La Cruz—gateway to Nicaragua  (19 kilometers north)—is dramatically situated atop an escarpment east of Bahía de Salinas. A good time to visit is May for its lively Fiesta Cívica.
A mirador (lookout) 100 meters west of the town plaza offers a spectacular view over Bahía Salinas . At last visit, the Costa Rican tourist board was building a visitors center in stunning modernist style, with a restaurant, amphitheater, and walls of glass.
There’s a police checkpoint on Highway 1 at the junction for Cuajiniquil. Three kilometers south of La Cruz, Highway 4 runs east from the Pan-American Highway to Upala, in the northern lowlands. At Santa Cecilia, 27 kilometers east of Highway 1, a dirt road leads north seven kilometers to the hamlet of La Virgen, where you have stupendous vistas down over Lake Nicaragua.
Hotel Bella Vista (tel. 506/2679-8060, $10 dorms, $13 pp rooms), one block west of the plaza in La Cruz, is run by a savvy Dutchman and has 36 simply furnished rooms plus backpackers’ dorms in a two-story wood-paneled structure that opens to an attractive sundeck and pool. Some have king-size beds; others have a double and bunk. The Bella Vista’s open-air bar and restaurant (6 A.M.–10 P.M. daily) are the happening scene.
More upscale and intimate, the modern Hotel La Mirada (tel. 506/2679-9084, www.hotellamirada.com , $25–50 s, $30–60 d) is a lovely family-run option in colonial-Spanish vogue. It has 12 rooms in three types, plus secure parking.
My favorite hostelry is Amalia Inn (tel./fax 506/2679-9618, $25 pp), 100 meters south of the plaza. This charming place is operated by a friendly Tica, Amalia Bounds, and boasts a fabulous cliff-top perch with views over Bahía Salinas and north along the Nicaraguan coast. Its eight rooms are large and cool, with tile floors, leather sofas, and striking paintings by Amalia’s late husband, Lester. All have private bathrooms. A pool is handy for cooling off, though the inn’s setting is breezy enough. Amalia will make breakfast, and you can prepare picnics in the kitchen.
North of town, try the German-run Cañas Castilla Finca Cabañas (tel. 506/8381-4030, www.canas-castilla.com , $30 s or $45 d low season, $35 s or $50 d high season), which has six delightful cabins on a 68-hectare farm teeming with wildlife. You can camp ($5 pp) anywhere on the property. It offers horseback rides ($25) and hiking trails ($5), plus excursions further afield.
Local buses depart Liberia for Peñas Blancas via La Cruz every 45 minutes, 5:30 A.M.–6:30 P.M. daily.
You can buy bus tickets from the pulpería (tel. 506/2679-9108) next to the bus station.
For a taxi, call Taxi La Cruz (tel. 506/2679-9112).