Costa Rica Travel Guide
It may be a small country in land mass, but Costa Rica is one of the world’s biggest natural playgrounds. Bordered between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica boasts the world’s largest density of flora and fauna in addition to a varied terrain of mountains, valleys, forests, volcanoes, beaches, lakes and rivers.
With so much to see, deciding where to go can often be the hardest part of your trip planning process. Often, a good first step is to choose one or two destinations, and then complementary locations can be found based on time constraints, proximity, and interest.
The country has plenty of beaches, both in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, within short travel distances. Beach-lovers staying along the Pacific Coast should head to Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula’s palm-fringed coastline for sun and surf. Nature-seekers staying in the Northern Plains or along the Caribbean coast should pay a visit to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca before venturing inland to zip-line above Monteverde’s Cloud Rainforest and hike Arenal Volcano. Whether it’s sun, adventure, or nature you seek, there’s much to discover in this forest-and-beach laden paradise. However, most visitors look for adventure activities. Costa Rica was included by Ethical Traveler magazine in the 2011 and the 2012 list of “The Developing World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations”.
Costa Rica protects over 25% of its national territory within national parks. Eco tourism is a central focus of development and it shows. The country is stunning and unspoiled and the will is there to keep it that way. However one would have to exempt San Jose itself from this assessment.
San Jose, the capital, is on a plateau in the Central Valley at 1500 meters elevation. It is ringed by lush green mountains and valleys. The population of this city is probably half of the whole country. It contains the primary airport, the University of Costa Rica, the US’ and other embassies and many museums, cultural venues, hotels, markets, etc. It is the hub of the country.
Taxis are generally cheap. A ride inside the city center will normally cost 500-1000 colones. Basically a couple dollars, which they will accept, will get you anywhere in the city. There are many museums worth seeing here.
Located on the Pacific Coast, Tamarindo is a popular destination for couples and families looking for a good time. With spectacular beaches and rainforests, Tamarindo is the epitome of everything that Costa Rica prides herself on. The town is nice and small, a sort of minature tropical paradise. You can find taxis, rent cars, or scooters.
Numerous lagoons in the area are filled with wonderful wildlife. Incredible sunsets and sunrises on beautiful beaches add to the overall experience. Rainforests are just a short ride away, as well as volcanoes and other aspects of nature unique to this region of Costa Rica.
Tamarindo has become a mecca for surfers and blue water sport fishermen, with a sport fishing fleet of talented and conservation oriented captains who are the pioneers of the Pacific coast. Their record catches of marlin, sailfish, giant tuna and other species have become legendary. Whether you want deep bluewater fishing, or reef or shoreline fishing, the fleet can accommodate you. Surf casting and handlining in front of your villa for snook and jack are also popular. Any way you do it you can be sure to have your fresh catch cooked up for you at one of the friendly beachfront restaurants.
Warm water surfing is enjoyed year ’round and families find this area offers opportunities for surfers of all skill levels to enjoy the great waves that bless this part of the coast.
Visitors also can choose to SCUBA dive, snorkel, go on beach cruises, water ski, jet ski, go ocean and river kayaking, wind surfing, sailing cruises and horseback riding. Bicycles, beach gear, surfboards, boogie boards and equipment of all types are available for rental from specialty stores.
In addition, there are only a few places in the world where the Giant Leatherback Turtle comes to lay her eggs, and National Park Las Baulas is one of them. A short ride from Tamarindo, watching this beautiful part of nature is a once in a lifetime event.
About 80 miles from San Jose’s airport is Jaco, one of the two largest party cities on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Jaco is fairly small, and it’s easy to see the entire town in one day. But you can also just as easily take your time and spend several days exploring, shopping, going to the beach, surfing, dining out, going to bars, and taking tours in the Jaco area. If you have a rental car, a drive along the Western Costa, along the Costanera is very beautful, and offers many opportunities to stop, take pictures, or find private, secluded beaches. Manuel Antonio, one of Costa Rica’s National Parks, is an hour drive from Jaco, and is nearly a straight shot South along the Costanera highway.
Surfing and Boogie Boarding are extremely popular, and it’s fairly inexpensive to rent a board for the day. There are many shops along Jaco’s main street that offer surfboard/boogie board rentals. Laying out on the beach and swimming are nice, although the water in Jaco is quite dangerous, and there are often riptides and large waves. The beach is beautiful, however the black sand at midday is scorching hot. There are some fantastic restaurants in Jaco, including some excellent Sodas, the local traditional restaurant. At night there are numerous clubs and bars that stay open late. La Central is a well-known dance club that has quite a reputation. Be cautious and careful when you go there. The Beatle Bar, which looks quite welcoming from the outside, is actually where most of the city’s prostitutes spend their time. La Bruja is a quieter bar closer to Jaco’s center, as is Onyx. A short drive from Jaco, in Playa Hermosa, there is a great, mellow bar called The Backyard. It’s an excellent retreat from the more rowdy bars and clubs of the Jaco center.
