Centering yourself on a surfboard or yoga mat, descending into bat-filled caves or ascending misty volcanic peaks – relax and enjoy the ride of Costa Rica.
Discover Costa Rica's most unique tree houses
3 min read — Published Jun 25, 2021
With vast stretches of primary forest, Costa Rica is seeing renewed interest in tree house accommodations where travelers can stay the night in the canopy.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Costa Rica.
On the southern side of the Plaza de la Cultura resides the Teatro Nacional, San José’s most revered building. Constructed in 1897, it features a columned neoclassical facade flanked by statues of Beethoven and famous 17th-century Spanish dramatist Calderón de la Barca. The lavish marble lobby and auditorium are lined with paintings depicting various facets of 19th-century life. History When construction began in the late 19th century, the President of Costa Rica was determined to create a lavish and impressive building that was worthy of the moniker 'National Theater'. However, the population of Costa Rica was quite low – San Jose alone had only around 20,000 residents – and cost was a major consideration. President José Joaquín Rodríguez Zeledón's solution to this problem was to place a tax on coffee, the main export of the country at the time. The construction was fraught with problems until an Italian engineer was brought in to oversee the entire project and guide it to success. The theater's most famous painting is Alegoría al café y el banano, an idyllic canvas showing coffee and banana harvests. The painting was produced in Italy and shipped to Costa Rica for installation in the theater, and the image was reproduced on the old ₡5 note (now out of circulation). It seems clear that the painter never witnessed a banana harvest because of the way the man in the center is awkwardly grasping a bunch (actual banana workers hoist the stems onto their shoulders). Square in front of the famous National Theater of Costa Rica in San Jose at night. ©Mihai-Bogdan Lazar/Shutterstock Performances and tours Costa Rica’s most important theater stages plays, dance, opera, classical concerts, Latin American music and other major events. The main season runs from March to November, but there are performances throughout the year. The hourly tours here are fantastic – guests are regaled with stories of the art, architecture and people behind Costa Rica's crown jewel of the performing arts. The best part is a peek into otherwise off-limits areas, such as the Smoking Room, which features famous paintings, lavish antique furnishings and ornate gold trim. Tours are offered every hour on the hour in Spanish and English, to a maximum of 30 people. Children under 12 are free. Alma de Cafe One of the most beautiful cafes in the city, this spot evokes early 20th-century Vienna. It's a perfect place to sip a cappuccino, enjoy a crepe or quiche and take in the lovely ceiling frescoes and rotating art exhibitions. The coffee concoctions – such as the chocolate alma de cafe, spiked with cinnamon and clove – are an excellent midday indulgence. Once you're finished soaking up all the culture within the theater, you can easily join one of the city walking tours that start from the cafe.
This polished storybook garden complex just east of Volcán Poás offers the most easily digestible cultural experience in the Central Valley and is the largest animal sanctuary in Costa Rica. Set aside at least two hours to experience the gardens, but you could easily spend an entire day exploring the natural wonders on offer. Guided tours are available to book and there are several bars and restaurants available on site for when you've grown tired of feeding the birds and want to indulge yourself. What can you see there? Guests walk 2 miles (3.5km) of well-maintained trails to five jaw-droppingly scenic waterfalls, and can also wander around zoo-like displays including a butterfly conservatory, get up close to hummingbirds and hand-feed toucans. Tour a serpentarium and ranarium (frog garden), witness wild cats eating meals, and explore the lush rainforest populated by monkeys and sloths. Can you stay at the gardens? Feel like you've stepped into a fairy tale at this over-the-top lodge, with its exquisite villas boasting majestic valley views, fireplaces, private decks with Jacuzzis, and huge bathrooms with waterfall showers. Guests get free access to the gardens. This highly imaginative setting, with its multiple pools and interactive animal experiences (toucan and hummingbird feeding), will have kids over the moon; it's an ideal spot for families. Disappointingly, breakfast is not included in the pricey room rate (add an extra $20/12 for adult/child). Transport La Paz Waterfall Gardens is 45 minutes from San Jose airport and is perfectly located for a day trip from San Jose if you're basing yourself there. It's nestled between two national parks – Parque Nacional Volcán Poás and Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo – that provide no end of wildlife and photo opportunities if you'd prefer to extend your stay in the area.
Featuring lush jungle, picture-perfect beaches and craggy headlands, this tiny park (1680 acres/680 hectares) absolutely brims with wildlife (and often visiting humans). As you wander its lovely trails, you'll catch a glimpse of dangling sloths, squawking toucans and playful monkeys, and stumble on breathtaking views of the sea and nearby islands. To beat the crowds and maximize wildlife sightings, arrive early and make the most of the beach in the afternoon. The beaches and trails inside the park close at 4pm but you can still access the public beach outside the park after this time if you haven't had enough fun in the sun. How much does it cost? Adult tickets are $18 and kids under 12 are admitted for just $5.65. You can only purchase your tickets online, so get them the afternoon before and walk straight in the following day. The park is open every day except Tuesday. Guided tours are also available to book online. Dos and don'ts Non-alcoholic drinks are permitted but single-use plastics are not (this applies to bags too). Taking any kind of food into Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is forbidden. There is a small kiosk within the park if you fancy a snack but that's all. No pets are allowed in the park.
