What to See in Costa Rica

Costa Rica Vacations

What to see in Costa Rica — and the amount there is to see — is extraordinary given its size.

It is so small, five Costa Ricas could fit into Colorado!

costa rica one-fifth size of colorado
Costa Rica is 20% the size of Colorado yet has 5% of the world’s biodiversity!

Yet, few countries in the world have the geographic diversity of Costa Rica.

There are 12 “life zones” in Costa Rica, not including those found in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

The diversity of its 7 regions that makes Costa Rica unique.

Costa Rica separates the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans (technically, the Caribbean Sea) by a mere 80 miles.

Visiting 7 Regions of Costa Rica
There are 7 regions of Costa Rica.

And, the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Costa Rica are divided by savage mountains.

The only mountain in the lower 48 more prominent than Costa Rica’s highest peak — Cerro Chirripo — is Mt. Whitney in Washington.

View from Cerro Chirripo
Cerro Chirrip is 2,000′ more prominent than Mt. Shasta!

Chirripo is 2,000 feet more prominent than Mt. Shasta, the second most prominent peak in the Continental United States.

The relief from the valley floors to the peaks of the mountains in Costa Rica is so great that there are six (6) different types of forest in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is more than just beaches and mountains.

Costa Rica has a semi-arid desert in the northwest.

Forest View in Costa Rica
There are 6 types of forest in Costa Rica and 12 “life zones.”

Furthermore, there are huge tracts of savanna east of the desert.

And, Costa Rica has swamps and wetlands and countless estuaries as well.

According to the late world-renowned tropical botanist, Dr. L.R. Holdridge, there are 12 “life zones” in Costa Rica.

And, the 12 life zones in Costa Rica Holdridge classified did not include marine ecological systems.

Resplendid Quetzal – Bob Gress: BirdsinFocus.com

Maybe most impressive of all, 25% of Costa Rica is a national park or an international park or a reserve or a preservation.

The ecology in Costa Rica is some of the most biodiverse in the world.

Of all the biodiversity on the planet, 5% is in Costa Rica, a country no bigger than West Virginia!

Hawks billed sea turtle costa rica
Hawks-Billed Sea Turtle – twitter@alexberryman

Costa Rica has 830 species of avifauna, for example. “Costa Rica may be the only country in the world to have so many bird species and habitats accessible in such a small area.” That, explains F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch, authors of, A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. 830 bird species is more than all of North America and Mexico combined!

And, birds are only one example of the extraordinary biodiversity found in Costa Rica. Unmatched in quantity and diversity as well are the flora endemic to

Costa Rica. And, it too is a result of Costa Rica’s geodiversity.

While the country is small, to find what you are looking for in Costa Rica, you have to know where to find it in order to plan a Costa Rica vacation.

Tamandua in costa rica
Tamandua in Costa Rica – twitter@alexberryman

There are 7 provinces in Costa Rica. And, the provinces are relatively evenly spread out across the country. But, the province boundaries do little to reflect the geographic makeup of the country.

Instead of thinking of the political lines that divide its provinces when planning your vacation, it is better to think about the geographic regions when deciding what to see in Costa Rica.

One word of caution. Costa Rica has seasons. It is important to know what the best time of year to visit an area is.

There are seven regions in Costa Rica.

1. Nicoya Peninsula (Northwest’s Guanacaste Province) is a semi-arid desert.

Nicoya Beach Overlook
The Nicoya Peninsula is isolated and its inhabitants are affluent.

2. Pacific Coast (Puntarenas) is savanna and lowland & mountain jungle.

3. Osa Peninsula (Puntarenas) mountain and lowland jungle.

jungles on Costa Rican Caribbean Side
Jungles on Costa Rican Caribbean Side

4. Caribbean Coast (Limon) is a lowland jungle.

5. Continental Divide (Guanacaste Heredia, Cartago, Limon, & Puntarenas) is a corridor of volcanos.

6. La Amistad International Park (Cartago, San Jose, Limon, & Puntarenas) is mountain and lowland jungle.

7. North and Northeastern Mainland (Provinces of Alajuela, Heredia, & Limon) are savannas, wetlands, and swamp.

The geography in Guanacaste is not what most people expect to see in Costa Rica!

The climate on Nicoya Peninsula’s climate varies greatly depending on where you are.

Nosara Costa Rica at Sunset – twitter@alexarominee

The southern half of the Nicoya Peninsula is wetter than the northern half. There is tropical desert and savanna in the north. There are jungles, wetlands, and marsh on the southern and inland areas of the Nicoya peninsula.

That is to say, the farther south you travel on the Nicoya during your Costa Rica vacation, the wetter the climate become. A dry climate up north that becomes wetter as you move south is trend that permeates the geographic makeup of all Costa Rica.

