Hemmed in between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans near the narrowest point of the Central American isthmus, is the tiny republic of Costa Rica. This democratic and prosperous nation is also one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, an ecological treasure-trove whose wide range of habitats - ranging from rainforests and beaches to volcanoes and mangrove swamps - support a fascinating variety of wildlife, much of it now protected by an enlightened national conservation system widely regarded as a model of its kind. It is no wonder why roughly two million people travel to Costa Rica annually.
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Places to visit in Costa Rica
Costa Rica, one of the world's greenest countries, is somewhat lacking in city life. San Jose, the country's capital is only around 100 years old, so the metropolitan vibes you find in most capitals are almost non-existent here. As with all cities, however, San Jose is the hub for all things cultural such as museums, art galleries and theatres. The nightlife is particularly good in San Jose, with many spring-breakers choosing it as one of their top destinations from the US.
It is Costa Rica's outstanding natural beauty that has made it one of the world's prime eco-tourism destinations, with visitors flocking here to hike trails through ancient rainforest, climb active volcanoes, or explore the Americas' last vestiges of high-altitude cloud forest, home to the jaguar, tapir and resplendent quetzal.
Green jungles, sandy coasts and stunning National Parks
Costa Rica, being one of the most bio-diverse landscapes on the planet, takes its respect for nature seriously. A large proportion of the country is deemed as protected national parks, perfect for those who love immersing themselves in nature. Refugio Nacional Gandoca near Manzanillo is a spectacular park made up of a gorgeous mixture of dense-rainforest and beautiful sandy coasts.
Costa Rica is not just known for its diverse rainforests and beaches, but also it's 60 volcanoes, six of which are still active. Arenal Volcano is located in the north, it's surrounding fertile soils making way for plantations that produce some of the best coffees in the world.
Best time to travel to Costa Rica
You would be forgiven for thinking that Costa Rica has humid warm temperatures all year round due to its close proximity to the equator, however, due to the vastly different altitudes and the local micro-climates, judging the best time to go can be quite complex. But have no worries, as we have you covered with our Costa Rican weather guide that does the hard work for you.
Itinerary for when you travel to Costa Rica
If you are looking for a holiday with a pleasant mixture of fun-packed activities and chilled beach time, then Costa Rica is the place for you. Hikes, beaches, culture, and wildlife await you!
Days 1 - 2: San Jose
San Jose is a perfect starting point as the Juan Santamaria International Airport is close by. Begin by exploring the cities many charms, Central Avenue comes to life at 4 -5 pm when the locals finish work and take to the streets to eat, drink and sell their handmade goods. Take a walk and mingle into local life and culture. The Central Market is another good spot to see authentic life in San Jose, browse the food stalls, try traditional foods and enjoy the atmosphere.
Once you've experienced local life, fuel up on some culture by visiting the National Museum, an important building in Costa Rican history, as this is where President Jose Figueres Ferrer abolished the army in 1948 - the country was so peaceful there was no need for a military, and this still stands today.
Days 2 -4: Corcovado National Park and Osa Peninsula
Make your way to Corcovado National Park and check out the Osa Peninsula in the south-west of the country. The park is only accessible by boat or foot and has restrictions on how many visitors can enter, making it quite the adventure. Many of the eco-lodges offer packages that provide you with a knowledgable guide and includes meals. Hikes here are phenomenal, with many wildlife sightings and even night-hikes to catch a sighting of the nocturnal species.
Days 4 - 7: Manzanillo
Manzanillo beach is next on the checklist. This sleepy beach town consists of tropical rainforests, white soft sands and turquoise waters. The coral reefs are quite impressive here so snorkelling and diving are recommended along with exploring the waters by kayaking. If all else fails, relaxing on the beach whilst sipping cervezas is a great way to enjoy the scenic views.
Days 7 - 10: Nicoya Peninsula and Montezuma
For your remaining days in Costa Rica, head to the Nicoya Peninsula to hike through the rainforest on hiking trails that lead you to secluded serene beaches. Not far from Nicoya is Montezuma, where the canopies reach a whopping 10 metres high - perfect for zip lining through the jungle.
Culture in Costa Rica
Culture in Costa Rica is made up of a vibrant and colourful blend of indigenous heritage, Spanish influence and contributions from Jamaican immigrants. The country is laid-back and peaceful as a result - something you will notice when you travel to Costa Rica is how genuinely happy and friendly the people are.
Food and drink in Costa Rica
As with many Central American countries, rice and beans seem to be the main ingredient in Costa Rican cuisine. The most popular dish is Gallo Pinto, typically served at breakfast and made up of rice, black beans, scrambled egg, fried plantain and sour cream. Tamales are another classic, consisting of filled dough that is steamed in either a corn husk or banana leaf. The fillings can be anything from cheese and meats to fruits making it a go-to that suits every meal.
Drink-wise, refrescos are popular for their refreshing relief during the heat - a typical fruit smoothie made with either milk or water. Guaro is a sugar cane liquor that is best accompanied in cocktails and the national cerveza is Imperial.
- The Republic of Costa Rica lies on the Central American isthmus between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, consisting of a mountainous backbone – rising to 3819m at the summit of Cerro Chirripó, its highest point – flanked by low-lying coastal strips. Though set in one of the most geologically active regions on Earth, Costa Rica has suffered less from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions than its northern neighbours – the worst incident in modern times was the earthquake that struck near Cartago in April 1910, killing 1750 people.
- The country’s population is largely of Spanish extraction, though there’s a substantial community of English-speaking Costa Ricans of African origin around the Caribbean coast, along with 65,000 or so indigenous peoples. Costa Rica is a young country: out of its population, more than a quarter are aged under 15.
- Costa Rica’s main exports are coffee and bananas, though in recent years income from these products has been overtaken by that from tourism. The country’s recent prosperity has also been partly funded by massive borrowing – per capita, Costa Rica’s levels of debt are among the highest in the world. Despite widespread poverty, the free and compulsory primary education system means that the country boasts a literacy rate of 95%, the best in Central America.
Costa Rica has two international airports. Juan Santamaría (SJO), just outside San José, receives the majority of flights, while Daniel Oduber (LIR), near the northern city of Liberia, handles some flights from the US and Canada, plus the odd seasonal flight from the UK. Although there are a few direct flights from Europe, the vast majority of routes pass through the US, meaning that passengers have to comply with US entry requirements, even if merely transiting the country.
