Costa Rica is the perfect place for an awesome road trip
A road trip is our favorite way to visit different countries: Spain, France, Australia, Iceland, Canada, the U.S.A. and, of course, Costa Rica along with other parts of Central and South America. Depending on route and “must-sees,” we allow about 3 weeks and limit drive time to 6-hours maximum, per day. We like this trip around Costa Rica because it’s a great mix of exceptional boutique hotels, in a variety of settings around the country.
Each hotel on this road trip emphasizes sustainable tourism without sacrificing luxury and comfort. Costa Rica’s Tourist Board has set standards that these distinctive, family owned-and-operated hotels meet and often surpass.
Your starting point, Hotel Grano de Oro, is a lovely colonial mansion in the heart of the city of San Jose. Each room is unique, with great attention to detail. The Central Market, not far from the hotel, is a great place to sample Tico culture. As you wander the city center, take note of the museums, theatres, parks and dance clubs and other wonderful attractions; you can visit them either during the beginning of your trip or at the end, as you pass through the city en-route for or from your Costa Rica vacation.
Casa Turire, a lakeside plantation-style boutique hotel, is in the heart of agricultural Cartago Province, about 2 hours’ drive from San Jose. Cartago, Costa Rica’s first capital, is one of the oldest and largest cities in the country and worth a stop along the way. Pacuare River, Lankester Botanical Garden and Irazú Volcano are other local points of interest. Staff can arrange zipline, whitewater, canyoning and plantation tours.
Casa Turire to Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge is the longest leg, taking about 6 hours to Puerto Jimenez or Golfito. Backtrack to San José and head south on Interamerican Highway 2. This eco-lodge is accessible only by boat; there is long term parking for your car while you’re staying at the hotel. Staff from Nicuesa Lodge will pick you up by boat and transport you directly to the resort. Piedras Blancas National Park’s old growth rainforest is out the backdoor and equally as impressive as Corcovado National Park. An award-winning eco-lodge, Nicuesa packs a lot of adventure into a sustainable footprint.
From Gofito, after a 30 minute boat ride from Nicuesa Lodge, you will collect your car and follow Route 34 for the 3-hour trip to Alma Del Pacifico at Playa Esterillos Este. The route runs along the Pacific coastline, so stop at Marino Ballena National Park in Uvita to stretch your legs. Eclectic beachfront bungalows make an ideal base for some beach time. Concierge staff at Alma Del Pacifico can arrange a tour of Manuel Antonio National Park (further south along the coast in Manuel Antonio), whitewater rafting on the Savegre River, or kayak to Damas Island.
Villa Caletas is 35 minutes north of Alma del Pacifico, on a hilltop overlooking the Nicoya Gulf. Follow Route 34 north until you pass Pacific Sun Estates on the left, then take the next left. This luxury boutique hotel has a private pebble beach, complete with wooden, curtained gazebos. Saunter down to the beach via the Friends of the Forest Trail and ask the hotel shuttle (4WD) to bring you back. Horseback riding, snorkeling and kayaking are among the many activities available.
Hotel Capitan Suizo is about 4 hours away on the Northern Pacific coast of Guanacaste. Leaving Villa Caletas, travel north on Route 34 to join Interamerican Highway 1, until you reach Route 18 (a left turn at Restaurante BBQ Tres Hermanas). Route 18 joins Route 21 and finally Route 155 leads to Playa Tamarindo next door to Las Baulas Marine National Park. Tamarindo Bay’s calm waters are perfect for swimming, surfing, snorkeling and scuba diving. Guanacaste Province’s dry forests provide a different tropical backdrop at this sustainable boutique hotel that incorporates the Tico culture in luxury and comfort.
The next leg (3-1/2 hours) takes you to Hotel Belmar in the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Retrace your route via Route 21 toward Libaria. In Liberia, head south on Hwy 1 to Route 145. Continue on 145 to the hotel. The hotel’s Tirolian chalet-style buildings are surrounded by gardens filled with luscious native plants, vegetables and herbs. Its farm-to-fork philosophy belies the sumptuous luxury of the hotel’s 22 rooms, each with floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the forest and the ocean beyond.
Peace Lodge, on the flanks of Poas Volcano, is 3-1/2 hours south via Route 606 and Hwy 1. Take Route 717 and Calle Flores/Route 722 to Route 107 in Santa Gertrudis Sur, then Route 146 to Route 126. Watch for signs to La Paz Waterfall Gardens; Peace Lodge is on the grounds. Two restaurants complement carefully appointed luxury of the life in the tropics. The gardens are open to lodge guests, with five miles of trails, aviary, butterfly observatory, hummingbird garden, serpentarium, jungle cats exhibit and frog exhibit.
From Peace Lodge, it’s just over an hour south, back to Grano de Oro in San Jose. Take time to check out the coffee plantations along the way!
· Roads conditions change; GPS, road maps, and reality don’t always sync (though with the advent of Waze and Google Maps, GPS only continues to improve and I, personally, have never become lost when using them in Costa Rica) and street addresses rarely exist outside the city. Directions use landmarks (a restaurant, hotel or store) and distance traveled (usually kilometers). If you’re lost, simply pull over and ask for the location you are trying to get to from a local on the street; Ticos are friendly and will happily point you in the right direction. Stay positive and have fun with it; getting a little lost can sometimes be the best thing to happen to your road trip adventure!
· Moon.com has printable regional maps with points of interest, restaurants and accommodations.
· Book your rental car ahead of time. During the high season, a mid-size car will run about US$300/week, plus taxes. Driving is safe in Costa Rica, but don’t speed, keep valuables with you, or leave your car unattended. Keep in mind that most car rental companies in Costa Rica will want to put a security hold on your credit card and this can sometimes amount to as much as $1500. Ask first and they will help you plan ahead for that. Our recommendation for excellent car rental service is Toyota Rent a Car.
On the road, again! Happy travels.