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One way to grow as a traveler is to visit new destinations outside of your comfort zone. Choose places with exciting, unique cultures. Explore locations filled with unknown languages and different lifestyles. Over the last ten years, Costa Rica has continued to attract more visitors, resulting in over three million international tourists in 2018 alone. Tourism doesn’t seem to be slowing down, but this may make it harder to find more local spots as more visitors arrive.
Costa Rica is a perfect bridge between North America and South America, and it also gives travelers access to two beautiful coasts touching the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In addition, it is also one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world, making it a haven for travelers looking for eco-tourism opportunities. To see all this amazing country has to offer, plan an itinerary that marries can’t-miss hot spots with hidden gems. All a smart traveler needs is a few good travel tips to achieve this distinct combination. The tips within this road trip itinerary will steer any traveler, solo or not, towards some of Costa Rica’s best destinations, attractions actually worth seeing, and accommodations and hotels that won’t break the bank.
Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of renting a car in Costa Rica. Do some research and book a vehicle with a reputable company, preferably something like a Jeep which can handle the small, winding, often pothole-laden roads. Start the trip off with a bang by driving from the Liberia Airport (which often has cheaper flights from the United States than San José) to La Fortuna.
This small town could easily be missed, were it not for the two large volcanoes that call it home, plus the unbelievable natural hot springs found here; plus, it acts as the entry to Arenal Volcano National Park. The active, lava laced Arenal is fairly popular amongst tourists. For hikers, spending a challenging day climbing dormant Cerro Chato is perfectly complemented by a dip in the natural free hot springs found along the thermal Tabacón River. This first leg may be a nail biter for some drivers, but it’s well worth it. Just take care over those one-lane bridges and avoid the gigantic holes in the pavement.
Next up, head away from the rainforest and enjoy some well-deserved beach time. Tamarindo is well-known amongst the young, partying, surfer crowd, and can be a fun choice, but we recommend going further south. Most of this four-to-five hour section will be mainly highway, but the closer to Nosara, the less paved and well-marked the way will become. Some stretches may feel pretty desolate, but keep faith in GPS and try to download maps ahead of time.
Driving through Nosara feels like finding a secret jungle hideaway, that also happens to be right down the road from a surfer’s paradise. Stay at The Green Sanctuary, in a room constructed from shipping containers, and wake up to monkeys and a homecooked breakfast. Take a short walk down the road and sign up for a yoga class, order a banana coffee and enjoy the surf at Playa Guiones. Meet friendly locals at happy hour and share an authentic meal at Rosi’s Soda. If time allows, spend a few days here, and a few more in Sámara, just one hour south.
After a few beach days, venture back inland to experience yet another of Costa Rica’s many ecosystems. Drive up and out of the Guanacaste Peninsula, along the Gulf of Nicoya. After a few hours, make a quick pit stop at Tarcoles to see their fascinating (and also terrifying) resident crocodiles. Many people travel to Costa Rica with Manuel Antonio being at the top of their priority list. It is an amazing place, and worth visiting to get up close and personal with monkeys, sloths, and a world of other wildlife. It’s also home to beautiful beaches and trails.
Unfortunately, its popularity means sharing this experience with many, many other travelers. In addition to spending a day here, spend an afternoon at Rainmaker park as well. Located 40 minutes north — and on the way from Nosara — Rainmaker is relatively off the beaten path, so its numerous hanging bridges, waterfalls, swimming holes, and paths will be all yours. It costs $20 to get in, and lunch will come to $5. Try a local craft beer here as well (not common in Costa Rica, so definitely a treat)!
Spend the night in Quepos, a humble fishing village between Rainmaker and Manuel Antonio. Foreign visitors may feel a bit like a fish out of water here, as it is definitely off the tourist track, but staying here offers a much more authentic, local slice of Costa Rican life. Check into Villas Jacquelina, and spend some time relaxing on one of their many decks in a hammock. Enjoy the day’s catch from a nearby fisherman and his family at Marisqueria Jiuberths, a restaurant tucked away in a neighborhood home. You will feel like family even if you can’t order your meal in Spanish.
Wake up early to a stunning sunrise and get an early start at La Panera (Panaderia) with a coffee and a fresh ham and cheese roll. Cross the street and take the local bus to Manuel Antonio (much cheaper than a cab) and on the way back into town that evening, watch the sunset with locals along the water. Then tuck into a Casado (traditional meal) at Soda Sanchez. The town definitely shuts down at night and it may be a bit eerie and borderline sketchy to walk those quiet streets back alone, so take a cab back home after dinner (ask the friendly ladies in Soda Sanchez to help if you need).
Finish the final leg of the Costa Rica road trip in Uvita, home to the whale’s tail. Look it up on Google maps and you will quickly see where its name comes from. Only 50 minutes south of Quepos, before arriving, make a pitstop in Dominical for brunch at Cafe Mono Congo, quite possibly the most charming riverside cafe ever conceived. Choose your swing seat and order up some coconut french toast or a tico burrito. Even solo travelers will feel right at home with the friendly staff and patrons. Afterward, spend a few sunny hours at Dominical Beach (but be careful, the surf can be huge) or continue right on to Uvita.
The last recommended accommodation for this adventure may be out of comfort zone for some but it is an experience not soon forgotten. Flutterby is an amazing, magical place. A stone’s throw, (okay maybe short walk) to the beach, this hostel is built out of communal tree houses, colorful murals, painted rocks and comfy cozy corners made for meeting fellow travelers and making new friends. It is truly one of a kind.
About the author: Tara is co-founder and CCO of Tiplr, a platform for creating, finding and sharing travel tips and guides. She calls New York City home but she caught the bug after traveling as a student ambassador to Australia and New Zealand in high school. Some of her favorite adventures have included exploring Costa Rica solo, road tripping through the UK, and attempting to see every temple in Indonesia.