Explore Costa Rica
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Encompassing an area half the size of Ireland, the nation of Costa Rica brings together pronounced geographical extremes--ranging from spectacular beaches to majestic volcanoes to swampy lowlands with swarms of birds to highlands which turn frigid at night. Although smaller than most US states and Canadian provinces, it is larger than Holland, Denmark, Belgium, and Switzerland. In addition to traditional Tico hospitality, Costa Rica offers hiking and water sports, casinos and discos, and a wealth of wildlife which makes it a paradise for naturalists and birdwatchers.
WHEN TO COME: When you should come depends upon your motives for coming. The best time is generally off-season, when rates for hotels plummet and there are few visitors to be found in the more popular spots. While it does rain quite a bit during this period, white water rafting improves, the Guanacaste region greens over, and showers (largely confined to the afternoon) cool things down. The rain is heaviest in the region surrounding San José. In other regions, such as the Caribbean Coast and around Golfito, there is no clearly defined rainy season: it rains much of the time year round. If you check an issue of the Tico Times after arrival, you can window shop rainfall levels and decide which locations to visit. La Nacion has a daily report. If camping and hiking are important items on your itinerary, it would definitely be preferable to come in the dry season. If you go to the more inaccessible or untouristed towns, parks, and reserves, crowds shouldn't be a problem, whatever the season.
WHO SHOULD COME: Costa Rica is definitely not the destination for everyone. If the least little sandfly bite or mosquito sting takes you aback, then this isn't the place for you, and you won't like it much unless you confine yourself to the most luxurious resorts along Guanacaste's coast. Much of Costa Rica is truly for adventurous people who don't mind being a bit uncomfortable if that's what it takes to really experience things. Unlike traveling to Hawaii or even the Americanized Cancun, it definitely requires some degree of adjustment on your part. Posh resorts are definitely not what Costa Rica is about, nor is great nightlife. Aspiring Casanovas would be advised to stay at home; prostitution--both male and female--is legal but that's hardly a reason for coming. You definitely have to have an appreciation of and an interest in nature; a desire to try to speak even a bit of broken Spanish will get you quite a long way. If you drop a lot of your expectations and attidudes, you'll find that the rewards are worth every bit of the discomfort you endure.
SUGGESTED ITINERARY: There is no set of "must see" attractions. Everything depends upon your priorities, finances, time, and your interests. In a two-week trip, you might sample some of the museums of San José, visit one or more parks or reserves, and swim at a beach on either coast. Another possibility is to stay longer and become a volunteer or study Spanish. Whatever you do, don't try to see the whole country in a week or so. Spend some time in a single area and really get to know it! You can always come back for another visit. In general, it's better to avoid such over-touristed areas as Manuel Antonio, Monteverde, Arenal and Jacó.
See our Suggested Itineraries
PLANNING EXPENSES: There are facilities available to match every pocketbook. Generally speaking, the more you want to do in a shorter space of time and in an organized fashion, the more you can expect to pay. Doing your own chartering and/or using local transportation takes more time, requiring schedule flexibility and initiative. If you're seeking comfortable accommodation or taking a tour, you may not find that large a price differential with the US, Canada, or Britain. You may want to compromise--staying in an inexpensive hotel and then splurging on a Tortuguero river trip for example.
ON A BUDGET: Expect to spend from US$40 per person per day at a minimum for food and accommodation. Generally, you'll find yourself spending at least US$50 total and, depending upon your needs, probably more. (Travelers who wish all the comforts of home will pay US$100 pd or more). The best way to cut down on expenses is to stay in one (relatively inexpensive) location for a time and to prepare some of your own food. Renting a car is an expensive proposition, but the buses are reasonably priced and service is extensive.
Fifteen years ago, Costa Rica could truly be considered a low-budget destination, but its rise in popularity has pushed prices up dramatically. Consequently, despite a sharp decline in the value of the col—ón, Costa Rica, while cheaper overall than Belize and the US, no longer compares with places like Honduras. Many of the parks--such as Tortuguero and Manuel Antonio--are becoming too expensive for all but the well-heeled and the average Tico has been priced out as well. Consequently, you may prefer to focus on some of the less well known places. You'll not only cut costs but also get more out of your trip.
GETTING THERE: Major carriers include American, Continental, United Airlines, Delta, and TACA.
