It is convenient to rent a car but not necessary.
If you do rent a car, we have found the best prices in renting from Dollar or National when we fly to Liberia. When we fly into San José, we have also rented from Service Car Rental, a local company based in the San José area. Their prices are competitive for 4x4s.
A 4x4 is needed for many of the dirt roads. A regular car is fine for driving between Sámara/Carrillo and San José or Liberia.
If you want to rent locally for a short period, Alamo has a representation at Hotel Esperanza in Carrillo and four or five rental companies have offices in Sámara.
A few warnings:
- It can be tricky to verify what is included in a rental quote. Insurances & fees will inevitably be added to inexpensive quotes through sites like Expedia and Kayak. The only way to find out what and how much will be added – it can be up $30 per day – is to call the company. Through Dollar and National it is possible – although not totally straightforward – to figure out the full amount from their websites. Service Car Rental includes mandatory insurances and fees in their quotes (which one has to ask for).
- Insurances through your credit cards are accepted but some rental companies (Dollar is one of them) are also asking for a letter of proof. Without it, they will not accept the insurance and make you pay for their own. Again, the only way to find out is to call.
- It can be more expensive to book through the international sites than through the Costa Rican sites of the same rental companies. Use the links above if you rent from Dollar or National.
- If you can, rent off the airports to avoid the 13% airport tax.
- Before driving off, check that:
*You got the kind of car that you paid for (model & manual vs. automatic).
*Everything such as lights and wipers work and that tires are ok (don’t forget to check the spare).
*The tank is full.
*All scratches, dents and stains are checked and noted on your contract.
Major roads are generally ok, although mostly only 2 lanes. Many of the minor roads are dirt roads and can be quite bumpy.
Fines are very high, easily several hundred dollars, so:
- Observe speed limits. Blinking headlights meeting you can be a signal that there is a police control ahead. Controls are particularly frequent where the roads are good and straight; at a school (25km/h) or a crossing (40km/h).
- The driver needs to be able to show his/her passport (with the entry stamp) as well as driver’s license. Originals are required, otherwise there is a fine. An international driver’s license is however not required.
We avoid driving after dark; roads can be badly marked and it is too frequent to be blinded by the high beams of oncoming cars.
All the car rental agencies provide basic road maps. They are also happy to help with directions.
Outside big city centers there are no regular street addresses. Addresses are usually given as a direction in meters in relation to a reference point (a church, gas station, restaurant, hotel, etc.). 100 meters does however NOT indicate a distance, it equals one block, 50 meters equals half a block.
To use a GPS: Select "places of interest" on the main menu and type in the name of where you are going. Then scroll through the selection of places of interest and find one that is close to where you are going. For example "El Banco Nacional" in Sámara or "El Colibrí Cabinas" in Carrillo.
Warning: There is a municipality in Guanacaste, our province, called Carrillo. Our Carrillo is Playa Carrillo (the beach) or Puerto Carrillo (the village). The municipality is Hojancha.
The closest gas station to Carrillo is located a few miles up the road towards Nicoya from Sámara. The next gas station is in Nicoya.
Gas prices are identical at all stations.
We used to have daily flights from San José to the Carrillo airstrip. That is unfortunately not the case any longer – as long as the airstrip isn’t asphalted there aren’t any commercial flights.
We don’t recommend flying to nearby airports (Nosara or Punta Islita) as the coastal roads are slow to travel and your total travel time would not be that much shorter than going by road. There aren’t any direct buses available either and much fewer choices in car rentals than at the San José and Liberia airports.
If you prefer to travel by bus there are semi-private shuttles with minibuses servicing tourists and tourist locations, private shuttles going where you want them to or regular public buses, going all over the country.
