Costa Rica Tourist Guide
Whether you want to visit the hundreds of gorgeous beaches or the many volcanoes including the Active Arenal and its Tabacon hot springs, or you just want to relax on a remote beach like Montezuma or Malpais in the Nicoya Penninsula, Dominical just south of Manuel Antonio National Park, or Drake Bay near the Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica offers it all. For the adventurous, there’s extreme white water rafting, bungee jumping, tree canopy tours, hanging bridges, whale and dolphin watching, sport fishing, diving, and much more.
The Atlantic coast offers still another side to Costa Rica in which the Caribbean beat leads time and a friendly atmosphere makes you welcome. For an all-around fantastic vacation, consider Costa Rica, it’s Pure Nature and Pure Life, or PURA VIDA as the locals say!
Things to See in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is one of Central America’s most popular tourist destinations. It boasts a great climate, a beautiful Caribbean coastline, abundant jungles, and good infrastructure and tourism facilities. Costa Rica is a friendly, relaxed country that welcomes visitors with open arms and a greeting of ‘Pura Vida’, an affirmation of the national motto: ‘pure life’.
The capital, San José, is a dynamic city with markets, cafés, and great shopping to offer the visitor. It has some wonderful museums and many hotels to suit every budget and taste. San José also offers some world-class cuisine as well as the ubiquitous fast-food joints.
San José has its own international airport, Juan Santa Maria International Airport, which provides service for flights arriving from many North American cities. It also offers flights to other Central and South American cities. For those on a budget, vacation homes, condos, and cabins offer the most reasonably priced accommodation but hotels are also widespread.
Costa Rica Beaches
One of Costa Rica’s main attractions is its beaches, and it offers both Pacific and Caribbean choices. Golfito is a great starting point for exploring the Pacific coast which offers dramatic scenery, jungle accommodation, surfing, rainforest, and access to Isla Tortuga. T
The Caribbean side of Costa Rica offers a different experience, characterized by eco-tourism at one of Costa Rica’s many national parks and wildlife refuges. The main town is Puerto Limón, from where the Parque Nacional Tortuguero can be accessed. The Creole beach paradise, Cahuita, also has a nearby national park with beautiful beaches, reefs, and rainforest.
Of course, the incredible national parks are one of the main tourist attractions for Costa Rica and there are many to choose from. Volcàn Arenal National Park is globally recognizable for its perfectly conical volcano, which is still active and puts on spectacular displays occasionally. Or visitors can see the full range of stunning flora and fauna Costa Rica has to offer at the country’s oldest and best-developed park, Península Santa Elena.
What’s the Allure?
Costa Rica is a relatively small Central American country with breathtaking natural beauty and a colorful display of wildlife inhabitants to seduce its visitors. It features contrasting landscapes such as rainforests and dry, tropical forests as well as tall mountain ranges and flat plains. An independent, army-less nation since 1949, life in the “Rich Coast” (as it is known in English) is slow and peaceful; the perfect haven for total relaxation.
Points of Interest
As can be imagined, a place blessed with the kind of striking scenery that is found in Costa Rica boasts a lot of outdoor options. Some excellent examples of awe-inspiring places to visit include the gardens and forests found at the Wilson Botanical Garden and the Butterfly Farm which shows visitors the interesting process of farming butterflies for their pupae. For the more culturally inclined, the Monumento Nacional Arqueológico Guayabo offers a fascinating peek at the country’s archeological past. Highlights include gold artifacts and an aqueduct dating back to 800 AD.
Due to the nation’s proximity to nature, the cuisine found in Costa Rica is fresh and simple. Although tasty, the food is not spicy as is common with many of its Latin American neighbors. Traditional dishes include variations of rice and beans served with either chicken, beef, or fish. Tropical fruit is highly recommended – both raw or as a juice – and found in great abundance at most outdoor markets and restaurants.
South Nicoya Peninsula
The stretch of coastline from the beaches of Playa Grande, where the Giant Sea Turtles go to nest, to the southern tip of the Nicoya Penninsula at Cabo Blanco surrounded by the gorgeous and isolated beaches of Malpais and Montezuma, offers a wonderful opportunity to get away from the crowds and enjoy miles of beautiful beaches, jungles, and waterfalls.