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- From the US and Canada
- From the UK and Ireland
- From Australia, New Zealand and South Africa
- Overland to Costa Rica
Airfares always depend on the season, with the highest being around July, August and December to mid-January; you’ll get the best prices during the wet summer (May–Nov). Note, too, that although prices are steepest during the Christmas period (mid-Dec until the first week in Jan) when flying from the US, in Europe this can be the cheapest time to travel. Also, flying at weekends is usually more expensive; price ranges quoted below assume midweek travel.
Note that if you leave Costa Rica by air, you’ll need to pay a departure tax at the airport (payable in dollars or colones, in cash or by credit card), which is not included in the price of your air ticket.
From the US and Canada
Daily direct flights depart for San José from numerous cities in the US, including Miami (3hr), Dallas, Houston and Denver (3–4hr), New York (5hr) and Los Angeles (6hr). American Airlines usually offers the cheapest fares from Miami and Dallas, while United's flights from Houston aren't far behind. JetBlue and Spirit Airlines run services from Florida. JetBlue also fly from New York to Liberia, while Avianca offers good-value fares from New York to San José (via San Salvador). From LA, the best deals are generally with Avianca.
Air Canada has a few direct flights between San José and Canada, with fares from Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. The airline also has a number of flights via the US, as do American Airlines and Delta, among others.
From the UK and Ireland
There are now direct flights from the UK to Costa Rica: British Airways flies to San José and TUI flies to Liberia. You can sometimes find cheaper fares by flying via Madrid (with Iberia), Paris (with Air France), the US (with American Airlines, Delta, United and US Airways) or Canada (with Air Canada), though this will obviously extend your journey time. Direct flights take around 11 hours and indirect flights can take as little as thirteen hours, including changes.
There are no direct flights from Ireland to Costa Rica. Your best option is to fly via the US or Madrid, where you can connect with flights to San José. Delta has the widest range of flights from Dublin (and several from Shannon) to New York and Atlanta, from where you can get an onward flight to San José, though you’ll probably have to change planes at least once more.
From Australia, New Zealand and South Africa
There are no direct flights from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa to Costa Rica – the quickest and easiest option is to fly via the US. Note that it’s best to book several weeks (or months) ahead.
From Australia, the cheapest fares to San José from Sydney tend to be via Los Angeles with Delta. American Airlines’ fares to San José via LA are usually slightly higher. Fares from all eastern Australian cities are generally the same; fares from Perth and Darwin are a little more.
From New Zealand, the best through-tickets to San José are with Delta, departing from either Auckland or Christchurch and travelling via Sydney, Brisbane and LA.
From South Africa, the least convoluted route to San José is with Delta from Johannesburg via Atlanta.
Overland to Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s international bus company, Tica Bus runs a good overland bus service between Mexico (Tapachula), Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica and south onto Panamá. The service is very popular, and you’ll need to reserve your tickets up to a month in advance in the high season (up to three months in Dec).
Tica Bus has daily (except Good Friday) buses between San José and destinations including Managua, Guatemala City and Panama City. Alternatively, you can also find routes between San José on Managua on TransNica; via Granada on Central Line; and to Panama City on Expreso Panamá.
The main northern border crossing with Nicaragua is at Peñas Blancas on the Interamericana. Further east, you'll find another crossing at Los Chiles to/from San Carlos on the shores of Lago Nicaragua. The main route south, to and from Panama, is again along the Interamericana, at Paso Canoas. On the Caribbean coast, Sixaola is a smaller crossing, across one of the most decrepit bridges in the world, while in the southern highlands, a little-used route links San Vito with the border town of Río Sereno .
Most towns in Costa Rica have a wide range of places to stay, and even the smallest settlements usually have basic lodgings. Prices are higher than you’d pay in other Central American countries, but they’re by no means exorbitant, and certainly not when compared with the US or Western Europe. Budget accommodation runs the gamut from the extremely basic, where $25 will get you little more than a room and a bed, to reasonably well-equipped accommodation with a clean, comfortable en-suite room, a fan and possibly even a TV for around $40 a night. In the middle and upper price range, facilities and services are generally of a very good standard throughout the country. When considering the cost, remember that not all hotels list the hotel tax in the published price.
Types of accommodation
The larger places to stay in Costa Rica are usually called hotels. Posadas, hostals, hospedajes and pensiones are smaller, though posadas can sometimes be quite swanky, especially in rural areas. Casas tend to be private guesthouses or B&Bs, while albergues are the equivalent of lodges. Cabinas are common in Costa Rica, particularly in coastal areas: they’re usually either a string of motel-style rooms in an annexe away from the main building or, more often, separate self-contained units. Usually – although not always – they tend toward the basic, and are most often frequented by budget travellers. More upmarket versions may be called “villas” or “chalets”. Anything called a motel – as in most of Latin America – is unlikely to be used for sleeping.
Few hotels except those at the upper end of the price range have double beds, and it’s more common to find two or three single beds. Single travellers will generally be charged the single rate even if they’re occupying a double room, though this is sometimes not the case in popular beach towns and at peak seasons.
Incidentally, wherever you’re staying, don’t expect to get much reading done in the evenings – light bulbs are very wan, even in good hotels. Also bear in mind that in Costa Rican hotels, the term “hot water” can be misleading. Showers are often equipped with squat plastic nozzles (water heaters), inside which is an electric element that heats the water to a warm, rather than hot, temperature. Some of the nozzles have a button that actually turns on the element. Under no circumstances should you touch this button or get anywhere near the nozzle when wet – these contraptions may not be quite as bad as their tongue-in-cheek name of “suicide showers” suggests, but there’s still a distinct possibility you could get a nasty shock. The trick to getting fairly hot water is not to turn on the pressure too high. Keep a little coming through to heat the water more efficiently.
Costa Rica’s hotels tend to be chock-full in high season (Nov-April), especially at Christmas, New Year and Easter, so reserve well ahead, particularly for youth hostels and good-value hotels in popular spots. Many hotels, even budget ones, are online, so the easiest and surest way to reserve in advance is with a credit card by email. Once on the ground in Costa Rica, phone or email again to reconfirm your reservation. Some establishments will ask you to reserve and pay in advance – the more popular hotels and lodges require you to do this as far as thirty days ahead, often by money transfer.
