Guide to inland Costa Rica from cloudforest to volcanoes, jungle to tropical dry forests.
Costa Rica’s capital lies in the fertile Central Valley, a 30 minute drive from the airport.
Active volcanoes, jungle rivers, rich cloudforest and fields of coffee plantations can all be found within a few hours’ drive of the capital.
The San José area is home to a third of the country’s population and the city is correspondingly bustling and congested, although less alarmingly chaotic than some of the larger Latin American cities.
It’s worth a visit to get to know everyday local life and to see the national museums and public buildings. The climate is pleasant year round and it’s small and easy to navigate once you come to terms with its grid system.
Some locals drive aggressively and often erratically, but even downtown San José is quite manageable with care and a cool head.
There are a couple of interesting museums within the city itself, the best of which include the Jade Museum, home to the largest collection of jade in the Americas, and the Precolumbian Gold Museum, with its glittering display of delicate and beautifully crafted figurines.
If you have a spare half hour, the bustling Plaza de la Cultura is the ideal place to find a bench, sit back and watch the world go by.
Arenal Volcano rises in a symmetrical cone above the town of La Fortuna and the surrounding lowlands.
The volcano is caused by the Cocos Plate being driven under the Caribbean plate at a rate of 9cm a year it is one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
The volcano sends out almost daily outpourings of incandescent lava, mushroom clouds of gas and steam, and ejecting hot boulders which bounce down the slopes – all of which helps to ease the build up of pressure deep inside the volcano.
Arenal Volcano is most impressive on a clear night when the red-hot lava can often be seen flowing from the south-western side of the crater.
In the daytime, ash clouds can be seen billowing up from the crater, and there are rumblings from deep within. The volcano can be almost totally obscured in poor weather, which is frustratingly common.
However, the area offers plenty of other attractions when the volcano is hidden.
A boat trip across Lake Arenal provides some stunning views of the surrounding hillsides, as does a visit to the Hanging Bridges, a series of suspended pathways through the forest canopy.
The forests can be explored at your own pace without a guide, but if you want to hike in the forest near the volcano a guided tour is a must for your own safety.
There is also a number of hot springs to be found locally, where you can relax in the thermal waters with the deep rumblings of the volcano as a soundtrack.
If you plan to stay here it is worth having your own hire car, as the activities are not all within walking distance of each other and local taxis often charge a premium.
For your personal safety never venture beyond the permitted areas and do not attempt to hike near the crater. Although the volcano is not dangerous at a distance there is a very real danger in the off-limits areas. Poisonous gas emissions, ash columns and incandescent avalanches are all regular occurrences; they can appear or change direction without warning, and do claim lives.
Located on the edge of the Braulio Carrillo National Park, Sarapiqui makes an excellent stopover on journeys between Tortuguero and Arenal or Bosque de Paz.
There are plenty of activities on offer locally, one of the best being white water rafting on the Sarapiqui River. The route starts at the lodge and runs 13 km downriver to Chilamate, lasting around 2 hours. The rapids are class II and III, which should get the heart rate going.
For a real adrenaline rush, river tubing and rappelling are also available, along with a canopy zip-wire. If you prefer to take things at a gentler pace then guided tours through the National Park on foot or horseback are on offer too.
Just down the road from Sarapiqui is La Selva Biological Reserve, home to over 1,900 species of plant, 330 tree species and over 400 species of bird.
The 3,900-acre reserve is one of the most important areas in the country for tropical research, and a very pleasant few hours can be spent wandering along the trails here.
Bosque de Paz & Bajos del Toro
Set on the slopes of the continental divide north of San José, the Bajos del Toro region is home to another quiet pocket of cloudforest.
The private reserve of Bosque de Paz covers 3000 acres of forested hillside, ranging from 1,450-2,450 metres. Visitor numbers here are strictly managed, so the self-guided trails are peaceful and uncrowded.
The twelve-room, family-run lodge which owns and manages the reserve provides an excellent base from which to explore. Overlooking the surrounding woodland, the lodge’s gardens have been strung with nectar feeders to attract hummingbirds and butterflies.
A small stream tumbles through the garden, and strategically placed easy chairs provide the perfect tonic to a morning spent walking in the cloud forest.
San Gerardo Cloudforest
Despite its proximity to San Jose, San Gerardo remains possibly the least disturbed region of cloudforest in the country.
Here deserted forest trails wind through trees laden with bromeliads, ferns and orchids. The only sounds come from the babbling mountain streams and the abundant birdlife.
San Gerardo is home to over 170 bird species and is the best place in Costa Rica to catch a glimpse of the iridescent plumage of the Resplendent Quetzal, considered to be one of the most beautiful birds in the world.
Other common sights include humming birds, colourful butterflies and exotic frogs. Nestled in the Savgre River valley, San Gerardo is also rife with peach, plum and apple orchards, which form the small community’s main livelihood.
From San Jose, the road to San Gerardo curls through the Cordillera de Talamanca mountain range, passing over the Cerro de la Muerte. At 3,491m this is the second highest point in Costa Rica and its paramos vegetation is similar to that found in the Andes, with grassy swamps punctuated by thick shrubs.
Monteverde & Santa Elena Cloudforest
The popular region of Monteverde combines the rich flora and fauna of the cloudforest with high-octane adrenaline.
Here you can choose to wander along the well-marked forest trails or make like Tarzan and whizz through the treetops on a zip wire. Numerous horse-riding tours are on offer and you can also hire mountain bikes to explore some parts of the reserve.
A well-maintained system of canopy walkways provides a unique view of the cloudforest; particularly interesting in this habitat where as much biodiversity can be found between the branches as on the forest floor.
The humming bird gallery is well worth a visit to watch the dozens of multicoloured species that gather at the nectar feeders.
On the other side of the village is the women’s co-operative, which was originally set up by eight female artists to help improve the lives of their families.
Now with around 90 members, it serves to enhance the social and economic welfare of local female artists. The shop is an Aladdin’s cave of handicrafts, wall hangings and ceramics, plus every conceivable kind of trinket made from the locally grown coffee.
Rincon de la Vieja
Bordering Nicaragua to the north, the Guanacaste province is the hottest and driest part of Costa Rica.
Outside of the region’s capital, Liberia, there is little development and the volcanic landscape is dotted with cattle ranches.
One of the few regions that still feels typically ‘Costa Rican’, Rincon is a real hidden gem.
Located in the northwest not far from the border with Nicaragua, Rincon is also one of the hottest areas in the country, and the rolling landscape is largely covered by tropical dry forest.
Despite the wizened trees and dusty trails this is still a surprisingly green province, with clear babbling streams and lush pasture.
This is cowboy territory, and home to numerous working cattle ranches, some of which also function as hotels.
Take a guided walk or horse ride through the National Park to the slopes of the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, passing bubbling mud pools, sulphurous vents and fumaroles en route.
There are plenty of opportunities to try something a little more adventurous too, with canyoning, tubing and rafting tours on offer on the Rio Salto.