Cities, Places and Vacation Destinations in Costa Rica

ALAJUELA COSTA RICA Because of its proximity to the international airport (5–10 minutes away) many travelers spend their first or last night in or near Alajuela, but the beauty of the surrounding countryside persuades some to stay longer. Alajuela is Costa Rica’s second-most-populated city, and a mere 30-minute bus ride from the capital, but it has a decidedly provincial air compared with San José. Architecturally, it differs little from the bulk of Costa Rican towns: it’s a grid of low-rise structures painted in dull pastel colors.

atenas-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Known for its excellent climate—National Geographic once dubbed it the world’s best—Atenas (“Athens” in Spanish) is a pleasant, friendly town surrounded by a hilly countryside of coffee and cane fields, cattle ranches, and patches of forest. The small city is off the tourist circuit, which means that here, unlike other highly popular destinations, you’ll walk alongside more locals than foreigners and get a more authentic idea of the country. Gazing at the tree-covered peaks and exploring the coffee farms are the main activities in this traditional town. Atenas’s center has a concrete church, some well-kept wooden and adobe houses, and a park dominated by royal palms.

Barra del Colorado-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Up the coast from Tortuguero is the ramshackle hamlet of Barra del Colorado, a popular sportfishing hub characterized by plain stilted wooden houses, dirt paths, and a complete absence of motorized land vehicles (though some locals have added motors to their hand-hewn canoes).

cahuita-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Dusty Cahuita, its main dirt street flanked by wooden-slat cabins, is a backpackers’ vacation town—a hippie hangout with a dash of Afro-Caribbean spice tossed in. Tucked in among the backpackers’ digs are a few surprisingly nice get-away-from-it-all lodgings, and restaurants with some tasty cuisine at decent prices. After years of negative crime-related publicity, Cahuita has beefed up security—this is one of the few places in the country where you will be conscious of a visible and reassuring, though not oppressive, police presence—and has made a well-deserved comeback on the tourist circuit. No question that nearby Puerto Viejo de Talamanca has overtaken Cahuita and become the hottest spot on the southern Caribbean coast. But as Puerto Viejo grows exponentially, Cahuita’s appeal is that it remains small and manageable. It’s well worth a look.

Carate costa rica-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Carate is literally the end of the road. The black volcanic-sand beach stretches for more than 3 km (2 miles), with surf that’s perfect for boogie boarding and body surfing but not for serious board surfing or safe swimming. The main entertainment at the beach is watching the noisy but magnificent scarlet macaws feasting on almonds in the beach almond trees that edge the shore. Carate has no phone service; a couple of lodges have satellite phones and iffy Wi-Fi and cell-phone connections.

Cartago costa rica-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Although earthquakes have destroyed most of its structures from the colonial era, Cartago still has some attractive restored buildings, most of them erected after the devastating 1910 earthquake. The city served as the country’s first capital until 1823, when the seat of government was moved to the emerging economic center of San José. Today, Cartago is a bustling market town, shopping center, and vibrant student hub. Most visitors see Cartago on their way to or from the Orosi Valley or Turrialba, and there is little reason (or place) to stay the night. The Orosi Valley, a short drive away, has better choices.

Ciudad Quesada costa rica-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Highway signs point you to “Ciudad Quesada,” but this friendly hub city is simply “San Carlos” in local parlance. Like so many other places in Costa Rica, the landscape is splendid, but what passes for architecture varies from ordinary to downright hideous. San Carlos is where everyone in the region comes to shop, take in a movie, get medical care, and generally take care of the necessities. There’s also an enormous bus terminal (with shopping center and multiplex movie theater) where you can make connections to almost anywhere in the northern half of the country. If you’re traveling from San José to points north, your bus will stop here even if it’s a so-called express. This lively mountain market town–provincial capital serves a fertile dairy region and is worth a stop for a soak in the soothing thermal waters in the area.

Dominical costa rica-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Sleepy fishing village-turned-surfer town, Dominical is changing again as luxury villas pop up all over the hillsides above the beaches, bringing new wealth that is boosting the local economy. It’s still a major surfing destination, attracting surfers of all ages, with a lively restaurant and nightlife scene. Bars and restaurants come and go with the waves of itinerant foreigners, so don’t hesitate to try something new. Dominical’s real magic lies beyond the somewhat scruffy town, in the surrounding terrestrial and marine wonders: the rain forest grows right up to the beach in some places, and the ocean offers world-class surfing.

