A bastion of progressive environmental policy and biodiversity, this small Central American country is a land of mystical natural beauty. One-quarter of Costa Rica’s territory is protected in dozens of nature reserves, national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries that encompass landscapes of lush rainforest, canyons, volcanoes, and pristine beaches. The abundance of wildlife in Costa Rica is absolutely fantastic; monkeys, caimans, dolphins, florescent-colored fish, over 900 species of birds, and a few-hundred-thousand more plants and insects round off the list. From hiking in mountains to cloud forests, rafting white-water rivers to crashing surf, canopy zip-lines to scuba-diving, Costa Rica offers a limitless array of outdoor adventures. Go horseback riding on the beach at sunset or bird-watching in the early hours of morning, and know that in a country this size, you can get a little taste of everything. Ecotourism in Costa Rica is an art form, and you will find no shortage of unique lodges and delicious food; farm-to-table restaurants take on a whole new flavor in this paradise of exotic fruits and fresh seafood. With happy, welcoming people as your guides to the pura vida experience emphasizing healthy eating, active living, and generally relaxing and enjoying life, your Costa Rica adventure awaits.
A big city with the small town ambiance of distinctive neighborhoods, San José is the commercial and cultural hub and the country’s lively capital. San José remained a small city until after WWII, and its colonial legacy is largely absent in the city’s architecture; but there are a few gems amidst the somewhat chaotic concrete sprawl, like the Teatro Nacional, and the historic mansions of Barrio Amón converted to art-galleries, hotels, and shops. Several quality museums host natural history exhibits as well as distinguished collections of pre-Columbian gold and jade artifacts. Shaded parks, bustling fruit markets, and upscale restaurants and hotels make this a great base for a few days of urban exploration or day trips into the serenity of the surrounding Central Valley. From here, it is just a short journey to the top of a mountain or the lush fields of a coffee plantation, or any number of thrilling outdoor experiences.
A town set in the mountainous territory of northwestern Costa Rica on the continental divide, Monteverde is known for its enigmatic cloud forests. The nearby Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is home to incredible biodiversity, fantastic hiking, and where if you are lucky and the skies are clear, you can see to both the Pacific and Atlantic. Countless species call these forests home, from jaguars and butterflies to the vividly colored resplendent quetzal, which seems to shimmer across the green spectrum of their habitat. With a guide to help you spot wildlife and learn about the fascinating dynamics of the cloud forests, and quality restaurants and services, this is a destination for travelers of all stripes. Just down the road, in the Reserva Santa Teresa you will find the calmer counterpart to the Monteverde Cloud Forest.
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
Perched on the central Pacific coast of the country, this national park offers excellent chances of spotting some of Costa Rica’s most iconic species. With great hotels just outside the park boundaries, but tight regulations on what you can bring when entering, this densely packed rainforest-marine reserve is a slice of paradise. There are trails to viewpoints and to quiet beaches where you can nestle into the shade of the forest with waves lapping at your feet. With so much to see, it is a good idea to visit with a well-informed local guide who will know the best areas for finding sloths, monkeys, and spotting the most elusive birds.
Parque Nacional Corcovado
Here, rainforest comes crashing into idyllic Pacific sand coastline on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. The sprawling tropical forest is home to incredible biodiversity, including elusive species like Baird’s tapirs, jaguars, scarlet macaws, and harpy eagle, the world’s largest bird of prey. Encompassing some of the last remaining old growth forests in Central America, there is spectacular hiking and backpacking to be done here, and no end to the flora and fauna that you will find in a landscape that spans mangrove swamps, rainforest, highland cloud forest, all the way to the ocean. Trekking through Corcovado is an experience of a lifetime.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
This tiny surf town turned ecotourist haven may see more traffic these days, but it has held onto its focus of environmental protection and eco-friendly development. Known among surfers for the huge Salsa Brava break, Puerto Viejo is a magical stretch of sandy beaches on the southern Caribbean coast. With delightful beaches, and the black-sand Playa Negra, just outside of town, you can have beachfront tranquility with easy access to quality restaurants and lodging. Wander a few blocks off the main avenues and you are transported to entirely different environment of farms and locals’ haunts. Kick back and let the soothing Caribbean sun wash over you, and if you start to feel restless, there are parks and reserves to explore within easy reach. Coral reef protected in nearby Cahuita National Park makes for great snorkeling and scuba-diving.
Tamarindo & Guanacaste Coast
An idyllic expanse of Pacific coastline in the northwestern part of the country, the Guanacaste Coast is a glorious fusion of tranquil beaches and lush lowland mountain forests. Enjoy the easy-going surf culture of Tamarindo, a bay of white sand that swoops between verdant hills, where you will also find amazing food and a wide array of shops and hotels. The region offers fantastic road and mountain biking routes, infinite options for hiking, and if you don’t want to leave the lucent blue water you can go snorkeling, diving, fishing, or take surfing lessons. Biodiverse national parks, volcanoes, waterfalls, beaches, serenity and animated nightlife, simplicity and luxury, the Guanacaste Coast has it all.
This remote village on the northern Caribbean coast, embedded in Parque Nacional Tortuguero, is accessible only by boat and small airplane. The beaches of Tortuguero are famous for being the nesting grounds for several kinds of sea turtles. With a guide, you can venture out under the starlight and witness the incredible sight of hordes of sea turtles climbing onto the beach to lay eggs. Though the peak season is July and August, and February to April, there is a good chance to find sea turtles at any time of the year. This is an area that gets a lot of rainfall, but as a result there is an abundance of freshwater lagoons and canals that wend their way through the park, and make for great wildlife watching. So take a cruise on a small launch, or paddle your way quietly in canoes or kayaks for a chance to see monkeys, an array of birds, and maybe even tapirs or manatees.
Santa Teresa & Mal País
The area between Santa Teresa and Mal País is long string of beautiful beaches on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific. Santa Teresa is a vibrant surf town that has blossomed into a favorite spot among travelers looking for a slightly more low-key version of what Tamarindo has to offer. Yoga classes, international cuisine, horseback riding, and consistent surf make this a haven for relaxation. Down the road to the south is the sleepy fishing village of Mal País that has avoided larger development and feels a little more forgotten. Its sandy beaches are broken up by rocky outcroppings, which lends a rugged air to this gorgeous stretch of Pacific coast. On the southernmost tip of the peninsula, Cabo Blanco—the country’s first national park—makes for a fantastic day trip of hiking and wildlife watching.
Rising from verdant forest to a nearly perfect cone, Volcán Arenal now lies dormant after over half a century of regularly spewing lava and ash. Having sat quietly for 500 years until an earthquake stirred it into activity in 1968, scientists now expect the volcano to remain subdued for hundreds of years. Though the near nightly shows of fire and lava are no longer, there is no end of activities to enjoy in this incredible landscape. Volcán Arenal towers over the Laguna de Arenal and the surrounding national park which is home to hiking paths, rushing waterfalls, mountain bike trails, and hot springs. Nearby, there are quality restaurants and coffee shops to top off a full day of adventure.