Paradise by the Dashboard Light

In search of the real Costa Rica, Neal Pollack (or more accurately, his wife, Regina) drives the country's western half in four days. It's a tale of misadventures and mitigated bliss--the roads are dreadful, but where they lead is dazzling

Regina followed his path precisely. The water came halfway up our doors. In my mind, I composed explanations to the rental car company about why their vehicle had washed out to sea. Suddenly we were on the bank. But we couldn't dwell on our success. It was still more than 100 miles to Playa Hermosa, our final stop.

After the spectacular places we'd seen, Playa Hermosa seemed like your standard beach town. But on the main drag, just before the turn down to the beach, a restaurant called Ginger set it apart. An expat from Montreal is the chef and owner. She served us a meringue filled with and ringed by mango, pineapple, kiwi, and strawberry. It was one of the best desserts I've had anywhere.

We chose Playa Hermosa because it's 22 miles from the Liberia Airport, and we had an early flight. At the airport check-in line, we waited behind a woman from L.A.

"So where did you stay?" she asked.

My wife and I exchanged the kind of look that makes marriage worthwhile. We'd traveled approximately one third of Costa Rica in five days, in very rushed and peculiar circumstances. We had seen beaches and jungle, overdeveloped tourist towns and unknown hideaways. We'd eaten well and eaten poorly and slept in some really nice beds along the way. We'd experienced a universe, all because we'd dared to get our own car. "Lady," I said, "you have no idea."

Driving Survival Strategies


  • Don't count on road signs for navigation. They're not always correct. The National Geographic Adventure Map is extremely detailed and generally helpful.

  • It's a good idea to get where you're going before dark. Most roads don't have streetlights.

  • If you see a branch or a pile of sticks in the road, slow down immediately. This is the Costa Rican version of a road flare.

  • Gas stations are few and far between. When you spot one, take it as an opportunity to fill up.

  • Don't assume that pedestrians or bicyclists in the road will try to avoid you. That's your job.



  • Los Inocentes Lodge outside La Cruz, 011-506/679-9190,, from $60

  • Hotel Celaje Cabuya, 011-506/642-0374,, from $70

  • Florblanca Resort Santa Teresa, 011-506/640-0232,, villas from $295



  • Soda Piedra Mar Malpaís, 011-506/640-0069, $2--$10 per person

  • Ginger Restaurant & Bar Playa Hermosa, 011-506/350-2922, meringue $4.25





  • Costa Rica Tourism Board 866/267-8274,

  • Toyota Rent A Car San Jose and Liberia airports, 011-506/258-5797, approximately $400 a week for a 4x4, automatic or manual

A web-exclusive: Brooke Slezak's photos of stunning Costa Rica
Launch the slideshow


Get Inspired with more from

Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

Budget Travel Real Deals

See more deals »


Our newsletter delivers vacation inspiration straight to your inbox.

Check Prices