Drake Bay-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations This is castaway country, a real tropical adventure, with plenty of hiking and some rough but thrilling boat rides to get here. The rugged coast that stretches south from the mouth of the Río Sierpe to Corcovado probably doesn’t look much different from what it did in Sir Francis Drake’s day (1540–96), when, as legend has it, the British explorer anchored here. Small, picture-perfect beaches with surf crashing against dark volcanic rocks are backed by steaming, thick jungle. Nature lodges scattered along the coast are hemmed in by the rain forest, which is home to troops of monkeys, sloths, scarlet macaws, and hundreds of other bird species.

Escazu-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Costa Rica’s wealthiest community and the Central Valley’s most prestigious address, Escazú nevertheless mixes glamour with tradition, BMWs with oxcarts, Louis Vuitton with burlap produce sacks. As you exit the highway and crest the first gentle hill, you might think you made a wrong turn and ended up in Southern California, but farther up you return to small-town Central America. Narrow roads wind their way up the steep slopes, past postage-stamp coffee fields and lengths of shoulder-to-shoulder, modest houses with tidy gardens and the occasional oxcart parked in the yard. Unfortunately, the area’s stream of new developments and high-rises has steadily chipped away at the rural landscape—each year you have to climb higher to find the kind of scene that captured the attention of many a Costa Rican painter in the early 20th century. In their place are plenty of fancy homes and condos, especially in the San Antonio and San Rafael neighborhoods. Escazú’s historic church faces a small plaza, surrounded in part by weathered adobe buildings. The town center is several blocks north of the busy road to Santa Ana, which is lined with a growing selection of restaurants, bars, and shops.

Golfito -costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Overlooking a small gulf (hence its name) and hemmed in by a steep bank of forest, Golfito has a great location. Lodges run world-class sportfishing trips and supply kayaks for paddling the gulf’s warm, salty, and crystal clear waters. When the sun sets behind the rolling silhouette of the Osa Peninsula, you can sometimes spot phosphorescent fish jumping. Golfito was a thriving banana port for several decades—United Fruit arrived in 1938—with elegant housing and lush landscaping for its plantation managers. After United Fruit pulled out in 1985, Golfito slipped into a state of poverty and neglect. The town itself consists of a pleasant, lushly landscaped older residential section and a long strip of scruffy commercial buildings. Visiting U.S. Coast Guard ships dock here, and small cruise ships moor in the harbor. The Costa Rica Coast Guard Academy is also here.

Grecia-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations The quiet farming community of Grecia is reputed to be Costa Rica’s cleanest town—some enthusiastic civic boosters extend that superlative to all Latin America—but the reason most people stop here is to admire its unusual church.

Guapiles-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations The hub towns of Guápiles and Guácimo aren’t destinations in their own right, but rather the nucleus for a few on-the-way-to-the-Caribbean activities. Guápiles, one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, is the hub of northeastern Costa Rica, and with all the facilities in town, residents of the region barely need to trek to San José anymore. The smaller town of Guácimo lies 12 km (7 miles) east on the Guápiles Highway.

Heredia-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations The lively city of Heredia, capital of the important coffee province of the same name, contains some of the country’s best-preserved colonial structures along with a contrasting, youthful buzz provided by a concentration of young people attending the National University (UNA) and century-oldcolegios (high schools) scattered around the town. Heredia name is twofold: it’s known as the City of Flowers, referring to a leading founding family named Flores. Flores also refers to beautiful women, of which Heredia is known for. Founded in 1706, the city bears witness to how difficult preservation can be in an earthquake-prone country; most of its colonial structures have been destroyed by the tremors and tropical climate—not to mention modernization. Still, the city and neighboring towns retain a certain historic feel, with old adobe buildings scattered amid the concrete structures. Nearby Barva is also notable for its colonial central square and venerable adobe structures. From Heredia, scenic mountain roads climb northeast, passing through the pleasant, high-altitude coffee towns of San Rafael and San Isidro, each centered by a notable, Tico-style Gothic church and a pleasant central park.

