Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town.
Today, well-traveled expat Kathleen Evans is here to give us the inside scoop on Tamarindo, Costa Rica.
First, tell us about you.
I grew up in the Chicago area, spent most of my adult life in Austin, Texas, and am now a resident of Tamarindo, Costa Rica. I work part-time for a publishing company based in the US, selling advertising for a group of their magazines and websites. I also work independently to help local businesses with marketing campaigns on an as-needed basis. I also co-host a radio show on a local Tamarindo station, Shark-FM 96.9.
Tell us about the food. What local dishes and drinks should people try while in Costa Rica?
Casado, or Comida Tipica, is the most common dish in Costa Rica. It consists of beans, rice with finely diced red bell peppers and onions, fried plantains, a cabbage salad with tomato and carrot, and a choice of meat (chicken, fish, pork, or steak with grilled onions). The meat that comes with a casado is grilled or sautéed, but never fried. Sometimes the casado includes french fries or extra vegetables such as avocados.
Ceviche is a popular boca (tapa/appetizer) consisting of fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices such as lime with finely diced herbs and veggies. In Costa Rica, the best ceviche is made with local tilapia orcorvina (white sea bass) and cilantro, garlic, hot pepper, onion, and celery.
Gallo Pinto is the typical breakfast in Costa Rica. It consists of rice and beans mixed together (not separate like the casado), fried or scrambled eggs, chopped beef, fried plantains, and tortillas. A popular custom in Costa Rica is to pour Salsa Lizano over the gallo pinto. Salsa Lizano is a sweet greenish brown salsa with the faintest hint of spice.
All of these dishes are fairly inexpensive with generous portions at the local sodas (family-run restaurants).
What are your top five favorite bars and restaurants in Tamarindo?
Tamarindo is a melting pot of expats from all over Europe, South America, North America, and Asia, so there is truly a diverse mix of food. My personal favorites include:
Seasons by Schlomy: An international food hot spot in an intimate location around a pool. Scholmy is the most famous chef in Tamarindo.
Panga’s: Featuring a beach location, magical lighting, and music, this is a place with great variety, particularly good seafood, and the best martini in town.
Patagonia: This Argentinan grill specializes in meats/steak. Located in the heart of Tamarindo, it’s small, intimate, lively, and always popular. You’ll need to have reservations or expect to wait at least an hour.
Bamboo Sushi Club: Enjoy sushi in a lush and romantic setting in a courtyard with great service, tropical specialty drinks, pretty water features, fresh sushi daily, and a variety of rice bowls for those who do not like sushi.
Sharky’s Sports Bar: This is the only place to go in town to watch the big game (any game). The owner, Ben, has sports feeds from all over the world, as well as great bar food, if you’re missing home (burgers, wings, etc.). The place is casual, fun, and has a variety of theme nights, including karaoke and ladies night. When there are no major sporting events, the bar transforms into a dance floor.
Note that all restaurants are open-air and casual. Seasons and Pangas are the most expensive of the bunch.
If someone is visiting Tamarindo for the first time, what do you recommend they do and see?
All the touristy things are fun to do. If you have the time, do everything you possibly can! The top activities around here are zip lining, ATV riding through jungle, horseback riding (always use a reputable tour company, never a random guy on the beach with horses….this helps promote better treatment of animals), repelling, estuary boat tours, and surf lessons (a must).
Day tours on a catamaran are also popular. I recommend the Blue Dolphin or Marlin del Ray tour companies. The trip includes snorkeling, kayaking, all-you-can-drink, a late lunch, and sunset views.
There’s no need to book all the activities in advance. There are many tour offices in Tamarindo. Decide based on the weather and how you’re feeling once you arrive. You can do rate comparisons, but all are very similar in pricing.
For more experienced travelers, what are some of your favorite hidden gems?
I love to take visitors to the spa for the day at Los Altos de Eros Boutique Hotel and Spa. I know, you are probably asking why would I go all the way to Costa Rica for a spa when I have dozens in my home country. Well, this place is really unique. The staff is amazingly trained. The spa is all open air with water features, a hot tub, and a view of the Pacific Ocean from the top of a cliff. They feature the only Balinese soaking tub in Central America. And the very affordable price includes a shuttle, three spa treatments (including 1.5 hours of an incredible massage), a gourmet lunch, and wine, wine, wine!
Also, check out La Senda. It is a maze built around two energy sources just five minutes from Tamarindo. It is the largest in the world. It takes a couple hours to go through it.
