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Costa Rica See And Do

Caribbean Coast

Costa Rica's Caribbean coast extends almost ruler-straight between the Nicaraguan and Panamanian borders. Lined with mostly gray-sand beaches and coconut palms, this region is humid and often battered by rainstorms. But when the sun shines, it blazes with color. The region's Afro-Caribbean population looks east to Jamaica for inspiration (most are descended from Jamaican laborers), as evidenced by the region's spicy cuisine, reggae music, and wooden clapboard houses painted in bright tropical pastels. The coast is sparsely populated, with many miles of rainforest between villages.

The Jamaican spirit lives on most strongly in Cahuita, a coastal hamlet where simple cabinas and charming small hotels are strung out along Playa Negra, which abuts Cahuita National Park, a rainforest habitat and wildlife haven akin to Tortuguero National Park on the north coast. Sloth sightings are virtually guaranteed while walking the park's trails and are a sure thing at the Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary, a wildlife refuge with a slothpital for injured sloths. A 15-minute drive south, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is Costa Rica's capital of cool. Many visitors settle in here for long days spent relaxing in hammocks. This off-beat, edgy, slightly raffish place has hyper nightlife, great restaurants, and dozens of accommodations, from surfer hostels to upscale eco-lodges. Experienced surfers make a pilgrimage to hang ten on Salsa Brava, a killer storm-generated wave that kicks up to 20 feet high in winter months and poses a Hawaii-style challenge. Several outfits offer board rentals and surfing lessons (try Salsa Brava Surf Shop, 506-2750-0689), and horseback riding is popular along the beach and into the mountains (try Seahorse Stables).—Christopher P. Baker

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Coffee Plantation Tours in Costa Rica

Coffee is Costa Rica's third largest export—and not just any old java, but some of the best bean in the world. Many of the most popular coffee plantations are located in the fertile hills and valleys of the central highlands, the birthplace of Costa Rican coffee.

At Finca Rosa Blanca, an inn and plantation located in the Santa Bárbara hills, coffee is grown without pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. The two-hour tour, which covers the history of coffee and the process of organic cultivation and harvest, wraps up with a "cupping" (coffee tasting) and homemade pastries.

Doka Estate, on the slopes of the Poás Volcano in Sabanilla de Alajuela, has been owned and operated by the Vargas Ruiz family since 1949. Doka offers a variety of half-day tours of its fields and roasting plant; many of these include coffee-picking contests during the harvest season (between April and August). At the end of the visit, you'll be invited to sample the estate's eight different roasts, including the smooth but complex Peaberry Estate.

Founded in 1985, Café Britt in San Rafael de Heredia, just north of San José, provides a range of guided tours, from a one-hour walk-through of the plantation to half-day intensive tours. During your visit, you'll learn how to "break the cup" by using tasting techniques that identify and grade the coffee's flavor, acidity, aroma, and finish. Tours conclude with a theatrical show that explains how coffee has played a vital role in Costa Rica's social and economic development from 1779 to the present day.—Anja Mutić

Corcovado and the Osa Peninsula
Costa Rica

The world-renowned Corcovado National Park draws adventurous types to the Osa Peninsula in the Pacific southwest. This remote and rugged area, home to the largest primary tropical rainforest in Central America, is laced with trails and incredibly rich in biodiversity. Look out for a wide variety of exotic animals and birds, from jaguars, tapirs, and scarlet macaws to pods of humpbacks and pilot whales, which hug the shores during their twice-yearly migrations. After sweating along the humid, often muddy and rugged trails, you can indulge and relax at the abundant eco-lodges outside the park, such as Lapa Rios. The twin gateways of Drake Bay and Puerto Jiménez—the last settlements before you reach Corcovado National Park—are best reached by plane, via flights from San José on Sansa or Nature Air. The tortuous eight-hour drive from the capital is not recommended. Visitors lodging in the laid-back village of Puerto Jiménez can opt to kayak the local mangroves (how does a Crocodiles by Candlelight tour sound?), scale a hollow strangler-fig tree to bungee jump from a treetop platform, or rappel down a waterfall on guided tours by Everyday Adventures.