Isolation and affluence are the two most notable features of the Nicoya Peninsula with respect to population.

Unlike the Pacific Coast on the mainland of Costa Rica, there are very few medium-to-large-sized towns on the Nicoya Peninsula. Most of the towns on the Nicoya Peninsula are small resort towns. And those small towns have a heavy foreign influence and a great deal of money.

But, there are very few people on the Nicoya Peninsula.

Costa Rica Nicoya Peninsula
One of the Beautiful Villa Resorts on the Nicoya Peninsula – @BatikVillas

The farther south you get on the Nicoya Peninsula, the smaller the resort towns become. In the same breath, the farther south you get, the more the superrich dominate the towns.

The Nicoya Peninsula is where foreign dignitaries have vacation homes, Manitoba Canada’s premier Brian Pallister, for example. Shaq, Brittany Spears, Harrison Ford, Andre Agassi, and the more-significant-other of Tom Brady — Gisele Bundchen — all have homes on the Nicoya Peninsula.

What makes the Nicoya Peninsula such an attractive destination for sightseers is the ecology and geology and the national parks.

It is a natural paradise with two of the country’s most impressive national parks: Guanacaste National Park and Santa Rosa National Park.

Nicoya Overlook
The ecology on the Nicoya Peninsula is, still, intact.

Unlike some of the regions in Costa Rica, the ecology of the Nicoya Peninsula is relatively intact.

However, the Nicoya Peninsula also has all the modern amenities you would expect in the finest North American and European resort towns.

The Nicoya Peninsula may be very remote, but even the farthest reaches are within a few hours of the Liberia International Airport.

Both petty and violent crime are lower on the Nicoya Peninsula than anywhere else in Costa Rica.

Nicoya Peninsula Gated Community
Gated Community Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

That means the Nicoya Peninsula is the most peaceful region in the most peaceful country in Central America. According to the Global Peace Index, Costa Rica is “the most peaceful country in Central America and the second in Latin America (it is only behind an island off the coast of Ecuador.)

If you are looking to relax while on your Costa Rica family vacation — as opposed to seeking adrenaline-pumping adventure, — and you have the money, the Nicoya Peninsula is the what to see in Costa Rica.

The Pacific Coast of Costa Rica — from the Nicoya Peninsula to the Osa Peninsula — is the most popular vacation destination in Costa Rica.

The stretch between Nicoya and Osa include the country’s most visited beach towns: Puntarenas, Jaco, Quepos, and Dominical. Very few travelers who visit Costa Rica do not visit one of those four beach towns.

Scenery Puntarenas
The most popular vacation region in Costa Rica is the Pacific Coast between the Nicoya and Osa Peninsulas.

But, like the northern Nicoya Peninsula, Puntarenas and Jaco are probably not what most people expect of Costa Rica. Jungle surrounds neither. The backdrop for both, instead, is savanna.

Farther south, however, the jungle becomes prominent.

In Quepos, the Manuel Antonio National Park serves as the backdrop to this thriving beach town.

Quepos Beach Costa Rica
Beach Near Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

And, south of Quepos is Dominical. Dominical also has high mountain jungles surround it.

Again, the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica between the Nicoya Peninsula and the Osa Peninsula is typically a destination for everyone who visits the country.

Almost everyone that travels to Costa Rica visits the Pacific Coast at one point or another.

Tourism has been the economic staple on the Pacific Coast for almost 50 years.

Puntarenas, Jaco, and Quepos were the first towns in Costa Rica to realize the potential of the tourism industry.

There are hostels for backpackers and Europeans. There are mid-range hotels for middle-class tourists. And, there are four and five-star resorts scattered up and down the coast.

manuel antonio quepos beaches
One of the Many Beaches Around Quepos/Manuel Antonio National Park.

If you want to visit Costa Rica, the Pacific Coast has accommodations and activities for you!

Quepos/Manuel Antonio get more visitors per year than any place in Costa Rica. That is the case, primarily, that is because the Manuel Antonio National Park is the most visited park in Costa Rica with 360,000 per year.

isla del cano snorkeling
Reef off Shores of Isla Del Cano – twitter@OutdoorFamMag

But, note that between Quepos and Jaco are some of the most gorgeous beaches to see in Costa Rica.

3) Osa Peninsula (Puntarenas), Mountain and Lowland Jungle

The Osa Peninsula is the least populated region on the entire Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.

No coincidence, it also has the only lowland virgin jungle left on the Pacific Coast. In fact, the lowland jungle on the Osa Peninsula is, “The largest remaining tract of lowland rainforest in Pacific Mesoamerica.” Scientists estimate that 3 percent of the flora on the Osa Peninsula is found nowhere else on the world. And, there are, “More than 700 species of trees, which is more than all the Northern temperate regions combined.”

