Costa Rica is slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia. Despite its modest size, the country is incredibly dynamic and diverse. With just one week, it is entirely possible to – let’s say – enjoy the remote, lush forests of the Osa Peninsula, explore a Volcano in the Northern Region, and wrap up your visit by lounging on the Caribbean coast.
While driving the country can be difficult – and at times simply impossible – it is actually fairly easy to get around, thanks to several low-cost regional airlines. These quick plane trips are not for the weak stomached, but they afford some remarkable views of the Costa Rican landscape. In fact, we even feel like these domestic airlines double as a fairly cost-effective excursion.
Here is an informal overview of Costa Rica’s main regions to help you decide where you want to spend your vacation.
The Central Valley
The Central Valley is home to San José, the country’s largest population center and the first stop for most travelers. We enjoy spending time in San José, but we are always so eager to explore Costa Rica’s wilderness and beaches that we often just make the city a stop-over. Having said that, the region is also home to rolling hills, cloud forests, and several volcanoes. In fact, one of our all-time favorite retreats lies just 90 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of San José.
Costa Rica as seen from the air
Guanacaste is bordered by the Pacific on one side and the Central Valley on the other. While the large region is incredibly diverse, it is probably most famous for having some of the country’s (and the world’s) best beaches.
The popular region has seen a lot of development since our first visit in 2000, which is pretty understandable given its fairly dry, sunny weather, and gorgeous coastline. The upside is that there are a wide variety of accommodations and that you can actually fly right into Guanacaste’s Liberia Airport from several international destinations.
The Nicoya Peninsula
Viewfinder Tip: Costa Rica is one destination where you want to hire a guide for certain excursions.
The Nicoya Peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean. The lush area is a “blue zone,” a region of the world known for its inhabitants’ longevity. Maybe that’s due to the “pura vida” lifestyle or perhaps that people don’t want to leave behind the peninsula’s tropical forests and stunning beaches.
Because the Nicoya Peninsula is not as assessable as Guanacaste – its neighbor to the northwest – it is less trafficked. That simply means that the work you put into getting there is all the more worth it. On one trip, our Jeep “taxi” had to forge a river (a river!) to get us to the idyllic beach town of Montezuma.
The Northern Zone
The Northern Zone is home to two things we believe to be quintessential Cost Rica – active volcanoes and cloud forests. On our first visit, Volcan Arenal was one of the World’s most active volcanoes. It has calmed down a bit, but is no less worth a visit.
If you do make your way to Arenal Volcano National Park, you might as well take some time to visit the nearby (relatively speaking) Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The dense, bio-diverse tropical rainforest is home to the colorful but elusive Resplendent Quetzal. If you’re patient and have a good guide, you might sneak a glance of the bird. We did, and it alone made the trip worth it.
The Caribbean Coast
The Caribbean Coast can essentially be broken up into two distinct areas: the north and south. Many years ago we chose to spend an extended period of time on the southern part of the region. The experience was transformational. Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast has seen significant growth around the port city of Puerto Limón and the Costa Rican government has been focusing on increasing tourism in the area. Still, it remains off many visitors’ itineraries. That simply means you will have less people to contend with when you visit the turtles in Tortuguero National Park, drink in the region’s afro-Caribbean culture, and explore the picturesque Caribbean beaches.
The Central and Southern Pacific Zone
The Central and Southern Pacific Zone is home to Manuel Antonio National Park and the Osa Peninsula, a remote and largely undeveloped location that also feels quintessentially Costa Rican. We are big suckers for thick rainforests, large national parks, and protected areas, so this part of the country resonates pretty deeply with us. We recently spent hours watching a panoply of animals play in the trees. On one steamy afternoon, we saw monkeys, toucans, and sloths, to name just a few.
What’s your favorite part of Costa Rica?