To get there: Drive-thru town of Puntarenas for the Ferry Dock…take Car Ferry (1 hr) to Paquera (Call: Barcelo Ferry: 661-2084 Peninsular Ferry: 661-8282). Alternatively, fly with SANSA to the airport at Playa Tambor. This stretch of coastline offers a wonderful opportunity to get away from the crowds & enjoy miles of beautiful beaches, jungle & waterfalls.
The north Guanacaste region is mainly known for its fantastic stretches of beautiful beaches including, Playa Hermosa, Playa del Coco, Flamingo, and Conchal among many others, most of which have delicate white sand and some of the best surfing in the country. T
he Golfo de Papagayo is now home to the new Four Seasons Hotel, the most luxurious hotel in the country. Flying to the beaches is now very accessible with Costa Rica’s second Int’l airport located in the town of Liberia. In this area, one can also visit one of Costa Rica’s real treasures, The Rincon de La Vieja Volcano and National Park. This area offers white water rafting, rappelling, geysers, caves, and tubbing adventures.
With a shorter rainy season than other areas, the beautiful beaches of Guanacaste are increasingly popular, and you’ll find plenty of hotels, restaurants & activities.
To get to the beaches, take the road from Liberia through Filadelfia & turn off Belen.
The Atlantic coast of Costa Rica has a rhythm that beats to another drum. The relaxed atmosphere in the town of Limón and the nearby beaches of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo provides for a totally different experience. Restaurants don’t have walls, and delicious lobster is everywhere and very affordable.
To the north of Limón are the famous Tortuguero National Park and its canal. The park offers boat tours where guests can appreciate the flora and fauna endemic to this area. More inland, one can find the Chirripó mountain, the highest point in Costa Rica measuring 3819 meters. Climbing to its crest is a journey well worth taking, but requires a little planning.
North Volcanoes and Cloud Forests
The Volcanos and Cloud Forest region offers many splendid activities as well as some breathtaking views. Visit the active Arenal Volcano and its steamy Tabacon hot springs while witnessing the flowing lava and the thundering of its eruptions. Hike the many trails at the base of the volcano while you encounter howler monkeys and wild boars. Hike down to the La Fortuna Waterfall and take a swim in this breathtaking place surrounded by forest and wildlife. Arenal Lake offers optimal weather for windsurfing or visit the Monteverde Reserve for some of the most beautiful nature in Costa Rica.
San José to Arenal Volcano
Take the Pan-American Highway west past the International Airport towards Naranjo & San Ramón… turn off at San Ramóm and follow the volcano sign north towards La Tigra & Chachagua to La Fortuna & Arenal. From ARENAL to MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST PRESERVE (drive time 3 ½ hrs; from Arenal drive around the lake to Tilarán take the road south- part of the road is not asphalted so we advise the use of a 4-wheel drive vehicle).
Surrounding the Central Valley are various volcanos worth visiting. The Poas, Irazú, and Barva volcanos are all about an hour away from San Jose for a fun day trip. The Orosi area with its gorgeous coffee plantations, the Tapantí National Park for trout fishing and hiking, and the Cachí Dam are also beautiful day trips for getting to know the diversity that Costa Rica has to offer. On the northern side of this area is the town of Sarchí, famous for its handcrafted wood souvenirs and coffee plantations.
The areas of Alajuela, Heredia, San Jose, San Pedro, Santa Ana, and Escazú, are the most populated. A variety of shopping Malls and shopping centers are available all over the Central Valley, as are Movie theaters, and many fantastic Restaurants comparable to some of the world’s best.
Beginning with the town of Jacó and its varied restaurants and activities all the way down to the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, this stretch of coastline is as varied in its beaches as it is in the activities offered here. From hanging bridges to quadricycle tours, from fishing to diving, from kayaking to hiking, and of course lots of relaxing, you are sure to find something fun to do. The mid-Pacific Region of Costa Rica is home to many National Parks including the famous Manuel Antonio.
