Where to Go in Costa Rica
This guide is long overdue. Costa Rica was my home for 10 months and as such holds a very special place in my heart, a place typically reserved exclusively for my family, hoppy beer, and chorizo. Millions of travelers flock to Costa Rica every year for their own slice of the utopic narrative that the tourism industry has been so successful at developing over the past couple of decades. Costa Rica is, without a question, the king of Central American tourism.
Of course, there’s more to this narrative than meets the eye, as we’ll touch on briefly in this guide. But if you’re interested in a more in-depth look, do check out my book Talking Tico: (Mis)adventures of a Gringo in and Around Costa Rica. This travelogue covers my 10 months of living in Costa Rica and traveling around Central America with bits of history, culture, language, and insights into Costa Rica that go well-beyond the guidebooks and tourist brochures.
While most of the country’s prime locations for travel have already been written about to death by travel guides, there are still a good number of destinations that you can visit without feeling the overbearing wrath of mass tourism, like February in Manuel Antonio National Park. In this off the beaten path travel guide to Costa Rica, we’ll be looking at the Orosi Valley, beach towns like Brasilito and Santa Teresa, underappreciated national parks, the capital city of San José, and the very place I called home for 10 months, Ciudad Colón. By the time you’re doing scrolling through, you’ll be on your way to planning your own off the beaten path trip for Costa Rica.
San José — Barrio Escalante
San José — or Chepe as Ticos call it — gets unfairly looked by travelers to Costa Rica. My suspicion is that travel guides typically advise against much travel to the Costa Rican capital. I remember one guide advising me to keep my visit short and never to take my camera out.
Then I started visiting Chepe and found that I actually quite liked it, so much so that I made a point to do a weekend overnight there before I moved away from Costa Rica. For that weekend, I stayed at Hotel 1492 in Barrio Escalante.
I knew I wanted to stay in Barrio Escalante after having done a bike tour with ChepeCletas, a bike touring company that mixes in cycling activism for good measure. We did a swing through the neighborhood where I first learned about Calle 33 — nicknamed Paseo Gastronómico La Luz for its growing collection of restaurants.
Indeed, I couldn’t have been happier with my stay. You’ve got Cafeoteca for some tasty pour over coffee, The Costa Rica Beer Factory to try your hand at some Tico craft beers, and I especially enjoyed Sofia Mediterraneo where I had the opportunity to meet the founder and chef, who after moving to Costa Rica from Turkey became an advocate for Calle 33’s status as a culinary hub.
Have more time to kill during the day? First, start off with a trip to Mercado Central in the heart of San José’s pedestrian boulevard where you can get a feel for the traditional market life and help yourself to some finger foods. Keep meandering through the pedestrian boulevard to the national theater, which is typically noted as Costa Rica’s most architecturally impressive building. Then, take a turn north (if it’s a Saturday morning) for Feria Verde — an organic market that skews to a younger crowd and features live music. By the time you do all of that, you can turn back to Barrio Escalante and still have plenty to do.
San José — Triángulo de la Solidaridad
Left out of Costa Rica’s utopic branding are the Nicaraguan immigrants living in extreme poverty in San José slums. Triángulo de la Solidaridad is one slum that came into the spotlight during my time in Costa Rica because of a road project that was scheduled to plow right through the slum, forcing residents to relocate with already minimal means to do so.
I had the opportunity to visit the slum with the non-profit El Niño y la Bola, which works with residents in the neighborhood primarily on issues related to education. In fact, I had the pleasure of meeting the first resident who had been accepted to university as well as a number of kind and welcoming members of the Triángulo de la Solidaridad community.
Since my visit, El Niño y la Bola has begun offering tours of the slum to tourists for $12. Tours are guided by slum residents themselves in hopes of offering travelers a different perspective on life in Costa Rica — namely the consistent 20 percent poverty rate. Assuming you’re scheduling time in San José — which as we’ve already covered, you should — make time for Triángulo de la Solidaridad. I can’t promise it’ll be a wholly heartening experience, but you’ll return home from Costa Rica with a more honest, well-rounded look at this country, a country that’s more than just a smiley pura vida.
The Orosi Valley is one of those places that has everything that draws tourists to Costa Rica, but for one reason or another, travelers don’t know about it. I only ended up there because I was deadset on riding San José’s fledgling commuter train system. One of the lines ends in Cartago, which had at one point been the capital of Costa Rica and remains an important urban hub in the Central Valley. It’s mostly known for its European-sized Catholic church, Básilica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles — the endpoint for pilgrims during la romería.
