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Vacationing in Costa Rica: A Suggested Itinerary

Imagine lying in bed at night and watching as red-hot lava rolls down the side of a volcano, hiking along a coastal rain forest trail as monkeys frolic in the trees overhead, or soaring high above the jungle canopy on a narrow cable a half-mile long. These are some of the experiences of a vacation in Costa Rica. This peaceful democracy, which boasts the highest standard of living in Central America, has been a haven for eco-minded tourists for at least the last two decades. Spectacular scenery, bountiful natural resources (more than a quarter of the nation's lands are protected), and friendly people combine to make Costa Rica an exceptional vacation destination.

Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano

Where to Go in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has so much to offer the adventure-loving traveler that the hardest part about planning a vacation in Costa Rica is deciding where to go and what to do while you're there. San José, the capital, will be the starting point for most travelers entering the country, and its markets and museums are worth exploring. But the best the country has to offer lies far beyond the city's reaches.


San José will be the starting point for most visitors to Costa Rica.

San José will be the starting point for most visitors to Costa Rica.

Beaches

Do you want to catch some waves and some rays? Costa Rica's two coasts provide many choices for a beach vacation. Options include the popular beach scenes in Dominical or Jacó on the central Pacific coast or one of the many surf towns on the Nicoya Peninsula, like Playa Tamarindo or Mal País. If you're looking for a laid-back Caribbean vibe, head to Cahuita or, for more of a party scene, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on the country's southeastern Caribbean coast.

Mountains

If you're up for a more rugged adventure, Turrialba in the central highlands is the place to go to experience the world-class white-water rapids of Rio Reventazón and Rio Pacuare. If you'd rather remain on dry land, hike the remote Talamancas Mountains in southern Costa Rica and test your limits with a two-day hike to the country's highest peak, Cerro Chirripó.

Parks

Even less adventurous souls can get a thrill exploring the cloud forests, jungles, and wetlands that comprise Costa Rica's vast national park system. Some of the most popular spots are in the northwest region: the Monteverde cloud forest reserve, the Palo Verde wetland sanctuary, and the active Arenal volcano.

Costa Rica's most popular park may well be Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, which is one of the smallest, on the central Pacific coast. There you can hike through the rain forest to stunning beaches and see lots of wildlife along the way, but you'll need to fight the crowds. If you really want to get away from it all, head to Parque Nacional Corcovado on the remote Osa Peninsula where you will be off the grid in one of the most "biologically intense" places in the world, according to National Geographic.


A view of the jungle canopy from above.

A view of the jungle canopy from above.

When to Go

Costa Rica weather is best during the dry season, from December through April. This also is the busiest and most expensive time for travel, especially December through February when Costa Rican children are on school holiday.

The rainy season, what the locals call invierno (or "winter"), lasts from May to November. For less crowds and lower prices, travel in May. It's early enough in the rainy season to avoid the worst of the flooded rivers and muddy roads that come later in the season.

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The rainy season also is known as the green season in Costa Rica.

The rainy season also is known as the green season in Costa Rica.

Planning Your Stay

In order to maximize your Costa Rica experience, plan an extended stay of at least 10 to 14 days so you can visit two or three different places. Plan to spend at least three to five days at any one place to allow for plenty of exploration and enough down time to sit back and enjoy the beauty that surrounds you.

Once you decide where to go, you'll have to figure out how to get there. Renting a car in San José is one option. If you do plan to drive, be aware that Costa Rica is notorious for its bad roads. For one thing, the country is split in two by central mountain ranges. Narrow roads, hairpin turns, fog and steep drop-offs make for harrowing travel between the capital and the coasts. Adding to the difficulties are unpaved roads that traverse rivers; these often become impassable during the rainy season.

Another option is flying on one of Costa Rica's two domestic airlines, NatureAir and Sansa. Both offer short flights on small passenger planes from San José to a number of popular locations throughout the country. Allow plenty of time between connections, especially before your international flight home, because flights are often delayed or cancelled due to inclement weather. And pack light, because baggage generally is limited to 30 pounds per passenger. You will pay a high premium for overweight baggage, if it even is allowed on the plane.

Costa Rica Map

Suggested Itinerary: An Arenal to Osa Adventure

First time travelers to Costa Rica can get a taste of all the great things the country has to offer with visits to Arenal Volcano, located northwest of San José, and Corcovado National Park on the remote Osa Peninsula. From geological wonders like volcanoes, hot springs and waterfalls, to pristine beaches and abundant wildlife, this itinerary has it all.