If you prefer to be a little more spontaneous, travelling in the low season, from roughly after Easter to mid-November, can be easier, when you can safely wait until you arrive in the country to make reservations. During these months, it’s even possible to show up at hotels on spec – there will probably be space, and possibly even a low-season discount of as much as thirty to fifty percent.
Pensiones and hotels
When travelling, most Costa Ricans and nationals of other Central American countries stick to the lower end of the market and patronize traditional pensiones (a fast-dying breed in Costa Rica, especially in San José) or established Costa Rican-owned hotels. If you do likewise, you may well get a better price than at the tourist or foreign-owned hotels, although this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Though standards are generally high, you should expect to get what you pay for – usually clean but dim, spartan rooms with cold-water showers. If you think you might have a choice or want to shop around, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask to see the room first.
The majority of accommodation catering to foreigners is in the middle range, and as such is reasonably priced – although still more expensive than similar accommodation in other Central American countries. Hotels at the lower end of this price category will often offer very good value, giving you private bath with hot water, perhaps towels, and maybe even air conditioning (which, it has to be said, is not really necessary in most places; a ceiling fan generally does fine). At the upper end of this price range, a few extras, like TV, may be thrown in.
Resorts, lodges and B&Bs
There are many resorts scattered throughout Costa Rica, ranging from swanky hotels in popular places like Manuel Antonio to lush rainforest eco-lodges in areas of outstanding natural beauty – the sort of hideaways that have their own jacuzzis, swimming pools, spas, gourmet restaurants and private stretches of jungle. These rank among the finest – and most expensive – places to stay in the country (For more information, see Top 5 eco-lodges for a few of our favourites), though prices can fall dramatically out of season, when you might be able to get yourself a night or two of luxury for as little as $150.
A new breed of B&Bs (often owned by expats) has sprung up in recent years, similar to their North American or UK counterparts, offering rooms in homes or converted homes with a “family atmosphere”, insightful local advice and a full breakfast.
Though camping is fairly widespread in Costa Rica, gone are the days when you could pitch your tent on just about any beach or field. With the influx of visitors, local residents (especially in small beachside communities) have grown tired of campers leaving rubbish on the beach – you’ll have a far better relationship with them if you ask politely whether it’s OK to camp first.
In beach towns, you’ll usually find at least one well-equipped private campsite, with good facilities including lavatories, drinking water and cooking grills; staff may also offer to guard your clothes and tent while you’re at the beach. You may also find hotels, usually at the lower end of the price scale, where you can pitch your tent on the grounds and use the showers and washrooms for a fee. Though not all national parks have campsites, the ones that do usually offer high standards and at least basic facilities, with lavatories, water and cooking grills – all for around $2 per person per day. In some national parks, you can bunk down at the ranger station if you call well in advance; for more details, For more information, see National parks and reserves.
There are three general rules of camping in Costa Rica: first, never leave your tent (or anything of value inside it) unattended, or it may not be there when you get back. Second, never leave your tent open except to get in and out, unless you fancy sharing your sleeping quarters with snakes, insects, coati or toads. Finally, take your refuse with you when you leave.
Costa Rica has over two hundred hostels and backpackers’, some offering dorm beds for as little as $10 a night; most have a range of double, triple and family rooms, and many offer additional services including internet access (often for free), laundry and luggage storage. Bed linen, towels and soap are generally included in the price. There are only four official youth hostels affiliated with Hostelling International – Jardines Arenal in La Fortuna, Vista Serena Hostel in Manuel Antonio and Hostel Casa Yoses and Mi Casa Hostel in San José – which cost around $11–14 per night. As with all accommodation in Costa Rica, bookings should ideally be made several months in advance if you’re visiting in high season.
Staying with a Costa Rican family
There’s no better way to experience life off the tourist trail and to practise your Spanish than staying with a Tico family. Usually enjoyable, sometimes transformative, this can be a fantastic experience, and at the very least is sure to provide genuine contact with Costa Ricans.
Most homestay programmes are organized by the country’s various language schools and cater mainly to students. However, some schools may be willing to put you in contact with a family even if you are not a student at the school in question. The Ilisa Language School (t 2280-0700, w www.ilisa.com), one of San José’s largest, is particularly helpful in this regard. Stays can last from one week to several months, and many travellers use the family home as a base while touring the country. You’ll have your own key, but in most cases it would be frowned upon if you brought someone home for the night. The one rule that always applies is that guests and hosts communicate in Spanish. Costs, which include meals and laundry, average about $840 a month.
For a non-study-based option, try Bells’ Home Hospitality (t 2225-4752, w www.homestay-thebells.org), run by a long-time resident of Costa Rica, Vernon Bell, and his wife Marcela, who arrange for individuals, couples and families to stay in private rooms in a family home, with private or shared bath; singles cost $30, doubles $50. Breakfast is included in the price, with evening meals available for an additional $9. Another recommended organization is Monteverde Homestays (t 2645-6627, w www.monteverdehomestay.com), which offers accommodation in a range of family homes near the Santa Elena and Monteverde reserves for $25 per night including breakfast.
Other points of contact for homestays as well as longer-term apartment rentals and houseshares include adverts in the Tico Times (although homestays and flats listed here tend to be expensive), the (Spanish) classifieds in La Nación and the notice boards of hostels and guesthouses.
Health-wise, travelling in Costa Rica is generally very safe. Food tends to be hygienically prepared, so bugs and upsets are normally limited to the usual “traveller’s tummy”. Water supplies in most places are clean and bacteria-free, and outbreaks of serious infectious diseases such as cholera are rare.
In general, as in the rest of Latin America, it tends to be local people, often poor or without proper sanitation or access to healthcare, who contract infectious diseases. Although Costa Rica’s healthcare is of a high standard, the facilities at its major public hospitals (thirty of which are affiliated to CAJA, the country’s social healthcare system) vary widely, and while some, such as the Hospital Nacional de Niños in San José, are very good, you are advised to use private hospitals and clinics where possible – and get extensive health insurance before you travel. The capital’s two excellent private hospitals (CIMA San José and Clinica Biblica) are equipped to handle medical, surgical and maternity cases, and have 24 hour emergency rooms; the latter also has a good pediatric unit.
