5. The Caribbean coast Boat trips, jungle lodges, riverine wildlife (3 days) Limón • Tortuguero village • Tortuguero NP
Take the 25-minute non-stop flight from San José or boat service (3-4 hours) from the working port town of Limón to get to Tortuguero, a bustling village of colourful houses and shack-like cafés sited on a sandbar. Touring Tortuguero National Park by boat (Dreamstime)
It’s the place to embark on jungle trails, canoe excursions and day-long boat trips through the freshwater channels of the Tortuguero National Park, looking out for river otters, caiman and endangered manatees. In July and August, tours also take in a nesting site for endangered green sea turtles
, which were on the verge of becoming extinct and are now protected here. When to go? March-September, dry season on the Caribbean coast; July-August is peak turtle season.
6. Pacific playground Birdwatching, wildlife, surfing, island-hopping, butterflies (4 days)
Puntarenas • Manuel Antonio National Park • Quepos • Playa Dominical • Hacienda Barú
Puntarenas is a slender peninsula sticking out into the Gulf of Nicoya, which exudes an air of atmospheric dilapidation that will appeal to your inner Graham Greene. Ferries to the Nicoya Peninsula depart from here, as do two-hour trips to the tranquil Isla de Chira. Sunset over Manuel Antonio beach (Shutterstock)
The journey south takes in the coastal townships of Tárcoles, Herradura and Jacó before arriving at the densely forested slopes and sandy beaches of Manuel Antonio
– Costa Rica’s smallest and busiest national park. Here, you’ll spot three monkey species; coatis; iguanas; two- and three-toed sloths; and myriad multihued birds on the park’s canopy walks and short hikes – just be prepared to share them. Juvenile green Iguana in Manuel Antonio National Park (Shutterstock)
Ditto the beach scene, which is vibrant but visitor-thronged. The former fishing and fruit-packing village of Quepos, on the edge of the park, is back-to-back hotels and hostels.
Paving and power may have turned Playa Dominical, a surfers’ favourite 44km south-east of Quepos, into a major tourism centre, but it’s also the access point for the private 3.3 sq km Hacienda Barú rainforest reserve, which contains 7km of walking trails and unspoiled orchid and butterfly gardens.
When to go? December-April, dry season.
7. Unspoiled Osa Pristine landscapes, beaches, wildlife, marine life (1 week)
Playa Dominical • Marino Ballena NP • Corcovado NP • Puerto Jiménez
Why fly into Puerto Jiménez, on the untouched Osa Peninsula, when the road less travelled takes in one of the most pristine stretches of coast in the country (though it’s under pressure from real estate speculators)? South of Playa Dominical, the road towards Osa is flanked by beautiful beaches on the right and rainforest on the left, broken only by the occasional farming village. Drake Bay in Osa Peninsula (Shutterstock)
The first major stop is Marino Ballena National Park
, a land and marine park around Uvita and Bahía that protects humpback whales, several dolphin species and nesting sea turtles. Here, and further down on the peninsula, it’s easy to book boat trips to see them. Scarlet macaws in Corcovado National Park (Shutterstock)
Corcovado National Park is said to be the most biodiverse in Costa Rica – great for monkeys and scarlet macaws
– but down here the unprotected areas are in almost as good shape as the reserves.
Puerto Jiménez (aka Port Jim) is a Wild West outpost where you might see white-faced capuchins slouching down the main street. Note: when hiring a car, ask about recent rainfall as the overland trip requires several river crossings. When to go? November-late April, the dry season.
8. Panamerican Highway Fly-drives, human geography, roadside action (1 week)
Liberia • Palo Verde NP • Cañas • Puntarenas • San José • Cartago • Los Quetzales NP • San Isidro de El General Driving down the Panamericana
(called the CR-1 in the north, CR-2 south of San José) might not seem like the best use of your time in this wildlife-rich, adventure-packed nation, but the advantages of a fly-drive are that you tend to go slower (potholes more or less demand this) and take in working villages and ‘real’ towns.
This includes spots such as Cartago (the former capital), Cañas and San Isidro de El General, where prices are lower, people are less tourist-hardened, and you get a real flavour of Tico life. National Theatre in San Jose (Shutterstock)
The highway skirts under-exploited national parks such as Palo Verde, known for its migratory birds, and Los Quetzales, created in 2006 and a habitat for one-fifth of Costa Rica’s bird species including the sooty robin and quetzal.
Between the highlights, it’s all dramatic climbs, lonely petrol stations, coffee ranches, peanut and macadamia plantations, tropical fruit as far as the eye can see, and distant volcanoes and mountain-scapes, dreamlike under tropical skies
Main Image: Arenal volcano, Costa Rica (Dreamstime)