Many of Costa Rica’s main sights are located within this compact central area. With San José at its heart, the region spreads out across the Central Valley towards the Continental divide. Active volcanoes, jungle rivers, rich cloudforest and fields of coffee plantations can all be found within a few hours drive of the capital.
San José – capital city
San Gerardo – cloudforest
Arenal – volcano and tropical lowlands
Monteverde – cloudforest
Bajos del Toro – cloudforest
Sarapiqui – tropical lowlands
Costa Rica’s capital lies in the fertile Central Valley, a 30 min drive from the airport. 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.
San Gerardo de Dota
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.
Arenal is most famous for the active volcano, which spews forth molten rock and ash on a daily basis. On a clear night the incandescent eruptions and snaking lava trails are particularly impressive against the dark sky.
At 1,657m the summit is often obscured by cloud, but 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.
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.
Bajos del Toro (Bosque de Paz)
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 cloudforest.
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.
Whilst Costa Rica’s wild east coast may not fit the typical picture-postcard image of the Caribbean, its jungle-lined shores provide numerous other enticements. To the north, the wetland forests of Tortuguero are positively teeming with wildlife, while the heady Afro-Caribbean culture of the south coast provides an interesting contrast to the rest of the country.
Set on the wild beaches of the Caribbean coast, Tortuguero National Park is one of the best places for wildlife viewing in the country.
The forest here is flooded, so boats replace cars as the principle mode of transportation. A number of lodges border the park, all providing a simple yet relatively comfortable standard of accommodation.
The daily tours are usually conducted on a shared basis by the lodges’ trained naturalist guides. While the programme can feel somewhat regimented, there really is no substitute for exploring the forest by boat.
Gliding silently along the narrow waterways rather than trampling en masse through the undergrowth gives you the best chance of seeing the creatures before they become too aware of your presence.
On one half-day tour it is not uncommon to see quite a staggering amount of wildlife. Troupes of White-faced capuchin monkeys hop nimbly across the branches overhead and shy Spider monkeys peer through the foliage.
River turtles take advantage of the chinks of sunlight and bask on half-submerged logs, while tiger herons stalk the riverbanks. Overhead toucans, parrots and kingfishers provide period flashes of colour. If you are lucky you may catch a glimpse of a river otter’s sleek back or a caiman’s snout as they break the murky water.
Puerto Viejo and Cahuita
The stretch of coast running south from Puerto Limon towards the Panamanian border was, until quite recently, quite cut-off from the rest of the country. As such the region has its own distinct atmosphere, shaped in large part by its Afro-Caribbean heritage. Most of the residents are of Jamaican descent, with Creole, known as ‘Mekatelyu’, often spoken in place of Spanish.
The coastline is dotted with small villages, where the pace of life is laidback and the culture friendly and informal. Reggae replaces the more frenetic Latino beats in local cafés and surfers flock to the shores to catch the famous ‘Salsa Brava’ wave.
Banana cultivation is the region’s staple employment and the surrounding landscape is chequered with fields of towering green plants. Somewhat surprisingly, bananas rather than coffee are Costa Rica’s most valuable export, and the South Caribbean is one of the main areas of production.
Aside from the variety of water sports on offer, activities such as aerial zip wiring, cycling and canopy tours provide plenty of energetic ways to explore the jungle which lines the coast.
There are many beautiful beaches spanning Costa Rica’s Pacific coast with some quite spectacular hotels. Rather than concentrate on the larger resorts of Jaco and Tamarindo, the following are some of our favourite beach destinations, which still retain their character and are not too touristy.
Nosara and Samara
The laid-back villages of Nosara and Samara on the Pacific coast provide a welcome antidote to the busier resorts further north.
Once nothing more than small fishing hamlets, both have grown to include a good selection of hotels, beachfront cafes and restaurants, but still retain a peaceful, local atmosphere.
The beaches here are some of the best in the country and are fringed by tropical forest or mangroves. Surfing, horse riding along the beach, nature walks and mountain biking are all on offer if you want to be active.
As there is little development down here it’s best to have your own hire car to give you the freedom to explore should the mood take you.
Set on the Central Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio is possibly the most scenically beautiful national park in the country, with lush tropical forest fringing pristine white sandy beaches.
The park itself includes four sheltered beaches, which stretch along the undulating coastline. The first of these is separated by a natural land bridge or ‘tombolo’, formed over many years by sand accumulation.
A trail leads from the main entrance to the park, winding up through the forest to open out at Punta Catedral (100m), revealing stunning views across the jungle-covered tombolo and out to sea. White-faced Capuchin monkeys clatter around in the treetops, while coatmundi and iguanas scurry about the forest floor. Other common sights include sloths, toucans and parakeets.
The park’s beauty has made this area understandably popular, and the village has grown in recent years into a bustling town, with a variety of cafes and restaurants. Most hotels are located among the trees on the hillside overlooking the sea.
The large rolling waves off the beaches of Dominical have made this Central Pacific resort very popular with surfers. The once tiny fishing village has certainly grown in recent years, but it still retains the charm that now, sadly, eludes some of its larger neighbours further up the coast.
Playa Dominica stretches for around 4km along the coast and is smattered with a selection of hotels, lodges, cafes and restaurants.
In fact the food here is some of the best in Costa Rica, with a great selection of seafood restaurants to suit every pocket. The small ‘sodas’ (snack bars) selling fresh lobster and crab are not to be missed.
One of the greatest draws of Dominical is its proximity to Corcovado National Park, which can be easily accessed on a day trip for a chance to see some truly incredible wildlife. Tours tend to sell at a premium locally, so it is worth booking in advance.
There is also plenty to do around Dominical itself, including horse riding and walking tours to the nearby Nauyaca Waterfalls.
Strong swells and rip tides make this an unpredictable area for swimming, but excellent diving and snorkeling opportunities can be found on day trips to Caño Island, or along the coast at the Marino Ballena National Park.
Stretching over the western flank of the Osa Peninsula, the Corcovado National Park is, according to National Geographic Magazine, the most biologically diverse region in the world.
Boasting the largest remaining stretch of tropical lowland forest on the planet, the park is home to thirteen major ecosystems, 140 species of mammal, 400 bird species and 116 amphibian and reptile species.
Osa also harbours the largest population of Scarlet Macaw in Central America, more than 100 species of butterflies and six of large cat, including the elusive jaguar.
In layman’s terms, this astounding biodiversity means you can expect some truly fantastic wildlife viewing. Within a few days it is not unusual to spot Howler, White-faced Capuchin and Spider monkeys, two and three-toed sloth and Silky Anteater, not to mention a variety of colourful parrots, toucans and hummingbirds.
The marine life rivals that of the forest and the Isla del Caño Biological Reserve, 20km off the coast of the peninsula, is a particular hotspot for scuba divers or snorkelers.
The water here is clear and calm, perfect conditions to see the stingrays, manta rays, moray eels, barracudas and variety of other fish and shark species that inhabit the reserve.
If you don’t want to get your hair wet a boat trip across the Golfo Dulce or to Caño Island provides its own excitements, with pods of dolphins playing chase in the wake. From December to April the park also falls into the migratory path of humpback whales.
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.
Rincon de la Vieja
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.