One of the best things about visiting Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast are the many beaches that remain nearly deserted. You can pull off the highway in places between towns like Dominical and Ojochal to find only a handful of people enjoying time under the palms or wading in the surf. But if you are in search of a secret beach that even fewer people know about, Playa Arco is your spot. In this post, we’ll let you know how to access this tranquil beach and what to expect once you arrive. Spoiler: There is an awesome cave and some small waterfalls!
Playa Arco is located between the towns of Uvita and Ojochal in the Southern Zone of Costa Rica. It is about a 1.25 hour drive south of the popular beach town of Manuel Antonio and 30 minutes south of the surf town of Dominical. Playa Arco is one of five beaches in Marino Ballena National Park (Parque Nacional Marino Ballena). This park is one of the country’s only national marine parks and has gained recognition for its whale-tail-shaped sandbar.
Accessing Playa Arco
The main reason that Playa Arco remains somewhat of a secret is that it is not that easy to access. While some private properties and hotels have trails leading to it, the general public must go through the Ballena Sector Ranger Station and pay admission at the national park ($6 foreigners or ₡1,000 nationals).
The best way to find this ranger station is to look for a restaurant on the side of the highway (Route 34) a few miles south of Uvita called Ballena Bistro. The dirt road on the right immediately after the restaurant leads to the ranger station. Ballena Bistro is also one of our favorite places for lunch in the area, so be sure to check it out if you have time.
IMPORTANT: Playa Arco is accessible only during low tide so you must plan your trip according to the tide chart. Try to arrive when the tide is on its way out (1-2 hours before full low tide). Leave the beach before the tide gets too high (no more than a couple of hours after low tide).
Once you have entered the ranger station, you will walk toward the beach and take the marked trail north through a short section of forest. This trail ends at the rocky Playa Ballena. From there, you have to walk north on the beach, carefully traversing the various sized rocks, until you reach a large point.
Along the way are a couple of small stream crossings. Small is a relative term since when we visited in the rainy season (October), the water was almost knee-deep and rushing quickly. In the drier months, we have heard that these streams are a lot less forceful but still enough to get your feet wet. We wore hiking boots, but they got drenched with both river and sea water on the walk. Flip-flops are not recommended, but something like Keen sandals would be perfect.
When you reach the point, be careful to stay on the inland side. This is where most people get lost and try to go over the wet rocks near the surf. If you keep walking inland (to the right), you will soon see the trail you want. This leads through the forest, up and over a hill. It is a short stretch until you reach the beach, but is a little steep with some loose gravel. At the bottom of the hill is the south side of Playa Arco.
The total hike from the ranger station is about 2 km (1.25 miles) each way and is easy to moderate in difficulty. The rocks on the beach require some balance and you do have to cross a stream. It is not a bad walk, though, if you’re in decent shape. It took us about a half-hour each way, but we were carrying our son in a baby carrier so were going slowly.
Although getting to the beach is a bit of work, you will be well rewarded for your efforts. Playa Arco is a gorgeous tan sand beach with a steep embankment of thick green jungle as its backdrop. When we visited, we were immediately greeted by a family of howler monkeys that were enjoying the lush vegetation. Small islands just offshore make for a dramatic ocean view.
Although it may seem like you have arrived at the main part of the beach when you get off the forest trail, keep walking north along the sand. Just past the steep rocky cliff is an even more expansive section of the beach, an awesome cave, and two small waterfalls.
Before you round the corner to the second section of Playa Arco, you’ll notice a narrow opening in the rocky cliff. This cave goes all the way through to the other side (about 50 feet). At high tide, ocean water rushes inside so it isn’t safe to enter, but at low tide you can wade your way through.
The small channel of water in the cave varies in depth. When we visited, it was about waist level at the deepest part and only ankle- or knee-deep otherwise. There were some slimy logs and rocks along the bottom so take your time and tread carefully. One thing we really enjoyed about the cave was that the northern entrance had nice shallow water for our son, Sam, to splash around in. We also saw some cool crabs clinging to the walls inside.
The water outside the southern entrance of the cave also gets this really beautiful clear green hue when there hasn’t been too much rain. Check out this picture on our Pinterest board that our friends took.
Near the northern entrance of the cave are a couple of small waterfalls cascading down the steep embankment. These were perfect for rinsing off after swimming in the ocean or wading through the cave. They were also really refreshing! Both were flowing well when we visited in October during the rainy season, but we can imagine at least one of them drying up to a trickle at other times of year.
Planning Your Visit
- The Ballena Sector Ranger Station is open every day from 7 a.m. – 4 p.m.
- Parking is somewhat secure because the lot is in front of the ranger station but never leave any belongings in the car.
- The ranger station has a bathroom, but it is a bit hidden. Follow the path outside the ranger station to the left past the cabins. The last building is the bathroom. A rustic shower is also near the main entrance, just past the ranger station.
- Admission: $6 foreigners and ₡1,000 nationals.
- Admission tickets are valid at all Marino Ballena National Park entrances on the date of purchase. Be sure to go beach hopping if you have time. We highly recommend Playa Uvita and the whale tail.
- Playa Arco is somewhat sheltered and decent for swimming, but this whole stretch of coastline experiences riptides so do use caution.
- The portion of the walk along the beach is in direct sunlight and extremely hot. Wear a hat and sunscreen and bring water.
UPDATE (Nov. 21, 2016): Due to recent crime in the area, it is recommended that you use caution when accessing the beach. This is an isolated area, which is good because you can have the beach to yourself, but is also bad because it leaves you vulnerable. Always be aware of your surroundings and do not take any valuables with you. Leave your camera, wallet, and passport locked away at your hotel and just carry a towel and sunscreen. Traveling with a group is also a good idea.
A trip to Playa Arco will leave you feeling like you have discovered a secret beach. Our visit reminded us of when we were exploring Costa Rica for the first time and everything was new and amazing. It not only offers a beautiful beach, but the jungle surrounds, cave, and waterfalls make for a unique experience. Playa Arco is also one of the most secluded beaches we’ve ever visited (there was only one other family there) so you might have it all to yourself.
Have you visited Playa Arco? What was your experience like? Leave us a comment below (Email subscribers, click here to post your comment online.)
Looking for more info to plan your trip to Costa Rica’s Southern Zone? Check out these articles:
- The Costa Ballena: Uvita, Dominical, and Ojochal – General information about this area, which is one of Costa Rica’s most up and coming destinations. Includes activity and lodging ideas.
- Visiting the Beautiful Nauyaca Waterfalls – If you are visiting the area, you can’t miss one of Costa Rica’s most spectacular waterfalls, just 45 minutes north of Playa Arco.
- 10 Daypack Essentials for Costa Rica – If you’re doing shorter hikes in Costa Rica like this one, consider keeping some of these items your pack.