Interbus is servicing Sámara/Carrillo with minibuses. They can take you to and from San José, Arenal and some beach locations via a hub and they pick up and drop off at hotels. Arrangements have to be made ahead of time but a day or two’s notice should be enough. You can also make all your arrangements via their website. Remember to check the Special Offers with discounts for more persons and/or trips booked at the same time. (The regular per person price from San José to Sámara/Carrillo is $47 in January 2013.) If you are a small group of people, you can also arrange for a private minibus.
Through the Sámara-Carrillo Info Center's website you can book private & semi-private shuttles to/from tourist locations and the international airports, as well as bus tickets to other Central American countries and local/regional plane tickets. They also offer car rentals through Alamo.
Alfaro is the public bus line with service between Carrillo and San José. Try them if you have the possibility to purchase your ticket in advance – this is necessary to get a seat. Their new buses are air-conditioned and comfortable. They are almost as fast as Interbus and it is very inexpensive. You can get information about the Alfaro buses, as well as other local and long distance regular bus lines, at the Sámara Beach website.
We don’t recommend going by public bus from the Liberia airport, unless your luggage is very light. First, the airport is 2 km off the main road so you’ll need transportation to get there, second, local buses can be quite full and you might not get a seat and third, you’ll need to change buses and bus terminals in Nicoya.
There are local buses between Carrillo and Sámara that continue to Nicoya - 10 to 12 in each direction every day. (None at night though.) They stop on demand, so you can get off at the intersection of our street and the main street, just 250 yards from the house. The schedules are in the Sámara Beach website mentioned above.
If you are not pressed for time and want to go between Carrillo and Sámara, a very nice and beautiful alternative is to walk along the Carrillo and Sámara beaches. It takes about one hour and 15 minutes.
There is a taxi just up our street. The owner, Adolfo Badilla Gamboa, can be reached by phone: +506 2656 0075 or 8390 0681 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. It is good to make arrangements ahead of time, especially for longer trips.
There are taxis lined up on the main street in Sámara.
If you take a taxi for Sámara/Carrillo at the airports, negotiate the price in advance and use all your bargaining skills. Expect about $100 from Liberia and $200 from San José.
Carrillo Tours, at the bottom of the hill towards the beach, can also arrange for a car and driver for the day or to the airports.
When one flies to the San José airport schedules sometimes make it necessary to spend a night there. Here are a few very different hotels where we have stayed. They are all fairly close to the airport in Alajuela. If you take a taxi from the airport, the price is fixed and it is paid for at the exit of the terminal.
A few km away from the airport in Alajuela is Orquideas Inn. It is really a very nice and relaxing place in a garden setting. You can arrange for their shuttle but it costs more than a taxi would.
A budget place a short taxi ride away in central Alajuela is La Guaria Inn at Avenida 2 and Calle Central, +506-2440 2948. It is very basic and only an alternative if you are looking for an inexpensive place to just spend one night.
At the other end is Ramada Herradura which is more of a conference hotel with a lavish pool and a casino. It is a little further away but it has a free airport shuttle.
Also with a free shuttle and a casino is Best Western Irazu. It is fairly close to San José city and convenient if you have a car and are going into San José. Also, there is a good Chinese restaurant in the basement of a small mall just behind the hotel.
At the Liberia airport we have stayed at Hilton Garden Inn. It is just down the road from the airport and they have an airport shuttle. Car rental shuttles will pick up and drop off there as well.
Five minutes away from the Liberia airport by taxi or your own car (no shuttle) is Hotel Rincón del Llano, +506-2667 1213. It is a very reasonably priced and more modest choice, but still clean and comfortable.
We have been able to get good deals for Ramada Herradura, Best Western Irazu and Hilton Garden Inn through kayak.
They will accept US dollars anywhere in Sámara or Carrillo as well as in most places in Costa Rica. The exchange rate will be a little lower than, but close to, what the banks are giving.
There are ATMs in every city and two in Sámara, at Banco Nacional (opposite B2-91 on the map below) and Banco Costa Rica (behind B2-56). They are however sometimes out of order or short of colones, the Costa Rican currency, so it might be a good idea to get some colones before arriving. There are ATMs at the San José airport and several in Nicoya.
