August 26, 2010 – A work in progress…
I’m writing this idiosyncratic guide for friends who are planning to visit the Guanacaste area of Costa Rica near Las Catalinas. Once we have the first buildings finished at Las Catalinas and we are up and running my recommendations will be greatly simplified! But in the meantime here is some guidance. This is meant to be just a starting point for this document, we will continue to develop it and would love to have your suggestions! And you really should be in touch with us as you plan your trip so we can help!
Here is a simplified map of the coastal area, showing some of the places I will mention below.
This is a fantastic area to visit! There are some great places to stay, great exploration to be had, and lots of fun things to do. It reminds me some of the post-World-War II Europe that I read about in Ernest Hemmingway novels. Great hospitality and plenty of comfort, but still a sense of adventure and the feeling of things still to be discovered.
I think of the beach areas of Guanacaste as having a Northern Orbit – Coco, Hermosa, Papagayo, Liberia; and a Southern Orbit – Las Catalinas, Potrero, Flamingo, Tamarindo, etc. In general I find the Southern Orbit much more appealing and interesting. It has Las Catalinas; the nice town of Flamingo; and the fun surfer town of Tamarindo; lots of great beaches; it has the surfing; and lots of beautiful natural areas to explore. The Northern Orbit has the Four Seasons at Papagayo – something that can’t yet be equaled for a luxury experience (just wait…). And of course it has the airport in Liberia, and the commercial establishments and shopping of Liberia. But the beach towns and areas there such as Playa del Coco and Playa Hermosa I don’t find as appealing as those in the Southern Orbit. By the way, this Northern Orbit/Southern Orbit thing is my own lingo – no one else will have any idea what you are talking about!
The road that connects the Northern and Southern is the Monkey Trail , which shows in green on the map above. This is a dirt road, sometimes requiring four-wheel-drive, and not passable after a heavy rain because of a stream crossing. It greatly shortens the trip between north and south. It isn’t well marked, and if it is your first time, or it has been raining, or you don’t have a tough enough vehicle, you probably should avoid it and take the good paved road which shows in red on the map. But it comes in handy for some of us! Someday, hopefully soon, this route will be improved and paved.
Where to Stay
- Luxurious, beautiful, a bit isolated – stay at the Four Seasons on Peninsula Papagayo. Great service and food. Expensive. Beautiful setting. It is a long way from here to anywhere, though. If you stay here I recommend boat trips, snorkeling and scuba diving, and golf.
- Right next to Las Catalinas, beautiful setting, nice simple hotel – stay at Hotel Sugar Beach. Expect to pay $100 to $150 per night. Nice restaurant, but not fancy. If you stay here go hiking and exploring in Las Catalinas, kayaking, body surfing, snorkeling. Also it is a good base location for trips to other places of interest in the area – Flamingo, Tamarindo, etc.
- Good central location, relaxing setting, plenty of activities – stay at Paradisus Playa Conchal hotel. The hotel is all inclusive, which I typically do not like, but as these things go this is the best I’ve seen. Plenty of activities, decent food. Just outside the hotel gate on the beach are a variety of vendors selling crafts and offering activities. We have had some great horseback rides with those guys! Beach is pretty, but a little steep, so not the greatest swimming beach. Good for long walks. Nice golf. Fun pool scene for children. Easy access from here to Las Catalinas (15 minutes), Tamarindo (20 minutes), Flamingo (10 minutes).
- Lively, fun surfing town – stay in Tamarindo. It has a youthful feel, plenty of good restaurants, and a big, fun beach. OK, it is not exactly a beautiful town. And it is a bit chaotic and a little grungy. But it is fun! It’s a great place for surfing lessons too. On a pretty day at sunset I love how EVERYONE is down on the beach and in the water. I recommend staying at Hotel Capitan Suizo.
- Larger hotel – stay at the JW Marriott at Hacienda Pinilla. This is a large, full-service hotel located on the beach in the Hacienda Pinilla development.
