Located in Central America, Costa Rica shares its north and south borders with Nicaragua and Panama, respectively, and is flanked by the Caribbean Sea to the east and the mighty Pacific on its western coastline.
A rich colonial culture and abundantly rich flora and fauna, not to mention the best of two great water bodies, make Costa Rica worthy of its name which literally means “Rich Coast.”
Costa Rica is the second largest exporter of bananas in the world, its plantations covering around 500 sq km of the country.
The business of bananas dates back to the 19th century when a railroad off the Atlantic coast was built through 160 km of a jungle in order to facilitate the banana trade with Europe. When in 1890 the route was completed, bananas were planted next to the tracks and the United Fruit Company was founded.
Costa Rica is not called the Republic of Bananas for nothing!
Let’s begin our exploration of this amazing country from its capital San José.
A vibrant and thriving metropolis of some 4.9 million people, the Costa Rican capital is blessed with an idyllic location 1,150 m above sea level in the heart of Central America’s coffee country, complemented by an enviable climate.
The arterial road of San José is called Avenida Segunda which bisects the center of the town and is almost perennially crammed with buses and taxis.
The impressive Museo Nacional or the National Museum, situated on the east side of the Plaza de la Democracia, boasts pre-Columbian sacrificial altars made of volcanic and stone sculptures that appear ancient and modern at the same time. Huge balls of stone of various sizes are also exhibited here.
Next to the National Museum is the superlative Palacio Nacionale (National Palace) with its single storied courtyard containing Arabian decoration. Columns and arches frame the corridors on both levels.
Not too far from the Palacio Nacionale, you will find the Parque Nacionale, a large tranquil park featuring a war memorial and a neoclassical circular temple.
The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum is housed in an underground building underneath the Plaza de la Cultura, which, itself, is not much more than a concrete area with hardly any green space.
The Gold Museum falls under the ambit of the Central Bank of Costa Rica and contains some fascinating exhibits dating back to the 5th century BC, including funeral ornaments made of pure gold and ancient chests with their treasures exposed.
San José boasts a superb zoo, mainly featuring animals from the jungles of Costa Rica along with a selection of both African and Asian wildlife.
The Teatro Nacional (National Theater) is one of the finest historic buildings in the capital, known for hosting world-class performances with a high emphasis on artistic excellence.
Credit for funding the construction of this magnificent center of art is owed to the coffee barons whose taxation policies on the export of coffee beans made it possible.
The iconic Grand Hotel Costa Rica, in front of the Plaza de la Cultura, is another architectural masterpiece which was inaugurated in 1930 and served as a meeting place for businessmen, tourists, and artists of the time.
The original 19th-century church, which was destroyed by an earthquake, was replaced by the present day Cathedral Metropolitana featuring a huge timber dome rising above the marble plinth main altar.
With sundown comes entertainment in San José. Song and dance and merrymaking are a way of life here. The female dancers present themselves in wonderful dresses while the men wear colorful Bolero jackets and high trousers with silver buttons.
In the southern part of San José, the Cementerio de Obreros is home to the mortal remains of many of most well-known Costa Ricans, housed in impressive mausoleums and graves artistically decorated with angels, cherubs, sculptures, and ornaments.
Le Parc Métropolitain La Sabana or the Sabana Metropolitan Park is a sprawling green space, the country’s largest and most significant urban park, featuring an artificial lake and shady, romantic walkways.
The city’s exotic Central Market is a maze of narrow streets and noisy market stalls selling every imaginable product.
Some of the finest manor houses of erstwhile coffee barons can be found in the historic neighborhood of Barrio Amón – a fascinating array of Colonial, French, Victorian, Moorish, and Caribbean architecture.
Despite the influx of modern life, it is heartening to see that San José has retained its magnificent treasures and tradition.
Separated from San José by 22 km of highway, the historic city of Cartago was once the capital of Costa Rica.
Over the years, the city has witnessed much destruction from earthquakes, eruptions of the Irazú Volcano, and floods but the resilient residents of this town have rebuilt it every time.
Today, the city’s economy is mainly agriculture-based, evident in the city’s markets abundant with fruits and vegetables grown luxuriantly on the slopes of the region’s volcanoes.
While Cartago may have lost its status as Costa Rica’s capital to San José, it continues to be the religious center of the country.
Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles (Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels) is frequented by many pilgrims. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared here in 1635 and miracles are said to happen even to this day.
Located 650 m above sea level, in a fertile mountain valley at the foot of a volcano, the quiet town of Turrialba was once an important station on the route of the Jungle Train from San José to the Atlantic coast.
Other than being the hub of sugar cane, coffee, and banana cultivation, the town has little else to offer.
However, it does serve as a good launch pad for various excursions and tours by kayak and raft.
The Irazú Volcano
At 3,430 meters above sea level, in the central highlands of Costa Rica, the active Irazú Volcano is the highest volcano in the country.
Deep below, in its main crater is a green sulfur lagoon known as the Diego de la Haya. The surrounding lunar landscape gives a surreal feel to the place.
The volcano is part of the Irazú Volcano National Park, which spreads across 5,705 acres of land.
The town of Puerto Limon on the Caribbean coast is best known for being the spot where Christopher Columbus and his son Fernando dropped anchor in 1502. Today, it serves as the main transit hub for coffee, pineapples, and bananas.
Cruise ships bring many tourists each day, which also contributes to the economy of this small, picturesque Caribbean town.
Canal de Tortuguero
Parallel to the Caribbean coast is the 113-km-long Canal Tortuguero. Gliding through the waters of the canal, up the length of the waterway and back, is a great way of exploring the area and its abundant flora and fauna. The canal contains some rare creatures such as the red-eyed tree frog that becomes active only after sunset.
