"Pura Vida" in Costa Rica
When asked to describe Costa Rica to someone who's never been there, I respond with “It’s like Mexico... only safer, with nicer people and monkeys everywhere.”
Though that’s an extreme over generalization (and by the way, I like Mexico, so that’s not a dig), it’s actually pretty accurate. The terrain is a lot like some of the tropical parts of Mexico, and the infrastructure is similar since the wealth disparity in Costa Rica, like Mexico, is rather large. But unlike Mexico, the people in Costa Rica are always looking to help you without asking for anything in return, are genuinely stoked to see and meet people from other places, and you don’t ever feel like you’re getting scammed or taken advantage of. And of course the flora and fauna in Costa Rica are insane—you’ll find howler monkeys, spider monkeys, coati, iguanas and tropical birds aplenty. Since it’s safe and has a ton of outdoor activities where you can experience it’s natural beauty, Costa Rica is perfect for families with children.
NOTE: This post is only for Northwestern Costa Rica, in the Guanacaste Province.
The Guanacaste region is more arid than southern Costa Rica, and known for its beaches and biodiverse national parks. Santa Rosa National Park, located on the northern tip, boasts a rarely found dry tropical forest and some 250 bird species. It’s also where the famed surf spot Witch’s Rock is located. Guanacaste's beautiful beaches include Playa Hermosa, Playa Conchal, Playa Blanca and Playas del Coco. The Papagayo Peninsula on the northern tip hosts luxury resorts like the Four Seasons and the Andaz, as well as beautiful golf courses and a posh marina full of luxury yachts. Head further south along the coast to experience more lush jungles and mangroves, relaxed surf towns and great waves.
Getting in and out of the airport in Liberia is a breeze. With only a handful of international flights coming in and out of it per day, the airport is pleasantly sleepy and uncrowded. We never saw more than one plane at a time, which meant that most of its 7 gates were empty. And we traveled during the Thanksgiving holiday, so it’s not like it was a slow time or anything (despite both our flights being full, the airport coming in and leaving was a ghost town).
Just one of four international airports in Costa Rica, Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport airport is relatively new and has nice amenities. The airport was redone in 2012, with an expansion added in 2017, so most of it is really only a few years old. If you miss the turn for departures (like we did), you’ll see the old airport next door. It’s a good thing they built a new one, because the old one looks like those dingy private airstrip terminals out of those Colombian drug lord movies set in the 1970s.
Getting into the airport is pretty smooth. Since we were the only plane that arrived that evening, the passport control line was empty and only took us about 5 minutes to get through. Then it’s just an x-ray machine that you need to put your carry-on bags through, and you’re off. Had we not had to wait for the checked board bag for the surfboards, we would have been out of the airport and onto the curb in less than 10 minutes. Even after waiting for the oversized luggage, we were still probably in and out in less than 20.
On return, you’ll need to drop your rental car off at the same place you picked it up, just outside of the airport. Since they’re close though, if you have large checked bags or oversize luggage like surfboards, you might be better off dropping them off curbside and having one person in your party return the car. There are gentleman that work at the airport and are paid (in tips of course) to help travelers arriving at the airport for their departure. Take advantage of this service, as they will load up your bags on a cart and accompany you all the way until you get to the check-in counter.
Renting a Car
There are a few things travelers need to be aware of when renting a car in Costa Rica. First, don’t get too discouraged by the information I’m about to give you because you don’t really have much of a choice in deciding not to rent a car. If you want to go anywhere in Costa Rica and don’t want to be stuck at your resort the entire time, you absolutely need to rent a car. Cabs are insanely expensive and most of the cool shit to do in the country requires a bit of a drive. Our first resort was actually really close to the airport, yet it cost us $60USD to get there by cab because we had a rental car snaffu (more on that in a bit). Our second resort was an hour away, which I would imagine would cost nearly $200USD to get to by cab. So just do your self a favor and rent a car.
Second—and this might seem counter-intuitive in light of my first point—renting a car is a huge pain in the ass. Perhaps I am more irritated by this than most, but one thing that’s fairly frustrating about renting cars in Costa Rica is that the quoted price you get when booking online, no matter what company it is, is nowhere near what you will end up paying. Allow me to explain:
I am a Hertz Gold member, so even though their rates are generally a little more expensive, the ease in which they allow you to pick up a car usually tips the scales for me. In the States, I just find my name on the board and go to my car in the aisle, and then drive away. Even renting cars with Hertz internationally, it’s pretty seamless. So I booked an SUV online through Hertz, and the total cost quoted was $388. That was significantly more than the budget car rental companies, but seemed reasonable so I went with it.
Well, when we arrived in Liberia and were shuttled to the Hertz property, which is located to the left just a few miles down the road, we were absolutely flabbergasted to hear that the “total” quoted price of $388 did not include tax, fees, or insurance. Initially at first we thought, “Okay... that’s fair, so how much could that be?” Well, our $388 car reservation ended up coming to $800 with taxes, fees and insurance, PLUS a $1,200 deposit for damages. So it required a $2,000 charge on my card to rent a car for four days. What? Oh, and when I told them I didn’t need the insurance because I was paying for it on my Amex, they said, “Okay, great, it’s still $700 with taxes and fees and now we need a $3,000 deposit.” Are you fucking kidding me? Jesus. So we left Hertz and got a cab to our hotel so that we could figure out what the hell was going on with the rental car situation and deal with it the following day.