There are a few grocery stores in Carrillo. They are mostly very basic with one exception. This store is only 1200 feet (360 meters) from the house (opposite F2-27 on the map above). It is clean and everything is well displayed. It has a good selection of drinks (including alcohol), pasta, cereals, cans, dry food, eggs, etc. The supply of fresh food is however quite limited, although there are basic produce items and a well supplied freezer with some seafood, chicken, sausages and the like.
Fresh fish & seafood are sold where the fishermen come in. They mostly arrive after 4 in the afternoon. In the Carrillo fishing village there is a "fish market", also selling some frozen stuff, in the next last building to the right. At the end of the Sámara beach (D3-74) there is a lady, Martina, and one can also buy directly from the fishermen. The supply depends on what they bring in - straight from the ocean and really fresh. Fish will be whole; gutted but not scaled.
Sámara has several supermarkets, fruit & vegetable stores and a few bakeries. These are the ones where we shop:
- Palí (B2-91, opposite Banco Nacional) is the biggest. They have what the ticos eat with a good selection of fruit, vegetables and meat but a very limited selection of anything imported.
- Mini-Super Las Olas (B2-13) carries a nice little selection of imported food (prosciutto for example), the largest choice around of wines and a separate fruit & vegetable stand. It is also the place to find fishing gear.
- Super Sámara (B2-8) also carries a broader selection than Palí although they are not so great for fresh food.
- Trucks selling fruit & vegetables or fish & seafood are frequent in Sámara. They are mostly parked next to Banco Nacional (opposite Palí).
- There is a butcher (B2-56) next to the Sámara soccer field. They have good meat, but order in advance if you want something specific.
- A selection of organic food, fruit and vegetables can be found at the store/cafeteria at Sámara Natural Center (B2-8).
If you do your food shopping in Nicoya, prices are a little lower and you'll find a somewhat bigger selection, with one exception; imported specialty food (Mini-Super Las Olas and Super Sámara are better). There is a supermarket on the main street, “Super Compro”, and “Maxi Palí” at the entrance of Nicoya, immediately to the right on the road leading to Liberia. There are also several smaller places for fresh produce, fish and meat.
10% tip is normally included, even if it isn't itemized on the check. Ask, if you’re unsure. If you are satisfied, add another 5% - or 10%, max.
One of the best places to dine is the restaurant at Hotel Leyenda which is located just a few miles from Carrillo on the road to Hojancha. It produces an excellent cuisine at reasonable prices. It has a courteous staff and a bit of “class” – white table cloths, etc. An additional great advantage is that, if you don’t have a car, the hotel will pick you up and return you at no extra charge. Call 2656 0381 to arrange for a pickup.
Another clear favorite is El Colibrí – behind Hotel Esperanza (F2-12) – a friendly Argentine steak house with delicious charcoal-grilled meat and chicken. There is no fish on the menu, but ask for it, it might be available. And the flan is good ….
The pizzeria down our street, El Tucán (F2-40), makes good pizzas and it is the place with the most local flair that we know of. Don’t be scared off if it looks closed, the restaurant is in the back.
If you want to eat typical “tico” (= Costa Rican) food, go to a “soda”, a basic local restaurant – there is one by the soccer field, to the left beyond the grocery store, and one on the right hand side of Hotel Esperanza (F2-12) – and have a casado. You’ll get fish, chicken, beef or pork with rice and beans and some kind of vegetables and/or salad at a very reasonable cost. And it is good!
For a more varied selection of regional tico food and a more sophisticated setting, try the restaurant at hotel Hacienda del Mar. If you take the first road after the beach to the left, towards Carrillo Club, it is about 500 yards further up that road.
There are many places, new ones are frequently added and we haven't been able to keep up. We do however like to have lunch at El Ancla (between B3-20 and 6) on the beach. The food is good, the setting is super and it's fun to watch the surfers.
