A FIRST APPROACH
Which Costa Rica Is Right for You?
Here's a snapshot of the popular Central American country's defining experiences: beaches, ecofriendly activities, and adrenaline rushes. Get a sense of which ones fit your travel style and your budget.
SWIM BY CORAL REEFS AND WILDLIFE
On the Pacific side of Costa Rica, lush rain forest enfolds Playa Manuel Antonio, a crescent-shaped stretch of white sand just outside the sportfishing town of Quepos. This popular beach and national park hits all the right notes for a tropical beach fantasy, from the capuchin monkeys that try to filch your possessions to the casado (a traditional mix of rice and beans) with mahimahi for $12 at oceanfront Marlin's Restaurant (506/2777-1134).
The best snorkeling opportunities are in the waters above Costa Rica's most extensive coral reef, which lies off the southeastern coast near the Panamanian border. One fishing community here, palm-fringed Playa Manzanillo, offers a particularly irresistible laid-back vibe, with fishing boats drawn up on the sand and reggae music drifting from funky beachside bars. Activities in the area stretch beyond snorkeling to include boogie boarding and mountain biking.
The Nicoya Peninsula in northwestern Costa Rica is the ultimate diving destination. Pinch your nose and plunge into a huge concentration of eagle rays, giant mantas, marine turtles, and whale sharks. Among the many fine dive sites here, the standout is Playa Ocotal, a silvery beach surrounded by craggy headlands (Ocotal Beach Resort diving safaris, ocotaldiving.com).
GO DEEP INTO THE FOREST
Wildlife abounds along the trails that lace many of the national parks and reserves in Costa Rica. For a misty and mystical jungle trek through a cloud forest, unsung Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve (reservasantaelena.org), outside Santa Elena, fulfills everything an ecotourism enthusiast could desire. It crawls with quetzals, kinkajous, and howler monkeys. Unlike neighboring Monteverde Cloud Forest—more famous because it came first and helped put Costa Rica on the ecotourism map—Santa Elena has a handy observation tower. Keep an eye out for endangered spider monkeys, named for their unusually long gangly limbs and prehensile tails.
Tucked away in Costa Rica's far southwest, near the surfing community of Pavones, the mountainside fruit farm Tiskita Jungle Lodge (tiskita-lodge.co.cr) serves as a fantastic base for ecotourism (rates from $250, closed September and October). It stands in a rainforest reserve teeming with creatures like scarlet macaws, toucans, and agoutis, huge rodents the size of housecats. Tiskita's resident guide Luis Vargas enthralls visitors with explanations of the area's ecosystems on his day and night walks to local deep-forest waterfalls. If you opt instead for budget digs—like nearby Rancho Burica's thatched cabanas (ranchoburica.com, from $8)—you can still take advantage of Vargas's services by contacting the lodge.
For a true challenge, attack the Sendero El Termometro trail in south central Costa Rica. The ascent takes two days. Depart from the nearby town of San Gerardo de Rivas, rise through cloud forest and alpine savannas, and reach the summit of the country's highest peak, the 12,530-foot Cerro Chirripó. Before your trek, contact the Parque Nacional Chirripó ranger station in San Gerardo de Rivas and reserve beds at the cozy mountain lodge Centro Ambientalista El Páramo, the sole lodging, a short distance below the summit; no camping is permitted (506/2742-5083). Guides can be arranged at the ranger station.
GET YOUR ADRENALINE PUMPING
Monkeys howl and toucans screech as you career down the Reventazón River, experiencing white-water rafting at its rollicking best. The rapids are roughest in the fall, when the water level is highest. The top outfitter is Ríos Tropicales (riostropicales.com) in San José, which has more offerings than its competitors and a great reputation for trips down the Reventazón and Pacuare rivers; it even has its own isolated lodge on the Pacuare as a base for multiday trips.
Get your heart pounding by taking a zip-line ride through the forest canopy. Among the dozens of options, the best is Sky Trek (skytrek.com) at Arenal, where you'll whizz along 1.7 miles of cables slung between towering trees. To get to the zip-line, you'll ride the Sky Tram (included in the Sky Trek experience), which offers views of Arenal volcano, a dramatic sight when it's venting. Children as young as 8 can enjoy the experience.