Alajuela is the city where Costa Rica’s main international airport is located. The adventure begins as soon as you clear immigration! If by early afternoon you have rented your car or purchased your bus ticket at the station in Alajuela, we recommend beginning your 3-day beach adventure by going directly to Manuel Antonio beach (Day 2 below). This will give you an extra day to explore the Manuel Antonio beach community and the tropical Pacific coast. From the airport, it is about an hour ride to the coast, and another hour to Manuel Antonio.
However, if you have a late afternoon arrival, plan to spend the night in Alajuela. There are mainstream hotels near the airport, but we suggest you jump right into Costa Rican culture. Head to downtown Alajuela and stay at Park View Hotel. It is next to the Cathedral and Alajuela Central Park. There are a number of good restaurants nearby, including Mundo Bistro, Jalapeños, Tortilleria (great typical breakfasts) and just a 3-4 blocks away, Antojeria Tica.
Most business in Alajuela close early compared to European or North American countries, but this can help you to get an early morning start. Nonetheless, after walking around downtown Alajuela a bit, you could venture over to Plaza Real. It is just a short walk from downtown Alajuela. In Plaza Real, you will find a variety of restaurants (Spoon), Nova Cinema showing movies in English and Spanish, an occasional outdoor concert, and a Starbucks. Otherwise it is a quick Uber/taxi ride to City Mall. It is the largest mall in Costa Rica featuring 150 stores, a diverse food court, Cinemark movie cinema and an arcade with a Ferris Wheel! Finally, there is the Fiesta Casino across from the airport.
In Costa Rica nearly all movies are shown in English with subtitles in Spanish or as voice-over movies. Read the show times carefully. We invite you to take yourself to the movies in Costa Rica! It is fun and the theaters are quite elegant, with 3-D and VIP options. VIP offers oversized chairs that recline and loveseats for your movie watching experience. There are also menus and waiters who bring your order to your seat! Treat yourself to a Costa Rican VIP show! It is pampering at low cost!
Begin your adventure with an early start! Whether you are driving or going by bus, you will be traveling on Route 34, better known as the Costanera. It is a two-lane highway on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. For drivers: There are some inexpensive tolls along the way, so be sure to have local currency. (Any bank and most ATMs will exchange U.S. $ for local currency (colones pronounced “kol-own-ace”).
In route, you will pass the Tarcoles River bridge at Orotina. If you are driving, stop at the bridge and walk it. It is known as puente de los cocodrilos! When you look over the railings you will see why it has its name. There is not just a big river down there! It is loaded with Jurassic Park-sized crocodiles! Some reach 4 meters (12 feet) in length. The Tárcoles River is a famous river in Costa Rica, but this bridge is probably its most famous spot. It is near Carara National Park which is home to many waterfowl and other birds. We have seen colorful lapas (Scarlet Macaw parrots), flocks of lime green parakeets and herons to name a few. Have binoculars handy.
Once you arrive to Manuel Antonio and check in to your accommodation, head for the Manuel Antonio National Park! Get plenty of drinks, fruits and snacks before heading into the park. Ask anyone for directions to the park entrance. There is an entrance fee which is how you support sustainable tourism and park conservation in Costa Rica. It is nice to walk with a guide who can point out lots of interesting things along the walk, but you can also walk on your own. Take lots of pictures, and do not forget your portable ‘phone charger, binoculars, sun block, and snorkeling gear.
Watch for monkeys and huge iguanas in this tropical paradise. Head back to the main beach around 4pm so that you are not walking through the forest after dark. Treat yourself to a pipa (pronounced “pee-pah”) or a cocktail (or a pipa flavored with a dash of Malibu!). Then, settle in to watch a spectacular ocean sunset show! Incidentally, a “pipa!” is the hull or outer covering of a coconut. Inside the coconut is actual nut of the coconut which contains coconut milk. Coconut milk is known for its wonderful hydrating qualities.
There are a lot of choices directly across from the coast and you can find a place when you arrive. If you are traveling on a budget, Selina is a higher-quality hostel. Selina has an open style that encourages travelers to meet and share travel experiences and recommendations. By the way, every Selina location in the Americas or Europe aims to be a contributing member in its community. Ask about Selina Gives Back. It’s a holistic volunteer program for staff, guests and “Amigos de Selina” (friends from the neighborhood) who want to volunteer with us --a new way to add to your travel experience.
Take time to explore El Avion (The Plane) --it is a restaurant about 150 meters above the beach in a (grounded) airplane! It is a must-see and be-seen restaurant and bar in Manuel Antonio, so be sure to check it out and take lots of photos. Your hosts will be glad to take lots of shots.
On the main beach you can arrange for boat tours out to see dolphins, whales, or the island you can see in the distance. There is also the exhilarating thrill of parasailing over the aqua blue waters of the coastline. Try the beach zip line, too. Parasailing Costa Rica is locally owned and operated. It provides water sports adventures in Manuel Antonio Beach, including parasailing above the crystal waters of Manuel Antonio Beach. As you sail over the pristine coast, you will have spectacular views of the whole coast against the mountainous background. Sometimes you can even spot whales or dolphins on your parasailing flight. Other tour activities options are: Sports fishing, Banana boat rides, and boat & jet ski rentals .
If you have extra time in Manuel Antonio, try out the different restaurants, cafes, and wander around the souvenir shops. Be sure to catch the beach sunsets in Costa Rica. By the way, given its nearness to the equator, the sun rises and sets at about the same time every day of the year in Costa Rica. Sunsets begin between 5-5:30 pm.
In case you are wondering, Night 3 is back to Alajuela or San Jose... or, spend one more night at Manuel Antonio Beach.
Moses’ Pass is about an hour south of Manuel Antonio in Ballena National Marine Park. There are 4-5 entrances to the national park; you want to go to the Uvita entrance. At Ballena National Park, there is a small entrance fee that goes to park conservation. Be sure to check the tide schedule in advance and again with the park ranger at the entrance. Plan to get to Moses’ Pass (also known as Whale Tail beach) at least 2-3 hours before low tide. From the point of high tide, and for about the next 6 hours, the currents will be receding. You want to get there early enough to witness the waters receding to reveal the natural tombolo at Moses’ Pass. These are good sites to check the tide schedule:
Moses’ Pass is a sand boulevard out to Whale Tail Island that appears quickly, so get there early enough to observe this amazing phenomenon. Bring plenty of water, drinks, fruits and snacks or picnic supplies before heading into the park. Binoculars, lots of sun block and snorkeling gear are a must! There is almost no shade. Spend the day out on Whale Tail Island or walking the Pass and exploring the main beach.
There usually are not lots of tourists, so you can truly enjoy this ecotourism point all to yourself. Make sure you are back on the main beach well before high tide. It is about an hour drive back to Manuel Antonio, so if you exit the park around 4 you will likely get back before sunset at Manuel Antonio beach. If you have the time, stay another night. Tomorrow you can have a leisurely day as you head back to Alajuela. Next trip!: Volcanoes or Rainforests & Waterfalls!
Like this story?
Get more! Subscribe to our monthly inspiration newsletter.