Costa Rica - Our First Trip

Anniversary Dinner

Our first visit to Central America and we were really excited.  This was a special trip to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary and we wanted to go somewhere special that we had never been to before.

Since we are warm weather beach and sun lovers, we picked the Guanacaste province in Costa Rica's Pacific northwest.  This area is the sunniest and driest place in all of Costa Rica.  Our April anniversary lined up nicely with the end of the dry season so we booked 8 days in Playa Conchal at the Westin all-inclusive resort for the first week of April.  We planned on swimming in the ocean, lounging around the pool, fishing, going to Tamarindo and visiting the Arenal Volcano.  It didn't really work out this way.  I will explain later.

The Westin Playa Conchal is a stunning, sprawling all-inclusive resort right on one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Costa Rica, Playa Conchal.  There is an adult only section and a family section.  We picked the adult side with its own pool.  At $700 per night we were very happy that we used our Starwood points so that our stay was going to be free.

The Adult pool at the Westin Playa Conchal is large and uncrowded.  It has a nice swim up bar and several inexpensive palapas that you can rent for the dayWestin Playa Conchal Adult Pool

We booked our tickets from San Diego to Liberia via Houston.  Liberia is only 45 minutes away from the Westin resort versus a four hour drive if you fly into the main airport in San Jose.

So off we went early one Sunday morning.  A three hour flight to Houston, a four hour layover and another three and a half hours to Liberia.

The north side of Playa Conchal is where the water is the clearest and calmest.  The sand in this section of the beach is almost entirely made of ground up conch shellsPlaya Conchal North

The trip to Houston was unique.  As we started our descent, the pilot announced that there was going to be a lot of emergency vehicles on the runway once we landed.  After my heart skipped a beat, sadly, he said that this flight had a fallen soldier on board and that he was coming home for the final time.  Once we touched the ground, fire crews surrounded the plane and escorted us to the gate with a final solute of shooting water over the top from both the left and right sides of the aircraft.  The pilot asked everybody to remain seated and quiet until the casket was unloaded.  Very chilling and you could hear a pin drop.  People inside the terminal were crying.  A very somber start to our trip that reminded us of the important things and how fortunate we are.

The Baggage Claim at the Liberia airport is very large and easy to navigateLiberia Airport Baggage Claim

We landed in Liberia at about 8pm.  Got the luggage and went through Immigration and Customs and we were out the door in about an hour.

We arranged for a resort shuttle to pick us up from the airport.  In planning for the trip we read about the dangers of driving in Costa Rica and that the potholes in the road would swallow your car up.  Driving at night was not recommended.  There were warnings that street signs are non-existent and that you wouldn't be able to find your way.  Supposedly if you ask a Costa Rican for directions, you will get a reply since they are trying to be polite, but there is a good chance the directions will be incorrect and your odds are even less if you don't speak Spanish.  In addition, we were scheduled to fly home on an early morning flight, meaning that we would have to head to the airport at 4am, so given this along with all the others factors, we went the safe route and took the shuttle.  

Mistake #1 - You will be limited greatly in exploring this beautiful country if you don't rent a car.  There were some things that were true, 1) there are indeed very few street signs and navigating with the traditional old school map is nearly impossible.  An example of a common address is "100m north of the second mango tree", 2) driving at night can be dangerous, especially in bad weather.  People on bicycles at night don't have lights and are hard to see, 3) There are indeed potholes but we found the roads from Liberia to Playa Conchal to be better than those in San Diego.  If we had to do it over, we would have stayed overnight in Liberia and rented a car the next morning.

The Westin Conchal is a beautiful resort surrounded by lush vegetation, water and a highly rated golf courseWestin Playa Conchal Lobby

We arrived at the resort at about 10pm.  We were not overly tired, so once we checked in and visited our room, we headed to an outdoor bar and patio area for a few drinks and a bite to eat before going to bed.

It was still warm and humid but very comfortable.....until the next morning when the mosquito bites showed up.  Turns out, after further investigation, the bar and patio area sits over a large pond and you can't see the water at night.  Mistake #2 - bug spray is mandatory at all times and lots of it on every part of your body.  We had it with us but didn't think we needed it so late in the evening.

