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10 Interesting Things About A “Winter” Vacation in Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica

Visiting Guanacaste Province for the First Time

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At the end of December, I had the opportunity to travel to Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica with Andy and his family. I knew I would have work to do while I was there, and I had to leave a day after getting off another cross-country flight. And yet, it was too much of a good thing to pass up. So, I packed my bags, and we headed off – determined to experience that “Pura Vida” that everyone was talking about.

It turns out that I might not be great at “Pura Vida,” or, at least, it took some time for me to find my own version. On my most relaxed days, I tend to be scheduled. I want to know what is next. It took me a couple of days to let some of that go and just be. Did I still work? Yes. Every morning Andy and I would go to the patio of our favorite beach restaurant/bar and write. Fantastic views, warm breezes and a sense of accomplishment – that’s my “Pura Vida.”

Would I go back? Absolutely! The country is beautiful; the food is fantastic, and the people are delightfully welcoming. And I can’t wait to share with you my favorite places from this trip – the restaurants, a wonderful locals beach and the creatures we encountered.

What were the most interesting things about spending time in Playa Ocotal in the winter?


Dry Season
December is the start of their dry season – though it did rain a couple of days during our stay (briefly), much to the surprise of the locals. It was very warm! I went from 17 degrees and snow to Costa Rica where it was 86 degrees F with 80% (or higher) humidity. And it was glorious, particularly at night, or during our early morning work sessions, when the warm breezes swept across the beach.

Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica

Early morning coffee with Andy on Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica


Costa Rica is a Catholic country, and Christmas is a very different experience there than here in the States. For instance, I don’t think I saw one “xxx shopping days before Christmas” kind of sign. It’s not retail-oriented in Playa Ocotal. Much was closed on Christmas Eve – it’s the time for families. But nearly everything was open on Christmas. And if you are looking for mass on Sunday, you’ll be welcomed into their fold. It’s a time of celebration, but like most of life there, it is lower key and more family-oriented/personal. I understand that there are bigger public celebrations in San Jose.


Playa Ocotal is close to Playa del Coco, but quieter and without a main strip – unless you consider Father Rooster’s downtown. If you want to go exploring, you should consider renting a car when you fly into Liberia. I would recommend bike riding, but given the way the driving and roads are there, that might be more of an adventure than you were anticipating. We did a lot of walking to explore. 

Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica, Beach

Morning beach walking in Costa Rica


Volcanic Rock
Playa Ocotal is surrounded by volcanic rock. It has a black sand beach that mixes with lighter sands at certain points, but to get from Bay to Bay, you’ll have to scramble over the lava rock and through some channels. It’s doable but take care.

Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica, lava rocks

Andy standing on the lava rocks in Playa Ocotal.


Unusual Terrain
I highly recommend investing in (or bringing) water/land shoes. I had a pair of Teva Terra-Float Livia shoes, and they worked really well. They protected me against sea urchins, made it easy to walk across the black sand and still looked nice enough to walk through town. With the exception of Christmas Eve dinner, I wore them everywhere.

Teva, Costa Rica, Beaches

My Teva shoes rocked the beaches of Costa Rica.


Note: You can get a similar pair here through my Amazon affiliate link:
Teva Women’s Terra-Float Nova Sandal, Fondant Pink, 7 M US



Fantastic Food
Everything tastes so fresh here! Of course, if you are fish eater that is often because they have literally caught the fish that morning. I don’t think any of us had a bad meal the entire time we were there. I even discovered that I have a great love for fried plantains. Who knew? In Playa Ocotal, food in the main restaurants and even in the grocery store is more expensive than in San Jose, but still pretty reasonable. The local sodas are going to be cheaper than the bigger restaurants if you are focusing on budget. The one exception to the cost is coffee. Coffee is very inexpensive there, and I know Andy wishes we had bought bags of it before returning.

No make-up, wet hair and wine -- my story in Costa Rica.

No make-up, wet hair and wine — my story in Costa Rica.


No problem!
Every person we interacted with the entire time we were in Costa Rica was pleasant. This was true of immigration officials, waiters, bus drivers, dive teams and the guy who rented kayaks on the beach (even though we ended up needing to be rescued – a story for another day). Even the man who was raking and sweeping at the beach bar we worked at in the morning was a delight every day. They say Costa Rica is one of the happiest countries in the world – I definitely saw that. I wish I could have bottled that feeling and brought it home with us.

Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica

A view from our beach office in Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica


The Howlers
I had never encountered a Howler Monkey before this trip. At first, I thought it was a very unusual owl. And then I heard the growl. It’s not really menacing, so much as something you can’t ignore (which I suppose is the point since they are trying to communicate with other monkeys). They populated the trees near where we stayed and down by the beach, although we didn’t actually see the Howlers until mid-way through the trip. We heard them every morning, and now I miss it (in an odd way). If you are curious about how they sound:

Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica, Howler Monkeys

Howler monkeys in the trees by Father Rooster’s restaurant and bar on Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica


Casual is the Word
I felt pretty proud of myself when I got everything I needed for Costa Rica into my squish-able carry-on bag. But by the end of the trip, I had to admit to myself that even that included too much stuff. Because it was my first time, I brought additional dresses, a light sweater (because even in summer, California night’s can be cool), a wide variety of skirts and light shirts. I could have brought half that stuff. The only time I dressed up when I was there was for Christmas Eve dinner, and that is because we wanted to be dressy, not because it was required. If you are going, look at what you have packed and ditch half of it. Trust me, you’ll be in a bathing suit and whatever you want as a cover-up 90% of the time.

Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica

Andy reading on the beach in Costa Rica


The Peace
I’ll never forget the feeling I had the first late afternoon in Costa Rica. After dropping our bags in the room, we walked down to the beach bar to meet up with everyone and watched the sun dip below the hills. There were loads of people milling about on the beach, but the sand dampened the sound of nearly everything except for the waves. Warm breezes had taken hold of my hair, and as I tried to stretch the plane kinks out of my back, I took a deep breath and held it. There is a peace here that goes beyond the quiet. Maybe it was just something I was seeking, but it felt like other people were experiencing it too. Much like the first time I heard the silence of the desert, Playa Ocotal captured a restless part of me and held it. It’s a feeling I would very much like to conjure up throughout the year when life gets challenging and deadlines loom.

Playa Ocotal, Cost Rica

Our first night on Playa Ocotal, Cost Rica


Are you heading off to Costa Rica soon? Want a great primer on language and what to expect? Try Happy Coconuts. They were super helpful when I was prepping for the trip!







22 Comments on 10 Interesting Things About A “Winter” Vacation in Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica

  1. Wow this all sounds very cool! I’m still trying to imagine a christmas without the pressure to shop shop shop, but to be honest it sounds like a nice change! Thanks for sharing.

  2. I would love to visit Costa Rica, it sounds like winter is the best time to visit! Especially since it’s colder here, no better time for a tropical getaway. I want to experience those howler monkeys too! Must be interesting to get used to that sound!

    • PatriciaSteffy // January 10, 2017 at 8:19 pm // Reply

      It does take a while to get used to the howlers, but it became a kind of a game to find them. Andy got very good at talking back to them. 🙂

  3. I really want to go to Costa Rica. I just need a few more direct flights from the UK. BA now flies but unfortunately only to San Jose and the only other direct flight goes to the opposite side of the country from where I want to visit. I will definitely get there one day even if I have to stop off en route.

    • PatriciaSteffy // January 10, 2017 at 10:35 pm // Reply

      I really do want to go back so that I can see San Jose, as well as other part of Guanacaste Province. Heck, I’d go back just to enjoy the beach we’ve already seen. 😉

  4. What a change from freezing temperatures to the tropics 🙂 I want to do that this year for Christmas. I thought it was interesting that businesses were closed for Christmas Eve, but open on Christmas Day.

    • PatriciaSteffy // January 11, 2017 at 12:04 am // Reply

      Even the tourist-friendly restaurant/bar near our hotel was closed all day on Christmas Eve, but back in business Christmas Day. My impression was that Christmas Eve was designated for family celebrations, so even the places that were open, closed early so that the employees could get in family time.

  5. I loved the food in Costa Rica also! What a change of pace to celebrate Christmas there!

    • PatriciaSteffy // January 11, 2017 at 3:37 am // Reply

      I’m actually craving fried plantains right now! And it was such a big transition to go from snow and holiday cheer to beaches.

  6. It’s crazy that the dry season has 80% humidity! I would’ve expected a lot less! The peace sounds like the best part though. I can’t wait to make it to Costa Rica, but I think winter is going to be the time to go! Cheers!

    • PatriciaSteffy // January 11, 2017 at 3:38 am // Reply

      It really does seem like a great time to go. Dry season seems to last from December through March, and it’s a really popular time for people to head down there. November is probably cheaper — but it will rain nearly every day.

  7. I totally understand not knowing how to relax on a beach vacation. I wouldn’t know what to do! It looks beautiful, though.

    • PatriciaSteffy // January 11, 2017 at 3:39 am // Reply

      It definitely took me a while to get used to just relaxing — so we mixed it up with work in the morning and then exploring once the big heat of the day had passed.

  8. From the middle of big walls of snow in Romania, this awesome post from Costa Rica fills my heart with warm, hope, and dreams of a summer holiday. It seems that you had a great experience and I can’t wait to go To Costa Rica too – that photo of you just relaxing on the beach in the perfect spiritual moment.

  9. I quite enjoy the seclusion summer locales enjoy in the winter season. Sometimes, the best times to visit are the off seasons. Like when I visited UK in winters, what others find depressing, was quite charming for me.

    • PatriciaSteffy // January 11, 2017 at 1:52 pm // Reply

      Traveling off-season really does have so many perks –and I have friends who love going to London of Christmas! For Costa Rica, I think they said that March was one of their busiest months, and November was the slowest (because of the daily rain). After seeing it, I would go all year long. 🙂

  10. This would be an amazing place to spend the otherwise cold holidays! Pure paradise!

  11. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look quite as happy and relaxed as you do here. Wet hair and wine (and apparently exotic vacations) suit you.

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