If planning to visit Tamarindo first or foremost, the easiest airport access is through Liberia International Airport (LIR). The new LIR terminal opened in 2012. This airport is roughly 60km from Tamarindo, about a one hour drive on very good (paved) roads. LIR is served by national US airlines: Southwest through Houston Hobby, United/Continental through Houston, Chicago, and Newark; Delta through Atlanta, American through Miami and Dallas, US Airways through Charlotte, and Jet Blue through JFK. Of course, one can use connecting airlines through these cities from other locations.
Alternatively, one can fly into San Jose (SJO), and then use a secondary means of transit to arrive in Tamarindo. Check arrival/departure times in San Jose, as many of the flights arrive and depart early in the day; requiring a layover in San Jose. From San Jose, one can rent a car and tour the country en-route. One can take a domestic bus, which can be an epic experience. One can use domestic airlines (Sansa or Nature Air) to fly directly into Tamarindo’s local airstrip. See Transportation paragraph below for more information. There are hotels adjacent SJO, and plenty of car rental companies servicing the airport. Beware: getting in and out of San Jose by car is a nightmare. Use LIR if you can – much easier and less aggravation, especially for a first trip; unless you plan to tour other areas on your way to the coastal areas.
The national currency is the colone, which consists of paper money and coin. USA currency is widely accepted, especially in the bigger towns and markets. Most shops prefer and don’t question if you use smaller American currency ($20’s); though the big markets and busy restaurants are equipped to handle your hundred dollar bills. Shops and restaurants will typically give change in colones, so you’ll accumulate some local currency that way. Based on the current exchange rate, a good rule of thumb to calculate the cost of something “expressed in colones” is to double the number and divide by 1000. So a meal that costs 1500 colones is $3.00
There area banks throughout town if you wish to exchange currency, or need an ATM for additional cash. ATMs offer you the choice for withdrawals in either colones or dollars, and offer instructions in both Spanish and English – very sophisticated. Davienda offers an ATM (next to Subway) closest to Sunrise Condominiums. When using an actual bank teller, expect to show your passport for the exchange and pay an exchange fee; sometimes no matter how much you are exchanging. Again, there’s no reason to exchange money if your visit is in the tourist areas or along major routes.
Credit cards are widely accepted, especially MASTERCARD and VISA. You may pay a processing fee or foreign transaction fee with your home bank for this. Most importantly, let your bank know before you travel that you will be using your card in Costa Rica, otherwise transactions might be rejected and your card frozen (fraud prevention).
Restaurants – Typically a 10% gratuity and tax is included in the restaurant bill, as the tip is an established minimum set by the government. The menu and/or guest check should state. In many places the basic gratuity will be adequate. I generally like to add a bit extra gratuity for the nice places or great service; and you know it will be appreciated. Most of these service people are earning $2 – 3 per hour…
Taxis, Shuttle, etc – Add maybe $2-$3 per person, especially if you get help with bags and depending on the length of the ride. Locally, I’d say no tip is expected.
Airport – nice to tip the porter $2-3 per person. They will swarm you to offer help. If you don’t need assistance, just hold on to your bags and say “gracias”.
Tipping the housemaids is a good idea (especially on the first day). This is a great place to dispense of the extra small bills and coins you accumulate. We’ve found the maids will go above and beyond if asked, including washing and folding your laundry.
Water from the tap and in restaurants is safe to drink throughout the country. There is plenty of bottled water available if you desire, in the stores and in restaurants. I’ve never had any intestinal problems throughout my travels in Costa Rica drinking from the domestic supply.
Communications: Internet, Telephone, Cell Phone, Phones in CR (in our unit)
There is wireless Internet (wifi) in our complex and in most locations around the town, great for your wifi smartphone and computer device. Some wifi networks require a security password, available by asking. There is a landline telephone in our condo, which allows you free calls throughout Costa Rica (nationalized phone company). Check the ‘yellow pages’ phone book in our unit for any of your local needs. Unfortunately, our landline telephone does not accept incoming long distance calls. One of our phones incorporates an answering machine, so you can manage messages while on the beach. American cell phones may work in Costa Rica; with international roaming. I’ve also found some wifi functional cell phones will call to the USA at no extra cost, with wifi connection. In that case, be sure to set your phone to “wifi only” to avoid extra charges.
Transportation: local busses, airport shuttle, taxis, domestic airlines
Our recommendation from the airport (LIR) to Tamarindo is to use Tamarindo Tours and Transfers (formerly known as Tamarindo Shuttle) for reliable pick-up and return. They can be contacted through email or internet to set up in advance, and charge $20 per passenger. http://www.tamarindoshuttle.com/
Once in Tamarindo, most everything is easy walking distance. If you require, taxis are available on the street to take you most anywhere. Best to agree upon a fare before engaging the services. These taxis can take you within town, or to neighboring towns.
