Costa Rica comprises a cordillera of volcano-studded mountains swathed in pristine forests, dropping to twin oceanic coasts. The laid-back Caribbean coast is lined with palm-shaded, white-sand beaches, while the Pacific is pounded by rolling surf and fringed with forest-backed coves and long strands.
The country is mostly lush and green – with cool, misty cloud forest in the hills and steamy rainforest on the coast – though the Northwest is dry and cactus-studded.
The main regions we recommend planning your visit around, and what they offer, are as follows:
San Jose & Central Valley
The country’s capital – where most flights arrive – sits in a broad agricultural valley watched over by steaming volcanoes. Other than a modest museum of pre-Colombian artefacts, the city itself has no big tourist draws. But there is a string of low-key hacienda resorts in the valley itself – offering horse-back rides, visits to coffee plantations and short or long hikes to active volcano craters – like Poas – where you can see steaming fumaroles and sulphur springs.
Spas fed by hot mineral rivers and springs, canopy walkways in wild rainforests, walking trails leading through the jungle to plunging waterfalls; and watching over it all – the vast, perfectly conical hulk of Arenal volcano. Sitting in the centre of the country, within easy driving distance of San Jose and the coast, this region offers easy adventure in gorgeous mountain landscapes.
Cahuita National Park
The southern Costa Rican Atlantic coast is protected by a series of wild national parks. This is where dense jungle meets white Caribbean sands, where coral reefs are a paddle from the shore and where reggae music plays from makeshift bars in little English-speaking villages that feel more Jamaican than Central American.
Guanacaste & Nicoya Peninsula
Northwestern Guanacaste province is where vacationers jet in for beach holidays – staying in resorts and condominium rental homes and swimming, surfing or scuba diving off the long sandy bays, sheltered coves and rainforest-backed strands. You’ll hear more English than Spanish in the tourist villages of northern Guanacaste, but the further south or inland you go, the wilder it gets – with much of the interior, and the remote and hard-to-reach southern Nicoya peninsula, preserved as wilderness.
Central Pacific Coast
After Guanacaste, the country’s central Pacific coast – which is an easy drive from the international airport in San Jose – has the greatest choice of beachside places to stay – either right on the sand or nestled in the verdant hills. Stays offer a mix of wildlife spotting, beach lazing and light adventure for all ages. A series of national parks – some of them within cycling distance of the resorts – protect the jungles, oceanic islands and the beaches.
Costa Rica’s Monteverde cloud forest reserve is a magical place – wispy with mists, swathed in woodlands of miniature, moss-covered trees dripping with orchids and rich with rare wildlife including the spectacular Resplendent Quetzal – Central America’s equivalent of a bird of paradise. The reserve protects 10,000 hectares of wilderness and facilities are first-class – with canopy walkways, hiking paths and plenty of places to stay.
Osa peninsula & the Golfo Dulce
Jutting into the blue Pacific from the mainland in Costa Rica’s far south, the Osa is a rugged peninsula of wild jungle, fringed with powdery beaches. This is where serious wildlife-spotters vacation – in a string of high-end jungle lodges. It’s where you’ll see the rarest birds and are most likely to see big rainforest mammals like jaguar and tapir. The Golfo Dulce is a deep tropical fjord lined with steep forest-covered mountains, separating Osa from the continent. Whales calve in its deep, fish-rich waters.
Tortuguero National Park
This wildlife-teeming national park on the northern Caribbean coast is one of the best places in the world to see nesting and hatching sea turtles; together with a wealth of other wildlife – from American crocodiles to capuchin monkeys. Infrastructure is excellent, with comfortable accommodation and facilities suitable for young children.