No compulsory inoculations are required before you enter Costa Rica unless you’re travelling from a country that has Yellow Fever, such as Colombia, in which case you must be able to produce a current inoculation certificate. You may, however, want to make sure that your polio, typhoid, diphtheria and hepatitis A and B jabs are up to date, though none of the diseases is a major risk. Rabies, a potentially fatal illness, should be taken very seriously if you’re going to be spending a significant amount of time in the countryside. There is a vaccine comprising a course of three injections that has to be started at least a month before departure and which is effective for two years – though it’s expensive and serves only to shorten the course of treatment you need. If you’re not vaccinated, stay away from dogs, monkeys and any other potentially biting or scratching animals. If you do get scratched or bitten, wash the wound at once, with alcohol or iodine if possible, and seek medical help immediately.
Costa Rica is just eight to eleven degrees north of the Equator, which means a blazing-hot sun directly overhead. To guard against sunburn take at least factor-15 sunscreen (start on factor-30) and a good hat, and wear both even on slightly overcast days, especially in coastal areas. Even in places at higher altitudes where it doesn’t feel excessively hot, such as San José and the surrounding Valle Central, you should protect yourself. Dehydration is another possible problem, so keep your fluid level up, and take rehydration salts (Gastrolyte is readily available) if necessary. Diarrhoea can be brought on by too much sun and heat sickness, and it’s a good idea to bring an over-the-counter remedy such as Imodium from home – it should only be taken for short periods, however, and only when really necessary (such as travelling for long periods on a bus) as extensive use leads to constipation and only serves to keep whatever is making you ill inside you.
The only areas of Costa Rica where it’s best not to drink the tap water (or ice cubes, or drinks made with tap water) are the port cities of Limón and Puntarenas. Bottled water is available in these towns; drink from these and stick with known brands, even if they are more expensive. Though you’ll be safe drinking tap water elsewhere in the country, it is possible to pick up giardia, a bacterium that causes stomach upset and diarrhoea, by drinking out of streams and rivers – campers should stock up on water supplies from the national parks waterspouts, where it’s been treated for drinking.
The time-honoured method of boiling will effectively sterilize water, although it will not remove unpleasant tastes. A minimum boiling time of five minutes (longer at higher altitudes) is sufficient to kill micro-organisms. Boiling water is not always convenient, however, as it is time-consuming and requires supplies of fuel or a travel kettle and power source. Chemical sterilization can be carried out using either chlorine or iodine tablets or (better) a tincture of iodine liquid; add a couple of drops to one litre of water and leave to stand for twenty minutes. Pregnant women or people with thyroid problems should consult their doctor before using iodine sterilizing tablets or iodine-based purifiers. Inexpensive iodine removal filters are recommended if treated water is being used continuously for more than a month or if it is being given to babies.
Malaria and dengue fever
Although some sources of information – including perhaps your GP – will tell you that you don’t need to worry about malaria in Costa Rica, there is a small risk if you’re travelling to the southern Caribbean coast, especially Puerto Limón and south towards Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Around 500 cases of malaria are reported annually, with about half of these being tourists, though numbers have dropped in recent years. If you want to make absolutely sure of not contracting the illness, and intend to travel extensively anywhere along the southern Caribbean, you should take a course of prophylactics (usually chloroquine rather than mefloquine), available from your doctor or clinic.
Dengue fever is perhaps more of a concern, although by no means a major one: some 20,000 cases were reported in an outbreak in late 2010 that affected San José and parts of the Valle Central, Guanacaste and the Pacific coast, in particularly the Osa Peninsula. Otherwise, most cases occur during the rainy season when the mosquito population is at its height. The symptoms are similar to malaria, but with extreme aches and pains in the bones and joints, along with fever and dizziness. On rare occasions, the illness may develop potentially fatal complications, though this usually only affects people who have caught the disease more than once. The only cure for dengue fever is rest and painkillers, and, as with malaria, the best course of action is prevention: to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes, cover up with long sleeves and long trousers, use insect repellents (containing DEET) on exposed skin and, where necessary, sleep under a mosquito net.
Snakes abound in Costa Rica, but the risk of being bitten is incredibly small – there has been no instance of a tourist receiving a fatal bite in recent years. Most of the victims of Costa Rica’s more venomous snakes are field labourers who do not have time or the resources to get to a hospital (there are around five such deaths each year). Just in case, however, travellers hiking off the beaten track may want to take specific antivenins plus sterile hypodermic needles; if you’re worried, you can buy antivenin at the Instituto Clodomiro Picado, the University of Costa Rica’s snake farm in Coronado, outside San José, where herpetologists (people who study snakes) are glad to talk to visitors about precautions.
If you have no antivenin and are unlucky enough to get bitten, do not try to catch or kill the specimen for identification, as you only risk getting bitten again. Clean the wound with soap and water (do not try to suck out the venom), immobilize the bitten limb (do not apply a tourniquet) and get the victim to the nearest hospital as soon as possible.
In general, prevention is better than cure. As a rule of thumb, you should approach rainforest cover and grassy uplands – the kind of terrain you find in Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula – with caution. Always watch where you put your feet and, if you need to hold something to keep your balance, make sure the “vine” you’re grabbing isn’t, in fact, a surprised snake. Be particularly wary at dawn or dusk – before 5.30am or after 6pm – though note that many snakes start moving as early as 4.30pm, particularly in dense cloudforest cover. In addition, be careful in “sunspots”, places in thick rainforest where the sun penetrates through to the ground or to a tree; snakes like to hang out here, absorbing the warmth. Above all, though, don’t be too alarmed: thousands of tourists troop through Costa Rica’s rainforests and grasslands each year without encountering a single snake.
HIV and AIDS
HIV and AIDS (in Spanish, SIDA) is present in the country (an estimated 9600 adults in Costa Rica are living with HIV), but isn’t prevalent. That said, the same common-sense rules apply here as all over the world: sex without a condom, especially in some of the popular beach towns, is a serious health risk. Condoms sold in Costa Rica are not of the quality you find at home; it’s best to bring them with you. Though hospitals and clinics use sterilized equipment, you may want to bring sealed hypodermic syringes anyway.
