Looking for an escape from winter along with sun and sand? Try 4 days in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
Every winter it does the soul good to escape the cold and get a dose of Vitamin D, even if for only a few days. One country I recommend for a winter vacation is Costa Rica. The weather is sultry – temperatures hover in the high 80s and 90s and the sun shines daily in the dry season. But even in the rainy season, it doesn’t rain for hours on end, but for a short time each day. The beaches are postcard-perfect. The food is fresh and oh-so delicious, and the people are beautiful inside and out. What more could anyone want in a winter getaway?
When I visited Guanacaste, Costa Rica, I stayed in the very touristy town of Tamarindo (also a surfer’s paradise and a quaint spot with great restaurants). I made sure, however, to spend a lot of time outside the downtown to familiarize myself with the local culture of Guanacaste (the state or province along the Pacific Coast of the country). I recommend at least four days in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, but if you have more time, stay longer.
Here’s an overview in pictures of my 4-day trip to Costa Rica.
DAY ONE IN COSTA RICA
I took a 7 a.m. flight from NYC, so I had to be at the airport by 4 a.m.! A car picked me up at 3:25, so I had no sleep to start. I snoozed a bit on the plane, and when I landed, an airport shuttle was waiting to drive me from Liberia to Tamarindo. The sun was shining, of course. I was starving, so my driver was kind enough to stop for lunch at Soda Las Palmas. The food was fresh, tasty, and cheap.
The “casado,” which translates to marriage in English, typically features rice, beans, plantains or yucca, salad, and a choice of veggies, meat, or fish. It’s a lot of food for very little money, depending on where you go (touristy areas might be more expensive). This huge plate of food was probably about $8. It was good!
After lunch, I arrived at Hotel Arco Iris, which is located just a few minutes walk from downtown Tamarindo and the beach. I picked a boutique hotel that was off-the-beaten path, so it was quiet and felt less touristy. Though the rooms were basic, they were large and spotless (very important to me!). The property is home to several friendly iguanas. I would definitely stay here again.
After I settled in and had a little pool time, I headed for the beach. The setting was perfect for cocktails because sunset was in about an hour.
That night, I decided to have dinner at Seasons by Shlomy in the hotel. I LOVED this restaurant. An Israeli chef name Shlomy owns Seasons and it’s supposedly one of the best in town. The food’s wonderful and the ambiance is lovely too – the restaurant overlooks the pool.
After dinner, I desperately needed sleep! I wanted to rest up for the next day of adventures.
DAY TWO IN COSTA RICA
After breakfast at the hotel and a little more pool time, I made my way through town and explored a bit. Since Tamarindo is a major surfing destination, there are surf shops everywhere. Surfing lessons are the norm here too, so a lot of visitors come specifically for the surf.
By noon, food was on my mind. I found another soda at the edge of town called Soda El Buen Comer, and opted for tacos this go-around. More fresh, delish Costa Rican food! Then I booked a tour for the next morning.
Before this trip, I had never been in an ATV, so I thought it’s now or never. That afternoon, Stefan was my guide and took me through the mountains and a remote area outside town. The 3-hour excursion was so much fun. It was unbelievably dusty since this area of Guanacaste was in the midst of a dry season, so I did not get muddy, just dirty.
I was probably 15 minutes outside town and saw a lot of Costa Ricans going about their day, including these handsome four-legged creatures.
I navigated through two tiny villages – Pinilla and Villa Real. Stefan explained that many of the people who work in Tamarindo live in these villages.
Stefan was great. He is actually French, not Costa Rican, and was living in Nicaragua for years before moving back to Costa Rica to be near his mom. He is hoping to take this ATV business to Nicaragua eventually. After a few hours in the ATV, he suggested that we head to this special spot high above Tamarindo and watch the sunset. He also picked up a friend on the way. Other people came by as the sun began to pass over the horizon. It may have been the most magical sunset I’ve ever witnessed.