Another option are the local busses. These run with regularity, and are generally filled with locals including children. When I last rode the bus, the fare was 500 colones or about $1.00; check with the locals for the current fare. This fare can take you as far as Liberia or Santa Cruz. They are safe and relatively comfortable, although if you board during a peak hour they may be full of hot bodies.
There is a local airport/airstrip in Tamarindo with scheduled service from the two domestic airlines: Sansa and Nature Air. Both offer the smaller airplanes to destinations throughout the country, generally connecting through San Jose. Check at the local airline offices in Tamarindo for schedules, though fares are pretty much fixed at $85 per person. A big consideration is baggage on these smaller airplanes; you are limited to 25# per passenger and will pay for overweight!
Surfboard Rental, Bicycle Rental, Car Rental
Plenty of opportunities throughout the town for surfboards. Many operators will also offer lessons and then allow you to keep the board for practice a few more hours at no extra cost. Our favourite surf shop with lessons is Kelly’s. Bikes are a great way to get around on many of the back roads. The Tamarindo Bike shop is next to Kelly’s. Just carry plenty of water and snack. Car rental places are also abundant in Tamarindo, a great way to get out of town for a day or few. We’ve had good luck with Budget and Economy Car Rental, especially dealing with them locally. During peak seasons, don’t count on rental car availability without advance reservation. Plan in advance and confirm, confirm, confirm! A higher clearance vehicle will provide more comfort for the unpaved backroads to popular destinations. We recommend the full insurance, just in case; but you are only required to take liability coverage. Bring your passport for ID, and your North American driver’s license. Many rental vehicles are 4WD, though 4WD isn’t necessary unless its rainy season and the roads are muddy. Always check wiper blades, washer fluid, air conditioning, and tyres before leaving the agency; as some cars are not as well maintained. When renting, keep in mind that gas stations are not on every corner as we enjoy in the States. We finally have a gas station convenient to Tamarindo – just 7km out of town. A good map might even identify where gas is available. Fuel is sold by the liter, running about $5.30 per gallon with the conversion. Stations will accept your credit card, and most are full service.
Food/Groceries: markets, local truck, market days
There are a smaller markets scattered around town, directly across the street (beach side) and to the right of the Sunrise commercial center, just under the nightclub. The large AutoMercado supermarket is 1.2km from Sunrise Condomiums on the way out of town, towards Villa Real. This place is amazing, really catering to the international tourist with cleanliness, selection, service, etc – you’ll find an in-store fresh bakery, butcher, seafood counter, huge selection of produce, wines and spirits, etc. Remember that prices are linked to the kilo of weight. As this is a tourist town, prices can be a bit higher than elsewhere. The nearby town of Villa Real features a farmer’s market every Monday and Friday for fresh produce and fruits. Tamarindo has a farmer’s market on Saturday mornings. You’ll also find random local trucks with melons and pineapple. Another neat opportunity I discovered is the local fish truck, which stops by various locations in town (including Sunrise) at least twice a week (Tues and Friday). His prices for fresh products are very good, and you can choose from his vast selection of fresh fish and shellfish (especially shrimp and lobster in season). Pedros fish market/shack offers up the local catch, next to Nogis restaurant. This is a great way to go if you have a large group and don’t mind cooking a bit. Our favourite coffee is 1812 brand, available at any of the markets.
The sun rises & sets with regularity between 5:30 to 6:00 (am and pm). Don’t miss sunsets, either on the beach or from a local bar. Take your bug spray, as the sand mites and mosquitos like to feast at sundown.
Local Resources for help
There are plenty of English speaking resources if you get stuck. There are many Americans in this town (besides the tourists) in shops and resort areas. Ask around. Talk to your neighbours at the pool. Most all locals are very friendly too, and probably will help.
Pharmacy / Healthcare
For all your medicinal needs, there is an excellent pharmacy to the right (of Sunrise) about 200m, on the beach side of the street next to the Bikini Shop. They speak English and can give you what you need for whatever ails you, including prescription drugs. The young pharmacist is brilliant, can diagnose your symptoms, and will show you options in medicines/drugs. Many medicines can even be bought ‘by the pill’. Otherwise, most of the groceries also have over the counter pain killers and first aid type products. There are ambulance services if your need more serious help. Quite honestly, after experiencing this medical system – I’d rather get sick in Costa Rica then America.
Should you need a doctor or more serious care, may I recommend Dr. Andrea Messinger of Huacas Beach Clinic. There’s also the CIMA hospital on the way to Liberia, by the “Do it Center”. Ambulance services available if your need more serious help.
Airport Exit tax
There is a $29 exit tax for each person that must be paid before leaving the country. Most recently, this fee is supposed to be included in your airplane ticket, eliminating the need to stand in another line. Check with your carrier. The airport will accept your bankcard (VISA, MASTERCARD), USA cash, or colones; even mixed tender.
