What to See and Do in Costa Rica’s Gold Coast

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Perhaps you’re considering a trip to Costa Rica because the teenage surfer in your house wants to test those world-class waves, or because your husband just bought an action camera with the idea of filming himself zip-lining through a cloud forest. Meanwhile, your vision of the perfect getaway is less action-packed; you’d rather relax in hammocks, explore the local cuisine and finish that novel in the shade a mango tree (although you wouldn’t refuse a postcard moment under a waterfall.) 

Whatever your reasons for visiting Costa Rica, consider renting a car and taking a driving tour of the Gold Coast, an easily navigable tropical paradise located in the northwestern part of the country that is as diverse as your family’s interests. From the volcanic peaks of the Nicaraguan border to the beaches along the Gulf of Papagayo and historic Liberia, the Gold Coast ticks all the right boxes for a fantasy vacation. Read on and let these travel tips help you make the most of your driving tour through one of Central America’s most stunning destinations.

Best Time to Go to Costa Rica: May through November

Costa Rica’s rainy summer season keeps airfares low and hotel rates affordable. But the Gold Coast receives modest rainfall, which means visitors can take advantage of great deals without worrying about the weather.

Best Place to Fly in to Costa Rica: Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport

Liberia’s airport is the Gold Coast’s gateway, and direct flights are available from a number of major US cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston and Minneapolis/St. Paul. The airport is also conveniently situated on Route 21, which can take you east to Liberia, the Pan-American Highway and Guanacaste’s volcano parks, or west to the coastline and the region’s prized beaches.

Gold Coast Highlights:

Culture in Liberia

Nicknamed the “White City” for its whitewashed colonial buildings, Liberia pulsates with a centuries-old sabanero (cowboy) culture. A Sabanero Statue greets visitors at the entrance to the city. Ranchers on horseback kick up gravel dust along the boulevards. The cowboy-centric Sabanero Museum features a collection of saddleware, lassos and spurs. Time your trip with the annual Guanacaste Day on July 25, and your family will witness the ultimate folkloric showcase of equestrian parades, local dances and cattle shows.

A cowboy, or sabanero, rides on horseback through the mountains of Costa Rica A cowboy, or sabanero, rides on horseback through the mountains of Costa Rica. Photo by Chris Fertnig.

Eat at Café Liberia

Housed within a beautifully-restored colonial mansion with frescoed ceilings, Café Liberia offers French-Latin cuisine, the city’s best coffee and live music performances. Located on Calle Real between Avenue 2 & 4

Insider Tip: Skip the brick and mortar and do as the locals do: gather the kids, pick a cheery park bench and dig into fresh ceviche and sugarcane juice from a nearby street vendor.

Stay at Hotel Liberia

The central location and free parking of this historic guesthouse make it perfect for an overnight city break. Reserve a “La Casona” room for an authentic Old World feeling. Located on Calle Real

Explore Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

Spectacular dry rainforests and bubbling hot springs await visitors here. The reserve’s Adventure Center can arrange a wide array of day activities, including white water tubing, zip lining, canopy tours and hikes to the volcano crater. If you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, you can pay a small fee to take a private road to discover the park’s many miles of wildlife-studded trails, mud baths and cascading waterfalls.

A hiker explores a rainforest in Costa Rica A hiker explores a rainforest in Costa Rica. Photo by Sam Camp.

To reach Rincón de la Vieja, take the Pan-American Highway (Route 1) from Liberia and head northeast for 3.5 miles, then turn east toward Curubande. In 11 miles you will reach the Hacienda Guachipelín Hotel, which marks the entrance to the reserve and offers a unique base for exploration. The ranch’s taps pour fresh spring water, an ox cart brings hand-pressed tortillas at noon and a resident serpentarium will delight the little ones.

Enjoy beach time at Playa Avellana

Heading south, Route 21 feeds several westbound roads to a seemingly endless string of coastal towns. Playa Panama (Route 254) is only a 28-mile drive from the airport, which means you can dig your toes into the warm surf of the gulf within an hour of first turning the ignition key. Next in the chain is Playa Hermosa (Route 159), whose calm waters make it a perennial favorite of families with young children.   

But for that off-the-beaten-track experience, remain on Route 21 and connect further south to Route 155, which leads to the white coral sands of Playa Avellana (Hazelnut Beach). A favorite with surfers, this mangrove-studded beach was only recently connected to the main road, so it retains a pristine innocence. 

Eat at Lola’s

Kids will feel welcome at this laid-back, open-air eatery, named after the owner’s pet pig and considered in some circles the best beachfront restaurant in the country. For the adults, Lola’s affords a cold drink and unparalleled sunset views surrounded by the rustle of almond trees.

Stay at Cabinas Las Olas

Rustic simplicity, with a boardwalk to the beach, tropical fruit for breakfast and recumbent monkeys in the branches overhead … what more could your family ask for in paradise?

Costa Rica Driving Tips:

- Four-wheel drive is the safe choice during the rainy season and in mountainous or coastal regions.

- A GPS handles unpredictable road conditions and peculiar addresses (in Costa Rica, addresses are not numerical, and often read like driving directions). Together with physical maps and traffic apps, this tool will help plan routes and arrival times.   

- Drive in daylight when possible. Streetlight is uncommon in rural areas, and signs can be hidden in overgrown foliage. Wildlife and livestock also like to share the road, and storms can block unpaved lanes.