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Travel Costa Rica
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Pura Vida, Costa Rica – Three weeks of Costa Rica!
The tranquil beach of Ocotal is situated in Costa Rica’s stunning Guanacaste province on the northern Pacific coast. It was perfect place to spend three weeks in warm climate and escape -30 degrees temperatures in Canada. I should also mention I was there in March, with FOUR beautiful ladies who really took good care of me!!
In Guanacaste, there is a world of pristine gray sand beaches lined with swaying palm trees, endless summer days, and breathtaking sunsets. The region is home to a vast stretch of tropical dry forest that houses abundant wildlife, howler monkeys and beautiful birds. Sport fishing, Surfing, Horseback riding, and sailing are also popular activities in the area. Playa Ocotal is a wonderfully peaceful place to enjoy swimming, snorkeling, and relaxing in the sun. Scenic hills and cliffs surround the beach, and the Catalina Islands sit just offshore. Beautiful!!
Arrival in Liberia
Ready to begin our Costa Rica adventure, we landed aboard Air Transat plane at Daniel Oduber Airport (Liberia), after an uneventful 9 hours long flight from Edmonton via Panama City. We were happy to leave Alberta’s cold weather behind and exited to walk outside into the tropical climate of Costa Rica. The weather didn’t disappoint, it was +37 when we step out of the airport building.
Costa Rica Airports: Liberia (LIR) and San Jose – Juan Santamaria (SJO)
There are currently two international airports in Costa Rica. The largest, Juan Santamaria Airport (SJO) in Alajuela, is located within the Central Valley region north of San Jose. The other airport, Daniel Oduber Airport (LIR) in Liberia, facilitates access to destinations in the northwestern Guanacaste region. Additionally, many destinations in Costa Rica can be reached by short domestic flights.
Going to Playa del Coco by bus
From the main airport building, once you step out of the customs area, you will see the bus stop on site. This bus arrives almost every hour and all buses go either to Liberia or Santa Cruz. If you take the bus for Santa Cruz you can drop off at town of Comunidad, which is only about 10 km away from the airport. That’s the intersection to PLayas del Coco. From there you can wait for the bus that will get you into El Coco. It is also possible to catch a bus on the main highway, at any time. However, it is a long walk for some people (especially when it’s hot).
Dollar Rent a Car at the Liberia Airport
We didn’t use the bus service because we booked a rental with ‘Dollar’ rent a car company. They had a driver waiting for us at the airport and after a short ride in their van, we were in the office which was on the main highway between Liberia and the airport. They had clean brand new Nissan X-Trail SUV waiting for us. I signed the papers, inspected the car and off we went.
Their online price quoted was the best one I’d come across and I liked the fact that you could indicate right away on the reservation form if you wanted to deny their CDW-coverage (mine was covered by my credit card insurance). I should also mention the car was a bit damaged (scratched back door) on the right side, but we marked that in the papers and I took picture of the damage just to be safe. I did not have any problems with this when returning the car three weeks later.
From Liberia airport to OCOTAL beach
Finally on our way, we hop in the car for a roughly forty-minute drive to Playas del Coco and Ocotal. From Liberia airport we headed west on CR21 toward Santa Cruz.
There was about 10 kilometers before we reached village of Comunidad. After crossing the bridge over the Tempisque River, we continued on the highway for another 700 meters and arrived at the intersection with a Shell gas station on our left. On the right side of the road there were big signs to Playa del Coco, directing us to the right (Road #151).
We turned right and stayed on the main road heading across the farmlands towards the Ocean. In about 7 km we arrived at the small town of Sardinal. There is the last gas station before your reach Playa del Coco. Two kilometers further and there was an intersection on a hill with many signs. We followed the main road and took the left fork down into Playa del Coco. The right fork goes to Playa Hermosa. At this point we had less than 4 kilometers to Playa del Coco.
When entering Playas del Coco, we were driving along a long boulevard. Once in the town and about 300 meters after the boulevard ended, there was a paved road entrance on our left hand side, by the big Supermarket. This was the road that goes to Playa Ocotal.