Diving in Costa Rica

Costa Rica isn't known for coral reefs—it has very few, and small ones at that—but it contends with the world's best diving sites for its abundance of big fish. Most dive sites are on the Pacific coast, where you might have a close encounter with manta rays, giant groupers, and whale sharks; the Caribbean coast has relatively few sites, with a single coral reef off Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. Diving Safaris travels to more than 20 dive sites off the coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. In Manuel Antonio, Oceans Unlimited offers trips to local sites and, if you can stand the two-hour journey, to what many say is the country's best dive site, Caño Island. Experienced divers go even farther afield to Cocos Island, which is actually a northern extension of the Galápagos chain: Two days aboard the Okeanos Aggressor is rewarded with the chance to dive amid huge schools of hammerheads.—Christopher P. Baker


Costa Rica's northwest quarter is distinctive for its lingering dry season and deciduous forests that flare in spectacular blooms in spring before shedding their leaves—all the better for viewing wildlife. Inland, Guanacaste is cowboy country: Horseback rides are popular at towns near Rincón de la Vieja National Park and its namesake volcano. Three more volcanoes—Tenorio, Orosi, and Miravalles—stud the Guanacaste mountain range. Animal viewing is a key draw in the tropical dry forest of Santa Rosa National Park and in the wetlands of Palo Verde National Park, where you might come across such creatures as crocodiles, jabiru storks, and roseate spoonbills. Santa Rosa is best explored by hiking, although a high-ground-clearance vehicle is needed to reach the beaches. The tropical forests and wetlands of Palo Verde are readily accessible via guided boat trips from Hacienda El Viejo on the northern end of the Nicoya Peninsula—close enough for half-day trips from the major beach towns, such as Playas del Coco and Tamarindo.

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Horseback Riding in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is still very much an agrarian society, and the horse remains a regular form of transport throughout much of the nation. That means lots of organized horseback tours and horses for visitors to rent. Cahuita on the Caribbean coast, Monteverde, and the Lake Arenal region of the Northern Lowlands are all great bases for horseback riding, as are the many activity centers at the base of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano near Liberia in Guanacaste. Based in La Fortuna, near Lake Arenal, Desafío Adventures leads horseback trips that take you all the way to Monteverde—bypassing the terrible roads along the way. Hacienda Guachipelín, based near Rincón de la Vieja National Park, has a stable of about 50 horses and organizes scenic tours through the dry forest at the base of the volcano.—Christopher P. Baker

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Lake Arenal and the Northern Lowlands
Costa Rica

Situated on a windswept saddle of the Cordillera de Tilarán mountain chain, Lake Arenal is the country's largest body of water. Its scenic beauty is reason enough to visit, although most people pass through en route to or from the region's main draw: Volcán Arenal. Dozens of hotels line the lake's north shore, the volcano's western flanks, and the road that links both lake and volcano to the town of La Fortuna. Among the lodging options, Springs Resort & Spa and Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort are two of the best. Activities include horseback riding, waterfall rappelling, windsurfing, and zip-line canopy rides provided by Sky Trek. Soaking in thermal waters that tumble off the volcano is a special treat on chilly evenings. Tabacón resort has the most appealing facilities, plus a wonderful spa. Visitors often stay several nights in Lake Arenal just to catch a glimpse of the country's most active volcano, which blows its top constantly—sometimes several times an hour—and sends house-size chunks of rock crashing down its upper slopes. Because of this, hiking in Arenal Volcano National Park is limited to the peak's lower reaches. At night, people gather to watch the lava flow down the volcano's western side. And visiting La Fortuna without hiking down into the canyon to swim at the base of La Fortuna Waterfall would be like visiting France without tasting the wine.—Updated by Christopher P. Baker

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Manuel Antonio and the Central Pacific Coast

The highlight of Costa Rica's Central Pacific coast, and the main reason most travelers visit the region, is Manuel Antonio National Park. Despite its small size, the park is immensely popular for its combination of white-sand beaches, dense rainforest, and the kaleidoscopic array of creatures that can be seen almost within fingertip's reach. Nowhere else in the country is it so easy to spot wildlife, including the increasingly scarce mono tití, or squirrel monkey. Get here early, especially on weekends, as the park fills up quickly with tour groups, hikers, and sunbathers headed to Playa Manuel Antonio. Lodgings, many on the luxury end of the scale (such as Hotel Sí Como No and Los Altos Beach Resort) are in the nearby village of Manuel Antonio and along the ridgetop road that snakes over a forested mountain and drops down to the town of Quepos. The Central Pacific stretch of coastline between the Nicoya and Osa peninsulas has several other low-key beach towns, including the surfers' and backpackers' hamlet of Dominical. Jacó, the largest resort town in Costa Rica, is a center for active daytime adventures and wild nightlife, but its beaches are less than pristine.

