Costa Rica is nothing short of a magical destination; especially if you are looking to find a slice of paradise close to North America. The scenery is truly spectacular and the vibe of the country is very relaxed and pura vida. Best of all the dry season, which is just around the corner (December – April), is the perfect time to visit.
One of the best ways to really see this Central America jewel is by car, even though some of the roads can be a little primitive (watch out for potholes). A car rental will also give you the freedom to move around at your own pace. And, given the plethora of hotels available throughout Costa Rica, you needn’t always book your accommodation in advance – although it is recommended for some of the higher-end resorts.
Here is a guide to a few of the Costa Rican towns worth visiting on a Pacific coastline road trip:
Located just outside of La Fortuna, Arenal is an easy drive from the international airport in San Jose. Known for its active volcano (I was there when it erupted in 2003), there are several hotels in the area geared toward giving you amazing views of the 7,000 year old colossus. And, if you can, try to find a hotel that enables you to sit outside your room or cabin in the evening – like the Arenal Springs Resort – because this is when you really get to see the glowing lava flows.
Another great place to stay is the Tabacon Grand Spa Resort which boasts five stars, 102 rooms and truly unique grounds. However, if it doesn’t fall within your budget, we can also highly recommend purchasing a special pass so that you can still enjoy the Tabacon’s hot spring pools (the swim up bar is pretty great as well).
While in Arenal, you should also consider a private or group tour of the tropical rainforest that surrounds the area. These nature walks offer real insight into the local flora, fauna and wildlife and you will be sure to get a kick out of the monkeys, little frogs and curl-at-a-touch fauna.
This small quintessential surf town always seems to be buzzing with activity – thanks largely to the wonderful Playa Tamarindo beach which is perfect for those learning to surf, as well as those looking for more challenging breaks. On the approach into town you will find many budget accommodation choices but, be warned, a lot of these do not have air conditioning. But, if wildlife is your thing, November through April offers a wonderful opportunity to watch the Leatherback Turtles lay their eggs.
Less than 2 hours outside of San Jose, Jaco is often the first stop for folks heading south along the coast. But it is also a destination in its own right and thousands of tourists flock here each year to enjoy the ‘beach party’ atmosphere, as well as fantastic surfing opportunities. Due to its larger size, Jaco is reminiscent of other coastal cities around the world and, as such, it offers up plenty of restaurant and nightlife options. Also available is virtually every tour imaginable, including an “up close and personal” river tour with the legendary ‘Crocodile Man’. (Note: if you are driving from Tamarindo, then one of the best ways to get to Jaco is via the car ferry at Montezuma).
The city of Quepos serves as a gateway to the picturesque town of Manuel Antonio. As such, it is often bypassed by tourists who either drive straight through it on their way to Manuel Antonio, or make a quick stop as part of one of the popular zip-lining tours. But, if you have time, it is certainly worth a visit – for the great food, if nothing else. (It is easy to eat your way around the six-block square in the village center alone). Quepos is also a great place to pick up gifts and knick-knacks for back home.
And if you are staying in Quepos (or Manuel Antonio), and are looking for a fun day out while soaking ups some rays, also consider taking a ride aboard the Ocean King Catamaran. Complete with two water slides, snorkeling gear, open bar, and even Zumba, you’re in for a great time. Plus there are opportunities to see dolphins and humpback whales.
However, be warned, the drive from Jaco into Quepos is not for the faint of heart and, on one visit, I got stuck for hours at the Quepos Bridge,which had partly collapsed moments earlier.
Listed by Forbes as one of the world’s most beautiful national parks, the Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is paradise epitomized. In fact it is so beautiful that I’ve made it a point to travel back to Manuel Antonio a few times since my first visit nearly a decade ago. Here you will find white sandy beaches coupled with a brilliantly hued ocean and an abundance of wildlife – that includes monkeys, sloths, pacas and iguanas. It is a place that is guaranteed to relax you!
For accommodation options you have everything available from budget to luxury. Three good recommendations are the Buena Vista Luxury Villas, the Gaia Hotel and Reserve, and Hotel Playa Espadilla. You should also check out the cargo plane bar and the restaurants at Hotel Costa Verde.
Dominical is a really small surf village with a very tight-knit, but super friendly, community. It offers the perfect place to kick back and relax – whether in a hammock or down at the beach. And, due to its size, everything is in walking distance. All of the Ticos (local Costa Ricans) in town are incredibly approachable and you may even get invited to a local’s house for dinner.
Don’t forget the beautiful sunsets!
Feeling inspired? Remember to search Fly.com for cheap flights to Costa Rica.