Outside of Cartago, I noticed some green on Google Maps. I did some sleuthing on AirBnB and found a too-good-to-be-true option for a long weekend getaway in El Salto. So, we took the train to Cartago (which I do recommend), stopped by the church, and then hopped in a cab up to El Salto where I was immediately treated to a private panoramic view of the valley and one of those long, distant waterfalls that you typically see on a Costa Rican postcard. The only difference? There wasn’t a fellow tourist in sight.
El Salto in particular also has its own trail they’ve carved out down from the hotel to the bottom of the waterfall where you can experience its power up close. Then, you turn through some farms and end up the ruins of Ujarrás — the most intact colonial ruins in Costa Rica. (While native populations still experienced the wrath of Spanish colonialism, the country, on the whole, was not as ravaged as its other Central American neighbors, so the colonial architecture of Antigua, Granada, León, and even little Suchitoto is next to nonexistent in Costa Rica).
Then, you pass right next to La Pipola in the nick of time for a casado con pollo (and perhaps a cold, rewarding Imperial) that will refuel you for the short roadside walk back up to El Salto.
Braulio Carrillo National Park
Braulio Carrillo National Park appealed to me early on during my life in Costa Rica. I remember spotting this appealing green blob on Google Maps and immediately transferring over to my guidebook to see what the deal was. It confirmed that Braulio Carrillo is significantly lesser-traveled compared to say, Poás National Park and Manuel Antonio National Park — two of the most popular national parks in Costa Rica in terms of attendance — but it’s still in the incredibly important Central Volcanic Conservation Area.
As a lesser-traveled national park, there’s less information on how to travel there and get some hiking in whereas the other parks have more tour offers than any traveler would know what to do with. In general, the recommendation is to go with a guide who knows the roads and hiking trails, because although Costa Rica wants to make Braulio Carrillo more welcoming to travelers, it’s not quite there yet. But for those of us who enjoy going off the beaten path, it makes Braulio Carrillo all the more special because you’re more likely to be on your own and witness this still primitive, rough forest without the commotion of shuffling tourists.
When I made it my mission to get to Braulio Carrillo National Park, I found Finca Rosa Blanca just outside of the park in Santa Barbara — a small town on the border of the Central Valley’s Heredia and Alajuela provinces. Finca Rosa Blanca is worth the visit in and of itself. The property started off as a small coffee plantation that has continued through the expansion into the hotel industry. For folks whose conscious enjoys green travel, they have Costa Rica’s Certification for Sustainable Tourism with a perfect 100 percent score, basically meaning you’re traveling responsibly when you’re at Finca Rosa Blanca.
Again, Finca Rosa Blanca makes for a relaxing personal or couples retreat on the edge of Costa Rican civilization, but what drew me to them was their tour to Braulio Carrillo National Park. My wife and I signed up, and given that lodgings are limited to begin with, it was no surprise that we were on our own with the guide who took us to the park after a bumpy ride in his jeep. Hiking on those primitive trails, he explained how much less developed the hiking was in recent memory and his hopes to find a balance between bringing in more tourists and preserving the park’s natural environment. The park had already faced controversy with the construction of Ruta 32, a highway that connects San José and the Central Valley to the small, remote towns of northern Costa Rica.
To recap quickly: Go to Finca Rosa Blanca and let them take you up to Braulio Carrillo National Park. Show them the picture of this crater and tell them that’s where you want to go. That is unless you’re willing to take on the four-day trek to La Selva Protected Zone, which is 100 percent going on my Costa Rica wish list.
You’ve certainly never heard of little ole Ciudad Colón, which recently upgraded from a “village” to a “city” despite still very much looking and operating like the former. Guidebooks might mention it briefly in relation to the University For Peace (Universidad para la Paz) that’s just up the road in even smaller El Rodeo. UPEACE is a United Nations graduate school based in Costa Rica because of its comparatively peaceful history and lack of a military. A majority of its students and professors live in Ciudad Colón giving an oddly international flare to what’s otherwise firmly a Tico town.
This is also where I lived during my 10 months in Costa Rica. Life can get to be a bit slow sometimes living there full-time. It’s a family town full of Ticos who commute to San José. But, you’re not going to be living there. For a trip, I would absolutely recommend a few nights in Ciudad Colón to experience an authentic (yes, the word actually applies in this case) Costa Rican town that has just a drop of tourism. In fact, the first hotel (at least that I’m aware of) opened up while I lived there just up the street. One day I was sitting on my balcony when a group of lanky Germans equipped with shorts, hiking boots, and binoculars started trotting down the hill. That’s because Hotel Villa Colón had just opened up, owned by a German immigrant to Costa Rica.
