- Central + South America,
- Central Pacific,
- Costa Rica,
- Nicoya Peninsula,
- Northern Lowlands
Costa Rica provides a multi-dimensional trip. Spend part of your time in the rain forest exploring and hiking and the other part relaxing on the beach.
See + Do
Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, 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).
See + Do
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.
See + Do
Lake Arenal and the Northern Lowlands, Alajuela, 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
Activities in Costa Rica
Inn at Coyote Mountain
Gingerbread, Alajuela, Costa Rica
Tel: 506 2694 0039
Israeli-born chef Eyal Ben-Menachem makes only a handful of dishes each day—depending on what's freshest in the local markets—at this Italian restaurant on the north shore of Lake Arenal in the Northern Lowlands. Each of the dishes comes with commentary from the gregarious chef, so you'll learn exactly how he prepares the wild mushrooms in a Parmigiano-Reggiano sauce, or the jumbo shrimp with couscous and lentils. For dessert, try the superb boca negra, a warm chocolate souffléélike cake with macadamia nuts inside; it's served with ice cream and raspberry and passion-fruit coulis. The restaurant's name refers to the fanciful wood trim on the porch, where you can dine with a view of the lake.—Updated by Christopher P. Baker
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 5 to 9 pm.
Four Seasons Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Tel: 506 2696 0000
Costa Rican architect Ronald Zürcher, who cut his teeth on his brother Harold's famous and beloved Hotel Punta Islita, was responsible for the design of this flashy resort. If you prefer to experience nature with L'Occitane products in your outsize soaking tub, speedy 24-hour room service delivered to your broad balcony, and high-thread-count linens on your plush bed, this is the place for you. The resort straddles the northern extreme of the Nicoya Peninsula, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the calm Bahía de Culebra on the other. But don't expect smashing views: Most of the 173 rooms are shaded by the tropical canopy. In summer, the trees thin out at the top, so opt for rooms on the upper floors for an ocean outlook. Hit the Arnold Palmer golf course or treat yourself to a Selva de Osa mud mask in the Serenity spa after dumping the kids at their own (free) club; there's even a separate program for teens. Four Seasons has four dining options, the most popular of which is the formal restaurant Di Mare, serving Italian fare.—Updated by Christopher P. Baker
Florblanca, Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Tel: 506 2640 0232
Located in tiny Santa Teresa on the southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula, Florblanca attracts yoga buffs, spa addicts with an adventurous streak, surfers with money to burn, and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Gisele Bündchen. Inspired by Balinese architecture, the ten one- and two-bedroom villas—all with sunken tubs and garden showers in the outdoor bathrooms—are constructed of dark hardwoods and have fold-back panel windows on three sides. The beachfront yoga center hosts a year-round program of workshops and retreats and includes an eco-centric spa for natural skin treatments and massages; an on-site biologist leads exploratory hikes into the rainforest. If you still have energy to burn, there's horseback riding, mountain biking, and snorkeling. If not, refuel at the open-air Nectar restaurant, which has a sushi bar (try the creative rolls of fresh-caught tuna and red snapper) and talented young chef Spencer Graves preparing Asian-Pacific-Latino fusion dishes in the kitchen. With a five-leaf rating for green sustainability from the Costa Rican Tourism Board, Florblanca is for in-the-know luxury travelers who want an authentic eco-resort experience without giving up any creature comforts.—Updated by Christopher P. Baker
Capitán Suizo, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Tel: 506 2653 0075
Hidden away in the tropical undergrowth on the edge of Playa Tamarindo, the Nicoya Peninsula's most popular beach, Capitán Suizo is a laid-back hotel for sand-and-surf lovers run by Swiss owners Ursula and Ruedi Schmid. Howler and white-faced monkeys hang out on the lush grounds, and iguanas often join guests to sunbathe around the pool. Most of the 22 guest rooms are split-level and huge, decorated simply in white or pastel shades with teak furnishings and walls of glass. If you're splurging, consider the eight bungalows and a four-bedroom apartment; request a bungalow with an ocean view, as some don't face the shore. At the open-air restaurant, German chef Roland Brodscholl uses local ingredients in fusion dishes, such as papaya soup with coriander and ginger, and marimba players perform nightly. There are a host of activities on hand, from kayaking and surfing to beach volleyball and even Ping-Pong, which means that guests have the best of both worlds here: either filling their days with as much fun in the sun as possible or idling away the hours on their private terrace in the jungle shade.—Updated by Christopher P. Baker