Written in January 2014 for MyDestination.com in London.
A travel guide to Costa Rica – beautiful beaches, exciting wildlife, and unlimited adventures
This exotic nation was voted the happiest country in the world back in 2012, and you can be part of that atmosphere. It boasts white beaches where you can relax, surf or scuba dive and offers a journey through history with its many museums. After a day of first-class shopping you can head out and explore the variety of inviting nightlife Costa Rica has to offer.
This province boasts rivers, forests and a National Park surrounding Volcano Arenal, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. The Ave Zoo, also a rescue centre for animals, is great for a family day out. Explore the beautiful scenery in the smaller regions, or visit the larger towns for a variety of tours and live music venues. Any coffee lovers? Visit Doka Estate to see the process from seed to cup, getting to taste them at the end.
Home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica, the long summer days of Guanacaste offer infinite activities from surfing to zip lining. With opportunities to relax, Rincon de la Vieja National Park is a must-see paradise full of wildlife, waterfalls and hiking trails and the Tempisque River provides perfect photo opportunities and spotting wildlife. See if a Sabaneros cowboy festival is being held during your visit, as these are traditional events that take place throughout the year and guarantee excitement.
Sandwiched between San Jose and Limon provinces, Cartago is peaceful and offers a cool climate, making it perfect for sugar cane fields and coffee plantations. Surrounded by volcanoes and mountains, it’s changing environment provides great opportunities to see the fantastic wildlife. Less populated than other provinces, it’s rich in culture, offering tourists a more traditional view of Costa Rica. There’s a stunning Byzantine style church and the ruins of the old ‘Parroquia’ in the town of Cartago, surrounded by a market and a park.
This province offers a diversity of landscape and altitude, opening your eyes to different types of forests, flora and fauna. Visit the town of Puerto Viejo if you enjoy boat trips or rafting, but go with an expert! Take an educational tour around the Café Britt coffee plantation in the town of Barva, or stop in Sacramento for a picnic in the scenery of the parks.
Unknown to tourists and not the place for pristine beaches, Limón province has a great community and a unique history. It offers the chance to bird-watch in mangrove swamps, or experience the creole cusine. Punta Uva is the best places to snorkel and is one of the last protected coral reefs. Tortuguero National Park is a protected zone, home to over 160 mammals, but tourists mainly visit to watch the turtles lay their eggs (between July and October).
The Puntarenas’ coastline is brimming with islands, beaches and stunning national treasures, meaning it’s lively year-round. Marino Del Pacifico Park is a main attraction, known for the historic train station and aquariums which are home to Pacific Ocean fish. Located in the Carara National Park is ‘Pura Vida’ waterfall, reaching 650ft and surrounded by pools for swimming in. There are three estuaries worth visiting for a range of boat trips and water sports for the more adventurous.
San Jose Province
San Jose Province is the main base for their democratic government and primary transportation links. The capital is full of bustling nightlife, museums, shopping malls and a buzzing nightlife not to be missed. There are numerous museums, a fantastic zoo and a diverse range of restaurants to choose from. Definitely go down to El Pueblo as it is a shopping centre by day, and clubbing district at night with over 50 bars, clubs and restaurants.
What to see and do – A guide to Costa Rica’s best attractions and activities.
Costa Rica is divided into 7 provinces, each providing tourists with a unique experience depending on their interests. Looking to top-up your tan on a beach in Playa Potrero? Or see the wildlife in Tortuguero? Anywhere along the Pacuare River is perfect for rafting and most beaches offer a variety of water sports, for those of you looking for adventure. In Costa Rica, there is so much to see and do that you won’t want to go home.
Costa Rica is becoming increasingly popular for scuba diving and although heavy rain and run-off from the rivers cloud the coastal waters, the Pacific Coast is the best place to dive from. With recommended tour companies such as Deep Blue Diving Adventures or Costa Rica Dive and Surf, you will be taken to the best spots and given all the help you need to make the most of your adventures. Playa del Coco is one of the popular beaches for young couples and teenagers, but the Catalina and Bat islands will open your eyes to sharks, octopus and even whales if you’re lucky.
Whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking
Due to the high annual rainfall rafting and kayaking are popular activities all year, on both rivers and seas. For the thrill seekers there are plenty of Class V sections such as Angostura to Peralta or Bajo Pacuare to San Martin. If you want to raft as a family or a beginner, there are plenty of calm rivers and tour guides to point you in the right direction. Try Dominical Surf Adventures, where regardless of experience the tour guides will ensure your safety comes first whilst allowing you to experience the waterfalls, wildlife and rivers of Costa Rica.
Exploring the volcanoes
Costa Rica’s most well-known volcano is Arenal, and the most active until 2010 when it entered a resting phase. Despite Arenal being one of the most visited sites in Costa Rica, there are many other volcanoes that are just as impressive. Ricon de la Vieja volcano is known for its nine craters that scatter the National Park and it’s worthwhile, but draining, six-mile hike to the top. Poas Volcano is one of the most active, and although it’s last eruption was in 1910, occasional visitors catch a glimpse of exploding geysers. Other volcanoes worth visiting are Irazu, Tenorio and Turrialba depending on which area you’re staying in.
Within an hour’s reach of the capital, Carara National Park is home to the American crocodile, capuchin monkeys and poison arrow frogs – don’t forget your insect repellent! Marino Las Baulas National Park was built to protect Leatherback turtles and Tortuguero National Park is an internationally recognised wetland, with 11 distinct habitats. Manuel Antonio is the number one National Park in most guides as it homes capuchin monkeys and a range of birds into a small jungle, lined with white-sand beaches.
Zoos and rescue centers
Animal shelters, rescue centers and zoos are scattered all over Costa Rica, leaving you with plenty of choice. Arenal Eco Zoo, in Arenal National Park and Zoo Ave in Alajuela both have excellent ratings and allow you to get up close to the majority of the animals. Although you have to go with a guide, don’t miss out on the Jaguar Rescue in Puerto Viejo de Limon, where a couple have been saving jaguars in Costa Rica for over 8 years. The Toucan Rescue Ranch in Heredia and Nosara Wildlife Rescue in Nosara are both heart-warming centers, rehabilitating the animals so they can be released into their natural habitat by dedicated, caring people.
For the busiest beaches in Costa Rica head to Puerto Viejo or Playa Del Coco, where the sands are lined with restaurants, bars and lots of activities. Manuel Antonio boasts the most beautiful, but also the most popular so you have a mixture of the sights and excitement. Those of you looking for tranquillity, five miles west of Puerto Viejo lies Punta Uva, hidden from the main road and surrounded by jungle you’ll be in paradise. For somewhere even more secluded, take a boat trip to Islas Tortugas, uninhabited islands that boast white sand and stunning turquoise waters.
Where to eat in Costa Rica – a guide to local food and drink.
Costa Rica has a unique cuisine consisting of rice and beans, fresh meats and seafood that make up most meals, and plenty of exotic fruits that are incorporated into their diets as snacks or refreshing drinks. Ingredients are grown close to home which means you’ll always be eating fresh and healthy meals and are normally seasoned with garlic, herbs and other mind blends.
Like every other country, you will find plenty of restaurants in Costa Rica that serve a mixture of international cuisines, adventurous takes on local dishes and provide diners with a great atmosphere. Although many meals are served with vegetables in them, you may struggle to find a decent meal if you’re a vegetarian as the Costa Rican cuisine is based largely on meat and seafood. In San Jose, Jardin del Parque is famous for its delicious meat-free alternatives with home grown ingredients. Surrounded by coastline, you have unlimited options as to which seafood to try, but be aware that in some places Corvina (Seabass) is in fact shark meat. If you’re staying in the capital of San Jose there are many restaurants that are open 24 hours and in many places a 10% service charge is added to the bill.
