Tamarindo versus Costa Ballena: Five reasons why the South Coast of Costa Rica does it better than the North
The northern coast of Costa Rica has long been the place that the majority of tourism comes into the country from around the world. With its long, sandy beaches, warm weather, and great surf, the surfers’ paradises that dot the world-renown North Pacific coast of Guanacaste province quickly became the resort capitals of the country. But in the southern part of the Pacific Coast, you will find Costa Rica’s lesser known meccas; the ones that were founded in a time after Costa Rica learned to value what made it truly special: nature.
Tamarindo, the capital of North Pacific tourism in Costa Rica, has witnessed a number of changes over the past three decades, with many waves of development. Surfers who made it to Costa Rica in the early days found Tamarindo to be a perfect surf break that no one seemed to be riding. A small amount of housing options have since turned into paved roads, shopping centers, chain resorts, beachside restaurants, and all-night bars.
There is no doubt that Tamarindo and other destinations in the north west of Costa Rica have beautiful sandy beaches with clear, blue water. But developers have devastated the coastline and marine regions over time, taking sand from some of the best surf breaks to create roads and clear cutting trees before Costa Rica’s environmental regulations became the strict laws that they are today. As such, you can find hotels and other businesses within the Maritime Zone (200m from the high tide line) in Guanacaste, whereas our Costa Ballena beaches in the south look about as pristine and wild as they have ever been throughout history. This very natural aesthetic extends into the local and expat communities in the south, which value the preservation of nature wherever possible, and favor building around instead of building over.
Climate and Environment
Adventure sport conditions are nearly perfect all over Costa Rica. Warm air and water make for a comfortable time when indulging in popular activities like surfing, visiting waterfalls, ziplining, and spotting wildlife. Anywhere you go along the coast will be a one-wardrobe kind of destination. But the main difference in performing any of these activities is in the quality of the environment.
In the north of Costa Rica, the larger number of residents and tourists passing through take their toll on the environment. Guanacaste’s most popular coastal regions were clear cut decades ago for logging and farming to support the growing population and have not recovered since. And water shortages are a regular occurrence in the most populous regions of Guanacaste.
In the south, careful water regulations have kept development from exceeding the abilities of nature to fulfill the needs of the population. Wildlife protection is critical to consider when developing in the more regulated South Pacific, including the preservation of long, natural corridors for Costa Rica’s most iconic animals like the Baird’s Tapir or jaguar, which need large areas to roam. Natural conditions are far more prevalent in the less developed south, which is predominantly covered in primary and secondary tropical wet forest.
Other than beaches, the north and south of Costa Rica have a number of differences between their natural ecosystems. The north drains the large Tamarindo River that creates estuaries for seabirds and other marine life. In the south, the Sierpe and Terraba — Costa Rica’s two longest rivers — are home to some of the biggest and most diverse mangrove systems in the world, which remain preserved thanks to strict environmental regulations.
There are some rolling hills along the northern coast but they are nothing like the verdant green Talamanca Mountains covered by primary and secondary Tropical Wet Forest that hit you like a wall as soon as you approach Dominical by the coastal highway. From then on, the lushly forested hillside communities sit above the south’s immaculate and dynamic coastline. These are big visual differences when comparing properties in Costa Ballena to the flat, dry, and brown coastlines around Tamarindo. The Tropical Dry Forest in the north makes for much drier, hotter weather than the wetter climate you will find in the south.
Quality of Life
The quality of life is quite similar between the north and the south coast. Because of the all-around warm weather, the vibe of everyday life is happy and relaxed. There are no big weather stressors in either destination; however, the north of the country is more geologically active. The majority of Costa Rica’s volcanoes are near the North Pacific coast so this is where you will find earthquakes and geo-thermal activity to be more prevalent.
Food and beverages are mostly the same across all parts of Costa Rica although the North Pacific will have more abundant access to goods from overseas due to its more international population. The south is more focused on buying fresh, local goods and farmers’ markets are an important part of the local economy, which supports local business first and foremost.
The South Pacific is known as the home of pura vida because of the slow pace of life that happens when you are living in the jungle. Rain, wildlife, and other natural elements make it hard to plan your day fully. But living so closely to nature also means that southerners are not subject to stressing over situations that cannot be controlled. The drier north is able to be more commercially driven and therefore caters to a more high-maintenance crowd.
Being more popular with the resort-going crowds, Guanacaste tourism designations don’t have the same relaxing atmosphere as our laid-back communities in the south. In the north, you will find things like world-class casinos, golf courses, modern convention centers, and close proximity to an international airport. This is where celebrities go when they visit because this is where you will find the multi-million dollar estates and all of the pampering experiences you could want. Properties in the nicest areas are prohibitively expensive for most buyers and the rest of the real estate is positioned on small properties with not many naturally extravagant features.
The Costa Ballena is first-and-foremost populated by local farming families and international expats who have come to work or retire. There are not any big businesses or major developers in this region and the tourists that do come here end up living more like the “locals”, preferring to take up temporary residence in a private ocean view rental. At 3.5 hours from Costa Rica’s largest international airport, this is not the easiest part of the country to access. The extended distance means that only the most dedicated nature and tranquil culture lovers make it this far south. But once you arrive, the rewards are plentiful and anyone who has visited will tell you it’s worth it to make the effort. Homes are often perched on hillsides and enveloped in rich, green forests populated by fresh mountain springs. Some of us are even lucky enough to have our own private waterfall access. And these superior properties in the south are still available at far lower rates than anything remotely equivalent that you may be able to find in the north.
However you choose to compare, we think that the more tranquil and more natural south comes out on top. We prefer the smaller crowds of people who don’t need a resort type atmosphere with cookie cutter amenities. The south is where you will find the authentic cultural experiences, the true natural indulgences, and the real pura vida. If you haven’t lived it, you haven’t really tried the best that Costa Rica has to offer.