Costa Rica Travel Guide
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ITINERARIES

San José
The cosmopolitan capital of Costa Rica is the transportation hub of the country, so most visitors spend at least a few days in the city. It has a more North American feel to it than many Latin American capitals, with department stores, shopping malls and fast-food chains. However, it also has several excellent museums, some great restaurants, colorful markets and a fine climate.

The best of the museums are the Museo Nacional, which has displays of Costa Rican archaeology, colonial furniture, costumes and religious art; the Museo de Oro Precolombino, which houses a dazzling collection of pre-Columbian gold pieces; and the Museo de Jade, with the world's largest collection of American jade sculptures. The most impressive city building is the Teatro Nacional, built in the 1890s. It hosts plays, operas, ballets and performances by the National Symphony Orchestra. The best market is Mercado Central, which bustles rather than buzzes, but has a range of goods from live turkeys to leatherwork, and some of the cheapest meals in town.

Most of the cheaper hotels and eateries are west of Calle Central, between Avenidas 1 and 2. Barrio Amón, northeast of the centre, caters to a wider range of travellers.

Monteverde
This small community in northwestern Costa Rica was founded by Quakers in 1951 and is now a popular and interesting destination for both local and international visitors. The small town of Santa Elena is the closest settlement to the Monteverde cloud-forest reserve but the road leading from the town's center to the reserve is clustered with attractions including the butterfly garden, the serpentarium, a cheese factory, a and number of art galleries.

Interesting though these attractions are, they are merely the warm-up acts for the main event. The Monteverde Cloud-Forest Reserve has a number of walking trails (details of which can be found at the office of the Monteverde Conservation League at the mouth of the reserve) that vary in length and degree of difficulty. Tickets to the reserve cost US$13.0 (adults) and US$6.50 (children) and last all day. But why restrict yourself to the ground? The Sky Walk, a series of suspension bridges that criss-cross the top of the jungle, leaves you walking on clouds, while the juiced-up Canopy Tour whizzes you across the canopy of the jungle in a series of flying foxes. The more sedate Aerial Adventure offers a view of the tree tops via a ski-lift arrangement.

Pacific Beaches
If you've seen one too many macaws, you can swim or relax on one of Costa Rica's beaches. The Pacific coast has a pleasing mixture of luxury resorts and deserted beaches. Golfito is on the southern Pacific coast, tucked in a small bay off Golfo Dulce and is an important port and jumping-off point for the region's fantastic beaches. Heading northeast from the town, the coast features numerous remote coves, with jungle-lodge accommodations and virgin rain forest backdrop. The coastal Parque Nacional Corcovado, on the Península de Osa, has a huge colony of scarlet macaws. Beaches worth pausing at include Playa Cativo, Playa Zancudo (claimed by the locals to be the best swimming beach) and Pavones (which has some of the best Pacific surf).

The central Pacific coast starts at Uvita and heads north to the Golfo de Nicoya and the city of Puntarenas. The beach-resort town of Jacó attracts package-holiday tourists and those keen to party hard. While Puntarenas itself is too polluted, swimmers should head for the dozens of isolated islands that lie just off the coast, such as Isla Tortuga. Good surf close to Puntarenas can be found at Boca Barranca and Doña Ana.

Parks
The Costa Rican government has been concentrating on its parks and wildlife for well over 40 years now, and the dedication has payed off in the quality and quantity of biological reserves and well-preserved ecosystems. The national park northwest of Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, has at its center the perfectly conical (and iconical) 1633m (5356ft) Volcán Arenal. The volcano has been exceptionally active since 1968, when huge explosions triggered lava flows that killed several dozen people. The degree of activity varies from week to week; sometimes there is a spectacular display of flowing red-hot lava and incandescent rocks flying through the air; at other times, the volcano is more placid and gently glows in the dark.

Parque Nacional Santa Rosa is the oldest and one of the best developed national parks in Costa Rica. It covers most of the Península Santa Elena, which juts out into the Pacific in the far northwestern corner of the country. It protects the largest remaining stand of tropical dry forest in Central America and is an important nesting site for endangered species of sea turtles.

Two other environmental highlights include Rincón de la Vieja, northeast of Liberia in northwestern Costa Rica, and Parque Nacional Corcovado. The former is a volcanic wonderland of cones, craters, lagoons, boiling mud pools, sulphur springs, hot springs that visitors can bathe in, and a park that can be explored on foot or horse. Parque Nacional Corcovado, in the southwestern corner of the Península de Osa in the south of the country, has long-distance hiking trails, which offer visitors the chance to spend several days walking through lowland tropical rain forest. Make sure you visit in the dry season, and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. There are shorter walks around Monteverde Reserve and in the coastal Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, south of Quepos.


Off the Beaten Track

Caribbean Coast (Costa Rica)

The Caribbean has more cultural diversity than the Pacific coast. Half of this coastal area is protected by national parks and wildlife refuges, which has slowed development and the building of access roads, making it an especially verdant place to get away from it all. The main city is Puerto Limón, which has a tropical park teeming with flowers and sloths. Parque Nacional Tortuguero is the most important Caribbean breeding ground of the green sea turtle and has plenty of birds, monkeys and lizards. The Creole beach paradise of Cahuita has a nearby national park with attractive beaches, coral reef and coastal rain forest. Bribrí culture can be experienced in the surfing mecca of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Handicrafts, reggae, homestays and cultural tours make Puerto Viejo an especially interesting destination.

Península de Nicoya
This area on the northwestern Pacific coast is difficult to traverse because of the lack of paved roads; however, it's well worth the effort because it contains some of the country's best and most remote beaches. There are also some small and rarely visited wildlife reserves and parks. Parque Nacional Marino las Baulas de Guanacaste, just north of Tamarindo, includes Playa Grande, an important nesting site for the baula (leatherback turtle) - the world's largest turtle, which can weigh over 300kg (675lb). Playa del Coco is the most accessible beach on the peninsula, in an attractive setting and with a small village, which has some nightlife. Good surfing and windsurfing can be found at Playa Tamarindo. Caving fans head for Parque Nacional Barra Honda, northeast of Nicoya, which protects some of Costa Rica's most interesting caves. Wildlife teems in the coastal Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Ostional, midway between Sámara and Paraíso. The main attraction is the annual nesting of the olive ridley sea turtle, but you'll also find iguanas, howler monkeys, coatimundis and flocks of numerous birds. One of the safest and prettiest beaches in the country is Playa Sámara, and Montezuma, near the tip of the peninsula, is a lovely, laid-back paradise for tired, young gringos.


Environment

Costa Rica is bordered to the north by Nicaragua and to the southeast by Panama. It has both a Caribbean and a Pacific coast. A series of volcanic mountain chains runs from the Nicaraguan border to the Panamanian border, splitting the country in two. In the centre of these ranges is a high-altitude plain, with coastal lowlands on either side. Over half the population lives on this plain, which has fertile volcanic soils. The Caribbean coast is 212km (131mi) long and is characterised by mangroves, swamps and sandy beaches. The Pacific coast is much more rugged and rocky, and, thanks to a number of gulfs and peninsulas, is a tortuous 1016km (630mi) long.

The country's biodiversity attracts nature lovers from all over the world; its tropical forests contain 1500 tree species. National parks cover almost 12% of the country, and forest reserves and indigenous reservations boost the protected land area to 27%.

Costa Rica's jungles provide a variety of habitats for the country's fauna including four types of monkey, sloths, armadillos, jaguars and tapirs.The primary attraction for many visitors is the 850 recorded bird species, which include the resplendent quetzal, indigo-capped hummingbirds, macaws and toucans. There are also a number of dazzling butterflies.



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