Costa Rica’s natural bounty is legendary. The crown jewel of eco resorts and sustainable tourism, it’s the best place to explore jungles, oceans and volcanoes in a responsible way. Glimmering with gold, coffee, relaxed living, fantastic geography and wildlife, it’s no wonder many travelers visit this intriguing country again and again.
San José – Costa Rica & the Golden Bean
In 1798, the Costa Rican government gave away land and coffee plants to locals who were willing to cultivate a harvest for export. The combination of rich volcanic soil, cool mountain temperatures, shade and rain yielded bumper crops—and the era of coffee barons began. The wealth that the coffee trade brought to the nation created a vibrant capital (San José) with lush parks, grand cultural venues and spectacular buildings, many of which are still around. Take in a performance at the National Theater or book a room or dinner reservation at the Hotel Grano de Oro to soak in the flavor of Victorian treasures. The hotel’s name means “the golden grain,” a reference to the golden bean (coffee), which was nicknamed for its profits, rather than its color. While bananas and pineapples now surpass coffee in export value, cafecito (coffee) still reigns as a beloved daily ritual of Costa Rican culture.
Plan a day trip to one of the many working plantations outside the city to learn about the life of a coffee bean from crop to cup. The Café Monteverde Coffee Tour takes you to the Cooperativa de Santa Elena (a small-farm cooperative) near the Monteverde Cloud Forest. A local farmer will explain the harvesting process and coffee fruit grading system, after which visitors get to pick and taste ripe coffee berries. The tour then moves to the processing mill, where the berries are separated, dried and roasted. At tour’s end, you’ll get a chance to taste and buy a variety of fair-trade coffee from the cooperative farms.
San José – Nuggets of Gold
While the famous ruins of Tikal receive flocks of visitors, the lesser-known Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quiriguá lie tucked away in a clearing of tropical jungle amidst banana plantations, approx. four hours northeast of Guatemala City.
Quiriguá emerged from its role as a jade trading outpost and way station between Mayan strongholds Copán and Tikal to control the principal trade route that ran from the Caribbean to the Mayan civilization. It became a major ceremonial center that required grand processional spaces and structures. Setting it apart from other Mayan sites are its massive zoomorphs—animal forms representing gods that are carved from giant boulders and decorated with intricate designs, figures and glyphs (ancient symbols). Wander along the Great Plaza to palaces, temples and Acropolis ruins and contemplate how the mammoth slabs of carved stone (the largest weighs over 60 tons) were carved without the use of metal tools. The building of this ancient city came to a halt in the late 8th century, and Quiriguá mysteriously faded from civilization in the early 9th century—its demise potentially caused by a great earthquake. Fortunately, it survives as a heritage site mostly hidden from the masses.
Alajuela – Saving the Macaws
Although macaws once occupied 98% of Costa Rica, deforestation and poaching have drastically decreased their numbers to less than 250 (mostly in the northern jungles near Sarapiquí). Fortunately, the ARA Project stepped in to help these colorful, boisterous birds on their recovery. Started by a couple who took in abandoned and confiscated birds, this nonprofit organization and zoological park breeds and releases great green and scarlet macaws into Costa Rican jungles with the help of many volunteers. Just by visiting, you can help raise funds to keep the project going and subsidize its future relocation to Punta Islita in the Guanacaste province. During a two-hour tour at the facility (a few miles northwest of San José’s International Airport), you can learn about the challenges faced by the birds in the wild and what it takes to breed, raise and release them—including a steady diet of fruit and almonds.
Tours cost $20 U.S. and are by appointment only. When you get to the park, get ready for some noise. In addition to the very vocal macaws, you’ll find 17 dogs that were taken in as strays to help protect the birds from theft.
