When we last left off on our journey through Costa Rica, we had just completed a 75-mile hike through the jungle of Rincon de la Vieja. (Ok it was only like 6 miles, but don’t tell my legs that.)
That was our final day in Liberia, and now it was time to pack up and head west to the beautiful beach town of Tamarindo.
If you missed any of Parts 1 – 4, you can go back and catch up here. (And you totally should!)
Hitting the Road
We packed up all our luggage and re-Tetris’d everything into the car for our 2-hour drive from Liberia to Tamarindo.
Tamarindo is a popular beach town/surfing spot, with a lot more hotels/resorts, restaurants, and visiting tourists running around than we had experienced during our entire 10 days in Liberia.
The difference was shocking from the moment we drove into town.
One minute we’re driving through beautiful green pastures and lush mountains.
The next we were down at sea level bumper to bumper with cars and tour buses. Pedestrians were flowing all along the sidewalks and through the traffic. There were gorgeous beaches, shops, and restaurants as far as the eye could see.
We could tell that this is where the tourists hang out.
We were hungry for lunch so we found a place to park our car, then joined the crowd of mostly sun-soaked vacationers on the streets and sidewalks.
There was a bit of culture shock as we had just spent the previous 10 days in Liberia being the minority English-speaking family among the majority local Spanish-speaking Ticos at the sports camp.
I’m not sure what exactly we expected from the rest of our trip, but suddenly driving into what could have easily been any seaside beach town in California was not it.
We found a small outdoor food court of sorts with mismatched plastic chairs under thatch huts surrounded by several small restaurants and bars. We ordered up some food at one of the restaurants and ate our fill as Valarie and I discussed just how different everything felt.
Though we were practically the only ones eating in the outdoor food court during the middle of the day, we could definitely sense that the place got busy after sunset as the vacationing party people took over.
After downing our lunch, we were happy to hop back into the car to locate our next Airbnb and try to find some less populated places to explore.
Airbnb number 3 was a 3rd story condo in what turned out to be a very nice condominium complex.
Like our apartment in Liberia, this was also a 2 bedroom 2 bath unit, but more recently built with much nicer finishings, plus a larger living room and couch situation.
This meant Jacob got to sleep on the couch in the living room while the 3 girls got a bedroom all to themselves.
This was a much better setup…for Jacob.
The complex also had 4 different swimming pools!
The pool closest to our unit had a really nice swim-up bar area for hosting parties and gatherings as well as infinity walls along the deep end meaning the water at the edges would trickle over outwardly curved concrete walls right below the water level and get recycled through pumps beneath the pool.
That meant from inside the pool there was nothing obstructing our view of the neatly manicured lawns and gardens surrounding us.
So this is how the fancy people live, huh?
During our stay, we found that the pool became our evening relaxation station after a full day of exploring.
Speaking of exploring, after getting settled into our condo, we wanted to check out at least one of the awesome beaches in the area.
We made a quick grocery store run to stock our fridge for the next few days, then decided to head to a beach we had read great things about on the internet, Playa Flamingo.
We arrived around dinner time but there was still plenty of street parking available near the several open-air restaurants along the beach.
We quickly parked and made our way down to the beach.
Remember how Playa Hermosa beach was in a cove and that made the water tame and peaceful compared to many of the other beaches along the Costa Rican coast?
Remember how I said we would be discussing that later?
Welcome to later.
The waves here at Playa Flamingo were probably only 4 or 5 feet tall, but that was much bigger than any waves we’ve experienced before.
There were a handful of people out in the water playing in the waves, and Jacob and Carly were itching to run in, but I wanted to wade in first and see what we were dealing with.
We weren’t even knee-deep in yet when I heard Valarie scream at me to grab Scottie.
I looked over and about 8 feet away from me I could see she had been knocked over by a wave and was being pulled by the strong current deeper into the ocean.
I ran over and grabbed her hand but realized I had my camera in my other hand. The pull of the water was so strong that all I could do was dig my feet into the sand and hold on to her and wait for the water to stop rushing out.
As the flow of water eased up, I picked her up and we ran the short 15 feet back to the dry beach.
That was a scary moment for all of us.
It turns out this shoreline got deep pretty quickly, meaning the waves would crash just 20 feet off the beach, sending water rapidly rushing up the beach only to turn around and rush back out just as quickly.
Apparently, Playa Flamingo was a more accurate depiction of the beach experiences in Costa Rica.
Near calamity aside, we spent the rest of the evening watching the beautiful sunset and enjoying the waves as they came up to meet us on the shore, rather than rushing out to meet them.
