Costa Rica is named after one coast but of course has two, the Pacific and the Caribbean. These two coasts are as different from each other as are the East and West coasts of North America.
Costa Rica’s Pacific coast is the most extensive, and is characterized by a rugged though mostly accessible coastline where forested mountains often meet the sea. It can be divided into four regions: Guanacaste, the Nicoya Peninsula, the Central Coast, and the Southern Coast. There are some spectacular stretches of coastline, and most of the country’s top beaches are here, as well as some of the best national parks. This coast varies from the dry, sunny climate of the northwest to the hot, humid rainforests of the south.
The Caribbean coast can be divided into two roughly equal stretches. The remote northeast coastline is a vast flat plain laced with rivers and covered with rainforest; it is accessible only by boat or small plane. Farther south, along the stretch of coast accessible by car, are uncrowded beaches and coral reefs.
Bordered by Nicaragua in the north and Panama in the southeast, Costa Rica is only slightly larger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Much of the country is mountainous, with three major ranges running northwest to southeast. Among these mountains are several volcanic peaks, some of which are still active. Between the mountain ranges are fertile valleys, the largest and most populated of which is the Central Valley. With the exception of the dry Guanacaste region, much of Costa Rica’s coastal area is hot and humid and covered with dense rainforests.
San José: San José is Costa Rica’s capital and its primary business, cultural, and social center—and it sits close to the country’s geographical center, in the heart of the Central Valley (see below). It’s a sprawling urban area, with a metropolitan population of around two million. Its streets are narrow, in poor repair, poorly marked, and often chock-full of speeding, honking traffic. However, a few notable parks, like the Parque La Sabana and Parque del Este, serve to lessen the urban blight. San José is home to the country’s greatest collection of museums, fine restaurants and stores, galleries, and shopping centers.
The Central Valley: The Central Valley is surrounded by rolling green hills and mountains that rise to heights between 900 and 1,200m (2,952–3,936 ft.) above sea level. The climate here is mild and springlike year-round. The rich volcanic soil of this region makes it Costa Rica’s primary agricultural region, with coffee farms making up the majority of landholdings. The country’s earliest settlements were in this area, and today the Central Valley (which includes San José) is densely populated, crisscrossed by decent roads, and dotted with small towns. Surrounding the Central Valley are high mountains, among which are four volcanic peaks. Three of these, Poás, Irazú, and Turrialba, are still active and have caused extensive damage during cycles of activity in the past 2 centuries. Many of the mountainous regions to the north and to the south of the capital of San José have been declared national parks (Tapantí, Juan Castro Blanco, and Braulio Carrillo) to protect their virgin rainforests against logging.
Guanacaste: The northwestern corner of the country near the Nicaraguan border is the site of many of Costa Rica’s sunniest and most popular beaches, including Playa del Coco, Playa Hermosa, Playa Flamingo, Playa Conchal, Tamarindo, and the Papagayo Peninsula. Scores of beach destinations, towns, and resorts are along this long string of coastline. Because many foreigners have chosen to build beach houses and retirement homes here, Guanacaste has experienced considerable development over the years. You won’t find a glut of Cancún-style high-rise hotels, but condos, luxury resorts, and golf courses have sprung up along the coastline here. But you can still find long stretches of deserted sands. However, more and more travelers are using Liberia as their gateway to Costa Rica, bypassing San José and the central and southern parts of the country entirely.
With about 165cm (65 in.) of rain a year, this region is by far the driest in the country and has been likened to west Texas. Guanacaste province is named after the shady trees that still shelter the herds of cattle roaming the dusty savanna here. In addition to cattle ranches, Guanacaste has semi-active volcanoes, several lakes, and one of the last remnants of tropical dry forest left in Central America. (Dry forest once stretched all the way from Costa Rica up to the Mexican state of Chiapas.)
Puntarenas & the Nicoya Peninsula: Just south of Guanacaste lies the Nicoya Peninsula. Similar to Guanacaste in many ways, the Nicoya Peninsula is somewhat more inaccessible, and less developed and crowded. However, this is changing. The beaches of Santa Teresa and Malpaís are perhaps the fastest-growing hot spots anywhere along the Costa Rican coast, while Nosara is being hailed as the next Tulum.
As you head south from Guanacaste, the region is similar in terms of geography, climate, and ecosystems, but begins to get more humid and moist, with taller and lusher forests. The Nicoya Peninsula itself juts out to form the Golfo de Nicoya (Nicoya Gulf), a large, protected body of water. Puntarenas, a small fishing city, is the main port found inside this gulf, and one of the main commercial ports in all of Costa Rica. Puntarenas is also the departure point for the regular car ferries that connect the Nicoya Peninsula to mainland Costa Rica.
The Northern Zone: This inland region lies to the north of San José and includes rainforests, cloud forests, hot springs, the famous Arenal Volcano, the vast Braulio Carrillo National Park, and numerous remote lodges. Because this is one of the few regions of Costa Rica without any beaches, it primarily attracts people interested in nature and active sports. Lake Arenal has some of the best windsurfing and kitesurfing in the world, as well as several good mountain-biking trails along its shores. The Monteverde Cloud Forest, perhaps Costa Rica’s most internationally recognized attraction, is another top draw in this region.
The Central Pacific Coast: Because it’s the most easily accessible coastline in Costa Rica, the central Pacific coast has a vast variety of beach resorts and hotels. Jacó, a bustling beach town a little over an hour from San José, attracts sunbirds, charter groups, and a mad rush of Costa Rican tourists every weekend. It is also very popular with young surfers, and has a distinct party vibe. Manuel Antonio, one of the most emblematic destinations in Costa Rica, is built up around a popular coastal national park, and caters to people looking to blend beach time and fabulous panoramic views with some wildlife viewing and active adventures. South of Manuel Antonio, you’ll encounter a wild coastal region where thick rainforests coat steep hillsides that lead down to the undeveloped beaches of Dominical, Matapalo, Uvita, and beyond. This region is also home to the highest peak in Costa Rica—Mount Chirripó—a beautiful summit, where frost is common.
The Southern Zone: This hot, humid region is one of Costa Rica’s most remote and undeveloped. It is characterized by dense rainforests, large national parks and protected areas, and rugged coastlines. Much of the area is uninhabited and protected in Corcovado, Piedras Blancas, and La Amistad national parks. A number of wonderful nature lodges are spread around the shores of the Golfo Dulce and along the Osa Peninsula. There’s a lot of solitude to be found here, due in no small part to the fact that it’s hard to get here and hard to get around. But if you like your ecotourism authentic and challenging, you’ll find the Southern Zone to your liking.
The Caribbean Coast: Most of the Caribbean coast is a wide, steamy lowland laced with rivers and blanketed with rainforests and banana plantations. The culture here is predominantly Afro-Caribbean, with many residents speaking an English or Caribbean patois. The northern section of this coast is accessible only by boat or small plane and is the site of Tortuguero National Park, which is known for its nesting sea turtles and riverboat trips. The towns of Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, and Manzanillo, on the southern half of the Caribbean coast, are increasingly popular destinations. The beautiful beaches and coastline here, as yet, have few large hotels. This area can be rainy, especially between December and April.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.