Arenal Volcano towering over the lush green countryside

Travel Guide: Explore the Heart of Central America, Costa Rica

The national flag of Costa Rica

Living La Pura Vida

Located in the heart of Central America, it is one of the world’s most prestigious places to travel. Bordered by Nicaragua to the North, Panama to the South, the Caribbean Sea to the East, and the Pacific Ocean to the West, is the Eden-like nation of Costa Rica. The name Costa Rica derives from La Costa Rica, the Spanish phrase for ‘Rich Coast’ which was named by Conquistador Gil Gonzales Davila in 1522 who arrived on the West coast of Costa Rica and obtained gold from the local natives. For the next 3 centuries, Costa Rica would be a part of New Spain and would not declare its independence until 1821. 

The motto of Costa Rica "Pura Vida" written into the sand

Long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World and the wave of Conquistadors to follow, Costa Rica existed as a wild and remote land of exotic animals, vast jungles, picturesque beaches, and a rich culture that dates back millennia and further. The earliest evidence of human activity is roughly dated back to 10,000 years ago in the form of stone tools. Around the same time, migratory hunter gatherers crossed over the Bering Land Bridge and spread south across the expanse of the Americas. 

The stone tools found in the Turrialba Valley region also bear resemblance to stone tools found crafted by the earliest Paleo-Indian culture, the Clovis Culture. The local Bribri and Boruca tribes are the two most significant native populations who have inhabited the mountains of Cordillera de Talamanca  of Southeast Costa Rica for thousands of years. Unlike other Pre-Columbian and Mesoamerican cultures, however, the tribes indigenous to Costa Rica were not as expansive as the Maya of Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize, for instance, or the Inca Empire of Peru, Ecuador, and Chile.

A seaside bonfire with the hues of the setting sun and sailboats in the background

Despite the lack of a large complex civilization like their Mayan, Aztec, or Incan counterparts, the native Costa Ricans have a rich and vibrant culture that they openly share with tourists who come from all over to visit the phenomenal ecotourism that has remained relatively untamed for centuries. Booking a round trip to San Jose and then venturing into the vast and rich biodiverse beauty of Costa Rica will leave one in awe and splendor and not wanting to go back to the everyday grind. Hence, their motto, ‘Pura Vida’, which translates as ‘Pure Life’, coming to Costa Rica will make one see how pure life can be.

Arenal Volcano National Park

Just 56 miles northwest of San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, is the Arenal Volcano, an active stratovolcano that towers over the countryside measuring 5,480 feet. In terms of the geological epochs of the Earth, the Arenal Volcano is relatively young with an age of less than 10,000 years old. To the locals, the Arenal Volcano is known as “Volcan Costa Rica”, or “Pan de Azucar”, since the Arenal is one of the most prominent geological features of Costa Rica. Since 2010, the Arenal Volcano has been dormant. 

Arenal Volcano towering over the lush green countryside

The Arenal Volcano, while the centerpiece of the national park, is also neighbored by Lake Arenal and a second volcano called Chato which has been inactive for thousands of years. Because of the high concentration of volcanism in the area, when one comes to visit Arenal, many of the lodges and hotels are within access of natural hot springs. Soaking in warm mineral-rich water under the canopy of the jungle and tuning in on the sounds of nature is an ethereal and unwinding experience. 

The hot springs, an added bonus during your visit to Arenal Volcano National Park, can also be used for wildlife viewing. The Arenal Volcano is most renowned for its bird watching, with approximately 850 different bird species all found within the borders of the park. The bird to keep an eye out for is the elusive and endangered Resplendent Quetzal, a beautiful bird with feathers so vibrantly colorful. Like the Quetzal, although much harder to find, all 800 species of bird found in the park have also been identified throughout Costa Rica.

Although bird watching is world class at Arenal, the park also offers a wide range of biodiverse flora and fauna that can be observed. While exploring the park, keep a keen eye out for the White-Faced Capuchin Monkeys gliding through the trees. While spectating, also be wary that there is an apex carnivore patrolling these grounds, the third largest big cat in the world and the largest in the Americas, the fearsome Jaguar whose bite force can crush the skull of a Caiman Crocodile.  

A pair of kayaking couples enjoying the spectacular view of the volcano from Lake Arenal

Visiting the Arenal Volcano to see one of nature’s most great and fatal wonders, a dormant stratovolcano, a sleeping giant that has yet to be stirred for a decade, is a breathtaking experience. The symbiosis the volcano has with the surrounding ecology has helped support a rich and healthy biodiversity from the fierce Jaguar to its Black Panther counterpart, a genetic trait called melanism that all Jaguars are born with, to the endangered Quetzals. Arenal is a safe harbor for animals and people alike until Mother Nature wakes up angry one day. 