Eventually, Jacob and Carly were fine to rush into the crashing waves and back in, as kids do at the beach, but Scottie and Giabella stayed very close to mommy and daddy on the shore.
Watching the sunset behind the waves was beautiful, and the night was definitely a success, but we realized that things could have ended very differently in an instant.
A few nights later, as we were relaxing in the pool at our condo, we met a wonderful couple who had just moved down to Costa Rica from Toronto, Canada. The lady’s sister and brother-in-law were in town visiting.
After we shared our experience with Scottie at Playa Flamingo, she shared that just the week before they had gone to Playa Flamingo, and while they were out floating and playing in the water, a wave hit her sister so hard she broke her ankle. She had to crawl out of the ocean and they had to take her to the hospital.
It probably would have been nice to hear that story before we ventured out there ourselves.
Watch yo babies out there, ya’ll.
The next day we decided to hit up another popular beach we had heard great things about, Playa Conchal.
This beach is very different because the shore is actually made up of thousands of teeny tiny shells instead of sand. It makes the beach look almost perfectly white and keeps the water crystal clear without a bunch of sand getting stirred up.
Loaded in our chariot, we made the 20-minute drive to the nearest town to find parking.
Parking in the tourist areas along the beaches can be tough.
Not because it’s hard to find parking spaces, but because you’ll encounter a large number of people “helping” to guide you into this spot or that one – and you know these people aren’t being helpful for free.
The challenge is that for the public beaches there often aren’t hard and fast rules about whether you have to pay for parking, but the “helpful” parking guides will quickly state that there is a fee to park in their area.
We found a nice convenient place to park and “George” helped guide us into the curbside parking area.
As soon as we were out of the vehicle, “George” 1 was at our side asking for money as we were unbuckling the kids. There were no signs or information online saying we had to pay for parking, but I gave “George” a few bucks nonetheless.
In the past, it was possible to drive across a long stretch of regular beach to reach Playa Conchal, but we read online that option had been closed down.
The only ways to reach Playa Conchal these days were to stay at one of the hotels conveniently located right on the beach, or park in a small part of town about a quarter-mile away and walk across the beach between the two locations.
If it was just Val and me, the quarter-mile beach crawl wouldn’t be too bad, but with backpacks and beach towels and 4 kids in tow, it required a bit more effort.
What’s funny is that this quarter-mile of beach we had to cross was perfectly beautiful, and just about anywhere else in the world would be crammed with people playing and having fun.
But because the unique seashell beach of Playa Conchal was just around the corner, this otherwise beautiful beach was now just a sandy passageway for travelers to get to the more desired beach.
It was an odd scene.
Nevertheless, we made our pilgrimage across one completely deserted beach, and finally up and down a small hill to reach Playa Conchal.
Exploring the Seashell Beach
As advertised, the beach was beautiful! The shimmering white shells gave the beach a super clean and mesmerizing look.
We planted our gear down in a shady spot beneath a small rock cliff and headed for the water.
Much like the cove beach at Playa Hermosa, Playa Conchal was also made up of a small inlet that served to dampen the waves.
This made it a relatively peaceful beach with lots of people donning snorkels and fins and swimming way out in the crystal clear water to explore.
Near the entrance to the beach, we found a small area with several rock formations that created its own smaller sheltered cove. Here the water was really shallow and only got to about 4 feet deep 20 feet off the shore.
This is where most of the families with small children were gathered as little ones could play safely in the shallows with hardly any waves at all making it past the rocky outcropping.
Valarie and I took turns exploring the marine life with our snorkel while the other splashed around and swam with the little girls.
Jacob and Carly had their own masks and snorkels so they enjoyed the challenge of not only observing the fish but trying to catch one with their hands. They didn’t, of course, but that didn’t stop the game from being fun for a really long time.
Eventually, we headed over to the main part of the beach, and that’s when we discovered that, while very beautiful, the small pointy seashells that made up the beach were a nightmare on the feet.
They didn’t squish and flex like sand. They crunched and poked.
And as the sun rose in the sky…they got incredibly hot.
Making our way over to the main beach to play in the waves and swim wasn’t too bad, but when we decided to head back to the spot where we placed our beach gear, the sun was higher and the shells were even hotter.
Jacob and Carly could run and squeal just fine, but Scottie and Giabella weren’t having it. So that meant Valarie and I had to carry them back, which made treading lightly much more difficult.
I would definitely recommend sandals for this beach excursion.
We huddled up in what was left of the shade from our rock cliff and ate the lunches we packed for the day, then decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in the small cove nearest to our beach gear to avoid another long walk on the shells.
Being a very tourist-heavy location, we assumed most of the people around us were from outside Costa Rica, and to listen to all the different languages being spoken around us, we were pretty sure that was the case.
