Hemmed in between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans near the narrowest point of the Central American isthmus, the tiny republic of Costa Rica is often pictured as an oasis of political stability in the midst of a turbulent region. This democratic and prosperous nation is also one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, an ecological treasure-trove whose wide range of habitats – ranging from rainforests and beaches to volcanoes and mangrove swamps – support a fascinating variety of wildlife, much of it now protected by an enlightened national conservation system widely regarded as a model of its kind. It's home to more than five percent of all live forms on Earth! In Costa Rica, you can observe about 9,000 kinds of flowering plants, 1,300 species of orchids alone and 850 types of birds. Costa Rica is also a land of great diversity, in addition to lush rain forests it contains nine active volcanoes and many volcanic, black sand beaches. There are also mysterious and beautiful cloud forest, which cover the upper slopes of most mountains and volcanoes, some two million people visit the country annually, mainly from North America. Most of all, though, it’s Costa Rica’s outstanding natural beauty that has made it one of the world’s prime eco-tourism destinations, with visitors flocking here to hike trails through ancient rainforest, climb active volcanoes or explore the Americas’ last vestiges of high-altitude cloud forest, home to jaguar, tapir and resplendent quetzal.
Official Language: Spanish
Explore Costa Rica:
San José, Costa Rica’s capital. Often dismissed as an ugly urban sprawl, the city enjoys a dramatic setting amid jagged mountain peaks, plus some excellent cafés and restaurants, leafy parks, a lively university district and a good arts scene. The surrounding Valle Central, the country’s agricultural heartland and coffee-growing region, is home to several of its finest volcanoes, including the steaming crater of Volcán Poás and the largely dormant Volcán Irazú, a strange lunar landscape high above the regional capital of Cartago.
While nowhere in the country is further than nine hours’ drive from San José, the far north and the far south are less visited than other regions. The broad alluvial plains of the Zona Norte feature active Volcán Arenal, which spouts and spews within sight of the friendly tourist hangout of La Fortuna, and the wildlife-rich jungles of the Sarapiquí region, its dense rainforest harbouring monkeys, poison-dart frogs and countless species of bird, including the endangered great green macaw. Up by the border with Nicaragua, the seasonal wetlands of the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro provide a haven for water birds, along with gangs of basking caiman.
Off-the-beaten-path travellers and serious hikers will be happiest in the rugged Zona Sur, home to Cerro Chirripó, the highest point in the country, and, further south on the outstretched feeler of the Osa Peninsula, Parque Nacional Corcovado, which protects the last significant area of tropical wet forest on the Pacific coast of the isthmus; Corcovado is probably the best destination in the country for walkers – and also one of the few places where you have a fighting chance of seeing some of the more exotic wildlife for which Costa Rica is famed.
In the northwest, the cattle-ranching province of Guanacaste is often called “the home of Costa Rican folklore”, and sabanero culture dominates here, with exuberant rag tag rodeos and large cattle haciendas occupying the hot, baked landscape that surrounds the attractive regional capital of Liberia. The province’s beaches are some of the best – and, in parts, most developed – in the country, with Sámara and Nosara, on the Nicoya Peninsula, providing picture-postcard scenery without the crowds.
Limón Province, on the Caribbean coast, is the polar opposite to traditional ladino Guanacaste. It’s home to the descendants of the Afro-Caribbeans who came to Costa Rica at the end of the nineteenth century to work on the San José–Limón railroad – their language (Creole English), Protestantism and the West Indian traditions remain relatively intact to this day. The reason most visitors venture here, however, is for Parque Nacional Tortuguero, and the three species of marine turtles that lay their eggs on its beaches each year.
Close to the Pacific coast, Monteverde has become the country’s number-one tourist attraction, pulling in the visitors who flock here to walk through some of the most famous cloudforest in the Americas. Further down the coast is popular Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, with its sublime ocean setting and tempting beaches, plus the equally pretty but more surf-oriented sands of Montezuma and Santa Teresa/Mal País, on the southern Nicoya Peninsula.
THINGS NOT TO MISS:
Stay at an eco-lodge:
From rustic simplicity to luxury in the jungle, Costa Rica has some of the best eco-lodges in the Americas, all offering a variety of ways to further immerse yourself in the natural world.
Costa Rica is the natural habitat of the most colourful birds in the Americas, including hummingbirds, scarlet macaws, toucans and the resplendent quetzal.
One of the most appealing beaches on the entire Caribbean coast, with pristine tropical scenery, a soothing atmosphere and excellent accommodation.
White-water rafting is one of Costa Rica’s most popular outdoor activities, with a range of rivers to suit all abilities.
Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde:
Experience the bird’s-eye view – and a touch of vertigo – from a suspended bridge in the lush Monteverde cloudforest.
Poás is one of the world’s more easily accessible active volcanoes, with a history of eruptions that goes back eleven million years.
With nearly 1300km of palm-fringed coastline, and a variety of beach breaks, reef breaks, long lefts and river mouths, Costa Rica has a wave for just about every surfer out there.
Sample a cup of Costa Rica’s most famous export, and the foundation of the country’s prosperity.
Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja:
Clouds of sulphurous smoke and steaming mudpots dot the desiccated slopes of Rincón de la Vieja volcano, one of the country’s more thermally active areas.
Exploring the Tortuguero Canal:
Ride the boat north from Puerto Limón along the Tortuguero Canal, past luxuriant vegetation and colourful wooden houses on stilts.
Trekking in Parque Nacional Corcovado:
This biologically rich coastal rainforest is one of Costa Rica’s finest destinations for walking and wildlife-spotting.
View some of the thousands of turtles – leatherbacks, hawksbill, olive ridleys and greens – that come ashore to lay their eggs each year, and, if you’re lucky, glimpse the babies hatch and return to the sea.
One of the Western Hemisphere’s most active volcanoes, Arenal’s upper slopes are periodically doused in flows of red-hot lava.
Reserva Rara Avis:
Costa Rica’s premier eco-tourism destination flourishes with primitive ferns and has more kinds of plants, birds and butterflies than in all Europe.
Museo de Oro Precolombino:
One of the country’s best museums, with a dazzling display that features over two thousand pre-Columbian gold pieces.
Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro:
Crammed with caiman and home to hundreds of species of birds, this isolated reserve near the Nicaraguan border is one of the most important wetlands in the world.
Anglers battle big fish in Costa Rica’s coastal waters, teeming with swordfish, marlin, tarpon and snook.
Teatro Nacional, San José:
Central America’s grandest theatre, built in imitation of the Paris Opéra with money raised by a tax on coffee.
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio:
this perennially popular park boasts white-sand beaches, tropical forests full of sloths and monkeys, and stunning coastal scenery peppered with striking rock formations.