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When surfers first arrived in Playa Tamarindo in the 1970s, the Costa Rican beach town contained a single paved road and lacked running water or electricity. In the decades since, the once-sleepy Pacific coast locale has undergone a remarkable transformation. Today, with new restaurants, hotels and tour companies cropping up regularly, Tamarindo is one of the country’s most-visited beaches. Surfers still show up, of course, but so do eco-tourists and a growing number of luxury travelers drawn to sophisticated accommodations, international cuisine and exciting adventures.
Appealingly, though, this development hasn’t infringed on the town’s enduring non-touristy features. There are still ample sodas (casual, small restaurants that are typically locally owned) selling traditional casados — plates piled with rice, beans, meat and salad — as well as laidback surf shops and quirky local attractions, including a woman who sells casados out of her Toyota hatchback. Home to its own regional airport and located just 40 miles from Liberia Costa Rica Airport, Tamarindo is also highly accessible.
Following are three reasons to consider traveling to this revitalized Costa Rican hot spot.
Boating and catamaran sailing are popular excursions in Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Sunset sails offer the best views. // © 2014 Nikki Gloudeman
This colorful parakeet, found lounging at a beachside bar, is one of the many tropical birds living in Tamarindo. // © 2014 Nikki Gloudeman
Tamarindo is one of Costa Rica's most popular tourist destinations, but it has maintained its charms. // © 2014 Nikki Gloudeman
The shore at neighboring Playa Conchal (“Shell Beach”) is composed of tiny seashell fragments. // © 2014 Nikki Gloudeman
A mangrove swamp by Playa Tamarindo houses a lazy crocodile. // © 2014 Nikki Gloudeman
Sunset casts an orange glow on Tamarindo. // © 2014 Nikki Gloudeman
A Fine Dining SceneExcellent international restaurants — serving everything from Italian to Mediterranean to Japanese — are frequently opening in Tamarindo. Plus, many newer options offer vegan, vegetarian, organic and gluten-free options.
One of the town’s most acclaimed restaurants is Seasons by Shlomy, where celebrated Israeli Chef Shlomy serves Mediterranean-fusion cuisine in a poolside setting. Menu items include chicken-liver pate with Granny Smith apple chutney, gizzards with sticky chili and a gluten-free, vegetarian dish with green papaya, broccoli, basil, cilantro and peanuts in a lemon chili sauce.
A sophisticated ambience marks Nari Pizzeria, an oceanside Italian restaurant with a cascading roof, dramatic light fixtures and romantic lighting. It feels a bit like dining in Europe, but with a distinctly Central American backdrop.
One of a growing number of wellness focused options is Cala Moresca at Cala Luna Boutique Hotel and Villas. Local, organic dishes include a fine selection of fresh fish, and there’s an assortment of biodynamic wines available.
Other options include lively sports bars (Khahiki), sushi spots (Bamboo Sushi Club, Koi Beach Restaurant) and restaurants serving authentic Costa Rican cuisine (Gallo Fino, Dragonfly Bar & Grill).
New Luxury Hotels
Backpackers and surfers can still find plenty of budget-friendly hostels and hotels in which to stay, but a growing number of luxury properties are catering to a new niche of traveler.
Located right along the ocean’s edge, Hotel Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort features a lush garden, thatched-roof buildings and a tranquil pool encircled by tropical trees. A tour desk is available for help on booking local excursions, including to nearby nature reserves.
Eco-friendly and wellness-focused Cala Luna Boutique Hotel & Villas offers garden-side yoga classes and outdoor spa treatments on the beach. Activities include a nocturnal tour to glimpse rare black sea turtles.
Just north of Tamarindo in Playa Conchal is the area’s most extensive option: The Westin Playa Golf Resort & Spa Conchal. Spanning 2,400 acres, it includes an 18-hole golf course, three tennis courts and a spa with six treatment rooms. The property fringes a long stretch of shore composed uniquely of tiny seashell fragments.
Updated Tours and Adventures Respected tour companies offer ample opportunities for adventure and exploration. Not surprisingly, the best options bring guests to the sea.
Blue Dolphin SailingBlue Dolphin Sailing’s custom-built, 40-foot catamaran is one of the chicest vessels for seafaring. Kayaks and snorkeling gear are provided for side excursions, and the sunset sailing tour comes with local rum and cuisine, including arroz con pollo.www.bluedolphinsailing.com
Anywhere Costa RicaAnywhere Costa Rica’s estuary kayaking tour is a 2.5-hour guided ride between Tamarindo and nearby Playa Grande. Wildlife sightings include crocodiles, spider monkeys and tropical birds.
For surfing — a must-do here — a good bet is Costa Rica Surf Adventures. It caters to beginners and intermediates alike with day-long boot camps, and there’s an option to combine surfing with a yoga retreat.www.anywherecostarica.com
Go AdventuresAlternatively, Go Adventures is the only tour operator to offer boat charters out to Witch’s Rock, a lone jagged boulder in the sea that also happens to mark an excellent area for surfing. The company also offers boat rides to Ollie’s Point, a surf break showcased in the movie “The Endless Summer II.”www.goadventurescostarica.com
It’s been about 40 years since surfers first discovered the seaside charms of Tamarindo. Since then, happening international restaurants and bars, refined hotels and first-rate tours have transformed the ramshackle retreat into a thriving tourist hot spot. And yes, it now has running water, electricity and paved roads to boot.