Our winter in New York has been pretty mild this year, but still, it does the soul good to escape the cold and get a dose of Vitamin D. I found a great flight deal out of Newark, so Mike and I decided to spend four days in Costa Rica – also our first trip to the country. We agreed that it was one of our best vacations yet since we managed to do so much in four days, but we didn’t feel rushed or stressed!
Why visit Costa Rica? The weather is amazing – it was 95 degrees and sunny every day because we were there in the dry season. But even in the rainy season, it doesn’t rain for hours on end, but for a short period each day. The beaches are postcard-perfect. The food is fresh and oh-so delicious, and the people are beautiful inside and out. We felt welcome every place we went. What more could anyone want in a winter getaway?
We stayed at Hotel Arco Iris in the very touristy town of Tamarindo (also a surfer’s paradise and a quaint spot with great restaurants), but we made sure to spend a lot of time outside the downtown so we could familiarize ourselves with the local culture of Guanacaste (the state or province along the Pacific Coast of the country). Here’s a look at our four days in Costa Rica.
We took a 7 a.m. flight from NYC, so we had to be at the airport by 4 a.m.! A car picked us up at 3:25, so we had no sleep to start. I snoozed a bit on the plane, and when we landed, the sun was shining in Costa Rica. Our airport shuttle was waiting to drive us from Liberia to Tamarindo. I was starving, so he was kind enough to stop for lunch at one of the local sodas. 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’s good!
After lunch, we 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. The room was large and impeccably clean. The property is home to several iguanas that were kind of friendly. One seemed to live in the plantings near our room.
After we settled in and had a little pool time, we headed for the beach. We had a nice walk and then decided to have drinks on the beach, since the sun was about to set in an hour and it was happy hour, after all. (Happy hours are huge in Tamarindo.)
We wandered back to Arco Iris showered and relaxed a bit, then went to the hotel restaurant, Seasons by Shlomy. I LOVED this restaurant. An Israeli chef name Shlomy owns Seasons and it’s supposed to be one of the best in town. The food’s wonderful and the ambience is lovely too – the restaurant overlooks the pool.
After dinner, we were exhausted and desperately needed sleep! We wanted to rest up for our adventures the next day.
After breakfast at the hotel and a little more pool time, we decided to make our way through town and explore a bit. Since Tamarindo is a major surfing destination, we saw 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. We found another soda at the edge of town and opted for tacos this go-around. More fresh, delish Costa Rican food! We booked a combo tour for the next morning, and Mike booked his surf lesson for the afternoon. (More on this later.)
Before this trip, I had never been in an ATV, so I thought it’s now or never! There are tons of all-terrain vehicles in Tamarindo. We decided to do the side-by-side so we could ride together.
Stefan was our guide and took us through the mountains and a remote area outside town. The 3-hour excursion was so much fun. Mike drove, and I yelped – a lot. It was unbelievably dusty since this area of Guanacaste was in the midst of a dry season, so we did not get muddy, just dirty. Still fun.
We were probably 15 minutes outside town and we saw a lot of locals going about their day, including these handsome four-legged creatures.
We navigated through two tiny villages – Pinilla and Villa Real. Stefan explained that many of the people who work in Tamarindo live in these villages.
Our guide Stefan was great. And no, he is not Costa Rican, but from France. He had been living in Nicaragua for years, but moved 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 pick up some beer and head to this special spot to watch the sunset. It was magical!
Stefan was a character!
After our day in the mountains, we both needed showers. We cleaned up and then headed out for dinner next to our hotel 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 our adventurous day.
Tamarindo Transfers and Tours picked us up bright and early at about 7:30 a.m. We started with horseback riding, again through a remote part of Guanacaste. My horse’s name was Monkey.
We rode with a guide and a couple from Buenos Aires, and having a small group of five was great because sometimes horses can be stubborn and lag behind.. Monkey wanted to run, but I asked him to take it easy on me.
We stopped at a local’s house to have a snack! I loved this part of the tour. Erminia was kind enough to welcome us 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 we relaxed and chatted a bit.
Monkey took a nap while we visited with Erminia.
