Arenal refers mainly to the active volcano located in the national park of the same name. It was thought to be extinct, until it erupted in 1968. This destination is one of the most visited in the country, especially for the nightly lava eruptions, that can be seen on clear nights. There are hikes to the national park, but for safety reasons, it is not possible to get close to the crater. The closest town is called La Fortuna, which offers a great variety of services such as numerous restaurant and lodging options, stores, tour companies, etc.
La Fortuna is located about 3,5 hours away from San José (140 km / 87 miles), and about 2,5 hours from Monteverde, if you go by boat through Lake Arenal. Other than the volcano, one of the area’s main attractions is Lake Arenal, the biggest lake in Costa Rica.
Windsurfing and fishing for rainbow bass are very popular sports here. Other activities available from here are hikes, horseback rides, waterfalls, canopy tours (zip lines and hanging bridges), canoeing and boat rides. Also, the hot springs are a must while visiting the Arenal area. There are some close by destinations that you can visit as day trips from La Fortuna, such as Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, where you’ll enjoy a boat ride through the mangroves; Rio Celeste (means: light blue river), a hike tour to discover an incredible blue colored river; and Sarapiquí or the world famous Pacuare Rafting.
The weather is warm and humid year round, and this destination can be visited any time of year. The most common way to get there is by road, but there are about 2 daily flights to La Fortuna.
Monteverde is a small town founded by the Quakers around the 1950’s. Its main attraction is its cloud forest reserves, along with its scenery and wildlife. The name refers to the private reserve that made the destination famous, though the main town is called Santa Elena. Santa Elena is located in a plateau about 1500 meters (4 920 feet) above sea level. The weather is cool and humid, with temperatures ranging from 14° C to 22° C (57° F to 72° F) year round. From December to April, the weather tends to be a bit drier, but still some rain is expected. It can get chilly at nights, and it usually rains, especially in the afternoons, so please bring a windbreaker or sweater. Long pants and comfortable shoes are important here too. The distance from San José is 168 km (104 miles). The trip by car takes about 4 hours from San José, and the last part of the road is made of gravel, so the ride is quite bumpy.
This is the only way to get there, as there is no airstrip near town.
Activities available in Monteverde and Santa Elena include horseback riding, daytime and night hikes, canopy tours (zip lines and hanging bridges), coffee tours and butterfly gardens. Bird watching is excellent here, especially if you arrive before all the tourists do! Over 350 species of birds call this cloud forest home, and the resplendent quetzal is without a doubt the most sought after. It’s more likely to be seen during the breeding season, from March to April. There are many other striking birds as well, such as the Three-wattled Bellbird, Black Guan and many species of Hummingbirds. The cloud forest is a very fragile and unique ecosystem, and all the efforts possible should be put into preserving this environment for future generations.
Manuel Antonio is a national park located in the central pacific part of Costa Rica. In fact, it is one of the most visited parks in the country, for its amazing beaches, views and wildlife, and tourist facilities nearby. While at the beach, watch out for the capuchin monkeys and coatis, as they have learned that humans are not harmful and always carry food, so they are not afraid of serving themselves to your lunch, even if they have to search through your backpack!Lodging and dining options to suit all budgets abound throughout Quepos and Manuel Antonio. The nightlife is quite lively too. Most hotels and restaurants are located on top of a hill, with amazing views of the ocean. There are few beachfront options though. The weather is hot and humid year round, with a dryer season from December to April, and a rainy season from May to November. There is an airstrip 5 minutes out of Quepos, and flights to/from San José take about 30 minutes. By car, it takes about 4 hours from San José (160 km / 99 miles), and about 1,5 hours from Jacó. There are many activities available at this location, such as horseback riding, hiking, canopy tours, white water rafting, kayaking, mangrove and coastal boat tours, and fishing. Manuel Antonio can also be visited as a day trip from Jaco, Herradura and Esterillos beaches.