- Great romantic getaway – Los Altos de Eros is a five-room inn located a few miles inland from Tamarido. The place gets absolute top rankings in the whole world (I’m not kidding) on Trip Advisor. It is a simple but beautiful place. Many patrons are young couples on honeymoons or near-honeymoons. Meals are together at a communal table. In my opinion it is the social interaction that makes the place get such incredible ratings. Excellent spa also. Go! But not with children.
- Rent a house – there are many nice houses to rent in the area. Potrero, Flamingo, Tamarindo and all the other places I have mentioned have good candidates. VRBO.com has tons of listings.
Where to Eat
There are plenty of good restaurants in the area at all price points. All the hotels I mentioned have three good meals a day. In addition I’ll mention just a few of my favorites here. But there are many in Potrero, Flamingo, Brasalito, and Tamarindo.
- Angelina’s – located in Flamingo upstairs in La Plaza . Great seafood. I also recommend the Thai chicken pizza. Nice setting, great service – this is really a very good restaurant!
- Mar y Sol – fine dining with a great view in Flamingo. Located on the north ridge of Flamingo.
- The Shack – a simple-but-good roadside place in Surfside, on the road from Flamingo to Potrero.
- In Tamarindo – there are many good restaurants. Seasons by Shlomy… Jardin del Eden… Use Trip Advisor to get the full run-down.
Things to Do
There are many! Most are lacking in services, so if you want to go exploring be prepared to bring along what you might want (towels, drinks, snorkles, boogie boards, umbrellas, etc.)
- Las Catalinas Beaches – Playas Danta and Dantita are fantastic for swimming. Clear water, typically no chop, and low slope (especially on Danta) make for safe, fun swimming. Danta frequently has waves that are just right for fun body surfing, with long smooth rides. This is best at medium to low tide. Stay to the center for a wide no-rock section. For great snorkeling go to the reef at the far end (northwest end) of Playa Dantita. Or swim out to the tip of Punta Penca – on your left as you look out to sea from Playa Danta.
- Pan de Azucar, Prieta, and Penca – all beautiful beaches immediately adjacent to Las Catalinas. Pan de Azucar has Hotel Sugar Beach, so there is a place to get food, drink, and shade.
- Playa Flamingo – great swimming beach. Services nearby but not right on beach.
- Playa Tamarindo – an active, fun, long beach. An excellent place for surfing lessons, pretty women in bikinis, handsome young dudes, and late afternoon soccer on the beach. On a pretty evening it seems like everyone in town is on the beach for sunset.
- Playa Grande – a big wild beach with famous surfing and some small surfer hotels offering services. This is not a swimming beach, though. Too rough.
- Playa Avellana – Surfing, boogie-boarding, wading around near shore, and long walks on the beach. Always an enjoyable scene.
Hiking and Exploring
- Las Catalinas – hiking is a great activity at Las Catalinas – we have plenty of hills for cardio, plenty of incredible views, and a healthy and interesting ecosystem. As of now we have several properly constructed trails, and a bunch of rougher ones that can be steep. Get a trail map from our office, or here. Contact our sales office for a tour and more information – firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Santa Rosa National Park – is a huge and beautiful but almost completely undeveloped park comprising a large peninsula jutting out into the Pacific. I’ve been out on the 4WD road to the end and hiking on the beach there. It is a great trip, but probably best done with someone who knows the area. I’m dying to ride my mountain bike out there…
- Rincon de la Vieja – the national park here features long hikes up volcano, or shorter hikes through rainforest with volcanic features. Both are great. A nearby lodge, Hotel Haciena Guachipelin, offers some popular zip-line tours, whitewater tubing, and horseback riding.
Get Out on the Water!
You simply *must* spend a good bit of time out on the water while you are here. This is surely one of the most beautiful, dramatic coastlines in the world, and the experience of being out on the water is always fantastic.
- Sailing – larger boats available out of Flamingo. I’ve had a great experience on the Hibiscus. I’m not sure where small boats are available for rental as of now, but they would be fantastic in Potrero Bay. Really fantastic. We’ll have them at Las Catalinas before too long!