Tenorio National Park – A Paintbrush in the River
Northwest of San José and the world-famous Arenal National Park, a much less-traveled park boasts piercing blue rivers and lagoons, waterfalls, geysers, mudpots and thermal hot springs—set amidst lush, tropical vegetation. Less than two hours from La Fortuna, the tranquil Tenorio National Park is home to the remarkable Río Celeste (Blue River), which runs alongside the main hiking trail. According to local legend, the ethereal blue color was created when the gods painted the sky and dipped the paintbrush into the river. A mix of minerals provided a scientific explanation for the color until 2013, when a team of experts decided the color was due to an optical illusion produced by a scattering of sunlight.
Hikers can walk to the exact point where a unique phenomenon turns the clear waters to the amazing blue. Take the three-mile loop trail from the park’s entrance or choose the shorter 1 1/2-hour Río Celeste trail past scenic vistas and volcanic formations to the stunning Río Celeste waterfall, which plunges into a remarkable turquoise basin. Dip into natural pools fed by volcanic heat and minerals while looking out for puma, vultures and a variety of monkeys. More intrepid visitors can head to Tapir Lake around twilight for a glimpse of the rare creatures that gather around their namesake watering hole to drink and bathe. If you visit between May and mid-November, you’ll need rain boots for the muddy trails.
Whether you go solo or with a guide (from a hotel, adventure company or the park’s entrance), you’ll find the trails mostly unpopulated. If you want to stay overnight in the area, reserve a room at the gorgeous Rio Celeste Hideaway Hotel, a romantic jewel at the foot of the Tenorio volcano.
San Gerardo de Dota – Eco Heaven in the Valley of a Cloud Forest
Unseen by most tourists, the verdant valley of San Gerardo de Dota is set in the Talamanca Mountains south of San José. A hotspot for coffee growers, the cool highlands also shelter over 200 species of birds—including hummingbirds, toucans, owls, falcons and the Resplendent Quetzal (Costa Rica’s national bird). Strewn with ecological wonders and rural mountain villages like San Gerardo de Dota, it’s a place where milk is still delivered on horseback and the nutrition staple (rainbow trout) comes from the local ponds. The area offers great birding, wildlife watching, freshwater fishing, horseback riding, hiking and nature tours. Visitors can stroll along well-groomed scenic trails that pass by waterfalls in Los Quetzales National Park, a 12,000-acre cloud forest filled with exotic flowers, rainforests, lakes and streams, not to mention pumas, sloths and coyotes. When it’s time to eat, stop into a local eatery like Los Lagos, where diners fish for their dinner.
If you need a place to stay, the small Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge is an outpost of sophistication designed to capture the splendor of the steep forests and plunging valleys. Each room comes with expansive glass windows so visitors can enjoy the lush, misty landscape. To experience this enchanting environment, take to the trails of the lodge’s private reserve on your own, or go with a guide to see birds and wildlife, including tapirs, cougars, monkeys and porcupines. The lodge’s Le Tapir restaurant is ringed with glass windows and serves delicious, innovative meals seasoned with organic herbs from the garden.
Uvita – Eco-Beach Paradise
Only 30 minutes from the larger coastal resorts of Jaco and Manuel Antonio, Marino Ballena National Park is known for its whale-tail-shaped tombolo (an island attached to the mainland). Just outside the park, the small town of Uvita is relatively undeveloped, offering a relaxed atmosphere without the big resorts. An influx of expats in recent years has created a small, thriving blend of foreign and local culture. Vast, secluded beaches for sunbathing, swimming or snorkeling are just a few of the area’s attractions. Surf schools and camps, whale watching, dolphin tours, diving, horseback riding, sport fishing, ATV tours, kayaking and ultralighting (flying in a one- or two-seat aircraft) keep visitors busy all day. When you’ve worked up an appetite, stop at a place like the Roadshack Deli, a local hotspot known for its fantastic sandwiches, homemade chips and cold draft beer. You can also enjoy lunch or sunset appetizers overlooking the ocean at the hidden Ranchos Remo.
