Wendy Yanagihara: Hi there! This is Wendy Yanagihara writing to you from sunny (and snowy) Boulder, Colorado. I'm looking forward to chatting about Costa Rica and imagining where you'll be going (and wishing I were tagging along!)... So let me get to your questions.
New York City, N.Y.: I am going to Tamarindo for the week first week in February with 3 girlfriends. Are there any secret sites, beaches, expeditions, restaurants, etc. that we shouldn't miss? We are very active 50-year-olds. Thank you!
Wendy Yanagihara: This sounds like fun! I can't remember the last time I got to go away with a bunch of my girlfriends.
You'll get the lay of the land pretty quickly in Tamarindo. The beach there is great for learning how to surf, and the main drag is full of beachside cafes and shops full of sarongs and jewelry. If you're celebrating a special occasion, book a dinner at Dragonfly Bar & Grill or Carolina's Fine Dining. But elsewhere in town there are plenty of great, inexpensive places to eat: Olga's Coffee Shop, Smilin' Dog Taco Stop, Wok & Roll...
Once you've gotten your fill of Tamarindo, there are some good places nearby to get away. Just across the inlet north of town, in fact, is the beach community of Playa Grande. Not only are the waves good (suitable for beginners, too), but you'll also be there during leatherback turtle nesting season. You can make arrangements from Tamarindo, but do this as soon as you get into town as the national park (Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas de Guanacaste) limits the number of visitors per night and you may have to wait a few days for an opening. You can drive to Playa Grande, which may be the best option, as hotels and restaurants are a bit spread out in Playa Grande. If you don't have a car, you can take a water taxi from Tamarindo, but you'll have to do a little walking along the beach once you get across.
If you do rent a car, you can find tons of secret beaches both north and south of Tamarindo. The drives themselves can be an adventure, since most of these coastal roads are of the bumpy dirt variety. Head south to Playa Avellanas, Playa Negra or as far as Playa Junquillal. Each has its own village feel, with family-run restaurants where you can get a cheap, delicious plate of fish and gallo pinto (black beans and rice) and a beer. Go north and you'll find slightly more developed beach communities like Playa Brasilito.
Any of these spots would make good day trips, which you can arrange through your hotel in Tamarindo or local travel agencies if you don't feel comfortable driving yourselves.
New Orleans, La.: I have wanted to visit Costa Rica with my 12-year-old daughter and 15-year-old, son but would like ideas as to which part to visit. I would love to see the volcanoes, the beach, and some wild life, but know we can't see it all in less than a week. What do you suggest to me as a single mother who tires easily?
Wendy Yanagihara: One of the great things about Costa Rica is its size—it's small enough that you can spend about a week and get a good taste of the richness that the country has to offer.
Luckily, you're also traveling with kids who are old enough to really appreciate a lot of this stuff. A good place to start would be the Volcan Arenal and Monteverde area. They're close enough that you can spend several days exploring both, and then move on to the beach to round out your stay. Arenal has spectacular nighttime views of lava flowing from the top of the volcano, and you can enjoy the hot springs and warm rivers heated by the tectonic activity. If your kids are active, you can also arrange day hikes or horseback rides through the rainforest here.
Monteverde cloud forest is a three-hour 'jeep-boat-jeep' trip away from La Fortuna, the base town for Volcan Arenal. The cloud forest is a unique environment, and though you won't see a ton of wildlife here, it's justifiably famous for its lush beauty. You can do short hikes at Monteverde, and guided hikes are best as you're most likely to spot birds and other wildlife with an experienced guide. Around Santa Elena, the base town for Monteverde, there are lots of great things to do and see—horseback riding, a frog 'zoo' where you can see a dazzling variety of colorful frogs you might not see in the wild in CR, a bat 'zoo'...it also has a wonderful artistic community, so the town is scattered with little galleries, handicraft shops and even artists' ateliers. There are also some great restaurants her!
You'll probably want to hit the beach after this, as it can get cool in Monteverde. You can easily reach the beaches on either coast with a few hours' travel. The Pacific coast is probably the easiest to access, and places like Jaco or Quepos are geared towards tourism. They have some lovely beaches and have excellent access to Parqe Nacional Manual Antonio, one of Costa Rica's most famous national parks. A must-visit if you've never been.
For a more low-key beach experience, try the Nicoya Peninsula. Some places to do some basic research on, to see what fits your own preferences, would be Tamarindo, Playa Samara, and Montezuma. If you tire easily, pick a town and relax on the beach for a few days and let the kids take surfing lessons, canopy tours, and kayak trips.
Have a great time!
Hull, Mass.: My boyfriend and I are planning a one-week trip to Costa Rica on March 28. I have been there twice before with tour groups. This time, we want some independence. We want to stay at least two days each in Arenal/La Fortuna and Monteverde. We don't know what to plan for the remaining days with the limited time we have left. Could you suggest something that won't require too much travel? We also would like some advice about travel options in the country. The price to rent a car seems expensive but we don't want to take the buses. Any suggestions?
