Travel Black Book Ambassadors Series

Guanacaste Province: Surf's up in Costa Rica

The best of home: Ambassadors to Singapore provide an insider's guide to their favourite destinations

Who: Mr Jairo Hernandez Milian, in his 50s, Costa Rican Ambassador to Singapore

Favourite destination in Costa Rica: Guanacaste Province in north-western Costa Rica. This is a land full of tradition, beautiful beaches, magnificent mountains and friendly people.

Guanacaste first captured my attention in the 1970s and became my retreat, as well as that of my family and friends. While living in Costa Rica, I visited it four times a year. Since I moved to Singapore, I have been returning to Costa Rica once or twice a year. I try to reserve time to visit Guanacaste, where I own a rustic holiday home with some friends.

SEE

One of my favourite sites in Guanacaste is the Santa Rosa National Park. Founded in 1972, the 49,515ha park is one of Costa Rica's oldest and largest, with mountains, beautiful beaches and some of the country's best surfing spots.

It is unique for its 10 distinctive habitats - from evergreen forests to mangrove swamps, marshlands and savannahs - which are home to hundreds of species of birds, more than 10,000 species of insects and many mammals, including jaguars, tapirs and white-tailed deer.

  • Getting there

  • Take a Singapore Airlines or United Airlines flight from Singapore to San Francisco, then catch a connecting flight to Houston. From there, head on to Costa Rica's capital San Jose or Liberia. If you would like to transfer from elsewhere in the United States, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta also offer connecting flights to San Jose and Liberia.

    From San Jose, travellers can take a domestic flight to Liberia or a bus to destinations within Guanacaste.

    Tips

    • Located on a strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica has a vast coastline, mountains, forests and lowlands and its weather can vary greatly. Multiple seasons can be experienced in one day. You can wake up on a beautiful beach with 26 deg C weather, then drive to the mountains and fall asleep at a comfortable 16 deg C, with a light sweater on. Temperatures average between 21 and 27 deg C. It is coolest during the dry season from December to April, when there is more sunlight and less chance of rain. This is the best time to visit Costa Rica, but as it is the peak travel period, it can also be more expensive.

    • An ideal length of stay in Costa Rica is a week to 10 days. This will give you enough time to spend a few days in each section of the country, enjoy the beaches, mountains and forests as well as the city. However, since the journey from Singapore is so long, a longer stay may be preferable. You can easily spend a week in Guanacaste alone.

    • Costa Rica has a fair public transportation network, with buses that link different towns and communities.  However, car rental is a good option as it saves time and is more practical for tourists, especially when there are more than three people travelling together. When you have three people, renting a car may be more cost effective than taking a bus or plane. Driving also means you can make pit stops if a location piques your interest. Costa Rican roads are safe and dotted with beautiful places that might not have made it into a guidebook. Remember to drive carefully.

    • Costa Rica is one of the safest countries in the Americas. Having said that, busy tourist destinations are open to opportunists who will take advantage of the situation, so it is better to be careful and mindful. Keep your eyes on your belongings. Also, be careful when swimming in the ocean. The undertow has been known to pull swimmers quickly out to sea.

The park also has two important beaches - Naranjo and Nancite - where sea turtles go to lay eggs.

As a history buff, I especially like the park because it was the site of some of Costa Rica's most important battles, including the Battle of Santa Rosa in 1856, when a ragtag group of Costa Rican farmers and peasants successfully defended the country from invasion by American mercenaries, led by American lawyer William Walker.

After taking control of Nicaragua, Walker wanted to establish an empire of slaving territory across Central America. The Ticos - a friendly nickname for Costa Ricans (a Tico is a man and Tica is a woman) - fought them off at La Casona Hacienda, a former farm.

Also called the Hacienda of Santa Rosa (hacienda is the Spanish word for estate), the historic building is now a museum with displays of military paraphernalia, descriptions of the battle and what everyday life was like for Ticos in the mid-1800s.

If you want to relax, head to one of the many beaches along the Guanacaste coastline. I especially like Puerto Carrillo as there are few people there most of the time. You can sit and contemplate while listening to the waves.

Nearby, the Guanamar Hotel's (www.hotelguanamar.com) terrace swimming pool and restaurant are the perfect place to watch the sunset. Rooms here start at about US$140 (S$200) a night.

For people watching, head to Tamarindo, a beachside town 40km from Santa Cruz, where you will encounter many locals and tourists enjoying the beach, surfers hitting the waves and shoppers at the local handicraft outlets.