Jaco costa rica-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Its proximity to San José has made Jacó the most developed beach town in Costa Rica. Nature lovers and solitude seekers should skip this place, which is known mostly for its nightlife, surf scene, and prostitution. More than 80 hotels and cabinas back its long, gray-sand beach, and the mix of restaurants, shops, and bars lining Avenida Pastor Díaz (the town’s main drag) give it a cluttered appearance devoid of any greenery. Any real Costa Rican–ness evaporated years ago; U.S. chain hotels and restaurants have invaded, and you can pretty much find anything you need, from law offices and dental clinics to DVD-rental shops and appliance stores. It does have a bit of everything in terms of tours and outdoor activities, and makes a convenient hub for exploring neighboring beaches and attractions. Theft can be a problem here; watch your things like a hawk.

la cruz cr-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations North of Santa Rosa National Park on the west side of the highway is the turnoff to La Cruz, a scruffy, bustling little town, noteworthy only for the stunning views of Bahía Salinas from its bluff and its proximity to the nearby windswept beaches on the south shore of Bahía Salinas, in the hamlet of Jobo, and in the Golfo de Santa Elena. The Nicaraguan border lies just north of La Cruz at Peñas Blancas. All travelers are stopped at two checkpoints south of La Cruz for passport and cursory vehicle inspection. Police vigilance is heightened in the region.

La Fortuna-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations As they say, “Location, location, location.” Who would think that a small town sitting at the foot of massive Arenal Volcano would attract visitors from around the world? Nobody comes to La Fortuna—an ever-expanding mass of hotels, tour operators, souvenir shops, and sodas (small, family-run restaurants)—to see the town itself. Instead, thousands of tourists flock here each year to use it as a hub for visiting the natural wonders that surround it. The volcano, as well as waterfalls, vast nature preserves, great rafting rivers, and an astonishing array of birds, are to be found within an hour or less of your hotel. La Fortuna is also the best place to arrange trips to the Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge.

Liberia-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Once a dusty cattle-market town, Liberia has galloped toward modernization, becoming the commercial, as well as the administrative capital, of Guanacaste. There are still a few vestiges of its colonial past on quieter side streets and the occasional sabanero (cowboy) on horseback still ambles into town. But Liberia has virtually become one big shopping mall, complete with fast-food restaurants—dueling McDonald’s and Burger King face off at the entrance to town—and a multiplex theater. Walk a couple of blocks south of the main street along Calle Real, though, and you can still find some whitewashed adobe houses for which Liberia was nicknamed the “White City,” as well as some grand town houses that recall the city’s glory days. A few have been restored and are now hotels and cafés. Liberia today is essentially a good place to have a meal and make a bank stop at any one of a dozen banks, including Scotiabank, Citibank, and HSBC. Liberia can also serve as a base for day trips to Santa Rosa and Rincón de la Vieja national parks. The drive from San José takes between four and five hours, so it makes sense to fly directly into Liberia if you’re going only to the North Pacific. It’s easy to rent a car near the airport.

Limon-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations The colorful Afro-Caribbean flavor of one of Costa Rica’s most important ports (population 90,000) is the first sign of life for seafaring visitors to Costa Rica’s east coast. Limón (sometimes called “Puerto Limón”) is a lively, if shabby, town with a 24-hour street life. Most travelers do not stop here, heading immediately to Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca farther south. The wooden houses are brightly painted, but the grid-plan streets look rather worn, partly because of the damage caused by a 1991 earthquake. Street crime, including pickpocketing and nighttime mugging, is not uncommon here. Long charged with neglecting the city, the national government continually promises to turn new attention to Limón, although the results never match residents’ expectations.

Malpais and Santa Teresa-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations This remote fishing area was once frequented only by die-hard surfers in search of some of the country’s largest waves and by naturalists en route to the nearby Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Preserve. But now hotels, restaurants, and shopping centers are springing up at an alarming rate, especially toward the Santa Teresa side. Still, the abundant forest, lovely beaches, and consistent surf make this a great place to spend some time.

