GETTING THERE: We flew American Airlines from Dulles to New York to San Jose, and returned via Miami. United flies nonstop from Dulles for about $413 round trip; connecting service on such carriers as Delta and American starts at around $380 round trip.

GETTING AROUND: A rental car is essential to cruising around Costa Rica. Buses, we were told, are often over-packed and unpredictable. Most major companies rent cars in San Jose. We rented through Payless; the weekly base rate for our intermediate four-door was $180.

WHEN TO GO: Dry (high) season runs late December to mid-April. For pleasant weather that's neither too wet nor too dry, go between April and May, or mid-October to mid-December. Throughout the year, temperatures average about 89 degrees on the coast and 62 degrees inland.

WHERE TO STAY: We holed up in a lovely cabin at La Costa de Papito (outside Puerto Viejo near Playa Cocles, 011-506-750-0080, http://greencoast.com/papito.htm). Advertised as "bungalows on the Caribbean for the noble savage," the no-frills resort is not for the luxury-minded. Proprietor Eddie Ryan, however, has combined beauty and basics to create a pleasant haven. Rates run from $31 to $56, depending on season and bungalow size.

The less adventuresome might like Villas del Caribe, (506-233-2200, www.villasdelcaribe.com), which is also south of Puerto Viejo. It has seaside rooms, a breezy cafe and a ping-pong table near the front desk. Double-occupancy rooms, with breakfast included, cost $105 or less, depending on the season.

WHERE TO EAT: There is good food everywhere, and it's pretty cheap. One night we waited forever for our dinner at Selvin's, south of Puerto Viejo.The wait was well worth the while. We enjoyed fish and lobster and, for dessert, small chocolate rolls with bits of ginger that we bought from a jar at the register. Entrees were about $10 apiece.

Another night we drove to the south end of the coastal road, to the town of Manzanillo. The electricity was out, as it often is. But Restaurant Maxi was prepared. Folks dined by candlelight. As we headed for our table, the electricity returned and there was a cheer. Our Caribbean chicken, red snapper and lobster were exquisite. Entrees were about $10.

SNORKELING: The best mask-and-fin action in the area was at Punta Uva, among the coral reefs. To get there, go south from Puerto Viejo past La Costa da Papito, cross three bridges and take the second left. On one day the water was murky from recent -- and frequent -- rains; another day it was choppy. But the beach is lovely and a few pretty fish swam by.

INFORMATION: Costa Rica Tourism and Travel Bureau, 800-343-6332, www.visitcostarica.com.

-- Linton Weeks