The first stop is the Laguna lodge where you can enjoy a great meal at the Jungle Restaurant and relax in the comfort of one of the timber-built apartments in the lodge. And yes, there’s a swimming pool to go with it!
The next stop up the canal is the 190-square-kilometer Tortuguero National Park, home to the strawberry poisoned-dart frog, the golden silk-spider, and the elusively shy two-toed sloth, among other wildlife species.
The secluded village of Tortuguero on the northern tip of the canal heralds the end of the up journey.
Jungle Breeze Canopy Tour
The Jungle Breeze Canopy Tour allows you to experience the wonders of the jungle world from a different perspective altogether.
Equipped with belts, steel ropes, helmets, and gloves, set up with the help of tour professionals, you can glide 800 meters through the treetops at a height of up to 130 m above the ground below, which, for most parts, is hardly visible through the dense foliage and undergrowth.
If you can manage to conquer your fear of heights, you’ll be fascinated by the breathtaking scenery.
A mere 11 kilometers north of San José, the town of Heredia is home to the National University of Costa Rica, one of the largest colleges in the country.
A white cathedral, one of the few buildings to have survived the region’s numerous earthquakes, is known for its French stained-glass windows, Greek columns, and a two-colored marble floor decorating the interior of the church.
The 19th-century Spanish Watchtower is a circular brick fortress and one of Heredia’s main landmarks.
Heredia is a convenient starting point for a trip to the Volcán Barva located within the Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo.
Barva de Heredia
The village of Barva de Heredia is located 3 km north of Heredia. It’s most impressive building, the Basilica de Barva, features a grotto that attracts those hoping for a miracle. The church was built as late as 1867.
One of four cities located on the central plateau, Alajuela is best known for being the birthplace of former national hero Juan Santamaría.
It was founded on the insistence of the Catholic Church in 1782 so that the local people would not have to travel to Heredia for Sunday mass.
Our Lady of the Pillar Cathedral with glorious painted ceilings and a huge dome above the altar is a bastion of the Catholic faith and an important Alajuela landmark.
Considered to be the largest zoo in the country, the Ave Zoo is located on the site of former coffee and citrus plantations.
It boasts enclosures that are designed to match the natural habitats of the animals it is home to. The zoo’s special breeding programs are designed to protect endangered animal species.
Parque Nacional Volcán Poás
Surrounded by dense green rainforest and overlooking the northwestern Meseta Centrale, Poás is one of Costa Rica’s most active volcanoes.
It is also one of the most visited volcanoes in the country, as visitors can take their cars almost to the edge of the constantly steaming and bubbling main crater – the air around it thick with the smell of sulfur.
The natives of the region once sacrificed virgins here to appease the deities.
Café Britt Tour
A visit to the Café Britt plantation is an educational experience in the growing, harvesting, and processing of coffee, which first came to Costa Rica from Ethiopia at the end of the 18th century.
Rain Forest Aerial Tram
The Rain Forest Aerial Tram, a brainchild of world-famous American biologist Donald Perry, is a network of cableways above and through the rainforest canopy, making it possible to observe life on the treetops – something which is next to impossible from ground level.
Located 1,736 meters above sea level in Costa Rica’s central highlands, Zarcero is best known for the artistically shaped cypresses in a perfect little park outside the local church. The trees are expertly shaped to resemble arches, dinosaurs, monkeys, ox-carts, airplanes and the likes.
This region is known for its milk products, fruits, and vegetables and the practice of organic farming. Jams, cheese, and other dairy products are among the items produced here.
Catarata Rio Fortuna
The Catarata Rio Fortuna, an awesome waterfall plunging 70 meters into the basin below, is the main attraction of the La Fortuna tourist resort, an area dominated by the imposing Arenal Volcano.
The Catarata can be accessed by way of a narrow trail and steep steps.
North of the La Fortuna tourist resort lives one of Costa Rica’s indigenous peoples, the Maleku Guatuso tribe. The 600-strong group live in small brick houses rather than traditional grass huts and have a show village where they produce various handicrafts.
The tribe has access to good schools and medical facilities here, and are free to follow their customs and ceremonies uninterrupted.
Playa Hermosa, a still untouched paradise of nature with its palm-fringed pristine beaches, is one of many such bays and headlands dotting the Pacific coast. Flocks of pelicans assemble in the rocky bay and begin their vigil for fish, which when spotted are soon caught by a spectacular nosedive.
Ever since it was founded by Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1524, Puntarenas has been the most important coffee exporting port in Costa Rica.
It is also a popular bathing place of Ticos – a colloquial term for natives of Costa Rica – who make the most of the fine beaches the place boasts.
Some of the attractions in and around the area are the Marino del Pacífico Park, Mora y Cañas Park, Lighthouse Puntarenas, Victoria Park, and the Antigua Capitanía del Puerto, among several others.
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
Undoubtedly one of the top national parks in Costa Rica, the Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast is home to some of the country’s iconic flora and fauna, including passion flowers, golden silk spiders, and playful Capuchin monkeys.
Founded in 1972, the park is framed by lush forested hills and the sea. Rainforests in the region often extend to the coast where narrow sandy beaches offer heaven to both man and wildlife.
The best way to explore the area is by a catamaran tour which starts from the Port of Capos and covers 12 rocky islands off the coast. You can soak up the sunshine and the sea air as the twin-hulled catamaran glides along the Manuel Antonio Park.
The small rocky islands are part of the 550 sq km conservation area in which several colonies of seabirds nest.