It is about impossible to pick the best city or best country, or rank them, even when you limit it to your own personal criteria. But a list-lover and conversation starter like me has to make lists and rank things.
For some time now I have said, “My four favorite countries (outside the US) are Italy, Costa Rica, Morocco, and Indonesia.” There is no question I love all those countries, but there are several others high on my list, too. I think I pick those four because they are so diverse. (Although two are largely Catholic and two are overwhelmingly Islamic.) If I am going to be talking about geography and travel each Tuesday, I better start writing up at least those four nations!
So, for starters, why do I love Costa Rica?
I will forewarn you that not all my fellow travelers put Costa Rica that high on their lists. Virtually always their reasons are “it’s too touristed or discovered” or “too many Americans.” Needless to say, these are folks looking to stretch their explorations, to reach for the undiscovered places. I like to do that, too, but I would not love Paris, New Orleans, and New York City (let alone Orlando and Vegas) if I didn’t like tourists. I would not love the 49 states I have visited if I had a problem being around Americans. And, as “discovered” as it has been, I can still find places in Costa Rica where there is nothing but the animals and the flowers and the sky. I have driven long stretches of backroads without seeing another car. (NOT in the capital of San Jose!)
At the same time, it’s easy for me to recommend Costa Rica to just about everyone I meet because it is such an easy place to travel. You can rent a car from any of the big American rental outfits, you can drive on the right side of the road, you can drink the water, you can stay at American lodging chains or American-like inns if you so desire, and the people (“Tico’s”) are friendly and are used to seeing lots of Americans, thousands of whom have retired there.
Other aspects of Costa Rican society make it relatively easy for Americans to “connect.” For example, it is the wealthiest nation in Central America, it is the least military and violent, and it has one of the highest voter participation rates in the region. I believe that more of Costa Rica’s land has been turned into national parks than any other country. Certainly there are a lot of great parks, and tourism is critical to the nation’s economy, alongside coffee, crops, flowers, and Intel CPU’s.
The central highlands have some of the best year-round weather in the world. It is in the 70’s a lot. A couple of hours’ drive away are the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean (hot and humid). Overall the driving is good, although like all of Latin America some roads are pretty rough. I always rent a car and drive around by myself, without any major problems.
All of that is good background for you, but doesn’t explain why I love Costa Rica. I love it because it is so full of animals and plants and volcanoes and cool places to stay.
I am partial to animals, and from the mountains to the beaches I have seen (usually up close) sloths, three kinds of monkeys, zillions of waterfalls, the most colorful frogs on earth, butterfly zoos, hummingbird parks, and more colorful birds than you can imagine, from quetzals to parrots. (See the Travellers’ Wildlife Guide: Costa Rica by Les Beletsky et. al.)
The backdrop for this nature ranges from being on the lip of stunning volcanoes and hiking through the cloudforests to treetop experiences and hanging out on deserted beaches (where surfers come from afar for the waves). Amazing orchids and other plants and flowers are everywhere.
The following paragraphs contain notes on the regions I have visited (and inns where I have stayed) and mentions of regions I have read about.
The capital, San Jose, is a bustling smaller city (for Latin America) which I really enjoyed, although most tourists use it as a jumping off point for their eco adventures or beach trips. The city is in the middle of the nation, in the central highlands. It includes a number of nice museums, the Teatro Nacional at which I heard a great performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and plentiful shopping from top end to markets. I stayed at a musty old historic hotel right in the heart of town, the Gran (http://www.grandhotelcostarica.com/gallery_tours.htm). This hotel is not expensive and faces the Teatro Nacional. It looks like they have spruced it up since I stayed there.
For a quick bite, I loved the 24 hour “soda” (diner) Soda el Parque (on Calle 2). (If you like beans, rice, and/or chicken, you will love Costa Rican food, and I am sure there are many other great dishes as well. There are nice, clean roadside mom (rarely pop) restaurants everywhere.)
Like most Spanish-planned cities, San Jose is on a logical grid. Calles (streets) run north and south, with the odd-numbered ones 1-3-5-7- east of the center line, and evens west. Avenidas (avenues) run east and west, odds north and evens south. Sounds odd, but you get used to it in a heartbeat if the left side of your brain is healthy. The InterAmerican (or PanAmerican) highway runs right through the heart of town as it travels from San Antonio to Panama City.
