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Costa Rica literally translates to “rich coast,” and it’s easy to see how it got its name. In addition to world-class beaches on both the Caribbean and Pacific, this peaceful paradise boasts some of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on Earth. In fact, scientists say five percent of the world’s species are found here. For reference, the country is only as big as West Virginia.
The unparalleled wildlife watching includes encounters with slumbering sloths, majestic scarlet macaws, tree frogs as pretty as they are poisonous, and endangered nesting sea turtles. With dogged determination, they survive, symbiotically, in the shadow of some of the world’s most active volcanoes.
Whether you want to hike in a cloud forest at 10,000 feet above sea level or you dream of riding horses on a white sand beach, it’s never been easier to reach the rich coast. There are nonstop flights to Costa Rica from more than a dozen U.S. cities. Come in winter; the country is one of the best places to visit in January. Or, plan a trip for the summer months when hotel rates drop as temperatures rise.
Top 5 Can’t Miss
- Nayara Springs: Soak in your villa’s private plunge pool fed by mineral hot springs.
- Zip lining: Feel the cloud forest come alive as you soar through the canopy.
- National Parks: These 28 protected areas are Mother Nature at her finest.
- Restaurant Silvestre: Taste an award-winning chef’s contemporary interpretation of Costa Rican cuisine.
- Limón: Experience the country’s vibrant Afro-Caribbean culture.
W Costa Rica – Reserva Conchal
With its audacious architecture and cheeky decor, W Costa Rica – Reserva Conchal stands out on a coast filled with cookie cutter beach resorts. Rooms run the gamut from traditional queens with balconies and ocean views to treehouse suites with private plunge pools. The property has a spa, 18-hole golf course, beach club, adults’ and kids’ pools, and five restaurants.
This adults-only oasis was voted one of Central America’s best resort hotels by T+L readers. “From the moment you arrive you feel pampered,” Erica Linares, a Latin America specialist at Kensington Tours told Travel & Leisure. She’s a fan of the welcome drink, Costa Rica’s answer to the Bloody Mary. Meanwhile Emmanuel Burgio, a T+L Top Travel Advisor specializing in Central America, praises the private plunge pools.
Costa Rica Marriott Hotel Hacienda Belen
Located four miles from San José’s airport, this hotel is an ideal base for exploring the capital. That said, it feels a world away from all things urban thanks to its valley views and meticulously manicured gardens and outdoor spaces, including several pools and a coffee plantation.
Four Seasons Resort Peninsula Papagayo
This family-friendly resort is one of Travel + Leisure’s top 500 hotels in the world. “It commands one of the best locations in Costa Rica and offers easy access to the country’s most beautiful beaches,” James Kaiser, author of “Costa Rica: The Complete Guide” told Travel & Leisure. His pro tip is to bring binoculars to spot the humpback whales migrating offshore in winter.
Lapa Rios Ecolodge & Wildlife Reserve
Also voted one of the best resorts in Central America by T+L readers, this luxurious ecolodge on the Osa Peninsula is the perfect place to immerse oneself in nature. In addition to proximity to wildlife, Burgio loves the waterfront location. “The bungalows boast terraces with ocean views and outdoor showers, and the shared outdoor pool overlooks the Pacific.”
Best Things to Do
Between its diverse flora, fauna, and geothermal features, Costa Rica is a nature-lover’s paradise. A quarter of the country is set aside for conservation, and there are 28 National Parks to choose from. “Plus, unlike Colombia or Brazil, you can visit multiple ecosystems in one day,” said Kaiser.
Between Costa Rica’s 300 beaches there are waves for diehards, beginners, and everyone in between. One of the best places to practice is Tamarindo, where Iguana Surf’s instructors are as passionate about teaching as they are pipelines. As you improve, try the Nicoya Peninsula. According to Linares, “It’s known for its powerful waves and the town of Santa Teresa has a very relaxed, bohemian atmosphere.”
Wellness is a way of life in Costa Rica – it’s home to one of the world’s five blue zones – so it seems sacrilegious to not get a spa treatment while in town. Vida Mía Healing Center & Spa sits atop a “high vibrational crystal mountain” and was named “Best Spa in the Americas.”
Often considered to be the birthplace of ziplining, Costa Rica offers canopy tours almost everywhere there are trees. Hanging bridges are usually an option, too. At Selvatura Park in the Monteverde cloud forest, there are nearly two miles of treetop walkways.
The Pacuare Region
If you ask Burgio, one of the most under-the-radar experiences you can have is a private hike through the Talamanca Mountains with a guide from the indigenous Cabécar community. According to Burgio the Pacuare River is also the best place in Central America for whitewater rafting.
