Liberia, Costa Rica

Why Guanacaste:

My college friends Ben and Becky decided to get married in Costa Rica, after visiting a few years ago. Originally planned for 2020, the wedding was postponed (twice!) for COVID, and they moved from the US to Dubai (where they are thriving). However, those small details were not going to stop them from having their dream wedding! 

The destination wedding was called for Saturday July 9, 2022 but they also planned a week full of events. Thankfully, the logistics worked out in my favor, and I was able to attend. The weekend before, I was in the Los Angeles area for my sister´s wedding. I could fly nonstop there from Los Angeles, stay the week and then fly nonstop back to New York. Voila! 

I had visited Costa Rica once before with my family when I was 12 years old. However, we did not visit Guanacaste, the province in the northwest where the wedding was located.

I did not plan to take any time off work. Due to the time zone (the equivalent of Mountain Time), I could start work very early in the morning and then still have time in the afternoons and evenings. Also as luck would have it, this was the easiest week I have ever had at work in the 8 months on the job. 

Before the first wedding event, the bachelor/bachelorette parties on the Wednesday, I decided to do a short solo excursion to the town of Liberia because it was cheaper than the beach and provided the potential to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site forests nearby.

July 4, 2022: An Unwelcomed Bill

My flight from Los Angeles to Liberia, Costa Rica on the holiday Monday took about 5.5 hours, landing at around 19:00. After clearing customs, I took the shuttle to pick up my rental car. I thought I got a great deal at $10/day, but I was wrong. Turns out that Costa Rica has a law requiring visitors to purchase insurance of certain specifications. Unless you are a local with your own policy, you must buy the insurance from the rental company (credit card insurances do not work). The cheapest insurance coverage costs a whopping $35/day. Annoyingly, the rental car companies buy this insurance from the government for $3/day. What a scam! Due to the logistics of the wedding and my itinerary, I needed the rental car. The price of $45/day is still quite reasonable by US standards, but at the same time, a $200 surprise charge is not welcome. Some rental car companies include insurance in the price, so do look out for this!

The drive into Liberia town took just 20 minutes. The speed limits were annoyingly slow 60 km/hour in the rural areas and 40 in the cities, but I suppose that there is a significant chance of a random animal such as a sloth walking onto the road since this is the rainforest. 

I ate dinner in a local restaurant before driving over to my hostel. I booked a private room because I was planning to work remotely. The hostel seemed good enough and the staff was knowledgeable about the region. I then went to bed. 

July 5, 2022: Santa Rosa and Liberia Town

I woke up early to start work at 6:00 (8:00 in New York). The work from home setup was not ideal. The table in my room was tiny so I had to really hunch over to look at the laptop. Still, I managed to get through the day and, while there was no air-conditioning, the fan was well placed. 

Work from anywhere!

For breakfast, I walked over to the local market. There, I bought an authentic breakfast of rice, beans (gallo pinto) with two eggs for the equivalent of $1.50 US. Oh baby! 

Typical Costa Rican breakfast

I ended up having a gap later on in the day, so I used the free time to drive to Santa Rosa National Park, about 30 minutes northwest of the hostel. The drive took me along the Pan-American Highway and then on a side road. While the speed limits were low, 

Santa Rosa National Park is part of the larger Guanacaste Conservation Area. This UNESCO World Heritage Site preserves the jungle and volcanic landscape of northwestern Costa Rica. Santa Rosa is a lowland dry forest. Dry is a relative term since the forest sure looked green to me. 

Costa Rican “dry forest”

Entry to Santa Rosa National Park was $15 USD, a steep cost for a country as poor as Costa Rica. They accepted credit cards. 

The park did not have all that much to explore. There were a few hiking trails, but the main trail was a 1-kilometer loop through the jungle.

There also was a historic hacienda, one of Costa Rica´s few historic buildings. It is shocking how little history Costa Rica has. There was no monumental indigenous culture and there are no colonial Spanish towns. This hacienda was the site of an 1856 war with Nicaragua. Because Costa Rica was able to repel Nicaragua, this hacienda is a source of strong national pride. 

