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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
returning to the sea after laying her eggs on the beach
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.
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 Melia Alcazar theater, downtown San Jose
Tabacon runs hot
Volcan Arenal. The Arenal Volcano rises up out
of the lush northern plain like a whale breaching the ocean's surface.
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.