Though the Costa Rican media generally pumps out relatively anodyne and conservative coverage of local and regional issues (shadowing the antics of the president and the political elite with dogged tenacity), it’s possible to find good investigative journalism, particularly in the daily La Nación. There are also a number of interesting local radio stations, though TV coverage leaves a lot to be desired.
In San José, all domestic newspapers are sold on the street by vendors. Elsewhere, you can find them in newsagents and pulperías (general stores). All are tabloid format, with colourful, eye-catching layout and presentation.Though the Costa Rican press is free, it does indulge in a certain follow-the-leader journalism.
Leader of the pack is the daily La Nación, voice of the (right-of-centre) establishment and owned by the country’s biggest media consortium; other highbrow dailies and television channels more or less parrot its line. Historically, La Nación has featured some good investigative reporting, as in the Banco Anglo corruption scandal and Costa Rica’s continuing drug-trafficking problems. It also comes with a useful daily pull-out arts section, Viva, with listings of what’s on in San José, and the classifieds are handy for almost anything, including long-term accommodation.
Also quite serious is La República, even if they do have a tendency to slap a football photo on the front page no matter what’s happening in the world. Alternative voices include El Heraldo, a small but high-quality daily, and La Prensa Libre, the very good left-leaning evening paper. The weekly Semanario Universidad (w www.semanario.ucr.ac.cr), the voice of the University of Costa Rica, certainly goes out on more of a limb than the big dailies, with particularly good coverage of the arts and the current political scene; you can find it on or around campus in San José’s university district of San Pedro, and also in libraries.
Local English-language papers include the venerable and serious Tico Times, which comes out on Fridays and is a good source of information for travellers; the ads regularly feature hotel and restaurant discounts, as do the various other glossies produced by the tourist board. As for the foreign press, you can pick up recent copies of the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, USA Today, Miami Herald, Newsweek, Time and sometimes the Financial Times in the souvenir shop beside the Gran Hotel Costa Rica in downtown San José and at the La Casa de Revistas on the southwest corner of Parque Morazán. Of the San José bookstores, Librerías Lehmann and Librería Universal keep good stocks of mainstream and non-mainstream foreign magazines; the Mark Twain Library at the Centro Cultural Costarricense-Norteamericano also receives English-language publications.
There are lots of commercial radio stations in Costa Rica, all pumping out techno and house, along with a bit of salsa, annoying commercials and the odd bout of government-sponsored pseudo propaganda promoting the general wonder that is Costa Rica. Some of the more interesting local radio stations have only a limited airtime, such as Radio Emperador, Radio Costa Rica and Radio Alajuela, which features Costa Rican singers, along with some talk spots, from 8.30pm to midnight. A fascinating programme is El Club del Taxista Costarricense – the “Costa Rican Taxi Driver’s Club” – broadcast by Radio Columbia from 9 to 10.30am. This social and political talk show, nearing its 40th year, was initially directed only at taxi drivers, but its populist appeal has led to it being adopted by the general population. Radio Dos has an English-language morning show, Good Morning Costa Rica, which runs from 6 to 9am.
Most Costa Rican households have a television, beaming out a range of wonderfully awful Mexican or Venezuelan telenovelas (soap operas) and some not-so-bad domestic news programmes. On the downside, Costa Rica is also the graveyard for 1970s American TV, the place where The Dukes of Hazzard and other such delights, dubbed into Spanish, come back to haunt you.
Canal 7, owned by Teletica, is the main national station, particularly strong in local and regional news. Other than its news show, Telenoticias, Costa Rica has few home-grown products, and Canal 7’s programming comprises a mix of bought-in shows from Spanish-speaking countries plus a few from the US. Repretel’s Canal 6 is the main competitor, very similar in content, while Canal 19 mostly shows US programmes and movies dubbed into Spanish. The Mexican cable channels are good for news, and even have reports from Europe. Many places also subscribe to CNN and other cable channels, such as HBO, Cinemax and Sony Entertainment, which show wall-to-wall reruns of hit comedy shows and films.
Costa Rica is famous for year-round adventure tourism and its variety of adrenaline-fuelled outdoor activities, with numerous well-organized packages and guided outings. For further information on sporting activities, pick up the bi-monthly Costa Rica Outdoors magazine – they specialize in fishing, but cover other sports, too.
Almost everyone who comes to Costa Rica does some sort of hiking or walking, whether it be through the rainforest, on grassy uplands or drylands, or ambling along beaches and well-maintained national park trails. From lowland tropical forest to the heights of Mount Chirripó, there are opportunities for walking in all kinds of terrain, often for considerable distances.
Make sure you bring sturdy shoes or hiking boots and a hat, sunblock and lightweight rain gear. It helps to have binoculars, too, even if you don’t consider yourself an avid birder or animal-spotter; it’s amazing what they pick up that the naked eye misses. In certain areas, like Parque Nacional Corcovado – where you’ll be doing more walking than you’ve ever done before, unless you’re in the Marines – most people also bring a tent. In the high paramo of Chirripó, you’ll need to bring at least a sleeping bag.
There are a number of things you have to be careful of when hiking in Costa Rica. The chief danger is dehydration: always carry lots of water with you, preferably bottled, or a canteen, and bring a hat and sunscreen to protect yourself against sunstroke (and use both, even if it’s cloudy).
Each year many hikers get lost, although they’re nearly almost always found before it’s too late. If you’re venturing into a remote and unfamiliar area, bring a map and compass and make sure you know how to use both. To lessen anxiety if you do get lost, make sure you have matches, a torch and, if you are at a fairly high altitude, warm clothing. It gets cold at night above 1500m, and it would be ironic (and put quite a damper on your holiday) to end up with hypothermia in the tropics.
After hiking and walking, white-water rafting is probably the single most popular activity in Costa Rica. Some of the best rapids and rivers to be found south of the Colorado are here, and there’s a growing mini-industry of rafting outfitters, most of them in San José, Turrialba or La Virgen.