- Jardin del Parque: Calle 19, Ave 3era, Casa 172,San Jose 1000, Costa Rica
Some of the best local tastes can be found on the side of the road and often prepared in front of you. Costa Rica is no exception as you can try out the fruits, traditional rice and beans or a stir-fry. Corn is a local favourite and is used in most meals, but on the street stalls you will discover a variety of snacks such as corn pancakes, corn on the cob or empanadas, which are corn turnovers with a filling. No matter how willing you are to try new tastes, there are just a few you may want to avoid: Mondongo, which is tripe soup (steamed intestines). Vino de palma, is palm wine that will leave you with the most painful hangover and maybe consider avoiding chicharrones, the not so popular fried pig skin.
If you really want to experience the Costa Rican cuisine, venture out to a soda. These are generally smaller than restaurants and open air, offering no television or Wi-Fi so that people can focus on their meal and spend quality time together. Often family-run and with a hand-written menu, if they have one at all, so try and brush up on a few phrases before you go in case they don’t speak English. In a soda you will find typical Costa Rican dishes such as gallo pinto (rice and beans) or arroz con pollo (rice and chicken), often accompanied by a local beer or a fruity fresco. Soda Marvin in Montezuma is known for its wonderful hospitality and their variety of delicious meals at a good price, and the same can be said for Soda Viquez, in Arenal National Park.
- Soda Marvin: Cabuya,Montezuma, Costa Rica
- Soda Viquez: Calle 1 & Av Arenal,La Fortuna de San Carlos, Arenal Volcano National Park, Costa Rica
Due to the increasing international scene in Costa Rica, fine dining is becoming increasingly popular for locals and tourists alike. The exotic fruits and excellent choice of meats and seafood in the area allow chefs to create mouth-watering dishes with twists to existing cuisines, making their own more unique and offering diners a new taste. San Jose hosts the majority of the fine dining restaurants in the country, boasting a range of Chinese, Italian and Latin American cuisines in local restaurants and an experiment of Japanese and French tastes in the luxury restaurants. For an exceptional fine dining experience, spend some time at Restaurante Grano de Oro where you can choose from classic dishes and delicious desserts. The Park Café has a sterling reputation for service and exquisite food run by Louise and Michelin star chef Richard Neat.
- Restaurante Grano de Oro: Calle 30, Avenida 2 y 4| #251, San Jose 1007, Costa Rica
- Park Café Gourmet Restaurant & Antiques shop: Sabana Norte, San Jose, Costa Rica, 1000
Shopping in Costa Rica – where to go and what to buy
Costa Rica has a multitude of shopping opportunities for tourists and locals. There are shopping malls with modern stores and food courts for those who want to shop as if they’re at home. Scattered across the country are boutique stores and little stalls on the side of the roads, but also in the smaller villages hidden from the main road, you’ll discover local stores selling crafts and souvenirs.
If you’re looking for Nike, Adidas, Tiffany and other big brand names, you will find them in Costa Rica’s larger shopping malls. Modernised and full of cinemas, food courts and shops with national and international names you could easily spend most of the day in one of these malls. One of the most popular malls is Multiplaza, in Escazu and has over 365 shops, and Plaza Real Cariari in Heredia has over 23 food galleries, so once you’ve finished shopping, you can relax over a tasty meal. Terramall is 8km outside of Cartago and hosts a range of high-end and typical souvenir stores where you will find a range of clothing, perfumes and electronics.
Costa Rica has markets for food, wooden items and crafts but you will also find markets for tourists selling sunglasses, t-shirts and gifts for you to take home. San Jose’s Central Market is a flea market that sells coffee, souvenirs and many other treasures, and is also where the country’s first ice cream vendor set up. It accommodates both tourists and locals needs and attracts over 20,000 people per day, so prepare yourself for the crowds. Monteverde Local farmer’s market was established a few years ago but already hosts over 20 local vendors each Saturday morning. Shoppers are able to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables and roasted coffee, along with little treats to keep you going whilst you shop. If you have other plans for your Saturday, La Fortuna farmer’s market is open on a Friday and sells plenty of traditional foods and is a great way to support the local communities. The difference about shopping at markets in Costa Rica is that most of the produce was probably picked fresh this morning and will be riper and much fresher than what you would eat back home, so it’s worth trying out.