Stefan was a character! For an off-road excursion in Tamarindo, I recommend Action Tours.
After a day in the mountains, I needed a shower. I cleaned up and then headed out for dinner to a cute Italian restaurant called La Pachanga in Hotel Mamiri. The food was excellent here too! My chicken dish with mashed potatoes and vegetables was just what I needed after an adventurous day.
DAY THREE IN COSTA RICA
Tamarindo Transfers and Tours picked me up bright and early at about 7:30 a.m. I started with horseback riding, again through a remote part of Guanacaste. My horse’s name was Monkey.
I rode with a guide and a couple of folks from Buenos Aires. A small group was great because sometimes horses can be stubborn and lag behind, so we only had to worry about a few people and a few horses. Monkey wanted to run, but I asked him to take it easy on me.
I stopped at a local woman’s house to have a snack. I loved this part of the tour. Erminia was kind enough to welcome our group into her home and make tortillas in her outdoor kitchen. She served them with a mild cow’s milk cheese (the cheese didn’t seem to have a name), and I relaxed and chatted with her.
Monkey took a nap while I visited with Erminia.
I ventured more on horseback to ultimately end up at Playa Conchal, one of Guanacaste’s most famous and beautiful beaches. It was spectacular!
I hung out on the beach (and took a quick dip in the ocean).
Locals sell their wares on the beaches in Guanacaste, and some hang out all day and make food too.
Our tour came to an end and I had to say goodbye to Monkey…
I left Playa Conchal and the shuttle transported us back to Tamarindo. After which, I hung out on the beach and watched the surfers. Witch’s Rock Surf Camp is one of the most popular in Tamarindo. If you dare to surf, start here.
I had some lunch, did some shopping on the beach, and then drank a beer at El Vaquero.
Wow…what a day. I made my way back to the hotel and showered up, had a few more drinks, then walked down the street to a super cute and yummy restaurant called Dragonfly Bar & Grill. At Dragonfly, I recommend the whole fish. What a plate!
I had a 7 a.m. pick up the next day, so it was time for bed.
DAY FOUR IN COSTA RICA
I left Tamarindo just after 7 a.m. with Warren Sr. and Warren Jr., a local father and son team booked through Hotel Arco Iris. We drove for about four hours with many short stops to observe the diverse wildlife of Costa Rica. Once we reached the rainforest, the dry almost desert-looking landscape instantly turned lush and green.
Before we reached our first destination (Tenorio Volcano National Park), we stopped at a local spot for a snack.
The freshly-baked pastries were delicious. The coffee was excellent too.
After another 30 minutes or so back on the road, I reached Parque Nacional Volcan Tenorio, and started a several-mile hike to one of the most famed waterfalls in Costa Rica – Rio Celeste.
After hiking, I had to descend about 250 steep steps to get to the waterfall.
And then, I arrived. Rio Celeste was more spectacular than I could’ve imagined! The water is a bright almost aquamarine blue.
After seeing the waterfall and river up close, you guessed it, I had to go back up the stairs. Not so much fun, but the climb was inevitable.
I worked up an appetite during the hike to Rio Celeste, so it was time for lunch. We stopped at Soda Los Mangos and had more delicious Costa Rican eats. Warren Jr. gives me a friendly wave.
Warren Sr. headed back toward Liberia for our second waterfall, the Llanos de Cortez, near the city of Bagaces in a canton by the same name. This waterfall is much less touristy and a well-known spot for locals to cool off. Families were chilling out and picnicking. The little kids loved the water.
I had a full last day in Costa Rica. I got back to the hotel at about 6 p.m., only to say goodbye to Warren and Warren, who shared their Costa Rica. This tour felt more like a day with two friends, showing me what they love about their country – the diverse landscape and wildlife, fresh food, and friendly people. Thank you, Warren and Warren!
I dined at Seasons in the hotel again on my final night. Unlike the first night, there were a lot of ticos and ticas (locals) eating that night. Our server told us that Seasons is a favorite restaurant among Costa Ricans too.