White-water rafting entails getting in a rubber dinghy with about eight other people (including a guide) and paddling, at first very leisurely, down a river, before negotiating exhilarating rapids of varying difficulty. Overall it’s very safe, and the ample life jackets and helmets help. Wildlife you are likely to see from the boat includes crocodiles, caiman, lizards, parrots, toucans, herons, kingfishers and iguanas. Most trips last a day, though some companies run overnight or multi-day excursions; costs range between $60 and $150 for a day, including transport, equipment and lunch. Dress to get wet, with a bathing suit, shorts and surfer sandals or gym shoes.
Rafters classify their rivers from Class I (easiest) to Class V (pretty hard – don’t venture onto one of these until you know what you’re doing). The most difficult rivers in Costa Rica are the Class III–IV+ Pacuaré and Reventazón (both reached from Turrialba), Río Naranjo (near Quepos) and Río Toro, and the Class V Upper Balsa (the last two both accessed from La Fortuna). The moderately easy Río Sarapiquí is a Class II river with some Class III rapids, and a fearsome Class IV upper section; the Río Savegre, near Quepos runs Class II–III rapids. The gentlest of all is the Río Corobicí a lazy ride along Class I flat water.
More than twenty rivers in Costa Rica offer good kayaking opportunities, especially the Sarapiquí, Reventazón, Pacuaré and Corobicí. The small town of in the Zona Norte, is a good base for customized kayaking tours, with a number of specialist operators or lodges that rent boats, equipment and guides.
Sea kayaking has become increasingly popular in recent years. This is an activity for experienced kayakers only, and should never be attempted without a guide – the number of rivers, rapids and streams pouring from the mountains into the oceans on both coasts can make currents treacherous, and kayaking dangerous without proper supervision.
Canopy tours, hanging bridges and aerial trams
The canopy tour craze that started in Monteverde in the early 1990s has swept the country, and now pretty much any town worth its salt has a zip-line or two. The standard tour consists of whizzing from lofty platform to platform via traverse cables, and while you’re moving too fast to see much wildlife, it’s definitely a thrill. In recent years, Tarzan swings and Superman cables (which you ride horizontally, arms stretched out like the eponymous superhero) have upped the ante, and several places now let you zip-line at night. Monteverde and the area around Volcán Arenal have some of the best canopy tours in Costa Rica.
More sedate, and more worthwhile for wildlife-watching, are the hanging bridges complexes, where you can experience spectacular views – if not a touch of vertigo – as you walk across the wobbly structures over serious heights. Several bridges take you right alongside the canopy of tall trees, some of which have colonized the bridges, draping their woody lianas over the ramparts; most offer tours with a naturalist guide, which can be a great way of gaining a better insight into life in the treetops. Again, Monteverde and Volcán Arenal are recommended places to take a “sky walk”.
For an even more relaxing meander through the canopy, you could try riding on an aerial tram, a gondola-like cable car that slowly circuits the upper reaches of the rainforest. Several places that operate canopy tours and hanging bridges also have aerial trams, though the most famous is the Rainforest Aerial Tram (now known as the Rainforest Adventures Costa Rica Atlantic), just outside Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo; there’s also a Pacific branch, just north of Jacó.
Costa Rica has many lovely beaches, most of them on the Pacific coast. You do have to be careful swimming at many of them, however, as more than two hundred drownings occur each year – about four or five a week. Most are unnecessary, resulting from riptides, strong, swift-moving currents that go from the beach out to sea in a kind of funnel. It’s also important to be aware of fairly heavy swells. These waves might not look that big from the beach but can have a mighty pull when you get near their break point. Many people are hurt coming out of the sea, backs to the waves, which then clobber them from behind – it’s best to come out of the sea sideways, so that there is minimum body resistance to the water.
In addition to the above precautions, never swim alone, don’t swim at beaches where turtles nest (this means, more often than not, sharks), never swim near river estuaries (pollution and riptides) and always ask locals about the general character of the beach before you swim.
Surfing is very good on both of Costa Rica’s coasts, although there are certain beaches that are suitable during only parts of the year. You can surf all year round on the Pacific: running north to south the most popular beaches are Naranjo, Tamarindo, Boca de Barranca, Jacó, Hermosa, Quepos, Dominical and, in the extreme south near the Panamá border, Pavones. On the Caribbean coast, the best beaches are at Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Punta Uva, further down the coast.
The north Pacific coast and Nicoya Peninsula is the country’s prime surfing area, with a wide variety of reef and beach breaks and lefts and rights of varying power and velocity. Playa Potrero Grande (also known as Ollie’s Point and made famous in the surf flick Endless Summer II) is only accessible by boat from Playa del Coco and offers a very fast right point break. Within Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, Playa Naranjo (or Witch’s Rock) gives one of the best breaks in the country and has the added attraction of good camping facilities, though you’ll need your own 4WD to reach them.
Moving down to the long western back of the Nicoya Peninsula, Playa Tamarindo has three sites for surfing, though parts of the beach are plagued by rocks. While they don’t offer a really demanding or wild ride, Tamarindo’s waves are very popular due to the large number of hotels and restaurants in the town nearby. Playa Langosta, just south of Tamarindo, offers right and left beach breaks, a little more demanding than Tamarindo. Playa Avellanas has a good beach break, with very hollow rights and lefts, while the faster Playa Negra nearby has a right point break that is one of the best in the country. Playa Nosara offers a fairly gentle beach break, with rights and lefts, though things hot up a bit as you work your way towards the tip of the peninsula, where playas Coyote, Manzanillo, Santa Teresa, Carmen, Mal País and, on the east coast, Monteurma, have consistent breaks.
Near Puntarenas on the central Pacific coast, Boca Barranca is a river mouth break with a very long left, while Puerto Caldera also has a good left. Playa Tivives (beach break) and Valor (a rocky point break) have good lefts and rights, as does the point break at Playa Escondida. Playa Jacó is not always dependable for good beach breaks, and the surf is not too big, though it’s within easy reach of Roca Loca, a rocky point break to the north, and, to the south, Playa Hermosa, a good spot for more experienced surfers, with a very strong beach break. The adjacent playas Esterillos Este, Esterillos Oeste, Bejuco and Bocas Damas offer similarly good beach breaks.