We ventured more on horseback to ultimately end up at Playa Conchal, one of Guanacaste’s most famous and beautiful beaches. It was spectacular!
Riding horses on the beach was incredible!
I hung out on the beach (and took a quick dip in the ocean), and Mike snorkeled for the first time.
Locals sell there 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…
We left Playa Conchal and our shuttle transported us back to Tamarindo. It was almost time for Mike’s surfing lesson. No one else was scheduled, so he ended up getting a private lesson with Paco and hit the waves for two hours.
Mike posing with Paco…
Meanwhile, I had some lunch, did some shopping on the beach, and then had a beer at the bar.
Wow…what a day. We made our 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. The food in Costa Rica blew me away.
At Dragonfly, Mike opted for the whole fish. What a plate!
We had a 7 a.m. pick up the next day, so to bed we went!
DAY FOUR (Also Valentine’s Day)
We left Tamarindo just after 7 with Warren Sr. and Warren Jr. (local father and son team). 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.
Mike and I shared freshly-baked pastries and coffee.
After another 30 minutes or so back on the road, we reached Parque Nacional Volcan Tenorio, and started our several mile hike to one of the most famed waterfalls in Costa Rica – Rio Celeste.
After hiking, we had to descend about 250 steep steps to get to the waterfall.
And then, we arrived. Rio Celeste was more spectacular than I could’ve imagined! The water is a bright blue.
After seeing the waterfall and river up close, you guessed it, we had to go back up the stairs. Not so much fun, but the climb was inevitable.
We worked up an appetite during the hike to Rio Celeste, so it was time for lunch. We stopped at a local soda and had more delicious Costa Rican eats. Warren Jr. gives us a friendly wave.
Warren, Warren, and Mike dig in.
We headed back toward Liberia for our second waterfall, the Llanos de Cortez, near the town of Bagaces. 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.
This little boy splashed Mike and he played back. So cute.
We had a full last day in Costa Rica. We got back to our hotel at about 6 p.m., only to say goodbye to Warren and Warren, who showed us the real Costa Rica. This tour felt more like a day with two locals, showing us what they love about their country – the diverse landscape and wildlife, fresh food, and friendly people. We loved it all too. Thank you, Warren and Warren!
We dined at Seasons in our hotel again on the last night, which was Valentine’s Day. Unlike the first night, there were a lot of ticos and ticas (locals) eating for the holiday. Our server told us that Seasons is a favorite restaurant among the locals too. I think this February 14 will go down as one of the most memorable for Mike and me.
Ten years ago on February 14, Mike came home and told me that he had lost his job. That day started our journey from Atlanta to New York City. Who would’ve thought that ten years later on Valentine’s Day, we’d spend four days in Costa Rica? That proves that no one knows what the future holds.
We left Hotel Arco Iris at 10 a.m. the next morning for an afternoon flight back to New York. Almost two weeks later and we’re still talking about our unbelievable trip to Costa Rica. Pura Vida!
A few notes on traveling to Costa Rica…
Four days in Costa Rica is not a lot of time because there’s an abundance of places to go and things to do. We knew that we’d see a small section of the country, but we treated it as an introduction and plan to return one day.
The sun is strong! I got badly burnt 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.
We 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.
We didn’t drink tap water, but we 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.
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. We flew United and did not have to pay the tax when we left.
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 we went – just one more reason to love the country. If you go to Costa Rica, be comfortable.
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 about 500 colones depending on the rate.
Tamarindo is a touristy town, and we 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. We stayed at a Tamarindo hotel and ate our dinners in town, but we ventured around the region and experienced some of the real Costa Rica too. We had the best of both worlds because we didn’t need a car to get to dinner, the beach, or anywhere. Tamarindo is convenient. And local life is mere minutes away. We used guides to explore the country, so staying there worked well for us.
We felt safe everywhere we went, but we were not driving in remote places alone or at night. We let locals escort us 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.
Some locals speak English, and some don’t. I know a little Spanish and Mike knows a bit more, but we 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 might 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.
Do you have any trips on the books for this year?