Manuel Antonio-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations You need merely reach the top of the forested ridge on which many of Manuel Antonio’s hotels are perched to understand why it is one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. That sweeping view of beaches, jungle, and shimmering Pacific dotted with rocky islets confirms its reputation. And unlike the tropical forests in other parts of the country, Manuel Antonio’s humid tropical forest remains green year-round. The town itself is spread out across a hilly and curving 5-km (3-mile) road that originates in Quepos and dead-ends at the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park. Along this main road, near the top of the hill or on its southern slope, are the area’s most luxurious hotels and fine-dining restaurants, surrounded by rain forest with amazing views of the beaches and offshore islands. The only problem with staying in one of those hotels is that you’ll need to drive or take public transportation to and from the main beach and national park, about 10 minutes away. More hotel and restaurant options are available at the bottom of the hill, within walking distance of the beach, but they lack the sweeping view.

Moin-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations The docks at Moín are a logical next stop after visiting neighboring Limón, especially if you want to take a boat north to explore the Caribbean coast.

Monteverde-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations The area’s first residents were a handful of Costa Rican families fleeing the rough-and-ready life of nearby gold-mining fields during the 1940s. Quakers, conscientious objectors from Alabama fleeing conscription into the Korean War, joined them in the early 1950s. A number of things drew them to Costa Rica: just a few years earlier it had abolished its military, and the Monteverde area offered good grazing. But it was the cloud forest that lay above their dairy farms that soon attracted the attention of ecologists. Educators and artisans followed, giving Monteverde and its “metropolis,” the village of Santa Elena, a mystique all their own. In any case, Monteverde looks quite a bit different than it did when the first wave of Quakers arrived. New hotels have sprouted up everywhere, traffic grips the center of town, and a small shopping mall has gone up just outside of town on the way up the mountain. A glut of rented all-terrain vehicles contributes to the increasing din that disrupts Monteverde’s legendary peace and quiet. Some define this as progress. Others lament the gradual chipping away at what makes one of Costa Rica’s most special areas so, well, special. We side with them. You can still get away from it all up here, but you’ll have to work harder at it than you used to. In any case, you’ll not lack for things to do if seeing nature is a primary reason for your visit.

Montezuma-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Beautifully positioned on a sandy bay, Montezuma is hemmed in by a precipitous wooded shoreline that has prevented the overdevelopment that has affected so many other beach towns. Its small, funky town center is a pastel cluster of New Age health-food cafés, trendy beachwear shops, jaunty tour kiosks, noisy open-air bars, and older sodas (casual eateries). Most hotels are clustered in or around the town’s center, but the best ones are on the coast to the north and south, where the loudest revelers are the howler monkeys in the nearby forest. The beaches north of town, especially Playa Grande, are lovely.

Nuevo Arenal-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Much of the original town of Arenal, at one of the lowest points near Lake Arenal, was destroyed by the volcano’s 1968 eruption, and the rest was destroyed in 1973, when Lake Arenal flooded the region. The nuevo (new) town was created about 30 km (19 miles) away from the site of the old. It doesn’t have much to interest tourists, but is about halfway between La Fortuna and Tilarán, making it a good stop for a break, and an even better base with a couple of truly lovely lodgings nearby.

Playa Hermosa-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Beautiful Playa Hermosa, once a laid-back, fishing community, has grown like Topsy, with condominiums and villas covering the scrubby hills overlooking the wide, curved beach with its warm, swimmable water, prime dive sites, choice fishing grounds, and sunset views of the Papagayo Peninsula—all reasons why Canadian and American expatriates are buying up those condos. In the early morning, though, Playa Hermosa is still the kind of place where the beach is the town’s main thoroughfare, filled with joggers, people walking their dogs, and families out for a stroll. Not to be confused with the mainland surfers’ beach of the same name south of Jacó, this Playa Hermosa has long been occupied by small hotels, restaurants, and homes along the length of the beach, so the newer hotel behemoths and other developments are forced to set up shop off the beach or up on the surrounding hillsides.

Playa Nosara-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations One of the last beach communities for people who want to get away from it all, Playa Nosara’s attractions are the wild stretches of side-by-side beaches called Pelada and Guiones, with surfing waves and miles of sand on which to stroll, and the tropical dry forest that covers much of the hinterland. Regulations here limit development to low-rise buildings 180 meters (600 feet) from the beach, where they are, thankfully, screened by trees. Americans and Europeans, with a large Swiss contingent, are building at a fairly rapid pace, but there appears to be an aesthetic sense here that is totally lacking in Tamarindo and Sámara. The town itself is inland and not very interesting, but the surrounding flora and fauna keep nature lovers entertained.