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Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve
Monteverde , Puntarenas
Costa Rica

A wide variety of flora and fauna thrive in the eerily mist-shrouded mountains of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. High on many bird spotters' lists is the quetzal, an iridescent green bird with an extravagant long tail. Hiring a guide is a good idea, as most of the birds and animals are hard to spot in the dense foliage here. Visit at night on a guided flashlight tour to view the various species of rain frogs and other colorful amphibians that come out in the dark. It's also possible to travel up through the rainforest in the Sky Tram gondola. If you're brave enough, zip-line back down through the trees. Once you've hiked Monteverde's main reserve, strap on your hiking boots once more and head to the smaller Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, run by the local community. Thanks to its higher elevation, Santa Elena has some creatures—such as spider monkeys—not found within the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. Getting to the Monteverde region requires an arduous uphill drive on unpaved roads subject to frequent landslides. Despite being only 105 miles from San José, this region takes about four hours to reach via the Pan-American Highway (or an equal time when traveling from La Fortuna along the north shore of Lake Arenal, due to the winding mountain roads).

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Nicoya Peninsula
Costa Rica

Beach bums are spoiled for choice along the Pacific shores of the Nicoya Peninsula, a huge horse-head–shaped landmass separated from the savanna lowlands of Guanacaste by the Gulf of Nicoya. True, recent tourism developments have forever changed the coastal landscape of the Nicoya Peninsula. Hotels and condos have sprouted up at the most popular beaches (Playas del Coco, Flamingo, Hermosa, Panamá, and Tamarindo), where you'll find most of Costa Rica's high-end resorts, such as Capitán Suizo and Florblanca. But dozens of lovely beaches remain untainted, such as Nosara and Bejuco. These spots draw both surfers and marine turtles, who lay their eggs in the sand. One of the world's most spectacular wildlife encounters is witnessing thousands of olive ridley turtles swarm Playa Ostional during the breeding season.

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Rafting and Kayaking in Costa Rica

Combine steep, rugged mountains and high rainfall, and the result is a perfect tropical cocktail for kayaking and white-water rafting. Ríos Tropicales has white-water rafting trips for all skill levels on various rivers, such as the Reventazón and the Pacuare, combining Class 4 thrills with tropical rainforest immersion. Near Manuel Antonio National Park, Amigos del Río offers half-day or daylong rafting trips on the Naranjo and Savegre rivers. In nearby Quepos, Iguana Tours leads kayaking trips through the bird-filled mangrove forests on the Central Pacific coast.—Christopher P. Baker

San José and the Central Valley

Of all the Central American capitals, San José could be considered the most appealing (if you've been to places like Managua and San Salvador, you know this isn't the biggest compliment). The city does have some interesting attractions, such as the Museo del Oro Precolombino, sparkling with gold exhibits dating back to 500 A.D.; the Museo del Jade, with its impressive, ornate jade collection; and the extravagant, neoclassical, late-19th-century Teatro Nacional. With that, you've pretty well exhausted San José's possibilities, meaning that the city's major highlights can be seen in one day. Now it's time to move on, by taking day trips from the capital (Hotel Grano de Oro is a good base) or excursions from boutique hotels farther afield in the Central Valley (El Silencio Lodge, Finca Rosa Blanca, Xandari Resort & Spa). The surrounding highlands are populated with coffee plantations. For the best view over the Central Valley, drive to the summit of Volcán Poás or Volcán Irazú, one hour east of San José.—Updated by Christopher P. Baker

Tortuguero National Park

Located at the far north end of the Caribbean Coast, Tortuguero National Park is a must-see for nature lovers. River otters, howler monkeys, caimans, manatees, and green macaws are among the creatures that can be seen while exploring the watery world of canals, lagoons, and sloughs by boat. The wetland reserve is also known as the Caribbean's major nesting site for endangered green sea turtles, which return to the beach where they were born to lay eggs between June and October. There are no roads to the small town of Tortuguero, which sits on a narrow piece of land with the Caribbean on one side and a lagoon on the other. Most visitors fly in from San José (about 35 minutes) or catch a boat from the port of Moín, near the town of Limón, which takes approximately one hour. A guided tour of the park is recommended; otherwise, you're likely to miss most of the wildlife. Would you know which leaves to pull back to reveal a lime-green (and deadly) eyelash viper coiled on a branch? The best guides are employed by eco-lodges, but a standout among local guides is Karla Taylor, a bilingual parataxonomist whose grandfather was the one of the first settlers at Tortuguero. Costa Rica Expeditions provides tours as part of its accommodations packages at Tortuga Lodge.—Christopher P. Baker

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.