Costa Rica sits near the top of just about all of my clients’ travel bucket lists. I made it a point to include the country on my itinerary for two reasons. One, so that I could become intimately familiar with more than just Guanacaste to better advise clients traveling to Costa Rica; two, to see if it was somewhere I might want to live someday, whether as a digital nomad or an ex-pat. Turns out, it’s neither, but the experience was truly one that makes an amazing story. I can barely believe we survived part of this tale to tell it.
As much as I read, watched, and researched about traveling throughout Costa Rica, still nothing fully prepared me for the stressful reality of it. I was unable to find answers to key questions at all, despite asking other travel agents too.
For a country so small, navigating it is absolutely ridiculous. Think Atlanta rush-hour traffic and its sloth pace. Drop it down to one lane all the way, add toll booths, mix in some rural Texas dirt farm roads and then lay it all out like a crumpled-up wet piece of string. Multiply all that by heavy downpours and there you have Costa Rica’s godawful highway system.
Completely devoid of any urban pre-planning, Costa Rican highways and roads are a crap-shoot of either pavement, gravel, dirt, or a mix of two or more, riddled with grooves and potholes that only ATVs, UTVs, and other four-wheel drive vehicles are built for.
Before we set out on the journey that got us stuck in the rain on the side of a mountain way up in a cloud forest, we were mostly enjoying the breathtaking beauty of the Costa Rica countryside and coasts.
But wait. I don’t want to offer you random tidbits out of context. Let’s start at the beginning and I’ll tell you some things I learned that you really should know BEFORE you plan a trip to Costa Rica.
SJO airport to Jacó Beach, Puntarenas – 90+ Km (56+ Miles), 2+ hours: USD$110
SJO to Puerto Viejo, Talamanca, Limón – 226+ Km (141+ Miles), 5+ hours: USD$250.00
Renting a mid-sized car for two weeks costs about $450, but insurance costs 2-3 times that. You can’t fall back on your credit card collision coverage either because you need to pay for so many crook line items it doesn’t cover. Basically, they get you, one way or the other whether you rent anything or not.
You can, however, save money with the shuttles if you have a group. Otherwise, forget it. Be prepared to hemorrhage cash.
If you’re traveling to Guanacaste or even northern Alajuela, such as the La Fortuna region, fly into Liberia airport. I would say avoid flying into SJO at all costs even though it’s always a couple of hundred dollars cheaper from the U.S. and most other places. It’s still going to cost you that difference or more to get to Guanacaste from SJO, and it’s going to waste your valuable vacation time on top of that. La Fortuna is still a long way at 2.5 hours from Liberia airport, but even that’s somewhat shorter than the trip from SJO to La Fortuna, which is 3.5 hours.
I hear they’re supposed to be building an international airport in the southern Puntarenas region near Manuel Antonio, but for now you have to fly into SJO and get a ground transfer to get there. it’s far, but that trip is not nearly as bad as the one from SJO north to La Fortuna.
Okay, so back to my trip.
I wanted an adventure, and BOY did I get one!
First I drove from SJO airport in Alajuela to Jaco Beach. That ride was really quite pleasant, except the car I rented from Hertz was a piece of crap. The transmission light came on about an hour into my trip, and the engine acted like getting up those mountains was an ordeal. Fortunately, I’d decided to rent a manual transmission, so I just drove it in third and fourth gears for the most part. It wasn’t like I could go very fast on those one-lane roads in all that traffic anyway.
I was afraid the car wouldn’t start up again, so I refrained from stopping along the way to take pics of the scenery. I drove straight to the gorgeous villa in Jaco where I was staying, parked it for Hertz to come swap it out for another car the next morning, and explored the entire town and half its black sand beach on foot.
I chose Jaco because of its central location and proximity to several nearby attractions I wanted to check out, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone planning a trip to Costa Rica. When you pass through on your way to or from Manuel Antonio, get your driver to stop for lunch at TacoBar in JacoWalk (be sure to try their mint limonadas or any of their amazing smoothies), and keep it moving.
And that’s basically what I did–kept it moving to Manuel Antonio, about an hour south of Jaco in Quepos, where my cousin met up with me. Here’s when the trip got a lot more fun since I’d been waiting for her so we could do the best excursions together.
Manuel Antonio beach is touted as one of the most beautiful in Costa Rica. I beg to differ. What you can’t see in the photo above (but you can in the yoga beach pic below) is that it’s mostly covered with rocks just big enough to put a hurtin’ on your toe if you’re not careful. That, to me, disqualifies it as a winning beach, but then since they’re comparing it to the rest of their beaches, that’s not saying much.
My Vote For Best Costa Rica Beaches
The only region on the Pacific coast worth visiting for the beaches is Guanacaste. If beautiful beaches and nice accommodations are what you want, Playa Conchal and Tamarindo are where you want to be. The Caribbean side also has some great beaches, but be prepared for mostly 1-star, maybe a couple of 2-star accommodations over there.
