Volcanoes and tropical rainforests are all well and good, but to get a taste of Costa Rican culture at its core, head into the countryside. That is, after all, where fiestas and horse parades came to fame. It's where the only "traffic" might come from a feisty cow that's strayed from its cattle, with a sabanero (cowboy) hot at its heels -- where horseback actually is a popular mode of transportation, and where any local can howl exactly like the ubiquitous monkey clans that rove the trees.
If this sounds like a far-reaching haven, don't worry. Along the northern Pacific Coast, Guanacaste is easily accessible via Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, serviced by 12 airlines from North America. (JetBlue, for one, flies direct from New York JFK from less than $400 roundtrip.) For an affordably pampering home base, check into JW Marriott Guanacaste. With its spacious rooms and tropical hacienda look -- not to mention palatable off-season rates right now -- it's a fine extension of the laid-back, grounded spirit of the region.Cradled in a massive 4,500-acre private plantation called Hacienda Pinilla, the property gives off a chic but easy vibe. Pops of color here and there add a little whimsy to the classic wood and stone furnishings, and hammocks along the open-air plazas encourage guests to take it easy. The 289 rooms themselves, dressed in neutral greens and browns, each boast a luxurious tub and separate shower. If you're not shy, opening the partion between the bathroom and the bedroom means enjoying lush views beyond the full-length windows as you soak.
Speaking of the rooms, they start from just $209 in August -- nearly 40 percent off high-season rates -- right before the heaviest rains come in September and October. Even better? Fewer guests in low season means higher chances of scoring a room with a plunge pool at no extra cost. They're not guaranteed, since they're complimentary, but it certainly doesn't hurt to ask.
Not that you need your own pool, when the resort's sprawling one is big enough to encompass three separate hot tubs and snuggles right up to the beach. When you tire of waves and laps, consider using the money you've saved on room rates toward the spa, with a delightfully leafy relaxation room, or one of the property's four restaurants, including a poolside grill serving insane ceviches.
Within the rest of the Hacienda Pinilla complex, JW Marriott guests have access to guided horseback rides, a par 72 golf course, tennis courts, and yet another beachside pool club. The concierge can also help arrange nearby ziplining, boat tours, and other day trips.
To get into town, it's approximately a 20 minute's drive, but there's a shuttle from the hotel for visitors without their own wheels. While Tamarindo is decidedly tourist-y, it's still very affordable, very safe, and overwhelmingly convenient rather than kitschy -- think: friendly English-speakers, credit card machines, and U.S. dollar prices. La Palapa, where the shuttle stops, has a beautiful beachfront restaurant where bluejays and squirrels play. Here, pair some fresh seafood with a local Imperial beer or a shot of rum-like guaro and coconut cream. For souvenirs, browse the shops for traditional coffee drips with cotton "socks," woven hats, and local coffee, chocolate, and liquor.