Costa Rica is a wonderland of natural attractions, with volcanoes, beaches, cloud forests, and unique wildlife. This is a country that appeals as much to birdwatchers and luxury focused travelers as it does to surfers and backpackers. The busy city of San Jose is home to the country's best museums and lovely squares, but the real treasures lie beyond the capital, in the forests and small coastal villages. Endless stretches of beach line the Pacific Coast, with small towns that cater to surfers and sun seekers. Inland, the forest-covered mountains offer their own adventures, from volcanoes and waterfalls to ziplining and extraordinary wildlife viewing.
San José: It is true that San José does not make a great first impression, with its unremarkable concrete structures and honking traffic, but it is well worth digging deeper to discover the city's charms. Take your time poking around historic neighborhoods such as Barrio Amón, where colonial mansions have been converted into contemporary art galleries, restaurants and boutique hotels. Stroll with Saturday shoppers at the farmers market, join the Sunday crowds in Parque La Sabana, dance the night away to live music at one of the city's vibrant clubs, or visit the museums of gold, jade, art and natural history, and you will begin to understand the multidimensional appeal of Costa Rica's largest city and cultural capital.
Jaco: A resort city originally planned by Charles Elwood Jaco, it is a good choice for anyone looking to get out of San Jose but still wanting the comforts and amenities of a larger town or city. The beach here is spacious and pleasant, but average at best by Costa Rica standards. What Jaco does have that sets it apart from the numerous coastal towns along this stretch of the Pacific is modern apartments and stores, good restaurants and hotels, and other modern conveniences.
Dominical: This place hits a real sweet spot with the travelers who wander up and down its rough dirt road with a surfboard under an arm, balancing the day's activities between surfing and hammock hang time. And although some may decry the large population of expats and gringos who have hunkered down here and the sheer volume of cars on its main street, proud residents are quick to point out that Dominical recalls the mythical ‘old Costa Rica’ – the days before the roads were all paved, and when the coast was dotted with lazy little towns that drew a motley crew of surfers, backpackers and affable do-nothings alike.
Arenal volcano: The Arenal Volcano National Park is found in the rugged Cordillera de Tilarán and is one of the top volcano viewing areas in the country. The main attraction is the Arenal Volcano, reaching 1,633 meters. It was dormant from 1500 AD until a massive eruption occurred on 29 July, 1968. Since then, it has seen regular activity and, depending on the day or week, visitors can expect to see anything from a cloud of ash to glowing red lava flowing down the mountain. The park is also known for its wide range of biodiversity with approximately half of all Costa Rican birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals represented somewhere within its boundaries.
Monteverde and the cloud forests: For those wishing to immerse themselves in nature and see unique plants and wildlife without venturing too far off the beaten path, this is definitely the place to come. The clouds that cover these forests provide the moisture necessary to sustain the area's unique habitats that are only found here. While many people come simply for the bird watching, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve sustain all kinds of mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. Organized hikes are one of the best ways to see the forest, along with canopy tours that may involve zip-lines or bridges and even cable cars. Monteverde and Santa Elena are the two main tourist centers in the region, with accommodation, restaurants, and even shops and artists' galleries.
Braulio Carrillo National Park: Only a 30-minute drive from bustling San Jose, this park encompasses rugged mountains, waterfalls, canyons, dormant volcanoes, and virgin rainforest. The park's proximity to the country's main gateway means it is an easy way to see some of Costa Rica's unique plants and wildlife. Many different habitats exist in the park due to the variety in elevation, which ranges from the top of the Barva Volcano (2,906 meters) to less than 50 meters in the Caribbean lowlands. The park is home to a variety of mammals.
The National Theater in San Jose: Considered to be the most impressive building in San José, this theater features a classical Renaissance columned façade topped by statues symbolizing dance, music, and fame. Inside, the pink marble foyer features allegorical figures of comedy and tragedy, and painted murals depicting themes in Costa Rican life. There are regular performances in the theater, and a gallery featuring changing art shows by local artists.
Pre-Columbian Gold Museum in San Jose: This museum houses one of the largest collections of pre-Columbian gold pieces in America. More than 20,000 troy ounces of gold in some 2,000 objects are found in the museum complex that also showcases coin and stamp collections as well as a display of Costa Rican art.