Playa Hermosa is another popular beach town, a 20-minute drive from Liberia's airport. Its 2km-long grey sand beach surrounded by tropical forest and ridges of volcanic rock is one of the most well maintained in the country.

EAT

My favourite restaurant is at La Pacifica hotel (www.pacificacr.com). The beautiful sunset views and the impeccable management of the Swiss family that owns the lush 21-room hotel makes for a meal that is on a par with any world-class restaurant. The menu is full of local delights such as fresh tilapia, roasted meats, amazing ceviches (I highly recommend the Ceviche de Corvina or seabass ceviche) and various fruit desserts that will tantalise your tastebuds. Lunch costs about US$10 a person.

For breakfast, head to Hotel El Bramadero (www.hotelbramadero.com) in Liberia, Guanacaste Province's capital. This hotel has a restaurant that caters to the local palate and serves a typical Tico breakfast of eggs, either scrambled or fried, gallo pinto (a combination of rice and beans), sweet plantains and, occasionally, a local sausage, corn tortilla or cheese for US$8.

Other must-try dishes: platano en miel (plantains cooked in honey), sopa de albondigas (meatball soup), tortilla con queso (yellow corn tortilla with white cheese), picadillo de papa (potato and ground beef hash) and olla de carne (meat stew).

You can find most of these at Coopetortillas R.L. in Santa Cruz, a popular market-like "restaurant" operating out of a big open warehouse. Owned by women, it provides jobs for women in need. It is famous for delicious local eats, including the meatball soup, corn tortillas and pork tamales.

Cooperativa Monteverde (www.monteverdeinfo.com/casem/) on the Pan-American Highway has a similar concept in Monteverde, a town in the mountainous region of the province.

This co-op is composed of artisans whose handicrafts, jewellery, carvings and clothes are sold in its store. Behind the store is a restaurant selling good Tico food.

Nearby, the Monteverde Cheese Factory (www.monteverdeinfo.com/monteverde-cheese-factory) is a great place to sample milkshakes, cheeses and yogurt which are sold all over Costa Rica.

Along the Pan-American Highway, it is also worthwhile to stop at Restaurante Tres Hermanas (www.bbqtreshermanas.com), a good local steak house in Limonal.

SHOP

In the small village of Guaitil, 12km from Santa Cruz, the Chorotegas, an indigenous people, are known for their pre-Columbian-style ceramics, hammocks and handicrafts, such as animal-shaped whistles.

Other must-haves include Salsa Lizano - a Costa Rican condiment served alongside almost every meal.

The thin brown sauce is great with steak and is often served with tamales - cornmeal and meat steamed in a corn husk - and french fries. It can easily be found in local supermarkets for less than US$10 a bottle.

Costa Rica's gourmet coffee is also a popular souvenir. Most of the coffee found in Costa Rica is Arabica dark roast and the most popular brands include 1820, which costs about US$9 for 500g of beans, and the premium Tres Generaciones, at about US$12 for 500g of beans.

PLAY

There are many hidden gems in Guanacaste, such as the Ostional Playa Grande, where you can see a turtle-nesting site. Turtles nest all year round, but the activity peaks in the rainy season from August to December. The sight of hundreds of turtles emerging from the sea to lay their eggs in the volcanic sand is a sight you will never forget.

Catarata Llanos del Cortes, a waterfall off the main highway near Bagaces, about 25km south of Liberia, is a little off the path for the typical tourist, but it is well worth the detour. It has a large pool at its base that is refreshingly cool.

Guanacaste Day on July 25 is the region's main festival. It celebrates Costa Rica's annexation of Guanacaste Province in 1824. It has parades, masquerades, bull riding and parties in every town.

STAY

The Hacienda Pinilla (www.haciendapinilla.com) is an expansive 1,821ha gated resort community which has a country club, three beaches, golf courses, horse stables, pools, restaurants, beaches, hotels, condominiums, a medical centre and even a chapel.

The variety of amenities in the complex makes it a great place to call home for a few days, especially if you are travelling with a big group. Each hotel is well equipped or you can rent a villa for more privacy or larger groups.

Hacienda Pinilla is about a 41/2- hour drive from Costa Rica's capital San Jose and about an hour's drive from the region's Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport in Liberia. It is the perfect base for travel around the area.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'Surf's up in Costa Rica'. Print Edition | Subscribe