At the northwestern end of Cahuita, Playa Negra is a long, black-sand beach flying the bandera azul ecológica, a flag that indicates that the beach is kept to the highest ecological standard. It's rarely crowded, so you can stretch out and relax as the Caribbean Sea laps at your feet. Swimming and surfing This is undoubtedly Cahuita’s top spot for swimming due to the clean, calm water. However, when the swells are big, this place also has a good beach break for newbie surfers. It's an excellent option for those intimidated by the more popular surf locations; kids and adults alike can try out their surf skills in peace. Accommodation Cahuita is just a 5 minute drive away or a 20 minute walk if you'd prefer to stretch your legs. The town has a great selection of hotels and guesthouses on offer in both the bustling center and the quieter northern end of town close to Playa Negra. If you're journeying between Playa Negra and the center at night, it's best to cycle (with lights) or take a taxi, especially if traveling alone. Food and drink Cahuita offers some of the best Caribbean fare around, along with some surprisingly delicious Italian and French cuisine. There are good options closer to the beach, too.
Off a dirt road marked by Punta Uva Dive Center is a quiet, idyllic cove that could double for a scene in the film The Beach. When the water is calm, it makes an excellent spot for swimming. There is a cluster of fantastic restaurants nearby when you've worked up an appetite splashing around in the Caribbean Sea. Surfing and snorkeling There are usually a couple of locals renting out surfboards on the sand, and the reef to the right of the cove is excellent for snorkeling and surfing (but not at the same time!). When the waves are up, this spot creates a forgiving peeling right-hand wave that's suitable for intermediates. How do I get there? Punta Uva is just 5 miles (8.5km) from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and is easily accessible by bike, car or bus.
Around 500km southwest of the Costa Rica mainland, Isla del Coco is a natural wonder that teems with wildlife, including the largest schools of hammerhead sharks on the planet. For that reason, divers descend from all corners, often venturing out on liveaboard trips with companies like Aggressor and Undersea Hunter. There's also some fascinating pirate history here, and apparently some buried treasure.
From 1968 until 2010, Volcán Arenal was an ever-active and awe-striking natural wonder, producing menacing ash columns, massive explosions and streams of glowing molten rock almost daily. While the fiery night views are gone for now, this mighty mountain is still a worthy destination. Part of the Area de Conservación Arenal, the park is rugged and varied, with about 15km of well-marked trails that follow old lava flows. Hikers routinely spot sloths, coatis, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins and even anteaters. Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal is approximately 17km west of La Fortuna. The main park entrance is on the road to El Castillo (turn off the main road 13km west of town). It’s easiest to reach the park by car or on a tour. Otherwise take any bus to Tilarán and ask the driver to let you off at the turnoff. In 2017 a new 'sector peninsula' set of trails opened, comprising 1.2km of trails, an observation tower and scenic lake overlook. Although the last entrance to the national park is at 2:30pm, you may be allowed to enter and stay at the new sector later.
The world-class Wilson Botanical Garden is internationally known for its collection of more than 2000 native Costa Rican species. Species threatened with extinction are preserved here for possible reforestation in the future. A trail map is available for self-guided walks amid exotic species such as orchids, bromeliads and medicinal plants. Guided walks are at 7:30am and 1:30pm. The botanical garden is a choice spot for birders, as it draws hundreds of Costa Rican and migrating species, as well numerous butterfly species. Wilson Garden is 6km south of San Vito. Buses between San Vito and Neily (via Agua Buena not Cañas Gordas) pass the entrance to the garden. If you want to stay overnight at the botanical garden, make reservations well in advance: facilities often fill with researchers. Accommodations are in comfortable cabins (singles/doubles including meals and a tour US$105/180) in the midst of the gorgeous grounds. The rooms are simple, but they each have a balcony with an amazing view.
This museum houses the world’s largest collection of American jade (pronounced ‘ ha -day’ in Spanish), with an ample exhibition space of five floors offering seven exhibits. There are nearly 7000 finely crafted, well-conserved pieces, from translucent jade carvings depicting fertility goddesses, shamans, frogs and snakes to incredible ceramics (some reflecting Maya influences), including a highly unusual ceramic head displaying a row of serrated teeth. Interesting indigenous history is on display, too. The museum cafe, Grano Verde, serves sandwiches, salads and smoothies. Children aged five and under have free entry to the museum, and many of the interactive displays are designed with them in mind. Buy a three-museum pass (US$33; covers this one, Museo de Oro Precolombino y Numismática and Museo Nacional) to save money if you plan to visit all – it has no expiration date.
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