The biggest attractions on the Osa Peninsula include: Corcovado National Park and

Osa Peninsula Wave Watching
The Osa Peninsula is Costa Rica as it was 200 years ago, save the luxury resorts!

The last place in Costa Rica inhabited by Europeans, the Osa Peninsula is still very sparsely populated.

However, several of the most exceptional resorts in the country are on the Osa.

The Osa Peninsula is a long distance from any other attractions in Costa Rica.

To the south is Panama. To the north, is a long highway up to Dominical and Quepos. East is of the Osa Peninsula is the largest International Park in Central America, La Amistad.

So, the people who visit the Osa typically plan on staying for a week or more.

Carete Beach Overview
View overlooking Carete Beach, Corcovado – twitter@Coolblogging_ch

The destination resorts on the Osa are extremely lavish. While worth the money, visiting the Osa Peninsula for more than a few days can become expensive.

On the Osa, you will find 140 mammals, including 25 species of dolphins and whale as well as 4 species of sea turtles. The Osa Peninsula is one of the most biodiverse regions in Costa Rica, arguably the most biodiverse country in the world.

Oh, and the longest right surf wave in the world is off the coast of the Osa Peninsula.

Unlike the Pacific Coast, on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, there are no prominent peninsulas.

From Nicaragua to Panama, the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica is unbroken. Also unlike the Pacific Coast, there are no dramatic changes in climate. The entire Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica is lush and tropical.

Tortuguero Vista
The culture on the Caribbean Coast is completely different than that on the Pacific.

Furthermore, in contrast to the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, the Caribbean Coast is sparsely populated. The port city of Limon is the one exception.

The largest sum of the population on the Caribbean Coast lives in small towns. And, the population north of Limon is extremely small.

However, Tortuguero is north of Limon and it has a thriving tourism industry. But, Tortuguero is only accessible by plane or boat.

One thing the Caribbean Coast has in common with the Pacific Coast is beach quality.

By every standard, the beaches on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica are spectacular. People turned off by the crowds on the Pacific Coast may find what they like on the Caribbean.

puerto viejo, el barco beach
El Barco Beach, Puerto Viejo

And, the prices are more reasonable on the Caribbean Coast.

That is not to say, however, that the hotels and resorts on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica are lower in quality. But, the fact is, the drive from the airport in Alajuela to the Caribbean is considerably longer than it is to the Pacific Coast. So, most of the people who visit Costa Rica go to the Pacific side.

While Ticos of African-America decent constitute only 3 percent of the total population, the Province of Limon is more than 25 percent black. As such, the culture that attracts people from around the world to places like Jamaica and the Bahamas exist on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica.

The food, the music, and even the language — English of the Jamaican dialect — are different on the Caribbean Coast than they are anywhere else in Costa Rica.

The the continental divide of Costa Rica traverses a corridor of volcanos.

Poas Volcano Rim View
The views of and from atop Costa Rica’s volcanos are among the country’s best.

There are 112 volcanos in Costa Rica including active, inactive and extinct. Currently, there are five active volcanos in Costa Rica: Rincón de la Vieja, Arenal, Poás, Irazú, and Turrialba.

The volcanos, even those that are inactive or extinct, attract people for recreation.

For example, in addition to an active lava flow, the region around Arenal Volcano is chock full of activities. Zipline down the volcano or go spelunking under it. Go rafting. Jet ski on the reservoir! Go four-wheeling around the volcano! Etc., etc.

The Poas Volcano and Cerro Chirripo are two other sightseeing attractions on Costa Rica’s continental divide. They give the two best views in the country from a height.

The volcanos of Costa Rica are destinations in and of themselves.

La Amistad International Park is the largest park in Central America.

It is twice the size of Rocky Mountain National Park. It spans from the center of Costa Rica south and crosses into Panama. And, it is protected from development by government regulations.

Sightseeing La Amistad International Reserve
The most natural Costa Rica is La Amistad.

Containing all six types of forest found in Costa Rica and having all 12 life zones, La Amistad International Park is the most biodiverse and geodiverse region in Costa Rica.

The park has both the highest point in Costa Rica, Cerro Chirripo as well as coastal boundaries that almost reach sea level.

La Amistad is the most geographic and ecologically diverse region of its size in the Americas. That is to say, it is in the discussion for the most diverse region of its size in the world.

La Amistad is Costa Rica.

The only place in Costa Rica with fewer inhabitants than La Amistad are the savannas, wetlands, and swamp that span from the province of Guanacaste, through northern Alajuela and Heredia, into Limon.

Visit Wetlands Costa Rica
The north and northwest’s swamps, wetlands, and savannas teem with life.

While sparsely inhabited, the area is not without visual grandeur. It is home to both Palo Verde and Cano Negro National Parks.

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