We have limited experience with the restaurant scene there, but if we are in Nicoya at lunchtime, we go for the grilled shrimps at the Chinese (called El Nicoyano?) on the main street.
Apart from relaxing on the beach or by the pool there is plenty to do. Here are some suggestions:
Snorkeling ~ nice at Isla Chora and at both ends of the Carrillo & Sámara beaches
Surfing ~ Both Carrillo and especially Sámara are good for learning (one of our renters recommended C&C Surf Shop in Sámara) and ideal for the beginner or the not-so-advanced. The pro can go to any of the open beaches. There are many. The most well known surf beach is Nosara about a one hour drive up the coast. Camaronal is only 5 miles down the coast - when one can forge the river Rio Ora. (Don't take the turn at the first sign towards Islita, go to Estrada and go straight where the asphalted road turns left. After forging the river, turn right after approximately 1/3 mile. Forging Rio Ora can be a challenge or impossible in the rainy season but the alternative around the river takes almost one extra hour to drive.)
Kayak ~ on the river or at sea; on Rio Ora or to Isla Chora
Fishing ~ any kind! Carrillo is mostly known for deep sea fishing
Hiking ~ in the mango plantations and up the hill that can be seen from our terraces. It takes about 30 minutes to the top. It is a really great hike with this super reward at the top:
Access from our street by turning right before getting to the main street or, if these roads are blocked (they are private), go to the main street and turn right, turn right again by the school and then, after 2-300 meters, turn right onto the plantation. Come down following the coast along the open ocean (SE) and explore off the path towards the edge.
Zoo ~ visit la Selva, a private wildlife refuge in Carrillo
Turtles ~ visit the sea turtles nesting areas, see the "arribadas" when they come in to lay their eggs
Swim in tidal pool ~ at Playa el Roble, south after Carrillo bay. Turn right at the Carrillo school and continue about 3/4 mile (1.2 km)
Dolphin & whale watching ~ by boat
Do yoga, get massage, exercise ~ a few alternatives:
- Fiorenzo in Carrillo gives massage and he can even bring his table to the house. He can be reached at 2656 0385.
- There is a massage school in Sámara, located behind the soccer field. During parts of the semester they accept clients at low cost.
- There are several independent massage therapists in Sámara. Some of them are on the beach.
- The more established Sámara Natural Center provides a gym, massage, a spa and yoga classes.
- Contact Kelly for a private yoga class or join her public classes, available to all, in Carrillo (M-Th 4:15pm) or in Sámara.
Horseback riding ~ along the beaches and up the hills, maybe to the Carrillo waterfall
Ultra Light Flying ~ at hotel Flying Crocodile in Buena Vista, along the coast shortly after Sámara
Golf ~ 9 holes at hotel Punta Islita, 9 miles down the coast (depends on Rio Ora, see Surfing)
Caves ~ visit the limestone caverns at the Barra Honda National Park between Nicoya and the Tempisque River Amistad bridge
Learn Spanish ~ if you have a full week you might want to sign up for classes at the excellent Sámara Language School (B3-92)
Once in Carrillo; go to Carrillo Tours for more information and to make reservations. They are located at the bottom of the hill towards the beach.
In Sámara the internet cafés and the Sámara-Carrillo Info Center provide tourist information services.
Ever heard about the “Happy Planet Index”? The index published on July 4, 2009, declares Costa Rica the happiest country on the planet. It is based on data for 143 countries around the world, representing 99% of the world's population. On January 7, 2010, Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on "The Happiest People".
On environment and energy; an op-ed by Thomas Friedman, New York Times, April 12, 2009 .
On Latin America’s militaries; an op-ed by Oscar Arias, Washington Post, July 7, 2009.
The writer is a former two term president of Costa Rica – a country without an army. During his first term, in the eighties, he received the 1987 Noble Peace Price for mediating peace among Central American countries. Some of these negotiations took place in Carrillo, 200 yards from our home.