Beaches, Rain Forests, and Volcanoes
Day 1: Arrival
Arrive in San José (most arrivals are in the evening) and head straight to one of the small luxury hotels north of the city in the Central Valley. A favorite of ours is Finca Rosa Blanca, a fairy-tale retreat overlooking miles of coffee farms.
Logistics: Brace yourself for long lines at immigration if you arrive in the evening along with all the other large flights from North America. Try to get a seat near the front of the plane, and don't dawdle when disembarking.
Day 2: Poás Volcano and Tabacón Hot Springs
Volcán Poás, where you can peer over the edge of a crater, lies nearby. Fortify yourself with the fruits, jellies, and chocolates sold by vendors on the road up to the summit. A scenic drive takes you to La Fortuna area. Drop your luggage at one of many fantastic hotels (Montaña de Fuego is our pick for fabulous volcano views), and go directly to Tabacón Hot Springs & Resort. Take a zip-line or hanging-bridges tour through the forest canopy and then pamper yourself with a spa treatment. Finish the day by sinking into a volcanically heated mineral bath with a cocktail at your side as the sun sets behind fiery Volcán Arenal.
Logistics: Get an early start to get the best views of Poás. Shuttle vans can get you to Arenal and have hotel-to-hotel service.
Day 3: Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge
Spend your entire day in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, a lowland forest reserve replete with waterfowl near the Nicaraguan border.
Logistics: Book your trip the night before; tour operators in La Fortuna keep evening hours for exactly that reason. All transport will be included.
Day 4: Scenic Drive to the Central Pacific
Today's a traveling day—a chance to really see the country's famous landscape and infamous roads. (Believe us, they get a lot worse than this route.) A few hours' drive from Arenal takes you to fabled Manuel Antonio on the Central Pacific coast. Beyond-beautiful hotels are the norm here, and you have your choice of seaside villas or tree-shrouded jungle lodges. We like the hillside La Mariposa, which has commanding views.
Logistics: Hotel-to-hotel shuttle-van services can get you to Manuel Antonio. If you drive instead, start out as early as possible. You'll pass through two mountainous stretches (between La Fortuna and San Ramón, and between Atenas and the coast) that fog over by midafternoon.
Day 5: Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica's most famous national park for a reason: it has beaches, lush rain forest, mangrove swamps, and rocky coves with abundant marine life. You can—and should—spend an entire day exploring the park, home to capuchin monkeys, sloths, agoutis, and 200 species of birds. It's also one of two locales in the country where you'll see squirrel monkeys.
Logistics: Almost all Manuel Antonio hotels have transport to the park. If yours doesn't, taxis are plentiful and cheap.
Day 6: Beach Yourself
Days 1 through 5 were "on the go" days. Reward yourself today with lots of relaxation. Manuel Antonio means beaches, and there are several to choose from. Manuel Antonio and neighboring Quepos mean restaurants, too, the best selection of any beach community in the country.
Logistics: Most everything you need here is strung along the 5-km (3-mile) road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park. It's practically impossible to get lost.
Day 7: San José
An easy morning drive back to San José on the new (2010) Pacific highway gives you time to spend the afternoon in the city. We like the cozy, classy Hôtel Le Bergerac. Visit the Teatro Nacional, the capital's must-see sight, and save time for late-afternoon shopping. An evening dinner caps off your trip before you turn in early to get ready for tomorrow morning's departure.
Logistics: As the number of visitors to Costa Rica grows, so does the number of passengers using Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría. We recommend that you check in three hours before your flight. Better safe than sorry.
Aside from Day 2, it's entirely possible to do this route without a car.
Hotels in the Central Valley and San José are used to booking visitors for their first and last nights in the country, and may allow you to leave items so you don't have to lug them around.
Arenal lies equidistant between Liberia and San José, but we suggest flying into San José for this itinerary because road access to Arenal and from Manuel Antonio is better.
Cloud cover makes volcano viewing the luck of the draw, and no one can negotiate with Mother Nature. Early mornings and dry season give you the best chances for seeing Arenal and Poás in action.
Get as early a start as possible if you're driving. The mountain roads between San José and La Fortuna and between Manuel Antonio and San José can fog over by midafternoon.