I never stayed there myself, but a family member did and I could definitely see myself spending a few nights there. You’re just outside of the town center, so you won’t be hearing the revving of engines going up the surrounding hills, but you’re still close enough for an afternoon or evening jaunt. The property has that Latin American, open-air touch with plenty of modern Costa Rican decor.
Now a stop in Ciudad Colón doesn’t need to be all about relaxation. There’s plenty of makeshift hiking in the area. The beautiful thing about Costa Rica is that you can just start walking toward some mountains or hills and eventually find a trail. If you’re looking for something more official, Senderos Colón is a hiking and mountain biking park just up the road from Ciudad Colón, heading towards El Rodeo.
Even though the town is quite small, there are surprisingly a number of good breakfast, lunch, and dinner options. Che Pizza for — you guessed it — pizza, Aro Thai for — yep! — Thai cuisine, Mi Casita was a personal favorite for the traditional casado con pollo or gallo pinto breakfast with Salsa Lizano (I now shriek in excitement whenever I find it abroad), there’s Restaurante 76 for something a bit more upscale, Mayas (an admittedly confusing mesh of German and Costa Rican culture — get the Latino Burger with chorizo), and a bit further north of town there’s Bar y Restaurant Las Zombas with the best damn patacones with melted cheese and refried black beans I’ve ever had.
Uvita, Costa Rica sits on the Pacific Ocean and is known primarily for its Parque Nacional Marino Ballena. “Ballena” translates to “whale,” and if you look at an aerial image of the region, you’ll notice that the beach juts out like a whale’s tail.
Dominical is also nearby, which is hardly overrun with tourism, but it does generally receive a bit more ink in the guidebooks. Most people would stop in Uvita during Dominical travels and/or on their way south to the Osa Peninsula.
As the name of the park would suggest, there are whale tours in the area. Whales pass by Costa Rica six months out of the area, primarily December to March and August to December. August and September are generally seen to be the sweet spot for whale watching, namely humpback whales who stay closer to the surface compared to other deep ocean dwellers.
If you’re in town solely for the beach, then you’ll find a vast, sparsely visited chunk of flat sand for you to relax. Do make a point out to jaunt over the whale’s tail for a memorable exterior view of the national park and to see the waves crash on either side of you.
Santa Teresa — Nicoya Peninsula
Santa Terea‘s collection of hotels off the main road won’t make it seem like an off the beaten path destination, but like a number of destinations in Costa Rica, it depends on when you go. Traveling during Independence Day weekend, I found things to be surprisingly quiet and was able to have far more space on the beach than most any other beach destination I visited in Costa Rica.
Costa Rican beach town can vary across the spectrum. There are the Tamarindos and Jacos of the country that are far more built up and commercialized for the beach traveler. You’ll find more money, nicer buildings, and more partying. Assuming that’s not your jam (do you really want to hang out someplace Ticos have nicknamed “Tamagringo?), places like Santa Teresa and Brasilito (coming up next) will better serve your trip.
However, I generally didn’t find Costa Rican beach town to be vastly different. They’re either like Tamarindo/Jaco or Brasilito/Santa Teresa. If beach travel is your thing and you do want to experience multiple beach towns, I would budget the time to see one on the Pacific coast and one on the Caribbean, because the culture and cuisine differ quite a bit. Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side is fantastic, even if it is hardly off the beaten path. (Go in November and it’ll be far less crowded.)
Brasilito — Guanacaste
Brasilito might rank as my favorite Costa Rican beach town, largely because of the lodging we chose in the Conchal Hotel — a 12-room boutique hotel with bright colors over stucco walls. I’ve published a Talking Tico excerpt on Brasilito here, but in a nutshell, you get that remote, isolated beach experience while still maintaining certain comforts. I enjoyed waking up in the morning, having breakfast on the second floor with some airy jazz tracks playing before walking down the quiet street to the beach before the heat became overtly sweltering underneath that infamous Guancasteco sun.
Beach-wise, you’re looking at a Jekyll and Hyde scenario. On one hand, you’ve got Playa Brasilito covered in rough, black rock. It’s interesting, but not exactly ideal for throwing a towel over and taking a nap. But right next to Playa Brasilito is its counterpart — Playa Conchal, a beached covered in finely crushed shells. This is the kind of beach people travel to Costa Rica looking for and where you’ll find most people spending the day.