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio 

The main entrance sign to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

Just 82 miles south of San Jose, near the town of Quepos, it is the smallest national park in Costa Rica that hugs a small portion of the Pacific Ocean. Named after Manuel Antonio, a Spanish Conquistador who was buried in the park, Manuel Antonio was named by Forbes as one of the twelve most beautiful national parks in the world back in 2011. A relatively young park, not established until 1972, over the past half century, however, nearly 150,000 visitors arrive annually to marvel at the splendor of Manuel Antonio. 

The rich biodiversity located within the park, combined with all the activities available to those enjoying their stay, it is easy to be too enthralled to want to leave and explore outside of Manuel Antonio, considering the roads to get through the rainforest are not user-friendly. The layout of Manuel Antonio and the surrounding ecology is dotted with hiking trails, enclosed white sand beaches, all enveloped by the tropical rainforest and the animals who dwell within, making it a healthy and stable biodiverse region.

Two of the primary beaches that most visitors end up going to are either Playa Espadilla Sur or Playa Manuel Antonio. Both of these beaches are within walking distance from the main entrance. Manuel Antonio is mostly known for relaxing, sun bathing, snorkeling, surfing lessons,  with spectacular views and sunsets. All the while, Espadilla Sur is the quieter, less crowded of the beaches at Manuel Antonio. There is no beachfront development or lodging due to environmental restrictions, in order to protect the local ecology. Yet the hotels and villas here are nestled on seaside cliffs that have breathtaking panoramic views. 

One of the many designated hiking paths throughout the national park.

Venturing away from the beach, you enter into the world of a tropical rainforest. There are numerous hiking trails that cut a path through the dense vegetation as you snake your way underneath the tall canopy. Most of the trails in Manuel Antonio are user-friendly and accessible for all ages. But for those who crave a challenge, the Punta Catedral Trail or the “Cathedral Tip” trail is much more demanding and requires one to be an intermediate hiker and climber. 

While out on one of the hikes, keep an eye on one of the most common sites while venturing through the rainforest, which are the Howler and Capuchin Monkeys. They often love to greet hikers and visitors as they are the most social of all the animals, but always remember never to feed the wildlife. One might also stumble upon Sloths, Iguanas, and the highly elusive Ocelot, which are closely related to Bobcats or Lynxes. 

A picturesque aerial view of one of Manuel Antonio's pristine beaches.

Hiking back towards the main entrance, take the time to check out the antique town of Quepos. Here in this tiny little seaside fishing town, one can reserve a charter for world-famous sportfishing. Local fishermen reel in big hauls and catches from Swordfish, Marlin, Tuna, Wahoo, Dorado, to Snapper. The fishing here is good 365 days of the year, but depending on personal preferences, the rainy season is generally from May to November, so one might get rained on harder.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve 

Located within the Puntarenas and Alajuela provinces of Costa Rica, it is one of the most unique adventures that one can only find in Costa Rica. Named after the same nearby town of Monteverde, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Ecological Reserve is a pristine reserve made up of over 26,000 acres of undisturbed Cloud Forest. Cloud forests are far more rare than any typical tropical rainforest, the conditions and elevation have to be just right. What characterizes a cloud forest differently than just any old jungle is the persistence of fog and evaporation that creates a low level cloud cover within the canopies.

A hanging bridge in the mists of the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

Consisting of over 6 ecological zones with roughly 90% of the reserve being young cloud forest, the Monteverde Cloud Forest attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually who want to gaze upon one of the planet’s most unique phenomena. Within the reserve, there are more orchid species found in the Monteverde Cloud Forest than anywhere else on Earth. There are over 2,500 species of plants and flowers, a place where megaflora can thrive. 

Alongside the numerous flora species that define the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, there are also a wide variety of fauna that call this otherworldly reserve their home. Just like the thousands of plant species that makeup the reserve, there are thousands of insect species, perhaps even more that have been left undiscovered. With over 100 different kinds of mammals and reptiles and over 400 different kinds of birds as well. Monteverde Cloud Forest is also known as the last habitat of the Golden Toad, endemic only to the Elfin cloud forest of Monteverde and has since been extinct as of 1989, the last reported sighting. 

A zipliner passes through the trees and into the misty cloud forest beyond.

The cloud forest here is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet that has drawn biologists and tourists here for decades. You have not had the Costa Rican experience if you did not venture out on the hanging bridges that allow you to grace the canopy above while observing the ground below. These supported walkways allow visitors to walk through the swirling mists of the cloud forest and encounter the rich biodiversity. 