Corcovado / Osa Peninsula
The Osa Peninsula, located in the South Pacific, is one of the most remote locations in Costa Rica, and for that, one of the most exciting destinations. Drake Bay, Palmar Sur and Puerto Jimenez are the entry points to this natural wonder. There are daily 45-60 minute flights to these airstrips, and this is the easiest way to access the Peninsula. It is possible to drive all the way down there, but it takes about 8 hours from San José. Corcovado National Park is certainly one of the best natural attractions. Its tropical jungle hosts a vast array of animals, including large mammals such as tapirs, pumas and jaguars, though these are not easy to spot at all. To visit the national park, look for a hotel in the Carate or Drake areas, as it is more accessible from here than from the Puerto Jimenez area (not that this area does not have its appeal). Hiking and wildlife viewing are the major activities to do on the park. Isla Del Caño is a magnificent destination, especially for divers. During the dry season (December-April), the visibility is a little better, but there are strong winds that make the best spots hard to reach. During the rainy season (May to November), visibility varies a little more, but it’s the best time to go. Some of the species that can be seen here are white tipped sharks, manta rays, dolphins, sea turtles, eels, parrot fish, and lots of others.
On the island, there is a trail through the jungle, in which you can see mysterious stone spheres, built for unknown reasons by an old indigenous culture. Isla Del Caño is accessible from hotels in the Drake Bay area, and from Dominical. The Dulce Gulf is a great location for water sports such as fishing, dolphin viewing and kayaking. The scenery and wildlife are pretty amazing here. To visit the Golfo Dulce, you can fly into Golfito or Puerto Jimenez. If you are planning to visit this area, it is recommended to book well in advance, especially in the high season, from December to April, when the weather is drier. From May to November, it rains more, though the temperature is similar yea round. Hotels in this area usually offer packages that include full board, some tours and transfers to/from the nearest airstrip. Here, most lodges are small and eco-oriented, and thus, this is a destination for people keen on nature and getting away from the comfort of city life.
Tortuguero National Park is located in the northern part of Costa Rica’s Caribbean. The place is especially known for its canals and mangroves, and for being an important nesting site for green sea turtles. The nesting season goes from July to October, so this is usually the busiest time, though it is an interesting destination any time.
The weather is very hot and humid year round, and rains are expected practically on a daily basis. October is the driest month in this part of the country.
Upon arrival to the remote town of Tortuguero, there are no roads, so all transportation is done by boat. The town is very small, and there are no restaurants or shops, so you should bring all the necessary toiletry items.
The greatest attraction in Tortuguero is its wildlife; it is possible to observe many types of aquatic birds, caimans, and sometimes otters. This is the last part of Costa Rica where manatees inhabit, though they are rarely seen. The main activities here are boat rides and hiking, though it is also possible to do some kayaking. This is not really a beach destination, as the currents are quite strong and the waves quite high. During turtle season, there are night tours where you can see the turtles carefully building their nests, or see the hatchlings when they make their way into the ocean. Lodges in this area offer packages that include bus and boat transportation to/from San José, accommodations, full board and canal tours. There is also an airstrip, so it’s possible to get there in a quick 45 minute flight.
San José is the capital province and city of Costa Rica. It’s located in the Central Valley, surrounded by mountains, at an altitude of approximately 1150 meters (3770 feet) above sea level. It’s the most populated city in the country and where most of the economical and political activities happen. Here you can find all types of services expected such as hotels to suit all budgets, hip and fancy restaurants, bars, shops, etc. The international airport is called Juan Santamaría, and it’s actually located in Alajuela, not San José, though it is commonly referred as San José.
The temperature in the city is quite pleasant year round, with temperatures ranging from 18°C to 25°C (64°F – 78°F). It does get cooler at night and at dawn, especially in the higher areas. The two seasons observed here are similar to most of the country: a dry season from December to April, and a rainy season from May to November.
There are a few tourist attractions in the city, such as the National Theatre, Barrio Amón, the National Museum and Inbio Park. From San José, it’s possible to take day trips to nearby tourist destinations, such as Poás Volcano, Irazu Volcano and Orosi Valley, Tortuga Island, white water rafting in Pacuare, coffee tours, and even farther places such as Carara, Braulio Carrillo, Sarapiquí and Arenal.