The lush rainforest around Arenal Volcano

The lush rainforest around Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano

La Fortuna was just another quiet farming community until July 29, 1968. That was the day nearby Arenal Volcano erupted after lying dormant for 400 years, taking out several small villages in its path. Now the town is a top tourist destination in Costa Rica, drawing visitors from all over the world who come to see the still-belching volcano and take a soak in one of the steamy hot springs. Accommodations are plentiful, as are things to do. Activities include hiking in Arenal Volcano National Park, swimming at the La Fortuna waterfall, wind- or kite-surfing on Lake Arenal, and taking a zip-line canopy tour in the rain forest.

Get to La Fortuna from San José via rental car or shuttle bus (travel time is approximately 3.5 to 4 hours). NatureAir also offers short flights daily.

View of Arenal Volcano's lava flow from Lost Iguana Resort

View of Arenal Volcano's lava flow from Lost Iguana Resort

Arenal Volcano Area Recommendations

Lost Iguana Resort

This upscale jungle resort is located west of La Fortuna's hustle and bustle, near the Arenal Lake dam, and offers spectacular volcano views. All rooms have private balconies from which to enjoy volcano's nightly show and several have outdoor whirlpool tubs. During the day, hike the resort's challenging but well-maintained trails, relax in the beautiful double pool, or treat yourself to a massage in a thatched hut at the Golden Gecko Spa. A restaurant on the property offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. The resort is remote, so if you don't have a car you will need to rely on buses or taxis to get to and from town, but the friendly resort staff will be happy to arrange transportation or excursions for you.

Zip-line Canopy Tour

Costa Rica Sky Adventures offers a sky tram/sky trek tour in the privately-owned Arenal Reserve, located near La Fortuna in the mountain village of El Castillo. An open air gondola tram delivers visitors to an observation deck at the highest point of the reserve, offering great views of the volcano and lake. From there, you can ride the gondola back down or, for the thrill of a lifetime, strap on a harness and make your way back down on a series of eight zip-line cables covering nearly two miles in length. At the highest point you will be suspended 660 feet above the canyon floor, with the tops of the trees far below.

Hanging Bridges of Arenal

For a different sort of canopy tour, the Hanging Bridges of Arenal, adjacent to the Lost Iguana Resort, provide views from above with your feet firmly planted. The private reserve is located on 600 acres of protected rainforest with two miles of trails and over a dozen canyon-spanning bridges from which to view the jungle canopy. Hike on your own or take one of the daily guided bird watching or natural history tours.

Eco Termales Hot Springs

Sessions at this elegant hot springs complex are by appointment only and only 100 people are allowed during each four-hour slot (but the actual count likely will be much less than that). Relax in a series of progressively hotter, natural-looking pools while sipping a cool drink from the bar. When you've had enough soaking, enjoy a homestyle meal served in an earthenware pot.


The pool at Lost Iguana Resort

The pool at Lost Iguana Resort

Zip-lining in Arenal Reserve

Zip-lining in Arenal Reserve

One of the Hanging Bridges of Arenal

One of the Hanging Bridges of Arenal

Lake Arenal

Lake Arenal

Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park

Leave the crowds behind for the second part of your Costa Rica adventure and head to the most remote corner of the country. Getting to Corcovado National Park on Osa Penisnula is no easy feat, but you'll be glad you made the effort.

If the thought of a nine hour drive over the mountains doesn't appeal to you, book an 80 minute domestic flight from San José to Puerto Jimenez. From there, you will take a 30 mile dirt road around Cabo Matapalo at the mouth of the Golfo Dulce, traversing several rivers along the way (bridges are few and far between in this part of the world), to the tiny village of Carate. If you don't want to make the bumpy drive yourself, you will find public transportation and taxi service in Puerto Jimenez, or many resorts will send a driver in a jeep to fetch you from the airport.

Carate, which consists of nothing more than a grass airstrip and a corner grocery store, is the end of the road and the southern gateway to Corcovado National Park. The park entrance lies another 45 minutes by foot down the beach. Horse carts trek up and down the beach throughout the day, toting guests' luggage to and from tent camps located at the edge of the park. The guests themselves must walk.