Fantastic ecolodges in the area may tempt you to stick around for a while. On one end of the spectrum, the upscale Kura Design Villas are ensconced on a steep, jungled hillside. Massive ocean views, an infinity pool, a full-service spa and six luxury bungalows make this an excellent place to recover from adventure. La Cusinga Eco Lodge offers a more budget-friendly option, located in a 600-acre preserve with ocean and marine park views. It proudly boasts 10 guest cabins and a continuing dedication to eco heritage and tico authenticity.
Caribbean Coast – Where Turtles Come Home to Roost
A remarkable natural sanctuary, Tortuguero National Park protects the biggest population of green sea turtles on the Caribbean coast. Driven to near extinction by hunting and egg poaching, the turtles finally found a safe home when the Caribbean Conservation Corporation formed in 1959 to study and protect them. The most important nesting area for these ancient creatures, Tortuguero is a unique attraction. The strip of land where the turtles come ashore is bordered on one side by the sea and the other by a river—and is only accessible by boat or small plane. Besides turtles, many other animals (frogs, iguanas, monkeys, sloths, anteaters, caimans, crocodiles, fresh-water turtles, snakes, lizards and over 400 species of birds) make the mainland part of the park and its canals their home. Motorboat canal tours are the best way to see things since the park is 60% water. Jungle walks and canoe tours let you experience the sounds of nature at their fullest.
To witness the sea turtles coming ashore to dig their nests and lay eggs, plan a trip between July and October. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the eggs hatch (this occurs approx. 7–10 weeks after incubation) and the turtle hatchlings race off to the sea—a truly incredible sight. If you can’t time your trip around the green sea turtles, you can watch leatherback turtles nest from February to April. In all cases, you must have a guide to access the beach after 6 p.m. (turtles prefer nesting at night). Due to cost and logistics, it’s best to visit as part of an organized tour rather than booking an independent trip to Tortuguero.
Osa Peninsula – Biodiversity at its Best
The Osa Peninsula contains 25–30 ecosystems that harbor over 50% of Costa Rica’s wildlife species—including anteaters, armadillos, manatees and crocodiles. Occupying a large part of the peninsula, Corcovado National Park —known as the Amazon of Costa Rica—is home to many endangered species, such as jaguars, pumas, tapirs, scarlet macaws and the great harpy eagle (thought to be extinct until it was spotted here in 1989). In keeping with nature, resorts in Osa are rated on the 5-leaf scale rather than the standard 5-star scale. Off-the-grid eco resorts and lodges revolve around the environment and wildlife instead of manmade entertainment. Natural breezes and calls of the wild replace air-conditioning, Internet, TVs and phones. The Green Season (from May to mid-November) brings amazing thunderstorms, lower rates and less people—so if you visit then, you’ll have this peninsular paradise mostly to yourself.
Travel Tips: Costa Rica
When heading to Costa Rica, get the lay of the land before you leave so you can get the most out of your adventure there. Read these tips to find out what this eco-paradise has in store for you—and how to prep and pack for it.
Choosing an Ecolodge
Costa Rica is unique not only in its geography, but in its remarkable emphasis on ecological conservation. From tent camps to luxury lodges and wilderness resorts, ecolodge options abound. Quite different than standard resorts, these lodges offer a variety of experiences. Get back to basics in the jungle without hot showers or electricity, or enjoy a four-course meal under a palapa overlooking the ocean. In addition to building from reclaimed or sustainably harvested materials, conserving resources and being energy efficient, true ecolodges offer:
- A commitment to minimize their footprint on the surrounding ecosystems
- Support of local conservation and protection efforts
- Naturalist guides
- Social dedication to residents of the surrounding community (through hiring, training, educating, and supporting local businesses and crafts)
What is a Tico?
When referring to a Costa Rican native, you can use the formal costarricenses or the much more popular tico. A term of endearment, tico (tica for feminine) is associated with the friendly, easygoing and accommodating nature of the locals, and stems from hermaniticos (little brothers), which was once used as an affectionate greeting. You’ll see and hear this colloquialism used liberally for many things Costa Rican. The country’s first English newspaper—The Tico Times (established in 1956)—is still Central America’s premier news source.
