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The Ins and Outs of Rental Cars in Costa Rica

Costa Rica car rental woman holding key overlooking oceanTravel Costa Rica in a rental car; you’ll get so much more out of your vacation than you would otherwise.

Renting a car in Costa Rica can make your vacation more complete; you’ll get off-grid, see and experience things you might miss if stuck on a bus or plane, and generally have more freedom to explore and discover the delights that this beautiful country has to offer.

Renting a car in Costa Rica, however, isn’t quite the same experience as renting a car in the States or Canada.

Here are a few things you should know before you go:

1. You don’t necessarily need a 4×4 SUV. When Costa Rica travelers think about touring the country, they often assume that they will need a big, off-road vehicle that can get them across rivers and through rutted roads. While that was very much a reality 20 years ago, I think you’ll find that today’s Costa Rica roads are in much better shape and, depending on your itinerary, you may do just fine with a regular sedan. Check out TripAdvisor, or check in with your AirBnB host or hotel to see about the road conditions; they’ll be able to advise you.

2. Insurance is mandatory when renting a vehicle in Costa Rica. While many of us assume that our own vehicle insurance or our credit card will cover any car rental mishaps that may occur, this is not the case when renting in Costa Rica. If you do plan to apply the insurance that your credit card company offers, be prepared to present a note of insurance proof when picking up your car. Likewise, be prepared for a hefty hold on your credit card to cover any deductibles that may come up. Want to avoid a big deposit? Simply choose full coverage insurance when you rent your car. To get a better understanding of your car rental Insurance options in Costa Rica, check out the Insurance information page; you’ll be glad you did when you don’t have any surprises at the rental desk.

3. Accessories are available- and helpful! Costa Rica is pretty unique in that there are few streets with names, and directions are typically given in the form of a description. For example, you may be directed to your vacation rental like this: “Go 200 meters past the white church; it will be the black gate on your left.”

In this modern day and age of Waze, Google Maps and GPS systems, it is far easier to get around than it used to be. However, all that data usage in roaming charges can really add up. Cell phones, GPS systems, Costa Rica maps (the old-school, paper kind) are all available when you pick up your car or SUV. Luggage racks, are good for those who don’t know (or care for) the meaning of “pack lightly” and families traveling with small children will appreciate the availability of child booster seats and car seats for infants.

4. Speaking of car seats…. Child restraint systems such as backward facing infant car seats, car seats with lateral protection and five-point safety belts, and booster seats are required by law in Costa Rica for children under 12 years of age or under 1.45 meters (57 inches) in height. For more information about the legal requirements, according to age and size of the child, please see our car seat chart to determine your needs. Costa Rica takes the safety of children very seriously (as should we all!); fines can be hefty, so be sure to use a safety seat.

Traveling Costa Rica in a rental car can make your vacation more exciting and adventurous. With a car rental, you’ll have the freedom hang a little longer in the places you discover you love, and you’ll be able move on to new areas should you decide you’ve seen enough.

Exploring hidden beaches, discovering out of the way restaurants, and finding your way to Costa Rica’s hidden gems like the dairy farms near La Paz Waterfall Gardens, the caves at Playa Ventanas, or Rio Celeste in the Tenorio Volcano National Park can make all the difference between a regular vacation, and a spectacular one; a Costa Rica car rental means freedom to explore that no bus, taxi, or airplane can provide.

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Tamarindo #TravelTuesday

Beach at Tamarindo

Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast delivers the magic of the tropics interspersed with arid wind-swept cattle ranches, golden beaches with stellar white-tipped surfing waves, cool and mysterious estuaries, and one of the country’s most coveted beach-towns, Tamarindo.

Over the past thirty-years, Tamarindo has evolved from a sleepy fishing village, visited by the rare surf guru or brave eco-adventurer, into one of Costa Rica’s most popular vacation destinations. Unlike the old days, getting to Tamarindo today is a breeze.
 

“How do I get to Tamarindo?”

Travelers arriving in San Jose can take Route 1, the Pan American Highway (Interamericana) northwest towards Liberia. At km 168 turn west (left) onto Route 18 to the Tempisque Bridge – which crosses over the Tempisque Estuary and connects with the Nicoya Peninsula. From there, follow Route 21 through Nicoya and Santa Cruz to Belen where you’ll head west on Route 155 to Tamarindo. Getting to Tamarindo from San Jose can take between 4 to 6 hours depending on traffic and road conditions on the Nicoya Peninsula.

