With Liberia as second air service gateway from the U.S., it is much easier to tap into the Pacific pleasures of Guanacaste and its neighboring provinces, a corner that captures the majority of the beach-loving, surfing, and deep-sea fishing crowd. The north Pacific area is where you find the top-tier golf resorts—Four Seasons and Westin Playa Conchal—as well as boutique hotels and resorts right on the stunning beaches. Here, too, is Rincon de la Vieja National Park, the place to go to enjoy geysers, fumaroles and thermal springs, while along the mid-Pacific, Carara National Park is tops on the list for serious birdwatching. Heading south, surfers will detour to spend quality time in Jaco Beach, where indeed the surf is up, and beyond is coastal Manuel Antonio National Park, one of the last remaining habitats of the squirrel monkeys who share the forest with their capuchin and howler monkey cousins. Many small, beautiful and upscale hotels occupy the hills above the park, and nearby village of Quepos is the place to go for both marine charters and a lively restaurant and nightlife scene. Among Costa Rica’s hottest beaches are those at the villages of Malpais and Santa Teresa on the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. Surfing is the major draw, with miles of beach breaks to choose from and a handful of little luxury hotels—Florblanca Resort and Pranamar Villas and Yoga Retreat—that put the accent on spas and top-quality yoga classes. Whale and dolphin watching, surfing, sportfishing, and rainforest canopy tours are typical of the activities offered around the southern Pacific resorts of Uvita and Dominical, where you’ll find small-sale boutique resorts such as Balinese-style Oxygen Jungle Villas in the middle of the Costa Ballena, and the just-opened, eco-friendly Kura Design Villas, set on a mountain ridge overlooking the ocean.
BEST TIME TO GO: January to May, although North Pacific coast is drier and popular almost year-round
FUN FACT: As the story goes: On his fourth and last voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus, sailing in search of gold, was the first tourist to land in Costa Rica, christening the new land “rich coast”
GETTING THERE: Delta flies from Atlanta to San Jose and from Atlanta and Minneapolis to Liberia
ENTRY DOCUMENTS: Valid passport
CURRENCY: Costa Rican colon
MUST-TRY LOCAL FOOD: Bocas or appetizers: popular are gallos (tortillas piled with meat, chicken cheese or beans). Step up a taste notch at Ginger (at Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste) for ginger rolls made with salmon, cucumber, mango, avocado
BEST BUYS: Masks, carved by the indigenous Boruca people at Galeria Namu; ceramics of Cecilia “Pefi” Figueres found at better gift shops