On the south Pacific coast, the river mouth at Quepos has a small left point break, while Playa Espadilla at Manuel Antonio is good when the wind is up, with beach breaks and left and right waves. Southwards, Playa El Rey offers left and right beach breaks, but you’re best off continuing to Dominical and some really great surfing, with strong lefts and rights and beautiful surroundings. Down at the very south of the country, Bahía Drake, accessible only by boat, gets going on a big swell. A much more reliable wave hits the shore at Playa Pavones, one of the longest left points in the world, very fast and with a good formation; it’s offset by the nearby right point break at Matapalo. Only hardcore surfers tend to tackle the remote reef break at Punta Burica.
The best surfing beaches on the Caribbean coast lie towards the south, from Cahuita to Manzanillo villages. Playa Negra at Cahuita has an excellent beach break, with the added bonus of year-round waves. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is home to La Salsa Brava, one of the few legitimate “big waves” in Costa Rica, a very thick, tubular wave formed by deep water rocketing towards a shallow reef. Further south, Manzanillo has a very fast beach break in lovely surroundings.
Further north towards Puerto Limón are a couple of beaches that, while not in the class of Puerto Viejo, can offer experienced surfers a few good waves. Westfalia’s left and right beach breaks only really work on a small swell, while Playa Bonita, a few kilometres north of Limón, is known for its powerful and dangerous left; only people who really know what they are doing should try this. The right point break at Portete is easier to handle, though the left-breaking waves at Isla Uvita, just off the coast from Puerto Limón, are also considered tricky. The north Caribbean coast has a number of decent beach breaks, which you can reach along the canals north of Moin.
If you’re interested in learning to surf, there are several surf camps and schools in Tamarindo, Santa Teresa/Mal País and Jacó. Costa Rica is small enough that if things are quiet on one coast, it’s fairly easy to pack up your kit and hit the other (shuttle buses will take your board for an additional charge).
Diving and snorkelling
Though diving is less of a big deal in Costa Rica than in Belize or Honduras’s Bay Islands, there are a few worthwhile dive sites around the country: the best, however, lie some 500km off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast in the waters around Parque Nacional Isla del Coco.
You can also theoretically snorkel all along the Pacific coast – Playa Flamingo in northern Guanacaste has clear waters though not a lot to see, while Playa Panamá and Bahía Ballena also have good snorkelling. For people who want to see an abundance of underwater life, the small reef near Manzanillo on the Caribbean coast is the best; the nearby reef at Cahuita has suffered in recent years from erosion and is now dying.
Fishing and sports-fishing
Costa Rica has hit the big time in the lucrative sports-fishing game. Both coasts are blessed with the kind of big fish serious anglers love – marlin, sailfish, tarpon and snook among them. Sports-fishing is just that: sport, with the vast majority of fish returned to the sea alive. Its most obvious characteristic, though, is its tremendous expense: day-trips start at more than a few hundred dollars, while multi-day packages are in the thousands. Quepos and Golfito have long been good places to do some fishing, while Barra del Colorado in the northeast and Playa Flamingo in Guanacaste have turned into monothematic costly sports-fishing destinations. Although good fishing is possible all year round, the catch is seasonal (Pacific marlin, for example, can only be caught between November and April); January and February are the most popular months.
Casual anglers can find cheaper and more low-key fishing opportunities in the country’s many trout-rich freshwater rivers, or in Laguna de Arenal and the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro, where rainbow bass fishing is especially good.
One oft-repeated statistic you’ll hear about Costa Rica is that the country boasts more than 885 species of birds (including migratory ones), a higher number than all of North America. Consequently, the birding is hugely impressive, and it’s likely that you’ll spot hummingbirds, scarlet macaws, toucans, kingfishers and a variety of trogons (the best time to see migratory birds is the dry season). The resplendent quetzal, found in the higher elevations of Monteverde, Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo and the Cordillera de Talamanca, is elusive, but can still be spotted – the tiny hamlet of San Gerardo de Dota, close to Cerro de la Muerte, and the nearby Parque Nacional Los Quetzales, are by far the best places to see them.
Only certain places in Costa Rica lend themselves well to mountain biking. In general, the best areas for extensive biking are Parque Nacional Corcovado, the road from Montezuma to the Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco on the southern Nicoya Peninsula and Parque Nacional Santa Rosa. The La Fortuna and Volcán Arenal area is also increasingly popular: you can bike to see the volcano (although not up it) and around the pretty Laguna de Arenal. Some tour operators also offer mountain biking as part of the transfer from La Fortuna to Monteverde.
There are plenty of bike rental shops throughout the country; you may also be able to rent one from local tour agencies. Prices range from $5 an hour or $10 to $20 for the day.
Almost everywhere you go in Costa Rica, with the exception of the waterlogged northern Limón Province, you should be able to hook up with a horseriding tour. Guanacaste is probably the best area in the country for riding, with a cluster of excellent haciendas (working cattle ranches) that also cater to tourists, offering bed, breakfast and horse hire.
Riding on the beach on the Nicoya Peninsula, especially in Montezuma in the south and Sámara on the west coast, is also very popular; however, there has been a history of mistreatment of horses in these places, so don’t expect the animals here to be in great shape. If you see any extreme cases of mistreatment, complain to the local tourist information centre or local residents.
Top 5 hikes
Costa Rica’s national parks and wildlife refuges are home to some truly spectacular trails, enabling you to hike deep into verdant rainforest, past bubbling mud pools or along surf-lashed beaches. Below are a few of our favourites.
Cerro Chirripó A long, cold and sometimes wet slog up and across alpine-esque moorland rewards you with (on a clear day) superb views from Costa Rica’s highest point.
Estación Biológica Pocosol Arguably the most adventurous trek in the country, the two-day hike from Monteverde to this research station on the edge of the Bosque Eterno de los Niños traverses unmarked trails and is accompanied by armed rangers.
Sendero Laguna Meándrica Perhaps the finest birding trail of any national park (and that‘s saying something), this 4.3km round-trip in the western half of Parque Nacional Carara leads through transitionary terrain to a croc-filled lake that’s home to myriad birdlife.
Sendero Los Patos–Sirena Tough 20km trek through the dense rainforest cover of Parque Nacional Corcovado, offering experienced hikers the chance to spot some of Costa Rica’s more elusive large mammals, including tapirs and collared peccaries.
