Costa Rica has become a hot destination as of late, with easy and short flights from the US to some of the most gorgeous beaches with the friendliest people. I first discovered Costa Rica in 2005 when I went on vacation with my family, and we all fell in love. Since then, my parents purchased (and have now unfortunately recently sold) a home in Peninsula Papagayo, allowing me to visit the beautiful country once or twice each year. This post is all about the western province of Guanacaste.
While I have spent some time in San Jose, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking the time to do so if you are eventually planning on heading to the West Coast. While a more local experience, it is still a bit unsafe for tourists and there isn’t as much to experience. I typically fly directly into Liberia Airport. Driving around Costa Rica is an adventure – with few traffic rules and cops incentivized by bribes. If you are an aggressive and confident driver and want to explore around your area, you can certainly rent a car from the airport. However, most hotels offer airport pick-up and drop-off and can coordinate additional rides as needed.
Situated between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica boasts the Pacific Ocean on its West Coast and the Caribbean on its East Coast. The western coast is more built up with luxurious hotels and resorts and has a more traditional dry season, making weather more predictable. Costa Rica has enjoyed economic stability compared to its neighbors and has remained one of the most thriving nations in Latin America. So much so, that in 1949, Costa Rica actually dissolved its army completely. Costa Ricans are big preservers of the environment with 25% of its land dedicated to national parks. With progressive environmental policies, Costa Rica has managed to maintain its green beauty.
Costa Rica is the perfect blend of relaxing on the beach and adventures through the rainforest.
There is no lack of white sand and warm blue water on the western coast. While your hotel beach is great to relax, getting into the towns is more upbeat and fun to mingle with the locals.
Playa Tamarindo: One of the more well-known beaches and used to be a sleepy surf site. Now a bustling, and a bit touristy, area, Tamarindo still has some of the best beginner to mid surf experiences. There are an infinite number of surf shops along the beach, and I’ve always had a great experience with Witch’s Rock Surf Camp. Also a hotel, these guys know everything there is to know about surfing. For more experienced riders, be sure to ask about the trips out to Witch’s Rock and Ollie’s Point! For a more luxury trip to Witch’s Rock, check out Tropicsurf.
Playas del Coco: One of the oldest beach communities, Playas del Coco has changed drastically to accommodate the influx of tourists. Along Avenida Central, you will find bars and restaurants alongside deep-sea fishing and diving shops. The beach is packed during the weekends and you will find the most locals here.
Playa Ocotal: Just south of Playas del Coco, Ocotal is still a bit of a hidden gem. Quieter and cleaner, Ocotal is the best place to snorkel and swim.
With all the beautiful greenery around, a zip-lining tour is a fun experience to be engrossed in the forests and have a close view of some wildlife. My favorite company is Witch’s Rock Canopy Tour, running tours pretty frequently throughout the day. With parking available or hotel shuttle accommodations, Witch’s Rock is an easy place to get to and has been frequented by numerous celebrities. They also offer a horseback riding tour that I have been dying to try.
If you are looking to get out into the blue ocean, look no further than Almaco Diving. Owned by the lovely Bari and Miguel, this company offers a customized experience based on what activities you’re interested in. They offer PADI diving (if you are not certified, you can take a short course in your hotel pool the morning of and dive with a guide), snorkeling, fishing, paddle boarding, wakeboarding, tubing, and much more. If you are out for a full day, you are taken to a secluded beach for lunch to enjoy Bari’s delicious homemade ceviche with a chilled glass of wine.
Rincón de la Vieja
While Arenal is the world famous volcano, it can be a 3+ hour drive from Guanacaste. While a good stop if you’re driving from San Jose, a closer alternative is Rincón de la Vieja. Only 2 hours away from the coast, this national park has everything to offer from hot springs to horseback riding to hikes and waterfalls.
Santa Rosa National Park
The first national park established in the country, Santa Rosa has over 250 bird species and 115 mammal species. A dry forest, Santa Rosa will actually lose most of its leaves during the dry season but is also the best time to view the wildlife. The park features a historic battle site when the 1856 Costa Rican army ousted a militia into Nicaragua. The best way to view the park is in a 4×4 vehicle and you can even spend the night in a hostel or camping site.
An amateur golfer at best, I have never played a more beautiful course than the Arnold Palmer signature course at the Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo. The views are breathtaking as you approach the tee box with blue ocean as far as the eye can see. You will certainly hear some howler monkeys and watch out for any pizotes trying to steal your ball on the green!
Eats & Drinks
Traditional Costa Rican cuisine is influenced by their environment and location. With the most flavorful fruits, vegetables and fresh seafood, most meals are well-balanced and healthy and typically accompanied with rice and black beans. You will most likely see a brownish salsa on your table called Lizano and absolutely try it – I actually order bottles to my house in NYC!
Located in Playa Panama just off the marina, the Dive Bar is just that – a divey place to grab a drink and watch the sunset. An open-air bar, the margaritas are second to none, as is their fresh catch of the day or fish tacos. You will definitely see a mega yacht or two to accompany your meal!
With tables right on the beach, Father Rooster is a lively place to eat fresh fish. Started by an ex-pat, you will find locals and visitors alike.
Sol y Sombra
Located within the Four Seasons Hotel, Sol y Sombra is some of the best fine dining in Guanacaste. With a land-to-sea concept, every guest is accommodated with seating either indoors or out. Before or after dinner, indulge in a drink at Tico’s.
For some cheap breakfast and lunch eats in Tamarindo, La Bodega features fresh, local and organic options.
With the ideal location in Playas del Coco and an adventurous ride to get there, The Lookout’s views are as good as its food.
$$$: The Four Seasons Hotel (one of my all-time favorites)
$$: Hotel Capitan Suizo, Andaz Peninsula Papagayo (note there is no beach on property), Cala Luna Luxury Boutique
$: Hotel Leyenda, The Hideaway Hotel Playa Samara
Pura Vida is the saying in Costa Rica and it directly translates to Pure Life. This takes on a whole new meaning as Costa Rica is an impressive mix of beauty, adventure and wildlife.
Have you ever been to Costa Rica? What was your favorite part? Did I miss anything? I’d love to hear from you!
xx Jet Set Steph