This park is one of the most beautiful areas in the country. The views from the hills above the Park are breathtaking as are the beaches within the park. All of them are surrounded by a tropical jungle, perfect white sand, and gorgeous blue waters. Don’t forget to look up in the trees along the coastline for monkey sloths and coatis! Still, south of Manuel Antonio, you can find the beautiful and more secluded beaches of Matapalo, Dominical, and Uvita
Drake Bay, Corcovado National Park, Golfo Dulce, and Piedras Blancas National Park, compose most of this southernmost part of Costa Rica. Here nature is truly wild and untouched, and wild encounters are bound to occur. On land sloths, monkeys, wild boars, and jaguars are only some of the animals to be seen.
In the ocean, whales are abundant during mating and birthing seasons as are many different kinds of dolphins. This area is a true paradise well worth the visit.
Corcovado National Park is one of the largest & wildest areas in the country. Its virgin rainforests are home to toucans, scarlet macaws, monkeys & jaguars. You can access the park by road to the south of Puerto Jimenez.
Museums – Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s museums are many and varied, from the Pre-Columbian art displays in the Gold Museum to the Children’s Museum just north of San Jose. Most are located in downtown San Jose and are easy walking distance from the Plaza de la Cultura. Children’s Museum is located in downtown San José, this museum is unlike any other in Central America. At one time an old military prison, this complex was converted into an interactive and educational experience for its children.
Costa Rica was sending the message that the future of this tiny country was not going to be that of bloodshed and strife. Instead, its future would be the education and care of its children. The Gold Museum, in downtown San José, is easily the country’s best with thousands of different examples of Pre-Colombian gold artifacts. The pieces in the collection date from 500 BE to 1600 AD when the New World was discovered by Christopher Columbus. The artifacts range from simple round earrings to intricately worked representations of local animals.
Costa Rica is a great place for those who prefer an active lifestyle. With beaches on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, guests can participate in aquatic activities including snorkeling, surfing, fishing, and rafting. Land lovers can equally enjoy their holiday with options such as biking, golf, and hiking. Sightseeing is another popular activity, which makes perfect sense considering there are plenty of exciting landscapes and exotic flora and fauna in Costa Rica to keep one engaged for days on end.
Nightlife in this charming oasis is made up of laid-back bars – often featuring live reggae or calypso music – and a handful of nightclubs featuring authentic salsa dancing for the more exuberant crowd.
This fantastic National Park is home to the 6000,000-year-old Rincon de la Vieja Volcano, a complex geological structure composed of at least nine volcanic cones. Here you can experience volcanic activity very close to you, like nowhere else in the country. Close to 300 species of birds make their home here as do white-faced, howler, and spider monkeys.
The volcano is also home to a large population of Costa Rica’s national flower, the Guaria Morada orchid. The best way to visit and really enjoy this park is by making a home base at the Hacienda Guachipelin Hotel and Adventure Center. This hotel is the closest property to the national park and offers a variety of adventure tours and experiences and knowledgeable guides to make your visit to the park the most enjoyable and educational.
Catarata Del Toro
Allow yourself a 2 or 3-hour stopover to visit this unveiled diamond surrounded by pristine forest. Hike down all the way to the base of the highest waterfall in CR, you will feel yourself lost in time and a deep inner peace will accompany you all the way. Do an amazing rappel alongside the waterfall and after all those activities allow yourself a good meal and drink in a very comfortable restaurant. You can also spend the night in one of the 3 cozy rooms the lodge offers And continue your journey the next day. Cel: 399-7476, info @catarata-del-toro.com, www.catarata-del-toro.com
Drive an ATV through the area’s back roads, banana & fruit plantations, & into the forest to swim in a natural pool & visit a spectacular waterfall, all the while admiring Arenal Volcano’s ominous presence. Continue on to visit a Butterfly Farm. Tel: 479-8444.
Uego del Sol
This hotel in Playa Hermosa, Jacó, is the ultimate surfer’s paradise. Hermosa is one of the best-known beaches in the country for surfing due to its faithful right break. For non-surfers, the Hotel has a huge variety of activities to choose from. The 4 Suites & 17 Standard rooms all offer A/C, cable TV, telephone, terrace or balcony, and private bath. Suites include a living room & small kitchen. The Hotel also offers a food & beverage service poolside and on the beach. The Restaurant is located right on the beach and is well known for its great local & int’l. Cuisine. To reserve call: (506 289-6060) Hotel: (506 643-7171).