Sendero Las Pailas A terrific 6km circuit, taking in the best of Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja: sulphur pools, geothermal “stoves” and thermal mud pots, all within the shadow of a smoking volcano.
Travelling with children
A small, inherently peaceful country, with a friendly populace, a good healthcare system and a decent transport infrastructure, Costa Rica is arguably the most child-friendly destination in Central America. Add a bounty of exotic wildlife, countless beaches and enough outdoor activities to keep even the most adrenaline-fuelled teenager quiet for a week or two, and it’s easy to see why the country is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations for families looking for a break with a bit more bite.
Like most other Latin countries, children are a fundamental part of society in Costa Rica, and you’ll be made to feel more than welcome in hotels and restaurants and on guided tours and trips. Very few hotels do not accept children, and you’ll find that the comparatively early opening hours in restaurants actually favour the routines of younger families.
Costa Rica is also a very safe destination to travel around, with a long history of political stability and far less crime than in neighbouring countries. You don’t need specific inoculations to visit (and malaria is only present in the southern Caribbean) and most tourist places have a high standard of food hygiene, so health problems are rarely an issue – though Costa Rica’s position near the equator means that you should take the necessary precautions with the sun. In the unlikely scenario that you do require medical help, note that the (private) healthcare system in Costa Rica is excellent, with a couple of top-notch clinics in San José, while the capital’s Hospital Nacional de Niños has the best pediatric specialists in Central America.
Costa Rica’s incredible wildlife will undoubtedly provide your children with the most abiding memories of their trip, and you’d struggle to spend a couple of weeks in the country and not see a blue morpho butterfly, a colourful keel-billed toucan or a sloth or howler monkey working their way through the rainforest canopy – the latter two are particularly prevalent in Tortuguero and Manuel Antonio national parks. Most parks have well-maintained trails, many of which are short circuits; travellers with very young children will find pushchair-friendly paths at Poás and Carara national parks and the Reserva Santa Elena, while the main-crater viewpoint at Parque Nacional Volcán Irazú is also reachable with a buggy.
Butterfly farms are a big hit for younger children. It can sometimes seem that every small rural village has its own finca de la mariposa, but two of the best – and most interesting for the adults – are the La Gaucima Butterfly Farm just outside Alajuela, in the Valle Central, and the Butterfly Conservancy at El Castillo, near La Fortuna, the biggest in the country. Similarly, frog gardens, or ranariums, should also appeal thanks to the variety of croaking, whirring, garishly coloured species that are easily spotted hopping about; most major tourist centres, such as Monteverde, have a frog garden, while several private wildlife reserves run evening frog walks.
Beaches, volcanoes and zip-lining
Costa Rica’s two long coastlines are backed by some beautiful beaches, though swimming should be supervised at all times – the same waves that make the country so popular with surfers can be dangerous for children, while some of the best beaches are plagued by riptides. Older children can rent bodyboards and surfboards in major surfing resorts such as Tamarindo and Santa Teresa/Mal País.
Taking a dip in an outdoor hot spring is a novel experience likely to be enjoyed by young children and teenagers alike. Most complexes have a variety of pools (of varying temperatures), many “fed” by waterfalls that you can perch under, and some have water slides as well; the springs around Volcán Arenal make great spots for a thermally heated soak. Given its constant activity, Arenal is also the best place for some serious volcano viewing, offering (weather permitting) memorable scenes of molten lava and hot rocks spilling down its flanks, especially from the (relative) safety of the Arenal Observatory Lodge. Always heed local safety warnings, and follow the advice in the For more information, see Volcán Arenal: explosions and eruptions.
The variety of outdoor activities available to teenagers is seemingly endless, and few will be able to resist hurtling through the treetops attached to cables on a zip line; hanging bridges offer a more relaxing alternative to exploring the upper canopy. You can go bungee-jumping in the Valle Central and at Jacó on the Pacific coast, and caving in Parque Nacional Barra Honda and Venado, near La Fortuna. Older teenagers can try their hand at white-water rafting by tackling the raging rapids of the Pacuaré and Reventázon rivers among others, though there are also “safari floats” on much calmer waters that will appeal to all the family.
Studying and volunteering in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a great place to broaden your mind, and an increasing number of visitors kick off their travels through the country with an immersive language course, or break up their vacation with a few days of volunteering, which can range from helping maintain trails in a cloudforest reserve to measuring turtles on the Pacific coast. There are also a great number of opportunities for travellers with more time and a scientific interest in the country’s flora and fauna to enrol in a variety of research projects.
Study programmes and learning Spanish
There are over 125 language schools in Costa Rica, with San José and the Valle Central offering a wealth of Spanish courses. Though you can arrange a place through organizations based in your home country, the best way to choose (at least in the low season, from May to November) is to visit a few, perhaps sit in on a class or two, and judge the school according to your own personality and needs; in the high season, many classes will have been booked in advance. Note that courses in Costa Rica generally cost more than in Mexico or Guatemala.
Some of the language schools are Tico-run; some are branches of international (usually North American) education networks. Instructors are almost invariably Costa Ricans who speak some English. School notice boards are an excellent source of information and contact for travel opportunities, apartment shares and social activities. Most schools have a number of Costa Rican families on their books with whom they regularly place students for homestays. If you want private tuition, rates run at an hourly fee.
Volunteer work and research projects
There’s a considerable choice of volunteer work and research projects in Costa Rica – some include food and lodging, and many can be organized from overseas. You’ll be required to spend at least a week working on a project (which includes monitoring sea turtles, helping conserve endangered parrots and working with rural communities), and sometimes up to three months, though the extra insight you’ll gain – and, of course, the enormous sense of achievement – are ample rewards.
A good resource in the US for volunteer work programmes is Transitions Abroad, a bimonthly magazine and website focusing on living and working overseas. Prospective British volunteers should contact the Costa Rican Embassy in London. In Australia, details of current student exchanges and study programmes are available either from the Costa Rican consul, or from the AFS in Sydney; in New Zealand and South Africa, you should also contact the AFS, in Wellington and Johannesburg, respectively.
Where to go in Costa Rica
San José and Valle Central
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.
Volcán Arenal and Zona Norte
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.
Osa Peninsula and Zona Sur
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.
Monteverde and Manuel Antonio
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.
Top image © Geoffrey Newland/Shutterstock