Roads and Driving
Roads can be spotty, and are at the whim of the weather. The main highways are paved, though still have random potholes depending on the season. Best to stay on paved roads when possible, though sometimes you have no choice. There may be extreme potholes or washboard surfaces, other times the road surface is graded. Don’t be surprised if you have to cross a creek in the wet season, though check depth and creekbed before you plow through. . Roads can be narrower than we are accustomed to and without shoulder. Drivers may seem to drive crazy; it’s just different from what we in America are used to. They are aware of pedestrians and bicyclists that share the roadways, and sometimes will stop randomly in the roadway (to talk to a friend, look at a monkey, …). Just drive at a safe speed. If you rent a car, be aware of these driving conditions and respect the local customs. Driving isn’t bad, just a bit slower and more cautious/attentive. Night driving can be difficult because the roads are not well lit and many drivers don’t have/use their headlights. Pedestrians and cyclists typically are not lit up at night. For road / directional signs, take advantage of ‘advertising’ billboards to confirm you are on the right road and for distances. The highway departments don’t provide much in the way of signage. Make sure you have a good map or GPS! Finally, understand your car’s speedometer: most are in kph but every now and then a rental car will have mph.
Tamarindo and the gold coast region is the driest and warmest area in the country. Dry season typically starts in November, and ends in May. Rainy season then kicks in, though this generally consists of some afternoon showers. The heaviest rainy period is mid-September through October. Very rarely have I seen it rain most all day. During dry season, days are HOT! Nights cool off to comfortable temperatures. Anytime is a great time to be here: with moisture the countryside erupts in a floral display and green. “Summer”, as the North American visitor might reference, is December through May. I personally love November and December, as the countryside is green and fresh and crowds have not yet arrived.
What to bring
Comfortable hot weather clothing, swimsuits and shorts, light shoes (flip flops, sandals), maybe a dressy outfit for dinners or clubbing at night (very casual atmosphere). Sunscreen, insect repellant (though you are not in the jungle, so it’s not that bad – mostly no-seeums), hat, sunglasses. Travel light, you won’t need much.
Remember, if your visit takes you to the rain forest or mountain regions the weather is entirely different in those micro climates. In these areas, you’ll be more comfortable with rain gear, long pants and sleeved shirts. The weather is still “tropical”, yet nowhere near as hot as the beach climate. Sometimes we forget!
Beverages are widely available throughout Tamarindo in the markets. There are 2 primary national beer brands: Imperial and Pilsen. You’ll also find great rum from Nicaragua. Many of the restaurants serve wines from around the world. The supermarket has a quality wine collection, and we have a corkscrew in the kitchen! You’ll find mixers in the markets, as well as great tropical fruits for your blends. The duty free shop at Liberia airport has a wide selection and very good prices, including rums from Cuba and other hard to find countries. You can access Duty Free on the way-in and way-out of the country. Bonus!
Crime / Theft
Generally the streets are very safe, yet this is a tourist town and petty theft does happen. I haven’t heard of many ‘crimes against the person’, though if you leave valuables around your stuff may get taken – crimes of opportunity. Generally, don’t leave things alone on the beach. There is a safe in our unit in the master bedroom for you convenience, where we recommend locking up passports, extra cash, etc. The unit itself is safe, though it’s a good idea to always lock up when nobody is around. Sunrise has a guarded gatehouse to insure unexpected people aren’t driving in and out. They also have a roaming guard on grounds day and night, typical for this resort town. You’ll notice police presence/patrols on the beach and on the streets. We have a key lockbox attached to the railing outside our unit, which can be useful to leave the front door key; especially as individuals in your group have different coming & going needs. Best not to walk the beach after dark.
For those who have energy after the sun goes down, the local nightlife scene is quite vibrant. Typically a different bar or club ‘hosts’ the town party on a given night of the week, and ladies nights are popular. You can enjoy tango lessons, casino, and table games, and plenty of live music throughout town. Check notices taped to street lights or stapled to trees for what’s happening! And you’ll find it very safe to walk the streets at night, even late.
The Ocean / The Beach
It’s right there! You’ll find a wide sweeping beach of fine white sand. The waterline between tidal changes can be dramatic, as the water is very shallow in this area. The water temperature is ideal, and you won’t feel that shock when entering. Tamarindo is a renowned surfing beach, yet also ideal for wading and swimming. Beware of undertow during some times of the day, and don’t let that stop you from getting out. There are volcanic rocks you’ll notice that travel out from the beach in some stretches, and you’ll want to swim clear of these rocks. Beach chairs and umbrellas are available for rent along the beach. There’s plenty of beach to walk, and shells galore. Please remove your trash after your visit. One guest told me she had read about stinging jelly fish, and that one should shuffle feet. I’ve never had this experience, and find the ocean water very safe. Be sure to try fresh coconut juice on the street from the “Pipas” man; you’ll know it when you hear him.