I left Hotel Arco Iris at 10 a.m. the next morning for an afternoon flight back to New York. What an unbelievable trip to Costa Rica. ¡Pura Vida!
A few notes on traveling to Costa Rica
Four days in Costa Rica is a teaser because the country is so diverse. I knew that I’d see only a small section of the country, but I treated it as an introduction and plan to return one day.
The sun is intense. I got badly burned in just 30 minutes without sunscreen. I wore two layers of sunscreen on my face and still managed to get color. Be forewarned and take heavy duty sunblock with you, and a hat or two.
I didn’t get bitten, but mosquitoes can be a real issue in Costa Rica, particularly during the rainy season and in the rainforest. You have to wear bug repellent with at least 20% DEET to be effective.
I didn’t drink tap water, but saw plenty of tourists who did. Along the coast, it might be a good idea to drink bottled water just to play it safe. It’s widely available.
How to Dress in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a pretty casual country. Granted, if you stay at an Americanized resort, you will probably see more style. Otherwise, bathing suits, shorts, tees, flip flops and sneakers are the norm. I wore sundresses at night for dinner and felt overdressed. I didn’t notice any pretense anywhere – just one more reason to love the country. If you go to Costa Rica, be comfortable.
Currency in Costa Rica
You can pay with American dollars, but you’ll get change in colones. Don’t exchange money before you go – you’ll probably get a better exchange rate in Costa Rica. In USD, $1 equals 500+ colones depending on the rate.
Staying in Tamarindo
Tamarindo is a touristy town, and I knew this. It is, however, a good base. Many say that it’s not the real Costa Rica (TamaGringo!), and I’d have to agree. I stayed at a Tamarindo hotel and ate dinner in town, but ventured around the region and experienced some of the real Costa Rica too. I had the best of both worlds because I didn’t need a car to get to dinner, the beach, or anywhere. Tamarindo is convenient. And local life is mere minutes away. I used guides to explore the country, so staying there worked well for me. And if you’re a surfer or interested in surfing, Tamarindo is one of the best spots to be in Costa Rica.
Adventure in Costa Rica
For adventure-seekers, Costa Rica has you covered. I am not an adventurous traveler (for the most part), so no zip lining, scuba diving, or other water activities for me. That did not affect my experience in the country, though. I did go on the off-road tour and I went horseback riding, and those activities were perfect for me. Soft adventure is all I need. But if you love real adventure, you’ll surely adore Costa Rica.
Safety in Costa Rica
While I felt safe everywhere, I was not driving in remote places alone or wandering around late at night. I let locals escort me because they know best. Use common sense like you would at home or anywhere you travel, and you should not have a problem. Costa Rica is one of the safest countries in Latin America, so don’t let the occasional crime headline deter you from visiting.
Speak some Spanish in Costa Rica
Some locals speak English, and some don’t. I know a little Spanish but managed to communicate just fine. Learning a few words in Spanish before you go will help – the same as learning basic terms in another language for any international trip you plan to take. Learn how to say hello, thank you, my name is, have a good day, etc. before you leave on the trip. A little effort goes a long way and is greatly appreciated by the natives of the country you’re visiting.
¡And Pura Vida!, which means “pure life” or “simple life” is the saying in Costa Rica, so be prepared to hear it a lot. It means more than the translation. ¡Pura Vida! is a way of saying hello, goodbye, and everything is cool here!
Costa Rica Departure Tax
There’s a $29 US departure tax when you leave the country, but many airlines include it in the airfare now. Check with the airline before booking. I flew United and did not have to pay the tax when I left.
After four days in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, I came back refreshed and ready to finish the winter in NYC.
For more info on Costa Rica, head over to the tourism website. Have a fabulous trip!
Do you have any trips on the books for 2020? Italy is always a good idea. And Belgium is a beautiful country with lovely people. And if you’re looking for a quick domestic getaway, consider Nashville.