Trying to experience a country as diverse as Costa Rica in just two days is a kind of sweet torture in which you’re stricken by decisions you never thought you’d have to make: Beach or jungle? Volcano or waterfall? By the time you think you’ve settled the great monkey-versus-sloth debate, it’s already time to leave, and you haven’t even tasted gallo pinto. Don’t despair, though — there’s still a lot you can see in 48 hours, even if it means choosing one tropical coast over the other.
Flying into Liberia’s tiny northern airport provides travelers with easy access to resorts like the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica, but most flights into the country arrive in the centrally located capital of San José. While most ticos (Spanish slang for Costa Ricans) live here in the temperate Central Valley, the new highway connecting it to the Pacific beckons; grab a rental car from the airport or a Gray Line shuttle towards the coast, where you’ll reach tropical sand in a little more than an hour.
The westward road winds over river gorges and through mountain ranges (look for the cloud-topped Poás Volcano to the north) before reaching the shore, where it runs through the bird-watching haven of Carara National Park. Stands selling fresh mango, pineapple and chifrijo (a savory bowl of fried pork, rice, beans and salsa) line the highway as the elevation drops towards the ocean. Be sure to take a pit stop at the tiny fishing village of Tarcoles’ Crocodile Bridge, where tourists lean over the railing for a glimpse of the dozens of crocs sunbathing below. Locals proffer fresh red snapper by the side of the road, but if you like your lunch a bit more well-done, eat at Fiesta del Mariscos, whose beachside specialty is snapper cooked whole, and while you dine, watch fishermen repair their nets outside.
A wide selection of luxury resorts begin to pop into view as soon as you reach the water, from the boutique splendor of Villa Caletas to the marina, golf and zip-lining of Los Sueños Marriott. The older Hotel Punta Leona may lack some of the glitz of its neighbors, but its white-sand beach is one of the country’s finest and is usually populated by a flock of magnificent scarlet macaws. For those looking for a more rustic, sporty adventure, continue south to the laid-back surfer spots of Playa Hermosa and Esterillos, or to the Kayak Lodge at Isla Damas, where every room comes with a kayak to explore the tidal mangroves that surround it.
Leave early in the morning to tour Manuel Antonio National Park, a small conservation area that manages to encompass both the jungle and pristine beaches and play host to thousands of wild species. Hire a guide to point out fuzzy sloths hanging from branches, toucans nesting in the treetops and green iguanas in the leaves below. And there’s no missing the white-faced capuchin monkeys that join you on the beach, or the lush beauty of the rain forest spilling out into the peaceful waves.
The hilly road from the park to the port town of Quepos is full of hotels and restaurants overlooking the sea below. You can enjoy fresh mahi-mahi and sustainable comfort at The Falls Resort, whose garden restaurant is one of the area’s best, or catch your own meal aboard one of the bay’s many sportfishing charters. The thick jungle surrounding Manuel Antonio is full of secluded vacation homes for rent, but our favorite is the boutique Villas Oasis, which has carved out a lush, peaceful spot closer to town. In the morning, grab a cup of locally grown coffee at Cafe Milagro for the trip back home, and start planning how much longer your next trip to Costa Rica needs to be.
Photos Courtesy of Four Seasons and iStock-Tropical Pix