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Cities of Costa Rica
Escazu is an upscale suburb of San Jose. You can find many boutiques, malls and restaurants here. The president of Costa Rica lives in Escazu, along with many ex-pats and the US ambassador to Costa Rica. The charm of this district comes from the mix of the old and the new. You can find old homes painted in bright pastels. You can also get around in Escazu using public transportation.
This is the nearest beach town to the Central Valley. It is a town that has a nice bay beach with excellent surf but quite the rowdy atmosphere. Jaco is unfortunately not the best of choices for a Costa Rica family vacation. It is known for its night life and not exactly your top ecotourism destination. Jaco has a strip filled with places to eat, bars, and nightlife. If you know the right places you can spend some time in Jaco with the family for a weekend outing. This is a popular area for locals to have condos to get away from the city or just if they want a day trip to the beach.
This is small pass-through town that many people find on the way to the more popular area of Manuel Antonio and Quepos. It is an interesting place and is located at very low sea-level that when the heavy rains come it is often victim to floods. The local people in the area work on the many African Palm plantations where palms are harvested for their natural oil. Although Parrita is inland if you make the trip to the coast from Parrita it is only a few minutes away and there are quite a few beaches that you can find with not much going on. As a touristy destination it is not a popular spot which can be nice and if you just want to explore. Also there is a new bridge in town as of 2008 that has really help speed up the traffic as you formerly had to wait for the one way traffic to go your way. You can find a Mega-Super which can be a good place to stop for some snacks or sodas on your way into the Quepos area where everything seems to be just a little bit more expensive.
This is a town named after an Indian tribe that has quite a bit of history dating back to the United Fruit Company. It is now a port town filled with boats for deep-sea fishing. The boats are lined up to take out those many visitors that decide they want to go deep-sea fishing. If you are on a Costa Rica vacation it is good to know the difference between Manuel Antonio and Quepos as they are often sold together by different tour companies. They happen to be separated just by a short curvy road and a thin small mountain that dumps down into the Manuel Antonio National Park. The town of Quepos is a bit of an interesting town with local bars, nightlife, and casinos; sort of the style of living you might expect of guys that are coming to fish for a week. It is also where many of the local Costa Rican's live that work in the different nature tours, adventure tours, and the Manuel Antonio luxury hotels. The town of Quepos is actually below sea-level and is often a victim of floods during the heavy rainy season. It is sort of protected by a levy. Not our place of choice for staying during your Costa Rica family vacation.
This is a town that is not set up like most towns in Costa Rica. It has no central park or church and it is even hard to find a soccer field which makes you feel that you might not be in Costa Rica. It turns out this is a beautifull touristy area that lends itself to some of the most breathtaking views of the Pacific. Just imagine the mountain coming straight out of the ocean floor and pristine beaches below. Because of this topography most of Manuel Antonio is not beach front. Many of the Manuel Antonio luxury hotels are located on a ridge literally built into the side of a mountain. Makes it interesting considering an earthquake can happen anytime but don't worry if you are visiting Costa Rica it is because you like "living on the edge".
For year after year this has been one of our favorites towns in all of Costa Rica. It is a perfect spot for a Costa Rica family adventure tour because you can do almost everything in a short distance. This is a small little town that now has a number of ex-pats but has still held on to it's feel of being a small little surf town. Dominical lacks the large luxurious hotels of Manuel Antonio but there are still a few places that are nice to stay in. The Cuna del Angel is one of the higher-end small boutique hotels in the area. The beach of Dominical is met by the Baru River which if you follow upstream you'll see that it is filled with adventures such as rafting in the Gaubo River or doing the Nauyaca Rappel.
This is a small town about one hour south of Dominical. It is your last town before getting into what we call the rural southern zone. Not to say Palmar Sur is not rural on some scales but it is just 20 minutes south of a very nice new hospital of Cortez and 20 minutes inland from the Sierpe boat ramps which is a popular tourist destination for getting out to the Cano Island or to the Osa Peninsula and Drake Bay areas.
This is like the Grand Central Station for a chance to make a trip out to one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet--Corcovado National Park. If you want to try and imagine what all of Costa Rica looked like 20 yrs ago it is visiting places like Sierpe that give you a glimpse. Here you will see boat taxi's that are pretty laid back and not worried when their next trip will be. There are small hotels and lodging in the area if you show up late at night you can plan on taking an early morning boat ride across to the park. You might be accompanied by other tourist nature lovers or even some employees of the lodges that are across the bay. The Sierpe area lends itself to being a nice location to transport by river over to the National Park of Corcovado or the the Isla de Cano both of which are very attractive tourist destinations but not extremely popular by Costa Rican standards, say comparing them to Arenal Volcano or Manuel Antonio. If you do a Costa Rica vacation to this area it could be the best thing you do for your family. If they are use to luxurious easy lifestyle there might be some moments of discomfort but it will all be worth it in the end and a chance to venture into the wild side of Costa Rica.