It’s not advisable to walk in the city at night, and even during the day, be careful with your valuables…don’t leave anything unattended!
Rincón de la Vieja
Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park is located in the northern part of the country, in Guanacaste province. It’s located about one hour away from Liberia International airport, and some lodges even less than that. The volcano has a total elevation of 1915 meters (6280 feet), and the temperature and winds up in the crater are cool, but below on the slopes, the temperature is very warm and nice, with temperatures of about 26°C (79 °F).
The scenery around the volcano is amazing: turquoise waterfalls, boiling mud piles and fumaroles, forest and wildlife make this a very interesting destination. There are several trails, and a good physical condition is required to see all of it!
Some of the animal that it’s possible to spot are monkeys (3 species: capuchin, howler and spider), coatis, sloths, and less commonly pacas, armadillos, pumas and peccaries. Bird species include toucans, parrots and fly catchers. There are several nice and comfortable lodges around that offer tours to the volcano, as well as activities such as horseback riding, hot springs, mud baths, white water rafting and canopy tours. The beauty of this “off the beaten path” location is extraordinary; it is one of the best kept secrets in Costa Rica!
Tamarindo is one of the most visited beaches in the country. It’s located in the North Pacific Coast, in Guanacaste province, about 1,5 hours from Liberia International Airport (69 km / 43 miles). From San José, the distance is 274 km (170 miles), and it takes approximately 5 hours from the airport. There is an airstrip in Tamarindo, and daily 50 minute flights make this destination very accessible.
As tourism increases in the area, the town grows very fast, and it has become quite lively and populous. There are all sorts of services and facilities: hotels to suit all budgets, restaurants, super markets, and tour operators. Temperatures are quite hot year round, and there are two seasons: a dry season from December to April and a rainy season from May to December, though it usually rains only in the afternoons. The beach next to it is called Playa Grande, and it’s an important nesting site for leatherback turtles. Nesting season goes from mid November to mid February, and there are tours from Tamarindo that will hopefully show you how these miraculous giant creatures make their nests in the sand. Other activities in the area include canopy tours (zip lines), ATV tours, horseback rides, boat tours, surfing and of course, just lying on the beach! Other nearby beaches include Langosta, Avellanas (also great for surfing), Playa Negra and Conchal.
Sarapiquí is a beautiful Caribbean country side location, situated only 2 hours away from San José (67 km / 42 miles). It’s a beautiful drive from San José, as you pass through the Braulio Carrillo National Park. The weather in Sarapiqui is very hot and humid year round, with a small drier season in October. There are several comfortable lodges around, and they are a great base to discover the striking scenery in the region. Its biggest attraction is the Sarapiqui River, great for white water rafting of various levels (from I to IV rapids). This destination is not as touristy yet, which makes it an excellent off the beaten path destination with lots to do!
Activities available here include: horseback riding, canopy tours, hiking, white water rafting, chocolate and pineapple tours. Bird watching is just incredible in this area, as the diversity of multicolored species is huge! Both La Tirimbina and The Organization for Tropical Studies’ La Selva are great for guided hikes and wildlife viewing. Also, it’s possible to visit the Braulio Carrillo National Park from here.
Puerto Viejo, Manzanillo and Cahuita
The southern Caribbean is a beautiful and tranquil area, totally different from what you can expect in other Costa Rican beach areas. This area is located about 4 hours from San José (227 km / 141 miles). There are several spots worth visiting, such as Cahuita, Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo. Coming from San José, you will find Cahuita first. In quiet Cahuita, you’ll find various hotels and lodges, as well as restaurants. Also, the Cahuita National Park is located, where there are calm beaches and a lush jungle. About 25 minutes further south, you’ll arrive to Puerto Viejo, where the town is bigger and livelier, and there is more to choose from in terms of lodging and dining options, as well as nightlife. In the 15 km (about 9 miles) stretch between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo, you will find other beaches in between, such as Cocles, great for surfing, and Punta Uva, great for swimming. Manzanillo is literally at the end of the road, and there is an important wildlife refuge, especially for being a nesting site for sea turtles. The beach is very nice for swimming and kayaking. Renting a bike is a very popular way to get around in between all these places, and lodging options are available throughout.
