The cosmopolitan capital of Costa Rica is the transportation hub of the country, so most visitors spend at least a few days in the city. It has a more North American feel to it than many Latin American capitals, with department stores, shopping malls and fast-food chains. However, it also has several excellent museums, some great restaurants, colorful markets and a fine climate.
The best of the museums are the Museo Nacional, which has displays of Costa Rican archaeology, colonial furniture, costumes and religious art; the Museo del Oro Precolombino, which houses a dazzling collection of pre-Columbian gold pieces; and the Museo de Jade, with the world's largest collection of American jade sculptures. The most impressive city building is the Teatro Nacional, built in the 1890s. It hosts plays, operas, ballets and performances by the National Symphony Orchestra. The best market is Mercado Central, which bustles rather than buzzes, but has a range of goods from live turkeys to leatherwork, and some of the cheapest meals in town.
Most of the cheaper hotels and eateries are west of Calle Central, between Avenidas 1 and 2.
The Costa Rica government has been concentrating on its parks and wildlife for well over forty years now, and the dedication has payed off in the quality and quantity of biological reserves and well-preserved eco-systems. The national park in the northwest of the country, Parque Nacional VolcÃ¡n Arenal, has at its centre the perfectly conical (and iconical) 1633m (5356ft) VolcÃ¡n Arenal. The volcano has been exceptionally active since 1968, when huge explosions triggered lava flows that killed several dozen people. The degree of activity varies from week to week; sometimes there is a spectacular display of flowing red-hot lava and incandescent rocks flying through the air; at other times, the volcano is more placid and gently glows in the dark. two of the highlights.
Parque Nacional Santa Rosa is the oldest and one of the best developed national parks in Costa Rica. It covers most of the PenÃnsula Santa Elena, which juts out into the Pacific in the far northwestern corner of the country. It protects the largest remaining stand of tropical dry forest in Central America and is an important nesting site for endangered species of sea turtles.
Two other environmental highlights include RincÃ³n de la Vieja, northeast of Liberia in northwestern Costa Rica, and Parque Nacional Corcovado. The former is a volcanic wonderland of cones, craters, lagoons, boiling mud pools, sulphur springs, hot springs that visitors can bathe in, and a park that can be explored on foot or horseback. Parque Nacional Corcovado, in the southwestern corner of the PenÃnsula de Osa in the south of the country, has long-distance hiking trails which offers visitors the chance to spend several days walking through lowland tropical rain forest. Make sure you visit in the dry season, and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. There are shorter walks around Monteverde and in the coastal Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, south of Quepos.
This small community in northwestern Costa Rica was founded by Quakers in 1951 and is now a popular and interesting destination for both local and international visitors. The small town of Santa Elena is the closest settlement to the Monteverde cloud reserve but the road leading from the town's center to the reserve is clustered with attractions including the butterfly garden,the serpentarium, a cheese factory, a and a number of art galleries.
Interesting though these attractions are, they are merely the warm-up acts for the main event. The Monteverde Reserve has a number of walking trails (details of which can be found at the office of the Monteverde Conservation League at the mouth of the reserve) that vary in length and degree of difficulty. Tickets to the reserve cost US$8.50 (adults) and US$4.50 (children) and last all day. But why restrict yourself to the ground? The recently-opened Sky Walk, a series of suspension bridges that criss-cross the top of the jungle, leaves you walking on clouds, while the juiced up Canopy Tour whizzes you across the canopy of the jungle in a series of flying foxes. The more sedate Aerial Adventure offers a view of the tree tops via a ski-lift arrangement.
If you've seen one too many macaws, you can swim or relax on one of Costa Rica's beaches. The Pacific coast has a pleasing mixture of luxury resorts and deserted beaches.Golfito is on the southern Pacific coast, tucked in a small bay off Golfo Dulce and is an important port and jumping-off point for the region's fantastic beaches. Heading northeast from the town, the coast features numerous remote coves, with jungle-lodge accommodations and virgin rain forest backdrop. The coastal Parque Nacional Corcovado, on the PenÃnsula de Osa, has a huge colony of scarlet macaws. Beaches worth pausing at include Playa Cativo, Playa Zancudo (claimed by the locals to be the best swimming beach) and Pavones (which has some of the best Pacific surf).
The central Pacific coast starts at Uvita and heads north to the Golfo de Nicoya and the city of Puntarenas. The beach-resort town of JacÃ³ attracts package-holiday tourists and those keen to party hard. Puntarenas itself is too polluted for most foreigners to even dip their pinky: finnicky swimmers should head for the dozens of isolated islands that lie just off the coast, such as Isla Tortuga. Good surf close to Puntarenas can be found at Boca Barranca and DoÃ±a Ana.
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