My cousin and I absolutely adore natural hot springs spas, so we decided to trek across central Costa Rica to Arenal for the last few days of her stay. I was supposed to stay in Costa Rica for another 3-4 weeks, but for several reasons I decided to leave with her. Had we known then what we know now, we’d have gone straight to the hot springs and then on to Guanacaste instead.
Google Maps routed us to La Fortuna through San Ramon. Everything was fine until it took us to route 702.
I feel like I’m a real badass behind the wheel, but I wasn’t driving the right equipment at all for the terrain. The climb was steady, veering sharply around curves on that went from paved to big rectangular snatches of pavement missing to gravel. By this time we were about 45 minutes into our drive on route 702, way up in the Nectandra Cloud Forest Reserve. I promise I was not even trying to ever see this place.
It had already started raining, naturally, when the GPS told us to turn right onto another steep road that went down into fogginess. We couldn’t see the bottom of it because there was another turn about 100 feet from where we came to a complete stop, fearful of what was at the bottom of that road.
For a few minutes we debated turning around, but the road was so narrow that that was an impossibility. This was not a one lane each way type of road. This was a one-lane PERIOD road.
Well, we both dreaded going all the way back the way we’d just come and we were running out of daylight. One thing we absolutely did not want was to be on Costa Rica roads in the dark. We had to get moving, and I needed to see what was down that road. “Let’s creep down just a li’l bit,” I said. OMG. Bad decision.
The road turned into orange DIRT and MUD before we even made it to the corner.
I threw that thang in reverse and drove up that mountain backwards! The motor overheated before we even made it back to where we’d stopped before, and fumes filled the car. We’d reached a slightly wider part of the road, so I tried to turn the car around, but the car started to slide across the road toward the rock wall where there was a natural gutter on the left inviting us to get stuck. I paused to take a deep breath to calm myself down and figure us a way out of this mess. My cousin jumped out the car to help me to gauge how much space I had. I turned the wheel to the left and put it back in reverse again and was then able to clear the decline to get back on a level surface.
We sat there listening to the rain and cows mooing on the mountainside for 35 minutes before we dared start the car back up, then we drove all the way back down and found a hotel in a nearby town for the night.
We took another route and tried again to get to La Fortuna and Arenal the next day and after two hours of driving down mountainsides…
the brakes went out.
I kid you not. This time I called Hertz and told them to come get that garbage. The guy suggested we wait about 15 minutes and the brakes will come back. He told me to ride the clutch by downshifting to slow the car down.
Now it’s been years since I’ve driven a stick, but if I recall correctly that’s how to burn the clutch out. Not like I cared though. He was right. The brakes reset or whatever, and we were able to finish the last 50 minutes of this ride. I called them again and told them to come get it from the resort. There was no way I was about to drive that crap anywhere again, especially not back through those mountains to the airport in San Jose.
After being thoroughly traumatized by Costa Rica’s mountain roads, we celebrated having survived by getting intensely relaxing massages at a unique little spa (Arestetic Spa) in the rain forest where some of the rooms had no windows—just curtains—coupled with the sounds of gentle rain surrounding us that put us both to sleep.
Ironically, the rest of our trip was actually the best, by far, of our entire time in Costa Rica with the sole exception of the white water rafting experience near Quepos in Puntarenas. We spent it in the natural hot pools, watching sloths, monkeys and hummingbirds, shopping at Costa Rican handmade souvenir shops, sipping rich hot chocolate at a chocolate store and farm (Chocolateria Estukurú), eating way too many times at this amazing Caribbean restaurant we found in La Fortuna (Restaurante La Caribeña), and trying to catch glimpses of the Arenal volcano between the clouds.
Other Things To Avoid
Pacific Tradewinds Travel Agency – they call themselves Costa Rica travel experts, but their poor communication skills and misleading tactics will have you utterly confused. They’re also rather unethical and will immediately try to book you at hotels I discovered they OWN rather than the best option for you.
Hertz/Dollar car rental – they will rent you garbage and don’t care if you fall off a mountain with it. They also advertise cars they don’t have to ensure you don’t get what you actually rented online.
Iguana Tours catamaran whale watching tour
Arenal Springs Resort – not enough hot pools and pancakes with no syrup
Callidryas Sloth tour in La Fortuna
Shuttle transportation by Arturo Saenz-Garcia – this driver speaks fluent English and totally conducts a tour as he drives you from place to place. If you’re not in a hurry, he’ll pull over to show you and let you take pics of things along the way, such as cocoa and coffee farms, indigenous fruits and plants, waterfalls, and others that may be of interest. He also has an aromatherapy diffuser and a selection of bottled scents in his shuttle. (What else needs to be said!) Message him on FB or email him – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best luxury resorts for groups – W Resort & Spa, Westin Playa Conchal, El Mangroove
Best hotspot hotel (best proximity) – Margaritaville in Tamarindo
Restaurante La Caribeña in La Fortuna – try the red snapper escovitch!
Chocolateria Estukurú in La Fortuna – chocolate store and farm