — Playa Grande, Conchal, Brasilito, Flamingo, Potrero and Las Catalinas.
It’s a dream location, most of it overlooking two picturesque bays, Brasilito and Potrero, in an oceanscape dotted with islands. Along the coastal roads, there are deluxe developments, 5-star hotels, ordinary cabinas, sodas and pulperías, and magnificent ocean views.
It goes without saying that you can find just about anything to do here — golfing, sportfishing, scuba diving, ziplining, ATV tours, horseback riding, mountain biking….
“What I personally like about this area over here, it’s more residential,” said Britta Engelhardt, the German proprietor of Tropical Homes, which manages vacation rentals on this coast. “Even if it’s touristy, we don’t have such a huge influx of tourists that it’s overcrowded.”
It’s true. I’ve spent some time in Tamarindo and Playas del Coco, but if you look at the coastline between them — Playas Grande, Conchal, Brasilito, Flamingo, Potrero, Pan de Azúcar and Danta — you’ll find a microcosm of almost everything Costa Rica has to offer within a half-hour drive.
“The people decided to come here because this is an area not completely developed,” said Hernán Binaghi, the manager of Westin Golf Resort & Spa on Playa Conchal. “It means that we can still find a bond between nature and the local things with not so much infrastructure, while if you go to Mexico it might be like Disneyland.”
A range of communities
The Westin sits behind one of the most beautiful beaches in the country, Playa Conchal, with sand made of crushed seashells. The forest around it is dry tropical. This means it’s green and lush in the wet season; in the dry season, it reverts to a state kindly described as “golden.”
South of here is the surfing mecca of Playa Grande, on a thickly wooded peninsula bounded by the Tamarindo Estuary and the Pacific Ocean. Here I stayed at two great hotels, the RipJack Inn and the Bula Bula, and toured a gated community of dream homes at Las Ventanas. There’s one road in and one road out of Grande, but you can jump on a taxi boat and be in Tamarindo in minutes.
If you’re watching your colones, head up the road to Brasilito and you can crash at a perfectly good beachfront hotel with air conditioning for $40. Brasilito is a totally Tico town with little stores, restaurants and cabinas clustered around a fútbol field. Here I stayed at the Hotel Brasilito and the Conchal Hotel, both of which were within walking distance of four lively bars, with revelers spilling into the streets until the wee hours.
“People that are moving close to Flamingo, Potrero, even Brasilito and all the neighborhoods around, there is a feeling that there is development but there is a balance of protecting the nature and not saturating the whole area,” said Pedro D’oñas, the manager of the Flamingo Beach Resort, the only beachfront hotel in Flamingo. “Many people call Flamingo ‘Tamarindo Lite’.”
North of Brasilito, Flamingo sits in a commanding position geographically on the scenic, hilly peninsula between Brasilito and Potrero bays. It’s covered in condominiums, vacation rentals and private mansions, but it’s also surrounded by an estuary that can never be developed and will presumably remain green forever.
Up the road from there is Potrero, a town stretched out along a winding road, with a thriving community of expats (a great many of them Canadians) in the posh Surfside neighborhood. I stayed at three nice hotels here, at prices as low as $30 a night. I also tried the more upscale accommodations farther north at the Sugar Beach Hotel on Playa Pan de Azúcar, a delightful spot.
Finally, there’s the unique community of Las Catalinas on Playa Danta in the north, which looks like a Mediterranean village transplanted from Italy.
“It has become a multicultural and international area,” D’oñas said. “We just are very happy to share our beauty and our country with people from all over the world. And we have them now not just as a visitors but also as neighbors.”
Flamingo is known in part for having the most star-crossed marina in Costa Rican history. It operated for over a decade, but it was shut down in 2003 for a complex set of reasons.
Today the marina project is under new management, and the current team is talking optimistically about gaining all the necessary permits within weeks and starting construction within months.
People here have heard talk of a new marina for years, but most people seem to believe it’s really going to happen this time.
“It’s going to help the community for people that are working directly, fishermen and all that, so they will have space for that as well,” said D’oñas. “But it’s mainly being built in order to draw people, to increase the area, help to increase the value of land here. It’s a win-win project, I think, and the community and some other people before were trying to get this done, and it falls down every single time. But finally I think these guys are going to make it.”
Why not move here?
I asked Aaron Berkowitz, 28, one of the chief builders at the luxury Mar Vista gated community between Brasilito and Flamingo, what’s so special about this area.
“Families,” he said. Aaron married a Tica and they had a son. “Especially on this side where Flamingo is, it’s a lot more peaceful than Tamarindo, and this is a place where I want to raise my son. I would not raise my son in Tamarindo.”
Britta Engelhardt of Tropical Homes seconds that emotion.
“So when you go to Jacó and Tamarindo, it’s much more crowded, and here you have more vacation homes, where people can stay right on the beach, and you don’t have all these major megaprojects,” she said.
“It’s very family-oriented over here as well, which I like, so it keeps it all more, more like a private setting, not like this party town, and that’s what I really appreciate.”
Federico Marín, a developer and builder here, said, “One of the things that makes Flamingo special is because it’s one of the few white sand beaches on the whole Pacific coast. The other is that if you want to live in a place that is a community, it’s not like Tamarindo, that you have discos blasting hard rock until 4 o’clock in the morning every night. Some people like that, some people don’t. But as a community, Flamingo is a lot quieter.”
A-fishing we shall go
One day I walked a block and a half from the Isolina Hotel to Potrero Beach, and there was nobody there until a quiet Italian man (and you don’t often hear about quiet Italians) pulled up in an SUV to go fishing from the shore.
His name was Daniel, and he spoke Spanish with no Italian accent — because he came from the north, he said. Asked what it’s like to live here, he said it’s better to have few friends, but good ones, than a lot of friends you don’t know well. Then he shook my hand and walked down to the beach and started casting his lure.
I looked out and I could see big fish jumping in Potrero Bay, right between me and a sailboat, but by now Daniel was out of shouting distance.
Back at The Shack, the Pink Floyd song played on: “How I wish, how I wish you were here.”
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