Boutiques and hidden treasures
Outside the major cities your shopping will be limited to boutique and speciality stores but in these you will find tradition and charm, and are likely to meet the people who’ve created what you are buying. Sarchi, the main town of Alajuela, is the most famous area of handicrafts in Costa Rica where you can shop at over 200 different stores and watching people making ox-carts, how the country’s national symbol. One store, highly recommended by visitors is the Taller Eloy Alfaro, where this family have been crafting ox-carts since 1923 and even the younger generations today are using old methods in their workshop. If you’re a nature lover it might be worth taking a visit to the Hummingbird Gallery, just outside the Monteverde reserve. It holds stunning nature photography and artwork by the local people, with feeders that continuously attract beautiful hummingbirds, providing great photo opportunities for visitors.
Tips and added extras
Much like other tourist destinations, you will find much of the same items in every town and even every market so make sure you compare prices at different stalls before making a purchase. Be conscious that people will try and scam you for more money and always be aware of pick-pockets. If you’re wanting to buy liquor, travellers have recommended waiting until you get to the duty free at the airport so it’s cheaper and you know it’s the real brand.
Where to stay in Costa Rica – A Neighbourhood Guide
Costa Rica has so much to offer its travellers that you need to consider what you really want to see and do. Are you comfortable sleeping close to the wild or is a 5-star hotel a must? Perhaps you want to stay near Costa Rica’s best beaches, or explore the rainforests and get a glimpse at the volcanoes? Whatever your budget, you’ll find something to match your holiday needs.
In the Central Pacific region of Costa Rica, above the captivating national park you will find spectacular views and sandy white beaches. The Arenas del Mar Beachfront resort offers a 5-star experience, with outdoor pools and within close proximity to the beaches and national park. The town also has smaller hotels like the Hotel Mono Azul the Natural Pacific suites, both offering excellent facilities at reasonable prices. Manuel Antonio offers tourists plenty of activities from surfing to catamaran tours, wildlife refuges and the national park.
Set on the Caribbean coast, boasting rainforests, beaches and lagoons, Tortuguero offers its visitors a mixture of tranquillity and adventure. It is accessible by boat or a short plane journey from San Jose, where you will find its National Park and breeding grounds for the Green Sea Turtle. Tortuga Lodge provides excellent service is described as ‘paradise’ by many of its guests, and with a hammock on your front porch you are surrounded by wildlife. Hotel Don Quichotte is close the beach and offers quiet, clean rooms at very reasonable prices. There is a hostel in the town, Cabinas El Icaco, with very basic rooms but is clean and safe right on the beach front.
The perfect place to explore the nature of Costa Rica, with the cloudforest and its string of volcanoes, there are numerous museums, coffee plantations and outdoor activities for all. Hotel Belmar offers exclusive quality with chalet style rooms, restaurants, spa services and a private forest trail. Those looking for something cheap and cheerful, Sunset hotel is run by friendly staff and is close to local amenities and anyone ECO-friendly may choose the Hotel Cipreses, known for finding alternative ways to reduce natural resources. Activities in the area include horseback tours, the bat jungle and the hummingbird gallery.
Rincon de la Vieja
Located in the Guanacaste region, Rincon de la Vieja offers a little piece of everything Costa Rica has to offer. From dazzling waterfalls to sandy beaches, volcanoes to cowboys and a range of adventurous activities such as rafting and mountain biking. La Anita Rainforest Ranch is hidden amongst rainforest and nature and gives their guests the opportunities to take farm tours, workshops and be a part of their unique set-up. There are a variety of lodges available in the town that are cheap and offer clean and quiet rooms, perfect for those travelling on a budget. The Vandara Hot Springs are great for a relaxing afternoon and the canopy tours are perfect if you’re looking for a different way to view the scenery.