Playa del Coco-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Messy, noisy, colorful, and interesting, Playas del Coco has the best shopping, most dive shops, and liveliest nightlife and barhopping on this part of the coast. It’s still a working fishing port, with a port captain’s office, a fish market, and an ice factory for keeping the catch of the day fresh—not for cooling margaritas, although many are enjoyed here. The dark-sand beach is still a workplace, and it hasn’t yet met the Blue Flag standards of cleanliness, but a beautiful new boardwalk has made the beach much more attractive. An explosion of condominium and villa projects has brought new money to the community, along with new commercial development, including an upscale shopping center at the entrance to town with a flagship Auto Mercado, the country’s top grocery chain. Although fresh seafood, myriad souvenir shops, and plenty of bars have always drawn tourists here, Playas del Coco also has a high concentration of tour operators, including diving, fishing, and surfing at remote breaks such as Ollie’s Point and Witch’s Rock. Because Coco is mere minutes from Playa Hermosa, however, you can just as easily enjoy those sports while staying at that more pleasant beach. If you like to shop and party, and want some local color, Coco’s slightly down-at-the-heels ambience can be appealing.

Playa Tambor-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Known for massive, all-inclusive hotels and housing developments, Playa Tambor runs along the large half-moon Bahía Ballena, whose waters are more placid than those of other beaches on Nicoya’s southern tip. Playa Tambor is one of the country’s least attractive beaches, although there are two small but lovely ones to the south. The tiny fishing village hasn’t developed as much as Montezuma or Malpaís, which makes it a better destination for those who want to get away from the crowds. It can serve as a convenient base for fishing excursions, horseback-riding trips, and day trips to Curú National Wildlife Refuge and Isla Tortuga.

Playa Zancudo-costa rica cities-costa rica places to visit-costa rica vacation destinations Canadians and Americans have built substantial beachfront homes and most hotels and restaurants are within sight of the beach. Life here is laid-back and casual, centering on walking the beach, fishing, kayaking, swimming, and hanging out at the local bars and restaurants. Zancudo has a good surf break at the south end of the beach, but it’s nothing compared with Playa Pavones a little to the south. Swimming is good two hours before or after high tide, especially at the calmer north end of the beach. If you get tired of playing in the surf and sand, you can arrange a boat trip to the nearby mangrove estuary to see birds and crocodiles. Zancudo is also home to one of the area’s best sportfishing operations, headquartered at the Zancudo Lodge. Oceano Bar and Restaurant has free Wi-Fi at the bar, as does Cabinas Sol y Mar.

Puerto Jimenez costa rica You might not guess it from the rickety bicycles and ancient pickup trucks parked on the main street, but Puerto Jiménez is the largest town on the Osa Peninsula. This one-iguana town has a certain frontier charm, though. New restaurants, hotels, and “green” newcomers lend an interesting, funky edge. It’s also the last civilized outpost on the peninsula. Heading south, you fall off the grid. That means no public electricity or telephones. So make your phone calls, send your email, get cash, and stock up on supplies here. Be prepared for the humidity and mosquitoes—Puerto Jiménez has plenty of both. If you need a refreshing dip, head southeast of the airport to Playa Platanares, where there is a long stretch of beach with swimmable, warm water.

Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui costa rica One of Costa Rica’s lesser-known eco-destinations has been developing a growing selection of nature-theme activities in recent years. In the 19th century, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí was a thriving river port and the only link with the coastal lands straight east. Fortunes nose-dived with the construction of a full-fledged port in the town of Moín near Limón, and today Puerto Viejo has a slightly run-down air. The activities of the Nicaraguan Contras made this a danger zone in the 1980s, but now that the political situation has improved, boats once again ply the old route up the Sarapiquí River to the San Juan River on the Nicaraguan frontier, from where you can travel downstream to Barra del Colorado or Tortuguero. (Wars of words still occasionally flare up between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but they need not concern you as a visitor.) A few tour companies have Sarapiquí River tours with up to Class III rapids in the section between Chilamate and La Virgen, with plenty of wildlife to see. If you prefer to leave the driving to them, many of the lodges operate boat tours on the tamer sections of the river.