If Sierpe is the entrance to one side of the Osa Peninsula by boat then Puerto Jimenez is the entrance to the other side by land. You can get to Puerto Jimenez on nice roads and also just a 40 minute flight from San Jose which sure beats the seven hour drive. Puerto Jimenez situated nicely on the peninsula in an area that gives you a chance to really explore the back side of the Osa Peninsula. Here you will be just an hour drive from the famous Costa Rican ecolodge of Lapa Rios. If you wanted to add another hour on top of that you could arrive to one of our favorite lodges which is the Luna Lodge. After arriving here you are where the car stops because you start the entrance of the Corcovado National Park.
If you ask a Costa Rican about Golfito chances are they know it well. This is a town that has become popular for Costa Ricans from all over because you can buy appliances here with no tax included. It is basically a free zone and although it is located in the Southern Pacific, it is not on the border where many free-zones are. Golfito was a town that went through very tough economic times after the larger foreign agriculture companies left the area such as the United Fruit Company. It is here that the Costa Rican government decided to make a free-zone to boost the economy. Golfito today is an area that not only is common for the 2-day trip from San Jose by locals in a bus, but it is situated nicely for those looking for a Costa Rica ecotourism adventure. It gives those looking for the untouched jungle a chance to explore where not many tourists might have been. Just flying into the airport you literally feel like you are flying into the canopy of the rainforest. You're also not far from the border of Panama or an easy boat ride or flight to Puerto Jimenez which is located across the gulf.
One of Costa Rica's fastest growing towns was known to have many of its men go to the USA to work leaving behind just women in the town. Many Costa Rican guides will say the ratio is seven girls to every guy but I really don't think that stands today. Many of the men have no reason to leave and go work in the USA these days, the times have changed a bit. This is a beautiful town set in a valley that many think has a real future in tourism and real estate. A lot of the tourism in the area is rural tourism but you can really combined a number of different great activities all close to the area. One of the more common that many locals do but more foreigners should do, is the 3-day hike to Mount Chirripo. This is Costa Rica's tallest point of over 13,000ft located just 1 hour to the start of the hike from the town of San Isidro. Without a doubt it is the most beautiful views and scenery you will find in all of Costa Rica. It is the second highest point in all of Costa Rica. Not something for every Costa Rica family vacation but if you enjoy trekking this is the trip for you.
This is a town that was discovered by Italians and you might not think of it as being much of a tourist attraction unless you have done some research. It turns out that this remote area just 60km inland from the town of Golfito, sits in the mountains amidst rolling coffee plantations and some of the most diverse tropical wonders our planet has to offer. The OTS is the Organization for Tropical Studies and when this organization has a hand in something you know it is something good. Here it happens to be the Las Cruces Biological Station and the Wilson Botanical Garden. Whether you want to get down and gritty with the scientists and work on the scientific names or just sit and experience life to the fullest around you this is an amazing spot. With a close look you can see and learn about thousands of different species of plants.
The city of Cartago is in the Central Valley of Costa Rica. It was founded in 1563. It is Costa Rica's first city and served as the capital in colonial days. Three major earthquakes in 200 years destroyed most of the colonial structure. Today Cartago is the agro-industrial center. Also the beautiful Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels makes Cartago the religious center of the country. It is only a few hours away from family adventure and whitewater rafting.
This is the Caribbean version of what the town of San Isidro is to the Pacific. Turrialba is a great little town with a population well over 50,000. It is surrounded by mountains and the smoking Turrialba Volcano. Turrialba became famous not for the volcano but for the rivers. It was here that Costa Rica whitewater rafting got it's start on the rivers of the Reventazon and Pacuare River. Turrialba is a great spot to spend a few days when visiting Costa Rica because there are a number of different things to do in the area. You have the option of different lodging such as the very luxurious Hacienda Tayutic or the Casa Turire. You can also stay in the more rustic yet surrounded by nature Espino Blanco Lodge. One of our favorite activities when in the Turrialba area is doing our 2-day Pacuare Adventure where we take you camping on the river.
Limon, on Costa Rica's Caribbean side, was built as a port town. It was the larger banana trade that gave this area the infrastructure boost that turned it into the rough and tumble port town it is today. When it comes to tourism the province of Limon is a beautiful area but the port town of Limon is an area where you really don't need to spend much time. Unfortunately, it is not the safest of all towns but this does not mean you should not visit the beaches. There is a big misunderstanding that does not work in Limon's favor. The province and the city are two very very different areas just like anywhere on the planet you have some areas worth visiting and some areas not worth visiting. If you do want to visit the port town of Limon during the day just to see the different culture and lifestyle then that is no problem but we suggest if you are visiting Costa Rica your best areas of the Caribbean are to the north in an area called Tortuguero and to the south where you have the beautiful Caribbean beaches. Both of those areas are just as safe as the Pacific side and rest of Costa Rica.
This is a small town that is easily accessable by boat. It is here that you see some of the beauties of Costa Rica that other developing countries do not have. You might not know that on the average developing countries only protects 8% of their land whereas Costa Rica protects over 25%. Tortuguero is one of those areas that is protected. It is called the Venice of the Rainforest and although I am talking more about the protected area of Tortuguero there is also a town called Tortuguero. This is a great little town with a laid back Caribbean vibe to it. It is a nice feel away from the Western society chaos that you might see on the Pacific side with large luxury homes, high rise condos, and real estate offices lining up to greet you at the entrance of every beach town.