A horse cart on the beach in Carate

A horse cart on the beach in Carate

Hiking in Corcovado

Corcovado is one of the largest and perhaps the wildest of Costa Rica's national parks. It covers approximately 100,000 acres and contains several distinct habitats, including coastal rain forest, cloud forest and mangrove swamps. It is home to more than 850 kinds of trees, 140 species of mammals, and 375 species of birds. The wildlife is so abundant and close at hand that a hike through Corcovado is almost like being in a zoo, except there are no cages or barriers separating you from the animals.

Within Corcovado's boundaries, you will find many endangered species like the giant anteater and Baird's tapir. Other unfamiliar mammals include the collared peccary (a distant relative of the pig), the coati (a type of raccoon with a long snout), and the tamandua (another type of anteater). Costa Rica is home to four species of primates and all four can be found in Corcovado: the howler monkey (named for the bellowing noise it makes), the white-face capuchin monkey, the spider monkey, and the endangered squirrel monkey. Harder to find but still present are the wild cats – ocelots, jaguars and pumas.

Birders also have a lot to look for in Corcovado. The park boasts a huge population of scarlet macaws, which are easy to find feasting on the almond trees that grow along the coastal trail. Toucans, several varieties of heron, and the rare harpy eagle are among the hundreds of species of birds found in the park.

Jungle Safety

When hiking in Corcovado, remember that you are in a jungle and take appropriate precautions for your safety. The biggest dangers of the jungle are heat exhaustion and dehydration, so carry plenty of water. Don't drink from the streams; you can refill your water bottle at the ranger stations. Insect repellent and sunscreen also are musts.

The wildlife you encounter can be dangerous; don't get too close to or try to feed any animals you encounter, watch for sharks and crocodiles at river crossings, and keep an eye out for snakes on the trail (always hike in closed-toe shoes).

Inexperienced hikers are advised to hire a local guide. Even if you plan only a short day hike along the beach, a guide will be invaluable in helping to spot and identify wildlife. For longer, overnight treks, a guide will keep you from getting lost and protect you from the dangers of the jungle. If you don't have a guide, at least travel in small groups and carry a compass, flashlight and plenty of food. Check in at the ranger stations and let them know your route.


White-faced capuchin monkey

White-faced capuchin monkey

Endangered squirrel monkey

Endangered squirrel monkey

Tamandua anteater

Tamandua anteater

Coati

Coati

Peccary

Peccary

Scarlet macaw

Scarlet macaw

La Leona Ranger Station

La Leona Ranger Station

Corcovado Accommodations

If you want to stay in the park itself, be prepared to rough it. Camping is permitted at, and only at, the five ranger stations within Corcovado. Campsites are primative and include only potable water and latrines. The Sirena Ranger Station, about a 12 mile hike from Carate, has basic dormitory-style lodging, including meals, which must be reserved in advance. All other food must be packed in and all trash must be packed out.

If primitive camping isn't quite your style, the La Leona Eco-Lodge and Tent Camp, located near the beach just outside the park's southern boundary, offers a camping-like experience in twenty platform tent-cabins, many with private baths. Accommodations are rustic; the tent camp is designed to have minimal environmental impact. Meal plans are available from the lodge's solar-powered restaurant.

A platform tent at La Leona Eco-Lodge and Tent Camp

A platform tent at La Leona Eco-Lodge and Tent Camp

Luna Lodge

If you would prefer to avoid the 30 to 40 minute walk across the beach that is required if staying at La Leona, consider Luna Lodge, which is perched on a steep hillside above Carate and accessible by jeep. This Zen-like hideaway with a strong commitment to sustainable tourism is the perfect place for eco-conscious travelers to call home while exploring the wonders of Corcovado.

Take a wildlife or eco tour led by one of the lodge's knowledgeable guides, explore the grounds to find the private waterfall and swimming hole, or simply chill by the pool and enjoy the tropical garden surrounding you. Accommodations include individual thatched bungalows with private decks and garden showers or platform tents with private baths. Rates include three delicious meals a day served family-style in the beautiful open-air restaurant. Early morning yoga classes, led by owner Lana Wedmore on a breathtaking platform at the top of the resort, are the perfect way to start your Osa day.


A bungalow at Luna Lodge

A bungalow at Luna Lodge

The private waterfall on the grounds of Luna Lodge

The private waterfall on the grounds of Luna Lodge

Poll: Your Costa Rica Adventure

A family of white-faced capuchin monkeys hanging out in Corcovado

A family of white-faced capuchin monkeys hanging out in Corcovado

Additional Reading

My Trip to Costa Rica by Mary615

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