While zip-line tours that take you swishing through the treetops at squeal-inducing speeds certainly have their charm, there are other ways to appreciate Costa Rica’s wondrous wilderness. Unbeknownst to most tourists, the life of the rain forest largely takes place overhead, in the thick jungle canopy of sunlight and opportunity.
Most of Costa Rica’s birds, monkeys, giant anteaters, sloths, snakes and amphibians spend the better part of their lives in the distant treetops, far from the snapping cameras of junior photographers. The key to seeing these creatures (and getting the best shots) is ascending into the trees yourself.
Hence these 16 elegantly constructed Arenal Hanging Bridges—some suspended high above gorges and others stretching far across jungle floors—that line the winding paths of this epic Costa Rican hike and stretch a total of 2.6 km (1.6 miles) across the steeply pitched landscape.
The vast protected forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park may be divided by one of the nation’s busiest highways, but this just means easy access for travelers, as well as the possibility of picturesque views without ever having to leave the car.
Lazy travelers can traverse the highway snapping photos of lush landscapes from the comfort of their car seats, while those eager to get back to nature can embark on one of the miles of trails leading to the waterfalls, open pastures and mountain stations that dot the rainforest. An Aerial tram on the eastern side of the park offers open gondola rides through the dense understory and canopy of the woods, where its possible to spot the sloth and other forest creatures that call Braulio Carrillo National Park home.
Perhaps the most famous (and certainly most prized) public building in all of San Jose, the National Theater of Costa Rica in the city’s Catedral district, is home to the nation’s cultural community. Classical music, theater and dance performances take place several times a week. And while it’s always worth catching a show, the theater’s traditional Renaissance architecture, breathtaking ceilings and grand interiors make it a must-see stop even if you can’t get tickets for the symphony.
Free tours of the historic building, which was built in1897, take place daily at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and the theater’s highly regarded café with picturesque San Jose views, is a perfect spot to grab lunch before exploring the rest of the city.
The lively San Jose Central Market was founded in 1880. For free entertainment and a real taste of the local atmosphere, there’s no better place in the city! The market has more than 200 stalls, selling everything under the sun from souvenirs and cowboy boots to herbal remedies and handicrafts. Inside you’ll also find cafes and bars for a welcome break between browsing. Pick up some coffee beans for a tasty souvenir.
More than 1600 pre-Columbian artifacts, including Costa Rica’s very first coin, handmade ceramics and a life-sized warrior, are housed in this museum that was opened in 1985.
The museum’s collection displays indigenous works dating from 500 AD to 1500 AD, including traditional jewelry and culturally relevant pieces from other Latin American countries. Displays on the second floor explore the influence of these artifacts on the social and cultural development of the nation, as well as a history of Costa Rica’s currency. Signs in both Spanish and English easily guide guests through hallways filled with rich history.
With its 175 acres of green space and network of forested walking trails, Parque La Sabana is San José’s version of New York’s Central Park. The large open lawns are perfect for Frisbee, soccer, or tossing a ball, and the walking trails and running tracks are where to work up a sweat. This site once housed the city’s airport until the 1940s, and today the former terminal building houses the Costa Rican Art Museum. Also within the leafy park is the country’s national stadium, where concerts and national soccer matches are held for up to 40,000 people. On most days, however, the park plays hosts to groups of locals all feeding the geese by the pond, or families simply enjoying a picnic beneath the shade of a tree. It’s a calming place to escape the crowds and the urban city bustle, and a comfortable perch for people watching and mingling with San José locals.
The National Museum, housed in the barracks of the Bellavista Fortress, has been proudly displaying indigenous and pre-Columbian artifacts, religious artwork and geological and archeological pieces linked to Costa Rica’s rich and colorful history since 1950.
Separate rooms explore ancient cultures dating back some 12,000 years, as well as collections of ornate jewelry, medallions and statues made of gold. And while the Museum’s impressive collection of grinding stones and other artifacts from ancient Costa Rica grant tourists a chance to travel back in time, visitors should be sure to explore the grounds, too. Nationals fought at the barracks during the Civil War in 1948, and damage from bullet holes and warfare can still be seen in the Spanish-style courtyard.