Have to say we really enjoy these towns. Especially now that you can find some really exotic ecolodges to stay that can give you the feel of staying in a luxurious setting surrounded by nature but away from so much of the heavy development that the Pacific Costa Rica has seen in recent years. Nothing against the Pacific, we love that side also, you just have to know where to go. Cahuita is a small town just north of Puerto Viejo and a little less action going on in Cahuita as compared to Puerto Viejo which makes it nice. There are a number of things to do in the area and one of the more common is a simple visit to the Cahuita National Park. This is a walk along the coastline that is met with jungle in one of the most peaceful places on the Caribbean.
This is the New York City of Caribbean living. Don't worry it still has the laid back vibe to it but with a little more action than the other Caribbean towns in Costa Rica. The Afro-Caribbean culture is very apparent here. Many of the same activites can be done in the town of Puerto Viejo as in the other local beach towns as they run very close together. This is an area where you will find that surfing is big and some of Costa Rica's top competing surfers are actually from Puerto Viejo with Afro-Caribbean decent. This is a great area to learn about sloths, native Indians, and even the cacao fruit which is where chocolate comes from. It is nice to take tours in this area of the country because as tourism grows you see that tours become more and more mainstream throughout Costa Rica. I guess it is a good thing in the sense, that more tours are arriving and the local tours are improving their tours but in the Puerto Viejo area many of the tours are still very authentic in a sense and you do not get that you are not just another tour group that is number 10 on the list for today.
When visiting Costa Rica it is going to be tough to top the white sandy beaches of Manzanillo. They always say you save the best for last and that is the way it is in Manzanillo. This is the last town on the coast after Puerto Viejo and is around a four hour drive from San Jose. It is a small quaint fishing village and a perfect spot to just get away from it all. It is part of the Gandoca - Manzanillo Wildlife and Marine Refuge. Here are your literally surrounded by the Panamanian border and tucked into the last little stretch of Costa Rica.
When you really feel the New World Tropics is something you want to learn more about and you have read all the books and are ready for some field work then there is no better place than Sarapiqui. The access and knowledge that is in and around the lowland rainforest of Sarapiqui is recognized on an international level. It is here the Organization for Tropical Studies has La Selva Biological Station. One reason for the learning infrastructure is its proximinity to San Jose. It is just 1 hour and 45 minutes from the capital city on the other side of the famous Braulio Carrillo. We all love taking puddle jumpers and then riding on a bumpy road for a nine hour trip into the jungle but when a similar jungle is this close it is hard to pass up. Many studies from countless universities from all over the world have visited the area of Sarapiqui and as long as there are tropics on this planet it seems this small part of the New World Tropics of Sarapiqui will have a voice in discovering new species, reasons for extinctions, medicines, and sustainable ways of living as nature demonstrates in the different studies shown.
La Fortuna is one of the largest tourism towns in all of Costa Rica. If you are visiting Costa Rica and you get the chance to see the famous Arenal Volcano on a clear day, it is a highlight that can not be matched anywhere in Costa Rica. The town of La Fortuna is located just at the base of the Arenal Volcano and is where all the action is from tour vendors, souvenir shops, places to eat, and even a dance club. The town has grown into a bit more of a modern feel than I think most would have hoped for. There is a Burger King at the base of this volcano which just does not seem to go hand and hand. This might be because the San Carlos area is a large beef producer and there are many cattle ranches around the town of La Fortuna.
One of the larger towns for Costa Rican's outside of the Central Valley is San Carlos. It was built around the cattle industry and is around 40 minutes from the town of La Fortuna. In San Carlos you can find it all from hospitals, churches, car dealerships, and much more. It is a city that has some wealth as the cattle industry did well for itself. The area is warm and flat and everything outside of San Carlos is pretty rural going north into the northern plains and Nicaragua. This is not much of a touristy destination and mainly used as a pass-through from the town of Zarcero in route to La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano.
Now with an expanded International Airport, nicer roads, and an economy that has seen the fruits of the booming real estate of the Guanacaste area, Liberia gives you the impression of a future Las Vegas. Ok, it is fortunately far from being Las Vegas and now with economic times the way they are maybe it is a good thing. But it is a town almost at sea-level with a population that has grown and shrunk. Many people from San Jose moved out to Liberia working in the tourism and real estate business and probably did pretty well for themselves and then in 2009 you started to see people leave Liberia. It seems to be back on the rise as of early 2011 and with everything only time will tell as people sell ranches for housing developments.
This town was just a little too much, too fast for our taste but it still has a few hidden spots that might be worth visiting. It is a great spot for some Costa Rica surf classes plus the beach is really nice. At low tide it is tough to find a beach as welcoming as Tamarindo. Although the developement with strip malls, high rises, and just complete nonsense, has taken a lot away from the setting, if you plan right you can still get away from all of that and have a nice Costa Rica family vacation. One place we suggest in the area is the Capitan Suizo Hotel which is located on the outskirts and right on the beach.