Though everyone passes through it, hardly anyone falls in love with San José, Costa Rica’s underrated capital. Often dismissed as an ugly urban sprawl, the city enjoys a dramatic setting amid jagged mountain peaks, plus some excellent cafés and restaurants, leafy parks, a lively university district and a good arts scene. The surrounding Valle Central, the country’s agricultural heartland and coffee-growing region, is home to several of its finest volcanoes, including the steaming crater of Volcán Poás and the largely dormant Volcán Irazú, a strange lunar landscape high above the regional capital of Cartago.
While nowhere in the country is further than nine hours’ drive from San José, the far north and the far south are less visited than other regions. The broad alluvial plains of the Zona Norte feature active Volcán Arenal, which spouts and spews within sight of the friendly tourist hangout of La Fortuna, and the wildlife-rich jungles of the Sarapiquí region, its dense rainforest harbouring monkeys, poison-dart frogs and countless species of bird, including the endangered great green macaw. Up by the border with Nicaragua, the seasonal wetlands of the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro provide a haven for water birds, along with gangs of basking caiman.
Off-the-beaten-path travellers and serious hikers will be happiest in the rugged Zona Sur, home to Cerro Chirripó, the highest point in the country, and, further south on the outstretched feeler of the Osa Peninsula, Parque Nacional Corcovado, which protects the last significant area of tropical wet forest on the Pacific coast of the isthmus; Corcovado is probably the best destination in the country for walkers – and also one of the few places where you have a fighting chance of seeing some of the more exotic wildlife for which Costa Rica is famed.
In the northwest, the cattle-ranching province of Guanacaste is often called “the home of Costa Rican folklore”, and sabanero culture dominates here, with exuberant ragtag rodeos and large cattle haciendas occupying the hot, baked landscape that surrounds the attractive regional capital of Liberia. The province’s beaches are some of the best – and, in parts, most developed – in the country, with Sámara and Nosara, on the Nicoya Peninsula, providing picture-postcard scenery without the crowds.
Limón Province, on the Caribbean coast, is the polar opposite to traditional ladino Guanacaste. It’s home to the descendants of the Afro-Caribbeans who came to Costa Rica at the end of the nineteenth century to work on the San José–Limón railroad – their language (Creole English), Protestantism and the West Indian traditions remain relatively intact to this day. The reason most visitors venture here, however, is for Parque Nacional Tortuguero, and the three species of marine turtles that lay their eggs on its beaches each year.
Close to the Pacific coast, Monteverde has become the country’s number-one tourist attraction, pulling in the visitors who flock here to walk through some of the most famous cloudforest in the Americas. Further down the coast is popular Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, with its sublime ocean setting and tempting beaches, plus the equally pretty but more surf-oriented sands of Montezuma and Santa Teresa/Mal País, on the southern Nicoya Peninsula.