Though not particularly scenic, Alajuela does offer a less-hectic glimpse of Central Valley city life and a friendly atmosphere. In the center of the city is located the Historic Museum Juan SantamarÃa. This museum is dedicated to the 1856’s Campaign against a filibusters invaders, who wanted to take control of Central America. There isn’t much to see in the town itself, is an excellent spot for beginning and ending a trip.
Cartago is a city about 25 km (15 miles) east of the capital, San Jose. It is at an elevation of about 1435 m (some 4930 ft) above sea level on the Cartago River, at the base of the Irazu Volcano. It was the first capital of Costa Rica and a visit to the Cartago region can provide a flashback in time. The points of interest in this region are: Irazu Volcano National Park, Tapanti National Park, Chirripo National Park, Braulio Carrillo National Park, the Lankester Botanical Gardens, Las Ruins, and the Basilica, home of “La Virgen de los Angeles”.
Heredia is a university town in the San Jose metro area. The town itself is unexceptional but friendly. The town’s square, parque centrale, is adorable and charming. A church and restaurants line this square, as well as many college students and romantics.
Fortuna (La Fortuna de San Carlos) is a small town in the north of Costa Rica. It is mostly famous for its nearby Arenal Volcano (1633m) that has been constantly erupting since 1968. The Arenal Volcano is a destination for scientists and tourists alike as it erupts on an average of 41 times a day.
Arenal Volcano tours usually start out in the early afternoon and include walking for about an hour through lava rocks before reaching El Mirador, the best place to view the eruption from the volcano. There are also possibilities of skipping the lava rock walking and go straight to El Mirador. At the observation point you hopefully will see eruptions and lava flow that can be quite spectacular set against the black night sky, but often it will be so cloudy that you won’t see a thing.
Located on the Osa peninsula in southern Costa Rica Parque Nacional Corcovado provides excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Corcovado boasts all four monkey species of Costa Rica (squirrel, white-faced, howler, and spider), many endangered large cat species and other mammals, birds, and a host of exotic frog, fungi, and insect species. Corcovado has such an impressive biodiversity partly because it encompasses many different microclimates and types of terrain, but mostly because it is isolated from heavy human impact.
Manuel Antonio is a national park on the mid-Pacific coast of Costa Rica, just south of the city of Quepos. The park is open 7am until 4pm every day except Monday. Visit early, because it is a very popular park and can get very crowded. In the park there is a lot of wildlife to be seen, for instance: Squirrel monkeys, white-faced monkeys, sloths, iguanas, crabs, toucans, bats, birds. You can hike (there are 4 short trails in the park, 1-3 km) or relax at the beautiful beaches inside the park, the water is normally clear-blue in color.
Cocos Island is located in the Eastern Tropical Pacific approximately 300 miles southwest of Cabo Blanco, Costa Rica. A rugged and incredibly beautiful island, today Cocos Island is the most sacred National park in Costa Rica’s extensive park system.
Among Cocos Island’s many attributes is a startling degree of biodiversity. This island’s world-renowned waters explode with life, including innumerable white tip reef sharks, schooling hammerhead sharks, dolphins, mantas and marbled rays, giant moray eels, sailfish, and of course the occasional whale shark. Other common encounters are large schools of jacks and tuna, silky sharks, silver tip sharks, marlin, Creole fish, green turtles and octopus. On the Island you will encounter a lot of pigs and not much else besides the usual vegitation.
Since this is an island you will see a lot of ocean, but if you ever get the chance to step foot on the island and are some what physically fit we highly recommend taking the hike to the top of the island with a guide. It is one of the most magnificent views.
Other tourist destinations in Costa Rica are: Cahuita National Park, Chirripo Nationa Park, Pacuare River & Protected Zone and Monteverde & Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves.
Because Costa Rica is located only about eight degrees north of the equator, the climate is tropical year round. However, this varies depending on elevation and rainfall.
Costa Rica’s seasons are defined by how much it rains during a particular period. The year can be easily split into two periods. The summer season is from December to May, and is the time of year when it is not as wet. Winter is the period from May to November, and during this time, in many locations, it rains constantly.
The mean annual temperature on the coastal lowlands is around 27°C, 21°C in the main populated areas of the Central Cordillera, and below 10°C on the summits of the highest mountains.