The airport is maybe 30 minutes’ drive from the heart of downtown.
Lots of people stay in the upscale close-in suburb of Escazu, where you should try the mountainside restaurant Tiquicia (http://ticofood.blogspot.com/2007/09/tiquicia-restaurant.html) – amazing views of the city at night, with folk dancing!. Escazu is Hyatt, Marriott, and mall country.
Further north and northwest, but well under an hour from the capital, are several other small towns and villages of the central highlands. I highly recommend Alajuela, Heredia, Grecia, Sarchi, and Atenas. Staying in these areas means you can get out to the volcanoes (like Poas and Irazu) pretty quickly instead of fighting city traffic, and stay in the midst of the wildlife. There are lots of tourist attractions, craftsellers and markets, etc. And you are still within 30 minutes or so of the airport.
Two of my favorite inns are in this region: the orchid-filled relative-bargain-by-American-standards Orquideas Inn (http://www.orquideasinn.com/) and the more expensive but beautiful El Cafetal Inn (http://www.cafetal.com/) on a coffee plantation. The air, the scenery, the people, the trails are all outstanding. While I have not stayed at the very upscale Xandari (http://www.xandari.com/), I have heard great things about it, and I bet you get a lot for your money, even at over $200 a night. And there are many other inns in this region, most of them in the travel guides shown at right. Or check out my favorite website for inn reviews, tripadvisor (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotels-g309224-Alajuela_Province_of_Alajuela-Hotels.html).
Further northwest are the areas around the Arenal volcano. I have not visited this area, which includes the Monteverde Cloudforest and the town of La Fortuna. This is one of the top ecotourism areas of the world, including some very remote places and small lodgings. It is at the top of my list for my next visit.
To the east of San Jose, down the InterAmerican highway past the city of Cartago, you come to some very cool areas for hiking, riding horses, and observing birds and other wildlife. I stayed at the Trogon Lodge (http://www.grupomawamba.com/trogonlodge/index.html), which is one of the best places I have ever stayed at (in any country), and at a great value. Lush, lush, lush!
To the southwest, south, and southeast of San Jose is the long Pacific Coast, with many, many beaches and lodges intermingled with monkeys and parrots. (I have not visited the Caribbean coast, which I hear is very different, having more mangroves, swamps, and turtles, etc.)
Southwest is Guanacaste Province and the Nicoya Peninsula, which is very popular; I have not been there yet.
Further southeast down the coast, in the middle of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, are the towns of Jaco and Quepos, again heavy with tourism. I stayed right outside the gate of Manuel Antonio National Park, one of the most popular, in my own inexpensive cabin (“private jungle bungalow”) at the very intimate and affordable La Posada (http://www.laposadajungle.com/). There are a ton of other places to stay and eat near the park and in nearby Quepos. The beaches and ocean views are wonderful.
Way down at the southeast end of things, almost to Panama, is the Osa Peninsula, which National Geographic once called “The most biologically active place on earth.” I have no idea what that really means, but it was a very cool and remote place. This is where I drove down the highway and saw no cars, but jumped out to videotape a three-toed sloth gradually crossing the road – what a sight!
I stayed in the small “land’s end’ village of Puerto Jimenez and watched the beachside fireworks on New Year’s Eve from my private cabin (big and more expensive) at Parrot Bay Village (http://www.parrotbayvillage.com/), maybe the fanciest place in town but still less expensive than a closet in a Manhattan hotel. Parrot Bay is a great base for wildlife tours, surfing, sport fishing, and many other activities. Not far away is the amazing and excellent Jade Luna restaurant (http://www.jadeluna.com/), run by an American chef!
If you go deeper into the huge Osa Peninsula and its Corcovado National Park, you will need to drive a four-wheel drive vehicle or hike in. You will also find great beaches for surfing etc. Check out the famous Iguana Lodge, deep in the jungle: http://www.iguanalodge.com/. Here are more lodging options: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotels-g309279-Osa_Province_of_Puntarenas-Hotels.html.
Well, that should give you an idea of what Costa Rica has to offer. For us Texans, it’s about the same distance (for example) as flying home to the Midwest. It’s a wonderful place; I have never had a bad day there. I look forward to many more great visits. There are a large number of good travel guides available – just get one from whichever series you like best. Several are shown to the right.
Happy trails from “the Hoov”……