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.
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.
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.
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.
Just off the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, close to beautiful Curu Wildlife Refuge, lies idyllic Isla Tortuga, Costa Rica’s most popular island escape. It actually comprises two islands, Alcatraz and Tolinga, but just about everyone refers to them as just “Isla Tortuga,” or Turtle Island.
A postcard-perfect paradise of white sand beaches, gently swaying coconut palms, and sapphire blue water, this is the perfect spot to swim, snorkel, or simply enjoy the sunshine.
While there’s plenty to do on land—eat, drink, take a canopy tour, play volleyball, or even hike a short but lovely little nature trail through the heart of the island—most people come to snorkel or dive. The volcanic reef, featuring three shipwrecks, which surrounds the island, shelters spinner dolphins, angelfish, porcupine fish, octopi, eagle rays, moray eels, and if you’re lucky, the sea turtles for which the island is named.
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 dazzling centrepiece of the Tenorio Volcano National Park, the Rio Celeste is most famous for its shockingly bright blue color, the result of a natural reaction of volcanic sulfur and calcium carbonate, which turns the clear waters a powder-blue shade. Reached by hiking through the surrounding rainforest, there are a number of sights of interest located along the Rio Celeste, most notably the Rio Celeste Waterfall, a favorite photo spot where the river tumbles into a striking blue lagoon; the Tenideros, where two rivers merge in the Celeste; and the Poza Azul, the most renowned "dye pool," where the reaction is most noticeable.
The river’s startling color change is best viewed during the dry season (December to April), as excess rainfall can dilute the reactive chemicals leaving the waters with a less-appealing muddy hue.
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.
Covering almost 86 square kilometers and reaching depths of up to 200 feet (60 meters), Lake Arenal takes the title of Costa Rica’s biggest lake, and it’s also one of its most picturesque natural assets, a shimmering expanse of blue water stretching west of the mighty Arenal Volcano. Once a small crater lagoon lying within the boundaries of the Arenal Volcano National Park, Lake Arenal was expanded in 1979 and now serves as a hydroelectric dam providing up to 12 percent of Costa Rica’s electricity.
The vast lake is also a popular recreational ground with steady winds offering the ideal environment for windsurfing, sailboarding and sailing, and an abundance of rainbow bass and machaca fish making it a top choice for fishing. Visitors can also cruise the lake by boat or kayak; spot hummingbirds, quetzal, tapir and jaguar in the Arenal Volcano National Park; or enjoy hiking, horseback riding or mountain biking through the lakeside rainforest.
Located at the base of the Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, San Carlos, Baldi Hot Springs features thermo-mineral hot water pools with great views of the volcano. It’s the biggest hot springs facility in the region and the perfect way to relax after hiking in Arenal Volcano National Park.
Located within the Baldi Hot Springs Hotel and Spa, there are day-use options as well as availability for hotel guests. The 25 pools range in temperature from 93 to 152 degrees Fahrenheit and get hotter as the elevation rises. It's recommended that you balance your time between pools, as your core temperature will begin to rise after about 20 minutes in a hot pool. The minerality and temperature of the water is believed to rid the body of germs and viruses while increasing blood circulation and releasing harmful toxins.
For the adventurous, Baldi Hot Springs also has extreme water slides that send you bumping and sliding before landing in the natural hot springs pool.
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.
At the confluence of two important Costa Rican ecosystems—the wet and wild Pacific Rainforest that characterizes the southern coast, and the dry tropical forest for which Guanacaste is known—this small, popular national park packs a lot of wildlife into a 5240-hectare (12,950-acre) package.
Most notably, Carara is home to one of Costa Rica’s last remaining populations of scarlet macaws, who you’ll likely see gossiping and preening in small groups throughout the park. The Rio Tarcoles, which forms the park’s northern border, is well known for its enormous population of huge crocodiles.
There are two short, 1km (.6mi) interpretive trails through the wilderness and waterfalls, perfect for families and less active travelers. A longer, 4.5km (2.7mi) trail follows the Rio Tarcoles and mangrove marshes, where both the crocodiles and scarlet macaws settle in for the evening.
One of Costa Rica’s most spectacular yet least visited national parks, the Tenorio Volcano National Park makes a top choice for those looking to get off-the-beaten-track and is an easy side trip from the neighboring Arenal Volcano National Park. Named after its eponymous peak, the park is home to two volcanoes - Tenorio and Miravalles – and the surrounding rainforest and cloud forests offer miles of unspoiled wilderness for hikers and horseback riders.
Tenorio’s star attraction is the Rio Celeste, which flows through its center and takes its name from its luminous blue waters – the result of a chemical reaction between the naturally occurring copper sulfate, colloidal silica and sulfur.
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.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde) contains four different ecological zones, with the majority still untouched forest. Considered one of the most important biological reserves in the world, this site is one of the few places where you can take a photo on the Continental Divide with one foot on the Pacific side and the other on the Caribbean side.
Another draw is the site's eight-mile (13 km) network of trails tat offer a well-rounded immersion into the biodiversity of Costa Rica. Monteverde is home to over 3,000 known plant species, 755 of which are trees alone. Here you can visit “La Ventana,” the scenic overlook displaying the beautiful panoramas created by the continental divide. The reserve also includes the Monteverde Biological Reserve, Santa Elena and the Children's Eternal Rain Forest, part of the Arenal Volcano National Park.
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.
This lush public park at the center of San Jose was named after Francisco Morazan, an old-school general who tried to unite all of Central America into one common country. And while Morozan Park was once a hub for San Jose’s grit and grime (it used to be a known for drug sales and prostitution), the park has recently undergone a complete renaissance.
Travelers can safely wander through the green gardens that make Morazan Park a respite from the otherwise urban feel of San Jose and stretch out for an afternoon picnic on thick lawns under massive shade trees. The Templo de Musica, a concrete gazebo at the center of the land, is the highlight of any visit to Morazan Park—especially when live local musicians are playing.