Restaurante Celajes (Organic)
With its insect hotel, working farm, coffee plantation, and sugar cane fields, Hotel Belmar takes farm-to-table to a whole new level. As a result, its pride and joy – Restaurant Celajes – is so well-respected diners drive from as far away as San José just for dinner.
Lidia’s Place (Caribbean)
According to Kaiser, the country’s best food is found on the Caribbean coast where “ the vibrant Afro-Caribbean culture spices things up.” Lidia’s Place is where he goes for the best Caribbean chicken. A small, family-owned establishment, don’t be surprised if Lidia stops by to say hola.
Sano Banano (Healthy)
Translating to healthy banana, Sano Banano serves feel-good food – breakfast, lunch and dinner – in an open-air restaurant. Enjoy seating on the back patio or front porch overlooking Montezuma’s lively main street and don’t miss the artisanal chocolates for sale by the cash register.
Don Rufino (Costa Rican)
Choose from prix-fixe menus, a la carte, or a five-course tasting tour at this Arenal landmark where Linares says the dishes are delicious and the ambiance is just as memorable. Grandma’s roasted chicken, served wrapped in banana leaves, has a cult-like following, so order it before it sells out.
Restaurante Silvestre (Experiential)
This San José institution is famous for its edible experiences derived from “unorthodox and avant-garde culinary techniques.” Since it’s deemed one of the best restaurants in Central America, reservations are a must. And because the chef-driven tasting menu knows no bounds, it’s not ideal for picky eaters.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Costa Rica depends on your goals. If you’re looking to snorkel in clear Caribbean waters, opt for the dry season which on the Caribbean side, is mid-May through mid-December. Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, the dry season is the opposite. It runs from December to May. This is when everything is open and roads are passable. If you want to take advantage of low season rates and avoid crowds, visit during the wet season (which is marketed as the green season).
For the best cultural events, visit during January for Palmares (basically Carnival) or Easter week. As a Catholic country, many of Costa Rica’s biggest holidays correspond with the Church’s. Regardless of when you visit, you can always watch sea turtles nest and hatch, go zip lining (they do it rain or shine), and learn how to surf.
Related: The Ultimate Costa Rica Packing List
How to Get There
Costa Rica has two main airports: Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) in San José and Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR) in Liberia. SJO is your best bet if you’re visiting Manuel Antonio, Limón, Arenal, or the Osa Peninsula. It also tends to have the cheapest flights. For trips to Guanacaste and Alajuela, you’ll probably want to fly into Liberia. Both airports offer rental cars.
Of course, it’s possible to fly into one airport and out of the other. And transferring between the two is easy thanks to public buses and shared shuttles. The trip takes approximately 3-4 hours depending on traffic. Driving to Costa Rica is not recommended as you’ll have to pass through countries with civil unrest and border crossings can be complicated.
Places to Know
There are seven provinces in Costa Rica, and each has its own distinct vibe. Here are three we recommend starting with.
San José: The capital boasts the best souvenir shopping and has many cultural institutions including the Museum of Costa Rican Art, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, and the National Museum of Costa Rica. It’s also where you’ll find the country’s best culinary offerings.
Alajuela: Alajuela is popular with adrenaline junkies as it’s home to Arenal Volcano National Park where you can zipline, hot springs hop, and hike in a cloud forest all in 24 hours. The province is also where you’ll find one of the world’s largest craters in Poas Volcano National Park (reservations required).
Limón: Limón is located on the Caribbean side and highlights include Tortuguero National Park and the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge. This province is also where you can experience the country’s incredible Afro-Caribbean culture. Approximately eight percent of Costa Ricans are of African descent.
How to Get Around
Trains and Buses: Costa Rica is rebuilding its train infrastructure, damaged during the 1991 earthquake. For now, buses are the best public transportation. While most are privately owned, fares are low. For example, a four-hour ride might cost $10. “Directo” buses offer nonstop service. “Colectivos” stop pretty much everywhere.
Taxis and Shuttles: Costa Rica’s official taxis are red or orange (the only cabs licensed for airport pickups) and all have a yellow triangle emblem. It’s also easy to pre-book private car services or shuttles online.
Rideshare: Although it’s technically not legal, Uber has been operating in Costa Rica since 2015. However, it’s limited to major cities and tourist hotspots. DiDi is also an option, but it’s also not that reliable in remote areas.
Car Rentals: Car rentals are cheap and plentiful, but keep in mind that most cars are manual, and Costa Rica’s roads don’t have the best reputation (during the wet season, many roads turn into rivers). Try to get a high-clearance SUV with AWD, and if you need extras like a roof rack for surfboards, carseat for kids, cell phone for navigation, or additional drivers, book with Vamos. It’s the only company that offers all of the above for no fee.
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