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Living Abroad in Costa Rica
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Where should I go?
The top ten places to visit in Costa Rica.

Please note that this list is organized alphabetically rather than in order of awesomeness. All these places are great in their own way, and there are dozens more I wish I could include. If you want more detailed information, it’s out there. Some of it is in my book, Living Abroad in Costa Rica.

 

 
Near Corcovado National Park
Corcovado National Park. An immensely fertile area in the southwest of the country, this park takes up most of the Osa Peninsula, which National Geographic magazine calls "the most biologically intense place on earth." This is Costa Rica's Amazon, a tropical rain forest where tall trees drip vines and lianas, macaws screech, and most of the remaining 250 jaguars in the country prowl. The numbers are staggering: 42,000 hectares of land are protected in the park, which supports 13 distinct habitats and on which 20 feet of rain falls annually. Five hundred kinds of trees thrive here, as do hundreds of species of birds, mammals, and reptiles. Crocodiles lurk in marshy areas, sea turtles lay eggs on deserted beaches, and tapirs pick their way shyly through the trees.

 

Manuel Antonio National Park. The most popular national park in park-rich Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio is located on the central Pacific coast near the town of Quepos, just a few hours’ drive from San Jose. Beautiful beaches, rambling, mostly flat trails through the jungle, and lots of monkeys and sloths. This area is known to be gay-friendly and cosmopolitan, with many local hotels run by gay expats from North America and Europe.

 

Monteverde. Go for the cheese, the best in the country and made by descendents of the Alabama Quakers who migrated to this mountain town in 1951. Go for the horseback riding, the hiking, and the local arts and crafts. But most of all, go to see the stunning Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, which supports an enormous variety of flora, along with over 400 species of birds, including 30 species of hummingbirds. Birders come for a glimpse of the rare Resplendent Quetzal. Pay for a guide and you’ll learn 78% more than you would touring the reserve on your own. Be prepared for rain.

 

 
Surfing Pavones
Montezuma. At the southernmost tip of the Nicoya Peninsula lies funky little Montezuma, an alternative-flavored spot where you can swim, hike to waterfalls, or gorge on excellent vegetarian fare and fresh seafood. Nearby is rugged and pristine Cabo Blanco, founded in 1965 and Costa Rica’s first national park.

 

Pavones. If you’re a surfer, especially a goofyfoot, this is where you’ll want to go. Located on the southern Pacific coast, Pavones is famous for one of the longest left-breaking waves in the world. Local bad boy author and surfer Alan Weisbecker writes that this point wave is "so fast and long as to be nearly hallucinogenic."

 

 
Boys in Puerto Viejo
Puerto Viejo. Another hip, scruffy beach town and surfing hot spot, this time on the less-visited east (Caribbean) coast. Surfers come to try their luck on the famed Salsa Brava wave, which breaks hard and fast onto coral reef. There’s plenty for non-surfers to do, too. Lounge on the beach, nurse a beer, avoid the tweakers, eat spicy Caribbean food (a relief after the bland fare in the rest of the country). Nearby is the Bri Bri-Cabecar Indian reservation (they welcome guests accompanied by a native guide) and the Gandoca-Manzanillo Reserve, one of the less-visited gems of the national park system. From Puerto Viejo many travelers head south, across the border to Panama’s Bocas del Toro islands.

 

 
Turtle returning to the sea after laying her eggs on the beach
Tamarindo. Still true to its roots as a haven for surfers and other tattooed nomads, the north Pacific coast town of Tamarindo now also draws a more varied (and ever-larger) crowd, who may not pull all-nighters at the local disco but come to relax on the beach or to take a midnight turtle tour. A 6-foot long, 1000-pound leatherback turtle trundling up the beach to deposit her eggs in the sand is a sight you won’t soon forget.

 

Tortuguero National Park. No roads lead to this wildlife-rich park on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast–you have to fly by light plane or take a boat. Giant sea turtles come ashore seasonally to lay their eggs, and the canals are filled with crocodiles, caimans, and even the odd manatee. Herons and egrets lurk at the river's edge, while iguanas sun themselves on the branches of vine-draped trees. Tourists, birders, and fishermen often stay in all-inclusive lodges along the river, but try to make time for nearby Tortuguero, a carless hamlet of 700 where the weather-beaten homes are oriented to the river or lagoon, as buildings elsewhere are oriented to the road.

 

 
Café at the Melia Alcazar theater, downtown San Jose
San Jose. I’m not kidding. Aren’t you dying to visit the insect museum, tucked away in the basement of the Music building on the University of Costa Rica campus? How about seeing a Russian film at Sala Garbo, then going for Lebanese food and multi-colored cocktails at Luban? Or a stroll through the Mercado Central–you might run into former President Abel Pacheco, who shows he’s just folks by slurping sopa negra (black bean soup) at one of the bare-bones lunch counters there. Ok, maybe you haven’t felt the urge to do any of these things. But chances are you’ll have time to kill in the capital, since the great majority of international flights touch down and take off from here. Don’t just read a novel in your hotel room–get out and walk the streets.

 

 
The River Tabacon runs hot

Volcan Arenal. The Arenal Volcano rises up out of the lush northern plain like a whale breaching the ocean's surface. You can’t always see it (for the drifting mist), but you can always hear it, grumbling deep in its fiery throat and just generally making sure you never forget that although it slept through the colonial and most of the modern era, when it woke in 1968 its eruptions wiped out two towns. Not quite as furious now, it still coughs up smoke and truck-sized cinders daily, and on clear nights you can see red-hot rocks bouncing down the mountain. There's nothing like soaking in hot springs (Tabacón Hot Springs are the best known) at the foot of the volcano, a light cool rain pocking the water, secure in the knowledge that if Arenal blows again like it did in ‘68, you'll have about nine minutes to get out of the danger zone.

 
 

 

 



For more information, see Living Abroad in Costa Rica.

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