Wendy Yanagihara: Since you only have a week, I'd settle on a spot and explore more deeply. Costa Rica is a small country, so it's tempting to run around trying to see as much as you can, but there's a lot to be said for the Tico mindset—take it easy and enjoy yourself. Since you'll be around Arenal and Monteverde for a few days, I'd recommend heading for the coast after that. It wouldn't require more than several hours of travel to get to either coast.
The Caribbean side has a very different flavor from much of Costa Rica, due to the influence of Afro-Caribbean culture. A great place to base yourself on that side would be Puerto Viejo de Talamanca—you'll have black- and white-sand beaches and small villages to explore, access to activities like surfing and river rafting, and a sloth rescue center where you can get up close with some of the most adorable animals in Costa Rica.
On the Pacific side, I'd head for the Nicoya Peninsula. Choose a town and base yourself there, then see how far you want to explore once there. If you're looking for something peaceful and less touristy, I'd give Tamarindo a miss and head south. Playa Samara is on the smaller side but there's a decent variety of things to do there—kayaking, surfing, snorkeling, a canopy tour, horseback riding. It's definitely small but a great place if you want to relax, with good beachside bars and little places to eat. Or to get even farther away, go to Montezuma on the far south of the peninsula, which has a hippie vibe and lots of things to do apart from lazing on the beach—a waterfall with several pools to explore, a butterfly garden, snorkeling, and an artsy feel.
Renting a car can be expensive, and I'm assuming you mean you don't want to take public buses. Public buses in Costa Rica are actually pretty comfortable, very cheap and easy to negotiate. But private bus companies like Fantasy Bus or Interbus cater to tourists and run to and from popular towns. They're obviously quite a bit pricier than public buses, but they're very convenient and more comfortable. Traveling independently in CR is a breeze; I think you'll enjoy it much better than being on a tour.
Los Angeles, Calif.: My friends and I were planning a trip for March. Do you think we should still go so soon after the earthquake? If so, what areas are the safest and best to stay in?
Wendy Yanagihara: Costa Rica is one of those countries along the Pacific Rim, which means that along with the volcanoes, hot springs and gorgeous landscape, earthquakes are a fairly unpredictable reality. But this is also true of California, and hey, you live in L.A.!
Since tectonic events are near impossible to predict and I'm not an earthquake expert, I would go with your own comfort level. Costa Rica is not a completely developed country, and it happened that most of the people who died in the last earthquake were in one small shop that was buried in a landslide. From what I understand, Costa Rica is on several small fault lines, so I couldn't say what the 'safest' places might be. For the time being, I would avoid the area around Volcan Poas and La Paz Waterfall (the road near here has collapsed, according to local reports).
Charlotte, N.C.: Wendy, my fiancee and I are planning a trip to Costa Rica for the last week in March 2009. Do you know of any resorts or hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica that specialize in elopement packages? Thanks!
Wendy Yanagihara: Eloping to Costa Rica, eh? Awww.
I know a couple who, while they didn't elope, had a fantastic trip to Hotel Punta Islita. It's actually on the southern half of the Nicoya Peninsula (which is on the Pacific side). This is a gorgeous, fairly isolated spot to get away to. I think my friends flew from San Jose or Liberia into Playa Carrillo, several miles from Punta Islita, so that's a possibility if your budget allows.
Hope that helps!
Miami Lakes, Fla.: Hi. We've heard there is a lot of crime and petty theft in Costa Rica and that tourists are a prime target. What's your take on this?
Wendy Yanagihara: Hi, Jaime. Outside of San Jose, I'd say petty or opportunistic theft is the most common crime in CR, though I wouldn't characterize theft as being rampant. Tourists are targeted because they're perceived as being rich—and are rich, compared with many locals. However, taking the usual precautions should help. This means not wearing flashy jewelry, or a lot of jewelry, not leaving luggage or surfboards in a rental car, keeping your passport and bulk of your cash in a moneybelt and keeping what you need for the day in a wallet you wouldn't mind losing.
I would not let these concerns keep me from traveling to Costa Rica, and chances are you'll have a worry-free trip.
Wendy Yanagihara: Wow, there are so many questions I couldn't get to, but I hope some of that info was useful to you. One of the joys of traveling in Costa Rica is that you pretty much can't go wrong once outside of San Jose. My best advice would be to not overbook yourself and take your time enjoying one region, or a couple of places you're intrigued with. From the U.S., it's easy enough to return again (much like some visitors on this forum!) to explore the spots you missed the first time around.
I apologize if I didn't get to your question today, but check out our Lonely Planet guide to Costa Rica that was published in October. I and my co-authors Matt Firestone and Guyan Mitra worked hard to get the most accurate and up-to-date travel info on this beautiful country. Thanks so much for coming to this chat!