What neighborhoods do you recommend staying in?
Tamarindo is a small beach community, truly walkable. Stay anywhere in the center for a taste of everything (including 100 restaurants and bars, many right on the beach).
If you prefer a quiet, family-oriented part of town, Playa Langosta is just over a mile to the south and gives you access to town and a quieter beach.
Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should they consider visiting?
There are all kinds of day trips in Guanacaste (Tamarindo’s province). One of my favorites is seeing the active volcano, Rincon de la Vieja. It’s about 1.5 hours by car from Tamarindo past Liberia International Airport. Distinctly Costa Rican day trip activities in that area include zip-lining, swimming under waterfalls, short jungle hikes, thermal mud baths, horseback riding, and (the granddaddy of them all) a several-hour hike around the volcano, which can easily be done as a day tour through many of the small tour operators in town or as an overnight excursion at the Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin (a working ranch with hotel rooms, a pool, a restaurant, and a bar).
Another fun nearby spot is the Playa Avellanas. It’s a little surfer beach just 20 minutes south of Tamarindo. You can take a shuttle from downtown (they leave four times per day) or four-wheel it (which is super fun in the mud during rainy season). The real draw here is Lola’s Bar and Grill. It’s right on the beach and you can grab a hammock and a cold Imperial beer and and hang out all day. Lola’s features a massive pig named Lolita. She lives in a well appointed pen, but comes out to the beach daily for a swim. She is always a crowd pleaser.
What nearby walking paths, parks, or natural areas would you recommend?
There is a freshwater estuary on the north end of the beach. You can take a boat (panga) deep into the estuary to see crocodiles, birds, and other wildlife. Then you can walk into the jungle where the howler monkeys hang out (hundreds of them sometimes). It’s fun to hear then howling at you. And the price is $20 (or less if you negotiate).
Also, you can do a sea turtle tour at night and see these gigantic, majestic, and nearly extinct turtles come to the protected beach area to nest where they were hatched. They lay 100 eggs and odds are only one will survive. You can experience this just 20 minutes away in either Playa Grande or Playa Minas.
Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange? What can we do to better fit in with the culture?
The number one thing I suggest is to try to learn a little Spanish. That goes a long way with folks in the service industry who are always expected to speak your language.
Second, pack bag of patience. Commerce happens slowly and sometimes doing simple things here feels like it is painfully complicated. Just roll with it. The more you get annoyed, the worse it will get.
Another thing they find annoying is saying you are from America or you are American. You are from the USA and you are United Statesan. There is a Spanish word for it: estadounidense. They feel they are American also…since we all live in the Americas.
For someone staying a bit longer, what is the best way to meet locals and make friends?
There are many ways to make friends. Hanging out at some of the local bars is a good start. There are several Facebook groups to join for expats, job searches, etc. Also, by volunteering (beach clean-up, helping with kids, church groups) you can meet a great group of locals and expats immediately.
Do you have any tips for saving money while traveling here? Any favorite budget-friendly restaurants, bars, or things to see?
Tamarindo is actually a bit expensive compared to other places in Central America. It is a gemstone on the NW Pacific and since it has been “discovered”, tourists have come for beach vacations and an influx of expats have driven up the price of real estate.
However, that is actually a good reason to visit here. It is cool! And of course, it is still cheaper than North American and European prices. There are a number of hostels and budget hotels (like the Best Western chain). Also, any of the local sodas off the beach will have lower prices.
Where are the best places to get a memorable photograph of Tamarindo/the surrounding area?
Beach photos from Langosta point give a nice sweeping shot of the city and bay. And up in the hills in the neighborhoods you’ll find a lovely view of the Pacific Ocean and city below.
Where can we find Wi-Fi in town?
Most coffee shops and restaurants have free Wi-Fi. If you get a cup of coffee, you can hang out all day an use it.
Cafe Tico, La Bodega, or Nogui’s are a good places for conducting a little business. Plus, you get the bonus of chatting up some of the locals.
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I would add Tamarindo Coworking is handy for digital nomads who want somewhere to work that’s quieter than a coffee shop :)
Thanks so much for this great article! I am headed to Tamarindo in a few weeks, and this was super helpful. Excited to visit Costa Rica!
Thanks so much, love this! Especially the “nearby walking paths, parks, natural areas you would recommend.” Do you know the company of the sea turtle tour at night? I want to be able to book ahead of time since we are staying in Tamarindo and don’t have a car.
Thanks for your amazing help!