Village of Ocotal
Ocotal village is south of Playa del Coco town. There are Ocotal signs along the road. After crossing the first bridge, take a right. Stay on the main road and it will be another 3.5 kilometers through the narrow and twisty road before you enter the village of Ocotal. This road leads you through some interesting and very poor neighborhoods. There were people walking on the side of the road, kids on the bicycles and number of stray dogs walking around. As it was dark already, I had to drive very carefully through this unknown teritory. About 1 kilometer after the second and last bridge, you will notice that there are fewer houses. Keep driving. If you are driving during the night like me, there are no streetlights for the last 1.5 kilometers. When approaching the village of Ocotal, there is a guarded gate on your left side with the guard on duty (at night only). He recorded our license plate and let us go past him. We drove through the gate and followed the road straight up for another 700 meters. If you take first road on the right, you’ll end up on the beach. Our villa El Sueno driveway was on our left, and had a very steep driveway. The journey from Liberia took about 45 minutes.
Playa Ocotal village is even quieter and more relaxed than its busy neighbor Coco. A small gray-sand beach lines the waterfront. Ocotal Beach (playa Ocotal) is an exclusive and secure residential area located on Gold Coast, Costa Rica’s sunniest region, in the Province of Guanacaste. There is a small collection of vacation homes, condos, and a couple of hotels spread around on the surrounding hills and down by the beach. All in all, it has only three restaurants:
- By the Ocotal beach – Father Rooster’s ($$)
- In a secluded bay on the other side of the steep hill – Il Picante, in Bahia Pez ($$$). They have live music on Wednesdays.
- On the top of the hill, with the great view of Ocotal – Ocotal Beach Resort ($$$).
There are no grocery stores or any other places to eat in Ocotal. We were told that we can get a good breakfast at nearby Casa Bianca, but this proved not to be true. When we went there the place was deserted…
Villa El Sueno de Ocotal
We booked our stay for 10 days in private neo-Spanish villa El Sueno. Our vacation rental was located amidst the scenic surroundings of the Pacific Ocean and offered all the facilities that a traveler may ever need for an awe-inspiring trip, priced within reach of almost everyone. Villa was built on the steep hill side in the scenic Ocotal bay. The Ocotal beach was within 10 minutes walking distance from the villa if you follow the road. We used a shortcut through some private lots and high grass, and it took only 5 minutes to the beach, but be aware of the wildlife (snakes!).
On the main floor, villa El Sueno had one two bedroom apartment and four other separate bedrooms each named after different painter. The five of us were staying in these four bedrooms by the pool, with access to the small kitchen and patio. On the second floor was a huge three bedroom apartment which was rented at the time by another group of Canadians from Kingston (Ontario). We were promised by the owner Calin, that he will provide hearty breakfast for our group at some extra cost, but when we arrived on site he didn’t have the staff to keep that promise. The villa itself is in dire need to be updated. During our stay we had pluming issues in the bathrooms, problems with locking the room doors, the furniture is outdated and the mattresses are very uncomfortable and hard. Pool furniture is also beyond its life expectancy.
There was an elegant gazebo, surrounded by a lush garden available for our use, but the BBQ there was old and very dirty. For guests’ convenience and comfort, the owners live in a separate villa, adjacent to Villa El Sueno. They were permanently available to respond to the guests’ needs with discretion and respecting the guests’ privacy and full enjoyment of the premises. Although, this time Calin didn’t respond to our request to change sheets in one of the rooms (after the quest was there for seven days!). But this is what you get for the very low price we paid. Just don’t get surprised! Not big issues, just little things that can be fixed easily.
There are no words to describe the view, though. Looking out from the pool patio at the Papagayo bay below, nestled beneath the trees, all the way to the bay enclosed by mountains, ‘wondrous’ is a good starting point for descriptive language. Miniature boats dotting the big blue expanse of water. Small and large islands protruding out like prehistoric land masses. Just fantastic! There was a big Iguana permanently living on the roof of the villa. One evening we watched a family of howler monkeys munching the leaves on the tree in our front yard. Amazing!
All in all, we were happy guests in this villa and if I come to Ocotal again, I would stay there again, no problem. Hopefully, Calin will find some handy man to fix all these small issues we had during our stay and upgrade the villa before we come next time.
