Lay of the Land
Kindness is a way of life in Costa Rica; the nation is a pioneer when it comes to ecotourism—25% of the country is protected by the National System of Conservation Area—and this philosophy of caring for the earth filters into all aspects of Costa Rican life. Most hotels employ workers who are from nearby towns, and all run comprehensive sustainability initiatives. The democratic nation hasn’t employed an army since 1949.
Costa Rica (“rich coast” in Spanish) is bordered by Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the southeast, with the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea on either side. While it is hardly bigger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined, Costa Rica boasts many diverse microclimates and incredibly varied fauna and wildlife.
The regions that most tourists visit are the Central Valley, Guanacaste and South Pacific Costa Rica. The capital San José and its international airport are located in the Central Valley; while the city is not particularly noteworthy, many visitors have to overnight there on their first or last night, in which case they should stay at Finca Rosa Blanca. On the far west border of the Central Valley (about a 3.5-hour drive or 30-minute helicopter ride), lies Pacuare Lodge, an adventure destination in the rainforest along the Pacuare River.
Just above the Central Valley is the mountainous northern region, known primarily for the active Arenal Volcano and the surrounding hot springs. The nicest accommodation for those wishing to experience this area is Nayara Springs.
On the west coast is Guanacaste, the most popular beach destination with little rainfall. It is also one of the easiest beaches to reach, as Costa Rica’s second international airport, Liberia, is located there and only about a 30-minute drive from the main resorts (Four Seasons, Andaz and villas for rent), which are sprinkled along the Papagayo Peninsula. This narrow stretch of land features serene stretches of sand, dry forests, an Arnold Palmer golf course and is home to over 400 species of animals. Despite the large hotels that occupy the peninsula, a government mandate prohibits construction on more than 30% of the land, so guests can still experience the stunning natural environment.
Within the Guanacaste province lies the sleepy surf town of Nosara, located a two-hour drive south of the Papagayo Peninsula and two-and-a-half hours from Liberia airport. Alternatively, visitors can fly into San José airport and take a smaller plane to the tiny Nosara Airport. Once there, guests can enjoy a slow pace of life in the undeveloped town. The area remains relatively similar to how it was in 1962, when a U.S. resident purchased the entire coastline (today, the U.S. dollar is the most common form of currency). Known for yoga and surfing, Nosara is the perfect destination for rejuvenation. The surf breaks can accommodate all levels of surfers, and the yoga follows suit. There are three main areas to stay: Playa Pelada, the residential region; the chic Playa Guiones, home to The Harmony Hotel; and Calle Los Mangos, the least-populated section that is scattered with a few hotels and restaurants. Most visitors get around the area on foot or bike or by ATV.
The South Pacific region is one of Costa Rica’s most ecologically diverse, and is paradise for nature lovers. This area is very rural, which accounts for the untouched beaches and truly isolated resorts. One of the most notable regions is the Osa Peninsula, where Lapa Rios is located, which is home to more than half of all of the animal species found in the country (including five of the six big cats and all four types of monkeys). Corcovado National Park is located within the peninsula and ia a must-visit for those who want to see wildlife. The other notable property in the South Pacific is Kurà Design Villas, a modern hideaway for couples along the coast north of Corcovado.
Multiple airlines offer direct flights from the United States to Costa Rica’s two international airports, Liberia (LIB) and San José (SJO). While getting there is easy (the flight from New York is just over four hours), getting around is more complicated, as the best properties are rather isolated and spread throughout the country (although most are within a four-hour drive of each other). The simplest properties to reach are the Four Seasons and the Andaz, as these are just a 30-minute drive from Liberia. Nayara Springs and Pacuare are both a three-hour drive from San José, and those traveling to Lapa Rios will have to fly from San José to Puerto Jimenez and then drive one hour to the resort. Helicopter transfers can be arranged to significantly cut down driving times.
Who Should Go
Costa Rica is not a traditionally luxurious destination. With the exception of the Four Seasons, Andaz and Nayara Springs, most Costa Rican hotels do not have air conditioning, wireless Internet throughout the property (in fact, some don’t have any at all) or televisions, and cell service can be unreliable. But those who can sacrifice said luxuries can experience some of the most isolated parts of Central America and the diverse wildlife and topography that come along with them. Those interested in birds, insects, animals, surfing, thrill-seeking activities (white-water rafting, zip-lining) and wildlife will love Costa Rica’s eco lodges, while those who want a quick weekend away can head to one of the more amenity-laden resorts.
When to Go
The country’s weather is similar to the Caribbean or Mexico and most reliable from November through May, when trees often exhibit a gold and brown landscape known as the “Gold Season.” During the Green Season, from late May through October, afternoon rain showers are the norm. But don’t rule out a visit during the summer: you can easily plan activities in the morning and spend the rainy afternoons receiving spa treatments or participating in such activities as cooking classes and yoga.
A Note on Entry Requirement: Travelers entering Costa Rica from some countries in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa must provide evidence of a valid yellow fever vaccination prior to entry. The South American countries include Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and the republic of Guyana.