You cannot account for all the possible variables when choosing the best timing for a Costa Rica vacation – rainy vs. dry season, micro-climates, weekend beach traffic, school vacations (both in Costa Rica and at home), turtle nesting and hatching seasons, flight schedules and costs, and many more – but there’s one variable you probably haven’t thought of that’s worth taking a few minutes to learn about – la marea.
Knowing a couple of simple things about tides makes it easy to adjust your beach schedule to avoid disappointment or being marooned. The first thing to know is there is one high and one low tide during the day plus one of each at night. Second, the maximums are about an hour later every day.
- Mangrove Estuaries – One of the easiest places to see wildlife in Costa Rica when you’re gliding along on a kayak but at low tide the water trails are are all channels of stinking mud.
- Trash Line – Beaches disappear at high tide and there’s often a trash line at the high tide mark. Not necessarily plastic bottles and old toilets it’s often a tangle of driftwood, vines and rocks that are nearly impassable and definitely not a pleasant spot to spread out a beach towel.
- Tide Pools – There’s a reason they’re called tide pools. It’s because they are submerged and filled when the tide comes in. One of our favorite walks in Guanacaste encompasses 6 beaches starting at Danta, Sugar, Prieta, Penca and finally Flamingo each separated from the next by a rocky headland pocked with tide pools. It’s an eight mile round trip that requires perfect timing because the pools are under water except for an hour or so before and after low tide.
- Beach Landings – Docks, jetties and piers are nearly unheard of in Costa Rica and if you take a whale watching, snorkeling or other tour that involves a boat ride you’ll walk through the waves to board from the beach. It can be easy or hard depending on the waves and tide.
- Siesta – Leisurely lunches and siestas are some of our favorite things about the tropics. The sun is at its searing hottest from 11 am until 1 pm and when high tide is around noon we can avoid the radiation, giant waves and trash line all at once.
- Trekking – When trekking 20 kilometers of beach from Carate to Sirena station in Corcovado National Park river mouth and estuary crossings may only be possible at dead low tide. Even then you have to watch for crocodiles and bull sharks. Other shorter hikes can leave you trapped on the wrong side as well if you don’t time it right.
- Driving – Motorized vehicles are no longer permitted on the beach so you won’t be racing the tide to the next point. There’s only one river ford we know of that’s close enough to the mouth to be impacted by tides – the Río Ario.
- “¡Surfs Up!” – Surfers know that the size, shape and duration of waves can depend dramatically on the tide. One of our favorite beaches is like Jekyll and Hyde. At low tide the beach is flat and wide. The waves, although strong, are manageable for boogie boarders and swimmers. At high tide swimming is impossible and huge waves charge up steep sand dunes faster, much faster, than you can run. One second you’re walking on dry land and the next second gasping for air when a wave knocks your feet out from under you and tosses you into a rip current.
- Sea Turtle Nesting – Not surprisingly scientist have found that the largest sea turtles, the leatherbacks, try to use the high tide to minimize how far they have to drag their 800 lbs through the sand.
- Where to Leave Your Stuff – Knowing whether the tide is receding or coming in informs your choice of where to leave your flip flops and towel. If it’s going out the water’s edge is fine, coming in and they’ll be gone with the next wave.
Even if all you plan to do is lounge in the sun drinking piña coladas you may want to take a peek at the tide tables. Many beaches get very thin or disappear altogether at high tide or you may have to hike over a quarter of a mile from the water to the bar to get a refill at low tide.
There are two ways to plan around the tides. First, you can arrange your day taking the tides into account. “On Thursday if we zip-line in the morning we can always kayak the mangroves in the afternoon” works as long as low tide is early morning. Otherwise you’d be trying to paddle across mud flats.
Second, you can arrange the order of your itinerary to match the favorable tides.
Tides follow the position of the moon shifting 50.4 minutes later each day with the lunar cycle. That means it takes about a week for high tide and low tide to switch positions on the clock. If high tide is at noon one Monday then low tide will be around noon the following Monday.
This conveniently means that there will be the perfect alignment of the right tide with the right time of day for any chosen activity at least once every week of vacation.
In reality unless we’re doing something extremely tide dependent like a long trek in Corcovado we don’t worry about scheduling the whole week around perfect timing. We will re-schedule a Stand Up Paddle board lesson a couple of days earlier in our beach stay to hit a lower tide and smaller waves though.
In order to adjust your plans you’ll need to know when the tides are high or low so we maintain a handy calendar with an integrated tide table for the upcoming year.
The high (↑) and low (↓) tides for each day are shown are shown along with all the other info you might need to plan travel.
Here’s a bit of trivia – there are no tides on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. None is a bit of an exaggeration but they are very small, on the order of a few inches rather than feet.
A number of factors conspire to minimize the rise and fall in the Gulf of Mexico. The most important is the relatively narrow opening into a large Sea. The tidal bulge comes from the east following the moon and as a high tide propagates across the Atlantic from the shores of Africa it’s reflected back by Florida, the Yucatan peninsula and Cuba blocking the mouth.
Another factor is the length of time it takes for a wave to travel through the ocean. Coincidentally, because of the distance the high tide wave that starts off the coast of Africa arrives in the Caribbean just as the local tide is low and the two cancel each other to some extent.
And then there’s the shape of the Gulf itself. The swells that do manage to form are soon reflected by a beach and slosh around in the bowl canceling each other out.
The tides may be much smaller in the Caribbean than the Pacific Ocean but it’s still possible to get pushed uncomfortably up off the beach. If you plan to do a long hike on the Caribbean (Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo is highly recommended) you should at least ask locally about points that might be difficult to pass.