Another option involving more major and paved thoroughfares, and for travelers arriving at the Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport in the northern commercial hub of Liberia, is to take Route 21 southwest from the airport through Comunidad, Filadelfia, and Belen. Then west on Route 155, following the signs to Tamarindo. The drive from the Liberia Airport is about an hour on well paved roads.

While the roads to Tamarindo are paved and accessible by sedan, for exploring less popular beaches along the coast an SUV is recommended for its higher clearance over potholes and rocks. Be aware that in Green Season, it is advisable to rent a vehicle with 4x4 capacity — just in case!
 

“Where to stay in Tamarindo?”

Hotel Pasatiempo in Tamarindo

Image © Hotel Pasatiempo

Tamarindo offers everything from backpacker hostels and Airbnb rentals to five-star resorts. You’ll also find plenty of clean and comfortable options that will leave you with extra spending money to enjoy the local attractions.

Hotel Pasatiempo, for example, has been offering high-quality accommodations for nearly twenty years. Each private bungalow is tastefully furnished with orthopedic mattresses, AC, high-speed internet, flat-screen TV with cable, and a covered terrace. The landscaped gardens and quiet paths lead guests to a lovely swimming pool and the hotel’s restaurant, Monkey La-La, serving tropical drinks and local and international fare, as well as hosting live music three-times per week.
 

“What’s fun to do in Tamarindo?”

Playful Dolphins Jumping

Although surfing remains the area’s main attraction, there’s no shortage of other adventures to be had. For the aquatic-at-heart, you’ll find swimming, sport fishing, kayaking, jet-skiing, sailing, and even sunset catamaran cruises. Or, explore the depths snorkeling and scuba diving. Fish species are plentiful, as are dolphins, the occasional shark, mantas, and seasonal whale sightings.

Estuary tours of the Tamarindo Wildlife Refuge is also a must, visitors rave about the huge variety of animal and bird life to be seen along the smooth mangrove-lined waterways, including crocs, Howler and Capuchin monkeys, sloths, frogs, herons, and myriad more exotic species – many found only in the Central American Region.

Leatherback Turtle on Beach

From March to October giant Leatherback Turtles arrive by the hundreds to lay their eggs in the protected sands of Playa Grande National Park, just north of Tamarindo. Scientists and eco-tourists alike flock to participate in the organized evening and night guided excursions to witness the ancient migration and nesting ritual of these great creatures. Visitors will not be permitted on the beach without a certified guide during nesting season and should be aware that camera flash is not allowed.

Surfer Girl on Tamarindo Beach

If surfing’s your thing, you won’t be disappointed. Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast has some of the world’s best and most challenging waves, including Witches Rock—a 45-minute boat ride from Tamarindo—or Ollie’s Place in nearby Labarinto. Some favorite local spots for beginner and intermediate surfers are either directly in front of the Hotel Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort at the center of town or the Capitan Suizo breaks. You can rent all your surf supplies and other beach gear, as well book tours from a handful of providers in town, such as Tamarindo-favorite, Arenas Adventures.

The town also hosts a number of festivals, including Art Wave, a three-day community event featuring local artists and businesses, and the Ocaso Underground Electronic Music Festival drawing over 50 electronic-music artists from around the world to participate in the four-day event that also attracts and highlights popular chefs, performers, and other local artists.
 

“What are the best restaurants and nightlife spots in Tamarindo?”

Dining and nightlife options abound in Tamarindo. For local food, the following spots are known for their affordable and delicious fare: Soda Las Palmas with a surfer-favorite buffet lunch or Soda Marcela with its popular Casado con langosta, a typical dish with rice and beans, salad, and fresh lobster.

For international cuisine, La Pachanga Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria and Seasons by Shlomy are both known for their creative and capable chefs.

Sunset happy hour is a daily ritual in Tamarindo and a great way to meet the locals or catch up on the day’s surf conditions. Make sure to check out the popular El Be! restaurant with daily live music and a great view of the unforgettable Pacific sunset.

For some colorful nightlife, Bar Pacifico has a lively Wednesday night option or check out the Best Western Monkey Bar’s famous Friday Ladies Night.

No matter what your vacation dreams may be, Tamarindo is sure to satisfy!

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New Year’s Eve in Costa Rica

Happy New Year on Beach

Image © Sara Ford

As with most holidays and special occasions, New Year’s Eve for Costa Ricans is celebrated with family. The North American tradition of the younger generation going out to clubs and parties, although more common in the beach and tourists areas, is not the tradition here. Nevertheless, Costa Rica has a little bit of something for everybody to bring in the Año Nuevo (New Year).

