This Car-free Beach Town Is a Hidden Gem in Costa Rica With Beautiful Beaches and Charming Cobblestone Streets
Call it new urbanism, a planned community, or a counter to the mega-resorts that have overtaken a chunk of the world's coastline: Las Catalinas is the realized vision of entrepreneur Charles Brewer, who himself owns one of the car-free town's largest houses.
Since its inception in 2005 (building began in 2009), Las Catalinas — inspired by the seaside towns of the Mediterranean with a respectful nod to the colorful homes and shops of Antigua, Guatemala, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico — was envisioned to be a place where children can frolic freely while their parents sip cocktails overlooking the lapping Pacific waves.
But beyond the walkable cobblestone streets and plaza fountains encouraging children's play is a community with stunning architecture, easy access to water sports like boogie boarding and snorkeling, and a handful of restaurants serving three squares a day. Las Catalinas director of sales and marketing Renae Johnson says architects would describe the enclave as a "short urban transect, [one that] indeed enriches life."
Surrounded by roughly 1,000 acres of tropical dry forest, Las Catalinas is much more than sun and sand, though it has those in spades. In many ways, it feels perfectly aligned with many travelers' changed priorities, since it's largely uninterested in becoming a thriving tourist hub and would prefer to exist as a paradise for people to return to again and again. Buying a villa and staying forever is another viable option.
While there's plenty to do in the surrounding areas, Las Catalinas is the kind of place that can keep visitors content during the duration of their stay. Johnson says settling into the rhythm happens easily here, and they even came up with a name for it: downshifting.
In spite of its decidedly unique approach to a traditional coastal vacation, Las Catalinas shares quite a few similarities with the typical sprawling beach resort: Multiple dining options, though individually owned and operated, have various offerings, from tapas-style fare at Pascual to broadly interpreted (and somewhat basic) Mediterranean cuisine at Ponciana. There's also a very good spa selling the usual beach wares and workout gear, and a gourmet food store presents the opportunity to DIY the occasional meal or pick up ready-made sandwiches to bring to the beach.
One key area that Las Catalinas stands apart from the mega-resorts is in its beach experience; you won't find loungers and umbrellas or drink service on the sand — a welcome reprieve for some and a sorely missed piece for others.
For those hung up on some of the standard beach vacation amenities, there's the Beach Club. Overlooking the sea below, it contains both an all-ages pool and an adults-only one with an adjacent bar. Tacos and margaritas from La Taqueria can be enjoyed via your chaise lounge or at a table, though access to the club is dependent upon what villa category you're staying in.
Many villas have their own, albeit tiny, plunge pools, and the beach is public, so the category may not matter much, depending on your preferences. Plus, just before the pandemic, Santarena Hotel opened, and it, too, has a pool — on the rooftop — as well as a cafe serving espresso drinks, kombucha in a can, and buttery banana bread.
While the town itself can't quite escape its manufactured roots, just beyond the man-made cobblestones and gurgling fountains is a natural environment teeming with wildlife. Forty-two kilometers of well-maintained hiking and biking trails reveal families of howler monkeys feasting on leafy green trees above, giant iguanas effortlessly blending into nature and quickly scurrying about the grounds, and, if you're lucky, anteaters meandering in the distant underbrush. You might also spot a fast-as-lighting puma racing through the land. But even without these endearing wildlife sightings, there's something magnificent to see along these trails: The higher you go, the better the vista.
Of course, as with most beach towns, there's an anything-goes vibe, and Las Catalinas takes its wellness quotient seriously — Pura Vida Ride has bikes for rent, and the adjacent Core by Chak Fitness center offers a range of classes, from power yoga to kickboxing.
Pots & Bowls makes excellent cold-pressed juices (try the Green Machine) and is ideally situated nearby, though technically everything in town can be reached within minutes.
Plans for additional restaurants and a late-night bar (Las Catalinas currently lacks any kind of nightlife), as well as more retail and plaza space, are in the works. In the coming years, this stretch of Costa Rican coast won't be such a hidden gem, but it'll remain car-free — one of the town's steadfast commitments.
Johnson says, "Turns out, when you remove [cars] from the equation and build towns similar to the way they were before cars existed, the result is sociability, beauty, and safety. Kids get more freedom this way, which often means adults do, too."