Costa Rica by region: where to go
San José and the Central Valley
This is picturesque and fertile land, temperate in climate and characterised by coffee plantations, pretty towns and spectacular, often active volcanoes. The highest peaks rise above the clouds to nearly 4,000 metres, and on their slopes cloud and rain forests teem with orchids and birds.
From San José it is less than 40 miles to Volcán Poás, passing through the pleasant town of Alajuela and coffee plantations before climbing up into dwarf cloud forest. When free from clouds, the smoking crater and its turquoise lake are an amazing sight.
The southern highlands are generally the forgotten region of Costa Rica and often less visited, but very rewarding none-the-less, with lush forest, wildlife spotting opportunities and high mountain peaks. San Gerardo de Dota is a small village, off the beaten track where the famous Quetzal bird likes to nest and close to Cerro de la Muerte (the mountain of death!). The Cordillera de Talamanca is the backbone of the area and stretches all the way to Panama with the Pan American Highway running through it.
Rincón de la Vieja
From Liberia a winding road heads north into the foothills of the Rincón de la Vieja volcano, with hot springs, clear rivers and abundant wildlife.
The extremely active Volcán Arenal can be reached from San José (120 miles) or on the way to the Pacific coast. It is particularly impressive on clear nights when lava flows can often be seen. This is the best base for boat trips into the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, considered to be one of the region’s richest spots for bird watching. Arenal lake is enormous, created for hydroelectric purposes and renowned amongst windsurfers.
To the south lies the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, home to more than 400 species of birds and reached by a challenging ride or bone-jolting road. Heading west from Arenal you drop down into the dry heat of Guanacaste’s savanna.
The mainland Pacific coast is easily accessible from the peninsula by ferry, or by road and air from San José. Mountains drop directly down to the coast (which causes high rainfall) through tropical rainforest with a profusion of wildlife, and yet more good beaches. At Carara Biological Reserve crocodiles and scarlet macaws can been seen.
The Nicoya Peninsula
The Nicoya Peninsula is a dry tropical zone with some of Costa Rica's best beaches. There are a few sprawling resort hotels but huge stretches of largely unspoilt coastline still exist. Tamarindo has a long beach but has become built up in recent years, or for those seeking privacy and a feeling of isolation, the areas of Nosara and Malpaís further south are still mostly untouched. Here one can find some enticing small hotels, and explore the coastal hills on horseback.
Further south is the very popular Manuel Antonio with fine hotels set above good beaches. The famous National Park has forested hills, swamps and 2 beautiful beaches. It is home to many birds, iguanas, sloths, capuchin monkeys and snakes.
The Osa Peninsula
Half of the Osa Peninsula, separated from the mainland by the Golfo Dulce, is covered by the Corcovado National Park, mainly primary rainforest with more than 400 species of birds and many amphibians and mammals (including six cat species). Humpback whales can be seen in December and January, and there is good snorkelling and diving off Isla del Caño. 530km off the coast is Isla del Coco, also a National Park with good scuba diving and superb fishing.
The Caribbean Coast
To the north is the popular attraction of Tortuguero National Park’s canals. Visits are quite packaged but good lodges provide a comfortable base for river exploration and there are some excellent birding opportunities, plenty of alligators and monkeys. Green turtles nest on the beaches of the National Park from July to October.
South of Puerto Limón, the ocean is more benign, with good surf, lovely sand and coral beaches, and a vibrant Afro-Caribbean culture.