And that’s part of what made it so fantastic.
The fact that all of us had come from all over the world, to arrive at this very unique beach, to play in the water and genuinely enjoy each other’s families as we swam around playing with our kids together, the whole time realizing that we probably couldn’t communicate with each other even if we wanted to, and in a matter of a few days or weeks, we would all be back on different continents living our own lives again.
It was beautiful.
Back to the Car
We played for perhaps another hour or so before we were ready to call it a day.
We had to keep in mind that we had that quarter-mile beach pilgrimage back to our car, and neither Val nor I wanted to get stuck carrying any tired kids for that jaunt.
We packed up our gear and made our way off Playa Conchal and back down the hill onto the beautiful deserted beach that was our pathway.
Seeing it as we were leaving, this beautiful (and much easier on the feet) beach was all the more striking for how abandoned it was. The sand area was probably 50 to 60 feet wide but was completely empty except for a long line of scattered people slowly walking back and forth from the small town to Playa Conchal.
We decided to walk along the edge of the water on the way back letting the soft waves gently wash over our feet and ankles.
The kids were definitely tired but this delight seemed to energize them enough to keep going.
Jacob and I arrived back at the car first and decided to get the A/C going to cool down the car for the little girls.
As soon as I unlocked the car and lifted the tailgate to pack in the beach gear, a gentleman approached and asked for money to pay for our parking. I informed him I had already paid when I arrived.
That did not dissuade him.
In broken English, he said I needed to pay for parking. It was a requirement.
I politely told him again that I had already paid for parking when I arrived.
Jacob looked on in confusion as he was climbing into his cozy middle seat between the two little girls’ car seats.
At this point, Valarie and the girls were walking up and wondering what all the commotion was about. I told them the gentleman was asking to be paid for parking, which was not going to happen.
Valarie and I worked to get the girls cleaned up and in the car as quickly as we could.
Once the little girls were all buckled in and we were ready to go, I told the gentleman who had been asking for money the whole time, that I had paid “George”.
“Go find George,” I said. “I already paid George for parking. You should talk to him.”
As I shut my door he slowly walked back to the shady side of a building where he was hanging out with a handful of other guys.
I didn’t see “George” among them.
Meet and Greet in the Pool
That night we did what we did every night, we hit the pool until after dark which was around 6pm each night.
One thing we loved about being at the pool was that we got to meet lots of different people who either lived in the condo complex or were visiting Costa Rica from somewhere else.
I already mentioned the husband and wife we met in the pool who had just moved down to Costa Rica from Toronto, Canada. They were super excited to ditch what had been a lifetime of Canadian winters for a more tropical year-round climate.
They were in the process of building a house in Costa Rica and were only staying in the condo complex for a few weeks until their house was complete. (Apparently, time-delays in home construction are universal.)
As I was playing with the kids in the deep end of the pool, Valarie struck up a conversation with another woman over in the shallow end with her 3-year-old son.
This lady was in town from neighboring Nicaragua for a friend’s baby shower.
She shared how she was originally from Nicaragua, but eventually moved to Florida with her parents during her school-age years. After college, she ended up moving to Germany to spend some time abroad, and that’s where she met her husband.
After having 2 children, she wanted to be closer to her parents. She and her husband considered moving to Florida, but her parents wanted to move back to Nicaragua. So after talking it over with her husband, they all decided to buy a house in Nicaragua and raise their two children alongside their grandparents.
They moved into what sounds like a beautiful villa in the mountains of Nicaragua where her parents live in the East Wing and her family lives in the West Wing. They have a live-in chef and live-in nanny to help take care of the kids.
Valarie was extremely curious at this point and quickly discovered that the cost of living in Nicaragua was much cheaper than Costa Rica.
Of course, as ignorant Americans, one of our first questions was how safe it was in Nicaragua. She laughed and assured us that all we would ever hear on the news is the bad stuff, but that there were plenty of beautiful and peaceful places in the country, but, of course, nobody was writing stories about those.
They exchanged information as the sun was setting and we all headed to our respective condo’s to get dinner ready for our kiddos.
Because of a chance encounter in a pool in Costa Rica, Nicaragua has officially been added to the list of places we will someday visit.
Well, if you can believe it, we just completed day 14 of our 22-day adventure through Costa Rica.
After just a few days, our time in Tamarindo has come to an end.
Now it’s time to pack up the SUV once again and head back east to the popular La Fortuna where we’ll traverse hanging bridges, play all day at a deserted waterpark, and swim in the powerful La Fortuna waterfall.
Check it all out in Part 6.
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