Markets & Goods
To find true Costa Rican products at the market, visitors need to look past the many colorful textiles that are often made in Ecuador and Guatemala. Authentic souvenirs include coffee beans, wood-carved household items, handpainted ceramics and miniature ox carts (reflecting the country’s rural roots and mode of transport). These are all best found in provincial shops and markets beyond San José. The idyllic mountain community of San Ramon —an hour northwest of the capital—is well-known for its Friday/Saturday farmers market; cigar production; and surrounding family-run farms that produce coffee, sugar cane and dairy. Wherever you go, be sure to taste Costa Rican specialties like picadillos (bits of minced meat blended with diced vegetables and spices served with rice or in a tortilla), enyucados (fried yucca cakes) and the wonderful array of local fruit.
Finding Your Way
Although important streets in the capital have formal names known by the public, many streets in San José do not. Locals give directions by landmark in the form of well-known buildings, parks, stores, gas stations and popular locations. Paper maps may show roads that are no longer navigable due to volcano eruptions, mudslides, flash floods and earthquakes. To make sure you know where you’re going, use a GPS when driving in Costa Rica—you can add one on to your rental car or bring your own.
Getting There is Half the Adventure
Although many major roads in Costa Rica (especially around San José) are excellent, others leave much to be desired. Even sections of the Interamericana (Pan-American Highway) just outside the capital bear more resemblance to amusement park rides than major traffic routes. Rent a four-wheel drive vehicle to navigate the unpaved sections, drop-offs and hairpin turns. Avoid driving after dark when dense fog, roads without lights, trucks without taillights and people walking in the road can make driving hazardous. Just like in many countries, it often takes longer to drive to your destination than you would think, no matter what it might look like on a map or the distances given.
To get around Costa Rica’s challenging roads and lengthy journeys, consider flying. Air prices are competitive with renting a car, and you can often find great deals during the rainier Green Season (May through mid-November). You can fly from San José to almost anywhere in the country in one hour or less on SANSA or Nature Air . It’s a good idea to book your flights a few months in advance and pack light for per-person baggage limits of 15 to 40 lbs. Both airlines have small propeller planes that can land on remote jungle airstrips. Nature Air’s planes have specially designed large windows so passengers can enjoy the spectacular scenery. This airline flies in and out of San José’s smaller domestic airport, so be sure to figure in transfer time for international connections.
To enter Costa Rica, visitors are required to have a signed passport that is valid for 180 days (six months) beyond their dates of travel and a ticket to leave (either a round-trip ticket or one to a destination outside the country). While immigration in other countries may treat this requirement lightly, it is strictly enforced in Costa Rica. Visitors have been fined or refused entry for passports with invalid dates, lack of signature or damage. Be sure to have all your documents in order and in good condition. When you leave the country, you’ll need to pay a $29 U.S. departure tax.
What to Wear
The lowlands of Costa Rica have a tropical climate, but the highland regions can get cold. Pack for what you plan to do—and keep in mind that the country is mostly casual.
A swimsuit is in order if you plan to visit the hot springs near the Arenal Volcano, cool off in a pool or dip into the Atlantic or Pacific. Don’t forget a sarong or cover-up, sun hat, and sandals or flip-flops for the beach.
Pack cotton or quick-dry T-shirts, shorts, pants and walking shoes for all your outdoor activities. Long-sleeved shirts ward off sun, jungle plants and bugs. Convertible pants are perfect for Costa Rica’s range of climates and activities.
High-altitude cloud forests and volcano peaks call for a lightweight jacket and a waterproof windbreaker that fits easily in a daypack or pocket. Carrying an umbrella is often more comfortable than wearing a rain poncho when walking in the warm tropical humidity.
Unless you plan to spend most of your time at a resort, one nice ensemble should suffice for dining out—a breezy, tropical skirt and top or a dress. Pack a reusable tote for shopping (eco-friendliness is very important here) and a flashlight for nocturnal adventures.