More Beaches, Rain Forests, and Volcanoes
Day 1: Arrival
Most arrivals to Liberia, Costa Rica's second international airport, are in early afternoon. You can't go wrong with any North Pacific beach, but we like Playa Hermosa for its pivotal location, one that lets you use it as a base for visiting area attractions. Check out small, personal, breezy Hotel Playa Hermosa/Bosque del Mar, the perfect antidote to the megaresorts that lie not too far away.
Logistics: The big all-inclusives up here have their own minivans to whisk you in air-conditioned comfort from airport to resort. Smaller lodgings such as Hotel Playa Hermosa/Bosque del Mar can arrange to have transport waiting, with advance notice.
Day 2: Playa Hermosa
Morning is a great time to laze on the beach in this part of Costa Rica. The breezes are refreshingly cool and the sun hasn't started to beat down. After lunch, explore Playa Hermosa's metropolis, the small town of Playas del Coco. Quite frankly Coco is our least favorite beach up here. But we like the town for its little souvenir shops, restaurants, and local color.
Logistics: Taxis are the easiest way to travel between Playa Hermosa and Coco, about 10 minutes away. Have your hotel call one, and flag one down on the street in town when it's time to return.
Day 3: Rincón de la Vieja Volcano
The top of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano with its steaming, bubbling, oozing fumaroles lies about 90 minutes from Hermosa. Lather on the sunscreen and head for the Hacienda Guachipelín and its volcano-viewing hikes, canopy tours, rappelling, horseback riding, mountain biking, and river tubing. Cap off the day with a spa treatment, complete with thermal mud bath.
Logistics: If you don't have a rental car, book a private driver for the day, which can usually be arranged through your hotel.
Day 4: Golf or Diving
Golf is big up here. The 18-hole Reserva Conchal course at the Westin Playa Conchal resort is about 45 minutes from Hermosa. The other popular, slightly pricey, sport here is scuba diving. Dive operators are based in nearby Playas del Coco or Playa Panamá. A daylong course gives you a taste of the deep.
Logistics: The resort will arrange transport to and from the golf course, and dive operators will pick you up from and return you to your hotel.
Day 5: Palo Verde National Park
We like the morning guided tours at Palo Verde National Park, one of the last remaining dry tropical forests in Central America. The Organization for Tropical Studies, which operates the biological station here, has terrific guides. Spend the afternoon observing nature in a more relaxed fashion with a float down the nearby Río Corobicí. (These are not the screaming rapids so famed in white-water circles.)
Logistics: This excursion is a bit roundabout, so this is the day your own vehicle would come in handiest. But you can also hire a private driver (arranged through your hotel). Bring water to drink: it gets hot here.
Day 6: Sailing
Make your final day a relaxing one with a few hours on the waves. Many sailboats operate from this section of coast. Our choice is the 52-foot Samonique III, which sails out of Playa Flamingo most afternoons at 2. A four-hour excursion includes sandwiches, appetizers, and an open bar. Legendary Pacific sunsets are tossed in at no extra charge.
Logistics: The Samonique III folks can arrange transport from hotel to boat and back again.
Day 7: Departure
Grab a last dip in the ocean this morning, because your flight departs from Liberia in the early afternoon.
Logistics: The advent of international flights to Liberia has fueled this region's meteoric rise to fame. The opening of a spiffy new airport terminal in late 2011 has eased congestion, but allow yourself plenty of time for check-in in any case.
Fly into Liberia. Although it's logical to think "San José" when planning flights to Costa Rica, it makes no sense if you plan to spend your entire time in the North Pacific.
A car is ideal for this itinerary, yet many area attractions and tour operators provide transport to and from area lodging if you aren't too far afield (one of the reasons we like Playa Hermosa).
All-inclusive resorts do a good job of organizing local excursions with local operators, so if you're staying at one, take advantage of them.
Getting from beach to beach often requires travel back inland. There is no real (i.e., navigable) coastal road.
If ever there were a case for an off-season vacation, this is it. This driest, hottest part of the country gets very dry and hot from January through April. The rains green everything up, and frankly, we prefer the region during the low season after April.
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