When we got back into the shuttle (since we had to have them transport us back to the airport to get a cab), the nice Tico guy driving quietly passed us the name and number for Payless auto rentals and told us, with an admonition not to tell his boss of course, that the car there would only cost us about $100 with a $300 deposit. That sounded a lot better.
We ultimately ended up renting the same vehicle—probably even newer actually—directly from our hotel through their Avis rental car counter. For a brand new SUV, it cost us about $400, plus a $500 damage deposit. Still on the spendy side for a deposit, but $500 is way better than $2,000!
Travelers looking to save money can rent a car with one of the budget rental companies, like Payless, Sixt, Dollar, Alamo or Thrifty, where the cost for a small car is only about $9 a day and the deposit is only $300. Avis is a mid-level rental company, who I’ve used with great success before, and the service was great so it was worth the extra money (plus, we really opted to use them out of convenience since they ere at our hotel and we didn’t want to go through he hassle of going back to the airport again).
My advice, however, is to never—I repeat, NEVER—rent a car in Costa Rica with Hertz. Even the locals laughed and shrugged their shoulders after hearing our story, basically saying that Hertz is a total rip off that prays on white people. It seemed to be rather well-known with the Ticos that you just don’t rent with Hertz.
Where to Stay
Northwestern Costa Rica has a ton of great resorts strewn across the Papagayo Peninsula and down the coastline toward Malpais. In the northern end, the Four Seasons and the Andaz are stunning properties. If you can pony up the cash, the Four Seasons is worth the splurge. They have an insanely beautiful property with two private beaches, a list of daily activities that is a mile long, and incredible dining options. But this hidden paradise will definitely set you back—rooms start at $1,250 during peak season or holidays. If you’re lucky, you can snag a room rate for about $500/night during the slow season. If ponying up a G a night for a vacation will give you apoplexy, then stay at the nearby Andaz, which is still modern and sexy without the giant price tag. Room rates while we were there over the holiday were about $350/night and go lower for the slow season.
Further south are the Westin Costa Rica, the W Costa Rica Reserva Conchal, the JW Marriott Guanacaste Resort & Spa and the Los Suenos Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort. The Westin is an expansive property with a golf course that is also great for kids (and is really affordable at about $150/night) but was looking a little tired compared to the places we stayed. It’s definitely good value for the money though.
Just south are two more golf course resorts, the JW and the Marriott. Both are fairly inexpensive (anywhere from $100-300/night depending on the time of year) and offer plenty to do since they’re both pretty giant properties.
During our trip we stayed at the El Mangroove in Papagayo and the W Costa Rica Reserva Conchal, which you can find detailed reviews for below. The short story is that although I would highly recommend the W, I would not advise guests with a refined hotel palette to stay at El Mangroove.
What to Do
Hike Rincon de la Vieja
Just an hour away from the Papagayo area, nature lovers are really in for a treat with Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja. The national park that surrounds the active volcano requires a reasonable entrance fee (about $18 per adult) and offers both an easy hike (suitable for kids and all abilities) and a more strenuous 4km hike up to one of the many waterfalls. We did the easy hike, which lead you through the jungle, with stopping points for hot springs and areas with geothermal activity, with a beautiful waterfall at the end. We even saw spider monkeys in the trees along the way.
After the hike, you can also walk about 10 minutes down the canyon to another waterfall, where you can get in the water and take a dip to cool off for a bit after sweating it out on the hike. Both spots offer great photo opportunities as well.
Just down the street, there are a number of different companies that offer zip lining, white water rafting, river tubing, ATV riding, and guided hikes to waterfalls at the Sensoria "Land of Senses and Magical rain forest". There’s even a hot springs spa where mom can pamper herself while the kiddos wear themselves out with activities.
I’m not one who’s into group tours or things like zip lining, so you won’t see any recommendations for that here. But it’s worth nothing that if that’s your thing—or especially if you are traveling to Costa Rica with kids—there is so much of those kind of activities to do. They’re everywhere, and there’s no scarcity of companies who provide these services. Just drive down any Costa Rican road and you’ll see advertisements and signs along the roadway alerting travelers to their adventure parks or tours. TripAdvisor is an excellent source of information for these types of activities.
Costa Rica is one of the world’s most renowned surf destinations. Experienced surfers flock to Playa Grande, Mal Pais and Witch’s Rock, and places like Tamarindo have perfect, mushy waves for beginners to try their hand at the sport for the first time. Book a surf lesson with the Tamarindo Surf Academy or take a boat charter out to Witch’s Rock if you are more experienced.
Whether you’ve come to Costa Rica to surf or not, Tamarindo is a cool little town that’s worth a visit. Tamarindo reminds me a lot of the Mexican surf town Sayulita—with its similarly cool beach vibe, baby waves out front for beginners, locals selling fresh coconuts, bracelets, beers and fruits on the beach, and cute, cheap restaurants to grab a bite and drink. You can lounge on the beach and get a tan, watch the surfers out front, or take one of the locals up on the offer for a surf lesson, for a very reasonable price. It’s safe, relatively clean, and lively for party-goers at night on the weekends.
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