San José, Costa Rica's bustling yet unremarkable capital, is smack in the middle of the country. The surrounding Central Valley, where most Costa Rican coffee is produced, is hemmed in to the north by the Cordillera Central mountain range and to the south by the towering Talamanca massif. About a three-hour drive northwest of San José are the Northern Lowlands, where you'll find huge tracts of rainforest, massive fruit and cattle farms, and Lake Arenal. The Cordillera de Tilarán divides the Northern Lowlands from the Monteverde region, which is famous for its Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. Further west on the Nicaragua border, Guanacaste is a land of cattle and cowboys. The Nicoya Peninsula to the south hosts the lion's share of beach resorts; most are concentrated on the northern end of the peninsula, near the country's few white-sand beaches.
On the western shore, the Central Pacific region unfurls in an endless string of beaches fringed by tropical forests. This is where you'll find Jacó (the largest and most popular resort town in Costa Rica, despite its less-than-pristine beach) and Manuel Antonio National Park. The Osa Peninsula, farther south along the coast, has a much wilder feel than its sister peninsula to the north; most people come here to explore Corcovado National Park, which offers superlative—albeit sweaty—hiking in its rainforests. The Caribbean Coast is hotter and rainier but no less appealing than its Pacific counterparts and has a distinct Afro-Caribbean heritage. The rainforests and wetlands of Tortuguero National Park and Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge in the northern stretch of the Caribbean coast are accessible solely by plane or boat.
WHEN TO GO
The months between Christmas and Easter roughly coincide with Costa Rica's dry season (December through April). But if you visit one month before or after, the weather is often just as good and rooms cost up to 25 percent less, although some restaurants and bars will be closed. During the May–November rainy season—called the "green season" by tour operators—the rain is usually limited to afternoon downpours, but be prepared for a deluge that can last for days. There is also a relatively dry period called veranillo, which sometimes occurs in July and August, or August and September, particularly on the Pacific coastline. If your heart is set on seeing marine turtles nesting, schedule your visit between June and October.
HOW TO GET THERE
San José International Airport (also known as Juan Santamaría) is the main gateway airport, serviced daily from North America by Air Canada, American, Delta, JetBlue, Spirit Air, Continental/United, and US Airways. If you plan to stay on the Nicoya Peninsula, fly directly to Liberia International Airport (also known as Daniel Oduber Quirós) on American, Delta, or United.
Renting a car—ideally, a four-wheel-drive vehicle—is often the only way to get around Costa Rica. The country's highways are looking better than ever (the Autopista del Sol, opened in 2010, grants speedier access to the Pacific coast, and the Pacific coast highway has been widened and paved), but elsewhere you will encounter rough, often unpaved roads. Most beach towns on the Nicoya Peninsula are connected by unpaved dirt trails, and traveling between them might entail fording rivers (be cautious, particularly in the wet season). And reaching the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve still requires negotiating roads that are mostly rocks and gravel. Because of the driving conditions, flying between Costa Rica's 19 domestic airports can cut down on travel time considerably.
The Costa Rican Tourism Board, which operates booths in the arrivals hall of the two international airports, isn't as helpful as it should be, providing only the most general information. But its Web site can connect you with useful local organizations, as well as specialized tour operators and travel agents, such as Costa Rica Expeditions. The weekly English-language Tico Times, available nationwide, is an excellent resource.
NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: San José
Population: 4.3 million
Area: 19,725 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 506
Electricity: 120V, 60 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Costa Rica Colones = $0.00 US Calculate Other Amounts
Costa Rica does not require visas for citizens of the United States. A valid passport is sufficient for a three-month stay.
GOOD TO KNOW
Costa Rica isn't an especially luxe destination, catering more to ecotourists than jet-setters. As a result, the cuisine is less haute than humble, local, honest, and cheap. Specialties of Costa Rica's many sodas (small restaurants) are casado (rice, beans, stewed beef, fried plantain, salad, and cabbage), olla de carne (soup of beef, plantain, corn, yucca, nampi, and chayote), and sopa negra (black beans with a poached egg). You'll be satiated, but not indulged.
Costa Rica produces many crafts that are worth taking home, from beautiful leatherwork to ceramics. Costa Rica also produces some of the world's finest coffee, much of which is grown on small farms. If you can tear yourself away from the verdant jungles and fantastic surf, look around for local artists who create exacting neo-Amerindian jewelry from gold, silver, and precious stones. In the past few years, dozens of shops have popped up, offering what is billed as artesanía indígena. It is indigenous art, but not always from Costa Ricayou're as likely to find weavings from Guatemala, Panamanian embroidery, and stone carvings all the way from Mexico. However, the elaborately carved exotic woods, made into everything from bracelets to bowls, are usually the real deal. The best native crafts are found in SarchÍ, a mountain village nearly a two-hour drive northwest of San José. Look for comfortable wood-and-leather chairs, most of them easily foldable for your flight home. The town is known throughout the country for its colorful ox carts, often seen in local parades; it's possible to buy miniature versions that are just as elaborately painted.
All hotels add 10 percent service tax plus 3 percent tourist tax to the bill by law, while most restaurants add a 10 percent service charge. It is not necessary to tip taxi drivers.
January: 1, New Year's Day
March: 19, St. Joseph's Day
April: 11, National Heroes Day
May: 1, Labor Day
June: 29, St. Peter and St. Paul Day
July: 25, Annexation of Guanacaste
August: 2, Our Lady of the Angels; 15, Mother's Day
September: 15, Independence Day
November: 2, All Souls' Day
December: 1, Abolition of the Armed Forces Day; 8, Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary; 25, Christmas Day
Spring: Thursday before Easter, Maundy Thursday; Friday before Easter, Good Friday; Saturday before Easter, Holy Saturday; Easter
Summer: Ninth Thursday after Easter, Corpus Christi