White Water Rafting Costa Rica — Sarapiquí River
Pacuare is probably the most popular spot for Costa Rica white water rafting, so for something off the beaten path, sign up for a tour to the Sarapiquí. I did my trip with Outward Bound Costa Rica and you can read more about that trip here with The Tico Times.
This region used to be prime banana growing land, but is now, unfortunately, one of the more impoverished regions of Costa Rica. While tourism is never the solution in and of itself, it is bringing some money and work to this otherwise difficult area.
Costa Rica Wish List
I was incredibly fortunate to see more of Costa Rica than many Costa Ricans themselves ever have the chance to. I remember sitting at my Mama Tica’s, talking with her sister about some of the places we had seen and been to, and she laughed saying we were seeing more of the country she had. So, I offer this Costa Rica wish list not because I feel I have been slighted in any way or that I didn’t make the most out of my time in Costa Rica, but because these are places I’d like to see on a return visit and perhaps you’d like to know about them up front as you do your own research.
First up, Rincón de la Vieja National Park for some cave diving. This Guanacasteco national park isn’t one you’ll read or hear a ton about, but if you ask Costa Ricans, they’ll tell you it’s one of their favorite national parks.
Next up, something I’ve already hinted at — hiking to La Selva Protected Zone in Braulio Carrillo National Park. Despite having lived in Costa Rica, I never took on a proper multi-day hike like I have rather regularly in Germany. That’s partly because following trails isn’t quite as intuitive as I’ve seen in hiking favorites, like Germany, Switzerland, and Japan, so such an endeavor in Costa Rica would be better suited as a guided hike.
Last but certainly not least — hiking to Cerro Chirripó. This summit had been closed off during my time in Costa Rica, and even when it reopened, hiking traffic is limited (i.e. you need a permit) in order to protect the region’s sensitive environment. Still, this is the highest peak in Costa Rica and you won’t read a negative thing about it. I’d go back to Costa Rica in a heartbeat in general, but I’d damn near sprint to the airport if I had a chance to do this hike.
Transportation In Costa Rica
North Americans generally think that you just rent a car in Costa Rica. In reality, the mass transportation system is more extensive than in most U.S. states. You can get to just about any corner of the country by bus. That hardly means it’s perfect. The bus system is privatized, which means you’ve got bus stations serving different routes placed seemingly at random across San José. While I’d definitely recommend traveling by bus to save yourself the headache of renting a car and navigating roads you don’t know (plus it’s a great way to travel like a local), I would not wait until the last minute to find your bus station. Find it, mark it on your Google Maps, and arrive with time to spare in case you got something wrong. (I offer this advice from personal experience.)
Ticabus is the primary international bus operator, but you’ll get some stops within Costa Rica. Though I never did take this bus, I’ve heard it’s just as nice as Greyhound in the U.S. and a perfectly comfortable option for long-distance travel.
Another option is traveling by shuttle bus. These shuttles are common for travelers who don’t want to drive but are willing to spend a little extra money for a more direct route with airconditioning. You can find a number of options here or also just Google “Costa Rica shuttle bus.” If you’re signed up for a specific tour, chances are you’re already booked on a shuttle bus. (I traveled this way twice with Gecko Trail — once to Monteverde and second to Tortuguero.)
For air travel, Juan Santamaría International Airport is your main option just outside of San José while some will fly directly to Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia to get right into the heart of Guanacaste and Costa Rican beach country. Remarkably, Costa Rica is moving ahead on a third planned airport — this time in Orotina near the Gulf of Nicoya. You’ve also got a couple of domestic airlines — Sansa Airlines and Nature Air — used primarily to reach remote corners of the country that aren’t well-connected by road, like Tortuguero.
Before You Travel To Costa Rica
Learn some basic Spanish. English is fairly prominent at the hotels and restaurants in major tourist attractions, but if you’re looking to go off the beaten path in Costa Rica, some basic Spanish will go a long way.
If you’re interested in reading about Costa Rica before you go, there really isn’t much out there that’s available beyond guidebooks. That was my primary motivation in writing Talking Tico: (Mis)adventures of a Gringo in and Around Costa Rica. Coincidentally, I met Robert Isenberg one of my first weekends in Costa Rica who shared similar concern over the lack of English literature about Costa Rica. He beat me to the punch, releasing The Green Season a bit before Talking Tico — a compilation of essays he had written for The Tico Times. The most recent addition to this fledgling world of English-speaking Costa Rican literature is Love In Translation: Letters to My Costa Rican Daughter by Katherine Stanley Obando. Yes, I know both authors, but I can wholeheartedly recommend their books independent of our having exchanged handshakes and emails.
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