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca costa rica This muddy, colorful little town is one of the hottest spots on the international budget-travel circuit, and swarms with surfers, New Age hippies, beaded and spangled punks, would-be Rastafarians of all colors and descriptions, and wheelers and dealers—both pleasant and otherwise. Time was when most kids came here with only one thing on their mind: surfing. Today many seem to be looking for a party, with or without the surf.

Puntarenas costa rica A launching pad for ferries heading southeast to the coast of the Nicoya Peninsula, Puntarenas could easily be relegated to what you see from your car as you roll through town. Unless you’re waiting to catch the ferry, there’s really no reason to stay in Puntarenas. Parts of its urban beach look almost like a Dumpster, although residents are making a valiant effort to clean things up. Nonetheless, it’s a city with a past as an affluent port town and principal vacation spot for San José’s wealthy, who arrived by train in the last century. Once the port was moved and roads opened to other beaches, Puntarenas’s economy crashed. Recent attempts by politicians and hotel owners to create tourism-boosting diversions have been only marginally successful thus far. But if you have some downtime here, head for the Paseo de los Turistas, a beachfront promenade lined with concrete benches. From this narrow spit of sand—punta de arenas literally means “point of sand”—which protrudes into the Gulf of Nicoya, you get impressive sunsets and vistas of the Nicoya Peninsula.

Quepos costa rica This hot and dusty town serves as a gateway to Manuel Antonio, and also serves as the area’s hub for banks, supermarkets, and other services. Because nearby Manuel Antonio is so much more attractive, there is little reason to stay here, but many people stop for dinner, for a night on the town, or to go sportfishing. Quepos’s name stems from the indigenous tribe that inhabited the area until the Spanish conquest wiped them out. For centuries the town of Quepos barely existed, until the 1930s, when the United Fruit Company built a banana port and populated the area with workers from other parts of Central America. The town thrived for nearly two decades, until Panama Disease decimated the banana plantations in the late 1940s. The fruit company then switched to less lucrative African oil palms, and the area declined. Only since the 1980s have tourism revenues lifted the town out of its slump, a renaissance owed to the beauty of the nearby beaches and nature reserves. Forests around Quepos were destroyed nearly a century ago, but the massive Talamanca Mountain Range, some 10 km (6 miles) to the east, holds one of the largest expanses of wilderness in Central America.

Samara costa rica This is the perfect hangout beach, with plenty of shade, bars, and seafront restaurants to take refuge in from the sun. Playa Sámara has miles of palm-shaded beach, safe swimming water, and an abundance of budget accommodations and seafront restaurants. This makes it especially popular with budget travelers, both Tico and foreign.

San Antonio de Belen costa rica San Antonio de Belén has little to offer visitors but its rural charm and proximity to the international airport. The latter led developers to build several of the San José area’s biggest hotels here. The town is a convenient departure point for trips to the western Central Valley, Pacific coast, and northern region. If you stay at the Marriott, you likely won’t even see the town, just the busy highway between San José and Alajuela.

San Gerardo de Dota costa rica Cloud forests, invigorating, cool mountain air, well-kept hiking trails, and excellent bird-watching make San Gerardo de Dota one of Costa Rica’s premier nature destinations. The tiny hamlet is in the narrow Savegre River valley, 9 km (5½ miles) down a twisting, partially asphalted track that descends abruptly to the west from the Pan-American Highway. The peaceful surroundings look more like the Rocky Mountains than Central America, but hike down the waterfall trail and the vegetation quickly turns tropical again. Beyond hiking and bird-watching, activities include horseback riding and trout fly-fishing.

San Gerardo de Rivas costa rica Chirripó National Park is the main reason to venture to San Gerardo de Rivas, but if you aren’t up for this physically challenging adventure it’s still a wildly scenic place, reminiscent of the Himalayas, to spend a day or two. Spread over steep terrain at the end of the narrow valley of the boulder-strewn Río Chirripó, San Gerardo de Rivas has cool mountain air, excellent bird-watching, spectacular views, and an outdoor menu that includes waterfall hikes and hot springs.