Traditionally, Costa Rican families will spend New Year’s Eve at home with generations cooking, drinking, listening to music, dancing, and watching the countdown on television. So San Jose clubs won’t fill up until late – after the older generation has headed to bed! Costa Ricans like to celebrate, but not on an empty stomach. A bountiful table full of delicious food will take center stage. Dinner will start at a late hour, maybe 10pm, as the family gathers for a typical meal of roasted pork leg, pasta or potato salad, corn on the cob, and green salad. For desert, a cinnamon spiced, rice pudding or tres leches (three milk cake) satisfies the palate.

Some worldwide traditions are enacted in Costa Rica such as watching the midnight fireworks light the night sky in a glorious display of colors. Depending where you are celebrating, people head to rooftops or the beach to take in the “bombetas“. Others are more unique, like this Spanish tradition of eating twelve grapes for good luck – one for every month in the coming year. Besides eating grapes, wearing yellow undergarments can also do the trick. Red ones will bring you love and green brings money. Craving some adventurous travels? Try walking around the block with a suitcase then thrown some water over your shoulder to “wash” away last year’s troubles and make a fresh start.

Although many head to the beaches to celebrate, there are also exciting activities in the capital. Just 10 minutes from downtown San Jose is the usually quiet neighborhood of Zapote. From Christmas through New Year’s Eve, the town is transformed into a huge party called “Las Fiestas de Zapote“. The streets are lined with stalls selling local food like “chicharrones” which are fried pork skins and “churros” which are fried dough straws filled with caramel with carnival rides and games for kids. Horses prance and dance under the guide of Costa Rican cowboys in the parade known as a El Tope, but the main event is the bullfights.

Costa Rican bullfighting is quite popular in the country, but has developed into its own style. The bullfighting or “Los Corridos del Toro” is literally translated into bull running. Improvisandos (rodeo clowns) dress in silly costumes and enter the ring to be chased (and hopefully not trampled) by the bulls. Unlike traditional Spanish bullfighting, the bulls are never attacked, wounded or killed. Cattle ranchers bring their most prized bulls from all around the country and some have established reputations from past rodeos. Since anyone can enter the ring, it is not uncommon for injuries to occur to those who are not well prepared for the tenacity of the bulls. These modern day gladiators are awarded prizes for best performance and who can win over the crowd.

If the city is not for you, why not head to the beach as many Costa Ricans do? Just be sure book your accommodations in advance since many of the most popular beach locations are packed full of New Year’s Eve revelers. Where you go depends on what type of party you are looking for. If you want large crowds with a mix of locals and tourists, then head to Tamarindo or Playas del Coco in Guanacaste.

Playas del Coco is a small, former fishing village that has boomed in recent years due to its close proximity to the international airport in Liberia. For New Year’s Eve, the town receives thousands of visitors who fill the streets all the way to the beach for the festivities and the fireworks at midnight.  There is no shortage of bars or restaurants here to entertain before the big event.

Tamarindo, in the Northern Pacific Coast, is by far the bigger celebration with the whole party actually on the beach with DJ music thumping and the libations flowing. The spectacular display of fireworks at midnight don’t signal the end of the evening. This party is just getting started!

If you are looking for a quieter celebration you can try Santa Teresa / Malpais on the Nicoya Peninsula. Expect a hippie vibe with surfing and yoga being the draw. Head to Playa del Carmen for the fireworks display! In the Caribbean towns of Puerto Viejo and Cahuita, the locals and visiting Ticos from San Jose might outnumber tourists, but all come for the relaxed reggae vibe and beach party. The fireworks displays here will not be as big, but the good cheer will be bountiful. In Cahuita, the pre-fireworks parties are at Ricky’s Bar and Coco’s in the center or for the beachfront party head to Reggae Bar in Playa Negra with a mix of DJ and live music. In Puerto Viejo, head to Maritzas for some Salsa music and dancing; Koki Beach for cocktails and people watching or Tex-Mex on the corner by the beach for live music.

No matter how you choose to bring in the New Year, we wish you all the best in 2018. Feliz Año Nuevo!

 

Recommended Car Category:

Bego Intermediate SUV

Intermediate SUV :: IFMR – IFAR

For New Year’s celebrations, party goers in the capital can rent a Sedan as a practical and economical option. Beach parties, especially in the less accessible Nicoya Peninsula, will require an Intermediate or Standard SUV for the higher clearance these cars offer. Our experienced staff will be happy to discuss which vehicle is most suitable for your end of year itinerary.

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