For a limited time, get $5 off when you buy National Geographic Traveler: Costa Rica.
Top Ten Costa Rica
1. San José City Core
3. Parque Nacional Volcán Poás
4. Parque Nacional Volcán Irazú
5. La Paz Waterfall Gardens
9. Parque Nacional Corcovado
10. Puerto Viejo
San José City Core
Although San José offers suburban temptations, the city's main sights of interest are concentrated in a compact core laid out in a grid, which makes exploring easy. Use Avenida Central as an axis to find major nodes of interest sprinkled handily along its route. A good place to start is Plaza de la Cultura, not least for the main visitor information bureau accessed on the east side.
The soaring hills southwest of San José are a dramatic setting for hip Escazú, which combines Old World charm and contemporary chic. This bewitching town is beloved by expatriates and wealthy Ticos alike for its luxurious living, trendy restaurants and nightclubs, and well-stocked shopping plazas. Escazú is only three miles west of Parque Sábana and central San José.
Parque Nacional Volcán Poás
The most developed of the country's national parks protects the most dramatic of the region's volcanoes, which rises above the northwest Meseta Central. On clear days you can see both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean from its summit. Peering down into the crater may evoke the same sensations that virgins of Pre-Columbian times felt moments before they were tossed in as sacrificial lambs to the gods.
Parque Nacional Volcán Irazú
Volcán Irazú looms over both Cartago and the Reventazón Valley, rising to the north as steadily as the line created by a logarithmic equation. For anyone with a head for heights, a drive to the top offers sublime rewards. On clear days, the view takes in the shimmering waters of both the Caribbean and the Pacific.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Named for the Catarata La Paz (peace waterfall), this private nature reserve offers well-maintained trails that lead to a series of waterfalls, overhung by suspension bridges. You can actually walk behind the La Paz cataract (rainwear is provided). The falls are a series of cascades that tumble in tiers for some 3,000 feet down the eastern flank of Volcán Poás, culminating in the narrow namesake falls.
Guanacaste is one of the country's premier attractions, drawing visitors to its untamed splendors. It is bounded on the east by volcanoes forming the Cordillera de Guanacaste and Cordillera de Tilarán. The vast alluvial plain below the mountains' steep flanks is drained into the Golfo de Nicoya by the Rio Tempisempe—the nation's longest river.
The jewel in the crown of cloud forest reserves, Monteverde (officially the Reserva Biológica del Bosque Nuboso de Monteverde) is generously blessed with bucolic beauty. Its immense popularity has spawned contiguous forest reserves and a gamut of nature attractions that combine with Monteverde's world renown to draw tens of thousands of visitors annually.
The nation's most popular resort has been drawing visitors for more than two decades. Though its own appeal seems limited, its proximity to San José assures a regular local clientele. Jacó also remains steadfastly popular with Canadian charter tourists—so much so, in fact, that the maple-leaf flag flutters above the town.
Parque Nacional Corcovado
This crown jewel of rain forest biology forms a mini-Amazon whose appeal are worth the discomforts of sodden humidity and rains—up to 25 feet per year at higher elevations. In the tropics, water (and lots of it) spells life. From crocodiles in the marshy wetlands to sleek jaguars on the prowl, Corcovado has earned a reputation for some of the nation's best wildlife viewing.
Puerto Viejo, the Caribbean coasts surfing capital, emits a centripetal pull on counterculture vacationers; it is Costa Rica's mecca of the offbeat. The legendary Salsa Brava wave pumps ashore in front of restaurants that bear an international imprimatur, and discos come alive at night. It all results in a hamlet spiced with cosmopolitanism that belies its otherwise funky flavor.