San Isidro de El General costa rica Although San Isidro de El General has no major attractions, the bustling market town is a good place to have lunch, get cash at one of the many ATMs (most accept Visa/Plus cards), or fill your tank—the main highway into town is lined with service stations, some operating 24 hours. Advice to map readers: There are other San Isidros in Costa Rica, but this is the only San Isidro de El General. Just to confuse matters more, this town also goes by the name Peréz Zeledón.

San Jose costa rica The center of all that is Costa Rica probably won’t be the center of your trip to Costa Rica. Most visitors spend two nights in San José—tops. You’ll probably head out of town the morning after you arrive, only to return the night before heading home. No, you shouldn’t sacrifice precious beach or rain forest time for a stay in San José. But the city is worth a day or two—as a way to ease into Costa Rica at the start of a visit or as a way of wrapping things up with a well-deserved dose of civilization.

San Ramon costa rica-Cities in Costa Rica - Places in Costa Rica - Vacation destinations in Costa Rica San Ramón hides its real attractions in the countryside to the north, on the road to La Fortuna, where comfortable lodges offer access to private nature preserves. There’s not much to see in San Ramón other than its church.

Santa Ana costa rica-Cities in Costa Rica - Places in Costa Rica - Vacation destinations in Costa Rica Santa Ana’s tranquil town center, with its rugged stone church, has changed little through the years, even if metro development, with the accompanying condos and shopping malls spreads out in all directions. The church, which was built between 1870 and 1880, has a Spanish-tile roof, carved wooden doors, and two pre-Columbian stone spheres flanking its entrance. Its rustic interior—bare wooden pillars and beams and black iron lamps—seems appropriate for an area with a tradition of ranching. Because it is warmer and drier than the towns to the east, Santa Ana is one of the few Central Valley towns that doesn’t have a good climate for coffee—it is Costa Rica’s onion capital, however—and is instead surrounded by pastures and patches of forest; it isn’t unusual to see men on horseback here.

Santo Domingo costa rica-Cities in Costa Rica - Places in Costa Rica - Vacation destinations in Costa Rica Between Heredia and San José, the pretty town of Santo Domingo de Heredia, established in the early 19th century, has wide streets and fine examples of traditional, tile-roof houses, and a monumental church that stands out as a brilliant white landmark against the surrounding sea of green coffee farms. There’s a level of tranquility here that belies its proximity to the capital, a mere 15-minute drive away if the traffic gods smile upon you. The splendid, late-19th-century Basílica de Santo Domingo (east side of soccer field) is one of the country’s only two basilicas, with two distinctive towers topped with gold domes. It’s often a venue for classical music concerts throughout the year, including the July-to-August International Music Festival (masses are held from 5 to 7 pm). The older and simpler Iglesia del Rosario, built in the 1840s, faces the town’s palm-shaded Parque Central (masses from 7 to 10 am).

San Vito costa rica-Cities in Costa Rica - Places in Costa Rica - Vacation destinations in Costa Rica Except for the tropical greenery, the rolling hills around the bustling hilltop town of San Vito could be mistaken for a Tuscan landscape. The town actually owes its 1952 founding to 200 Italian families who converted forest into coffee, fruit, and cattle farms. A remnant of the Italian flavor lingers on in the statue dedicated to the pioneros standing proudly in the middle of town. But San Vito today is a bustling, agricultural market town, the center of the Coto Brus coffee region. Many coffee pickers are from the Guaymí tribe, who live in a large reserve nearby and also over the border in Panama. They’re easy to recognize by the women’s colorfully embroidered, long cotton dresses.

Sarchi costa rica-Cities in Costa Rica - Places in Costa Rica - Vacation destinations in Costa Rica Tranquil Sarchí is Costa Rica’s premier center for crafts and carpentry. People drive here from all over the country to shop for furniture, and tour buses regularly descend upon the souvenir shops outside town. The area’s most famous products are its brightly painted oxcarts—replicas of those traditionally used to transport coffee.

Siquirres costa rica-Cities in Costa Rica - Places in Costa Rica - Vacation destinations in Costa Rica Siquirres anchors a fertile banana- and pineapple-growing region, and marks the transition point between the agricultural lowlands and the tropical, palm-laden coast. The odd name is a corruption of the words Si quieres (if you want), fittingly impassive for this lackluster town. Siquirres has the unfortunate historical distinction of having once been the westernmost point to which Afro-Caribbean people could migrate. Costa Rica implemented the law in the late 1880s—when large numbers of Afro-Caribbeans immigrated (mainly from Jamaica) to construct the Atlantic Railroad—but abolished it in the 1949 constitution.