The Santa Rosa hacienda

After touring the hacienda, I walked up to a viewpoint of the entire Guanacaste Conservation Area. From this vantage, I could see the range of massive volcanoes and the forests that extend from their western slopes all the way to the ocean. What a beautiful and primeval sight!

Guanacaste Conservation Area

I returned to the hostel to get back to work. Around 4pm, I was done and had a little time to explore the city of Liberia for an hour or so. 

I visited the very weird cathedral. 

Outside the cathedral

I also stopped by a former prison turned municipal museum. Usually in these types of official buildings the police/security guarding are curt and serious, but this guard was exceedingly friendly! What a surprise. 

All in all, while Liberia seems nice enough, there is not much going on. 

For dinner, I ate at a food truck turned into a retail location. My BBQ ribs were honestly some of the best I have ever had. Shocking!

July 6, 2022: Old Woman´s Corner

In a truly unprecedented occurrence, I had zero meetings for work today, as my main client closed their entire company for the week. I therefore had little work and was able to get it done in just a couple hours at the start of the day. 

This gave me time to visit Liberia´s number one attraction: Rincon de la Vieja National Park. Literally old woman´s corner, Rincon de la Vieja is part of the Guanacaste Conservation Area. 

While the hostel did run a daily shuttle to the park, the timing did not work with work, so instead I drove the 20 minutes. A 19-year-old German girl also staying in my hostel asked to tag along, so we went together. She graduated high school a year ago and instead of going straight to university, decided to move to Nicaragua and work on a farm for a year. At the end of the program, she decided to travel solo around Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Very impressive, as I cannot imagine any American family letting their child do this. 

The drive up took about 20 minutes on country roads. One 5-minute section was along a private road where we had to pay a man to let us through. I had never encountered this sort of thing before, but it reminded me of the early turnpikes in the US. 

Entry to Rincon de la Vieja was also $15/person. The park offers two main hikes: a two-hour hike to see volcanic activity and a 4-hour hike to see a large waterfall. The trail to see the crater has sadly been closed for over a decade due to volcanic activity. In the interest of time and novelty, we opted for the volcanic activity hike. 

After walking a kilometer though the jungle, we first reached a seasonal waterfall maybe 25 meters tall. Spectacular!

The waterfall was just the start of the fun. Soon after we reached a pool of boiling water. The earth was creating the boil! Steam rose from the pond and reeked of sulfur. Amazing how this happens in this spot alone!

Sulphur rising from the jungle in Rincon de la Vieja

A few minutes away, we reached a pool of boiling mud! 

Boiling mud pot

Our hostel owner wrote his own guide to the park and led us off the main trail to a secret vent of hot gases. Insane!

In total, the hike took us 2.5 hours with the detour and was certainly unique. Satisfied, we drove back to the hostel. 

I dropped my companion off and continued to El Coco to begin the wedding festivities.

Final Thoughts:

Inland Guanacaste is so beautiful. The jungle, especially in Rincon de la Vieja was stunning. 

Liberia town, by almost a fluke, is very accessible to the United States due to the international airport built to serve the beach towns. The town of Liberia is nothing special, but it is a great base for exploring the many jungles, hot springs, and waterfalls. Yes, this can all be seen from the beach too, but you will have to drive an extra hour each way. 

As annoying as it is, the region is best explored by car. The Gringo Trail- the network of hostels across Latin America – does not exist at the same level in Costa Rica, as the country has pivoted towards a wealthier traveler. Lodging in Liberia itself is reasonable since it is not a tourist town, but all the activities are 2-3x the price as in any other Central American country. Liberia is a bus hub, so you can get between towns fairly easily, but most activities and the nice resorts are not accessible by public transit so you have to also purchase an expensive shuttle.

In my opinion, Costa Rica is no more beautiful than its neighbors despite its reputation as an eco-tourism destination. The mountains, jungles and beaches are equally as beautiful.  It lacks the history and culture of the other countries. However, Costa Rica is safe and more developed than its neighbors (Panama is also safe and developed). There is no fear of being robbed, mugged, or murdered anywhere including areas not frequented by tourists. 

Therefore, I would recommend a visit to Liberia, but I would also combine it with either some beach areas and/or more of the interior such as La Fortuna/Arenal. 

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