SIGHTS AND DESTINATIONS: There are too many to detail all of them here, but here are some suggestions:
Arenal Volcano--Set 120 mi. (195 km) northwest of San Jose, this very active volcano is best viewed from afar. The manmade lake of Arenal, popular for fishing and windsurfing, is nearby.
Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge--Set on the Atlantic coast adjoining the Nicaraguan border, this reserve is best known for deep-sea fishing.
Barra Honda National Park--On the Nicoya Peninsula, this park is known for its caves; you may stay at the locally-run hotel near the entrance of the park.
Braulio Carrillo National Park--Set 40 mi (65 km) east of San José, this impressive park has few trails but much ambiance. Your first view of this park will be from the San Jose-Lim—ón highway. Various tours are offered here including a hike to the Barva Volcano.
Carara Biological Reserve--Set on the Pacific coast 40 mi (65 km) southwest of San Jose, ths small park of Carara is well known for its scarlet macaws and crocodiles. Entrance is restricted; only 60 visitors are allowed on a trail at a single time.
Cartago--This town has the remains of an old church as well as a basilica which has the Black Virgin, a statue with a legend attached.
Chirripo National Park--Set 60 mi. (96 km) southeast of San Jose, this national park features 12,530-ft. (3,819) Mt. Chirripo as well as mountain lakes.
Cocos Island National Park--Set 300 mi (485 km) off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, this premier diving destination is visited by scuba tour boats.
Corcovado National Park--Set on the Osa Peninsula 115 mi. (185 km) southeast of San JosZˇé, this national park has waterfalls as well as virgin rainforest. One disadvantage is that there is little in the way of trails through the park; you have to hike along the beach. Accommodation is in the ranger station or in Drakes Bay or at Costa Rica Expedition's Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp.
Dominical--This up-and-coming Pacific coastal village in the nation's southeast, has many small lodges and hotels as well as good surfing.
Golfito--The most southernmost major town, Golfito has a funky ambiance and many interesting places to stay are nearby. It is also the gateway to the surfing beach of Pavones.
Guanacaste National Park--Set across from the Santa Rosa National Park, this park protects tropical dry forest. It's 120 mi. (195 km) northwest of San Jose.
Guayabo National Park--The nation's only archaeological park, Guayabo also has excellent birding. It's 35 mi. (55 km) northeast of San Jose.
Irazu National Park--This park's highlight is its 10,000-ft (3,048-m) volcanic cone; be sure to get here early in the morning.
Manuel Antonio National Park--Set 30 mi. (48 km) south of San Jose, this small park is famous for its tamed monkeys and its wonderful beaches. Unfortunately, its very popularity has meant that there are now too many hotels here and too many visitors. Limits have been placed on the numbers that may come in.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve--This cloud forest reserve, in an area colonized by Quakers, is famous for its quetzal birds and excellent hotels.
Palo Verde National Park--Set on the Gulf of Nicoya 45 mi (72 km) west of San Jos, Palo Verde is a migratory-bird sanctuary.
Poas National Park--This park has a 7,000-ft (2,134-m) volcanic crater with a lake in the center. Come early in the morning.
Puerto Viejo--Set in the nation's southeast, this small fishing village is rapidly becoming a major tourist area. It has great surfing as well as the nation's most innovative tour agency, ATEC, which is run as a cooperative which benefits the locals.
Rara Avis--This spectacular private reserve is located high in the cloud forest. Access is by cart pulled by a tractor.
Rincón de la Vieja National Park--Set 75 mi. (120 km) northwest of San José, this park offers hot springs, an active volcano, and the chance to see tapirs. There are a number of lodges in its close proximity.
San José--The nation's capital has a number of museums worth seeing and is a good place to use as a base for exploring the country. Be careful, however, because mugging can occur at night and thefts from unattended rental cars are commonplace.
Santa Rosa National Park--A protected dry tropical forest of Santa Rosa is the largest remaining stand in Central America, Santa Rosa features beaches, a historical site, and the chance to see wildlife. It's 125 mi. (200 km) northwest of San José.
Tortuguero National Park--Set along the Caribbean 55 mi. (90 km) northeast of San José, this park is famous for its canals along which you may see birds and other wildlife. There are many lodges here, and you can get a package tour which will take you upriver.
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