Parque Nacional Tortuguero 

Up in the northeastern portion of Costa Rica in the Limon province, it is the third most visited national park in the entire country. Tortuguero National Park, in spite of being visited regularly by tourists, is rather a remote location to travel to. The only way to get to Tortuguero is either by air or by boat. Because of how remote the park is, in combination with the number of different habitats that converge in one spot, from rainforests, mangroves, beaches, to lagoons, Tortuguero National Park is yet another one of Costa Rica’s biodiversity hotspots.

A passing boat charter, one of the only ways to acces Tortuguero National Park.

Situated on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, Tortuguero is one of the wettest places in Costa Rica, receiving an annual rainfall of 20 feet during the green season. Because of this, Tortuguero is considered as subtropical wetlands with up to 20 miles of coastline. These 20 miles of protected coastline provide a safe haven for nesting Sea Turtles to dispense their eggs in their seasonal hatcheries from the months of February to July. A variety of species of Sea Turtle make their journey back to this coast from where they were born, from the Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Leatherback, to Green Sea Turtles. 

Watching the hundreds upon hundreds of baby Sea Turtles hatch is one of nature’s most beautiful miracles to watch. Like the rest of the park, these beaches are protected so all the hatchlings have a chance of making it to the sea. The park isn’t just home to Sea Turtles, a wide range of animal species call this park their home. From Manatees, American Crocodiles, Tropical Gar’s which are protected under Costa Rican legislation as being a living fossil, Caiman Crocodiles, Jaguars, Pumas(Florida Panther), Spider Monkeys, to a huge number of bird species such as Toucans. 

A lone leatherback sea turtle about to head into the sea.

Just as primitive as the wildlife, Tortuguero National Park has no human settlement or development within the park boundaries. The main draws that bring human activity are tourism, fishing, and wildlife viewing. Due to how remote the park is, the only way in is through the main entrance at the Cuatro Esquinas center in Tortuguero village. From there, there are a number of trails both aquatic and for hiking that will guide you through your stay at this marvelous park, a sliver from the Garden of Eden.


What once began as a humble little fishing village on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica has now become one of the most developed beachfront communities in the entire nation. Now one of the most popular destinations in the Guanacaste Province, Tamarindo is a paradise with beautiful beaches, world class surfing, top tier cuisine and dining, and a wide range of other accommodations and activities. The first thing one will see when they arrive at Tamarindo is the main beach, Playa Tamarindo, a long white sand beach that has impeccable waves for surfers of all skill levels. 

A beachside hangout surrounded by Palm Trees in Tamarindo.

The currents here can be rather strong depending on certain swells, so always be extra cautious and have no one’s limits. Generally though, Tamarindo is one of the best places to learn how to surf in Costa Rica. Aside from the main beach, there are a bunch of other beaches within 20-30 minutes of Tamarindo, from Langosta Beach just south, to Avellana Beach, which is ideal for those who surf. 

Tamarindo is also known as the place of “Party and Play”. During your visit, it is inevitable to take part in a water sports activity on a warm humid day like surfing, swimming, fishing, or stand-up-paddle boarding. But once the sun begins to set, the nightlife in Tamarindo begins to buzz, the town becomes nocturnal just like much of the wildlife in the rainforest beyond. 

The main boulevard of Tamarindo is where the majority of the nightlife action occurs from antique shops, boutiques, and a wide spectrum of bars, clubs, and restaurants. From Sharky’s Sports Bar & Grill, El Garito Dance Club, to Pacifico Resto Bar & Tours, these are some of the hottest and hippest places to go to in order to experience the party scene of Tamarindo. For those who are not into the nightlife and party scene, once the daytime arrives, there are a number of ecotourism activities that shed Tamarindo in a more natural light, from the waterways of Playa Tamarindo that offer great kayaking and wildlife viewing, to the incredible sportfishing, there is something for everyone to be found here at Tamarindo.

The Coasts of Riches

A surfer comes out of the water during a magnificient sunset.

Costa Rica was named once the Spanish Conquistadors arrived. After a first glance at this stunning land, they decided to name the territory after the Rich Coast. One can simply see why. Costa Rica is a stunning paradise of beautiful rainforest, primitive wildlife, picturesque beaches, and limitless adventure to be had. Once you come and visit this magnificent place located in the heart of Central America, you will understand their motto. Pura Vida or Pure Life is precisely the way life goes in Costa Rica. 

The locals are super friendly, the cuisine is delicious, the surfing is top tier, the beaches and water are warm and inviting, and the nightlife in places like Tamarindo and the other resort towns are some of the best anywhere. Booking a trip to this majestic paradise and land of natural wonders and beauty is all you need to realize we are living pure lives on this beautiful planet solidified by this wonderful nation.

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