San José with its crowded streets, polluted air and North American flavoured department stores, shopping malls and fast food chains is a far cry from the peace and serenity that most people expect of Costa Rica. As the transportation hub of the country it is likely that you’ll find yourself spending a few days here between destinations and actually it’s well worth the time.
It has some excellent museums, good restaurants, interesting markets and a vibrant nightlife that’ll give you an insight into the character and flair of Costa Rica’s diverse residents. Museo Nacional has exhibitions of Costa Rican archaeology, costumes and religious art and Museo Precolombino houses beautiful pre-Columbian gold pieces. Teatro Nacional is an impressive building dating from the 1890s where you can catch a play, ballet or performance by the National Symphony Orchestra. The best market is Mercado Central, a laid back shopping experience where you can find all manner of goods and local food. For an immersion in tico revelry San Pedro, with its salsa and merengue dance clubs on El Pueblo and the karaoke and sports bars of Calle de la Amargua, is theplace to be after dark.
2.Peninsula de Osa
In the far south west of the country Peninsula de Osa is the place to go if you’re after a wondrous show of natural diversity. From the wetlands around Sierpe to Parque Nacional Corcovado to the miles upon miles of deserted beaches you’re bound to see quite a number of Costa Rica’s 850 bird species, four species of monkey, countless varieties of mammals and marine wildlife.
Porto Jiménez is the only largish town on the peninsula and the best base for excursions into Corcovado which offers countless trails and wildlife spotting opportunities. If you’re all hiked out you can always head across the Golfo Dulce to Pavones for some excellent surfing or explore the oodles of untouched beaches lining the peninsula.
3. Volcán Arenal
One of the world’s best natural fireworks displays can be seen in Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, home to the recently awoken Volcán Arenal. In July 1968 the volcano erupted for the first time in 450 years burying two villages and 87 people. It has remained in a volatile mood ever since with an almost relentless emission of red lava and flying boulders. Unsurprisingly Arenal is a big tourist draw. From the hot springs at the base of the cone you can hike through primary and secondary rainforest and glimpse flows of glowing lava by day while at night sit back and watch the volcano light up the sky.
Monteverde is Costa Rica’s biggest attraction of all. A number of private reserves abutting Monteverde and neighbouring Santa Elena, including the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, protect primary cloud forest of which there is precious little left world wide.
Base yourself in the quaint Quaker town of Santa Elena. Along the road leading to the reserve there are a several attractions including a butterfly garden, a serpentarium and a cheese factory. The real treat starts once you’re inside however. You can stick to the ground and tackle its various trails of varying degrees of difficulty or choose from a variety of aerial excursions that give a wonderful overview of jungle. These include the Sky Walk, a series of bridges that zig-zag across the jungle canopy and the Aerial Adventure in which you tour the jungle top in a ski-lift set up.
Parque Nacional Tortuguero is an idyllic reserve of coastal and marine territory in the north east of Costa Rica that is only accessible and navigable by boat. It is the most important nesting site for marine turtles in the whole Western Hemisphere and thus a very popular destination for those keen to spy on the thousands of turtles who come back to the 35km beach each year to lay their eggs. There’s also a myriad of other animal varieties to investigate among the forests and swamps.
Tortuguero Village would be worth the visit even if it wasn’t the gateway to the park. It balances neatly on a thin strip of land between sparkling canals to the west and the turquoise Caribbean waters to the east. It’s populated by a friendly and diverse mix of native ticos, Nicaraguans, Afro-Caribbeans and ex-pats who promote the place as an eco friendly destination .