San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Beaches Not for Germ-a-Phobes

Some of the Pacific coast’s most popular beaches are dangerously polluted with sewage runoff, according to a broad study by the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA).

Water samples taken Aug. 13 show the beaches of Playas del Coco, Playa Tambor and Jacó are hazardous to human health as a result of elevated levels of fecal matter in the ocean.

Should these and other beaches not clean up their acts, officials warned, they will be posted with signs later this year that read: “This Beach Not Safe for Swimming.”

The most seriously polluted beaches in Costa Rica, according to the AyA study, lie on the Caribbean, near the port city of Limón: Cieneguitas and Portete, though neither is a major tourism destination.

The much more popular Caribbean beaches of Puerto Viejo and Cahuita, farther to the south, were clean, the study found.

The northern Pacific’s Playa Tamarindo, which last year made headlines for shockingly high levels of fecal coliform in its waves, has managed to lower contamination levels dramatically.

“The fact that it has improved does not mean that everything has gotten (completely) better,” said Darner Mora, the head of AyA’s National Water Laboratory. “There is still much to do.”

In August 2007, AyA found fecal coliform bacteria levels in Tamarindo’s water as high as 4,600 and 1,100 parts per 100 milliliters of water.

AyA and the Health Ministry warn that swimming in anything higher than 240 parts per 100 ml of water can be hazardous to your health.

In samples taken on Aug. 13 of this year, fecal coliform levels in Tamarindo were down to 45 and 20 parts per 100 ml at the same places.

The samples used to determine the water quality for the beaches in the study were taken by officials at two points chest deep in the ocean, at least 100 meters from the outlet of any streams or water discharges, with bottles submerged to 30 centimeters under water, Mora said.

As fecal coliform bacteria enter the ocean water, a combination of salt, sunlight and antibacterial algae break them down, Mora explained.

“Coliforms, and especially Escherichia coli (E. coli), disappear within 72 minutes,” he said. “So when you see ocean water with fecal coliforms, it is because the fecal contamination is persistent.”

Additional measurements were also taken at the mouths of streams and rivers that flow to the beach, as well as other points where water is discharged.

“The conditions of the discharges in Playa Tamarindo have improved a lot, but new discharges continue to appear with very high (fecal coliform) levels, and this situation could be happening in other places that we have not yet detected,” Mora said.

Inspectors have found buried pipes and tubes that pour wastewater and untreated sewage either into creeks or directly into the ocean.

Last year, several of those discharge points in Tamarindo were pumping liquid with coliform counts ranging from hundreds of thousands to 3.1 million parts per 100 ml.

Last month, many of those discharge points were either not flowing or had lowered coliform counts, however three discharges ranged from 24,000 to 24 million coliform parts per 100 ml. Swimming near these discharge points is much more hazardous than it would be several hundred meters away.

Mora, who also heads the nation’s Ecological Blue Flag program – which recognizes beaches for their cleanliness, recycling programs and other criteria – said it is unlikely that Tamarindo will recover its Blue Flag next year. Tamarindo had its designation stripped after last year’s news of high levels of contaminations.

Mora and Health Minister María Luisa Avila called on people in Tamarindo to  regularly inspect the beach looking for discharges and report them to the local AyA or Health Ministry office.

However, Mora said that even if the community were to eliminate all the sewage discharges and regain the flag, it “would be stuck on the pole with saliva unless a sewer system is built.”

Tamarindo, like nearly every coastal tourism town in the country, has no sewersystem. Wastewater is supposed to be handled by largely unmonitored septic systems or, in the case of larger hotels and businesses, private wastewater treatment plants.

The Tamarindo Improvement Association, a local community action group, has been trying to raise funds for the construction of such a system and a sewage treatment plant, but has so far been unable to get the project off the ground.

In Jacó, a booming surf town on the central Pacific that has also made recent headlines for its water contamination, the average of the two samples taken Aug. 13 was 472 parts of coliform per 100 ml of water. That’s an increase from 26.5 last year.

Health Minister Avila said that, in the coming weeks, her office would be focusing on Jacó, where the beach pollution problems are the result of untreated waste coming from two riverside shanty towns, homes and local businesses.

Avila promised a crackdown similar to one launched last year in Tamarindo that closed down several businesses for polluting the environment.

Avila also said the Health Ministry is planning to open a regional office in Jacó with five employees. Currently, Jacó is under the jurisdiction of the central Pacific regional office in Puntarenas, 45 minutes to the north, and the Orotina office about 45 minutes west.

The Orotina office oversaw recent inspections during which it ordered many local businesses to correct waste treatment problems. Avila said this week that her ministry would be following up with more inspections.

As in Tamarindo, inspectors will visit businesses and residences and drop dye into wastewater in the homes and businesses to track it and see whether it appears in the environment.

AyA has announced that a master plan for a sewer system and wastewater treatment plant for Jacó is over halfway finished. Final plans for the $4 million project are expected by the end of the year.

Playa Tambor, north of Jacó on the tip of the Pacific’s NicoyaPeninsula, had a level of 327 coliforms per 100 ml of water, according to the Aug. 13 study.

“We need to go in there like we went into Tamarindo,” Mora said. “There is a serious problem there.”

At Playas del Coco, on the northwest coast in the province of Guanacaste, samples taken from the north end of that beach had an average of 805 parts coliform per 100 ml of water.

The south end was much lower, at 173. The filthiest beach on the Pacific, however, is that of Quepos, a small port town on the Central Pacific coast, north of ManuelAntonioNational Park. Offshore from Quepos, where the Pez Vela Marina is under construction, coliform levels were clocked at 2,400.

The beaches within the neighboring national park, however, are clean, Mora said. Mora also highlighted the “tremendous efforts” of the community in Puntarenas, the Pacific port city on the central Pacific coast. Waste pollution there was down to 2.6 coliform parts per 100 ml in the most recent sampling.

Playa Hermosa, just south of Jacó, where next year’s World Surfing Games are set to take place, had no detectable coliform count.

With its coliform count now at 7.4, Sámara, on the NicoyaPeninsula, lost its Blue Flag four years ago, but is looking to recover it this year.

Swim at YourSwim at Your Own Risk

Some beach communities do a better job than others at keeping human waste out of the water, according to a recent study by the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute.

Risky Beaches



Playas del Coco (north)

Playa Tambor



Cleaner Beaches


Playas del Coco (south)

Playa Hermosa

Puerto Viejo


Jury Still Out



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