Costa Rica rightfully should be called "Costas Ricas" because it has two coasts, one on the Pacific Ocean and one on the Caribbean Sea. These two coasts are as different from each other as are the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America.
Costa Rica's Pacific coast is characterized by a rugged (although mostly accessible) coastline where forested mountains often meet the sea. It can be divided into three distinct regions -- Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula, the Central Coast, and the Southern Coast. There are some spectacular stretches of coastline, and most of the country's top beaches are here. This coast varies from the dry, sunny climate of the northwest to the hot, humid rainforests of the south.
The Caribbean coast can be divided into two roughly equal stretches, one of which is accessible only by boat or small plane. The remote northeast coastline is a vast flat plain laced with rivers and covered with rainforest. Farther south, along the stretch of coast accessible by car, there are uncrowded beaches and even a bit of coral reef.
Bordered by Nicaragua in the north and Panama in the southeast, Costa Rica is only slightly larger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Much of the country is mountainous, with three major ranges running northwest to southeast. Among these mountains are several volcanic peaks, some of which are still active. Between the mountain ranges are fertile valleys, the largest and most populated of which is the Central Valley. With the exception of the dry Guanacaste region, much of Costa Rica's coastal area is hot and humid and covered with dense rainforest.
Guanacaste & the Nicoya Peninsula
The northwestern corner of the country near the Nicaraguan border is the site of many of Costa Rica's sunniest and most popular beaches. Because many Americans have chosen to build beach houses and retirement homes here, Guanacaste, in particular, is experiencing quite a bit of new development. Don't expect a glut of Cancún-style high-rise hotels, but condos, luxury resorts, and golf courses are springing up like mushrooms. That's not to say you'll be towel-to-towel with thousands of strangers. On the contrary, you can still find long stretches of deserted sands. That might not be true for long, however: Now that the new international airport in Liberia is up and running, travelers can get here on daily direct flights from North America.
With about 65 inches of rain a year, this region is by far the driest in the country and has been likened to west Texas. Guanacaste province sits at the border of Nicaragua and is named after the shady trees that still shelter the herds of cattle that roam the dusty savanna here. In addition to cattle ranches, Guanacaste boasts semiactive volcanoes, several lakes, and one of the last remnants of tropical dry forest left in Central America. (Dry forest once stretched all the way from Costa Rica up to the Mexican state of Chiap
San Jose The Central Valley
The Central Valley is characterized by rolling green hills that rise to heights between 900 and 1,200m (2,952-3,936 ft.) above sea level. The climate here is mild and springlike year-round. It's Costa Rica's primary agricultural region, with coffee farms making up the majority of landholdings. The rich volcanic soil of this region makes it ideal for farming. The country's earliest settlements were in this area, and today the Central Valley (which includes San José) is densely populated, with decent roads, and dotted with small towns. Surrounding the Central Valley are high mountains, among which are four volcanic peaks. Two of these, Poás and Irazú, are still active and have caused extensive damage during cycles of activity in the past 2 centuries. Many of the mountainous regions to the north and to the south of the capital of San José have been declared national parks (Tapantí, Juan Castro, and Braulio Carrillo) to protect their virgin rainforests against logging.
The Northern Zone
This region lies to the north of San José and includes rainforests, cloud forests, hot springs, the country's two most active volcanoes (Arenal and Rincón de la Vieja), Braulio Carrillo National Park, and numerous remote lodges. Because this is one of the few regions of Costa Rica without any beaches, it primarily attracts people interested in nature and active sports. Lake Arenal boasts some of the best windsurfing in the world, as well as several good mountain-biking trails along its shores. The Monteverde Cloud Forest, perhaps Costa Rica's most internationally recognized attraction, is another top draw in this region.
The Central Pacific Coast
Because it's the most easily accessible coastline in Costa Rica, the central Pacific coast boasts the greatest number of beach resorts and hotels. Playa de Jacó is the most popular destination here, a beach within a few hours' drive of San José that attracts a large number of Canadian and German charter groups and plenty of Tico tourists on weekends. Manuel Antonio, the name of a popular coastal national park as well as the resort area that surrounds it, caters to people seeking a bit more tranquillity and beauty. At the same time, this region is home to the highest peak in Costa Rica -- Mount Chirripó -- where frost is common.
The Southern Zone
This hot, humid region is one of Costa Rica's most remote and undeveloped regions. It is characterized by dense rainforests and rugged coastlines. Much of the area is protected in Corcovado and La Amistad national parks. There is a wealth of wonderful nature lodges spread around the shores of the Golfo Dulce and along the Osa Peninsula. There's a lot of solitude to be found here, due in no small part to the fact that it's hard to get here and hard to get around. But if you like your ecotourism challenging, you'll find it to your liking.
The Caribbean Coast
Most of the Caribbean coast is a wide, steamy lowland laced with rivers and blanketed with rainforests and banana plantations. The culture here is predominantly Afro-Caribbean, with many residents speaking English or Caribbean patois. The northern section of this coast is accessible only by boat or small plane and is the site of Tortuguero National Park, which is known for its nesting sea turtles and riverboat trips. The towns of Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, and Manzanillo, on the southern half of the Caribbean coast, are increasingly popular destinations. The coastline here boasts many beautiful beaches and, as yet, few large hotels. However, this area can be rainy, especially between December and April.
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