Costa Rica’s jade is world famous, and the Jade Museum - or Museo de Jade - displays arguably the world’s largest collection of the precious stone. At this museum you’ll not only see a huge array of jade jewelry and artifacts, you’ll also discover why the precious stone was revered in pre-Columbian times, and how it was used and traded. There are examples of jade from all over the Americas, including the Mayan Empire.
Explore the works of some of Costa Rica’s greatest artists from the colonial era through today at the Costa Rican Art Museum, including almost the entire body of work from prolific local artist Juan Manuel Sanchez. The museum is housed in the building that once served as the main terminal of San Jose’s original international airport and outside, toward where the tarmac once sat, is a lovely sculpture garden where visitors can walk around an enjoy the tropical weather. The museum often has chamber music concerts playing in the Golden Hall.
As far as city squares go, Plaza de la Cultura leaves much to be desired. That’s because its unremarkable architecture and mostly concrete designs tend to make it one of the less visually pleasing squares in this colorful city.
Still, travelers in search of a true taste of San Jose life will do well to visit this busy square, where locals gather after weekend shopping trips and stay well into the night. Ice cream vendors sell sweet, cool treats, which are perfect for taking the edge off a steamy afternoon. Plaza de la Cultura is typically teeming with street performers and vendors and a nearby police tower means that even with the crowds, it’s still one of the safest places in the city.
The Costa Rica Children’s Museum is an interactive fun experience for all the family. Housed in a gaily painted toytown castle, that’s actually a historic old military prison, the museum’s hands-on exhibits range across all manner of topics. Kids will love the 40 exhibits exploring outer space, old-fashioned fun on the farm, history, music, science and ecology and everyday life in Cost Rica.
Plunging down the side of Cerro Chato, Volcan Arenal’s dormant and thickly forested twin, is one of the most impressive, and easily accessible, waterfalls in all Costa Rica. Cascada La Fortuna pours some 65m (200ft) down a sheer, volcanic gray cliff face, perpetually bathed in mists and carpeted in abundant and exotic vegetation.
The trailhead for the falls is located just 5.5km (3mi) from La Fortuna proper, a popular bike ride or horseback trek. The descent from the parking lot to the jungle floor isn’t a long or difficult hike; it’s about 20 minutes down, and generally a bit longer climbing back back up. Just keep in mind that the staircase is steep, and sometimes slippery. A the mirador, or viewpoint, allows almost anyone to appreciate this natural wonder no matter what their fitness level.
There aren’t too many places in the world where you can almost touch the rim of an active volcano, but at Poas Volcano National Park you can get up close to the smoking crater.
One of the world’s most accessible volcanoes, Poas Volcano is filled with an amazing aquamarine lagoon, blanketed in ferns and ringed with hiking trails leading to panoramic lookouts and picnic areas.
The park is filled with wildlife to spot, including the famous quetzal, toucans and hummingbirds.
The best visibility is December to April, and especially in the early morning.
The most famous national park in Costa Rica, Arenal Volcano National Park protects the still sizzling Arenal Volcano, one of the world’s 10 most active volcanoes. The park also encompasses 16 reserves and an amazing dozen different ecological zones, proof of Costa Rica’s incredible biodiversity.
A visit to the national park reveals an active cone topped with flows of red lava, belching columns of ash. As you’d expect it’s an unforgettably dramatic sight, especially if you take a visit to the park at night. Arenal’s 140-metre (460-foot) wide crater was dormant for centuries until catastrophically blowing its top in 1968. The most recent major eruption occurred in 1998.
In this well-watered rainforest pierced by the perfect gray cone of Volcan Arenal, it is not only lava that wells up from the depths of the Earth. Steaming hot springs pour like a river from the great mountain’s barren flanks, coursing through the lush tropical grounds of famed Tabacón Grand Spa.