Ocotal Beach or Playa Ocotal is quickly emerging as the top holiday destination in this region, for visitors to Costa Rica. Ocotal has always been a popular tourist destination for its clear & sunny skies. But at the time when we were there we didn’t get impression the hotels and villas were fully booked. Most of the time there were only few people walking down along the Ocotal beach, many of them locals…
Apart from beautiful beaches, this region also offers world-class water sports facilities for snorkeling, fishing, diving, and many more. Some of the best golf courses and wildlife preservation parks in all of Central America are also found around here (but not in Ocotal). Playa Ocotal is a fantastic place to scuba dive with Manta Ray, schools of tropical fish, turtles, sharks, and octopus…
What I love most about Ocotal is the safety and privacy. Locals tell me that Coco and the surrounding, more “touristy” beach towns are prone to theft. It’s not wise to leave anything valuable on your towel while you swim. They say Ocotal is much safer in comparison. I think I have found the most secure spot on this beach: when you walk down from the main entrance, make a right and walk all the way to the edge of the cove. It is lined by a cliff on one side, and uphill forest on the other. It is a peaceful, shady spot that is very close to the tide pools.
When we were leaving Ocotal, one of the ladies in our group made a comment: ’Ocotal would not be the same without the Father Rooster’s restaurant on the beach’. I absolutely agree with her. This unique restaurant on the beach provides good food and all the drinks you can dream of at reasonable prices. This is the place where you escape from the sun on the beach and cool off in the shade of big trees, with cold ‘serveza’ or margarita in your hands… like we did every day… several times!!
Playa del Coco
After getting situated at the villa, the following day we drove into Playa del Coco town to buy groceries for breakfast and walk around to get a personal feel and soak up any impressions. The town feels authentic in that, while there’s most definitely a tourism side to it, it’s not invasive. You can enjoy the essence of Costa Rican culture in what seems like a semi-sleepy village. Down by the ocean, there’s a well-maintained boardwalk, bars and restaurants running along just behind it. The beach itself is beautiful. It has dark grayish sand. Altogether a very cozy, comfortable place that feels very safe.
Nightlife can be found in the bars with close proximity to the town’s central plaza. Other entertainment venues include casinos and discos. Restaurants are widespread, and many restaurants may double as bars after nightfall. And honestly, we didn’t get very far before we found ourselves in one of the busy seafood restaurants. Papagayo. This seafood restaurant gave us another look into the town: here the crowd seemed to be mostly comprised of expats and tourists, some older, some younger. Football was on the televisions here. What our group found particularly great about this place was one waiter with heavy English accent who was really fast in delivering our drinks and very entertaining.
In addition to these nightlife activities, Playa del Coco offers a wide range of ocean activities, whether it is world-class sport fishing, snorkeling, Scuba Diving, or relaxing on a boat and on the beach. Playa del Coco is the best departure point for trips to Ollie’s Point and Witch’s Rock, both located in Santa Rosa National Park. These surf breaks are world famous and some of the best in Costa Rica.
Shaped like a horseshoe, Playa del Coco is one of Guanacaste’s most popular and accessible beaches. Hard-packed gray sand is ideal for walks down its mile-long beach, and the waves are often strong enough for boogie boarding fun. Unlike most Beaches in the Papagayo region of Guanacaste, Coco’s water composition maintains a unique blue-gray tint, instead of the area’s usual blue-green. The laidback beach is a favorite for both foreigners and Ticos who frequently take part in the town’s ongoing fiesta.
Coco is the largest of the Papagayo villages, and services are abundant. Facilities such as shops and supermarkets are available throughout town. The village center looks rundown compared to the usual opulence found along Guanacaste’s northern coast. However, the Coco area does offer its share of luxury resorts. Affordable accommodations are also plentiful, attracting a number of locals and budget travelers throughout the year.
Sailing with Polar Hunter
Playa del Coco is also one of the best scuba diving and snorkeling locations in the country. Diving tours depart daily for the rich waters of Bat Island and Santa Catalina Island, and sailboat tours regularly take snorkelers to reefs and underwater volcanic formations. One day we booked half day sunset sailing trip on ‘Polar Hunter’ sailboat, recommended by our host Calin. The captain on the boat was Calin’s friend Ferit, from Romania. He took us around the Monkey Head island and we did some snorkeling in a small bay, next to the expensive ‘Four Seasons’ resort on the Papagayo peninsula.
During the snorkeling our friend Ljiljana spotted big Manta Ray fish just below her in very shallow waters and has a picture to prove it! Although the trip was good, the package ($60/person) included ‘dinner’ on the boat, but they served only dry sandwiches with some drinks. This food part was a big disappointment for all of us, as we were expecting to eat some fresh grilled fish!
Travelers seeking a laidback environment, free of noise, should probably steer clear of Coco Beach. However, those visitors in search of a party should look no further.
So, Hasta Luego until next time, mi amigos!!
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