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We have had the luxury ...

And away we go. ~ Jackie Gleason, The Honeymooners

We have had the luxury of visiting Costa Rica for much longer periods of time than most tourists dream of. Consequently, at the risk of suggesting too much, we have to bite our tongue when it comes to preparing itineraries. Our first recommendation is not to cram too much into one trip. It’s better to come back again. If you are traveling around to different regions, think in terms of a trip from San José that touches what you’re interested in and loops back in time for your departure.

One typical itinerary, for example, is San José up to La Fortuna and Arenal, on to Monteverde, and then a day or two on a Guanacaste beach before coming back. Another might change directions at La Fortuna to explore Tortuguero, and follow the coast south to Cahuita for a few days before returning to San José. We found a delightful loop along Nicoya’s beaches to Montezuma. How about heading down the Pacific coast from Manuel Antonio to Dominical, then back inland along the “Ridge of Death highway” to Mt. Chirripó? Or catch a flight to Osa. The possibilities and combinations are endless. There is even a small cruise ship line, Cruise West (800/888-9378, www.cruisewest.com), that offers a fun, seven- or 12- day cruise along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, including Coiba Island and the Panama Canal.

Because Costa Rica is small, you can easily combine several areas and attractions in a one-week trip. If this is your first time here, you might want to pick just one or two areas and base yourself out of them. Each region covered offers adventure travel, recreational vacation and eco-tourism opportunities.

San José / Central Valley
The metropolitan area of San José, Escazú, Cartago and Heredia can fill more time than you have. It offers museums, shopping, nature and culture, as well as day-trips to nearby attractions such as the volcanoes, whitewater rafting, canopy tours and coffee plantations. San José is a big city and is fun for those who like what cities offer, but less metropolitanoriented visitors might prefer to stay in the suburbs or nearby towns.

Manuel Antonio / Central Pacific
Manuel Antonio National Park is on the Pacific coast, about three or four hours overland from San José. It’s the most-visited of Costa Rica’s natural reserves. Besides the natural beauty and eco-tourism opportunities you’ll find there, the drive itself is spectacular. The stretch from Jacó (where most residents of San José go for the weekend), through Quepos and Manuel Antonio down to Dominical, features long, palm-lined beaches great for swimming and surfing. Included in this trip could be a drive back from Dominical along the Cerro de la Muerte, a twisting part of the Inter-American Highway that rises above the clouds.

Nicoya / Guanacaste
Guanacaste is the drier, cattle-ranching province in Costa Rica’s northwest shoulder. A new airport in Liberia has opened up the area to even more tourism as people come to visit the fabulous beaches that stretch down from the Nicaraguan border to Cabo Blanco at the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. The Pacific water is warm and inviting. Some of the country’s most attractive beaches are located along this coast, and surfers, sunworshippers and swimmers gravitate here. Plus, it gets more sun and less rain, which makes for perfect beach weather.

Arenal / Monteverde
Although they stand almost back-to-back, the active Arenal Volcano, with its large, windy lake, and the Monteverde Cloud Forest, maintained in part by the original Quaker community that founded it, are hours apart by car. Many visitors combine them for their diverse pleasures, and some smart travelers take the shortcut across the lake. Arenal offers hot springs, lava flows, a hip town (La Fortuna), plus the thrill of real danger. Monteverde, on the other hand, is surreal. Clouds shroud the forest’s nature walks. Scientists and students relax in nearby quiet Santa Elena.

Tortuguero
The remote corner of northeastern Costa Rica is famous for its deep-sea fishing (charters depart from the mouth of the Barra Colorado River), and the Tortuguero canals, a complex of inland rivers that criss-cross mangrove forests. Here, on Tortuguero’s Caribbean beaches, endangered turtles come to nest. A great eco-activity is to watch the turtles dig their nests and lay eggs, or watch the hatchlings struggle down to the sea – all with the accompaniment of a guide, of course. Although some companies now offer day-trips from San José, we recommend at least one overnight in the area.

Atlantic Caribbean
The shore south from Limón to Cahuita and Puerto Viejo is what is generally referred to as Costa Rica’s Caribbean or Atlantic coast. The atmosphere is closer to that of a Caribbean island than to the hustle and bustle of the Central Valley. That’s partly because it looks more Caribbean – beaches are lined with palms – but mostly it’s because of the Caribbean culture that survives with the Afro-Caribbeans who settled the area 150 years ago. We find it very loose and lovely. Indigenous reserves and nature lodges can be found inland.

Osa Peninsula / The South
The south and southwest corner of Costa Rica contains the largest tracts of unspoiled virgin rainforest. Although a fair amount of this area is accessible by hard four-wheel driving, it’s remote enough that most visitors arrive by boat and plane. Corcovado’s rich expanse of primary forest covering most of the Osa Peninsula features some wonderful nature lodges. The gulf gets visits by dolphins and whales and is popular with fishermen. Most tourists don’t get this far, but it is absolutely worth it.


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