The weather in this area is always very hot and rainy almost all year except October, the “dry” season. The sun is expected to come out though, unless there is a special weather condition that brings really heavy rain; but that is not that common. Activities available in the area include snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, bird watching, surfing, biking, and night life too!
The Poás Volcano is one of the most visited national parks in the country. The volcano is active, and it has an elevation of 2705 meters (8 880 feet). The highland scenery is very interesting, with an abundance of small bushes, ferns and bromeliads. Inside the park, there are well marked trails that will take you to the main attractions: the main crater, said to be one of the largest in the world, and the Botos Lagoon, which is really another crater. There are more than 60 species of birds, so bird watching is a nice activity to do inside the park too!
The weather is quite chilly and humid, and it’s important to be there early, as the clouds are unpredictable and there is more chance of seeing the crater in the morning hours than in the afternoon.
This location can be visited as a one day tour from San José, or you can stay from one to three nights in one of the cozy mountain lodges nearby. It takes about 1 hour and a half from San José to get to the volcano’s entrance (the distance is about 56 km or 35 miles). If you choose to stay in the area, there are other things to do nearby: horseback riding, visit to dairy farms, La Paz waterfalls, canopy tour, Sarchí handicraft markets, coffee tour and rafting in the Sarapiqui River.
Tambor, Montezuma, Mal País and Santa Teresa
In the Nicoya Peninsula, there are a few laidback towns and beaches that are becoming a very important tourist destination for its beautiful shores and young and lively atmosphere.
To reach the Peninsula by car, the best way is by ferry, which is boarded in Punta Arenas. The ferries depart daily, approximately every 2 hours, but the schedules change constantly (two companies provide the service), so be sure to check first! It is recommended to get in line once you get there. You can buy the tickets while you’re waiting in line. It’s important to get there early, as the lines can be quite long, especially during high season or weekends (don’t even try it during peak season!).
The traveling time is variable, as it is highly dependent on the ferry, but the actual driving time will be about 2 hours from San José to Punta Arenas, and then about 35 minutes from Paquera to Tambor. The ferry ride can take from one hour to almost two hours, as it depends on the winds, etc. There is a very convenient boat transfer from Jacó (Herradura) to Montezuma, which is faster than taking the ferry. There are also daily flights from San José to Tambor, which is really the easiest and quicker way to get there. From Tambor, it will take about 30 minutes to Montezuma and about 45 to Mal País/Santa Teresa.
Tambor is a very small fishermen town, with a few hotels and restaurants along its long beach. Montezuma is a very artsy town with lots of handicrafts and cafés, with a lovely swimming beach. Santa Teresa and Mal País are basically next to each other; their long beaches are gorgeous, and they are great for surfing. Lodging and dining options for all budgets abound in these towns.
The weather throughout the Peninsula is quite dry from December to April, and it rains from May to December, though the temperatures are high year round.
Activities available from these areas include horseback rides, waterfalls, canopy tours, ATV tours and visits to Tortuga Island.
Dominical is located in the South Pacific area, about 1 1/2 hours away from Manuel Antonio. This small town is visited by lots of young surfers, but there are other attractions too: swimming beaches, kayaking, snorkeling, diving, and dolphin & whale watching (especially humpbacks, during migrating season, from December to March & mid July to November). Due to its southern location, the famed Isla Del Caño can be visited as a one day tour from here, as well as the Corcovado National Park. This area can be accessed several ways: by flight from San José to Palmar Sur, and then a 45 minute drive to Dominical. Coming from San José, the shortest way by car is through the Interamerican Highway (passing the “Cerro de la Muerte” and San Isidro Del General). It is a 4 to 5 hour drive. The other way is through Orotina-Jacó-Manuel Antonio, but this way is longer. There are several beaches close by, some are surfing beaches, and some swimming beaches, such as Dominicalito, Uvita, Ventanas and Tortuga. There are lodging options along these beaches too. The weather is hot and humid year round, though it is drier from December to April, the dry season.