As we roamed the grounds and ventured out to the beach, we immediately noticed the huge crowds, especially at the family pool and beach.  We quickly learned that it was Holy week, the week before Easter where Costa Ricas travel from the south to Guanacaste for the beach and sun.  Fortunately our 8 days straddled the holiday and the locals told us everybody would be gone by Monday.  Mistake #3 - Avoid travel during Holy week and Christmas week.

The adult villas are nicely appointed one bedroom rooms that surround the adult pool and are very close to several dining choicesWestin Playa Conchal Adult Villas

For the next few days, we relaxed around the pool.  Days were in the low to mid 90s and nights in the 70s.  The mornings were extremely humid but as the day progressed, the sun baked out most of the humidity.

The Westin Playa Conchal is a gorgeous resort.  For those without children, the adult side is very peaceful and not crowded because you can only go to the adult pool if you are staying in the adult rooms and there are limited numbers of these types of rooms.

Local Lobster

There are seven restaurants with different themes such as Italian, Mediterranean, Pizza, Latin, Asian. Barbeque and several buffets, all at no additional cost.

Plus, there was one restaurant that you could upgrade for a cost.  We did this for our anniversary dinner.  Mistake #4 - Great food but not worth the extra charge, especially since the food was so good at the free restaurants.

Coatis on the Back Porch
Big Iguana

One afternoon we had a few visitors, a group of Coatis (pronouned KO-WA-TEES) that decided to cool off on our balcony during the heat of the day and a large Iguana, reminding us that Costa Rica is alive with wildlife.  It was also common to see monkeys climbing through the trees within the resort.

Holy week was now over and the crowds have gone home.  It was time for a day trip to Tamarindo, a small beach community about 30 minutes south of Playa Conchal.  Famous worldwide as a surfing destination, Tamarindo is compact, somewhat crowded and very touristy.  If you are looking for deals, this is not the place.

The shops of downtown Tamarindo Costa RicaDowntown Tamarindo

We took a taxi and roamed the shops of the downtown area.  Had a few drinks and something to eat at the Pacifico bar located right on the beach.

The Pacifico Bar and Grill located right on Tamarindo beach.  A great place to watch the sunsetPacifico Bar

Then took a stroll up and down the beach sparsely lined with people and their dogs.

View from Tamarindo beach looking northward towards Playa GrandeTamarindo Beach

We finished the day with a great sunset.

Tamarindo Sunset

We spent a few more days on the sand and in the water of Playa Conchal.  The sand is made up ground up conch shells, particularity on the north end of the beach near the point that separates Playa Conchal from Playa Potrero.

Playa Conchal

Our plans included a visit to the Arenal Volcano.  On a map it showed the distance as about 125 miles.  We figured slightly over two 1/2 hours, right ?  Wrong.  I doesn't matter where you travel in Costa Rica but the average speed will be about 30-35 miles per hour on average.  Small towns, slow moving trucks, vehicles on two lane windy roads and weather (rain and fog) are all a factor.

In contacting a tour company it was going to be 4 1/2 hours up, 4 1/2 hours back and probably not all that much time there.  Mistake #5 - This gets back to not having a rental car.  With a car, we could have left at first light (5:30am) and been back by dark.   But even with that, 9 hours in the car was going to be a really long day.  We put the trip on hold and promised that we would come back and figure out a better way to spend the day in Arenal on our next visit to Costa Rica.

The only other item on our must do list was deep sea fishing.  Costa Rica is known as the sailfish capital of the world.  I booked a half day with a local Costa Rican but ate something that didn't agree with me the night before and therefore had to cancel.

Playa Conchal

The week was over and we headed back to San Diego.  Our first impressions of this beautiful country were the wonderful people, laid back lifestyle and general happiness of everybody.  Learning from the mistakes summarized below, we promised to return soon but do things much differently.

  • Rent a car and control your own schedule.
  • If you arrive late afternoon or evening, stay one night close to the airport and then head out early the next morning.
  • Bring lots of bug spray.  Avon's skin-so-soft worked the best and does not contain harsh chemicals.  Put it on after you shower, everywhere, and then get dressed.
  • Don't visit during Easter (Holy week) and Christmas if you don't like crowds.
  • Our perception about driving in Costa Rica was not as bad as our research showed but there are things to watch out and we didn't travel the back country roads which may be a different story.

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