Costa Rica

Welcome to the jungle, the lush heartland of Central America, with 32 national parks

After a day spent sitting on a platform high up in the canopy of a rainforest, peering into the virgin forest around you to pick out the roaming howler monkeys, jaguars, and 850 species of bird you can hike back through the jungle past thundering waterfalls, get in your car, and drive back to the hotel for an evening spent sitting out on the deck, sipping fine coffee and gazing across the forest floor at the volcano erupting against the night sky before returning to your room to plan tomorrow's adventure.

Perhaps it will be mountain biking around volcanic lakes, rafting class IV rapids, canoe past beaches where massive sea turtles nest by the thousands, horseback riding, or trekking into the jungle to visit native villages.

Welcome to Costa Rica, a tiny country about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont together. It is also a progressive country—a democracy since 1889, it even abolished a standing army in 1949—it’s always at the leading edge of ecotourism and has set aside around 25 percent of its rich, biodiverse landscape to form an impressive 32 national parks.

San Jose

Once you've found your way to San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city, it's probably wise to find your way back out again. While there's nothing wrong with it per se, Costa Rica's capital city doesn't necessarily present the most attractive side of a nation renowned for its natural wonders.

Still, there are plenty of lovely hotels converted from mansions of downtown old San Jose. If you decide to spend your first night in town—recuperating form the flight, brushing up your Spanish, etc.—take the afternoon to check out the sights, including the National Arts Center of contemporary creative pursuits (painting, architecture, modern dance, experimental theater), and the Museo Nacional stuffed with beautiful artifacts from the country's 2,500 years of history.

You also shouldn't miss the Gold Museum, located beneath the Plaza de la Cultura. The 2,000 objects on display contain approximately 20,000 troy ounces of gold all told. That works out to roughly $7,114,000--and that's just the raw material! The fact that it's all fashioned into pre-Columbian artifacts makes this collection priceless.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Though only 1,700 acres, Manuel Antonio is possibly the single most popular tourist destination in Costa Rica, a steep rocky outcrop of forest plunging down into the blue waters of the Pacific and teeming with wildlife (squirrel moneys, three-toed sloths, white-faced monkeys, iguanas, toucans, parrots, brilliantly-colored crabs).

Fair warning: this famous area is in danger of overdevelopment (many would say it's already too late), and the road between the town and park is now lined with hotels, restaurant, bars, and discos that tend to attract a crowd much less concerned with the tenets of ecotourism.

We're talking about the kinds of un-thinking folks who tend to leave trash, feed the monkeys, and destroy bits of the natural environment with their sheer numbers. Plus all the hotels, souvenir shops, and related tourism businesses springing up to cater to the crowds (at their worst December to March) are beginning to thin the forests around this last remaining scrap of jungle on a coastline most of which was long ago cleared for plantations.

Arenal Volcano

The Arenal Lodge is set amid a macadamia plantation bordered by virgin forest with bird-watching trails. It lies a mile from the huge man-made Arenal Lake and sports incredible views (from the deck, not the rooms, sadly) across the forest canopy to the Arenal Volcano itself, six miles away. If you're lucky and the volcano is being particularly active (as it usually is these days) and its cone isn't shrouded in fog, you will witness its spectacular eruptions of lava against the night sky.

Even if your luck doesn't hold, the region is packed with fun diversions, including a soak in the Tabacón Hot Springs, hikes in the 7,.200-acre Arenal National Park, a trek to the Río Fortuna waterfall, a bird-watching tour of the marshy Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge, and various canopy tours and white water rafting trips based in the area's central farming town of La Fortuna.

Lake Coter EcoLodge (three nights) near Lake Arenal and its namesake volcano. The lodge--surrounded by natural trails, with opportunities to canoe and ride horses, and even explore a bit of cloud forest--sits on tiny, beautiful Lake Coter (which is, according to some UFOlogists, a landing pad for UFOs--no really, you should see the pictures).

Braulio Carillo National Park

A mountainous rainforest home to more than 6,500 species above coffee plantations.

Corcovado National Park

Explore the remote and unspoiled forests of Corcovado Park on the Osa peninsula far to the south.

Tortuguero National Park

This park was named for the giant sea turtles (greens, loggerheads, hawkbills, and leatherbacks) which nest on the beach here between March (though things don't really pick up until July) and mid-October.

This park's often called "The Venice of Costa Rica" for the series of rivers and canals that thread it's jungly length, often paralleling the shore itself just a few hundred feet away. You slip onto a boat and start threading the Caribbean Canals, spying into the surrounding rain forest canopy for the three-toes sloths, toucans, jaguars, spider and howler monkeys, anteaters, and endangered great green macaws that call the park home. If you miss the turtles themselves, the wildlife museum in the village has extensive information on the critters.

Poás Volcano

At the 9,000-foot top of the volcano, after a short (half-mile) walk through the cloud forest, you emerge at the lip of the mile-wide crater (second largest in the world) which grumbles and spews fumaroles and muddy geysers up to 600 feet into the air.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens

A cross between a botanical park (butterfly and orchid gardens, hummingbird feeders, and a cafeteria) and a natural park where a series of trails threads through the forest to overlooks where you can admire waterfalls that range up to 250 feet high.

Sarapiquí River

In the Coridillera Central range near the Nicaraguan border, board a boat for a cruise down the Sarapiquí River with its crocs and monkeys, iguanas and sloths, turtles and tropical birds.

Selva Verde Lodge (, set amid its own protected 500 acres of rainforest on the banks of the Sarapiquí River.


Laze away on Pacific Coast beaches of the Guancanaste and the Nicoya Peninsula, the beach playground region of the country.

Pacuare River

White water raft down the Pacuare River

Monteverde Cloud Forest

An amazing mountain rainforest featuring 2,000 species of plant and 400 birds, including the elusive and brilliantly colored quetzal.

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in April 2012.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.