Mineral-rich waters, fresh from the earth, cascade with picturesque through a lavishly landscaped setting. Costa Rica’s most beautiful flowers are woven through a world of quiet pathways and wooden bridges that connect the different pools. Some are warmer, others more isolated; the main pool, with fantastic views of the volcano, has a fabulous bar and water slide. A cold spring hidden away in a shady corner of this marvelous spot is the perfect place to recharge.
This popular jungle oasis is the number one ecological attraction in Costa Rica. With incredible hiking that’s easily accessible from the capital city, as well as stunning waterfalls and indigenous wildlife, it’s a destination that’s truly worthy of a visit. Travelers can explore the 3.5 kilometers of rugged trails and 10 animal exhibits on site to gain a deeper appreciation of Costa Rica’s famed biodiversity and natural beauty. Whether it’s hiking to the five waterfalls that give this garden its name, wandering through the cloud forest or venturing into the aviary, there’s plenty to do, see and discover at La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
The grounds are easy to navigate, and most visitors choose to self-guide their tours. But travelers looking to gain a deeper understanding of conservation efforts, as well as to learn more about the unique flora and fauna here can also opt for a guided tour.
The thick green forests, fertile coffee plantations and scenic mountains of the Orosi River Valley draw bird watchers, freshwater fishermen and nature lovers to the banks of the Reventazon River, as well as the pristine lake formed by the Cachi Dam.
Travelers can spend the morning wandering through Iglesia de San Jose de Orosi Church, where Spanish Colonial artifacts and religious paintings line the interior of Costa Rica’s oldest church still in use. Adventurers will enjoy an afternoon at the Irazu Volcano. Crater lakes and lush farmland make for scenic hikes and picturesque views.
The Ruins of Ujarras, with peaceful gardens and even a nearby public swimming pool, prove another popular destination for both travelers and residents. Buy lunch from one of the local women selling fragrant arepas before exploring the historic ruins and cooling off with a refreshing dip.
You’ve heard all about Costa Rica’s famous biodiversity – and the tropical rainforest Sarapiqui Canopy is the place to experience it first-hand.
Home of the endangered green macaw, and a number of famous reserves including the Braulio Carrillo National Park, Sarapiqui’s river-filled fertile landscape is best discovered by boat cruise. From the waterways you’ll spot monkeys, sloths, otters, turtles and all kinds of birds, including the quetzal.
Costa Rica has some of the world’s most flavorful coffee and travelers who favor this bold brew can see how these prized beans make it from farm to table on a tour of Doka Estate. This iconic plantation puts visitors right up close to the production and practices of this age-old crop. Travelers can tour the grounds, see where workers hand-pick coffee berries from prized plants and even sample some of the eight roasts the Doka Estate creates on site. Organized small-group, on-site tours ensure visitors receive personalized attention and loads of information, while the plantation’s gift shop, Casa de Artesanias, is filled with unique and flavorful items picked fresh from the farm that are perfect souvenirs for friends and family back home. The Doka Estate is also home to a Bonsai Tree and Orchid Garden, as well as a Butterfly Farm, making it the ideal place to spend the day exploring some of Costa Rica’s natural wonders.
The capital of Alajuela province, Sarchi is renowned for its arts and crafts, in particular its decorative oxcarts recalling the heyday of Costa Rica’s coffee industry. Lying almost 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea level in the Cordillera Central, the whole of Sarchi is devoted to crafts, from woodworking and leather goods to textiles.
The most famous handicrafts are known as carretas, the ornately painted carts that have proved so popular as Costa Rican souvenirs over the years. While you’re here, tear yourself away from browsing the stores to visit the lovely church, with its wooden carvings. The gardens in front feature an oversized, brightly painted oxcart. The drive to Sarchi is part of the appeal of this popular day-trip destination, leading past coffee fields, pineapple farms and landscape dotted with volcanoes, villages and rainforest.