First off, one must realize that upon landing at the main airport in San Jose (Juan Santamaria), it is ideal to book a shuttle beforehand or make sure that one can book an arrival that will arrive in conjunction with a bus departure, as wherever you choose to go in Costa Rica, whether it be Tamarindo, Puntarenas, or Limon will be at least 2 hours away. Most of the hotels do provide shuttle service, as Costa Rica is flowing with tourism and people to accomodate them. Just a suggestion, and also a disclaimer: Costa Rica does not have a very sophisticated infrastructure, and it is not a place built for cars, but for people. Which, if you have spent countless time in a metropolitan city as I have, you will grow to appreciate over time. In our case, we spent the majority of our time in the Monteverde/Santa Elena area. We had stayed with a nice family of Ticos in their Rancho Makena hotel. The husband, Carlos, was a friendly purebred Costa Rican, and he is often accompanied by his wife, Rosanna, who is originally from Uruguay and was responsible for most of the booking and arranging of amenities. We had the total experience of the rainforest from our comfortable suite, being able to get a great view of the terrain and the ranch from our quarters. Breakfast is complimentary and made from their own land (although you will be hungry if you don't like eggs, rice, and beans), and for about 4,000 colones, Carlos will be more than willing to drive you to the center of the city area, about 15 minutes away from the ranch.
Just to review: 500 colones=1 U.S. dollar.
The center, as one would imagine, is very tourist friendly, and laden with tourist centers and gift shops (although I would recommend the one with the supermarket inside, not too kitschy, and not too pricey, either). Some of the more recommendable areas of the city center include the Selvatura Park tourist offices, where you can book tours for the ziplining tour (18 courses, last one is 1 km!), the butterfly and hummingbird gardens, and also the bridge tours of Selvatura Park, which will give you a great lay of the land, and also a great view. Best to book these in advance, though, as spots can fill up quickly. Another notable experience in the city center came to us in the form of Musashi, a Japanese restaurant tucked away in the city center which gave me the best sushi experience that I have ever had. The decor and presentation was unlike anything I have ever seen as far as Japanese restaurant ambience goes, and the main chef, Jesus, knows what he's doing; he's hospitable, creative, and works to satisfy the customer. Really interesting guy, too; he is a brazilian/venezuelan who honed his craft in Brazil, and can concoct things like the Pura Vida roll (smoked salmon, cream cheese, fried plantain, and avocado), and real green tea ice cream (not the sugar and milk that we are accustomed to). Lunch at Musashi will set you back a few colones (or dollars, most places here will accept U.S. dollars as well). However, it's certainly worth it, as good food can be a commodity in Costa Rica, as you may not enjoy the culinary delicacies of Costa Rica, which can be a bit limited in variety (the national dish here is Gallo Pinto, red beans and rice).
The other notable find that I was able to scope out here was Stella's Bakery (a little further down the road, right next to the Casemcoop art gallery, which we were a little disappointed by). Nothing very fancy about it, just a nice little cafe where you can dine on a quiche, a sandwich, or a cream of potato soup, all of which are exemplary. I myself had a sandwich with toasted wheat bread with basil, tomato, and fried cheese. Simple, but tasty. Gives me an idea for recipes back home. This restaurant also includes a bakery. I suggest the peanut butter cookies, the brownies, or the cheesecake. The lemon bars will disappoint you, though. What thrills me about the area, apart from the endless scenery and the easy access to a taxi, is the hospitality of the people. Very helpful, polite, and friendly. Nothing is ever too far out of reach, and people are glad to inform you of the climate (often windy and rainy, but the sun comes out a few hours of the day), directions (the beach is a 90 minute ride away from Santa Elena), and will take an opportunity to chat you up about football. Alajuelense is their preferred team; their color scheme reminds me of AC Milan. They had just won the league title when I was there, and were happy to take pride in their fellow Ticos playing in the main leagues in England and Spain.
-Pack long pants, long shirts, and a good outdoors jacket. Costa Rica has a damp, windy climate, so best to be well prepared ahead of time.
-Try to book as much in advance as you can. Remember that Costa Rica is a highly Catholic nation, so many attractions could be closed on Sundays (such as the cheese tour).
-Learn Spanish. I'd say that about 5% of the population can speak English to a degree, and it's unlikely that you'd find a whole lot of that 5% outside of tourist offices and attractions. When I was there, the only people I spoke English to were in my family. Best advised to learn Spanish to at least a conversational level before traveling, or, at the very least, travel with someone who does speak the language.
-Have fun! Life is to be lived, correct? This is a festive vacation spot, and it is filled with different parts to explore, as well as wildlife to comingle with. Take full advantage of your time spent here.
-Get into a unmarked taxi (the taxis here should always be red or burgundy). The unmarked ones can gouge you, or even worse.
-Be careless with your belongings. Especially in San Jose, tourists are targets for pickpockets. Best not to carry a wad of cash with you. Take advantage of a safe (caja fuerte) if you have access to it.
-Be late for bus departures. There is one main busline that sells tickets for 2,750 colones ($5.50) that runs through all major hubs in Costa Rica. The taxi drivers will know where the stops are. It only leaves twice every day, though, so be sure to plan accordingly.
-Wear uncomfortable shoes. A good pair of cross trainers is highly recommended, as Costa Rica is not built on a metropolis. Terrain and hills aplenty await.
Thanks for reading! I leave you now with a few moments of Zen.