The trip to the pacific beaches will take about 35-45 minutes and there two ways to go : the traditional scenic route or the new highway route. Most people choose to take the highway route to the beach – and theoretically it should be a bit faster than the traditional scenic route listed below – however, keep in mind that in most places it is still a one lane highway. So if you visit Costa Rica in December or January when CR schools are on break there could be heavy traffic, in which case taking the scenic route may actually be the quicker option. Ever since the new highway opened, the old route, which is a winding hilly road, is now almost completely empty and has virtually no trucks on it which used to really slow down the commute. One trip is more direct but has more traffic and tolls – while the other meanders a bit but you will likely have the road to yourselves.
There is currently an entrance to highway 27 in Atenas , however it has been closed for some time. If it is open – hop on the highway here heading west towards Orotina and Caldera (NOT towards San Jose, Escazu, or Santa Ana). If that entrance is still closed, make a right onto highway 3 in town (the road that brings you in Atenas where the gas station is) heading back in the direction towards the airport. The gas station and La Trilla Restaurant will be on your left. Stay to the right – passing the oxcart statue and going down the hill a bit. The road will eventually divide and highway 3 makes a sharp bend to the left but you want to stay straight – (do not go left) – heading straight into Rio Grande. In about 1km you will see a sign for the highway , making a left. Bring the change you have collected throughout your trip because you will need to pay a few tolls along the way. There are toll attendants who can give you change as well.
Once you reach Orotina follow signs for Jaco and Quepos (highway 34)- there will be an exit right after your 3rd (?) toll on the right. It is quickly after the toll so be sure to keep an eye out for it. Continue on this road and it will take you to the beaches!
The most direct road on the scenic route from our house is the get onto Highway 3 heading north. Highway 3 is the main road that brought you into Atenas ( where the gas station is ). Head back down through town and make a left onto highway 3 (heading away from the gas station) . This is the old mountain road to the beaches. It will bring you up the hill to the top of Atenas where you can see a view of the ocean if it’s clear. One of our favorite little tico spots (Cafe Mirador)is at the top where we love to stop for some arroz con pollo and a fruit shake or cerveza Take this road for quite a while – about 25 minutes. You will head up the hill and then wind down again and come to a town called San Ramon. Make a left into the town – there is a church at the corner. Continue on this road and it will take you intio Orotina, a large town with gas stations, fruit stands, and a few restaurants. As you pass through Orotina, hop onto the highway 27 west from there towards Jaco and the pacific beaches.
If you are heading into Puntarenas for the ferry or a Catamaran tour to Isla Tortuga like Calypso Tours for instance , stay on 27 and follow signs to Puntarenas.
Eventually you will approach the Tarcoles river where a lot of people stop to take a look at the crocodiles below. Make sure you lock your doors at the parking area. This is a very popular tourist spot which, unfortunately, is just the type of place someone might want to grab something from your car if they have easy access.
Shortly past the Tarcoles bridge on the left is Carrara National Park , where you can stop to take a walk or hire a guide – which is well worth it- to point out all kinds of wildlife.
Another spot further down the road is the town of Tarcoles (make a right shortly past The Nativa Resort on the right) where you can go to take a river trip and see the guys feeding the massive crocs. There are also lots of different types of birds to see as well as a trip into the mangroves if the water level is up high enough (particularly in the rainy season). Take that road to the end and make another right. There are a few different companies that give these river tours. They are more or less the same, but if we had to choose – we liked the one all the way at the end and on the left (with the large gift shop).
Head down highway 34 further and you will eventually hit all of the pacific beaches. One of our favorite spots is just past the main entrance to Punta Leone, a large resort on the right. The resort is located on a beautiful cove where you can picnic and swim in the calm waters. However, if you go into the main entrance you will have to pay $50/pp for beach access through the resort. I think this gives access to all the resort amenities, but if you want the beautiful beach for free (minus the bar) then pass the main entrance and make the next right onto a dirt road ( it will be just before the road heads up hill). Take this road for about 3 km – eventually you will begin to see condos that are part of the resort and the road will end, leaving you at main road of the resort. Make a left at the main road and drive until you see a little gatehouse with a small dirt road that people park on . This is the access to the beach that we take as well as all the locals. It is obviously a lot more crowded on weekends and holidays than it is during the week.
Other beautiful beach options include:
Playa Herradura (make a right at the Playa Herradura Plaza where the AutoMercado is). Playa Herradura is also where you connect to get take a trip to Isla Tortuga for the day. There are different companies that take this trip – from larger vessels like the Pura Vida Princess , (which is a bit of a booze cruise since they start you off with “happy juice” at 8am) to smaller, more intimate ones which are more like a private tour Pura Vida Swiss Management Day Tours and they also charter deep sea fishing tours. There are a lot of people that do go on these tours , but it is a beautiful place. we saw huge Manta Rays that were jumping way out of the water in February as a mating ritual (or to cleanse the algae from their skin) on the way to island. If you are lucky you might also see Whales and dolphins. It is a fun day trip, albeit touristy.
Playa Hermosa, beyond Playa Jaco (which we avoid) is a surfers paradise , and the tide can be strong. There are also few trees, which is why many people continue further down 34 to Playas Esterillos. There are lovely beaches. You might be lucky and get a visit from some Scarlet Macaws while at the beaches – you will hear them first as they are very loud – but they are magnificent to see , especially in flight!
Whatever you decide to do – bring lots of sunscreen, bug spray , towels, a cover- up for later in the day, hat, sunglasses, chairs and mats and pack the cooler with drinks and lots of fresh cut fruit!!