Arenal Observatory Lodge
The lodge is 1.7 miles from the Arenal Volcano & surrounded by thousands of acres of incredible rainforest. The lodge offers visitors a rare opportunity to view one of the world´s most active volcanos.
It boasts the best night-time volcano-watching being the closest lodging to the volcano, (for this reason the Smithsonian Institute maintains its Observation Post here !). The lodge is set in its own rainforest reserve adjoining the Arenal National Park &offers comfortable rooms, a jacuzzi, hearty meals & a variety of activities (hiking. Horseback riding, etc. Prices: mid-range.
Rain Forest Aerial Tram Caribbean
Just 50 minutes from San José lies a 475-hectare private reserve and sanctuary, which shelters an eco-tourism and research park unlike any in the world. The Rain Forest Aerial Tram located in the Braulio Carrillo National Park offers visitors the opportunity to observe and discover plants and the other forms of life that are usually hidden in the forest treetops, an unknown world of incredible beauty and extraordinary biological diversity.
Location: 5 km after the Río Sucio Bridge. On the Braulio Carrillo highway to Limón. Tour $49.50 for adults, children 0-12, and students with ID $24.75. Reservations necessary, call 228-8520, 228-7918 or 382-7523.
DIVING SAFARIS is located in beautiful Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste. Offering over 20 local dive sites and day trips to Catalina and Bat Islands PADI certification for beginners to assistant instructors and Nitrox is available. Partners with DAN in Dive Safety. Tel: 672-0012
Why We Love It
Statistically, Costa Rica is one of the highest-ranked countries in terms of human development. Only one in five natives live under the poverty line and the country is ranked 5th in the world for environmental sustainability. With impressive data like this, it is a pleasure to realize that Costa Rica is not only a lovely place to visit but also an ecologically responsible environment to praise.
In sharp contrast to the brutal internal conflicts in Guatemala or the grinding poverty of Nicaragua, Costa Rica has become synonymous with stability and prosperity – Costa Ricans enjoy the highest rate of literacy, health care, education, and life expectancy in the isthmus. Unlike so many of its neighbors, the country has a long democratic tradition of free and open elections, no standing army (it was abolished in 1948), and even a Nobel Peace Prize to its name, won by former president, Oscar Arias, a key architect in the Peace Plan that helped bring an end to the conflicts in the region during the 1980s.
In recent years Costa Rica has also become the prime eco-tourism destination in Central America, if not in all the Americas, due in no small part to an efficient promotion machine that trumpets the country’s complex system of national parks and wildlife refuges.
Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors – mainly from the United States and Canada – come to walk trails through million-year-old rainforests, raft foaming whitewater rapids, surf on the Pacific beaches, and climb the volcanoes that punctuate the country’s mountainous spine. More than anything it is the enduring natural beauty that impresses.
Milk-thick twilight and dawn mists gather in the clefts and ridges divided by high mountain passes; on the Pacific coast, carmine and mauve sunsets splash down into the sea like meteors; vaulting canopy trees and thick deciduous understoreys carpet large areas of undisturbed rainforest, and vestiges of high-altitude cloud forest offer glimpses into a misty, primeval universe, home to the jaguar, the lumbering Jurassic tapir and the truly resplendent quetzal.
One glib accusation you’re almost certain to hear lobbed at the tiny nation is that it has no culture or history. It’s certainly true that there are no ancient Mesoamerican monuments on the scale of Guatemala or Honduras, and just one percent of the population is of indigenous extraction, so you will see little native culture.
However, anyone who spends some time in the country will find that Costa Rica’s character is rooted in distinct local cultures, from the Afro-Caribbean province of Limón, with its Creole cuisine, games, and patois, to the traditional ladino values embodied by the sabanero (cowboy) of Guanacaste.
Above all, you’re sure to be left with mental snapshots of la vida campesina , or rural life – whether it be aloof horsemen trotting by on dirt roads, coffee-plantation day laborers setting off to work in the dawn mists of the Highlands, or avocado-pickers cycling home at sunset.