Tamarindo costa rica-Cities in Costa Rica - Places in Costa Rica - Vacation destinations in Costa Rica Once a funky beach town full of spacey surfers and local fishermen, Tamarindo is now a pricey, hyped-up hive of commercial development and real estate speculation, happily accompanied by a dizzying variety of shops, bars, and hotels, and probably the best selection of restaurants of any beach town on the Pacific coast. There’s a tony shopping center at the entrance to town with an upscale Auto Mercado supermarket and a Scotiabank branch and ATM. On the down side, still-unpaved roads kick up dust and mud alternately, depending on the season; and strip malls and high-rise condominiums clutter the rest of the main street and obscure views of the still-magnificent beach. Some low-life elements are also making security an issue. But once you’re on the beach, almost all the negatives disappear (just keep your eyes on your belongings). Wide and flat, the sand is packed hard enough for easy walking and jogging. How good it is for swimming and surfing, however, is questionable, since the town has twice lost its Blue Flag clean-beach status (because of overdevelopment and the total absence of water treatment). The water quality is especially poor during the rainy months, when you’ll want to do your swimming and surfing at nearby Playa Langosta, or Playa Grande. Strong currents at the north end of the beach get a lot of swimmers into trouble, especially when they try to cross the estuary without a surfboard.

Tarcoles costa rica-Cities in Costa Rica - Places in Costa Rica - Vacation destinations in Costa Rica Crocodile boat tours on the Río Tárcoles are this small town’s claim to fame. In fact, you don’t actually have to drive to Tárcoles to do the tour, because operators can pick you up in Herradura or Jacó. The muddy river has gained a reputation as the country’s dirtiest, thanks to San José’s inadequate sewage system, but it amazingly remains an impressive refuge for wildlife. A huge diversity of birds results from a combination of transitional forest and the river, which houses crocodiles, herons, storks, spoonbills, and other waterbirds. This is also one of the few areas in the country where you can see scarlet macaws, which you may spot on a boat tour or while hiking in a private reserve nearby.

Tilaran costa rica-Cities in Costa Rica - Places in Costa Rica - Vacation destinations in Costa Rica A windmill farm in the hills high above Tilarán attests to its being the windiest place in the country, and this lakeside town is used as a base by bronzed windsurfers. For those days when you get “skunked” (the wind fails to blow), horseback riding and mountain biking can keep you busy. A lakeside stroll is a pleasant way to while away a few hours.

Tortuguero costa rica-Cities in Costa Rica - Places in Costa Rica - Vacation destinations in Costa Rica North of the national park of the same name, the hamlet of Tortuguero is a pleasant little place with 600 inhabitants, two churches, three bars, a handful of souvenir shops, and a small selection of inexpensive lodgings. (And one more plus: There are no motor vehicles here, a refreshing change from the traffic woes that plague the rest of Costa Rica.) You can also take a stroll on the 32-km (20-mile) beach, but avoid swimming here because of strong riptides and large numbers of bull sharks and barracuda.

Turrialba costa rica-Cities in Costa Rica - Places in Costa Rica - Vacation destinations in Costa Rica The relatively well-to-do agricultural center of Turrialba is a bustling town, with a youthful vibe from the nearby university, a colorful open-air market, and a tree-shaded central park filled with an intriguing collection of large-scale animal sculptures. Turrialba also has two major factories: Firestone, which you’ll see on the road to Siquirres, and a Rawlings factory, which makes all the baseballs used in the major leagues. (Rawlings, unfortunately, does not offer tours.) Thanks to some spectacular scenery, patches of rain forest in the surrounding countryside, and a handful of upscale nature lodges, ecotourism is increasingly the focus of the town’s efforts. Significant numbers of kayakers and rafters also flock here to run the Pacuare and Reventazón rivers. And, of course, looming above the town is Volcán Turrialba. Recent eruptions of ash, along with a heavily damaged road, prevent visitors from going to the top.

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