The first step to planning a trip to Costa Rica, or anywhere else for that matter, is deciding where to arrive. Assuming you’ll be flying into Costa Rica, you have two main international airports to choose from – Liberia Airport (LIR) or San Jose (SJO).
Which Costa Rica airport is best, Liberia or San Jose?
Whether you want to arrive into Liberia or San Jose will totally depend on where you’re looking to head off on your surf adventure once you land.
When I first started going on surf trips to Costa Rica, the Liberia Airport wasn’t even an option. This made the trip up to the popular Guanacaste region (think Tamarindo, Nosara, Santa Teresa) a 4-6 hour drive away.
With the opening and expansion of the airport in Liberia, it now only takes about an hour and a half to Tamarindo and about two and a half hours to Nosara.
However, if you are heading west to Jaco, Quepos, or Manuel Antonio, or even all the way to Pavones (Golfito), San Jose is going to be a better option.
San Jose is would also offer more options for hoping onto short flights within Costa Rica.
When to choose Liberia Airport
Heading to the Guanacaste Penninsula or Arenal? Then Liberia airport is for you.
For a quick surf trip, it doesn’t get much easier than Tamarindo. You are literally off the plane and into the surf within a couple of hours.
That being said, Liberia is still the best choice for hitting any of the surf spots in the region including Playa Negra, Avellanas, Nosara (Playa Guiones), Samara, Santa Teresa, or Mal Pais.
Keep in mind that Liberia isn’t much of a town, so you’ll find most people just arriving at the Hilton Garden Inn the night before early flights or just heading straight to the airport if there’s time.
When to choose San Jose Airport
You’re going to want to choose San Jose, first of all, if you want to see San Jose!
Even with our focus on surf travel, it’s always cool to see the cities and towns that make up the countries we’re visiting. San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica and its largest city. It’s worth taking some time to stroll a new city and take in the people and culture.
But getting back to the point, San Jose is going to be best for those beaches to the west, including the popular Manuel Antonio national park, Quepos, Pavones.
It’s also going to be better for heading over to the Caribbean side of the country. Limon is about four hours away and Tortuguero is about the same.
In one and out the other
Keep in mind that if you’re doing more travel within the country it may make sense to schedule to go in one airport and out the other.
Perhaps you’re going to start up in Tamarindo and make your way down to Manuel Antonio and Pavones (wow, dream trip!). Well then it may make more sense to fly into Liberia and out San Jose.
However you make it happen, it’s pretty convenient for a country this size to have two good international airports. Many people assume that there is just one way in and one way out. Liberia still isn’t on many people’s radar.
With these great options it’s hard to go wrong, but you can make things a little easier on yourself with some planning up front!
Small Airports in Costa Rica
While driving around Costa Rica is one of my favorite things to do, there are definitely times where hopping on a quick flight will save tons of time.
If you’re heading to Pavones, it’s going to be a 6+ hour drive through some pretty twist roads from San Jose. People prone to getting car sick are going to have serious problems here. Or you can just knock it out with a one hour Sansa flight to Golfito or Puerto Jimenez. You’re still going to have a crazy drive or boat ride in, but it’s way less.
Drive times can get longer than estimated. I’ve had flat tires and rental cars break down. Rainy season can wash out roads, and just the bumps can be enough to rattle your teeth.
Not to mention, with people who can be prone to car sickness, the twists and turns (and pothole avoiding) can get brutal. While we always make sure to have plenty of Gin-Gins, sometimes it’s just easier to fly.
Plus, taking a small flight can be a super fun adventure in itself!
Here’s a list of some of the smaller airports around Costa Rica once you’re in the country.
- Puerto Jimenez
- La Fortuna / Arenal
- San Isidro
- Costa Esmeralda
- Coto 47
- Bahia Drake
- Plamar Sur