- Stand-Up Paddleboarding – this is a super-fun and fast growing water sport. You can paddle long distances and explore like with a sea kayak. Or you can ride waves like a surfboard. We will have stand-up paddleboards in Las Catalinas. Right now I don’t know where to tell you to rent one though, though I think some are available in Tamarindo.
- Kayaking – there are fantastic places for either short jaunts or major expeditions in a sea kayak. The dramatic coast with rocky cliffs intermixed with crescent beaches, and interesting islands just offshore make for some of the best kayaking you could imagine. Las Catalinas is a perfect venue. Some boats are available at the Hotel Sugar Beach if you are staying there. Take them out and around Punta Penca to the nearby islands, Playa Dantita for snorkeling, etc. Other beach hotels and outfitters may have them as well if they are in an appropriate location.
- Fishing – there is best-in-the-world deep sea fishing off our coasts. Several good boats are based out of Flamingo and Potrero.
- Snorkeling – water is generally quite clear once you are out of the area stirred up by the surf. Lots of marine life, corals, etc. The best spots I know of are all at Las Catalinas – off of Punta Penca (see this report), Dantita, and in sheltered spots off the islands just offshore. There is also some good snorkeling at the Four Seasons Hotel. And I hear great snorkelling at the Catalina Islands and the Brumell Islands. When the swell is high, visibility near shore will be compromised. Otherwise go for it!
- Scuba Diving – there are many outfitters in the area and many great dive spots. The Catalina Islands, directly offshore from Las Catalinas, are probably the most famous. Good chances to spot big creatures like whale sharks and manta rays! Recommend Ocotal Diving.
The surging is fantastic and a major draw for visitors to Guanacaste. I’m not a surfer, and if you are you probably know what you need to know already! But here are some basics.
- Tamarindo for lessons – an astounding number of surf shops offering rentals and lessons. And a perfect beach and break for learning right there.
- Famous breaks (from north to south):
- Witches Rock – this one is generally reached by boat. It is about a one hour trip from Flamingo if there is no chop. Witches rock is probably the most famous break around…
- Ollie’s Point – near witch’s rock on Santa Elena peninsula. Go by boat.
- Playa Grande – a major-league surf break, and the closest major break to Las Catalinas, about a 25 minute drive.
- Playa Avellana – several good breaks.
- Playa Negra – a big wave, next beach south from Avellana.
Equestrian activities are very popular and traditional Guanacaste. Horses and rides are widely available. Most local horses are small, and tough! If you go on a trail ride you are likely to find that the guides are much more permissive than what you might experience in the USA. Galloping on the beach and so forth! It can be really fun, but I do advise using your good judgment and not taking on more than you are ready for. Most any hotel in Guanacaste will be able to help you line up some horseback riding.
I am very excited about cycling possibilities around the area. It offers a tremendous amount of what has become my favorite kind of riding – exploring unpaved, lightly travelled back roads. Soon we will have bikes and tours out of Las Catalinas. In the meantime, Blue Trailz offers bikes to rent and tours out of Tamarindo. I will surely have much more to say about cycling in the area soon!
How to Get There
- Direct flights to Liberia – for most visitors from the US this will be the way to go. A nice simple open-air airport, with direct flights to Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Newark, etc.
- San Jose to Tamarindo – some visitors might find it easier to fly to Costa Rica’s capitol, San Jose, and then take a short flight to Tamarindo or Liberia from there.
Elsewhere in Costa Rica
many of you may want to travel around to other attractions in Costa Rica while you are there. The country really does have a lot to offer! Here are some quick suggestions:
- Lake Arenal and Arenal Volcano – a beautiful fresh water lake with a consistently erupting volcano in the background! Stay at The Springs.
- Monteverde Cloud Forest – a classic natural rain forest destination…
- Whitewater rafting – the town of Turrialba is a major base for Costa Rican whitewater. The nearby Pacuare and Reventazon rivers are world-famous in whitewater circles.
- Osa Peninsula – is a wild, very sparsely inhabited part of Costa Rica on the far southern Pacific Coast. If you want to really get out into the jungle, this is the place for you!